Note that this isn’t a list of "themes that went hard" or else Thundercats would of course take the top spot, but despite what you might think watching some random part of it, that show trusted its age demographic with a LOT. I’ll also say that Silverhawks deserves and does not get just as much love, being more or less the same everything with a new coat of paint, said in the most affectionate way possible, but generally speaking, all of your 30-minute action figure commercials regardless of who was making them had some pretty sweet opening themes that got the heart pounding so you were ready to beg your parents for the privilege of getting enough of them to smash together while supper was in production. Those went exactly as hard as they needed to.
I’m also not going to list Alvin and the Chipmunks here because while the rest of the show you could probably take or leave, they did ultimately sing every episode to justify its existence, because the franchise traces its roots back to the noble effort of a puppet show performed in synchronization with a trio of male vocalists who sound rather charming slowed to original speed and sorry if you don’t like seeing how the sausage is made, but the way they had to enunciate for it to not be a total mess when it was played at the speed of a circular saw is just kind of fascinating to me. At any rate, it was going to be on here, but judging a musical franchise by its "school days" fluff is ultimately unfair and to be incredibly fair to it, the show also included the Chipettes to give the little girls something, too, which is a good enough idea that it’s survived to modern times unironically. The more I thought about it, the more I realized my assessment of it, while not negative, was largely based on my younger self seeing it as an okay cartoon that had a lot of good singing, rather than as a substantial musical offering that had an okay plot to pad the runtime out to TV slot length.
So if you’re looking for a simple list of good themes, this is not your list. There are plenty already out there.
No, this is going to be a list of the 5 songs I think legitimately went harder than they needed to given the target demographic and/or the content of the show. This is not David Bowie getting onstage to do his thing because there is no substitute Ziggy Stardust; this is a small child going on Ellen to destroy "Flight of the Bumblebee".
So here are my top 5 picks of themes that went harder than they needed to.
#5: Adventures of the Gummi Bears – "Gummi Bears Theme"
This one is kind of a cheat, because the show actually did have a significant amount of action on par with what was in the intro, but I must stress this, gummy bears candy did not need the help. Everyone had been stuffing their faces with them for years before the show came out and they kept doing it after. I’m not even entirely clear whether there was any kind of licensing deal or if Disney did what Disney always does and simply stole it and threw the "i" in the place of "y" to make it just legally distinct enough that nobody could sue. The bears here have zero resemblance to any particular candy other than the fact the younger ones are brightly colored and one would be hard-pressed to find a suitable flavor for brown bear candy that isn’t root beer, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say root beer probably isn’t something you want mixed in your fruit chews. It’s loosely inspired at best. That said, the production was definitely worth watching and the values were typically good for Disney at the time even as their initial offering to television, which is to say their own in-house control of it shielded it from the various animation errors that tended to plague everything else.
But then they decided to get the lead singer of Toto to do the opening theme. Yeah, that Toto, the one with the song about Africa. Given this was the first Disney animated TV show, they certainly didn’t skimp.
So really if you think about it, the show as a whole is better than it had any right to be for a tie-in that nobody asked for and the theme is just the capstone of that.
As for the theme itself, it starts off with a driving series of string hits mixed with a French horn fanfare in a brief A section before continuing more modestly despite the action into a melody supported by some simple synth chords, giving the various virtues of the heroes in a BB section of sorts that uses the second half to repeat and embellish the first half and slowly adds some strings in before winding up for the chorus. All of this is supported by a simple snare on the strong beats alternated with bass kicks to keep it from losing steam and it’s punctuated between every line by a triple snare hit that is replaced by medlodic tom hits to to give the lead-in to the chorus extra weight. The chorus of it gives the title an excellent long note in full voice and if you remember nothing else about it, you’re going to remember that. The chorus is supported by more horn fanfare and string hits, and the strings delve into flourishes to add complexity, with the triple drum hit at the end of another A fanfare to take it back down for another BB part returning to snares. The BB part continues with some of the complexity retained, adding a flute that lazily floats down like a falling leaf before sweeping up into trills as the song crescendos into a rising key change into the second chorus with another trio of tom hits to lead you in, finishing out the song in a higher register and full voice right until diving into falsetto for the last two notes that echo into silence.
It’s not the best theme on this list and has a rather weak start in my opinion, taking it down too fast and too far when it could have stood with just a hint more complexity off the bat after some strong opening bars, but that title riff alone earns it a spot because as a show inspired by candy, there’s no reason you should be able to instantly send someone back decades of their life with two words and three notes. Lyrically, I feel like it’s reaching a bit by trying to establish the nobility of the heroes and then proceeding to hype them up by implying that they’re making a name for themselves when by most metrics they’d rather remain anonymous. It feels a bit like a wingman laying it on thick. There are quibbles I could level at the instrumentation in that adding the flute all at once without any kind of foreshadowing of it makes a little too much of a break in the song, but the song is very good at using every instrument it introduces afterwards. If I were asked to do one thing to fix it, it would be to add a rapid flute arpeggio to a piercing high note at the end of the opening A fanfare to end it with a bang before taking it down in the BB part and maybe make the BB part feel a little more necessary to have at that level. I think that would ultimately introduce it in a way that would add to the strength of the initial impression as well as in a way that would make it feel a little more earned in the second BB part without making it feel like it should have punctuated the end of the second A fanfare, either. That said, it’s easy for me to comment on someone else’s song decades in the future. One thing I will say that surprised me is that the song lacks any kind of audible hi-hat, yet doesn’t feel like it needs it, and like adding it might even be too much. Hi-hat is one of those subtle flavors that you sprinkle in to turn up the intensity, keeping something subtly going at a high speed, but here I feel like the strength of the percussion that’s already there is in its simplicity, using instrumental rather than rhythmic color to do the job of getting the excitement going by switching to toms to turn it up. Adding hi-hat in this case might have adversely impacted the feeling of safety the song provides.
Honorable mention right away: its twin that didn’t see the same success, The Wuzzles, and its theme "The Wuzzles", which I also considered for this list, but ultimately felt was not good enough to make it because it spends the entire run explaining its concept twice when more lyrical creativity would have pushed it onto the list, and more or less repeats its entire melody in the process. It’s technically not a bad theme from a musical standpoint, it just needed a bit more to cross the edge into this list. On the other hand, its squishy, plush-friendly aesthetic does provide a pretty nice segue into…
#4: Care Bears – "Care Bear Coundown"
Okay, give this one a listen and tell me that that isn’t way too much bass guitar for a show for literally children in diapers. This one is definitely on the wholesome side for this list, but it’s honestly the one that got me thinking about this list in the first place. If it weren’t for the children included in the beginning and end of it, this could have passed for easy listening at the time. Compare to this travesty and you’ll see what I mean when I say this went way harder than it had to.
This one gets additional points because of just how well-animated it is while it’s at it. Check 0:38 where they rotate a whole line of moving characters. They may not have rotated it far, but that shot is incredibly difficult. You remember at the beginning of Pokémon: The Movie when they did that in the fight between Machamp and Squirtle? Yeah, that was basically the production team shouting "WE HAVE MONEY NOW!" and lighting a fat stack on fire. Add to it that these are shaded characters and that was probably the most expensive part of the sequence. You’ll also notice how choppy the frame rate gets for some parts of it and to explain why that is, you’ll have to take a brief detour with me to explain shortcuts in animation, because broadcast NTSC television was 24 frames per second (let’s not dive into how that worked out with the 30FPS TVs), but cartoons would often display the same frame 2-3 times in a row to save on animation costs, which means that cartoons were actually 12FPS at most and 8FPS on a budget. Almost all of them were on a budget, so yes, childhood for many was largely 8FPS unless something extravagant was happening for a sequence that would necessitate 12 and if anything was going to be 24 it was going to be the intro, because anything more than that was going to burn through your budget and you were already hoarding those 12FPS segments. Much of the time this low framerate was hidden by characters holding a pose and only emoting in the face, or else wasn’t hidden at all because as long as it was moving, or frankly as long as there was a picture and sound was happening, that was enough to keep you entertained, because kids are not renowned for their technical criticism. The number of scenes that were just a static image of someone listening to a speaker whose back was turned to the viewer or who simply wasn’t on-screen even and frankly especially in shows for older kids who they trusted to understand framing and recognize voices a bit better is one of those things you can’t un-see once it’s pointed out to you. It was at least not so frequent as to be silly, but the fewer frames you have to draw, the less money and time you have to spend. If you can get away with only animating a single character, or animating a single face, the viewer is going to focus on 1) whatever is moving and 2) in absence of that, whatever face is visible because that’s just how we’re wired as a species. So while this sequence does have 8FPS segments, it’s mixed in with higher quality animation. Surprisingly high-quality animation, all told, even if there’s a lot of really awkward dancing not helped by the difficult proportions of the characters. This thing also did some excellent stuff with its white balance as evidenced by the first link, which also has superior audio, but if you want to see it more like it was intended (and without as much artifacting unfairly adding animation errors) this one should give you a better idea. The first video on a CRT, though, would not have looked quite as dark, because CRT as it was intended to be displayed on was very bright. You see a lot of cartoons, games, and other stuff looking shockingly dingy on modern screens and it’s not because the data is dusted over; our modern screens are just on average dimmer than old CRT sets. Those blinding whites can’t really be represented the same way on modern screens without techniques like bloom to simulate it or else HDR, so watch the first video and try to imagine all those gray whites as white whites and then you can understand just how much everything magical in the intro would have blown that out. Those techniques are interesting to talk about in their own right because it was literally holes cut in the cels to allow a backlight to shine through as each frame was being photographed to film, which is why in especially older anime you’ll get those beautiful warm glows that seem impossible to reproduce these days because they were literally photographing an incandescent light bulb with whatever filter might be applied. This intro happens to have a TON of it, mostly in a neutral white, but also in purple, which amounts to these cels having to be not only painted by hand for each frame, but then carefully, painstakingly cut out with an X-Acto Knife and then having had a translucent filter applied as appropriate.
Keep in mind, the product this thing was trying to sell were branded teddy bears with a bio card intended to teach small children about feelings.
The singer/songwriter, John Sebastian, is certainly an interesting fellow, having done the theme for Welcome Back, Kotter (a show I have a particular fondness of from childhood re-runs) and sorta just showed up to perform at Woodstock, but his involvement in kids’ shows in the ’80s and having written a children’s book pretty much say he has an affection for such things.
#3: Chuck E. Cheese’s – "Smile America" (:60 spot)
Okay, this is absolutely cheating, but Chuck E. Cheese’s is children’s entertainment that performs shows and this commercial is just as long as an intro, could have very easily been one’s introduction to the franchise, and satisfies one of my criteria for this list—whether a song would bring a tear to my eye—by always getting them streaming down my face. Give it a watch and tell me this isn’t one of the most wholesome, heartwarming things you’ve ever seen.
I don’t know much about this spot and it’s likely that any sort of documentation on it is long lost forever because Pizza Time Theater and by extension Showbiz Pizza Time were notoriously not particularly good preservationists, though a surprising amount of history has been recovered by fans and just has much has ironically survived through equal negligence, so who knows what could appear in a basement someday? Fans have dissected this thing and more or less determined it was filmed on a soundstage, with the performing cast out of order on no stage in production at the time, Chuck singing when he wouldn’t have been in something that is clearly not a real show, and the whole thing when you look at it is a mess of standing lights and such, and yet none of that does anything to dampen the sheer magic expressed by these wonderful 60 seconds. The entire thing is fake as fake can be, and yet everyone of a certain age has a special place in their heart for this commercial.
It’s not the most technically interesting song or else it would rank higher, but it does something far more important than what you could write as sheet music: it captures an emotion and distills it down to its essence. This thing is like a precious Attar of Roses and for that, when racking my brain for a fifth entry for the list after I realized excluding Alvin and the Chipmunks was probably in order, it earns a spot by exception. If this were a list of retro kids’ commercials, it would take the top spot. The song begins with a sweet, reassuring innocence and continues to crescendo into a joyful celebration throughout, only taking it back down a notch in its final moments after an almost overwhelming climax. Many songs of the time kick things up a notch with a key change, but this one keeps rising in register line over line. It could almost be accused of being amateurish and doing too much if it weren’t so effective.
This is also one that can be judged as incongruous with the content of the show because this quiet, personal invitation is to a building full of arcade noise, screaming kids, and a host who at the time was, generously, a USDA Prime jerk, being a rat with a New Jersey accent whose frequent insults at times made the guest characters nearly leave in frustration and who was frequently still depicted with a cigar and cane. This commercial launched October 1982 and John Widelock was still behind the mic. This was a period of slow transition from a time when the show was intended for adults rather than kids (who were initially expected to have more interest in the arcade), when Chuck was easily the least wholesome part of the show despite some attempt to soften his character, and frankly who was the weakest link of it, being that Widelock as Chuck was such a legendarily bad singer that they made a comic about Chuck destroying an alien mothership with it. Chuck would at most talk his way through songs and would often simply not join in them, having a special rose or chocolate spotlight aimed at him to turn on when everyone else was signing in unison just so he wasn’t lost entirely in the inky darkness of the showroom given how low they turned the lights at the time. It wouldn’t be until after Nolan Bushnell himself grew frustrated with Widelock’s inability to sing for a Christmas special (never released) and replaced him with Mr. Munch actor Scott Wilson (while sitting next to Widelock in the sound booth, no less, as soon as Wilson killed the song in one take) that Chuck would fully soften from the bile-spitting rat of yore to one aimed more at kids and later a younger version able to survive the general spirit of the times in the brighter, more colorful ’90s. So, like, nothing of this commercial is anywhere approaching what you could actually expect to see in a store at the time.
I mean this commercial did exactly what it needed to, leaning into the more wholesome direction the place was meandering in, with a shot of a fully-stocked salad bar with a kid taking a big tongful of lettuce because yes, a salad bar did used to be part of the offering (according to contemporary news sources, a surprisingly good one, at that), the darkened space exuding a cozy, safe feeling, the wonder and joy of the place permeating nearly every second of it, opening with a piano plink and mysterious string chord punctuation a little girl walking in with a frown and downcast eyes, looking around with the fear of a child thrust into the unknown as her backlit and vague parent tries to reassure her at the door to the opening bars of minor piano chord progression. The body language throughout tells a story. The parent looks to Chuck as he peeks out and gives an inviting wink and wave to show he’s someone the girl can trust. And then the magic kicks in at :05 with the string section sweeping through, releasing the tension, the girl shyly taking a step forward as her parent releases her to Chuck, approaching and taking Chuck’s hand and immediately loosening a little, cutting to the show with a harp riff to fully transition into this wonderful new world, the girl growing more and more comfortable from that point on, opening up, having fun, learning to trust and accept these strange, yet playful characters, ending with her returning to the door and rushing happily into her parent’s open arms. Her parent hefts her up and she and Chuck share a secret sign as her parent carries her out, Chuck having served as her personal guardian and guide throughout and commended her back to the loving arms of her family a changed child, the shell of her fear and apprehension having cracked to reveal a loving, vibrant girl. Tellingly, the parent is never seen clearly, always backlit by the blinding light of the outside or seen from behind or only from the belly up or so. It’s hard to determine whether it’s even the mother or father. This is not about the parent; it’s about the child and her almost Wizard of Oz-like journey to self-actualization.
If a store had opened in your area and this was your first exposure to it, it doesn’t matter whether you were a parent or child, there’s something for you in it and there’s more or less nothing about it to give either demographic pause. This isn’t Willy Wonka here, Chuck makes sure every kid reaches the end. It’s communicated to the parents that this is a safe place to release your children, and at the same time to children that this is a safe place to leave the safety of your parents’ protection. There is no nuclear family here; only one parent is depicted, which was something of a focus of the media at the time as American culture contended with single-parent and "broken" homes. The way the girl looks around is immediately apparent to any parent who’s ever moved as a child’s way of assessing their new environment. This hits any divorced parent with the subliminal message that this parent is taking this child to what is going to be their new home. And yet it finds ways to make that reassuring, showing that this is a place of healing and growth.
A commercial like this cannot be engineered nor generated by algorithm, but must be handcrafted with some sense of magic still in the heart by someone who also understands the insecurities of the world with both young and old eyes. I have watched this several times just writing this segment and am currently a tear-soaked mess.
It is, in essence, a perfect commercial. It may well be THE perfect commercial. And it certainly was the perfect commercial for the time.
#2: DuckTales – "DuckTales"
This one clinches the #2 spot if only because there’s a #1 that most people probably don’t even remember without prompting that does so much more, but inventing the "Millennial Whoop" means this show has to make the list. I don’t think it needs any introduction, but have a listen if it’s been a while. This isn’t to crap on the show at all, because there was plenty of adventure to be had, but the intro certainly packs it in and invents some for good measure when the show had a much slower pacing and was definitely aimed at a younger audience.
Let’s deconstruct it, though, starting with those silky smooth vocals that keep the whole thing bright from start to finish. You start off simple and strong with a slap bass line supported by a snare on the strong beats and then get those vocals starting to spout off all the action you can expect in a surprisingly low-key segment supported only by some simple synth chords that more or less sync with the vocals, adding a little subtle color. It climbs the register a bit, and then you get the B segment that so clearly is the wind-up to the punch and you can feel the invisible hand turning the dial before it hits you with the chorus and trumpet fanfares. The D segment takes it down a notch while also immediately climbing the scale and entering some of the most beautiful chord progressions of the piece getting some dissonance in on the synth for some real anticipation even as the reassuring vocals do some call and response.
And then you get the key change.
The song finishes strong with a variation of the chorus in a higher register and sneaks in one last whoop before the final hit.
All of this is happening while the cast survive harrowing travails like rapidly collapsing floors, dinosaurs, mummies, and sharks, interspersed with more humorous segments like Scrooge swimming in space after a dollar bill, only to have it snatched from just out of reach by a green alien in a flying saucer to assure parents this isn’t too mature for their kids.
The song is a gold standard and in terms of what it’s attached to (a show that honestly is a much slower burn and rarely puts its cast in mortal peril), it’s more than it needed to be, yet so iconic it couldn’t possibly be anything less. I mean it’s DuckTales, but with a theme like this, you’d expect it to be a little closer to Johnny Quest than Sesame Street.
The vocalist, Jeff Pescetto, would go on to sing other Disney cartoon themes, namely those of Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers and Darkwing Duck, which, while excellent, unfortunately do not make this list due to their core premises as crimefighting shows.
#1: 3-2-1 Contact – "3-2-1 Contact Theme"
If Care Bears was the thing that made me consider this list, this entry is the one that justified it. I swear I don’t have a specific thing for counting, but this was educational programming, with 3-2-1 Contact being on public television. You’ll have to forgive the quality, but here’s a compilation of all of them including the later revival 3-2-1 Classroom Contact that remixed older segments specifically for school use, because by that point everyone more or less understood VCRs were very much a thing and bless them, they actually wanted people to record it off TV and show it to kids who weren’t home sick without worrying about getting sued.
Which kinda highlights that all 4 of these themes are an absolute bop that had no business being that good for programming best described as "stuff on public television you watched while home sick from school because the alternative was soap operas." The themes didn’t change their core through the iterations, but there were some obvious BPM differences and you can see how they went further away from ’70s funk toward a more rock and electronic influence as the decade wore on and the classroom version more or less stepped out of the way of the educational bits without being so curtailed that it didn’t try to get you excited for science.
That and while someone certainly liked that frog footage that’s in every version, you can see how the presentation evolved. The first iteration visually is mostly an assortment of disconnected images with little to no concern for timing. It was only a single season in 1980 and ultimately lasted in re-runs until the 1983 revival. The second iteration makes significant improvements by starting off with a leading shot of its season stars with a Frisbee and then sports and athletics and then using the countdown with some flashes to really get some punch going to their money shot of the slow-motion water drop and ripple, then segues into using the three numbers to split the themes of the images into thermodynamics, (roughly) biology, and mechanics before delving into its random bits of whatever. The sports and athletics focus itself feels distinctly out of place and one can imagine that it may have been more than a little political since the US had boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics, but the 1984 Summer Olympics were slated for Los Angeles, which the USSR would similarly boycott, possibly explaining why it lasted until 1987 as a bit of a victory lap since the activities involved are all summer events and a rather telling computer analysis of the discus throw marking the only "technology" bit of the whole thing, basically as a message of "we are training for ours" for an intro that they probably only expected to last a year or two like all the others did. Like with Care Bears, you’ll notice the white balance on the flashes is very much an electronic white rather than the lower natural whites in the rest, and you have to understand that on a CRT, this intro was incredibly bright and those flashes were more or less a blast to the face. You can kinda see why this intro lasted twice as long as the others in a general sense. The third intro expedites things a bit, cutting out the clubhouse crew and athletics to dive right into the science, with a diver and a hawk and a skeleton on a stationary bike and someone clocking an ultralight before the number countdown gives only a couple shots each to physical sciences, biology, and locomotion before giving each a small third in sequence after before the random dump. The structure breaks down even more in the final iteration, but by that point the intro is more of a courtesy than anything else and keeps itself short enough that trying to fast-forward through it is more hassle than it’s worth. That’s more or less the gift to the kids in the desks that they get to enjoy anything at all before the learning starts.
You can more or less see in things like how the numbers are presented how the show evolved and updated, maybe with a bit of lag in terms of style through the decade, but you can also see how they kept their finger on the pulse of what kids were interested in as best they could and tried to make it cool and exciting. Ultimately it was superseded by other edutainment including Ghostwriter, Beakman’s World, and the eminent Bill Nye the Science Guy, which earned Nye himself several honorary doctorates. It ran concurrently with and was survived by Newton’s Apple, which unfortunately wasn’t quite good enough to make this list, though their early computer graphics were certainly impressive for the time.
And there you have it: 5 opening themes (or at least 4 opening themes and 1 fantastic commercial with similar intent) that I think were tasked with bringing a 5 at most and kicked down the door with a 10.