Is the television theme song a dying art?

Although I watched a lot of television, few current running shows’ themes get me to hurry me back from raiding the fridge other than the intros to The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Most of my favorites are from the 1970s — TV’s golden age for theme songs. Chalk it up to a combination of my age, gender, race and political affiliation. Maybe I should watch something other than Comedy Central and METV.

Everyone makes lists. Yours will be different — maybe better. Here is an ode to a neglected genre; my Top 10 list of TV Theme Songs. Looking back, I see a few common threads.

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10. The Banana Splits Show • “The Tra La La Song (One Banana, Two Banana)”

1968-1970

Written by Mark Barkan and Ritchie Adams, they also did songs for The Archies and The Monkees. Barkan wrote a number of hits songs in the 1960s covered by the likes of Manfred Mann and Lesley Gore. I can never remember the names of the characters. Fleagle? Beagle? Goober and Zorn? Didn’t matter. When the tra-la-las started, it was time for Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Gulliver and Danger Island (“uh-oh, Chongo!”).

9. Good Times

1974-1979

Good Times composer Dave Grusin previously worked for The Andy Williams Show and composed for the film The Graduate. Lyrics were written and sung by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, who also wrote “The Way We Were” made famous by Barbra Streisand.

8. Laverne and Shirley • “Making Our Dreams Come True”

1976-1983

Who can forget the Yiddish-American hopscotch chant: “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated” that starts off the song by one-hit wonder Cyndi Grecco? Who knew people in Milwaukee spoke with a Brooklyn accent?

7. The Young Ones

1982

The theme song features the cast singing the Cliff Richard and The Shadows‘ UK No. 1 hit. No one ever called Cliff Richard boring.

6. CHiPs

1977-1983

Both the themes from The Rockford Files and CHiPs were written by Mike Post. He got his start at age 24 on The Andy Williams Show and would become the go to guy for police drama themes, including Law & Order, NYPD Blue, Hill Street Blues and Magnum P.I. CHiPs kindled my lifelong fascination with motorcycles. Disco and crime fighting, not so much.

5. The Dick Van Dyke Show

1961-1966

Chicago-born Earle Hagen composed the theme music for this as well as one of the best whistling songs ever, “The Fishin’ Hole,” the theme song for The Andy Griffith Show. In an interview on NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” Dick Van Dyke said co-star Morey Amsterdam wrote a set of lyrics that were never used:

So you think that you’ve got troubles?
Well, trouble’s a bubble
So tell old Mr. Trouble to get lost!
Why not hold your head up high and
Stop cryin’, start tryin’
And don’t forget to keep your fingers crossed.
When you find the joy of livin’
Is lovin’ and givin’
You’ll be there when the winning dice are tossed.
A smile is just a frown that’s turned upside down
So smile, and that frown will defrost.
And don’t forget to keep your fingers crossed
Bud-ump bump!

4. Barney Miller

1975-1982

Co-written by Jack Elliott  and Allyn Ferguson, the theme for Barney Miller features one of the most memorable bass lines ever written by someone other than John Entwhistle. The two would pair horns and and wah pedals to great effect for many classic 1970s TV shows, including Charlie’s Angels , S.W.A.T. and Rookies. This was the show that introduced me to Abe Vigoda.

3. Sanford and Son • “The Streetbeater”

1972-1977

Chicago-born Quincy Jones‘ long, storied career includes producing Michael Jackson’s Thriller. He would have made a name for himself alone with “The Streetbeater.”

2. The Kids in the Hall • “Having an Average Weekend”

1988-1994

The Canadian surf rock trio Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet (Don Pyle, Brian Connelly and the late Reid Diamond) released “Having an Average Weekend”on the album Brain Candy. Much of the the show’s bumper music came from Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet’s Dim the Lights, Chill the Ham LP. I’m a sucker for that warm and punchy bass, reverb and surf.

1.  The Adventures of Pete and Pete • “Hey Sandy”

1993-1996

I fell in love with the red Gibson ES335 Mark Mulcahy plays in the opening credits as the band Polaris. Mulcahy made a name for himself in the indie rock world in the 1990s in the band Miracle Legion. The quirky Nickelodeon comedy exposed teenagers to a fatherly Iggy Pop, the early work of Steve Buscemi and cameos from REM’s Michael Stipe and the B-52s Kate Pierson.

Tom Long is one-third of the seldom heard Chicago band The Ethyl Mermen. The name Tom Long can be found in the dictionary, Baseball Encyclopedia and a pub in Ireland. Tom Long is not affiliated with any other Tom Long; he won the rights to use his own name after prevailing in a three-way game of Jan-ken-pon by choosing "dynamite!" No Toms were harmed in the making of this blog.

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