I’m sure there are bars where middle-aged men raise their pints while singing along to “Danny Boy.” I’m sure, too, that this ditty feels good in the air, that it brings them straight back to younger times, when the world seemed better. At the bars I frequent, we don’t sing “Danny Boy.” We sing the theme from The Facts of Life. All you need is one person to set the bouncing ball loose, and next thing you know everyone is stumbling along to “You take the good, you take the bad …”
What this says about our culture, or at the very least my friends, I don’t know. But invariably, whenever someone accesses the theme-song database in one person’s mind, another person’s database warms up, and next thing you know the bar has turned into a peer-to-peer network of half-remembered verses from the Greatest American Hero theme song. This keeps going until the bandwidth has been exceeded or it’s time to go home.
Inspired by this turn of events, I recently dug out a CD of television theme songs called Television’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 3: 70s and 80s that I acquired back when I was a voracious music collector. I thought that I would use some of the songs for mix tapes, but when it came time to decide whether to follow the obligatory Captain Beefheart track with the theme to The Smurfs or the theme to The A-Team, I always chose to nix the idea. (I stopped making mix tapes when I realized that I was only doing it to prove that I had amassed an impressive collection of records, which I only listened to when I was making a tape for someone I wanted to impress and/or sleep with.) Anyway, there just aren’t that many good TV theme songs. Plenty of them are memorable, and I respond to them upon hearing the first note, but while sitting in my leather armchair feeling cozy in my robe and slippers, I rarely hold up my snifter of brandy and admire it against a crackling fire while contemplating the nuances of the Little House on the Prairie theme. Ah, yes, in this movement Melissa Gilbert comes running across the meadow. Excelsior!
So I’ve got this stupid CD sitting around that I never listen to. As an aside, I shoplifted it from a record store that was later destroyed by a tornado. In a way, I saved it from destruction. But perhaps it should have been destroyed—I never listen to it, and when I do it makes me feel depressed. Granted, that’s not terribly difficult, but I even tried to give the CD away a few years ago, to a friend of an old roommate who saw it sitting on my shelf and freaked out. Something about the notion of sixty-five TV themes from the seventies and eighties really tickled him, but when I pressed the CD into his hand, he balked and said, “I like it, but I really don’t think I’d want to listen to it.” There’s something comforting about having access to songs that are woven into the tapestry of this thing we call life, but there’s really no need to spend your time sitting around listening to old theme songs. The cartoonist Evan Dorkin once did a strip about how watching old sitcoms depressed him, because he couldn’t stop thinking about how the studio audience members were all probably dead of old age by now.
Listening to an album of TV themes doesn’t make me ponder death, but the overdose of nostalgia can and does slow me down. The cartoonist and audiophile Robert Crumb once explained that his love of early-twentieth-century roots music made him feel like he’d stepped into a time machine. That’s the kind of nostalgia I’m talking about here. Old days. Old friends. Good times, different strokes and happy days.
Some themes are iconic. The promotional ads on TNT would have you believe that the opening dong in the Law & Order theme will get you salivating like one of Pavlov’s dogs. In other words, many TV shows have such an iconic theme song that upon hearing it viewers are transported to a happier place, where they don’t have to think about anything but the world that exists inside a thirty- to sixty-minute program. What’s strange is when the song is such a soothing balm that you want to listen to it independently of the program itself—hence the Television’s Greatest Hits series of albums.
According to the liner notes, some of the songs on my CD transcended their intended form and became genuine radio hits. The theme to Welcome Back Kotter, “Welcome Back” by John Sebastian, was a number-one hit in 1976. Happy Days originally used Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” as its theme. A band called the Rhythm Heritage had multiple hit songs with the themes to S.W.A.T. and Baretta. Good for them. But when I dug out my copy of Television’s Greatest Hits, what I really wanted to hear was “Believe It or Not,” the theme song from The Greatest American Hero, as I had once tried in vain to start a drunken singalong to it. The song, as performed by Joey Scarbury, made it to the top of the charts in 1981.
What I learned when I popped “Believe It or Not” into the stereo was that the song isn’t very good. If you were in a dentist’s waiting room at any point in the early eighties, you’re probably familiar with these lines:
Suddenly I’m up on top of the world,
It should’ve been somebody else.
Believe it or not, I’m walking on air.
I never thought I could feel so free.
It’s uplifting, certainly, but the synthesized beats and smooth strings aren’t exactly innovative. At one minute and forty-six seconds, Scarbury gets in and out like Guided by Voices, but I guess when you’re trying to distill the ethos of a dramedy about a man who receives superpowers from some do-gooder aliens and subsequently loses the instruction manual for said powers, you don’t really need much time. But hey, when you get right down to it, we’re all flying away on a wing and prayer. And I take comfort in that.
I wanted more, though. At the very least, I wanted something like “Danny Boy,” something I can hoist a pint to when I am middle-aged. Waylon Jenning’s “Good Old Boys,” the theme song to the Dukes of Hazzard, for instance. Put that song on the next time you’re in a bar and just see what happens. The place will light up. People enjoy a good song, be it a jingle, a TV theme or a top-forty hit. We want something that informs us about us, that we can relate to. As the actor and songsmith Alan Thicke once said, “It takes a lot to get ’em right, when you’re learning the facts of life.”
Frank Smith lives in New York City and is a fiction writer, Iggy Pop fan and television know-it-all. TV Eye appears every second Wednesday.