The 10 best TV show themes

When John Logie Baird created the television in the early ‘20s, we imagine the Scottish inventor was humming a tune to himself as he tinkered with his invention’s flickering images – and thus the TV theme tune was born.

Thankfully, not all shows have an exasperated boffin humming over the main title sequences. In fact, producers often dip into the rock world for inspiring songs to make their shows even better.

Here then, are the 10 best examples of when those two glorious world of television and rock collide.

JOAN JETT – Bad Reputation
TV Show: Freaks And Geeks
Paul Feig’s whip-smart comedy teen drama may have lasted just 18 episodes, but it launched the film and TV careers of Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Linda Cardellini and Martin Starr. Set in a fictional suburb of Detroit, Freaks And Geeks follows the lives of a group of high school misfits and Joan Jett’s brazen 1981 single perfectly sets the pace and attitude of the show.

LED ZEPPELIN – Whole Lotta Love
TV Show: Top Of The Pops
Technically the version that opened TOTP for most of the 70s was a re-recording of an instrumental cover by Alexis Korner’s Collective Consciousness Society, which charted in 1970. Page’s original riff was back in remixed drum and bass form between 1998 and 2003, persisting in Christmas specials to this day. Ironic that the song has become synonymous with the charts when Zeppelin maintained a strict no-singles policy in the UK.

FOCUS – House Of The King
TV Show: Saxondale
Speaking of Steve Coogan, his brilliant sitcom about a 70s rock roadie turned pest controller was topped and tailed by thrilling snatches of tracks by yodelling Dutch flute-based prog legends Focus. In keeping with the title character’s previous career, Saxondale had a soundtrack made in classic rock heaven: The Who, Rush, Jethro Tull, The Groundhogs, Wishbone Ash, plus incidental music by Matt Berry.

TV Show: Tomorrow’s World
It sounds like the 80s, but it’s 1976! To a generation who grew up associating this tune with the BBC’s long-running documentary about new advances in technology, it still evokes the future. The French synth wizard brought spacey electronic music to middle class dinner parties, and Oxygene 6 will always be a byword for cheesy otherworldliness (it’s also the soundtrack used by pompous illusionist Tony Le Mesmer in Knowing Me Knowing You… With Alan Partridge).

TV Show: BBC Formula One
The mounting anticipation of Mick’s snare hits and that brooding bass line, bursting into an insistent rhythm with squealing guitar, is another piece of music that’s perfectly evocative of the onscreen subject matter. There may also be a subconscious allegory at work, given that when Fleetwood Mac made the 1977Rumours album from which this tune is taken, their private lives were a bit of a car crash.

TV Show: Peaky Blinders
Peaky Blinders follows a crime family in Birmingham during the immediate aftermath of the First World War. The period drama – which has ran for two series thus far – has been given a modern spin, thanks to its use of indie rock during its most violent moments; the music of Arctic Monkeys, Royal Blood, Jack White and PJ Harvey have all been featured. But it’s the ominous swagger of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’ Red Right Hand – from their 1994 album, Let Love In – which is used to great effect as the show’s opening and closing theme. Someone at the BBC must really love Nick Cave… and why not?

TV Show: Top Gear
There is something of the open road about this free-and-easy 1973 Southern rock melody, which made it an inspired choice for the signature tune of Top Gear on its launch in 1978, when it was largely a show about men driving cars along roads. The Allmans’ sweet, summery instrumental needed some tech-head breakbeat tinkering before it could more properly represent a show about men turning cars into boats and getting into scrapes with Argentine locals.

THE WHO – Who Are You
TV Show: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
The CSI franchise stripped The Who across their many branded permutations, some of the band’s best-loved hits becoming suddenly, and spuriously, synonymous with prime-time forensic pathology (Daltrey even turned up in one episode). In the first series, Who Are You made perfect sense for a show about people examining evidence to establish identities, but we’re fairly sure Won’t Get Fooled Again has nothing to do with blood spray patterns in Miami.

THE EAGLES – Journey Of A Sorcerer
TV Show: The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy
It seems so incongruous that this jaunty, comical cosmic hillbilly stomp sprang from platinum-selling, middle-of-the-road LA megastars The Eagles; surely no one can hear their 1975 album One Of These Nights without thinking of Zaphod Beeblebrox, Slarty Bartfast and the bug-blatter beast of Kraal. The banjo particularly appealed to writer Douglas Adams, who felt it lent “on the road, hitch-hiking feel”.

MOUNTAIN – Nantucket Sleighride
TV Show: Weekend World
Rockers of a certain age will remember that Sunday afternoon political broadcasting in the 70s and 80s was utterly thrilling, for about forty seconds. Men-in-suits interview series Weekend World crashed onscreen to the propulsive rampage and dramatic organ stabs of Mountain’s 1971 anthem about harpooning a whale – perhaps a neat subconscious allegory for what presenter Brian Walden was trying to do in his ruthless interrogation of cabinet ministers.

Chris Chantler

Chris has been writing about heavy metal since 2000, specialising in true/cult/epic/power/trad/NWOBHM and doom metal at now-defunct extreme music magazine Terrorizer. Since joining the Metal Hammer famileh in 2010 he developed a parallel career in kids' TV, winning a Writer's Guild of Great Britain Award for BBC1 series Little Howard's Big Question as well as writing episodes of Danger Mouse, Horrible Histories, Dennis & Gnasher Unleashed and The Furchester Hotel. His hobbies include drumming (slowly), exploring ancient woodland and watching ancient sitcoms.