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Top 10 Musical Themes Composed Especially for '80s TV Shows

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This is one of those lists that varies wildly depending on the ear of the beholder, but I like to think this countdown touches both on my personal favorites and some of the most emblematic '80s TV themes implanted permanently in our collective memory. Compiling this list was a rewarding process, mainly because songs written especially for television shows are full of potential for mockery, parody and, of course, measured admiration. Take a trip with me a quarter-century back, to a time when many kids were held hostage by the limitations of non-pay TV but managed to spend countless hours in front of the TV anyway.

1. 'Dynasty' Main Title Theme

DVD Cover Image Courtesy of Paramount

The deeply recognizable, regal theme from this stalwart primetime soap may not feel much like the '80s with its horn-inflected, orchestral integrity, but the series it introduced makes up for that aplenty through its quintessence within the decade's pop culture. This is snooty stuff, just like Dynasty's central Carrington clan, but as with that heavily moneyed throng, there is something absolutely mesmerizing and even gripping about the strong elements of its core. Other themes may come to mind more quickly than this one, but I have a hard time believing that there was one heard more often during the primetime hours by viewers in front of their huge console sets, especially before cable became the norm in American households.

2. Theme from 'Hardcastle & McCormick' ("Drive")

DVD Cover Image Courtesy of VEI

I must confess a soft spot for this buddy-crime series that I always thought went underappreciated throughout its brief run during the mid '80s. Therefore, it may spring immediately to my mind even as it's nearly forgotten by fellow children of the '80s. But the theme, written by the famed team Mike Post and Pete Carpenter, stands as one of the finest full-tilt pop/rock ditties, complete with lyrics, to accompany a primetime show. And amazingly, it doesn't even really sound all that dated, particularly compared to some of the actual pop music of the era. This one could have and perhaps should have hit the pop charts, especially when you consider that Post's famous theme for The Greatest American Hero did, in fact, become a bona fide hit.

3. Theme from 'Diff'rent Strokes'

DVD Cover Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures

While this sitcom with an absolutely idealized and rather ridiculous concept actually began in 1978, it enjoyed most of its considerable run during the '80s, becoming one of the most-watched shows both on primetime and in syndication. Its theme embodies the highly commodified, seemingly focus-grouped-to-death pop sound of most TV themes, but somehow it does so while retaining some real emotion and exciting freshness in the melody. We all know how catchy commercial jingles can be (an entirely different subject well worth treating), and certainly that infectious, tooth-rotting kind of universality exists here. But I guess the blind idealism of the show's concept must have infected me a bit, as I admit that I still enjoy this tune immensely.

4. Theme from 'The Fall Guy' ("The Unknown Stuntman")

DVD Cover Image Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
This country-tinged, folksy tune belied the action-comedy genre, relying upon the same kind of heartland appeal as its more famous cousin, "The Good Ol' Boys," the Waylon Jennings nugget used as the theme for the popular if regional-cliche-affirming The Dukes of Hazzard. But the strength of this theme stems equally from its self-referential lyrical themes (and name-dropping) tied so closely to the show's story line and the fact that the Six Million Dollar Man himself, star Lee Majors, sings the song with a great deal of good humor and surprising tunefulness. Certain guys will remember this show only for Heather Thomas and her considerable assets, but for those of us endowed with layers, the theme song remains a nostalgic treat.

5. Theme from 'Knight Rider'

DVD Cover Image Courtesy of Universal
On occasion the theme music for '80s TV shows attempted to be futuristic rather than clinging to the sounds of the late '70s, and usually the result was somewhat disastrous. But I make an exception in this case, as the computerized, rhythmic and atmospheric music that introduced this early David Hasselhoff vehicle (sorry) holds up remarkably well a quarter-century later. Melodically memorable, the tune also fits perfectly with the character who was arguably the show's lead, the quip-happy artificial intelligence unit and sports car known as KITT. Hasselhoff has lasted as a pop culture fixture, for better and often for worse, but the show's intoxicating theme and the concept of a dude bantering with his car remain the series' foundations.

6. Theme from 'Tales from the Darkside'

DVD Cover Image Courtesy of Paramount
I remember visiting my grandparents' house during the mid-'80s, back when I was still young enough to be in bed before the 11:00 news. Nevertheless, I would almost invariably be awake after the news ended, and the old black and white TV in the living room may have been left on long enough for me to hear the chilling theme music to this classic horror anthology series. I believe the show came on in syndication at 7:00 as well, but it was still light enough or the house active enough then for the music to be more tolerable as I watched the show. This is fantastic, mood-setting synthesizer music that still retains a piercing quality, and of course the eerie narration ("The Dark Side is always there...") puts it all over the top.

7. Theme from 'Tic Tac Dough'

Well, it's essential to fit a game show on this list, and although the revival of Jeopardy certainly lays claim to greater longevity and universal theme recognition, for me it's the quavering electronic theme to a different game show that takes me back most to pre-cable '80s evenings, where viewing decisions were made for us by TV syndication. I always enjoyed the show and even tolerated Wink Martindale, but the real attraction for me was the unabashedly electronic theme by Hal Hidey. A former co-worker and I once gleefully discussed that someone should try to attach mournful, melancholy lyrics to this tune to give it an ironic twist, but the crude instrumental, matched with the show's pre-Atari graphics, simply spreads joy, just as it is.

8. Theme from 'Benson'

DVD Cover Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Another show with ties to the '70s, this Soap spin-off was racially intriguing in concept (casting a black man as a butler but also having him be the smartest, most capable character in the governor's mansion), but its unmistakable instrumental theme, to me, was always one of the most comforting elements of early-'80s pop culture. Not that I needed a particularly high amount of comforting as a preteen, but I can think of few TV shows as occasionally silly but ultimately dignified and fortifying as this one, and that goes for the intro music as well. Benson apparently impacted my development significantly, as I believed for years that Clayton Endicott is mentioned in the Beatles' "Penny Lane." The Rene Auberjonois Principle, I guess.

9. Theme from 'Magnum P.I.'

DVD Cover Image Courtesy of Universal
No matter how hard I try to stay away from usual suspects and expected choices for lists like this, I must bow to the majesty of this Mike Post theme, one of TV's rockingest, cheesiest and perfectly representative themes of the '80s or any decade. There's a great middle section with some tasty lead guitar that never appeared during the show's intro, but we all know the familiar opening, guitar riffs, and especially the melodically impressive bridge make this one an all-time classic. Like Tom Selleck's unflappable mustache, this theme does not bother with subtlety and unleashes its singular '80s bravado in a manner befitting the aptly named Magnum. They probably should have named a condom after this guy, and for all I know maybe they did.

10. Theme from 'Perfect Strangers'

DVD Cover Image Courtesy of Warner Home Video
Before you gasp at the audacity of my omissions from this list (the themes to The Facts of Life, Family Ties, Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice among them), please take a moment to wallow in the splendor of the theme from this late-'80s sitcom that did us all the immeasurable favor of introducing Bronson Pinchot into the public consciousness. Listening to singer David Pomeranz emote during the verse and interpret the incredibly hooky if sugar rush-inducing chorus ("Standing tall on the wings of my dream" and "Nothing's gonna stop me now" are among the lyrical chestnuts here) forces a smile upon the listener's face that shifts to grimace and back again in the space of seconds. Kinda like Mr. Pinchot himself, or post-holiday indigestion.
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