One of the biggest communal TV binges of the last few years has been Stranger Things — with the pesky kids in the throwback 80s sci-fi horror series shamelessly pushing all our nostalgia buttons.
Strangers Things reeled in anyone over 35 with its attention to period detail and tender nods to 80s movie tropes — a good-natured tribute rather than cynical pastiche.
One of the show’s biggest bullseyes was the score and main intro theme by Austin synth act S U R V I V E, with its warm analogue synth pulses a direct line back to Nightmare on Elm Street and John Carpenter’s minimalist film scores.
Posting this from under a nostalgia comfort blanket, here’s a shameless nostalgia trip through 80s TV synth themes – some classic (i.e. probably too obvious), some slightly niche and one that’s pretty terrifying.
Miami Vice – Crockett’s Theme
This one’s probably closest in theme to Stranger Things — an impossibly lush cocoon of a bassline, a deft lead melody and breathy synth pads wafting all over the place.
A far better piece of music than the actual Miami Vice intro theme, with its cluttered over-processed guitar solos and machine gun drum rolls, ‘Crockett’s Theme’ was a crossover chart hit in 1987 — with Jan Hammer doubling up on synth and keytar on Top of the Pops.
The Krypton Factor
The theme of this early evening game show was all sleek, minimal industrial edges and metallic percussion – think Kraftwerk’s ‘Music Non Stop’ or ‘Close to the Edit’ by The Art of Noise. The perfect soundtrack for lads called Nigel from Bolton huffing and puffing through the army assault course with their Hi-Tek runners covered in muck.
The most obvious one on the list, propelled by the most iconic synth melody of all the cult 80s shows. If it wasn’t so rinsed by DJs and remixers it could fit into any old skool electro set today. It’s been sampled by Busta Rhymes, Punjabi MC and Timbaland, but the original theme is just perfect as it is.
“The world’s first computer-generated TV host” was a cross between Red Dwarf’s Kryten and Talking Heads’ David Byrne in Stop Making Sense — in a hand-drawn wire frame CG set because computer graphics hadn’t quite mastered the rendering power by 1985.
Still, Michael Hoenig squeezed the most he could out of the new synths of the era. There’s a few cheesy squealing guitars around the half-minute mark, but it doesn’t derail that Moroder-style bassline.
One of the most iconic sci-fi theme tunes of all time, Dr Who was composed in 1963 by Ron Grainer and rendered by ‘Sculptress of Sound’ Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop , from reels and reels of analogue tape recording of a single plucked string and simple waveform oscillators.
It sneaks into the list on a technicality because the updated 80s theme was the first to use analogue synths, with a little bit more polish but without losing the original’s sense of dread.
Near and Far
Not a ‘classic’ as such, but a personal flashback to the assembly hall in primary school, watching ‘BBC Schools and Colleges’ on a big communal TV on metal legs and wooden swing-out doors.
Geography programme Near and Far had the darkest theme of any kids’ TV show — or any show — of the era. The BBC Radiophonic Work was known for eccentric experimentation, but this tune would even scare the life out of acts on the Ghost Box label or other hauntological artists. The discordant, murky reimagining of ‘Girls and Boys Come Out To Play’, along with the zoom out from a British playground to outer space is a real chiller. And what’s the deal with that weird brutalist logo that shakily zooms in from the right?
Tangerine Dream were a bit proggy and mystical on earlier 70s albums like Zeit and Phaedra, but hit on the robo-charged arpeggiated synth lines with Stratosfear in 1976. The German electronic pioneers’ theme for 1985 one-season wonder Street Hawk fit the brief perfectly — the high-adrenaline chugging synth lines and proto-Daft Punk filtered guitars was the natural end-point of Stratosfear’s experimentation, and sounded automatically like an “all-terrain attack motorcycle” whizzing past on a secret government mission. Bonus point for the narrator who is ‘voiceover man’ to the nth degree — listen to the way he says “Streeeed ’aaaawk”.
Electronic composer Jan Hammer must’ve got the brief: “Just make it sound like a hi-tech military helicopter, and even more camp than Street Hawk.” Airwolf was another 80s dick-measuring competition — Saturday afternoon fluff centred around a super-charged machine that would take down vaguely foreign-looking baddies. That insistent rotary percussive bassline is still one of the best of the decade.
Who better to write a theme tune for a gritty cop show than Stewart Copeland of the, er, Police. The intro is split into two halves, both belters. The first section is tense, percussive EBM-style minimalism in the vein of Front 242, but after 50 seconds or so that gives way to a classic uplifting synth melody that just screams ‘good guy, but he’ll still knock the shit out of you if you don’t wise up’.
The campest theme on the list — Ulysses is a cross between overblown italo, Hi-NRG and late 70s space disco like The Droids and Cerrone. It’s also the only one with verses, choruses and a preamble that tried to crunch Ulysses’ mix of 31st century Greek mythology and sci-fi mysticism into 20 seconds. One thing’s certain — Ulysses was more complicated than a car that could talk or a motorbike that could shoot rockets. I’ve never rewatched this so it’s never made any sense to me. But one YouTube commenter has offered up this succinct summation: “SPACE JESUS!”