In an entertainment Metaverse long ago, when a little cathode ray tube glowed in a living room and scratchy sound squawked out of a tinny box, people listened to the first televisions. Over time, television evolved slowly, and then almost irretrievably, replaced radio and movie-going as the entertainment choice of most people.
TV viewership rocketed and along with it, the production values grew to include music as a way to draw in more viewers and sell more ads at higher rates. Thus, was the opening theme music to a program tweaked and refined until its’ hook was bouncing around inside people’s heads and made them regular viewers. For one marvelous period in the early 1960s, when the James Bond films created multiple TV spy programs, their theme music became so cool, so rockin’, and so identifiable, that they endure today on CDs and albums. Here is the best!
The Avengers – Laurie Johnson
The Avengers was possibly one of the best-known Spy (or otherwise) television shows of all time. The episodes with Patrick Macnee and Dianna Rigg have been shown worldwide since Rigg joined the cast in 1965. The show first aired in 1961 with Macnee and Ian Hendry. However, the following year, Honor Blackman, the future James Bond girl in Goldfinger (1964), joined Macnee in his adventures.
The music for those years was composed by John Dankworth. But when Rigg joined the cast, composer Laurie Johnson created the new theme we all know and love today. Diana Rigg left the show a few years later and was replaced by Linda Thorson as Tara King. Subsequently, Johnson tweaked the theme just a bit by adding a short trumpet melody as a counterpoint. The theme became synonymous with Tara.
Laurie Johnson was one of several well-known 60s composers in England. She was in great demand, writing themes and music for many television shows and movies. Stanley Kubrick used him to compose the music for his classic film, Dr. Strangelove(1964). Next to The Avengers, this is his most popular composition. The Avengers is the ultimate Brit spy show, and the Number One spy television theme of any era.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – Jerry Goldsmith
U.N.C.L.E. = United Network Command for Law Enforcement.
Most spy shows from the 1960s’ were an attempt to cash in on the James Bond craze. None made a more concerted attempt than The Man from U.N.C.L.E., airing in the USA from 1964 to 1968. Starring the great Robert Vaughan and David McCallum, the show had evil organizations, crazy villains, and cool spy gadgets.
Complimenting all the fun and setting the tone for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was an outstanding theme composed by Jerry Goldsmith. A prolific composer in both film and television, he was nominated for more Academy Awards (eighteen – winning once), Grammys and Golden Globe awards than space allow me to mention.
Over his long and distinguished career, Goldsmith composed more than two-hundred scores. Other composers tried their hand during the show’s run and, annoyingly, the theme was modified each season. However, nothing ever approached the hard-driving jazzy theme of the original. Listen and enjoy.
The Saint – Edwin Astley
Starring Roger Moore as Simon Templar, The Saint was based on the very popular books by Leslie Charteris. This British show ran between 1962 and 1969. It first aired in the United States on NBC’s 1966 primetime lineup and was eventually broadcast in over sixty countries.
One of the enduring images of the series was Templar’s Volvo P1800 sports car. It was one that was rarely seen in the United States at the time. Although The Saint is more of an adventurer than a spy, the line is blurry as he performs jobs for both British and foreign governments.
The show’s theme was composed by Edwin (Ted) Astley, an English composer who also themed Danger Man (Secret Agent Man in the States and sung by Johnny Rivers — remember that?). Astley’s daughter, Karen, would marry Pete Townsend of The Who. The theme for The Saint vividly draws the image of a suave, handsome, yet deadly Saint, dancing the dance between the law and the proper thing to do.
Airing from 1966 to 1973, Mission Impossible was not unique in having “subcontractors” do the dirty work for the government. Getting their orders from an unnamed “secretary” of something, the indelible image from the show is the self-destructing tape machine that gave the team their orders. The opening shot of the fuse being lit and speeding across the screen. Then the theme kicks in loud and fast with quick shots of the upcoming episode. It was brilliant!
The theme was composed by Lalo Schifrin. He also did the music for Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry films. This highly-trained native Argentinian started in jazz, working with Dizzy Gillespie and Xavier Cugat. He then began his association with film and television scoring. Schifrin also composed the theme for the TV show Mannix, which ran from 1967 to 1975. Over time, he won four Grammys (two for Mission Impossible), and one Emmy. He was nominated for an Oscar six times.
The Wild Wild West
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Western was the dominant theme of television in the USA. In 1959, there were twenty-six westerns showing at one time. Many future stars such as Steve McQueen, James Garner, and Clint Eastwood got their start appearing in them. As the spy genre took hold in the early 60s, The Wild Wild West was conceived to merge the two popular formats into one giant winner. Robert Conrad and Ross Martin starred as Secret Service agents out to save the newly united post-Civil War America from foreign agents and insane megalomaniacs.
The show ran from 1965 to 1969, when it was canceled despite good ratings. This was after Congress began investigating violence in television. The Hollywood powers caved and shows that were considered too violent were re-engineered or axed. If you remember the opening title you will see Jim West hitting a woman who is trying to stab him. That was changed in season two to him kissing her and then her leaning against a wall, stunned by the kiss.
The theme for the show was composed by Richard Markowitz, a native Californian who studied music in Paris after WWII and then began composing for both A and B pictures. When the show was in development, two scores were furnished by four-time Oscar-winning film composer Dimitri Tiomkin. However, both were rejected. Markowitz was brought on and his now iconic theme was accepted. In the studio, recording his theme, were many members of The Wrecking Crew. They were the now famous session players who were so good they made others rich. Their story has since been told and ample recognition given.
“Got a problem? Odds against you? Call the Equalizer — 212 555 4200.”
That was the newspaper ad in New York City that people with problems called to get help in this fantastic American series. The show starred the appealing British actor Edward Woodward as Robert McCall, a former intelligence officer from an unnamed agency. Running from 1985 to 1989, McCall had deep regrets about some of the things he had done while a spy. Now, to absolve his guilt, he offered his considerable skills gratis to those in need.
While not truly a spy show but a hybrid of different genres, McCall occasionally utilized his former spy colleagues and was in contact with his old boss. Thus elements of the intelligence world were present in many episodes. Over the run of The Equalizer, many famous guest stars appeared. The debate if McCall was a spy, detective, or adventurer still continues to this day.
The theme was composed by Stewart Copeland, former drummer for The Police. Copeland’s parents were both former spies. His father, an operative for the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.). While in England during WWII he met his wife, an archeologist, who was a member of England’s Special Operations Executive (SOE). Stuart’s father later joined the CIA and after his retirement authored some books and articles on intelligence and advocated more aggressive covert activities by the USA.
Lalo Schifrin (see Mission Impossible above) scored the pilot, but the producers decided they wanted something different and enlisted Copeland. He then got a team together and started the process at Unique Recording Studios before subsequently completing the score at The Hit Factory. By that point, he and his team had just two weeks to complete it with the first show airing just days after they finished.
Copeland not only composed the theme but went on to score the series for much of its run. Stuart’s theme to The Equalizer features a fast opening percussion beat that eerily echoes a client’s rapid heartbeat while walking the dark and unwelcoming streets of New York City. Pulsating synthesizer sounds of strings and horns are then launched, heralding the appearance of the stealthy avenger McCall, ready to mete out his own brand of justice.
The CIA, MI5 and 6, the NSA, and the old KGB (now renamed as two separate services—but still the same old, same old) have literally thousands of employees and budgets in the high seven figures. Much of the intelligence gathering today is now done online or with satellites (see the NSA/Edward Snowden and hacking scandals), but human intelligence (HUMINT) gathering is still out there (China is very active in HUMINT), but it is not romantic or gritty anymore and is much smaller than as it used to be. It’s evident though that the above television shows with their great themes represented a time that is now long past and we fans are the worst off for it. It will never return, but it was great, great fun when it happened.
These series and their soundtracks are available on DVD/Blu-Ray/CD and would make great presents for the spy lovers in your circle. Just leave them at the usual dead drop at 0100 hours…
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