Born in the 1950s via Elvis Presley on Ed Sullivan and Ricky Nelson on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, the bond between television and rock-and-roll has been unbreakable since the earliest days of each medium’s very first revolutions in art, technology, and stirring up teenage trouble.
Proper rock TV theme songs didn’t really become a standard practice until the 1960s by way of hits like The Monkees, The Mod Squad, and perhaps the most inspiring of them all, Batman. However, with the ascent of hard rock, heavy metal, and punk in the ’70s, bands took to not only regularly wailing tunes in praise of their favorite boob tube entertainment, they often bashed out covers of TV theme songs. It’s a rich tradition that blazes on to this day.
Here now, are our picks for the 20 greatest hard-and-heavy rock revamps of classic TV themes.
1. “Mission: Impossible” – Pantera
Pantera frontman Phil Anselmo steps away from the mic and allows his fellow Cowboys From Hell—in particular the late, great guitar sorcerer Dimebag Darrell—to run wild through a rip-roaring take on the thrilling and suspenseful instrumental opening music from the classic 1960s-’70s spy series.
Compare and contrast Pantera’s “Mission: Impossible” to the version put out by U2’s rhythm section, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, for the 1996 Tom Cruise movie redo of the show. Then ask yourself: which of those two groups would you more trust to pilot you through a high-risk, death-at-every-turn espionage adventure?
2. “The Simpsons” – Green Day
Over the course of more than a quarter-century, The Simpsons has featured literally dozens of top-ticket rock stars both providing vocal cameos and performing on the show, from Michael Jackson to Metallica. Only two bands have been awarded the honor of reimagining Danny Elfman’s iconic theme music, though: Sonic Youth, whose Simpsons cover runs during the 1996 episode “Homerpalooza;” and Green Day, whose brat-punk blast-off take accompanies the end credits of 2007’s The Simpsons Movie.
3. “Suicide Is Painless (M*A*S*H) – Marilyn Manson
That the familiar instrumental M*A*S*H theme has lyrics may come as a surprise to fans of the TV series. The song, “Suicide Is Painless” by composer Johnny Mandel, actually plays a major role in the movie M*A*S*H, outlaw filmmaker Robert Altman’s searing big-screen 1970 black comedy on which the show was based.
Taken out of a satirical context, the song is a major bummer, which is no doubt what prompted covers of it by sardonic UK alt-rock stars the Manic Street Preachers, as well as D.C. narcotic-drip lo-fo duo Royal Trux.
Marilyn Manson, of course, (super)naturally ups the inherent creepiness of the song’s melody and lyrics to uncomfortable levels that only he can pull off. Try not to hear his largely whispered vocals the next time you catch Hawkeye and B.J. cutting it up on the tube.
4. “The Munsters” – Rob Zombie
Rob Zombie is an outspoken fanatical devotee of The Munsters, the beloved 1964-1966 CBS sitcom that recast Universal Studio’s signature monsters like Frankenstein and Dracula into a wholesome American household.
Unlike their ABC rivals The Addams Family, the theme song to The Munsters contains no lyrics, but instead is an instrumental rave-up with booming horns, surf-rock guitar, and irresistible hooks. Rob Zombie loves covering the song so much in concert, that he even brings out Satan himself to boogie to its riffs and grooves.
5. “Batman” – The Who
TV’s madcap pop-art take on Batman exploded as a major cultural phenomenon in 1966, inspiring every subsequent generation of kids ever since to sing along with the series’ irresistible theme song: “Duh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-BATMAN!”
As the show exuded rock-and-roll attitude from the get-go, numerous bands have paid tribute to the Batman theme. That roster includes rollicking versions by Flaming Lips and the Jam. On the other hand, The Who’s take on composer Neil Hefti’s masterwork is pretty straightforward, but certainly the most noteworthy because, hey, they’re the Who.
6. “Spider-Man” – The Ramones
Spider-Man is the most New York of superheroes, and the Ramones are the most New York of bands. The two come together heroically, indeed, in the punk godfather’s amped-up take on the familiar sing-along theme song from the 1960s Spider-Man cartoon series.
7. “In the Street (Theme from That ’70s Show)” – Cheap Trick
This one’s a little tricky. “In the Street” started as a typically great and also typically non-hit song by art-pop pioneers Big Star. Then a version sung by Todd Griffin served as the theme music for season one of That ’70s Show. For season two onward, the mighty Cheap Trick remade Griffin’s remake of Big Star’s original, and the Rockford, Illinois rampagers tagged the tune with a rousing chant of “We’re all alright! We’re all alright!” from their 1978 smash, “Surrender.”
8. “Love Is All Around (The Mary Tyler Moore Show Theme)” – Hüsker Dü
The Mary Tyler Moore Show is the sitcom that made Minneapolis (TV) famous. Punked-up power trio Hüsker Dü rank alongside Prince and their friends/rivals the Replacements as the ’80s artists who most spectacularly made the Twin Cities rock.
For the B-side of their 1985 signature anthem “Makes No Sense at All,” the Hüskers cut a deeply affectionate cover of “Love Is All Around,” the Mary Tyler Moore theme song, and accompanied the release with a warmly knuckleheaded music video.
9. “Peter Gunn” – Emerson, Lake, and Palmer
With a head-bopping bassline rivaled only by Batman, composer Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn theme remains collectively ingrained in the public consciousness decades after the 1958-61 TV detective series itself faded from memory.
Prog-masters Emerson, Lake, and Palmer had the most fun with the “Peter Gunn Theme,” though, occasionally surprising concert audiences with a jam that suddenly erupted into the familiar “duh-nuh-duh-duh-DUH-NUH” riff and then flowered into an extended cover. In 1979, ELP treated Canadian audiences to an official single release of the song.
10. “Underdog” – Butthole Surfers
In 1996, Texas-friend psychedelic hooligans the Butthole Surfers worked their acidic magic on the soaring theme from the superhero spoof cartoon, Underdog. It might seem an odd coupling until one recalls that, on the show, the humble hound known as Shoeshine Boy transformed into the flying, mega-powered Underdog each episode by consuming a “super energy pill.” The Buttholes, no doubt, saw in that practice a kindred spirit.
11. “Banana Splits” – The Dickies
Fleegle, Bingo, Drooper, and Snork—the title characters of the 1968-70 series The Banana Splits Adventure Hour—were members of a bubblegum rock band portrayed by four goofy dudes in anthropomorphic animal costumes. The Banana Splits themselves served to introduce cartoon and live-action serial segments, as well as to jam out a couple of tunes and speak of their rivalry with the girl gang the Sour Grapes, who were go-go dancing kids that wore scout uniforms.
The show’s “tra-la-la-TRA-la-la-la” theme song is impossible not to bobble one’s head along to, and provided perfect cover fodder in 1978 for L.A. speed-punk provocateurs the Dickies. Far more bizarrely, Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier” seems to borrow the chorus melody and has prompted endless amount of stoned debate for decades.
12. “Gigantor” – Helmet
The aforementioned Dickies do a killer cover of the theme from the 1960s’ Japanese import cartoon Gigantor. Still, the version by ’90s New York alt-metal crushers Helmet truly conveys the industrial power of the show’s premise, wherein a little boy controls Gigantor, a mammoth flying robot, and sends him on missions to right wrongs and bring supervillians to justice.
13. “Good Times” – Redd Kross
L.A. punk’s supreme power-pop brother act Redd Kross worked the theme from the urban ’70s sitcom Good Times into their live act during the ’90s, turning the song’s gospel-style music into a rocking rave-up that carried the lyrical message of communal uplift and positivity in the face of struggle to even the freaky-deakiest of audiences.
14. “Get Smart” – Agent Orange
SoCal surf punks shred the instrumental opening music from the Mel Brooks-Buck Henry spy spoof series into a rip-curl of intrigue and invigoration. Cowabunga, Chief!
15. “Bad Things (True Blood Theme)” – Transience
While Game of Thrones has generated countless amateur covers, some of them rocking most royally, Australian prog metal Transcience turned instead to HBO’s other recent flesh-and-fantasy hit, True Blood. Appropriately, Transience’s take shows off some impressive musical fangs.
Mike “McBeardo” McPadden is the author of Heavy Metal Movies: Guitar Barbarians, Mutant Bimbos, and Cult Zombies Amok in the 666 Most Ear- and Eye-Ripping Big Scream Films Ever! (Bazillion Points).