A Chat with the ‘Hey Arnold!’ Composer Who Folded Jazz into 90s Childhoods
How 66-year-old Jim Lang went from touring with the Pointer Sisters to soundtracking the Nickelodeon show about "football head."
“I remember, as we got onto the second or third series, thinking ‘I'm going to get as weird as I possibly can'," says composer Jim Lang, talking down the line from his house just north of San Francisco. "'I'm going to get some post-bebop Art Ensemble of Chicago weirdness into this.’ That was really fun – working with that freedom."
The TV show he’s talking about scoring isn’t—as you might expect from the reference to the seminal, skronky, and sort-of-really-quite-difficult jazz collective—a head-hurting avant-garde exercise in the fashion of Twin Peaks: The Return, or Ibiza Weekender, but Hey Arnold!, the downbeat Nickelodeon animated series that charted the often dismal and occasionally troubling lives of an oddly-proportioned trio of pre-pubescents who mooned around the fictional city of Hillwood.
Whether or not Lang managed to convince any of his audience to cough up some of their not-so hard-earned pocket money on records like Les Stances a Sophie, Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City, or A Jackson in Your House is neither here nor there. What he did do, over the course of five seasons of television and two movies—the second of which was the warmly-received 2017 release Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie—is subtly introduce a generation of E number-addled children to jazz as an idea, jazz as a texture, jazz as a thing that exists and can be heard, felt, and embraced, even when all you’re really doing is swinging your size three feet off the edge of a sofa, eating Smarties and trying to ignore the funny feeling that does backwards somersaults in the pit of your stomach every time Helga Pataki appears on screen.
The cartoons we watch as children follow us into both adolescence and adulthood like benign giants of an inner landscape, and they do so because they arrive at a point in our lives where our capacity for innocence is matched only by that of the possibility of osmosis. The child is a sponge. That sponge will eventually find itself irradiated by hormones, as puberty chucks an obsidian bowling ball down the alley of the self and it all goes to hell. But before that, and after the swaddled infantility of infancy itself, there’s a sweet spot where the world of stimulation is all there is. And it is in that sweet spot that cartoons really matter.
As an artform, the cartoon, from Fantasia through to Family Guy, revels in the illusory. It is both patently unreal—roosters can’t talk, cats cannot sustain multiple thwacks around the head with frying pans, and the citizens of Springfield aren’t really banana-yellow—and the result of an unfathomable amount of human work. In offering a space that mingles reality and unreality with such fluidity, cartoons are almost limitless in scope. They can be adult and humdrum (King of the Hill), kitschily-optimistic (The Jetsons) or painfully sad evocations of love and loss, as told by a bunch of dinosaurs (The Land Before Time).
“The characters in that show experienced things that were uncomfortable," Lang says, of the program that made him his name. "They had unhappy moments. They didn't live in a perfect world." That might explain why Hey Arnold!’s theme tune is now, 20 years on from original transmission, an almost Proustian object, instilling a sense of both calm—the almost embryonic time before responsibilities and banking apps—and unease, at the memory of the titular lead character’s strange life. A life shared with a toothless grandad with a pair of balls for a chin, a life spent avoiding bullies, a life as oddly average in its not-quite-rightness as more of us experience than we’d like to admit.
How did Lang get the job as composer for Hey Arnold! in the first place? A former touring member of the Pointer Sisters, Todd Rundgren-collaborator, string-arranger, and songwriter, he found himself swapping life on the stage for life on-screen in the mid-1980s. After agreeing with his wife that spending most of his working life on tour wasn’t necessarily going to be conducive to conducting a lasting and healthy marital relationship, the 66-year-old found himself peering in new musical directions.
A friend of Lang’s was producing what he calls “visitor videos” for various minor cities in the US. These local presentations played in hotel rooms, information reels for frustrated businessmen to endure as they waited for a knock on the door and a Cobb salad. “I asked what they did for music for those things and he said, 'Oh we use these music libraries.' They paid a couple hundred bucks for every film. So I said I'd do it for $150.”
This led to working on soundtracks for General Motors trade shows, which in turn saw him establishing contact with the animator Craig Bartlett. Bartlett would go onto create Hey Arnold!, but at the time had more pressing concerns. “Craig was locked up in a warehouse in Osaka trying to program industrial robots to do the Funky Chicken.” This, Lang explains, wasn’t for purely recreational reasons, with Bartlett finding himself secluded in deepest Japan at the behest of consumer electronics behemoth Toshiba.
A few years down the line however and Bartlett found himself story editing the much-loved animated series Rugrats. Off the back of that he pitched Hey Arnold! to Nickelodeon in 1993 and a pilot was ordered for the following year. Bartlett then reached out to his musical collaborator and asked for a helping hand. With a pilot made, the show was picked up, went into production, and premiered eight months later. “That,” Jim Lang says with smile, “was rather fortuitous.”
What wasn’t fortuitous is the fact that two decades after the show went to broadcast, Noisey readers of a certain age will be able to conjure up its jaunty, jazzy theme tune. The squiggly horns, shuffly percussion and occasional bleats of “HEY...ARNOLD,” are as easy to access as the taste of crustless ham sandwiches or the smell of a puddle of sick in a ball pit. In fact, the reams and reams of incidental compositions that Lang wrote for the show are, in their own subtle way, an easily-swallowable crash course in jazz. It is evident from speaking to him that his interest in the form, and more importantly wanting to interest another generation of malleable youngsters, stemmed from his own upbringing.
“There were a lot of jazz records in the house, even if my father didn't play them all the time,” he tells me. An accidental encounter with George Gershwin’s stirring 1924 number “Rhapsody in Blue,” which you may remember from Woody Allen’s Manhattan, was the beginning of a life-long love affair.
That sense of chance is important when it comes to considering how a medium like television can open up other cultural avenues. Jazz, of course, isn’t the easiest sell to most adults, let alone children more used to Dave Benson Philips than Dave Brubeck. “Some jazz aficionados really pride themselves on thinking they have an understanding of the more extreme, obscure aspects of the form,” he says. “They're what we call jazzholes.”
Despite not thinking of himself as a jazz musician—"jazz musicians are dedicated and studious and practice a tremendous amount and know a tremendous amount about their craft and I'm just a self-taught ham and egger,”—it is undeniable that his soundtrack work, inspired by the likes of Oliver Nelson, Wes Montgomery and Astrud Gilberto, has made jazz feel approachable to millions of viewers.
More than that, it was the perfect soundtrack to a television show that dared to treat its young audience with honesty, seriousness and respect. “For me it was an opportunity to write some pretty emotional music, and those moments resonated with people now and then,” Lang says. “ We did a Christmas special where Mr Hyunh, one of the characters in the boarding house, finds his long-lost daughter, who he got separated from when they evacuated Saigon. That's pretty deep, steep stuff, for a kids cartoon show, right?”
Dennis the Menace, it wasn’t.
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