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TV Themes: Welcome Back, Kotter

June 24th, 2009 7 comments

It took the crazy success of Saturday Night Fever and Grease to bring Welcome Back, Kotter to German TV, cashing in on cast member John Travolta”s rise to fame at about the same time as the series ended its five-season run on American TV in 1979. The happy upshot of this was that by the time the show had jumped the shark “” after the third season “” it was passé even in Germany.

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As Vinny Barbarino, Travolta played the nominal leader of a quartet of high school underachievers in whom teacher Gabe Kotter, returning to his inner-city alma mater, recognises much of his younger self. His hope is that these four doofuses will complete their schooling and become successes in life, much as Kotter did. The teaching profession is indeed a noble and very undervalued vocation, but is the uniform of brown curdoroy jackets with elbow patches really an aspirational objective? The Sweathogs, as the school”s gang of remedial students are known, were founded by Kotter himself, so he has much empathy for the youngsters.

welcome-back-kotter-castAn unlikely premise rooted in cliché, clearly. Except that the main characters were based on people Gabe Kaplan “” Kotter in real life “” knew at school, with the names changed (except that of Arnold Horshack, he with the bizarre laugh). The notion of academic redemption resonates with me. For a variety of reasons, my underachievements in school would have relegated me to the Sweathogs, if there had been such a group. Alas, I had no teacher like Mr Kotter, so I made it my business to excel at failure, to meet what I thought were my teachers” low expectation and what I perceived to be their desire. Happily, I was able to climb out of that deep hole and eventually graduate from university.

The groovy theme song was written and sung by John Sebastian, who in the Mamas and the Papas” song Creeque Alley sat in The Night Owl with Zal and Denny, passing round the hat. The three and Cass Elliott and Jim Hendricks were the Mugwumps. Denny and Cass went on to become a Papa and a Mama, while John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky formed the Lovin” Spoonful (Hendricks disappeared from the scene). Sebastian”s theme song was a US #1 hit in 1976. The show itself, originally titled simply Kotter, was renamed in a nod to Sebastian”s chorus, which repeats the words “welcome back”.

More recently, Sebastian appeared on the Eels song Dusk: A Peach in the Orchard from the wonderful Blinking Lights and Other Revelations album. As for Gabe Kaplan, apparently he now works a commentator on televised poker. I”m sure the Sweathogs would approve.

John Sebastian – Welcome Back (Kotter)  (full version).mp3
John Sebastian – Welcome Back, Kotter  (title version).mp3

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And watch this great clip from the series, which also features James Woods as a preppy teacher.

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