Songs Of The Day 1/8/2015: B-Sides to 3 Hit TV Cop Show Themes

Jan and his Hammer.
B-Sides Week '15: In America, there may be no more easily discarded type of top 10 hit than the very rare instance of a TV theme song ascending towards the upper regions of the charts. That doesn’t really happen anymore since opening credits themselves are not nearly the big productions they used to be. I blame (or credit, as the case may be) Seinfeld for issuing the first TV theme song that performed the absolute minimum task necessary, making it even more distasteful through the gratuitous use of plucked bass.

I can’t imagine there was ever a time when TV themes were the subjects of huge marketing campaigns at record labels. You veterans can correct me if I’m wrong, but I’d have to think a TV theme record was to the industry as Woman’s World magazine is to supermarket managers now: They fill your shelves, your cashiers can’t remember anybody buying them, yet they make just enough profit without any promotion that there’s no real reason to stop carrying them. Except with TV themes there’s no need to horrifically disfigure your models’ teeth with Photoshop.

Cop show themes, when they were actually worked on, at least had a sporting chance on the charts in the ’70s and ’80s. Still the notion of the TV theme was so flimsy in its own right that it was hard to imagine putting something on the other side of the single. But, as we’ve seen and will continue to see this week, there was always some sea foam lying around the office that could be slapped to the back.

I like the idea that B-sides could be perceived as more gentle restatements, or cross-views, of the titles that were being promoted on the other side. Take for example Jan Hammer’s “Evan”, the B-side to the bout of hyperactivity and ominous guitar that was the Miami Vice theme. If Miami Vice made one new activity acceptable for emotionally distant men trapped in salmon sports jackets, it was brooding. Whether they said it or not, and they usually didn’t, the cops on Vice did just enough to reveal to the audience that every takedown was nicking away at their compromised-bravado psyches, and that’s what “Evan” sounds like. I don’t know who Evan was ’cause I’ve pretty much erased Miami Vice from my mind (which is not to say it was bad, it was just from the ’80s), but judging from this song I’ll bet something was taken from him in the past, he can’t drink it away, and it’s the last thing that went through his mind as he was being cuffed for weapons trafficking.

Then again, Rhythm Heritage took a somewhat lazier route with the B-side to “Theme From S.W.A.T.” with “I Wouldn’t Treat a Dog the Way You Treated Me”. Not really lazy in terms of the musicianship, although that lemony fresh synthesizer line sounds like something Billy Preston accidentally left in a satchel. It’s mainly because it was a convenient choice: a cover of a song originally done by the great bluesman Bobby Blue Bland in 1974 on ABC Dunhill Records, who not only put out “Theme From S.W.A.T.” but whose parent company put the show on their network. (Yes, at one time ABC had a legitimate record label. Don’t laugh; they had Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé!) (Well... Steely Dan and Dusty Springfield, too. That was good.) (Actually... ABC Dunhill was a pretty good label, all things considered.) (Sorry.)

Mike Post has done enough TV themes that Pete Townshend actually wrote a song about them. I haven’t really listened to it; it’s on Endless Wire if you want to have a go at it. But Post’s themes were pretty good at capturing the elements of the characters he wrote for. Hill Street Blues was soft, lilting and just a little rueful, and theMagnum P.I. theme combined elements of dark and light to reflect the twin nature of the show’s most badass character, played by John Hillerman. The Rockford Files started Post’s whole TV show gambit with a great theme that somehow worked in the synthesizer from “Theme from S.W.A.T.” with a down-home harmonica. “Dixie Lullabye” was the B-side. It starts off with a downcast piano intro and wedges in the synthesizer again. It’s sort of what classical freaks would call a variation on the Rockford Files theme. It sounds nothing like anything that ever came out of Dixie though, and its qualities as a lullaby are likely suspect.

I don’t think we’ve learned anything at all from this post. Perfect!

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