If you grew up in the 1990s or 2000s then it’s likely you’ve punched the sky while listening to one of Jim Johnston’s songs. The composer is responsible for professional wrestling’s greatest theme music, helping bring The Undertaker, Stone Cold Steve Austin and many more to life via creepy church organs, smashing glass and huge riffs.
Across his 30+ years with WWE, Johnston created countless hit themes, flamboyantly channeling genres such as rock, punk, funk, pop and hip-hop into classic theme songs for wrestlers such as Randy Orton, Chris Jericho and D-Generation X. These weren’t just catchy, colourful pieces of music but cinematic scores that communicated the emotional makeup of your favourite wrestler clearer than any catchphrase ever could.
Johnston left WWE in 2017 and claims he’s sometimes struggled to get work since, due to people in Hollywood not taking professional wrestling seriously. He tells VICE: “There’s still this stigma against professional wrestling only being a bunch of muscly buffoons. People assume I can only do that aggressive glass smash sound and not a lot else.”
For Johnston, writing for the WWE was deeper than penning theme songs for wrestling fans. “My music reflected society. Stone Cold’s theme was about giving the viewers the courage to stand up to power. Undertaker was about helping kids process death in a way that wasn’t depressing.”
“With my work I always tried to beam right into the emotions of a character. I love [composer] John Williams and wanted to approach wrestling music in a similar way; it was all about making the audience feel something for the character. If you took John’s music out of Star Wars then it wouldn’t work as well and I feel like it’s the same thing with my music for the WWE. My music’s role was to give wrestling more heart for the audience to grab onto.”
Because wrestling rules, VICE asked Johnston to talk us through five of his very best WWE themes: The Undertaker, Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, D-generation X, and Vince McMahon.
“I wanted it to sound like a funeral with the church bells and the organ, and for the music to go deeper than just the shallow nature of pure aggression that sits at the core of a lot of wrestling music.
There’s tragedy and sadness and all these different elements that touch on the mysterious back story of The Undertaker’s character. I played the organ in a cinematic way and it was kind of an ode to Phantom of the Opera or a climactic scene in a classic horror movie. There’s definitely a sadness that underpins my playing, and I think that came from me tapping into the one scar I consistently carried with me through my life; that classic dilemma of being the middle child and feeling invisible. Honestly, I always saw [writing this song] just as much as a psychological undertaking as a musical one. Most people are intrigued yet conflicted by things like death and the afterlife. These are really complex subjects. The Undertaker is a wrestling character who makes it okay for kids to think about these things and to face them. The music is a pure extension of all that.”
Stone Cold Steve Austin
“I think the reason Stone Cold Steve Austin resonated so much with the people is because the general public love characters who stand up for what they believe in.
Steve sold that idea incredibly well and was an amazing actor. No one could outsmart him on the mic because of that intensity he had. He wasn’t the most technical wrestler, but he wrestled with so much heart that you couldn’t take your eyes off him. So many people aren’t able to tell their boss to go fuck themselves but Austin, through his rivalry with [WWE boss] Vince [McMahon], could do that every single week, which was exhilarating. He was standing up to the man! I wanted the music to reflect that freedom.
The way my guitar parts play off one another is something I got from my love of funk music. I went through tonnes of sound effects for smashing glass, but none of them popped how I wanted. I ended up combining a glass smash with car crash noises, explosions, and even a bass note. The Stone Cold glass smash is a combination of all those things. When you hear it in an arena it’s like an on and off switch, just like the Ultimate Warrior’s theme used to be. The crowd’s energy changes as soon as you hit that switch. Had the WWE used Austin’s music to advertise pick-up trucks then they would have sold millions; the music has this resilience that says it can stand up to anything that you throw at it.”
“A lot of people tell me this is a Rage Against the Machine type of song, but it was always a straight-up funk groove to me. It’s a complete swing rhythm and I guess an ode to people like James Brown in terms of my chord progression.
I think it was Chris Warren’s brilliant vocal that gave the song this counterculture punk-rap vibe. He really symbolised what D-Generation X was all about in terms of upsetting the order of things. I remember we were in the studio and I held up a big sign with phrases that I wanted him to say in his iconic wise guy voice. I had written down “You think you can tell us what to do?”, “You think you can tell us what to wear” and like hundreds of other phrases, which I then cut down to what you hear on the intro.
The long introduction of this track was a big risk as it went against the instant glass-shattering chaos that so many of the other themes had. I was worried Vince was going to shut it down quickly because, boy, the intro is so long! But there’s just something about it. Chris’ voice has this magnetic quality and he creates this anticipation in the arena. I feel like the song’s sound inspired a few nu-metal bands. That line: “Are you ready?” caught on as well, as it was used on adverts for holidays, insurance and all kinds of things.”
“I knew this theme needed to make people feel like: Oh my god, The Rock is here! I wanted to write a piece of music that Dwayne [Johnson] could really dance to. Because of the character’s name, I wondered at first whether I should just do rock music. Then I wondered if it should be a rap song or even something orchestral. But the thing about The Rock is he’s his own genre completely, so the music just became an amalgamation of all these different genres combined with all the fanfare, too.
I’m so proud of my guitar solo, which represents The Rock’s supreme confidence and swagger. The whole process was this big fun jam session in the studio. I would urge any future director who works with Dwayne to just shut up and let him do this thing because it will be so much better than any script you can write for him. As a person he just goes into this mode. It was an amazing thing to witness. He’s such a nice, charismatic man, and he left a real impression on me as a human being.”
“When I was writing Vince’s No ‘Chance In Hell’ entrance theme, I had been really upset with him about something at work. I found myself thinking: ‘You’ve got no chance against this guy!’ He’s got the power, the money, and in terms of pro-wrestling, he was pretty much the only game in town. I had written the guitar groove much earlier, and I found myself singing ‘No Chance…No Chance’ over that groove. Rather than a song about one man, I wanted it to be about ’The Man’.
The song is about the work system that imprisons us all. It's got a thrust of someone who's kind of like marching like they're the kind of ‘big I am’. What I loved about Vince was how he liked to be surprised. He let me take risks and if I surprised him with something and it was good then he would be delighted. But if it wasn’t good then boy he would tell you about it! I will always class him as a friend. We were creating something entirely new as the business Vince had bought from his dad didn’t have any music for the wrestlers. Our work together radically changed things and made it so much more theatrical. I’ll always be proud of that.”