Wednesday, August 10, 2005


Okay, it's pointless list time. TV themes are a minor obsession of mine, I think it's a great form because of its economy. You've got 60 seconds to encapsulate what the show's about, something that hits hard but won't grow stale week after week, and then get out. So...

1. Sanford and Son, Quincy Jones. I'm sorry, but for me there's just no question about it. This is the greatest TV theme ever. It's a proven fact that listening to this tune before playing basketball will increase your shooting percentage by a good 25%.
2. Mission Impossible, Lalo Schifrin. This is spy music. Yes, it's ubiquitous. It's also some of the freshest, most furious 62 seconds ever put to wax. It all comes down to those bongos.
3. Streets of San Francisco, Pat Williams. Big, gorgeous, 70s jazz-funk extravaganza. If I were a TV detective, and on some days I am, it would be hard to choose between this one and...
4. Magnum PI, Mike Post and Pete Carpenter. This theme captures its lead character's idiom better than any other. Evokes diving choppers, peeling Ferraris, and a big, booshy mustache. I should mention that Post and Carpenter were the McCartney and Lennon of 80s TV theme music.
5. Barney Miller, Jack Elliott. From that lone, slinky bass line to full grooving Headhunters' style funk in 47 seconds. I'm tempted to suggest that no white man deserves a theme this funky. Except maybe when you pair him with Abe Vigoda.
6. Six Feet Under, Thomas Newman. I'm not a fan of the show, but this theme is a stunningly brilliant piece of work. Maybe it's the oboe. Maybe it's the ukelele. No, it's the whole.
7. The Twilight Zone, Marius Constant. Gotta mention this one, since these four guitar notes notes have become shorthand for "Wow, that was weird." The theme also has an interesting origin:
In 1960, CBS Music Director Lud Gluskin was asked to find a new Main Title/End Credits THEME for the second season of the series, to replace the original THEME written by veteran radio/TV/film composer Bernard Herrmann.

Finally in desperation, Lud Gluskin tried splicing together two short cues written by a French Avant-Garde classical composer Marius Constant -- who had composed them for CBS to use as backgrounds for episodes of "The Twilight Zone", and then recycled in the network cue library. CBS had a policy in those days to have music composed and recorded overseas to skirt US Musician Union re-use fees which were 100% of the original session fee for any subsequent re-use. This policy was intended to keep producers from using recordings over and over, but it had the opposite effect -- inspiring producers and networks to find alternatives and music packagers who recorded outside the U.S. so they could use "track" (re-cycle) cues...

Such commissioned cues were available to be shared by any CBS series which needed them. The internal title for this cue library was the "CBS Foreign Library".

The cues which Gluskin spliced together were originally named "Etrange 3 (Strange No. 3)" and "Milieu 2 (Middle No. 2)". They were so fragmentary and unusual that they had not been used much. These were two of the six short dramatic cues Constant wrote and recorded with a small ensemble featuring a two guitars, percussion including bongo drums, a saxophone and French horns.

They had never been designed to be a Main Title or End Credits THEME. Spliced together by Gluskin, their unique qualities appealed to Serling, who was looking for something different. So TV history was changed when they became the new "Twilight Zone" THEME from the 2nd season on...and now the most recognized by the atonal guitar motif which opens "Etrange 3."

In 1982 correspondence with composer Constant, he explained that in 1959 he composed six cues at the request of Lud Gluskin "for a few hundred dollars"; He knew they were intended for their first use on a new show described by CBS as "strange, incredible, bizarre, fantastic"; Composer Constant went on to say it wasn't until much later that he learned that two of his cues had been spliced together to become its Main Title and End Credits THEME for this U.S. Television series.

Honorable mentions: The Prisoner, The X-Files, The Munsters, Simon and Simon, Star Trek. I'm sure I'm forgetting some.

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