Finding the best television theme songs from the 1970s and 80s is not particularly difficult. One need only take a short walk down memory lane. We did just that and here are ten of our favorites:
"Suicide is Painless" by Johnny Mandel
Remarkably, the lyrics to this song were written by Mike Altman, the then 14 year-old son of the director of the M*A*S*H film, Robert Altman. Combined with the music of Johnny Mandel and the vocal stylings of John & Tom Bahler plus Ron Hicklin, the song became an instant hit. Not for nothing, Mr Altman senior once confessed on the Tonight Show that his son had made over a $1,000,000 from the song while he had only received $70,000 for directing the movie. In any event, this theme purportedly about suicide is a powerful and thought-provoking song.
Happy Days (1974)
"Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley & His Comets
One of the first 12-bar, rock and rolls songs of all time, this fantastic tune combines a solid rockabilly beat, some excellent guitar work and the always strong singing of Mr. Bill Haley. While not the actual, original “rock and roll” song, this tune is largely credited with bringing the genre into the mainstream of American culture. Rick Around the Clock was an instant hit and remains so a half-century later.
The Rockford Files (1974)
"The Rockford Files Theme" by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter
Predating by almost a decade the electronica music that would make the composer, Jan Hammer famous for his Miami Vice theme, this theme song by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter is both homey and alluring. The theme ideally suits the image of the hard-working and practical but ultimately out-of-luck character played by James Garner. The song went to #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and even won a Grammy as the Best Instrumental Arrangement of 1975.
Welcome Back, Kotter (1975)
"Welcome Back," by John Sebastian
While the show will always be remembered as the vehicle that shot a young John Travolta to fame, there was a host of other very talented people who made his sitcom a success. Included in this crowd was the already established singer-songwriter, John Sebastian. The theme, written and recorded by Mr. Sebastian, rose to the top of the charts in 1976. In fact, the song was so memorable that the producers changed the name of the series from just “Kotter” to its eventual title to capitalize on the popularity of the song.
Dukes of Hazzard (1979)
"Good Ol' Boys" by Waylon Jennings
It’s very hard to find a better storyteller than Waylon Jennings (although we will acknowledge Mr. Nelson as one of the few). His tribute to the “two modern-day Robin Hoods” is a to-the-point country ballad that stands against any of the country music classics. The song went to #1 on the country charts in 1980 and made it to #21 on the overall Billboard Hot 100. Not too shabby for good ol’ boy. By the way, that’s him narrating the whole damn thing.
"Where Everybody Knows Your Name" by Gary Portnoy
It starts with a single, lilting piano accompaniment and then progresses through a lovely baritone voice to once again end with a dozen of the most bittersweet notes in television history. This theme song is simply one of the best. If you’ve never been a regular in a bar you will never understand the familiarity, the contempt and the love that a group of friends in that situation can evoke. Too bad - It is your loss, teetotalers. Mr. Portnoy originally found his Muse in the Boston Red Sox but after innumerable rewrites he finally crafted an enduring song. By the way, he is the only singer in the song. All of the harmonies are by him.
Greatest American Hero (1981)
"Believe It or Not" by Joey Scarbury
This unlikely chart topper rose to number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 although anyone would be hard pressed to explain the reasons. The series for which the song was written did not fare so well and as cancelled midway through the second season. There is simply no accounting for taste when it comes to pablum and the American public.
Miami Vice (1984)
"The Miami Vice Theme" by Jan Hammer
Formulated and stylized in the finest traditions of German electronic music, Jam Hammer’s theme song is, at once, both scintillating and affecting. His groundbreaking use of electronic drums, horns and piano eventually culminated in two Grammy Awards , one for "Best Instrumental Composition" and the other for "Best Pop Instrumental Performance. In addition, the song reached the number one position on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, the last instrumental to do so. If you get the chance, check out the video for the song. It shows the only instance of the criminals getting away from Crockett and Tubbs.
A Different World (1987)
"A Different World" by Phoebe Snow (performer)
Without a doubt, this theme song is specifically targeted towards a certain demographic. Everything else is a travesty. While the abundance of singing and dancing in the opening sequence would predispose one to conclude that these priorities are the only ones of interest to African-Americans, the fact that there are no athletics shown quickly disabuses one of the notion. In addition, the theme song is remarkable for its irony in that it distinctly declares that an educational atmosphere is a “different world” from that which most young African-Americans are exposed. For shame.
The Simpsons (1989)
"The Simpsons Theme" by Danny Elfman
In 1989, the Simpson’s creator, Matt Groening, approached the former front man for the band Oingo Boingo, Danny Elfman, and requested a retro-sounding theme song. The result is the inventive, playful and utterly unforgettable theme to the Simpson’s. From the honks of the cats through Lisa’s mini-jam to the finally horns, the song captures the inherent wackiness of the show while still maintaining a solid musical bent. The piece is so well respected that dozens of cover versions ha e emerged including those by NRBQ, Sonic Youth, Tito Puente, Yo La Tengo, Los Lobos and Green Day. Don’t miss it in any of its incarnations.