Listen to What You Watch
Updated: Jun 22
My Adventures in Underscore, part 2 - Peering thru the cathode-ray tube.
There was a time when you couldn’t pull a device out of your pocket and listen to any song ever made. It wasn’t so long ago that choices were fewer and access was limited. Case in point: in my house as a child, music was reserved for special occasions.
We might hear a song to two during a morning radio program (Rambling With Gambling, weekdays on WOR). But after the breakfast dishes were collected, the radio was turned off as Mom warmed up the Electrolux to vacuum the house or collected her purse to go shopping. Music was not the constant accompaniment that we have grown accustomed to today. We had one radio/phonograph, one television set, and they were limited to the Living Room, which was not where we spent our days.
With time, a clock radio was added (to my parents’ bedroom), or a portable transistor radio with a single earpiece (for listening to ball games), but as far this little boy was concerned, music was controlled, distributed, and dictated by mysterious forces beyond his control.
Kind of like Vic Perrin’s voice at the start of The Outer Limits. He was controlling the picture. He was controlling the sound, bringing up the volume and tuning it to a whisper. And even though the piercing, high-frequency whine of the oscillating main title was impossible to ignore, it was the incredibly dramatic, crashing orchestral finale that sent me to bed wide-eyed and terrified. Coupled with our small town’s nightly curfew siren, rising and falling in the distance, I slept in a state of unease for years.
Which was an unusual turn of events, since at this time of my life, TV show intros were my absolute favorite musical ditties. There are jokes to be made about short attention spans brought on by too much television viewing. I prefer to think that I appreciated the direct, concise and often irresistibly catchy storytelling in the best TV themes. They were a concentrated blast of sound and picture, often with more interesting graphics, colorful logos and—often—animated cartoons!
Whether it was a Bewitching wife (or genie), cowboy agents in the Wild West, or a pull-no-punches Dynamic Duo, those animated intros were the best. Somehow the music became more indelibly etched in my brain with the synchronized beats of action hitting every note of the irresistible themes. Even as a child, I frequently found the intros superior to the shows themselves. I assumed everyone would agree!
There was some corroborating evidence. On a rare sleepover at my cousins’ house, no one was ready to close their eyes after lights out. We continued to whisper conspiratorially in the dark. Cousin George suggested we entertain ourselves by guessing songs from TV shows. Holy smokes, I thought, no one can beat me at that! He launched into the familiar “Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale… a tale of a fateful trip…” to great acclaim. Wait, I thought, that’s cheating. He’s singing the words!
I tried an accapella version of the stirring march from Combat! “Ba-ba-ba-bomp! Bomp! BOMP!” The other kids groaned, and Georgie won that round. Before I could try another, Aunt Betty appeared at the door and told us to knock it off and go to sleep. Laying in the dark, listening to my cousins giggling at me, I began to wonder if I had miscalculated. Perhaps everyone wasn’t hearing what I heard.
Dad liked to listen to top-40 radio in the car. And according to WABC-77, the leading station in NYC, there was no doubt that the spy craze was in full swing. Because in 1965, you were just as likely to hear Shirley Bassey belting out “Goldfinger” as Bob Dylan singing “Like a Rolling Stone.” Along with the incessant commercials promising thrills and chills with Agent 007, the brassy fanfare cut through the summer air, taunting me with a cinematic adventure that would be denied me for years. “You’re not old enough for that one, kid,” my dad chuckled.
It was not fair, with the toy guns, games, action figures and even an electric slot-car set jumping off the page in the Sears catalog. Fortunately, I could satisfy my jonesing (somewhat) with a half-dozen spy shows on TV. Each had percussive, driving themes cut on the downbeat and full of the “good parts”—explosions, gunfire, car chases and cool heroes posing for their actor’s credit. The best by far was the martial drums of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. I loved the curiously catchy 5/4 rhythm, which I didn’t quite understand but tried over and over to count out on my fingers. It didn’t add up!
As exciting as those intros were, the plots and dialogue were over the head of this seven-year old. But there was one exception, broadcast at the family-friendly hour of 7:30pm on Thursday nights. Eight trombones played out the theme for a boy and his dog who traveled the world battling mummies, pterodactyls, sea monsters and a mad scientist or two… he was bent on quest, just like his Dad, Bodyguard and best pal Hadji.
Jonny Quest was an attempt to present an animated adventure of super-science, espionage and old-fashioned thrills for a wide audience. It only lasted a year, but the 26 half-hour episodes went into constant rotation on Saturday mornings over the next decade. There was nothing else like it on TV, and its imprint was indelible. The animation was limited, so the stories leaned heavily on music to carry the emotion—jaunty jazz for transitions, heartwarming ditties for character moments, and over-the-top orchestral forces for the action scenes. Thanks to composer Hoyt Curtin, I would spend the rest of my life spicing up ordinary conversations with a sudden exclamation of “Dun-Dun-Du-u-u-nnn!”
Here’s the funny thing—I clearly had an ear for music, as did my younger brother Steve. But we went though our childhoods without musical training. Not sure why, since we grew up in a home with a nice upright piano—which functioned solely as furniture. Other kids moaned about having to take lessons, but we were forbidden to touch it. Mom reportedly had once performed on it, but we’d never hear her play a note. Her boys, however, tickled those ivories whenever she wasn’t looking. Until she spotted the greasy fingerprints on the keys and said “no more!”
Again, the music remained out of reach.
Steve and I turned to other audio experiments. Dad’s reel-to-reel tape recorder became available on occasion, and we took turns taping music off the TV (and occasionally messing up each other’s recordings out of brotherly spite). Bored by the same old reruns, we’d grab the enormous dial on the TV and flip through the seven channels with a hearty ka-chunk-ka-chunk. We’d turn down the volume on the TV and turn up one of our recordings. Suddenly, the whirling fanfare of Lost In Space would transform a detergent ad into something surreal, or Laurel and Hardy’s Dance of the Cuckoos would give a stuffy drama a kick in the pants. It was “post-modern” decades before the phrase was invented.
We figured out the more notes a song had, the more likelihood of amusing counterpoint. The beats would hit the unlikeliest action, and it was fascinating. We were teaching ourselves music theory without understanding it.
My brothers and I (now including Rob) would gather around the TV as hearth, each of us drawing, working puzzles or building model kits while the shows droned on in the background. The dialog would fade, but the underscore would continue to highlight our own work, hitting those creative moments in our lives. I came to appreciate the deep well of emotion in program music. The feelings that soundtracks evoke are often called cheap and manipulative by critics, but divorced from the image, I’d say those feelings are legitimate and authentic. Especially when they were attached to our own work.
People will say that they can remember experiences from years ago more vividly than this morning's breakfast. Of course they can—how many unremarkable bowls of Corn Flakes have you consumed, one mushy serving after another? But our early experiences got the best seats in the house, front row center—and because there was nothing like it, they'll never budge from our memories. It’s not a matter of how “great” those experiences are, it’s all about timing and context. And my formative years, for better or worse, were all centered around the big box in the corner of the living room, and the curious mix of art and commerce that emanated from within.
Fortunately, I would find a way to make this experience pay off. Eventually.
(NEXT WEEK: Learning the Classics)
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