On the whole, I can think of far preferable sedatives than daytime television; heroin or methadone spring to mind. Daytime TV for me evokes grim images of care home residents slowly succumbing to rigor mortis as they gather dust in sub-tropical temperatures before the small screen, powerless to resist the unremittingly bland diet of soporific sludge that gushes out of every daytime TV pore, leaving the viewer feeling as though they’re being smothered in a sickly-scented cardigan whilst their feet set in a bucket of treacle. Even if one disregards the dreary content, one thing these excuses for entertainment seem to share is the same theme tune – or at least that’s what it sounds like; whilst the themes themselves are as forgettable as the programmes, they all appear to employ those awful ‘synth horns’ that were once the province of Phil Collins hits from the 80s, and each tirelessly upbeat burst of their infantile jollity is akin to being trapped in a lift with a Butlin’s redcoat.
Whilst the paucity of original and gifted minds working today in a once-abundant field of talent such as pop music is regularly discussed, if one widens the net to encompass areas that used to be touched by trends in pop, the dearth of maestros is even more evident – none more so than in another once-abundant field, that of ‘library music’. A deep reservoir of earworms specifically penned for use in commercials or as TV and radio themes, at one time library music – along with specially commissioned themes cut from a similar sonic cloth – provided British viewers and listeners with melodies that simply refuse to go away; many infiltrated our ears as children and they’re still there. Some of the most prolific composers responsible for these persistent portals to happier times are anonymous to all but the most devoted aural archaeologists, even if their body of work stands up as far stronger than anyone ever anticipated when their output was regarded as little more than dispensable Muzak. And, needless to say, it blows the synth horn bots out of the water.
When most vintage rock and soul genres had been plundered and sampled to death by DJs, producers and Hip Hop acts in the 90s, a sudden wave of interest in the untapped riches of archive library music, such as that housed on the books of KPM, led to the so-called ‘Lounge-core’ craze. CD reissues of long-deleted LPs that had spent years in the charity shop bargain bins were suddenly appearing on hip Indie labels, with everything from test card music to novelty noodlings on early synthesizers selling like cult hotcakes. Though the fad passed – as fads do – this ‘ironic’ appreciation of an imaginary soundtrack to an Austin Powers dinner party didn’t erase the nostalgic wave still capable of sweeping over the listener whenever one of the classic library pieces launches a fresh assault on the ears. A warm analogue glow flows through every note and what strikes the listener today is just how well the composers responsible for these tracks managed to take rock elements characteristic of the 60s’ cutting edge and marry them to traditional ‘easy listening’ vibes, producing a uniquely cool hybrid of old and new.
Key musical elements of the Golden Age of library music and theme tunes (the late 60s/early 70s) seem to be fuzzy guitars, the Hammond organ, strings, and lots of horns. Some of the best themes of this era were from the ITC stable of adventure series, as well as the Gerry Anderson shows; whilst John Barry was responsible for some of the former, Barry Gray composed the majority of the latter. A little more well known due to his knack of writing 60s pop hits for Petula Clark and his wife Jackie Trent, Tony Hatch not only worked with the young David Bowie, but his Midas touch gave us memorable themes for ‘Man Alive’, ‘The Champions’, and ‘Sportsnight’ – as well as…er…‘Crossroads’; he also produced a series of future ‘Lounge-core’ classics with his own orchestra. He later became a TV celebrity playing a proto-Simon Cowell alongside the equally sharp-tongued Mickie Most on the panel of the 70s ITV talent show, ‘New Faces’, but it is his musical talents that warrant an inclusion in this particular hall of fame.
Keith Mansfield was a composer who worked extensively in the library world, but also provided the theme tunes for ‘Grandstand’, ‘The Big Match’, and the BBC’s Wimbledon coverage; Johnny Pearson was the leader of both his own Sounds Orchestral band and the Top of the Pops Orchestra (for 15 years), though he composed both library music and numerous memorable TV themes at the same time, including the likes of ‘Captain Pugwash’, ‘Mary, Mungo and Midge’, and even ‘News at Ten’; Cliff Adams may be remembered with a groan by more than one generation of teenagers waiting for the Sunday Top 40 when leading his silky-smooth singers on ‘Sing Something Simple’, yet his contribution to television came via the commercial break, for which he wrote the jingles we still associate with Murray Mints, Fry’s Turkish Delight, and ‘For mash, get Smash’ amongst numerous others.
Another name worthy of mention is Alan Hawkshaw, who was a brief member of The Shadows before branching out into library music. Several of his library tunes ended up as TV themes, including the smoky organ grooves of ‘Dave Allen at Large’ and – in a weird occurrence that highlighted the non-exclusive nature of library tracks – the tune most of us remember as the original ‘Grange Hill’ theme, yet one which was simultaneously used on an ITV schools series called ‘Alive and Kicking’ as well as ‘Give Us A Clue’; also, though Cliff Adams wrote it, it was Hawkshaw and his band who performed the Bond-esque theme that accompanied the well-remembered ads ending with the tagline, ‘And all because the lady loves Milk Tray’.
Many of the tunes associated with this productive era that found their way onto television or radio as themes with a surprising longevity were put together by musicians with a solid track record in the business, often emanating from a jazz world that didn’t pay half as well as the royalties on a theme tune guaranteed to be aired at least once a week. Take the likes of British jazz legend Johnny Dankworth, for example; he was responsible for the toe-tapping Shepherd’s Bush Bebop of the original ‘Tomorrow’s World’ theme and for ‘Beefeaters’, the tune Tony Blackburn opened with every morning on the first Radio 1 breakfast show between 1967-73. Back then, most radio shows had theme tunes, including the shows of each star DJ to jump ship from the pirates to Radio 1 when it debuted. Library music was regularly called upon to provide them, and many of these tunes have stuck in the memory, even if we can’t always pinpoint their source. They’re all tunes we know, though we may not know where we know them from.
The familiarity of library music from this period is due to the way in which it was widely disseminated across television and radio, just as likely to be found as the start-up theme for an ITV franchise-holder, introducing a schools programme, featuring on a test card or opening a regional Sunday soccer show as it would be on a networked institution such as ‘Mastermind’, which has always begun with an aptly-titled piece named ‘Approaching Menace’ by library composer Neil Richardson. The fact these tunes have remained part of our pop cultural wallpaper and have crept into our collective memory bank with stealth is testament to the depth of unsung talent that once worked in an unsung arena. Easy to dismiss, but not so easy to forget, the melodies these men made are just one more example of how even the most seemingly throwaway elements of what we used to have far outshine the majority of what we have now.
© The Editor
7 thoughts on “A LOST ART”
Paul Calf once said about daytime television: “Who wants to watch Going For Gold with Henry Kelly? Not even Mrs. Kelly.”
I always loved the theme tunes and incidental music for programmes made during the golden age of television. Keith Mansfield and Alan Hawkshaw have certainly left their imprint on many ears. As has Duncan Lamont and a host of musicians for whom those compositions were just another gig. Neal Richardson’s ‘The Riviera’ is a particular favourite of mine.
The second Specials album More Specials actually drew upon some of those elements on the old ‘B side’; Jerry Dammers mentioned that he was a fan of John Barry’s. Possibly this was the first time that a pop act had referenced library music.
The test card was also a source of music for me. Not forgetting of course the various theme tunes used in For Schools and Colleges.
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Yes, Jerry Dammers was definitely well ahead of the game. I’ve always loved ‘More Specials’, one of the best and most underrated albums of that era for me. I confess as a child I would often shove my little tape recorder in front of the TV when the test card was on, though most of my friends couldn’t understand why! I often put down my love of jazz to the test card, which did at least serve as a great introduction of sorts.
When it comes to TV themes, I think the title of this post says it all, really. Even beyond the wastelands of today’s daytime television, I don’t believe I could hum or whistle the theme tunes to any programme produced now, yet I remember shows such as ‘Hawaii 5-0’, which I would switch on just to watch the opening titles and hear the theme; I wasn’t too bothered about the rest of the programme, to be honest! I can’t imagine anyone does that today.
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The theme of ‘The Flashing Blade’ was also something that I enjoyed more than the programme itself! Likewise with the test card, as a musician looking for ‘new chords’, the regular jazz and bossa nova tunes always caught my ear.
On an unrelated note to your blog: There’s a 1971 ITV drama series called The Guardians that I’ve just begun watching. Possibly you’re familiar with it, I’d only read about it before. Two episodes in and it’s excellent. Acting performances of the highest calibre, and a plot full of intrigue. I say unrelated but the theme tune of The Guardians is also very fitting and evocative.
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Sorry for the delayed reply. Someone on here actually alerted me to ‘The Guardians’ around a year ago. I watched the first episode on YT, recognised Sgt Haggar from ‘Z Cars’ and Mrs McCluskey from ‘Grange Hill’ and found it very intriguing. Then I bloody forgot all about it! Thanks for reminding me.
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Paul McCartney had similar thoughts to your opening paragraph when he covered the Crossroads theme. I seem to remember it was used on episodes with a dramatic ending.
The music of The Shadows drummer Brian Bennett was also very prolific. Hideout appeared on The Sweeney and even travelled the world to appear on Prisoner Cell Block H and even David Cronenberg’s Rabid.
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Yes, the curious thing about ‘The Sweeney’ is – aside from the theme tune – its use of sometimes incongruous library music throughout episodes, often creating strange scenes such as the sudden appearance of the ‘Rugby Special’ theme in one episode, which was so associated with that programme that gatecrashing another just sounded weird. Then, as you say, some turn up in other series; I recognised the one I’d heard years before in ‘Prisoner: Cell Block H’ when I re-watched ‘The Sweeney’ recently. I know Brian Bennett wrote the BBC’s long-running golf theme, though I’m not sure if that was specially commissioned.
My father was a TV repairman and the earworm of testcard music got to him. So I know that a proportion of test card music was “Tommy Garrett and his 50 guitars” he bought the LPs.
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