The 19 Best 1980s Cartoon Theme Songs – Part I
The other day, while I was avoiding doing any work, I came across one of those “10 Best” lists that for once featured something I actually cared about. It didn’t involve goals, or overpaid motherfuckers scoring them. It involved that greatest of musical genres: 1980s cartoon theme songs, which were a cultural movement easily as significant as gay rights or giving women the vote.
And, typical of everyone on the internet except me, it got it all completely wrong. It had Transformers in the list. I’m sorry, are you high? Were you dropped on your head as a child? Transformers was a classic staple of all healthy children’s daily mind-nourishment, true, and the theme song is dripping with sticky-rich nostalgia. But did that make it good? No. Shut up. No.
And it didn’t have Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, citing that as a 1990s show. Really? How well did you research this travesty, this mockery, this abomination of list-making idiocy? Because I’ll tell you something, asshole: I was 7 years old in 1988, and I watched me some Ninja Turtles right then and there. And Dogtanian & the Muskahounds? Are you drunk? That had a terrible theme song.
Worst of all was the use of The Raccoons. Uh, ‘Run with Us’, the amazing Raccoons song, was the end credit song, not the intro theme song. So, y’know, shut up.
Just… just get out of my life, man. Just go.
All right. Deep breaths now. We can repair the damage that’s been done.
But I’m not, like, Ghandi, okay? I can’t fix all of your problems. I can only help a little, not live your lives for you.
My gift, my curse.
Come. Sit. Learn.
Let’s break this down into chunks we can analyse. Two parts, several songs each. But what makes a great 1980s cartoon theme song?
- Exposition in the Vocals & Bombastic Voiceovers – 20 years ago, cartoons were about more than Japanese kids with massive eyes shrieking bullshit at each other as they watched their family pets fight to the death. Because these shows often involved some pretty complex subject matter, they usually had some form of exposition in the intro. This is exactly the kind of thing TV shows are terrified of doing now, because it’s fairly well-documented that they live in fear of a child somehow not understanding something and turning it off, instead of actually finding it cool and learning something. In a lot of theme songs, you get exposition in the lyrics themselves, or some guy booming in a cinematic voice about who was who and what the premise of the show was. And that’s rad. Also, quite funny.
- Retarded Lyrics – Well, it was the 80s. Everything was so spandex-wearingly grand and sincere. It was an age where people spoke and thought in Bon Jovi lyrics. No one owned a motorcycle, they rode on steel horses. No one hoped something would happen, the were living on prayers. And a lot of the desperately earnest stadium-filling madness infected these shows, as you’ll see.
- Ball-achingly Killer Guitar Stuff – Guitar solos, done on electronic keyboards, in the theme songs of kids’ TV shows. What an age it was.
1. So what have we got? We’ll start with a classic. ThunderCats.
Oh, man, where do I even begin?
It starts with a mechanical lion’s roar and a hot-sounding girl whispering “ThunderCatssssss”. Frankly, you’d think going up from there would be tough, but you’re so totally wrong. It escalates out of control as fast as the build-up to an illegal war in the Middle East.
And that’s really the song’s main strength. It just keeps building and building all the way through, dragging you along with it, until the show begins. I loved that as a kid, and I still think it’s ace. While you’ve got the singing and music getting higher and more intense, you see every character doing their unique thing, and that’s pretty killer, too. But it does highlight a problem I have, here. Lion-O is supposed to be the hero, and – being completely fair to him – Lion-O is a soggy dickwad. All of his friends – even the little kids in his gang – are supreme badasses. Cheetara (we’ll come back to her…) is all running around and foiling the show’s antagonists. Panthro is the cool shaven-headed guy with the car and the nunchuks. Tigra’s a tiger, which is automatically brilliant, and no more needs to be said.
But Lion-O… His special power is that he can use his magic sword to call his friends for help. And that’s supposed to be awesome? Every episode he gets in trouble that he can’t deal with, and uses the most powerful magic weapon in existence as a pager to tell Panthro he’s fucked up again and needs to be picked up in the ThunderTank. His catchphrase was a yell for help. Did you ever realise how lame that was? When he shouts “ThunderCats, hoooooooooooooooooo!” he’s yelling for them to come find him and help him.
See? A dickwad.
The ThunderCats theme song is made even more badass by the fact that it has all the sound effects from the show, and they’re killer. The mechanical cat roar that opens and closes it. Lion-O’s catchphrase is laughable but iconic, and is punctuated by a magic sword barfing red lightning into the air, which is probably the best thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life – and let me tell you, I’ve had some seriously hot girlfriends. Even naked, they weren’t in the same league as the Sword of Omens gobbing out red sorcery into the sky.
Towards the end of this classic song of songs, you have the moment when Mumm-Ra (surely a guaranteed tie for stupidest bad guy name with Max Mayhem) changes into his even uglier form. The scream he does used to make my blood run cold, and I still feel a bit uncomfortable when I hear it. The thing is, it doesn’t sound angry. It sounds like he’s just found out that the lump on his balls is probably going to kill him sooner than Lion-O ever could.
Makes my skin crawl.
On the plus side, you’ll have to permit me a momentary deviation from the audio aspects.
Man, I was like 5 years old. I had no idea exactly what I wanted to do to Cheetara. All I knew was that it would somehow involve her thighs.
2. Moving on.
Pole Position is one of the great theme songs that often gets forgotten for one major reason: the show itself was shit. And I don’t mean it sucked in the way that if you watch Transformers now you can tell Peter Cullen did half the voices and the animation is rendered in a proto-program of Microsoft Paint. I mean Pole Position was absolutely boring bollocks. But aww, listen to that theme song.
Anything that opens on a tinny synthesizer is going to earn some serious 80s points, but Pole Position has it all. It starts with spoken exposition (which is a treat) but while the song plays, the character quotes are liquid gold. Even 25 years later, I still say several of these, much to the annoyance or bafflement of everyone I know. When I’m alone in my car and I go through a puddle, I will almost always say “HYDROFOIL ENGAGED, DAN”. It was my Facebook update on rainy days at least 3 times last year. I once said “ANYTHING YOU SAY, TESS” to a bartender at university, and he totally got what I was quoting. Of such moments are memories made.
No discussion of Pole Position is complete without the lyrics. They’re like woeful Soft Metal done to a drum machine. They’d totally fit in with the soundtrack of Top Gun, which is pretty much an indication of the level of songwriting skill on display right here.
“They’re moving real fast, they’re the only ones who can get there on time,
And never too far behind, they are always fighting crime.”
Hmm. Real deep. Admittedly, the “Pole Positiaaaaaaaaaaan” does make up for it, as does the “Heyo, Heyo, Heyo, Heyo” at the end, which I used to sing along with as an impressionable young boy (who wished ThunderCats was on instead).
Also, Tess? You’re in an automobile stunt show, right? Is it really cool to do all those stunts with a kid in the back? I saw that she wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, either. And yet the weird-ass little monkey-thing was? You need to keep a weather eye out for Social Services, doll. They’ll be after your blood.
3. No Guts, No Glory. A creed to live by.
Y’know, the other list had Braveheart as one of the greatest theme songs. Bravestar. No freaking way. Not only was the show itself complete bullshit, but the theme song was abysmal. Bravestar was, in all ways, the poor man’s Galaxy Rangers.
Still, it’s no ThunderCats. A welcome addition, a great theme song, but nothing massively special. I always wanted to be the gunfighter or the guy with the bionic arm. Although, if we’re being totally honest, I’m not racist but I’d take the martial arts chick over the black guy whose special power appears to be creating disco out of thin air.
So let’s cleanse our palates with an absolute bastard of a song.
4. If you open with an explosion, then you capture the all-important attention of my 6-year-old self. Pretty much the only way to top that would be to have an 80s singer guy screaming throatily about a spacefighter pilot and a Victorian magician being best friends. What’s that you say? That’s exactly what happens in Defenders of the Earth. My God, you’re right.
There’s one thing to note about these lyrics, and it’s so awesome it makes my skull hurt. The way the song bigs up the main characters is like a publicist with a guitar squealing about how amazing his clients are. And that’s rad. He really cares, you can tell. But I had no idea what half of this cool shit even meant.
“Lord of the Jungle, the hero who stalks,
The beasts call him brother, the ghost who walks.”
What did that even mean? Like I cared. I had no idea what the Phantom was really about, but after hearing that, I would die before I let anyone else play as him in the playground. “No, I’M Phantom” were words that preceded many infantile fistfights, during which I’d be sure to call forth the power of ten tigers, or whatever else I’d seen Phantom do the night before.
That usually settled the matter.
“But Aaron, Trap Door isn’t a cartoon.”
Really? Well, this looks like my blog, asshole, not yours. So Trap Door is staying.
“Somewhere in the dark and nasty regions… where nobody goes… stands an ancient castle. Deep within this dank and uninviting place lives Berk (“‘allo!”)… overworked servant of the Thing Upstairs.”
My friends, we are a lesser generation. We are a weaker breed than our mothers and fathers, for we will never create art as magnificent as this. Kids would be singing “Don’t you open that TRAP. DOORRRRRRR” for days after every episode.
In addition to this being one of the greatest TV show theme songs of all time, it was also just flat-out one of the best shows, though I’m sure Americans will find it cheap and crappy. But Trap Door provided me with my first ever quote, and started a foul habit of picking up lines I liked from everywhere, only to deploy them in the pub at every opportunity and leaving my friends secretly wishing I just die already. The quote is one I remain fond of, though I try to save it for when it really counts. See, Boni was a skull, and Berk dragged him around to do tedious things. And 1:27 into this very episode…:
… Boni watches Berk fishing and says in his old man’s English accent, “I’m cold and I’m bored and I want to go home.” You wouldn’t believe the number of family holidays I ruined by saying that every eight minutes.
6. Ah, this one.
This was always a guilty pleasure. I never liked the show, but I loved this song when I was a kid – though you’d never catch me admitting it back then.
“It’s not much a life when you’re just a pretty face – Just to be whoever you are is no disgrace,
Don’t be scared if you don’t fit in – Look who’s in the reject bin,
It’s the Raggy Dolls, dolls like you and me – Raggy dolls, made imperfectly,
So if you’ve got a bump on your nose or lumps on your toes, do not despair,
Be like the Raggy Dolls and say “I just don’t care”.
‘Cause Raggy Dolls are happy just to be – Raggy Dolls, dolls like you and me.”
Hearing this when I was a kid would often make me cry. It was the kind of crying you wanted to do; the kind that’s a purge, leaving you drained but strangely contented afterwards. I hated school. Hated it. I hated the fear I always felt that I’d say something stupid, or not know something every other kid seemed to know. So many times, I’d not know how to reply to a normal slice of conversation, so instead of saying anything, I’d just look at the other kid in silence until they went away. The people who know me well know that I still occasionally do this now (usually when I’m mega-tired and deadlines loom), though I’m better at hiding it. (And, importantly, school became a lot better post-age 6.) Back then, I had no ability to conceal such awkwardness, I just knew that staring at them made them stop after a while.
This song always has a place in my heart because of the way it purged me and made me feel better afterwards. The shows we watch when we’re kids shape us in some amazing ways, and I like to think that there were a lot of outsider kids that loved this show, or at least the song, maayyyyybe in a more positive way than I did.
What’s weird is that I had a pretty great childhood, all things considered, so don’t take this example as some sign of thrilling trauma. Almost dying of meningitis at age 8 came closer to that.
7. From that, to this:
This is arguably the greatest 80s cartoon theme song of all time. From “THUNDERING ACROSS THE STARS…” you have the most retarded exposition of a plot that makes no more than 5% sense, which leads into the most soul-burningly sincere vocals any of us have ever heard in our lives. “Wheeled Warriors EXPLODE into battle.” Is that a good thing? “LIGHTNING STRIKES.”
“There’s a power that comes from deep inside of you… ‘Cause everyday you’re reaching toward the liiiiight…”
“Come take a chance – keep ’em turnin’, don’t stop ’em rollin’, the fire is on… Wheeeeeeled Warriuuurrrrrs.”
The fire is on? The… the fire is on? On what? What does any of this mean? How the fuck do you thunder across the stars? Lightning strikes what? Who are you people?
“Buh-buh-battle drums burning, wheels movin’, Wheeeeeeeeeeled Warriuuurrrrrrrrs.”
The battle drums are burning? Wait, is that good or bad? I mean, you sound kinda psyched about it, but who the fuck is playing those drums? I fear there’s a Health & Safety issue if they continue to keep the beat. And aren’t war drums for infantry formations? Why do you even need those in future cars? Someone tell me that the hell is going on, please, I beg of you.
Actually, don’t tell me. I don’t care. This song is so awesome that it melts my skin and blood into corpse goo. I want it noted in my will that my bones can be used as drumsticks for the flaming battle drums. That’s what I want to contribute to the world.
Make it so.
8. And to end Part I on a real winner…
MASK (Mobile Armoured Strike Kommand) was the bastard child-spawn of Coolness and Idiocy fucking behind Common Sense’s back.
This song, and in fact, the whole intro, is so teeth-grindingly superb that it makes me want to throw myself out of the window and bash my head into the ground, just so some of the awesomeness is released back into the wild where it belongs.
“Mah-Mah-Mah MASK! – is the mighty power that can save the day.
Seriously, Lady Gaga could’ve written this. Let’s compare lines:
“Puh-puh-puh poker face, puh-puh poker face.”
“Mah-Mah-Mah MASK! – no one knows what lies behind their masquerades.”
Wait, shit, MASK actually makes more sense than Lady Gaga. Hm. Didn’t see that one coming.
Anyway, the MASK theme tune also had some awesome sound effects above the hilariously bad, super-sincere lyrics, usually engine noises and laser cannons, for obvious reasons. But my love for the song is tainted by what we see, here. About 30 seconds in, Matt Trakker’s car (Thunderhawk) fires its engines as it’s about to take off. Firstly, cars can’t just fly by opening the doors, and even as a kid, I knew that was moronic. In Back to the Future, Doc had to get a hover conversion installed, and that made the DeLorean’s wheels do awesome things as the car flew. With Thunderhawk, Matt Trakker just opens the doors and speeds up. Is that science? The answer is no.
Secondly, the song talks about how “Trakker’s gonna lead the mission” and how “Spectrum’s got such super vision”. I have several problems here. Firstly, it sounds like Trakker is going to leave the mission, which is what loads of kids thought the song was saying, and meant even his own show’s theme song made for a truly shitty endorsement of his leadership. Secondly, Spectrum was his mask (though… in hindsight, aren’t these helmets? Whatever) and apparently had super vision. Well, yeah, it did. But Spectrum was the most Deus ex Machina piece of bullshit I’ve ever seen. As stated clearly, its special thing was being able to see stuff, to detect stuff, and so on. The clue is in the name, and the fact the guy wearing it is called Matt Trakker. Tracker. Get it? Good.
Once, in the middle of the episode, Matt falls out of Thunderhawk for some reason. Maybe because he’s FLYING A CAR and the CAR DOORS ARE WIDE OPEN. But what do I know, I’m just a novelist. My point is that he falls out without a parachute, and is all like “Holy crap”.
Only he’s not like that, because he says “Spectrum Hang-glider, on!” and floats down to the ground. I’m sorry, what? Previously, we’ve seen “Spectrum, on!” and you’ve looked around a bit, seeing tire tracks or racoon shit or whatever. Your power is to look at things. That’s what you do. Now you can fly? Like, for no reason?
Then we have the engine boost itself, and I can’t help but feel they screwed the pooch on sound effects, here. If my car backfired like that, I wouldn’t be excited as I lifted off into the sky. I’d be crying about another mechanic bill I couldn’t afford, and depending on how serious an explosion it was, I might be on fire as well.
And then we have V.E.N.O.M.
As a lifelong proponent of Cobra, I literally cannot find an and end to my hatred of V.E.N.O.M. Even their name is dumb, standing for the Vicious Evil Network of Mayhem, and was founded by the two ageing fat twins Miles and Max Mayhem. Unlike Cobra, who had a wealth of killer characters who I desperately to be friends with, VENOM was basically led by a core of three annoying weirdos who couldn’t aim for shit, and drove really crap vehicles.
This is Max Mayhem, failing to conquer the world as always. As you can see, he appears to be some kind of overweight businessman, perhaps an industrialist or Red State senator. He seems the kind of porky motherfucker who has strong views on gun control, gays in the military, and abortion being murder. Not exactly Cobra Commander, is he? Also, why is he dressed like an admiral?
This is Sly Rax, whose claim to fame seems to be that he’s the brother of Leoric, from Visionaries.
Leoric was all class, and all man. Sly Rax is just… Well, I have nothing else to say about him except that I can’t tell if he looks more like a maths teacher at a 70s disco, or a science teacher at a 70s disco. Either way, I hope he crashes his stupid purple motorbike and busts up his spine. He’ll never dance again.
This is Cliff Dagger. Exactly what his angle is supposed to be, I’ll never know. Is he supposed to be scary? He looks like the son of a pumpkin and a toaster, for Christ’s sake. I don’t remember what his mask did, actually. I think it fired something. You’d think from his name that it shot daggers (or… cliffs?), but I think it looks way more likely that it fires bagels.
God, I hate V.E.N.O.M.
In Part II, we’ll deal with Visionaries, The Mysterious Cities of Gold, Heathcliff, Duck Tales, Centurions, Ulysses 31, Silverhawks, Count Duckula, Gummi Bears, Ninja Turtles and Ring Raiders.
Heh. Ring Raiders. I get it.
Oh, by the way, I finished The First Heretic and it’s absolutely huge. Starting Blood Reaver now.
I missed First Claw more than I realised.