Any ’80s baby will be quick to tell you that the 1980s were a pretty amazing time to be a kid. The NES was king, Garbage Pail Kids lined your bedroom walls and, of course, the era’s cartoons were unquestionably the coolest. Beyond popularizing now-iconic intellectual properties like “Transformers” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” the era also began a trend of truly awesome cartoon theme songs.
Today, we’re taking a look at the 15 most rocking intros of ’80s cartoons, keeping in mind we’re ranking the best theme songs. That means, even great shows that featured intros that rely too heavily on voice over like “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” or those with downright terrible music (we’re looking at you “G.I. Joe”) will not be featured.
Few theme songs (cartoon or otherwise) can claim to have lyrics as memorable as the original “Transformers” theme. You’d be hard pressed to find an elevator pitch better for the franchise than the lines, “Transformers, robots in disguise… Transformers more than meets the eye.” The theme song also did a great job of succinctly breaking down the show’s basics to new viewers: the Autobots were the good guys and their goal was to “destroy the evil forces of the Decepticons.”
For the show’s first three seasons, its theme received new musical arrangements — first by jazzing it up with a funky guitar and a horn section for season two before finally going for a more electronic-oriented theme from seasons 3 to 5. Though the tune’s various melodies are unfortunately not nearly as memorable as its lyrics, the intro earns a spot on this list because hearing that robotic voice “sing” the hook will forever be burned in the brains of countless ’80s kids.
Though they were certainly the most popular, the “Transformers” weren’t the only giant robot cartoon on the block with a killer theme song. The original “Voltron” cartoon followed a team of five young pilots, known as Paladins. Each member of the team operated their own magical robot lion, that when combined together, they acted as either the limbs or head of the legendary hero, Voltron.
Despite flying in the face of our stipulation against intros that rely heavily on voice over, “Voltron” gets a pass for two reasons. First of all, the voiceover was done by the booming voice of Optimus Prime himself, Peter Cullen. But more importantly, the intro still featured an incredibly memorable theme. The triumphant and heroic-sounding trumpet lick that accompanied Cullen’s brief summary of the show’s plot was also featured every time the team formed Voltron, forging an immediate association between the song’s hook and our heroes charging into battle.
13. GARFIELD AND FRIENDS
Running for an impressive seven seasons from 1988-1994 on CBS’ Saturday morning cartoon block, “Garfield and Friends” followed the adventures of characters from cartoonist Jim Davis’ newspaper comic strips, “Garfield” and “U.S. Acres” (known outside the states as “Orson’s Farm”). “Garfield and Friends” actually featured three completely different theme songs over the course of the show’s lifetime, but we’re giving the number 13 slot to the show’s second theme “We’re Ready to Party.”
While season one featured a slow, show tune style theme and the show’s final season had a downright grating “rap” intro, “We’re Ready to Party” was an upbeat latin dance song bursting with energy. It should come as no surprise that the song was the show’s longest-running theme, being used during seasons 2-6 on CBS and throughout the show’s syndication. In fact, it wasn’t until the show was brought to DVD that the original theme was used again for season one, but even then the seventh season’s rap song was left in the mid ’90s, right where it belongs.
12. A PUP NAMED SCOOBY-DOO
“A Pup Named Scooby-Doo” was one of the last popular cartoons to capitalize on the ’80s trend of introducing younger versions of well-known cartoon characters established by the incredibly popular “Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies.” Following the cancellation of “The Flintstone Kids,” Hanna-Barbera’s previous attempt at matching the success of “Muppet Babies,” the company launched “A Pup Named Scooby-Doo” in 1988, which starred junior high versions of the original gang.
The show was the 8th incarnation of the “Scooby-Doo” franchise, and is notable for returning the series to its roots after a number of reboots. “A Pup Named Scooby-Doo” was the first show since the ’70s to reunite the entire original cast of “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?” and had the team return to the familiar formula of solving mysteries about fake monsters. The show’s theme song makes the list for being an effortlessly catchy pop song reminiscent of “Little Shop of Horrors,” but also for the small nods made to the franchise’s origins (most-notably name dropping the original series at the end of the song). Unlike many of the songs on this list, the theme featured multiple verses and even a spooky beach-party-style bridge.
After the success of both “Transformers” and “G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero,” Hasbro tapped the same team to create a new show, “Jem” (also known as “Jem and the Holograms”), based around a new line of fashion dolls. The show followed Jerrica Benton, owner and manager of Starlight Music, and her alter-ego Jem, the mysterious lead singer of Jem and The Holograms. Given the show was about a rock band, music was baked into the show’s DNA.
Inspired by the popularity of MTV, every episode featured three original songs, each with their own accompanying music video to move the show’s plot along. The songs were usually performed by The Holograms or their rival bands The Misfits and The Stingers, and by the time the show had wrapped, 151 original songs had been produced for “Jem.” One of the songs, “Truly Outrageous,” was both the opening and closing theme of the show until 1987, when it was replaced as an opener by a new song called “Jem Girls.” The show is unique on this list for being the only shows to feature multiple themes worthy of making the cut.
10. THE NEW ADVENTURES OF WINNIE THE POOH
Following the success of Disney’s string of “Winnie the Pooh” theatrical shorts from 1966-1974 and the 1977 film, “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh,” the company gave the character his first television show in 1988. Despite only running for three years, the Emmy award-winning “New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” proved incredibly popular. The show made Disney a killing in home video sales well into the ’00s and remained in almost constant syndication in the US until 2006, 15 years after its last episode had aired.
Like many of Disney’s other properties, the show featured a number of memorable original songs sung by the show’s characters, but the show’s theme was easily the best piece of music to come out of “The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.” The bouncy track perfectly captures the fun-loving spirit of the franchise before closing out with an appropriately sweet and sentimental fade.
Another in the long-line of ’80s cartoons created to sell toys, “M.A.S.K.” was developed by the toy company Kenner in association with animation titan DIC Enterprises in 1985. Hoping to capitalize on the massive success of their competitor, Hasbro’s toys — who had media franchises like “Transformers” and “G.I. Joe” — Kenner made the show as a thinly veiled mash-up of the franchises it hoped to emulate.
The show’s leading characters, the Mobile Armored Strike Kommand (aka, M.A.S.K.) were a special task force called to use transformable vehicles and super powered helmets to fight the criminal organization, the Viscous Evil Network of Mayhem (aka, V.E.N.O.M.). Despite the show blatantly ripping off its competition, fans of “M.A.S.K.” can at least boast that it had a MUCH better theme song than the shows which inspired it. The show’s quintessential synth-heavy ’80s jam could have easily felt at home on a Huey Lewis and the News record.
8. DENVER THE LAST DINOSAUR
Easily the least popular show on this list, “Denver the Last Dinosaur,” was created by Voltron producer Peter Keefe to capitalize on the exploding popularity of dinosaurs in the ’80s. The show revolved around a group of Los Angles teenagers who discover a dormant dinosaur egg while visiting the La Brea Tar Pits. After playing with the egg, it hatched into the titular Denver, a friendly dinosaur who, for some inexplicable reason, is able to understand English and use his eggshell to travel back in time.
“Denver the Last Dinosaur” was steeped in the kind of late ’80s cliches that only a room full of adult studio executives could come up with, and the show’s truly rocking theme song was no exception. The synth-heavy rock tune played over footage of Denver (in cool-guy sunglasses) skateboarding, playing guitar and duck walking like Marty McFly. It doesn’t get much more ’80s than that.
7. CHIP ‘N DALE: RESCUE RANGERS
After Disney’s “DuckTales” proved to be a breakout success for the company, “Chip ‘N Dale: Rescue Rangers” was one of three shows (along with “TaleSpin” and “Darkwing Duck”) that were developed to create the first line-up for “The Disney Afternoon” programming block. The show followed a revamped Chip and Dale as the leaders of a private detective agency called the Rescue Rangers along with new characters Gadget, Monterey Jack and Zipper.
Along with making Chip and Dale far more vocal than their original appearances, their visual designs were updated to borrow influences from ’80s action icons Indiana Jones and Magnum P.I. respectively. Both versions of the show’s theme were written by Mark Mueller and performed by Jeff Pescetto, the same artists behind the DuckTales theme. The song naturally builds from its appropriately moody, noir-inspired intro to a bombastic pop song and perfectly nails the tone of “Chip ‘N Dale: Rescue Rangers.”
6. THE SUPER MARIO BROS. SUPER SHOW!
Despite being notoriously shoddy, “The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!” has become something of a cult classic among nostalgic gamers. The first of three TV shows based on Nintendo’s “Super Mario Bros.” franchise, “Super Show” combined live action segments starring pro wrestler “Captain” Lou Albano and Danny Wells as Mario and Luigi respectively with cartoons starring Mario, Luigi, Peach and Toad, as well as occasional segments based on Nintendo’s “Legend of Zelda” series.
The show featured two original theme songs: the show’s main theme the “Plumber Rap” which was divided into two parts — one which opened the show and another that led into the show’s animated segments — as well as a closing theme called “Do the Mario.” Unlike the vast majority of rap theme songs, “The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!” opener is cringe-worthy in the best kind of way. If you can make it through the theme without cracking a smile, you’re almost certainly a Koopa Troopa.
Riding the wave of a number of successful anime adaptions in the ’80s, “ThunderCats” featured animation done in a Japanese style despite being created, written and produced by Americans for an American audience. The show followed the adventures of the titular “ThunderCats,” a group of super powered humanoid catlike aliens, who were forced to flee their dying home planet of Thundara. After the majority of the Thunderean fleet is destroyed by the planet’s enemies, the Mutants of Plun-Darr, the remaining ThunderCats are forced to flee to the planet of “Third Earth” where the series takes place.
Similar to “Transformers,” the theme to the original “ThunderCats” had its marketing down (especially when you consider 90% of the song’s lyrics are the words “Thunder” and “ThunderCats.” Aside from the “Transformers” themselves, no other ’80s cartoon theme song can claim to have lyrics as well-known as “ThunderCats ho!” However, the show comes out on top for having far more exciting music to accompany the intro’s now-iconic lyrics.
4. INSPECTOR GADGET
Responsible for kicking off the incredibly popular “Inspector Gadget” franchise, the original 1983 series of the same name followed the adventures of the titular Inspector Gadget along with his niece Penny and her surprisingly intelligent dog, Brain. The majority of the show’s episodes dealt with Inspector Gadget taking on his arch-nemesis, the evil Dr. Claw and his criminal organization M.A.D.
The music for “Inspector Gadget,” including the show’s unforgettable theme song, was written by the prolific children’s composer Shuki Levy, who was also known for his work on “M.A.S.K.,” “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe,” and later for the “Power Rangers” franchise. In addition to Gadget’s theme (which was featured prominently throughout the show’s background music as well), Levy also penned original tunes for Penny, Brain and M.A.D. In fact, thanks to the shows explosion in popularity worldwide, Levy’s work was collected for a French soundtrack called “Inspecteur Gadget: Bande Originale de la Serie TV” which has since become something of a collector’s item.
3. THE SIMPSONS
With 28 seasons, a feature length film and more merchandise than you could ever keep up with, “The Simpsons” is a show that truly needs no introduction; luckily, though, it has one! Claiming the titles of longest-running American sitcom, animated series and scripted primetime series, America’s favorite animated family has unquestionably changed the face of both animation and television forever. As a result, it should come as no surprise that the show’s intro and its ever-changing “couch gag” have become iconic in their own right, in part because of the stickiness of the show’s theme.
Written by legendary composer Danny Elfman (who readers may recognize for his Grammy award-winning work on a little film called “Batman”), the theme has remained relatively unchanged from its 1989 debut. However, the song has undergone three significant rearrangements. Seasons two and three both premiered with updated versions of Elfman’s song, and an orchestral version was created for the film by another industry legend, composer Hans Zimmer. It’s also worth noting that the song is so popular, it actually managed to chart at number six on Billboard’s “Bubbling Under Hot 100 Singles” when Green Day recorded a cover to accompany their appearance in “The Simpsons Movie.”
2. TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES
You knew it was coming! In one of the strangest adaptions of all time, creator’s Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s edgy, black and white comic book series became a kid-friendly phenomenon when the original “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” cartoon debuted in 1987. Going on to become a media juggernaut throughout the ’90s, the first animated incarnation of the Turtles featured an original theme song that’s nearly as enduring as the brand itself.
The show’s soundtrack and theme song were originally written and recorded by television producer Chuck Lorre (you may know him as the man behind popular sitcoms like “Dharma & Greg,” “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory”) and his partner composer Dennis Challen Brown. The song is memorable for reaching Adam West’s “Batman” levels of repetition of the phrase “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” without ever becoming grating. The heroes in a half-shell’s opening number is the kind of theme that can instantly send kids into a frenzy, especially when coupled with the show’s anime-inspired opening.
Life is like a hurricane in the town of Duckberg, especially for one Scrooge McDuck. “DuckTales” was based on the influential series of Duck Universe comics by Carl Banks, who was also Scrooge McDuck’s creator. Starring Scrooge, his grand-nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie, as well as a handful of lovable supporting players, the show followed the group on a number of treasure hunting adventures inspired by Banks’ comics and iconic pieces of pop culture.
Like the other Disney entries on this list, the show’s opening deserves praise, not only for being catchy and memorable, but for accurately capturing the spirit of the show. As we mentioned earlier, the show’s jazzy, slap-bass heavy theme was composed by Mark Mueller and performed by Jeff Pescetto, and stuck with the show throughout its run. Even considering Disney’s reboot in 2017, the original’s legacy is sure to be sung throughout the annals of televised cartoon history!
Which ’80s cartoon themes were always stuck in your head? Let us know in the comments!
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