Popular culture has romantically transformed the 80’s from a best-forgotten world of shoulder pads and hairspray into the must have retro return. But one aspect of the decade never really fell from grace. 80’s TV shows marked the real beginnings of television as we know it, shaped our childhoods and broke ground over four channels! An era that boasted not only iconic TV shows, but also legendary and chart topping soundtracks. We have travelled back to the 80’s to remember some of the theme songs in TV ever set to glorious technicolor!
Talking cars, sexy beefcake cops, and Aussie soapies. The 80’s were a glorious time, and these are the most memorable theme songs in TV of the era.
Knight Rider is almost the blueprint for an 80s TV show. Starring David Hasselhoff and a super tech vehicle, crime fighting and the money soaked hedonism of the decade, Knight Rider is the thing that hipster dreams are made of. So of course it had a soundtrack to match. Cosmic sounding synths work up the instantly recognisable, brooding intro behind drum pad style beats.
Add yet more synths for washy effects and futuristic interjections. And, of course, the classic theme composed by Stu Phillips. Now immortalised down the years by every driver that has ever steered down the highway at midnight singing ‘do do-do doooo, do do do!’ loudly and triumphantly. Believing, just for those fleeting seconds, that they are the Hoff.
Only Fools and Horses
A far cry from the slick, electronic future that mesmerised 1980’s America, British TV was a little bit grubbier. Exchange LA for London, and Peckham at that, though Only Fools and Horses’ Del Boy and Rodney were still chasing after money and luxury. Britain’s most loveable wheeler dealer, the Only Fools and Horses theme has a similar endearing quality.
Forget electronica and lasers, John Sullivan’s two themes are grounded in a mix of 50’s rock ’n’ roll and a kind of cockney precursor to Britpop. Sullivan originally intended for Chas & Dave to sing on the soundtrack, but he ended up performing the vocals himself. Though it was a common urban myth that the voice was that of starring character Rodney himself (actor Nicholas Lyndhurst). Mange tout, mange tout mon frere!
ThunderCats HOOOOOO! It’s been over twenty years and I still get excited when I hear the theme from ThunderCats. Despite being the intro to a children’s cartoon about a band of space cats battling the mutants and their mummified leader Mumm-Ra, the music is just a brilliant piece of 80’s rock. Dramatic and production heavy, with better guitar solos than you would hear on today’s chart records.
Admittedly the word “thunder” is a little too frequent to count as really great lyrics, but that was pretty symptomatic of the whole show. The ThunderCats, who were Thunderians from the planet Thundera who held the Sword of Thundera? Definitely a theme. But that aside, composer Bernard Hoffer nailed it for 80’s rock.
The spin off series from the film of the same name, M*A*S*H ran into the 80’s long after the Korean War, during which it was set, ended. Set against the black comedy style of the show, Johnny Mandel’s soundtrack Suicide Is Painless stands on its own as an acclaimed piece of songwriting. A melancholic acoustic song, the instrumentation and sad optimism echo the previous decades.
It’s reminiscent of Simon & Garfunkel, or Crosby, Stills & Nash, with a strings section and harmonised vocals. The lyrics are credited to Mike Altman, who was given certain stipulations by the original film’s director Robert Altman. Demanding that the song be titled Suicide Is Painless and that it be the “stupidest song ever written”, the task of lyric writing was handed over to Mike Altman’s 14 year old son, after Altman failed to write “stupid enough”.
The Young Ones
Another gritty, British view of the 1980’s, alternative style sitcom The Young Ones is one of the most iconic slices of British humour. Opening with a messy rendition of Cliff Richards and The Shadows’ The Young Ones, the theme song from the show is performed by the cast themselves. In a kind of meta-song, where the characters sing along to their own soundtrack, infusing the original with their particular brand of anarchic comedy.
The chorused vocals could have been recorded down at your local, and the surfy, doo-wop style music is accented with slightly surreal incidentals like comedy horns and whistles. The cast went on to massacre a number of other popular songs between them, and the show featured live performances from bands like Dexys Midnight Runners, Motörhead, The Damned, and Madness.
An iconic 80’s TV show with an iconic theme song. In fact the soundtrack for the American crime series actually reached top spot on the Billboard chart in 1985. The last instrumental piece to do so until 2013, when Harlem Shake made it to number one. Composed by Jan Hammer, the theme draws heavily on the popular music of the day; primarily new wave and rock.
The show itself was also attributed with curating groundbreaking soundtracks. While many shows would simply utilise pre-packaged score, Miami Vice spent upwards of $10,000 per episode on licensing popular tracks. Names like Pink Floyd, Kate Bush, Dire Straits, Devo, Depeche Mode and Frankie Goes To Hollywood all featured, and that really is naming just a few.
Dukes of Hazard
This rootin’ tootin’ piece of classic American TV also boasts a chart entry with its theme song. Good Ol’ Boys, written and performed by Waylon Jennings, reached number one of the American Country Chart, and made it into the Billboard Chart at 21 in 1980. A good ol’ country song for a good ol’ country show, featuring a back porch banjo and a proper drawl on the lyrics. A bit of a laid back theme for the Duke boys driving antics, but it does itself justice with the final line “Fightin’ the system like a true modern-day Robin Hood” and a hearty “Yee-haw!”
Home and Away
The 80’s wasn’t all crime shows and synths, and it wasn’t just America making legendary TV. The 1980’s saw the emergence of two of the most enduring shows ever to grace prime time television, both from Australia. And while a certain familiar tune about one Ramsay Street might be nice and easy to sing along to, Summer Bay wins out.
I’m placing Home and Away’s theme song of the same title as the favourite. Written by Mike Perjanik, the sway along ballad, as originally performed by Karen Boddington and Mark Williams, has all the dance floor romance of a classic like Dirty Dancing. The dual vocal, the harmonies, strings, synths and and even a saxophone solo… sadly no longer used to open the show, thankfully Perjanik’s 1988 soundtrack still plays over the closing credits for international broadcasts.
While you’re here, check out our list of the best James Bond theme songs.