Top Five in Television Music: Tuning In to a Lost Art

After Kung Fu, composer Jim Helms sort of fell off the radar, which is a surprise and a shame. Did scoring for television take a toll?
After Kung Fu, composer Jim Helms sort of fell off the radar, which is a surprise and a shame. Did scoring for television take a toll?

From 1965 through 1980, scoring music for television was an especially brutal gig. Composer Quincy Jones writes in his autobiography Q: "Television scoring can be one of the most stressful and demanding jobs in the musical profession...we all busted our asses keeping up." Keep in mind that this was a time when scoring 30 to 40 minutes of new music once a week for as much as a 40 piece orchestra was considered the norm. The workload was grueling. Oliver Nelson who succeeded Jones as the composer for the TV show Ironside famously and tragically died from a heart attack after a scoring session. Perhaps because of the pressure, the television music that came out of this time period was usually quite good, if not iconic. Jones and company may have been practitioners of what is now a lost art form. Today's television scores pale in comparison.

With this in mind, and with no commercial interruption, we bring you five examples of great television scoring going back to the late '60s and winding up in the '80s.

Ironside (1967-1975) Original opening theme and series music composed by Quincy Jones

Those two screaming synthesizer notes. The military pattern on the snare drums. The telegraph-like clanging that sounds like a marimba and piano doubled in their highest registers. Weird woodwind chords, brass in pocket, then POW! The gunshot! And then the theme starts. With a Quincy Jones television score, you always got your money's worth and then some. In fact, another more experienced TV composer warned Jones early on: "Don't try to write Stravinsky's Firebird Suite for every episode, or you'll never live through the year."

Below is Ironside's opening theme as described. And yes, Quentin Tarantino appropriated the theme for Uma Thurman's flashbacks in his ultraviolent revenge flick Kill Bill.

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Star Trek (1966-1970) Original opening theme composed by Alexander Courage. Series music composed by too many other people to name here.

The two scenes in the first video below include just about every musical motif you will hear over the course of every single season of the original Star Trek. Check out the deep electric bass and muted trumpet that follows Dr. McCoy's somber diagnosis. Or the brass chords punctuating some blue Andorian ass-kicking by James T. Kirk. Nobody composes musical cues for television like this anymore. But unlike Ironside, Star Trek's music was reused over and over again, its various themes accompanying sometimes wildly divergent scenes and scripts. It's a technique similarly used by composers of classic opera, although the show's notoriously small budget probably had everything to do with this creative recycling.

Brand new music was composed for some episodes by a variety of composers. One example is Mr. Spock's rocking duet with one of the sexier members of the children of Eden ashram who crashed for a few days on the Enterprise.

 

Kung Fu (1972-1975) Original opening theme and series music composed by Jim Helms

"When you can snatch the pebble from my hand, it will be time for you to leave." West met East in this ground breaking show from the early '70s. Kung Fu is an incredible series thanks in no small part to its composer Jim Helms who wrote all of the music including the beautiful opening theme. That melody is timeless. What happened to this guy? After Kung Fu he sort of fell off the radar, which is a surprise and a shame. Did scoring for television take a toll?

Helms' orchestrations are always meticulously balanced and sonically surprising. Instruments recurring in the show's music include harpsichord, wooden flutes, and strings along with plenty of Asian, Native American, and African percussion (even talking drum). Recurring themes evoke indigenous music combined with elements of the European avant-garde. There are motifs that trigger shifts in time either in the form of flashbacks or sequences in slow motion. It's significant that the show's creators knew when to leave things nearly silent. A lot of the fights have NO accompanying sound save for birds or other outdoor ambient sounds.

This is a longer montage with several beautiful and mysterious music cues. The show's hero Kwai Chang Caine (played by David Carradine) goes toe to toe with a demon conjured by the opium use of a guilt-ridden soldier's wife and Caine's memory of a childhood near-death experience.

The Rockford Files (1974-1980) Original theme and series music composed by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter.

The music of Mike Post and Pete Carpenter is ingrained in the DNA of baby boomers. It's scary when you consider the number of shows these two scored (and the resulting music that many of us could hum on the spot): Chips (1977), Magnum, P.I. (1980), Tenspeed and Brown Shoe (1980), The A-Team (1983), Hardcastle and McCormick (1983), and Hunter (1984), to name just a handful. But one could grow up listening to music much, MUCH worse than the truly bad-ass theme to The Rockford Files.

It's amazing how truly mundane and boring the majority of Rockford Files episodes are. The series is sort of the opposite of what a cop show is supposed to be. Ex-con now P.I. Jim Rockford spends most of his time eating hot dogs, getting yelled at by his dad, and being rousted in his trailer home by thugs and police. He's always hustling for money - sometimes phoning his bank to sweet talk them into holding off on processing a check he knows is going to bounce. Occasionally, there's a car chase, albeit a mid-tempo, pre-CGI chase, but a chase nonetheless where Jim has to use his head instead of a souped-up engine to escape or overtake the bad guys. The musical accompaniment to the following cat and mouse car chase is still fresh to our ears.

Miami Vice (1984-1989) Original opening theme and series music composed by Jan Hammer Additional songs contributed by various big name and not-so-big name '80s artists.

MTV and Miami Vice redefined the relationship between music and television. Music in Miami Vice functions as a character integral to the story as opposed to background support for the on-screen action. There are long stretches in Miami Vice with no dialogue, no sound effects - just music. Which is not uncommon in film, but at the time was new for television.

All due respect must go to Hammer for creating the machine gun and tom-tom fueled "Miami Vice Theme", the haunting "Crocket's Theme", and several other cues that gave the show its signature sound. Hammer did his job "old school" in the tradition of a mid '60s and '70s Quincy Jones, composing 30 to 40 minutes of new music once a week come hell or high water. And he was given a great deal of creative license by the show's creator Michael Mann.

In addition to Hammer's contributions, Miami Vice licensed popular as well as not so popular music to create some truly powerful TV drama. Phil Collins' "In The Air Tonight" is the one we all remember. But artists as weird as Devo, Public Image Limited, Depeche Mode and Kate Bush all contributed songs to the series.

Below we have a nice, juicy montage that uses an extended mix of the Godley and Creme epic "Cry" to accompany Sonny Crocket aka Burnett (played by Don Johnson) blowing away NRA poster boy Ted "Wango Ze Tango" Nugent, the aftermath of a crime family reunion gone horribly wrong, and Crocket's existential meeting on a beach with a woman he trusted who reveals her true colors. It's heavy. As if Sam Peckinpah and Ingmar Bergman collaborated to direct an '80s music video.


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