Stacey Wilson August 22, 2008
With many prime-time shows eschewing the opening sequence altogether (Lost, The Closer, and Brothers & Sisters, among them), the audience is getting robbed of television’s most charming tradition: the theme song.
Here I reflect upon the best tunes from shows that debuted in or had their greatest runs in the 1970s. And somehow, there isn’t a single disco-inspired ditty among them. Whew.
Hawaii 5-0: 1968-1980
A theme song is officially effective when you know it even if you’ve never seen the program. I grew up in the 80s and never saw a single episode of this cops-in-paradise action show (I think my parents used to hum it when we played “Name That Tune” on car trips), but can spot a riff of composer Morton Stevens’ tune faster than a hula girl’s hips can swivel. I dare you to not do the mashed potato when those staccato-y trumpets start blaring.
The Brady Bunch: 1969-1974
A more insidious theme song did not exist — and I wouldn’t want it any other way. The poor production value, shoddy singing by the cast (though I can hear Maureen McCormick trying to pick up the slack), and show creator and co-composer Sherwood Schwartz’s ingenious riffing on contemporary pop music combine to spin a yarn so familiar and happy he once said of it: “It’s like a dinner bell. When people hear it, they come running.”
The Mary Tyler Moore Show: 1970-1977
It’s a bit of a snore when you listen to it without seeing cutie Mary Richards toss her hat into the Minneapolis sky, but Sonny Curtis’s sweet anthem for single working women in the 70s, “Love is All Around,” struck the perfect chord with viewers. Oprah once said the opening sequence to this comedy even inspired her to “make it after all” in the TV news biz, so we may have Curtis to thank for the big O.
All in the Family: 1971-1979
Saturday nights belonged to Archie and Edith Bunker, and hearing their whiny bad-dinner-theater-ish ode to the good ol’ days was the best part. I remember seeing re-runs of the show and wondering, “Who is Glenn Miller? And the Hit Parade? What’s a LaSalle?” but hearing the song now, I totally get it. For Archie, that lovable, bigoted lug, even Depression-era America was easier to accept than blacks on his block, women in the workforce, and a guy named Meathead dating his daughter. Those were the days, indeed.
I still cringe a little at the name of this melancholy theme song (“Suicide is Painless”), but the opening guitar strums played over the chopping of a helicopter was absolute perfection. Used in Robert Altman’s original 1970 film about Korean War docs, the Johnny-Mandel-penned theme is a perfect prologue to the show, which effortlessly married biting satire with a helluva a lot of heart. The delicate flutes and muted trumpets toward the song’s finale are, like America was during wartime, sad but hopeful.
Happy Days: 1974-1984
“These days are ahhhhhh/Oh happy days!” It’s impossible to frown when you hear those lyrics. Believe me, I tried! The show’s original opening song was Bill Haley’s classic “Rock Around the Clock,” but the second season had Richie and the gang jitterbugging to a new tune. Despite a pop culture gap in time of 20 years, composer Charles Fox and lyricist Norman Gimbel managed to craft the perfect mid-century ode to innocence: “Goodbye gray skies hello blue/Nothing can hold me when I hold you.” I can taste the milkshake now.
Welcome Back, Kotter: 1975-1979
Lovin’ Spoonful singer John Sebastian wrote such a solid theme for this sitcom that the producers changed the name of the show from its original title, Kotter. I actually chuckled a bit listening to the song now as the tune is so bobby and happy, yet the lyrics are a major bummer: “Welcome back/Your dreams were your ticket out.” Local boy leaves and fails out in the world and has to return home to teach a bunch of ingrates. Hilarious! And total perfection.
The Jeffersons: 1975-1985
This church-on-Sunday gospel hymn about folks “Movin’ On Up” in New York is so good, it’s hard to imagine it was written just for TV. Sung by Good Times actress Ja’net Dubois (Jeffersons’ creator Norman Lear asked her to write the lyrics), the song drips with joy and celebration, which belied nicely the hilariously mean-spirited exchanges between George and Louise. Though, like me listening to this song today, they couldn’t help but feel the love.
Out of all the ditties here, this one, “Angela’s Theme,” is the only song that actually sounds like the 1970s. Not the wah-wah guitar 70s, rather, the drinking chilled white wine with a guy named Chuck and his thick ‘stache version of the decade. And somehow, as it’s played over images of a lonely New York City with a yellow cab crossing the 59th street bridge, the delicate melody and slightly funky middle section reflects a cabbie’s day-in-the-life: tired, melancholy, and ready for anything.
Laverne and Shirley: 1976-1983
I’m pretty sure it’s the only television theme in history to incorporate spoken Yiddish (“Schlemiel, schlimazel!”). And the fact that the story is centered on two “goyas” working in a Milwaukee brewery, well, that’s just priceless. From the same team that brought us Happy Days song, this catchy girl-power confection celebrated all the kookiness that was Laverne and Shirley, while promising to “make all our dreams true.” I’d say a cool Pepsi and milk sounds good right about now.
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