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Ryan Johnson covers local politics for the Grand Forks Herald in Grand Forks, N.D.

Theme Song Thursday: ‘Perfect Strangers’ touts a perfect theme song

Much of my childhood, at least on Friday nights, revolved around ABC’s TGIF lineup in the early 1990s. Everyone had a favorite sitcom during the two-hour weekly programming block, whether it was “Full House,” “Family Matters” or “Step by Step.”

Perfect Strangers

Cousin Larry and Cousin Balki

But my favorite, then and now, is “Perfect Strangers,” a perfect sitcom for its odd couple pairing of Larry Appleton (Mark Linn-Baker) and his previously unknown distant cousin Balki Bartokomous (Bronson Pinchot), who hailed from the Mediterranean island of Mypos.

The show revolves around Balki’s failures and successes as he tries to adapt to the American way of life while living in his cousin’s Chicago apartment. When things went right, Balki would bust out his signature “Dance of Joy”; when things went wrong, it usually turned out Balki was more right than his stressed-out, neurotic cousin Larry when it come down to being a good guy and doing the right thing.

“Perfect Strangers” came from the production dream team Miller-Boyett, who also were behind pretty much every other good sitcom at the time, including “Full House,” “Perfect Strangers” spinoff “Family Matters” and “Step by Step.” And these guys really knew the value of having an awesome theme song, which explains why they relied on songwriting duo Jesse Frederick and Bennett Salvay to write the themdes for all the shows I just mentioned (and that explains why they all have somewhat similar themes).

But for whatever reason, I think it all came together perfectly in the minute or so of awesomeness in “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now,” an optimistic song about not giving up that’s a great intro to each episode of “Perfect Strangers.” The song, performed by David Pomeranz, went through several small edits and cuts through the show’s eight-season run from 1986 to 1993 but always kept the focus on the original theme’s inspiring lyrics:

Standing tall, on the wings of my dream.
Rise and fall, on the wings of my dream.
The rain and thunder
The wind and haze
I’m bound for better days.
It’s my life and my dream,
Nothing’s gonna stop me now.

Don’t get me wrong, “Full House” and “Family Matters” have classic theme songs, and I have always loved the catchy little ditty that kicked off each episode of “Step by Step.” But “Perfect Strangers” was the most solid sitcom ever developed by Miller-Boyett, and the show’s theme also stands above the rest of a pretty amazing pack of shows and songs that stemmed from these television geniuses.

But you don’t have to take my word for it:

And here’s the infamous “Dance of Joy”:

Awesome.

Theme Song Thursday is a weekly look back at memorable, not-so-influential, nostalgia-inducing theme songs by the Herald’s Melinda Lavine and Ryan Johnson. Click here to read previous entries, and feel free to share!

Theme Song Thursday: Louie Louie you’re gonna cry

I like plenty of TV show theme songs that are instrumentals – “30 Rock” has a pretty good theme, and the music that kicks off each episode of “MacGyver” gets me pumped up and ready to watch Mac’s practical wisdom save the day.

Louie

Louie (Louis C.K.)

But I really prefer a theme that has words because, let’s face it, there’s nothing better than a catchy song to sing along with, especially if you’re loyally watching the show and will be forced to hear the song over and over again.

That’s why I love “Brother Louie,” the 1970s Hot Chocolate song that serves as the theme of the hilariously smart FX comedy “Louie.” The original song is about 4 minutes long, dealing with the topic of interracial romance and a couple faced with racism. That might seem at odds with a comedy stemming from the twisted yet somehow relatable mind of Louis C.K. But mixed into the original song is a repeated chorus that works perfectly for a show about a depressed white dude named Louie:

“Louie Louie Louie, Louie
Louie Louie Lou-i
Louie Louie Louie
Louie Louie you’re gonna cry”

Hot Chocolate didn’t get much attention for this song – you probably know them for “You Sexy Thing,” their 1975 classic. But “Brother Louie” rose to the top of the charts in 1973 when it was expertly covered by one-hit wonder Stories.

Here’s the song, as performed by Stories:

http://youtu.be/exl0oSfTSoY

And here’s a clip from “Louie,” a show you should definitely start watching if you haven’t already:

Theme Song Thursday is a weekly look back at memorable, not-so-influential, nostalgia-inducing theme songs by the Herald’s Melinda Lavine and Ryan Johnson. Click here to read other Theme Song Thursday posts and feel free to share!

Theme Song Thursday: Clarissa explains, well, not very much

“Clarissa Explains It All” gave the world Melissa Joan Hart and was somewhat ahead of its time, being the first Nickelodeon television series to feature a female lead character.

Clarissa Explains It All

Sam and Clarissa

But this early 1990s show really only made one contribution that matters – its amazingly simple theme song.

Rachel Sweet expertly performs this series of one repeated syllable with an occasional “way cool! or “just do it!” thrown in for good measure. Don’t look for any meaning in this theme; it is, literally, just a series of “na-na-na-na” with a few phrases added to it so there’s at least a few sections with lyrics.

My parent’s cable plan didn’t include Nickelodeon, so it’s not like I closely followed the exploits of Clarissa or grew up learning from her explanations of it all. Still, I seem to randomly think of the theme song once every few months and then spend the next week trying to get the tune out of my head. I don’t always need meaning, or actual words, in my music – sometimes all I look for in a good theme song is a little “na-na-na.”

http://youtu.be/m9gQD6i4htU

Theme Song Thursday is a weekly look back at memorable, not-so-influential, nostalgia-inducing theme songs by the Herald’s Melinda Lavine and Ryan Johnson. Click here to read other Theme Song Thursday posts and feel free to share!

Theme Song Thursday: Take a look, it’s in a book

I might not remember the book reviews, and I’ve long since forgotten the guest stars, but I recently realized that “Reading Rainbow” has stuck with me well into adulthood for one big reason – its highly infectious, yet simple, theme song about the power of reading.

Butteflies

I can go twice as high

Usually I think of the song when I see a “butterfly in the sky,” the first line from the show’s theme performed by Tina Fabrique. The uplifting lyrics and can-do spirit, combined with the message of being able to do “anything” when you read, always take me back to my early grade school days.

I think my love for this show was due to a couple of personality traits I had as a young child – I absolutely loved reading, tearing through pretty much every book I could get my hands on, and I grew up in a house where “Star Trek: The Next Generation” was more likely to be on the TV than pretty much any other show. So I guess it wasn’t surprising that I watched this show all the time, both to learn more about the written word and to see how much more normal LeVar Burton looked when he wasn’t wearing that dorky visor that, apparently, is how blind people will see in the future (at least according to Star Trek).

LeVar Burton Reading Rainbow

LeVar Burton getting excited about reading!

My knowledge of “Reading Rainbow” helped me learn how to write the best vague book reports in grade school. I think my closing line in every fifth grade book report was “But you don’t have to take my word for it,” which actually is the exact phrase LeVar Burton would use to introduce kids’ book reviews on the show. With a line like that, it was easy to pretend that I meant my classmates should read the book for themselves to find out how it ends – but it really was just a convenient way of omitting the fact that I usually didn’t know the conclusion because I hadn’t finished the assigned book.

I stopped watching the show sometime in the mid-1990s (somewhere in the middle of the show’s 1983 to 2009 television run) and, eventually, forgot about my love for “Reading Rainbow.” But to this day, the theme song instantly pops into my head whenever I see a butterfly.

And who doesn’t like getting a blast of nostalgia from such a simple sight?

You can also check out a Chaka Khan version of the theme used in the show after 1999 (it’s pretty bad, but maybe you’ll like it better than me). And here’s a funny clip from “Community” when LeVar Burton visits a starstruck Troy:

Theme Song Thursday is a weekly look back at memorable, not-so-influential, nostalgia-inducing theme songs by the Herald’s Melinda Lavine and Ryan Johnson. Click here to read other Theme Song Thursday posts and feel free to share!

Theme Song Thursday: How DO you talk to an angel? This band doesn’t know either

The 1990s were a time of introspection, and every now and then someone would try to answer some of the great existential questions of their time. But one of those mysteries still persists today: “How do you talk to an angel?”

That’s a tough question to answer, especially considering that doing so is like “trying to catch a falling star.”

The Heights

The Heights at their height of fame (bad pun)

Those are about the only pearls of wisdom in The Heights’ “How Do You Talk to an Angel,” the chart-topping theme song for the 1990s teen drama “The Heights.”

No doubt this is a shallow song — a quick look at the lyrics shows it really is only a few sentences repeated over and over to make sure you understand just how difficult it is to talk to an angel. But the tune actually packs quite a bit of sappy charm into a few minutes, and this is definitely one of my favorite 1990s power ballads. I’d much rather endure The Heights than listen to Poison’s “Every Rose Has its Thorn,” probably the lamest power ballad of all time.

But I didn’t even realize that “How Do You Talk to an Angel” was a TV theme song — every time I heard it was on the radio, and I just assumed it was from some random one-hit wonder.

It was only during a recent conversation with my friend that I found out this classic got its start on the TV airwaves. And I’ve got a feeling most people think of this more as a radio hit than a TV theme. The short-lived series “The Heights” premiered in August 1992 and never gained a substantial audience. While it’s true “How Do You Talk to an Angel” was a huge success, becoming the first song from a TV show to top the Billboard Hot 100 chart in seven years and garnering a 1993 Emmy nomination, Fox canceled the show less than a week after the theme fell from the top of the charts.

We can mourn the passing of this cheesy 1990s drama, which according to Wikipedia is “centered on a fictional band (also called The Heights) made up of mostly middle-class young adults.” Sounds like a compelling plot…

While the show is long forgotten, and probably for good reason, at least we can take comfort in the fact that its theme song will still have a place at high school proms and wedding dances for decades to come.

Theme Song Thursday is a weekly look back at memorable, not-so-influential, nostalgia-inducing theme songs by the Herald’s Melinda Lavine and Ryan Johnson. Click  here to read previous entries, and feel free to share!

‘Fast Five’ delivers the goods in a shameless but fun action flick

“Fast Five,” the fifth installment in the “Fast & Furious” franchise that’s captivated car lovers and action movie fanatics for the past decade, delivers a fast-paced shot of adrenaline that, somehow, makes you forget that this movie is more than two hours long (that’s a bit too long for almost any movie if you ask me).

It’s not going to garner any award nominations for Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Well, I suppose they can expect to pick up a few Teen Choice Awards. And “Fast Five” is hardly an innovation in the action genre, borrowing heavily from the plots of big budget heist films over the past few decades.

Fast Five

Paul Walker & Vin Diesel looking like action stars

But despite the odds, and my utter lack of hope that I would enjoy the experience of watching a movie about cars and the people who drive them, “Fast Five” works really well and actually is the best action film I’ve seen in years.

The film starts with Dom Toretto (Diesel) being sentenced to life in prison for his crimes (I’m not quite sure what he did because this was the first “Fast & Furious” movie I’ve seen). Soon he’s on a bus being transported to the cell he’ll be locked inside for his remaining days, but it doesn’t take long for his sister Mia Toretto (Brewster) and former cop Brian O’Conner (Walker) to pull off an amazing stunt to rescue their leader and make off on a fast escape.

This sets up the philosophical conflict in the movie, if you can even call it that. Toretto and his accomplices are now “free,” but in exchange are now fugitives from the law who are being hunted across the globe.

Their money soon runs out, and with Toretto mysteriously missing. Conner and his (SPOILER ALERT) pregnant girlfriend Mia Toretto find themselves starving, exhausted and broke in Rio de Janeiro. They reluctantly agree to get involved in a shady car heist on a moving train, but realize the job isn’t quite as advertised “just as Toretto arrives to bail out.” Conner in a really cool scene that involves a looming train bridge, a perfectly timed jump and a 1,000-foot freefall off a cliff into a lake.

With a new member of the Toretto family on the way, the trio realizes they need to change their ways and find a way of achieving real “freedom” which, in this film, involves lots of money, so they can start new lives outside the reach of the law.

Fast Five cast

Getting the crew together

They decide to take on an impossible “one last job” to get enough cash to be set for life, get out of crime and finally find the”freedom” they’ve been seeking since the beginning of the movie. But they can’t do it alone, and they summon characters from the previous four “Fast & Furious” movies to fly down to Rio and help them in what surely seems to be a suicide mission to take down the biggest crime lord on the continent and steal his wealth.

It won’t be easy: he has the Rio police department in his back pocket, plus the U.S. has sent over badass federal agent Luke Hobbs (Johnson) to track down the fugitives after they’re unjustly tied to several murders.

On the surface, “Fast Five” is a derivative film that borrows heavily from movies with better plots and better character development. The dialogue, which hardly exists to begin with, is bogged down with cheesy writing delivered by actors who aren’t really known for their acting. And the plot includes (SPOILER ALERT) a token sacrifice as one of the Toretto clan, but not one of the main characters, is shot and bleeds to death in the arms of his estranged brother after bravely leading a gunfight with the corrupt Rio police.

But the film stands out in a field of mediocre action movies simply because of how well it embraces its purpose: to give the audience a two-hour break from reality. It’s hard to match the adrenaline rush that comes from watching Vin Diesel and The Rock going head to head once the two bitter rivals finally are in the same place at the same time. The driving scenes totally defy the laws of physics, and I’ve never seen cars with a bumper strong enough to come out untarnished after ramming a bus off the road, but they’re so much fun to watch that I didn’t care about the realism of the plot. And the last 20 minutes is Conner and Toretto ripping up the streets of Rio as they try to pull off the ultimate heist using two fast cars, some chain and an unbreakable safe in what I’d consider to be among cinema’s top car scenes of all time.

“Fast Five” is an action movie that doesn’t try to be anything else. Why worry about coming up with an intriguing plot or compelling character development when you have top action stars who can drive fast, shoot well and throw punches strong enough to break brick walls?

I went into the movie theater expecting to get a few laughs from the film, but I can honestly say “Fast Five” is actually a good movie that’s worth watching if you need a break from the real world. It’s not going to make you think, but it’s everything you’d want from a “Fast & Furious” movie.

Theme Song Thursday: The magic number

Learning about grammar is kind of boring. So what’s the best way of getting kids to actually look forward to learning about predicates, multiplication tables, history, and all the other nonrecess subjects they detest so much?

Schoolhouse Rock

Nostalgia in cartoon form

Turns out, the answer is writing awesome songs that pack a strong dose of education without the kids even realizing it.

I’m talking, of course, about “Schoolhouse Rock,” perhaps the coolest educational video series ever made. This show was before my time, ending its original run in 1985. But my grade school teachers were fans, so I remember watching quite a few episodes about grammar and history.

The show was at its prime for 37 episodes airing from 1972 to 1980, including my personal favorite, “I’m Just a Bill.” American history was far from my favorite subject as a kid, but I instantly took a liking to this classic song. I joked to my friend recently that this song is still how I remember the U.S. government process. And while that’s not totally true, this song is the first thing that pops into my head when I hear about a bill.

It’s performed by Jack Sheldon, my favorite “Schoolhouse Rock singer” who also was the voice behind “Conjunction Junction,” “Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla” and “The Tale of Mr. Morton,” among others. With his performance as Bill, it’s hard to not feel bad for “that sad little scrap of paper” who’s hoping and praying that he’ll become more than just a bill:

Another personal favorite is “Three is a Magic Number,” a song that actually was how “Schoolhouse Rock” got started in the first place. According to Wikipedia, the show’s origin goes back to an idea by commercial advertising executive David McCall. He noticed his son was having trouble remembering multiplication tables but somehow knew the lyrics to popular rock songs. Bob Dorough soon wrote and performed “Three is a Magic Number,” which was quickly released on a children’s record and, eventually, was set to animation.

The 1973 song is fun to listen to even if you don’t need help remembering 3 x 5, plus it later received an awesome cover by Blind Melon that’s worth checking out. Here’s the Bob Dorough version that helped launch “Schoolhouse Rock”:

Theme Song Thursday is a weekly look back at memorable, not-so-influential, nostalgia-inducing theme songs by the Herald’s Melinda Lavine and Ryan Johnson. Click here to read previous entries, and feel free to share!

Theme Song Thursday: The Brady Bunch of the ’90s

“We’ll make it better, the second time around.”

That’s the gist of “Second Time Around,” the awesome theme song to the not-so-awesome 1990s sitcom “Step by Step” about a newly blended family trying to take things “step by step, day by day.”

The Brady Bunch, the second time around

The cast of "Step by Step"

This show could best be described as a 1990s version of “The Brady Bunch” – divorced contractor Frank Lambert (Patrick Duffy) impulsively marries widowed beautician Carol Foster (Suzanne Somers), who return from a Jamaican vacation to tell their three kids (each!) that they now have step-brothers, step-sisters and step-parents.

Besides being on ABC’s TGIF lineup, “Step by Step” – and its theme song – has a lot in common with other classic 1990s family sitcoms.

The series was developed and executive produced by Thomas L. Miller and Robert L. Boyett, the TV dream team who also produced “Family Matters,” “Full House” and “Perfect Strangers.”

And “Second Time Around” was performed and co-written by Jesse Frederick, who along with Bennett Salvay wrote the themes for the three Miller-Boyett sitcoms I just mentioned. (In case you’re wondering, this explains why all four theme songs sound like they could be looped into one awesome early ’90s track. I’m still hoping to try that experiment some day).

Here are the lyrics to this classic theme song:

The dream got broken
Seemed like all was lost
What would be the future
Could you pay the cost
You wonder,
Will there ever be
a second time around?

Woah-a, woah-a
When the tears are over
And the moment has come
Say “My lord,
I think I found someone”
And no one would be better
To be putting it together
For the second time around

We got the woman and man
We got the kids in a clan
Only time will tell
If all these dreams fit under one umbrella

Step by step
Day by day
A fresh start over
A different hand to play
The deeper we fall
The stronger we stay
And we’ll be better
The second time around

Step by step
Day by day
{Day by day}
A fresh start over
A different hand to play
Only time will tell
But you know what they say
We’ll make it better
The second time around

I’ll admit that I watched the show from time to time in the early 1990s, but “Step by Step” is not something that I would recommend watching today. I think it’s boring, predictable and loaded with bad acting – that’s not all that different from many other sitcoms of its era, but I’d much rather watch “Perfect Strangers” if I want to get my TGIF fix.

Still, “Second Time Around” is such a great song that it’s always stuck in my head, even if I haven’t heard it in years. The tune has a great early ’90s vibe, plus it’s a rockin’ duet between Jesse Frederick and a Bonnie Tyler-like Theresa James. I can’t defend the show it was featured on, but no one has to defend their love of “Second Time Around.”

Here’s the full version of the theme – I’m sure the amusement park intro will be familiar to anyone who grew up with TGIF:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5y42dFQizJ8

Theme Song Thursday is a weekly look back at memorable, not-so-influential, nostalgia-inducing theme songs by the Herald’s Melinda Lavine and Ryan Johnson. Click here to read previous entries, and feel free to share!

Theme Song Thursday: Blossom’s ‘opinionation,’ courtesy of Dr. John

“In my opinionation, the sun is gonna surely shine.”

It’s a nonsense lyric, but these words of wisdom from the theme of the 1990s NBC sitcom “Blossom” are a prime example of the decade’s optimism-at-all-odds approach to life.

This might seem like a strange theme song to talk about in 2011 – after all, “Blossom” ended its five-year TV run in 1995. And other than Blossom’s love of ugly hats and Joey Lawrence’s “Woah!” catchphrase, any impact that this show had on American pop culture died out long ago.

But “My Opinionation” is a great theme song that deserves a listen, especially if you didn’t watch the show (which is probably for the best).

It’s performed by Dr. John, the New Orleans legend with an awesome voice that brings a sense of fun and excitement to the otherwise mundane sitcom situations that Blossom gets into.

And the track was written by composers Steve Geyer and Mike Post (yes, the guy behind the themes for everything from MacGyver to Law & Order). The lyrics are pretty cheesy, and kind of seem like lines out of a bad self-help book, but I still think the song is a good fit for the show:

“Don’t know about the future, that’s anybody’s guess
Ain’t no good reason for getting all depressed
Buy up your pad and pencil, I’ll give you a piece of my mind
In my opinionation, the sun is gonna surely shine

Stop all your fussin’
Slap on a smile
Come out and walk in the sun for a while

Don’t fight the feeling, you know you want to have a good time
And in my opinionation, the sun is gonna surely shine.”

Still not enough to convince you that this is a great theme song? Watch how much fun the cast of “Blossom” seems to be having as they dance along to the catchy tune.

Theme Song Thursday is a weekly look back at memorable, not-so-influential, nostalgia-inducing theme songs by the Herald’s Melinda Lavine and Ryan Johnson. Click here to read previous entries, and feel free to share!