Inside Story

Sit right back and you’ll hear a tale

Packed with back story, a generation of TV themes showed producers to be taking music more seriously

Andrew Ford Music 9 February 2024 1492 words

Calypso or sea shanty? Bob Denver in Gilligan’s Island. CBS/Getty Images

“A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty ‘hi-yo Silver!’”

Jon Burlingame’s book, Music for Prime Time: A History of American Television Themes and Scoring, begins, as any baby boomer would hope, with the final galop from Rossini’s William Tell overture, known to that generation as the signature theme of The Lone Ranger. In fact, as Burlingame points out, even before its fame in the American TV series that ran from 1949 to 1955 with repeats well into the 1960s, Rossini’s music had introduced The Lone Ranger on radio for two decades.

The theme served three purposes. First, it was memorable — hearing the music all these years later, I still think of the masked avenger before the Swiss freedom fighter. Second, television programs went to air at a certain time of the week (The Lone Ranger, for me, was Saturday tea time) and the music served as an alarm call. It even began with a fanfare of trumpets and French horns that could summon you from another part of the house. Today, when many people watch “linear” television only for news bulletins, news themes still often begin with some sort of fanfare.

The third purpose of the Rossini was that it was cheap, and this was a hangover from radio days. It was some time after the advent of radio before anyone thought to employ composers to write themes or incidental music, and it was the same with television. In the short term, much of the music came from stock recordings, and they weren’t always of the highest quality — the trumpets and horns were never quite together at the start of The Lone Ranger. Burlingame’s book tells us that sixty-seven of the eight-nine cuts of incidental music in the series were classical pieces by the likes of Liszt and Tchaikovsky together with a library of generic “Western” music by uncredited studio composers. Most of it had been recorded in Mexico in the 1940s.

By the mid 1950s, television drama was taking music more seriously and this involved drafting film composers to ply their trade in the new medium. Accordingly, Bernard Herrmann, who had composed the theremin-heavy score for The Day the Earth Stood Still in 1951, was invited to supply the theme for the first season of The Twilight Zone eight years later and came up with a score consisting of drifting minor-key harmonies and dreamy harp arpeggios, not unlike his contemporaneous score for Vertigo.

But this is not the theme most people associate with The Twilight Zone, the one with the famous four-note ostinato on an electric guitar. That came the following season (the theme was changed to underline the fact that these were new episodes) and was the result of someone editing together two scraps of library stock. Their composer, the Frenchman Marius Constant, was unaware his music had been used, let alone edited, let alone turned into a theme, and his name never appeared on the credits. As Burlingame explains, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the composer realised how significant his music had been. Having dinner with some American friends, he dropped into the conversation that he had written the theme for The Twilight Zone.

“There was a moment of stunned silence, followed by an enthusiastic outburst,” Constant recalled; “it was as if I had confessed to having written Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.” The anecdote alone demonstrates how important TV had become in people’s lives.

Burlingame’s excellent book, which is full of such stories, is a nostalgia trip, no doubt about it; but it is also what its author intended: “a history of a vastly underappreciated realm of American music.” Divided into television genres — Westerns, detective series, sci-fi, drama, comedy, news, cartoons and so on — it charts the rise in importance of the sound of television and the role of the composer. As soon as composers were attached to projects, music began to establish, from the outset, the pace of the show — the powerful swagger of Fred Steiner’s Perry Mason theme, say, or the five-in-a-bar hell-for-leather of Lalo Schifrin’s Mission: Impossible. With words added, the theme could prime new viewers with details of a show’s dramatis personae; it could even provide the backstory. This was particularly true in the case of comedies.

“Flintstones! Meet the Flintstones!” was the viewer’s invitation, in 1960, to “have a gay old time” with “the modern stone-age family.” Many thousands of years later (in 1963), the family of the future was afforded more specific introductions: “Meet George Jetson, his boy Elroy, daughter Judy… Jane, his wife.” In the 1970s, prime-time cartoon comedies went out of fashion, but when they returned with a vengeance in the form of The Simpsons (1989–) the opening sequence was a nod to both those earlier shows. Danny Elfman’s theme, though it had dispensed with lyrics, borrowed the rising melodic line of “Meet George Jetson,” while, in a pointedly ironic reference to the Flinstones’ trip to a prehistoric drive-in, which is how that show began each week, we saw the Simpson family rushing home to sit on the couch and watch themselves on telly.

“Come ’n listen to my story ’bout a man named Jed,” was the first line of a song with words and music by Paul Henning, the creator–producer of The Beverly Hillbillies (1962–71). The banjo-accompanied song told viewers, at the start of each episode, why and how “a poor mountaineer” and his family had ended up in a Beverly Hills mansion, without which knowledge the show wouldn’t have made much sense. As another producer, the screenwriter Sherwood Schwartz, remarked, “a puzzled audience cannot laugh.”

Schwartz himself was obliged to come up with the theme song for Gilligan’s Island (1964–67) ahead of CBS’s commissioning the show because the president of the company believed it was impossible to give enough backstory for a new viewer. Schwartz was no songwriter, but he stayed up late and wrote a calypso-style number (the island, after all, was in the Caribbean) that at least satisfied the studio. Later, working with composer and music director George Wyle, Schwartz developed the familiar shanty-esque song — “Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale” — that provided an introduction to all the characters and a recap of the “fateful trip” that had led to their predicament.

“Here’s the story of a lovely lady,” was the start of a hyper-efficient lyric that explained how the “lady” in question and her “very lovely daughters” had grown acquainted with “a man named Brady” and his sons, and in no time at all (in fact, fifty-eight seconds) become The Brady Bunch (1969–74). You could start watching any of these shows mid-season and know all you needed to know by the time the opening credits are over.

In The Addams Family (1964–66) we scarcely needed the “kooky/spooky/ooky” words to let us know what was going on because lined up on our screens, as if for a family photograph, was the family itself. They weren’t smiling, they snapped their fingers ominously, and really that, together with the sound of the harpsichord, did the job. Perhaps most radical, though, was All in the Family (1971–79), in which Archie and Edith Bunker (Caroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton) sat at a piano each week and sang their theme song (“Those Were the Days”) to the studio audience and to camera. The longer she did it, Burlingame relates, and the more laughs she got, the more raucously off-key Stapleton would sing.

When the first edition of Burlingame’s book appeared in 1996, it ended with a lament that the great days of television were gone, while hoping they might one day return. Almost on cue, cable TV hit its stride, with streaming not far behind. In some ways it seemed as though television music was starting again from the same place.

The Sopranos (1999–2007), eschewing the score its creators believed would manipulate the viewer, opted for existing music (not classical this time, but pop). Stock music was also back, Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm (2001–) using a twenty-five-year-old library track he had first encountered on a California bank commercial. But composed music was changing, too, the new widescreen televisions taking us closer to the characters and drawing subtlety from composers, even in signature themes. With no need of fanfare-style tunes or (in the age of bingeing) songs that filled in the backstory, David Carbonara’s mesmerising Mad Men (2007–15) theme, the creeping menace of Hildur Guðnadottir’s score for Chernobyl (2019) and Siddhartha Khosla’s wittily compelling music for Only Murders in the Building (2021–) would all have seemed a little underdone in TV’s first golden age.

Is the second golden age already fading? It could be. Certainly the theme is now at the viewer’s discretion, for as the opening credits roll on your favourite show, the streaming service on which you’re watching it will invite you to “skip.” If it’s your third or fourth episode of the evening, you might well be tempted. •