‘Doing Friends killed our cool’ – theme tune revelations from The Sopranos to The OC and more

The Friends anthem split the Rembrandts. Alabama 3 went partying with real mobsters. And Vonda Shepard ended up starring in Ally McBeal for years. Creators of legendary theme tunes relive their highs – and lows

So no one told you life was gonna be this way (clap, clap, clap, clap). But what’s it like being in a band whose biggest hit is a TV theme? Is it creatively gratifying, financially life-changing or frustrating to live for ever in its shadow? We tracked down the artists responsible for five theme tunes. Roll title sequence …

‘It put my kids through college – but broke up the band’

Danny Wilde is one half of Californian alt-rock duo the Rembrandts, whose song I’ll Be There for You became the theme tune to Friends.

It all happened wildly fast. Our manager said a sitcom was looking for a theme song and Kevin Bright, the show’s executive producer, was a Rembrandts fan. Would you be interested? The camp was split but they sent us a VHS tape of the pilot and it was cute, so we agreed. It had REM’s Shiny Happy People playing over the fountain scene and they wanted something with the same tempo.

We recorded the 43-second version two days later. The producers came to the studio and wanted to do the handclaps, but they couldn’t get it at all. We were like: “Guys, it’s just four claps.” They did a few takes, we told them it was fine, then after they left, we erased it and put in our own.

Within a week, Friends was on air. It didn’t have our name on the credits. We were a pretty hip band, so stipulated that we didn’t want anyone to know we’d sold out. But the song stuck, the show stuck and it snowballed. The record company rushed us into the studio to cut a full version. We shot a video on the SNL set, with the cast goofing around on our instruments. Courteney Cox really could play drums but it was mostly improvised mayhem.

The video for I’ll Be There for You.
The video for the Rembrandts’ I’ll Be There for You. Photograph: Kevin Mazur

Once people realised it was us, it killed our cool vibe. We went from doing cool clubs to matinee shows where parents would bring their kids. The song became an albatross round our necks and broke up the band for a few years. My bandmate Phil Solem had pretty much had it, so we took a two-year vacation from each other. But we got back together and we’re still making albums and playing gigs, so it’s all good.

Friends is on 24 hours a day somewhere. Every time it gets played, there’s a little “ker-ching!”. It’s only a nickel or whatever, but they add up. It put my kids through college and got me a beautiful home. I’m not rich but I’m comfortable. We were snobby about it early on and it messed with our heads. But what a gift it’s been. I might be living on the streets if it wasn’t for that song.

Now we play Friends anniversary shows, or go to company Christmas parties, do one song and grab a bag of cash. I mean, it’s not the Stones but I’m a working schlepp. If people are willing to pay you to do something you’re proud of, why not?

‘I partied with real mobsters in the Bada Bing’

Rob Spragg, AKA Larry Love, is the frontman of Brixton-founded acid-country band Alabama 3, whose song Woke Up This Morning became The Sopranos theme.

The genesis of the song was old blues tropes. We sampled Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, but a lot of blues lyrics are misogynistic. I was interested in the Sara Thornton case at the time. She changed the law on domestic violence when her murder conviction got overturned. “Woke up this morning and got myself a gun” was cliched from a man, so we gender-flipped it. From the point of view of a woman who’s had enough of her abusive husband, it became empowered. Ironically, it’s now seen as a male gangster anthem. Hey ho.

David Chase [The Sopranos creator] was driving down the New Jersey turnpike when our song came on the radio. He said the line “Mama always said I’d be the chosen one” nailed the tension between Tony and his mother. But he had no idea who we were. We were called A3 in the US and he figured we were three Black kids from the Bronx. Then he found out it was a Scotsman and a Welshman pretending to be American at the height of hip-hop. Nobody had heard of HBO back then. Our manager said: “A cable channel, GZO or something, are doing this poxy soap opera about sopranos. It’s $500, shall we do it?” Cut to two years later and James Gandolfini’s all over billboards.

David brought James to our gig in the Bowery and we had a nice chat. We played at a Sopranos fan convention in New Jersey, which was wild. The cast came up on stage and it was surreal, singing with them all dancing around me. Afterwards, Big Pussy [actor Vincent Pastore] said: “A man wants to meet you.” It was classic mafia – a fat fella with two bodyguards, smoking a cigar, saying how the song makes him cry. Then they took us to the Bada Bing. It was an offer we couldn’t refuse. I didn’t get up to no good, I was just having a laugh.

Robb Spragg of Alabama 3 on stage in London.
Robb Spragg of Alabama 3 on stage in London. Photograph: Barney Britton/Redferns

The odd cheque still arrives but we’ve probably made more out of being sampled by Nas [on Got Ur Self a Gun] and Jay-Z [on Super Ugly]. We were on the Super Bowl last year in a Chevy ad with Meadow Soprano. So the song has stayed in people’s consciousness and the lyrics still resonate, with all these abusive men in the news.

This might shock you but I’ve never watched The Sopranos. I can’t handle my voice being on a piece of art like that. There’s 86 episodes. I don’t want to hear myself 86 times. The song was also used on The Simpsons, when Fat Tony drives through Springfield. I watched that with my kids and loved it.

‘I grew up poor, so the money was amazing’

Vonda Shepard is a New York acoustic rocker whose song Searchin’ My Soul was the theme to legal drama Ally McBeal. Shepard also became a cast member, playing the resident musician at Ally’s local bar.

I was struggling when Ally McBeal came along. I played a gig in LA and invited along my old friend David E Kelley [TV showrunner] with his wife, Michelle Pfeiffer. As I was performing, David said the proverbial lightbulb went off. He wanted me to soundtrack the lead character’s thoughts in his new series. I didn’t hesitate. I needed the work and the money. I’d been dropped by my record label and just felt happy to be working on something legitimate again. It was a big yes.

David originally picked [60s pop cover] Tell Him as the theme song. Me and my manager said: “Great idea but let’s play you some of my stuff, too.” We invited all the producers to my rehearsal room and played them five songs, including Searchin’ My Soul. David had another lightbulb moment and said: “If you can squeeze it into one minute, that’s what I want.” We sped it up and there you go. Tell Him ended up being big on the show, but it was a blessing to do my own song.

I flew home to New York but when I watched the pilot episode, I said: “Oh my God, I have to move straight back to LA.” It was clear Ally McBeal was going places, so I relocated and worked constantly on the show for the next five years. I was also the producer for the guest artists. We had so many big names. Al Green was a highlight. Sting was cool. Elton John gave me a big hug. Robert Downey Jr was a character. Great singer, too!

Vonda Shepard performs live on stage in Berlin.
Vonda Shepard live on stage. Photograph: Frank Hoensch/Getty Images

I grew up poor, so the money was amazing. I bought a beautiful house that I’m still in and built a studio there, which I’ve used daily for the past 20 years, so I’ve spent it wisely. Royalty cheques are very small nowadays but, hey, I’ll take it!

Ally McBeal affected my career in all kinds of ways. Many people associated me with just Ally, which was difficult at times. I had three albums before Ally came along and have released six since. I got a Billboard award for the bestselling TV soundtrack album of all time which is a cool honour but it’s been a long road. When I play a show, I play new stuff but always say: “If you’re Ally fans, we’ll give you a ton of that at the end, so don’t leave!” And then we have a big, celebratory Ally party at the end. Sometimes I’ll play an Ally-themed event and they have a gigantic dancing baby above my head but that’s part of the deal. We do what we have to do!

‘Peep Show helped me make peace with our one-hit wonder’

Sean Nelson was the frontman of Seattle band Harvey Danger, whose song Flagpole Sitta became the Peep Show theme tune.

Our publishing company asked if we’d approve Flagpole Sitta’s usage in this new British comedy. The band had broken up at this point – it turned out to be a hiatus rather than a full break-up – and I was like: “God, do we still have to keep thinking about that fucking song?” We had been on a one-hit wonder trajectory. I shouldn’t complain, but I did get sick of singing it five times a day. It was clearly the only mainstream success we’d ever have.

I asked to see the show first and it was fantastic. As well as being very funny, it reflected our reality. We’d all lived together and though we were never as committed to destroying one another as Mark and Jeremy, we definitely had that tendency. Peep Show was the kind of cool, culty thing people quote lines from or get tattoos of. Obviously my answer was yes.

The money bands make for licensing songs to TV in the States is still very good but back then, it was absurdly good. I always joke that when you license your song to a US network, you get to buy a house. When you license it to Channel 4, you get to buy one nice dinner per year. Money still comes in. It’s not enough to live on, just a nice little treat every three months.

It’s been 25 years now. Flagpole Sitta’s hair is as grey as mine but being the Peep Show theme is the song’s proudest achievement. A total thrill and a huge honour. It saved it from being a relic of late 90s teen trash culture, like an old Tamagotchi. I still skip the titles whenever I rewatch Peep Show, but I feel a lot better about it.

‘I went on a date with Mischa Barton and everyone stared’

Alex Greenwald is the frontman of Los Angeles alt-rockers Phantom Planet, whose song California became the theme tune to teen drama The OC.

I came from the Nirvana grunge era and didn’t want to sell out, so had to be convinced to let The OC use the song. The rest of the band called me an idiot. I was vehemently against it but [show creator] Josh Schwartz called me and said he’d written a lot of the show with our song in mind, so we had to say yes. Josh said: “I’ll courier you a DVD of the pilot,” which was so cool and Hollywood. That’s still the only episode I’ve ever seen but I dug it.

Now I’m in my 40s, I watch TV all the time but in my early 20s I thought it was “beneath me”. When The OC aired in 2003, I didn’t watch it. But I kept getting calls from friends and family, even my mom, who were thrilled my song was in there. I’d worried about selling out but realised it brought people joy. Initially, I’d even asked for us not to be credited. That’s how up my own ass I was.

Alex Greenwald with The OC stars Mischa Barton and Rachel Bilson.
Alex Greenwald with The OC stars Mischa Barton and Rachel Bilson. Photograph: J Vespa/WireImage

I went on a couple of dates with Mischa Barton [who played Marissa Cooper]. The first time, we walked through this mall and everybody was staring at her. I was like: “Oh wow, this show really is a hit.” It helped the band move up a level. It went Top 10 in the UK and we got to play Top of the Pops, which I’d always dreamed about. Elle Girl magazine even called me the “hottest guy in rock”. People still tease me about that. My girlfriend had it as her screensaver for a while.

We didn’t get a huge amount of money but for a couple of years, the band had money to live off. I felt comfortable enough to try investing in the stock market and bought a couple of thousand dollars of Apple stock. I’m very happy I did.

I never fell out of love with the song but a bandmate might say: “OK, California take 100,000!” Without California, our lives would be drastically different. I never dreamed one of our songs would reach so many people. It still gets around a million plays per month. Which is pretty cool, right?


Michael Hogan

The GuardianTramp

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