Gotta Catch ’em All: Memorable Theme Songs, and the People Who Created Them
Turns out a lot of "medicinal drugs" were needed to help create the legendary theme song from ‘Arthur.’
Captura de pantalla de la serie de televisión de 'Pokémon'
A recipe for a great theme song needs to begin with a clear first impression—a sales pitch. Its introduction to the ear, often beginning as a musical hook, or a series of words, blend to create a product that should border on the contagious.
"I want to be the very best," reminds the viewer that Pokémon's Ash Ketchum is about that business. "Every day when you're walking down the street, " implies that whatever happens in an episode of Arthur, it's going to happen on the block. And the pattering of rain with a dash of creepy laughs will always, inevitably, lead to another campfire story in Are You Afraid of The Dark?
During the 80s and 90s, the theme song was at its height; particularly for children, specifically for me. Before the expediency of on-demand content took centre stage, the television was the Twitter feed, encouraging after-school or Saturday morning rituals of episodic glory.
While the tradition is arguably less emphasized for folks like me, its spirit in practice still exists today, particularly for children. Take the pop-punk sound of Paw Patrol, origin-story infused song of Sophia the First or the repeatedly cherry Doc McStuffins themes to name a few; all still catchy by design, but the question of whether they aim to convey genuine moods or provide a soulless injection of air-worms is up for debate.
To understand this distinction, I decided to track down a few composers and producers of my own childhood; the names that lived and breathed the craft, and can claim responsibility for brands of sound that have already earned pop-culture immortality.
John Segler, Composer ( Pokémon, YuGiOh)
Starting out as a talented bass player, John Segler decided he no longer wanted to tour with bands in the late 80s. A New York City jingle house became his home, where he wrote and produced countless commercials. Through his partner and songwriter, John Loeffler, he established a relationship with Norman J. Grossfield, head of the production for 4Kids Entertainment. From there, his involvement with one of the most recognizable TV franchises began.
On the Pokémon theme, "I wanna be the very best."
"Well it's amazing and it's great and it's a little odd. The interesting thing to me about this is that I wrote a new theme song for Pokémon, every year, for eight years. That song, 'I wanna be the very best,' that song that everybody knows, only appeared in the first season of Pokémon. If you ask anyone about the Pokémon theme, that's the one they're going to sing. They don't know the other ones, it's an interesting phenomenon."
"I'm very satisfied with a lot of different things that I've done. Do I think that having written the Pokémon theme, that it's the thing I'm most proud of in my career? Absolutely not. I'm most proud of two things, my body of work as a bassist and my body of work as a music director at 4Kids Entertainment where I supervised, wrote, begged, borrowed, and pleaded with musicians, composers, and music editors for 10 years."
"I don't care. It may bother other people, but at this stage of my life, me personally, I don't need that (fame). I've had that for 45 years. Honestly, I'm winding down. I'm older, I'm a grandparent. But I have every intention of continuing to play and write for as long as I am physically able."
Jeff Zhan, Producer, Composer ( Arthur, Are You Afraid of The Dark?, Caillou, Madeline)
Originally a New Yorker, Jeff Zhan started his career as a classical cellist and played in the Broadway show Cats for 20 years. His first love had always been for writing, guided by his mentor, Joe Raposo, former songwriter for Sesame Street who tragically passed away from lymphoma in 1989. As his right-hand man, Zhan was left with several of his contracts which gave him his first major opportunity, leading him towards his involvement with the PBS classic, Arthur, Are You Afraid of The Dark? and Caillou among others.
On the Arthur theme song
"Arthur was a tough project that came out wonderful. I didn't write it, to be fair, I produced it. We couldn't have a Canadian singer do this, we wanted someone legendary and it was suggested, Ziggy Marley. My challenge was going down to Kingston, Jamaica. Here I am, a white guy going down to reggae country. There wasn't a lot of trust there for cultural reasons and I had like eight hours to produce this theme song."
"Ziggy Marley came in, didn't prepare. He had no interest in singing what we wanted, the demo that we fell in love with. He was more involved with finishing a soccer game. I had to quietly take aside his manager and say, 'Unless you sing something close to the theme song, we're going to go home on the next plane.' At the last second, he came in, nailed it and it became a legendary theme song. A lot of medicinal drugs going around that room that bulked up the effort but that song became a legend."
The process: Are You Afraid of the Dark?
"The very best part of my job, where I'm having the most fun is to having the idea and starting to build it up. I knew how it was going to sound but the journey started as an idea in Are You Afraid of the Dark? I had it on the piano, a simple melody. For me personally, there was such a joy in taking this little seed, this acorn and making it into a full meal, into a flower garden and adding drums, and adding strings etc., and then they're singing the demo. I suck, I have a terrible voice but I know how it sounds in my head. When the singers come in and you start hearing the finished thing come together, my god, that's like orgasmic. It's unbelievable. You gave birth."
On EDM remixes
"My daughter, 27 years old says, 'Dad, you know your [Caillou] theme song's a big hit?' I go, 'Yeah maybe with four-year-old girls.' She says, 'no dad, a bunch of remixers have discovered this song you wrote. One is at 18 million [views], another is at 15 million and the third is at 13 million, you probably have 50-70 million hits on that theme song.
"The notoriety is kind of fun. You affected kids. Yeah it makes you feel a little old sometimes but kids remembered, they love it, it's memorable. Puts a smile on your face."
Steve Rucker, Composer ( Dexter's Laboratory, Powerpuff Girls)
As a young kid, Steve Rucker was a regular movie goer and music often grabbed his attention. As a teen, he'd buy vinyl compilations of film scores that included How the West Was Won, Spartacus, and Ben Hur among others. He began working with a few partners in substituting themes to cartoon shows, many which never aired in North America. His big break began in the 80s involving Hanna-Barbera's cartoon series Mr. T. From there, a new relationship with animated works was born.
"My son, he's 24 and he tells people that his dad composes for Dexter, and it's like, 'whoa!' Dexter is the show I'm most proud of, not because it's the most popular, but because it's the one I liked the most working on. Working with Genndy Tartakovsky [creator] is always a pleasure because he was a producer that had really good instincts about what worked.
What makes a theme song work?
"It's artistic sensibility. When the Beatles did A Hard Day's Night, they must of known that this is cool. It's always about the hook. That's the bottom line, you gotta have something that grabs in five notes. If they're in the other room, they know that the show is on. It's an ID. It all comes down to: does it emotionally connect with the audience? If you look at film and TV, certain shows that have just one composer, because that's all they need. Silicon Valley did not need an orchestra to score. But then Game of Thrones, that show needs an organic, real sound. And the audience knows the difference."
"Well there's always the financial incentive. I love it. I'm lucky, I was always a musician, I didn't pick music, music picked me."
Follow Noel on Twitter.