Monday, October 13, 2014

The Top 20 TV Theme Songs of the 1980s

As with last year’s series of blogs on essential television series by decade, this series on theme songs will also conclude with the 1980s. Not only is this the last decade that qualifies as Comfort TV, it’s also the last one where a theme song was an essential part of the viewing experience. It might be an interesting challenge to try and find 20 great songs form the 1990s, but I fear the selections would be pretty scarce after Friends, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files.

The 1980s doesn’t seem like that long ago – to me, anyway – yet think about how times have changed. Back then an ode to a bar as heartening as “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” was actually commended, and not condemned for encouraging alcoholism. 

Hill Street Blues
Another outstanding (and Grammy-winning) theme from Mike Post, the genre’s most prolific and successful composer. Good thing he came up with something this appealing for Hill Street Blues, since it would have to play long enough to introduce what seemed like 30 or 40 regulars in every episode. 

The Golden Girls
“Thank you for Being a Friend” was written and recorded by Andrew Gold in 1978, and then revived (with new vocals by Cynthia Fee) for this beloved sitcom. It’s a perfect fit.

Miami Vice
If any television theme screams 1980s, it’s this electronic musical assault from Jan Hammer. Probably not the sort of piece you listen to very often anymore, but then not everything that seemed cool 30 years ago has managed to retain that status.

And while some compositions like the Miami Vice theme have their moment in the sun and then fade into history, others endure for hundreds of years. The Wings theme is actually the Rondo movement from Franz Schubert’s Sonata in A, written in 1828. Sadly, it only lasted through the series’ first season and half of season two. 

The Greatest American Hero
The Joey Scarbury hit “Believe it or Not” is one of those songs that are kind of awesome and kind of terrible at the same time. But who didn’t love the pop culture boost it received from George Costanza’s answering machine on Seinfeld?

Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors
‘80s kids grew up with cartoons created primarily to sell toys. The themes were mostly generic, but the intro to Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors had an over-the-top hair metal vibe that still sounds great. And the toys were underrated too.

Twin Peaks
Perhaps no other series used music to establish tone and atmosphere as effectively as Twin Peaks. The extraordinary theme and score by Angelo Badalamenti created a sense of foreboding that hung over every scene. It’s impossible to think of the show without it. 

It’s a Living
With its full orchestra and soaring vocal arrangements, this lively theme sounds like something written for a classic 1940s Broadway musical. 
St. Elsewhere
Dave Grusin’s lilting jazz theme for this always excellent (and always low-rated) drama was the best of his many television works, which also include the themes for Maude, Good Times and It Takes a Thief

Bob Newhart’s second successful sitcom had a subversive streak that belied its bucolic setting. But its simple, beautiful theme had no such undertones. It’s just a really sweet and cozy piece of music from Henry Mancini, a composer who also contributed to my list of top 20 themes from the 1950s. 

The Winds of War
Technically this was a miniseries, but there were 14 episodes between The Winds of War and its sequel, War and Remembrance, and that’s more than some shows manage. The magnificent theme was created by Robert Cobert, whose work with series producer Dan Curtis dates back to their days on Dark Shadows

If you look back over TV history, you find that all of the coolest shows have music that complements this admirable quality. Do the songs become cooler by association, or do they succeed on their own merits? With Moonlighting the answer is obvious. One can groove to Al Jarreau’s jazzy theme without ever meeting David Addison, Maddie Hayes or Miss DiPesto.

My Sister Sam
Not a lot of happy memories associated with this situation comedy, given the tragic murder of costar Rebecca Schaeffer. But it was a good show with much potential, and a theme in Kim Carnes’ “Room Enough for Two,” that under different circumstances would be much better known. 

This soothing piece by W.G. Snuffy Walden always reminds me of Pachelbel’s Canon in D.

It’s Garry Shandling’s Show
Here is the first theme song to send up the very concept of the theme song. Shandling’s self-aware series was a forerunner to the kind of meta-television we take for granted now. 

Highway to Heaven
David Rose wrote music for three shows starring Michael Landon ­– Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven. And each time it set the appropriate mood for the stories that followed. I like the trumpet on this theme better than the one on Dynasty

The A-Team
A rousing march and one last curtain call for Mike Post, who (with long-time partner Pete Carpenter) scored a big part of our classic TV heritage.

Beauty and the Beast
One of television’s most beloved cult series was graced by a theme (by Lee Holdridge) with all the romance and gravitas of a classic film score. Check out the beautiful rendition by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra.

Duck Tales
Those infectious “Woo-hoos” have stuck with Generation X the same way that “Watch out for that tree!” can still make a Baby Boomer smile after all these years. 


  1. Actually, neither "Twin Peaks" nor "Wings" premiered until 1990.

  2. Mr. Hofstede, remember when Peabo Bryson sang the theme song for "One Life to Live"?