Rock Tunes As TV Theme Songs

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TV theme songs are a genre all their own. It’s music that ideally holds up well to the ear but is mainly designed as the evocative lead-in to the shows we love. The opening music to any show needs to get and hold our attention as it sets the mood for what is to follow. Whether it be moody and jazzy, upbeat, or poignant, it becomes the anchor pin to our viewing. All forms of music are utilized for this purpose, but it is no surprise that rock is a staple of TV theme songs and has been for decades. What could be better for kicking up emotion and vibe? Here are some choice examples of rock ‘n roll being used in television theme songs over the years.

Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent” for the show Secret Agent (1964-67)

Secret Agent was a mid-1960s spy thriller starring Patrick McGoohan as agent John Drake, a quirky fellow with great charisma. The show was ahead of its time and the vibe-y theme song is still remembered by viewers of the era. Johnny Rivers’ gorgeous vocals and searing guitar riffs immediately kick up the pulsing excitement. It holds up as one of the best TV theme songs and is a great rock track on its own merits.

Joe Cocker’s cover of “With a Little Help From My Friends” for the show The Wonder Years (1988-93)

 The Wonder Years was a beloved “coming of age” series based in the late ‘60s through ‘70s, seen through the lens of endearing, non-obnoxious Kevin Arnold, a child who grew up in the suburbs with his family (a bully-ish older brother and two loving, slightly out-to-sea parents), a crew of friends and the lovely girl next door. It hit the perfect note of nostalgia, sweetness and relatability. The opening theme (wailed by Cocker as vintage home movies grace the screen) immediately establishes the show as something very special indeed, filled with the wonder in the title. And it brought Joe Cocker’s soul anthem cover of a Beatles track to the attention of a new generation.

Primus’ “South Park Theme” for the show South Park (1997-)

A theme song as gloriously nuts as the long-running Comedy Central cartoon itself, who better than the band Primus to tackle the opening music chores? Lead singer Les Claypool brings his edgy, funky twang to the song that lures us into the madness of South Park and its “friendly faces everywhere/humble folks without temptation!” The kiddie cast members chime in with him as well, including the muffled Kenny, who goes more than a little blue with his unintelligible contribution.

Cheap Trick’s “In the Street” for the show That ‘70s Show (1988-2006)

 What a perfect summation of a loose, stoned era! “In the Street” becomes an ode to teenage goofiness in the 1970s. That ‘70s Show was a long-running comedy that endeared itself by acknowledging the experimental nature of horny kids and their weirdly evolving folks. The opening (which began with a cover version by Todd Griffin in the first season and then stayed with Cheap Trick thereafter) has the neighborhood kids changing positions in a car and gleefully head-banging, as their parents do the same in another car. The hilarity keeps building, leading up to a bellowed “Hello, Wisconsin!” as a final tag.

Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” for the show “Freaks and Geeks” (1999-2000)

Freaks and Geeks, the woefully short-lived series about, as Vanity Fair aptly put it, “the sad, hilarious unfairness of teenage life” opened with Joan Jett’s 1980 hit “Bad Reputation.” It’s a perfect segue to the rebellion and vulnerability that was to follow in the show, created and produced by Paul Feig and Judd Apatow. Jett’s gritty vocals and angst-filled message plays while the cast members position themselves awkwardly for class photos, each one giving a clue to their character.

Mike d’Abo’s “Handbags and Gladrags” for the show The Office (UK) (2001-2003)

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant created the affecting and witty mockumentary The Office, which explored the goings-on in a Slough (England) paper company with brutal hilarity and enormous heart. Mike d’Abo sings the opening theme over a landscape of gray skies and ugly utilitarian buildings. It is a show where sad people try to make ends meet and find happiness in a place where it is clearly at a premium. The warmth and poignance of the song offsets the utter bleakness in the intro and the outro of this amazing 8-part series. (Additional kudos to the great Gervais for his subsequent 2005 show Extras, which closes out each squirmy episode with Cat Stevens’ “Tea for the Tillerman,” leaving a sense of aching beauty in its wake.)


-Ellen Fagan

Photo: Cheap Trick (Promo photo)

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11 comments on “Rock Tunes As TV Theme Songs

  1. David S.

    Credit to Big Star, who wrote and recorded “In The Street” in 1972. Cheap Trick did a great cover, but I would’ve loved to hear the original on the show.

  2. Mark Alexander Hudson

    CSI Miami’s use of the Who’s anthemic “Won’t get fooled again” worth a mention.

  3. Tony Reiss

    Really fine list, what great audio & visual flashbacks it provided. Possibly could have been expanded by a couple more, but awesome as presented.

  4. Chris James

    Shout out to The Paper Lads by Renaissance. Late 70s show for teens whose theme was a cut from their A Song for All Seasons album

  5. Larry Lewis

    Ellen, your description of The Office is evocatively spot on. Great article, which became a jumping off point this morning for exploring some of these series on YouTube. I never watched The Wonder Years and now see that it’s my loss. It’s pieces like this which make me glad to see the Culture Sonar email in my Inbox each week.

  6. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds Red Right Hand – Peaky Blinders

  7. Love that article, and all those great tunes. And so glad that the first comment was to credit the absolutely amazing Big Star with the writing and first recording of “In The Street.” R.I.P., Chris Bell and Alex Chilton. (If you haven’t streamed the documentary “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me,” it is simultaneously transporting, awe-inspiring and heartbreaking.)

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