Lord, what a time of year. It’s only light for forty minutes a day, happiness is but a distant memory, and there are a thousand things to do but neither the will nor the way with which to get them done. The world seems to be ‘on hold’ for a few weeks at about this time, so a sort of wistful anticipation is the most positive mood it’s possible for most to muster. What genre of music best soundtracks this weird purgatorial period? Thanks to TJ Worthington, I’ve discovered the answer – those sad/uplifting songs that used to introduce just about every US sitcom made between 1980 and 1986.
The models are many. The likes of Chicago and Boston laid down those winsome power chords for the networks to purloin. Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, though a bit ‘out there’ in places, serves as a nice emotional template. A closer model would be Christopher Cross’s Arthur’s Theme, which has the possibly erroneous effect of locating all these tunes, for me at least, in some mythical early ’80s New York. Lyrically they inherit their upliftingly bittersweet, ‘life can be hard but hey, if we have each other we’ll pull through’ sentiment from Carole King via seventies themes like Diff’rent Strokes, Happy Days and the various ‘female star’s first name in title’ sitcoms we never really saw over here, but they were more lyrically cutesy and musically varied, and you could dance to them, whereas the below are all of a sedentary, plaintive piece. Here’s a swift top ten of the most effective.
The Greatest American Hero
As detailed by TJ, this is a bit of a forgotten wonder, built along strict mid-west FM radio guidelines. What’s the technical term for the thing those piano chords do at the beginning? ‘Pom, pom, pom-pa-pom pom…’ Simultaneously criminally bland and oddly evocative of a nighttime sojourn in uptown Manhattan you never actually experienced. ‘Believe it or not, I’m walking on air!’ It’s all uplifting in the lyrical department though, with not much in the way of the ‘momentary self-doubt expunged in an instantaneous surge of self-belief as strings and major chord kick in’ feeling. Still, an honorary point for the way the opening scene resembles every video The Darkness ever made.
If this had lyrics (aside from the ‘Night Mr Walters!’ ‘Uuuuuhhhh!’ exchange) this would romp away with the title. As it is, this Bob James flute and (I’m guessing here) vibraphone workout is mellow, just jazzy enough to be musically enjoyable without the troublesome suggestion of Benny-fuelled licentiousness, and the perfect accompaniment to a very boxy car going over a very long bridge. Other instrumentals in this genre include Gloria (only lyric, the repeated title and a load of ‘na-nn-na-da-da-daaa’s) St Elsewhere and, oddly, Hill Street Blues.
Quite a bit of rockist guitar freakery on this one, which marks it down considerably, but what the hell, there’s Erin Gray! And the lyrics pay huge mawkish dividends with their paeans to ‘Making a go/Making it grow,’ ‘taking the time each day,’ ‘those things you just can’t buy,’ etc. All went over my tiny head at the time, of course. I just wanted a go on that indoor train.
The unmistakably unnerving influence of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds may cause initial panic in the casual fan, but seasoned aficionados know this is just the ‘hook’, the little bit of musical business that makes the theme look just a little bit different from the pack. Our familiar territory of minor-major changes and ‘dit-dit-dit-da-na-na-naaa’s soon returns. ‘Maybe the world is blind/Or just a little unkind.’ Aw. God alone knows what this programme was actually like to watch all the way through, mind.
Charles in Charge
We’re at the end of the musical era here, as the rude intrusion of that LINN drum machine and proto-Mavericks mariachi trumpet work make plain. Also the lyrics are a bit odd – ‘I want Charles in charge of me!’ No, you want Charles ‘lending a hand’, ‘helping out’ or just ‘being there for you’, you don’t want Charles bossing you around like a Freddie Starr Hitler any more than Diana did. This masochistic tendency in American sitcom is what would eventually lead ot Out of This World.
Who’s the Boss?
Here accompanied by the visuals to Family Ties, for some reason, but try and ignore that. A jaunty, Honky Tonk Women-style cowbell and chirpy synth sting threaten to funk this out of the generic ball park, but things soon fall back into mellow place with those lyrics, taking a philosophical view with loads of guff about paths not taken. ‘There were times I lost a dream or two/Found a trail, and at the end was you.’
Kate and Allie
A snappy, sassy, modern sitcom, but with a heart. In the right place. This was all over Channel Four when I was of school age, which meant that I often saw it when the combined programming might of CBBC and CITV fell slack and a watchable alternative to both We Are the Champions and SPLASH was in order. The theme tune pulls no punches. ‘Sometimes tears and sorrow are all the friends you’ve got/Just when you think you’re all by yourself, you’re not.’ Ain’t it the truth? A bonus point for use of the word ‘sharing’ in a non-Sesame Street context. There doesn’t seem to be a decent version on YouTube, amazingly, but the one in your head should more than suffice.
The Golden Girls
Of course Andrew Gold! Now, he’s a very ‘clever’ songwriter, what with all those time sig flourishes on Lonely Boy and palling about with Graham Gouldman, and such brainy shenanigans are frowned upon in the world of the earnest sit-ballad. But this is upfront and honest stuff, as you well know. This, though, is a cover by Cindy Fee. (‘Cindy has been awarded Clios for leads on numerous five-plus year campaigns (Hoover, Wheaties, Pontiac) placing her in the rarefied air at the top of the industry.’) Some say the fact it’s not a bespoke theme tune disqualifies it from competition but who’s bastardly enough to pull the plug? And there’s that wonderfully muddy US telly sound mix too, which I can’t get enough of (see also Diff’rent Strokes and, paradoxically, the BBC golf theme).
I nearly didn’t consider this one, for some reason. Maybe it’s all those antiquated photos in the title sequence masking the essential ’80s-ness of Gary Portnoy’s hymn to drunken cameraderie. But this is firmly modelled after the style so, to quote the old geezer’s newspaper, we win! Anyway, I won’t waste time analysing such a familar beast, as it’s been trumped, just, by…
You knew it was coming. That harmonica might sound a bit rootsy in theory, but it fits in seamlessly. OK, this is altogether rockier, more up-tempo, and more Friends-ish than your Christopher Cross clones, but the effect is still the same, times ten. Standing tall on the wings of his dream, the singer (presumably on behalf of Balki) promises us he’s bound for better days whatever hazards life and the world may throw at him, even that gravest of modern concerns, ‘haze’. It’s all very Reaganite, very self-empowering, with no mention of sharing, love or counting on the little Netto Bill Murray bloke he’s lodging with, but compassion be damned, this gets you right there in a running-up-the-Philly-steps kind of way. In fact, put this on your iPod and go and run up some stairs. And if you can have a bit of slapstick fun with the revolving dooors at the top, so much the better. You’ll feel ready to take on all comers afterwards, guaranteed. Here comes 2008! We’re gonna make it after all!