Ethan Iverson plays TV Themes

At the start of the 2020 pandemic, performing artists contemplated the suddenly blank calendar and wondered what the future would hold.

In an effort to keep things positive while under lockdown, I started making iPhone videos of home piano performances. Sarah and I had just re-watched The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. When I posted the Bernie Leadon theme on my socials, it got a nice response, so I was inspired to make two dozen of these little things. The arrangements were conceived quickly and the tracking was done in just a take or two, so there are plenty of flaws. Certainly the tops and tails of the videos do not exhibit professional-level editing. But I had a lot of fun!

I genuinely appreciate all these melodies. Two themes were special requests, but the rest of them were already part of my subconscious. Like many musicians my age, much of my early training was straight from the tube. I didn’t grow up with any deep folk music, but I did grow up with The A-Team.

Dave Cantor wrote up the project for DownBeat, where I’m quoted as saying, “…They have compositional lessons to teach…If you think it’s easy to write a TV theme, you do it.”

1) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Bernie Leadon)

“Journey of the Sorcerer” was a relatively obscure track from the Eagles before it was appropriated by the BBC.

Douglas Adams looms large in my personal mythos. It was a perfect progression: First I watched the Adams-connected Doctor Who serials, especially “City of Death,” then watched the BBC Hitchhiker’s, then read every Douglas Adams book.

2) The Rockford Files (Mike Post and Pete Carpenter).

Mike Post is a giant in this idiom.

Reid Anderson told me he loved the Rockford theme as a boy and still loves it now. Reid is one of best creators of melody, therefore: Mike Post is a good composition teacher.

3) Dallas (Jerrold Immel)

Immel places the “high plains” Americana style of Aaron Copland over a disco beat. The whole track is surprisingly long and convoluted, and a fair amount of development was left out for this glitzy piano arrangement.

4) Sanford and Son (Quincy Jones)

Legendary bassist Chuck Rainey is hot and funky on the original fabulous track. Those were the days!

I’ve always loved Quincy Jones. Walking in Space was one of my first records, talk about a perfect LP.

Perhaps nobody else “stayed current” as well as Jones. Herbie Hancock is another contender; I suppose people would put Miles Davis in there. At any rate, the 50’s Quincy Jones jazz records are masterpieces, so is Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Crazy.

5) The X-Files (Mark Snow)

Learning to play the ghostly and mechanical Mark Snow theme was harder than expected. Watching this now I wish I could go back and do one more take….

Somewhere in the TBP years I binge-watched the whole series while on tour. Unlike some X-files fans, I dislike the myth-arc, much preferring the stand-alone “monster of the week” episodes. Writer Darin Morgan is an especially interesting figure; his few scripts for The X-Files are metatextual, hilarious, and satisfying.

6) Newhart (Henry Mancini)

A typically brilliant contribution from the immortal Henry Mancini, who on this occasion writes something a little bit on the classical side.

7) The Pink Panther (Henry Mancini)

More Mancini. The bluesy tenor sax line was first recorded by master Plas Johnson, one of the few African-American musicians present in the Hollywood studios of that era.

Pink Panther gets in the “TV theme” camp on a technicality, namely the cartoon, but of course Mancini wrote the piece for the Peter Sellars/Blake Edwards production. As a little boy there was nothing I loved more than a Peter Sellars Pink Panther movie, and Mancini’s scores were some of my first exposures to colorful harmony over a swinging cymbal beat.

8) Twin Peaks — “Laura Palmer Theme” (Angelo Badalamenti)

David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti have an unusually significant relationship. This is not the theme (which is also great) but the indelible melody that conjures and explains Laura Palmer:

I saw an episode or two of Twin Peaks in high school and didn’t understand a word of it. Later, David King raved to me about Lynch and we watched some of his oeuvre together. One of the Bad Plus Real World sessions for Columbia featured my first proper exposure to Twin Peaks. For a moment I was obsessed, and devoured the first two seasons two times in a row.

(Twin Peaks and the first season of True Detective had the same structural flaw: The moment after the killer is revealed to the audience, the show becomes flabby. It’s a shocking change from interesting to uninteresting, a real Jekyll and Hyde transformation. It’s too bad Nic Pizzolatto didn’t have a musical collaborator in the manner of Lynch with Badalamenti. There’s nothing wrong with the score to True Detective — it’s mostly good southern songs — but a significant composer could have made that great first season even better.)

9) Peter Gunn (Henry Mancini)

Many of us first heard this theme in the movie The Blues Brothers. The melody is perhaps a shade pedestrian when played on the piano “as is,” so I threw a few Stravinsky-isms in there.

10) Sherlock — “The Game is On” (David Arnold and Michael Price)

Not the theme, but an unforgettable returning cue. On Twitter, some of my takes traveled pretty far.

Any serious crime fiction fan reads the Conan Doyle stories, but I haven’t paid attention to most of the adaptations. After working on “The Game is On,” I tried watching the Benedict Cumberbatch series again. Sadly, the series squanders its remarkable flair by devolving into a soap opera/comic book aesthetic, where the scripts spend far more time investigating the backstory of the leads rather than investigating fresh crimes. It’s a terrible waste, for the best parts of the first two episodes of Sherlock offer some of my favorite recent television.

11) Hill St. Blues (Mike Post)

For people who don’t play piano, this is one of the most important piano pieces of all time. Mike Post!

12) The A-Team (Mike Post and Pete Carpenter)

More Post. As with Dallas, the theme is much longer and weirder than one might remember. Everyone knows the first few phrases, and then…what!? I made some kind of cheap edit for the piano version.

When this series first aired, there were only a few channels on the tube. There was little cable, no video rental, no cell phones, no internet, no social media, no video games. Almost everyone in my demographic watched some of The A-Team. The theme was truly part of the charm: As my little 2020 project acquired momentum, everyone wanted me to play The A-Team, for everyone has fond memories of the show.

Nostalgia is wonderful, but for the record, the memory cheats. Going back and watching The A-Team now is pointless because it’s just not that good. The theme was almost the best part of the show.

(The dramatic voiceover before the theme was great as well: “In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them….maybe you can hire The A-Team.”)

Also for the record: The recent elevation of intellectual property with nostalgia value into outsized cinematic fantasies is a dubious proposition. The entirely forgettable The A-Team (2010) had a budget of $110 million and featured a stupendous amount of violent death onscreen (unthinkable on the original mild-mannered family show). It would have been better for all concerned to let our childhood memories fade away.

13) Murder, She Wrote (John Addison)

This was a request from my buddy Justin Neely, who still watches the Angela Lansbury vehicle regularly. In this case I simply read down Addison’s excellent published piano music, although there was one high-register string effect I needed to poach from the orchestral original.

There was no need to carefully work out placement of props on the piano, for the creatures just casually assembled themselves circa 5 PM daily. In this case I did grab a handy Agatha Christie anthology from my bookshelf. Christie is an influence on Lansbury’s character Jessica Fletcher. Christie put herself in the books as Hercule Poirot’s friend Ariadne Oliver (a best-selling mystery writer who helps Poirot on several cases), so that’s one obvious reference, although truthfully Jessica Fletcher is less the scatty-brained Oliver and more the fearless investigator Jane Marple. Marple’s debut, Murder in the Vicarage from 1930, remains one of Christie’s best.

14) Doctor Who (Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire)

This spectacular 1963 theme was one of the most significant electronic compositions of the era. Only recently has Delia Derbyshire’s contribution to the BBC Radiophonic workshop come to light; her name was nowhere when I was a young fan.

In the summer of 1984, I was eleven. For the costume contest at the Doctor Who/Star Trek convention in Chicago, I dressed as Jon Pertwee. Mary Tamm (the first Romana) was the judge and awarded me third prize.

Music replaced Doctor Who as my primary directive. But I’ve never lost interest in the show, and to this day can alarm civilians by spouting obscure and detailed Whovian statistics at the drop of a hat. A few years ago I wrote up the debut of composer Segun Akinola for the New Yorker Culture Desk.

Here I am with the TARDIS and a Dalek in a 2019 photo taken by Rob Schwimmer at the BBC offices in Birmingham:

15) Taxi (Bob James)

Perhaps the quintessential Fender Rhodes theme?

I first heard Bob James on that aforementioned Quincy Jones album Walking in Space, where James is featured in several jazz solos and acquits himself well. Speaking of TV: Magnum P.I. exposed me to David Sanborn on “Since I Fell For You,” leading to a purchase of what I think to this day is the only LP in my collection that is regularly filed under Smooth Jazz, Double Vision with Bob James and David Sanborn. This is the same Bob James who began his discography with an avant-garde trio date for ESP, Explosion. An interesting career!

16) Sesame Street (Joe Raposo)

The great Joe Raposo wrote a lot of amazing stuff for Sesame Street and certainly made American children a bit more musical.

On DTM there’s an interview with the house drummer of Sesame Street, Steve Little. Little had the original chart of the theme, which meant that in this case (and in this case only) I could work from the “urtext.”

17) Love Boat (Charles Fox and Paul Williams)

The whole concept is sublime. What kind of boat is it? A love boat. Actually I have never seen a single episode, but, still, I understand the conceit perfectly.

Matthew Guerrieri followed my TV productions with interest — not that he had much choice, for I texted them to him promptly each day. In retaliation he made this cue card:

18) Mike Hammer — “Harlem Nocturne” (Earle Hagen)

The 80’s TV show is unwatchable today but the music lingers on. “Harlem Nocturne” is from 1940; it can’t be the first exposed example of a minor major seventh, but surely it is a significant example. Hagen originally wrote the piece as a tribute to Johnny Hodges and Duke Ellington. Jazz great Bud Shank plays the alto part on the Mike Hammer rendition. The big hit version from the surf era was by the Viscounts.

19) Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Nerf Herder)

The Buffy theme by rock band Nerf Herder works surprisingly well on piano. On Twitter, Kurt Rosenwinkel joked that my rendition sounded like the Bad Plus, which is more than fair.

When my wife began watching Buffy I didn’t pay much attention at first, because I thought it must be a teen drama set in California like Beverly Hills 91210. In time I saw the light and I went all-in. Indeed, I’d nominate Buffy the Vampire Slayer. as the greatest TV show of all time.

Like so many shows, it went on too long. The series should have ended on the final cliffhanger of season six’s “Once More, with Feeling,” a stupendous musical episode where the showrunner and creator, Joss Whedon, writes good songs that don’t just work on their own, but also bring each character arc forward amusingly and smoothly.

Encouraged by this once-in-a-lifetime success, Whedon stayed in the game as a composer. Firefly is also quite wonderful, almost Buffy-level great, and Whedon’s theme music is acceptable. For Much Ado About Nothing, Whedon wrote the whole film score (although Deborah Lurie did the orchestration), and the movie is good, too. Even better is Cabin in the Woods, co-written by Whedon and Drew Goddard.

Cabin in the Woods is one of the few things that has achieved Buffy-level status in my personal pantheon. Whedon did not contribute music for Cabin in the Woods, but a few minutes of REO Speedwagon’s “Roll With The Changes” is the most striking use of classic rock for a movie cue I’ve ever seen. (This REO moment was conceived and directed by Goddard.)

20) Transformers (Anne Bryant and Ford Kinder)

The original theme has some remarkable production qualities, there’s either some incorrect tape splicing or truly advanced mixer meter going on. Gorgeous: Michel Legrand meets Sun Ra? Hard to know what’s going on, a state of affairs not helped by a mix that emphasizes the roar of cartoon robots in battle.

I walked in the park for an hour with the track on loop in my headphones, trying to learn it, and the piano reduction ended up being pretty banal. Still, it was a special request from my nearest and dearest (as a girl, Sarah watched it religiously with her brother Dan) and that was certainly reason enough to give it a try.

21) Hawaii 5-0 (Mort Stevens)

One of the most familiar themes still has 60’s-era charm.

22) The Price is Right (Edward Kalehoff)

Love the band on the original track, with the bass absurdly funky and hot in the mix. Great tune!

23) St. Elsewhere (Dave Grusin)

Grusin’s form is really compelling and beautiful. Some of these TV themes have one good idea, a “hook.” But the development of the Elsewhere motto is sophisticated composition. When it goes to B-flat near the end it chills the spine. As with Addison’s Murder, She Wrote, this one can be read straight from the sheet music (although I might have finessed a few bass notes here and there).

24) M.A.S.H. (Johnny Mandel)

After Johnny Mandel passed away, it was time to record the final entry. Loretta Swit (Major Margaret Houlihan) retweeted my take of the M.A.S.H. theme as part of her Mandel memorial comments, which is good as it gets, really.

Bill Evans recorded a famous jazz version of the M.A.S.H. theme, and that’s fine, but more to my taste is that outrageous rendition by Mal Waldron, Reggie Workman, and Ed Blackwell on Breaking New Ground. Those curious about how I learned to play piano for TBP may want to check out Breaking New Ground. (Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” is also on that Waldron setlist.)

Bonus track: Just after we lost Johnny Mandel, Ennio Morricone passed on as well. The famous theme to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is rarely heard on piano, perhaps with good reason.

Over a year later, as the clubs tentatively reopen, I look back on this minor project with a certain amount of satisfaction, a chance to explore something populist in a generous fashion while fighting off uncertainly and despair.