Sunday, November 24, 2013

Talking TV theme tunes with Rhodri Marsden

Writing a TV theme should be the most lucrative sort of work a composer can possibly do. Somebody told me years ago the guy who composed the Coronation Street theme earned £25 every time it was played, which made it, according to my calculations, £100 per airing. But I've just looked it up and it's not true. It was actually commissioned by De Wolfe Music, the soundtrack specialists, so nobody got more than the day rate.

Some clever people have tried to get round this. Star Trek producer Gene Rodenberry insisted on writing some words to the instrumental theme tune. Even though the words were never sung it meant he got 50% whenever it was aired. Then there was the extraordinary business of the Channel 4 theme, which nobody thought to buy David Dundas out of, and subsequently became the most profitable four notes in the history of culture.

Actually, by the time the producers of Friends were looking for a theme tune in 1994 they were thinking about the money a lot and, as Bob Lefsetz pointed out in a recent post, The Rembrandts had to settle for a less advantageous deal in order to get the chance to provide "I'l Be There For You". They also planned to keep their involvement in it a secret for fear of what it might do to the group. But that was doomed so eventually the theme became so big it ate the band.

Rhodri Marsden plays keyboards with Scritti Politti, writes a column in The Independent and has a sideline playing TV theme tunes with the band Dream Themes. They're supporting Pugwash at our next Word In Your Ear show at the Lexington next Sunday. Among the tunes Dream Themes play are the themes from Ski Sunday and Grange Hill, sounds that are no doubt rich in associations for people of a certain age. Tickets here. There's a special discount for readers of this blog to get tickets for £12 if they put in the code "mincepie".

I asked Rhodri whether he thinks the Golden Age of TV themes has passed and he said they certainly don't bother with them as much these days and contrasted the Wogan theme from the 80s, which would have been written and arranged for a big band and has the traditional big band virtues, including a tune, with the current theme for the Jonathan Ross programme, which as he says, sounds as if they've set up a basic backing track grid and then neglected to put anything on top of it. This could be just TV themes reflecting the way that pop music has gone in the wider world.

But as he says often the thing that makes a theme magic is just sheer repetition. "The theme for the darts coverage on Sky Sports is a dreadful piece of music, but get a load of darts fans in a room, people who've heard it hundreds of times and just watch them go". Just watch them go indeed.


  1. The current Jonathan Ross theme is part of a Mark Ronson album track, hence it sounds like it could have been 'phoned in'.
    Don't get me wrong I like Mark Ronson's stuff but TV themes have to do a very different job to chart hits, but you try telling that to a producer with 'Now' albums on their iPod

    I came up with the original BBC JR theme on my motorbike going to the studio up the A3, if that's of any interest...

    And I also agree, repetition has made 'classics' of some unassuming library tracks over the years

    Dan McGrath

  2. I did read that the chap who composed the Match of the Day theme receives £40 every time it is played. As it's now on Saturday, Sunday and some midweek nights, that's a steady income, and has been for 40+ years.

  3. In terms of widespread repeated exposure, perhaps the modern equivalent of composing TV themes is the composition of music for high-tech devices. Brian Eno famously composed the Windows '95 start-up sound, Robert Fripp was commissioned to write the Windows Vista start-up sound, Stewart Copeland composed the theme that plays when starting up a Blackberry Bold, and Thomas Dolby (or at least his company) developed the polyphonic version of the familiar Nokia ringtone. I'm pretty sure that, contrary to popular myth, none of them gets a royalty each time a PC starts up or a phone rings.

  4. Dolby (Beatnik) made their money licensing the technology to Nokia and (I think) Motorola for each new handset...nice

    More importantly, how great was Copeland's music for the Equaliser!

  5. Like guitar riff songs, hooky theme tunes have faded away. Possibly, the last belter was Have I Got News For You.

    Did you know Sammy Davis Jr recorded a version of the Hawaii Five-0 with lyrics You Can Count On Me'

  6. "The last belter was HiGNfY"...I take great exception to that! ;-)

    Ironically Sammy D Jr has been removed due to copyright issues, but you can hear Julio singing over the top of our theme to 'Strictly' if you have nothing else to do.

  7. Brian Sibley wrote about the 'scandalous facts' concerning Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek lyrics.