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TV Themes: ’80s family shows

There aren”t many sitcoms about families on American TV anymore. It”s not like it was in the 1980s. Leaving aside the bizarre living arrangements of the dreadful Full House (for which Bob Saget has made ample reparations lately), the nuclear family or variations thereof ruled the ratings. There were Family Ties (hippie parents vs Reaganite kids), Growing Pains (vaguely creepy dad vs a bunch of kids nobody can really remember), and Who”s The Boss (Tony Danza vs humour), and a TV series starring Jason Bateman whose character”s mother had died. Whatever it was called, it was nothing like the next great family show that starred Bateman: Arrested Development.

Bateman”s sister Justine was the airhead daughter in Family Ties, in which Marty J McFox played a Republican who pitches his wits against his cartoon hippie parents. Usually it was more comforting than amusing; familial love always won out and every crisis ““ Alex disappoints the parents; the parents don”t trust the kids “” ended with a metaphorical family hug. The show jumped the goldfish when the drippy father grew a midle-class beard. Family Ties really went past its sell-by date when the even drippier mother had a fourth baby. New babies in TV shows almost invariably signal the writers’ desperation, and for us provides the cue to switch off. So almost every viewer will have missed Courtney Cox”s stint as Alex”s girlfriend.

The show had more than its fair share of guest stars who”d become more famous: Tom Hanks, River Phoenix, Will Wheaton, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Christina Applegate and Crispin Clover, who”d later play Michael J Fox”s father in Back To The Future.

Family Ties“˜ theme tune was as cheesy as the storylines, ending with the über-drippy “sha la la la”. Or, rather, the part which we heard was drippy. In the full version of Without Us, the duet by the marvellous Deniece Williams and Johnny Mathis, the “sha la la la” signals a turn towards some serious slow-funk fusion, with a cool bassline and a saxophone backing which I presume to be by co-writer Tom Scott. The saxophonist”s writing partner was Jeff Barry, erstwhile husband of Ellen Greenwhich with whom he wrote such classics as Leader Of The Pack, Doo Wah Diddy, Be My Baby, Chapel Of Love and, as we saw in last week’s instalment of The Originals, Hanky Panky.

Johnny Mathis & Deniece Williams – Without Us.mp3
Family Ties Theme.mp3


Another family show with a theme song sung by two well-known singers was Growing Pains, wherein we first witnessed the thespian gifts of a juvenile Leonardo DiCaprio, playing a permanently scowling “troubled but essentially good kid”. He thus stole the show from Ben, the bizarre looking son (not the evangelical militant nutcase Kirk Cameron; the other one).

The series started from a low base ““ it never was very good ““ and, the occasional clever gag notwithstanding, went on to justify the second part of its title. Of course, Growing Pains had the obligatory late baby that was supposed to rescue the show (and I don”t mean DiCaprio). It couldn”t. Nor could a succession of not yet famous guest stars that included Brad Pitt, Matthew Perry, Hilary Swank, Olivia d’Abo, Heather Graham and, best of all, Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis (who administered the weird-looking kid’s first kiss).

Growing Pains” dad, Alan Thicke, had written a couple of sitcom themes himself ““ for Diff”rent Strokes and The Facts Of Life ““ but the father of pop singer Robin Thicke had nothing to do with the theme for his own show. That was written by John Bettis and Steve Dorff. You will have sung along to many of Bettis” lyrics, especially if you like the Carpenters. He wrote the words to their Top Of The World, Only Yesterday, Goodbye to Love and Yesterday Once More, as well as for Madonna”s Crazy For You, Michael Jackson”s Human Nature and more. Steve Dorff has written mostly for country artists, but he also composed the themes of Murphy Brown and Murder She Wrote.

The Growing Pains theme, As Long As We Got Each Other, was first sung y BJ Thomas, then by BJ Thomas and serial-theme duetist Jennifer Warnes, then for one season (the fourth, in 1988/89) by BJ Thomas and Dusty Springfield, and later by some random singers.

B.J. Thomas & Dusty Springfield – As Long As We Got Each Other.mp3
Growing Pains Theme (BJ Thomas & Jennifer Warnes).mp3



Who”s The Boss had a couple of things which other family shows didn”t have. A saucy grandmother, for example. And an unconventional habitation arrangement. And in Alyssa Milano one of the few really good child actors. But it also had Tony Danza (are you also singing “Hold me closer”¦”).

When Who”s The Boss appeared, two of the actors had already been in big hit shows: Danza had been part of the dazzling ensemble of Taxi, saucy granny Mona”s  Katherine Helmond had been the mother in the brilliant S.O.A.P.. This did not mean, however, that Who”s The Boss would become a triumph of levity. The dynamics between Danza and Milano were at times interesting, and Mona had one or two moments. Mostly it was trite ““ and it eventually resorted to the baby option (though in this case the pitter patter was that of a virtually adopted five-year-old). Still, people watched.

And if they watched, they heard the theme tune, with the catchy whistling sounds. There were several versions of the song composed by Robert Kraft and ex-Crusaders guitarist Larry Carlton (who played the guitar on the theme of Hill Street Blues and the solo on Steely Dan”s Kid Charlemagne). The first was sung by Larry Weiss, writer and original singer of Rhinestone Cowboy (see The Originals Vol. 5). Country singer Steve Wariner sung it during the show”s golden run, 1986-90.

Larry Weiss – Brand New Life (Who’s The Boss).mp3
Who”s The Boss (Steve Wariner).mp3

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  1. dvdset
    July 12th, 2011 at 08:22 | #1

    I’ve learned a lot from your blog here,Keep on going,I love your blog!

  2. July 14th, 2011 at 15:02 | #2

    I love Family Ties….I had no idea that that was Johnny Mathis, are you kidding me! TV theme songs are such a lost art. They seems to have flat out just stopped doing it. It is really too bad becasue hearing those songs is a massive part of my childhood.

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