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An Informal History of Wrestling Music

by Jeff Yelton

Are you as irritated as I am when Lex Luger is introduced and he comes out accompanied by this awful guitar drivel that sort of takes the wind out of his sails? Or when Arn Anderson walks out, with this slow annoying country music riff escorting him down the aisle? It seems like the guys don't care what they walk out to anymore, that the music is an afterthought.

Music is a big part of the atmosphere of professional wrestling. Remember how the opening notes of a wrestler's theme could send chills up your spine, as you wait in anticipation of your favorite wrestler making his appearance?

Well, it seems as if somebody forgot about this when making up Lex's theme. I know they had to do it on short notice, since he abruptly signed with WCW one day after appearing on a WWF show,...but that was 14 months ago. Couldn't they have found something better to bring him out with than that din?

Close your eyes and go back to 1988. What music accompanied Lex down the aisle? Right. It was a nasty guitar ripping through two stanzas before being impaled with a single crash of a cymbal, after which the whole band would join in. Simple, effective, menacing, that was Lex Luger. And the music fit him like a glove.

How about AA? Arn never used music until 1990, when he and Barry Windham used a ZZ Top-knockoff to come to the ring, which was pretty good. But after Ric Flair left, Arn teamed with Larry Zybysko in a great team known as the Enforcers. And his music was perfect. Cold, with a nasty bassline punctuated by a pizzacato plucking of the guitar strings at the end of each fit Arn's personality and work ethic perfectly.

But lately, it seems that music doesn't fit particularly well. Mark Merro had to get a theme and a gimmick quickly in the WWF. But now that he's no longer a wild-eyed nut case and Sable is no longer a leather-clad whip-wielding bimbo, why does he have the same music? It took Steve Austin a long time to get a theme befitting his "Stone Cold" personality. And Vader's theme, while it is good,....where have I heard that guitar line before? Could it be from the Demolition theme?

WCW is no better, of course. Sting had a tremendous theme starting in 1988. It was fast and furious, just like that of his one-time tag team partner, the Ultimate Warrior. But the music fit him! You'd hear that opening with its frantic ripping riff punctuating the fast-moving rhythm section, and it would send everyone off. Sting would come down, a look of intensity on his face, jumping around like a 10-year-old, eager to please his fans. Just the thing to get the pumping! And it fit Sting's punk-rebellious style.

Now we have "A Man Called Sting", a serviceable song, and now a testament to how far down on the ladder Sting has fallen. This song, along with others, replaced the stock music WCW used courtesy of the Turner music library. I wish they'd kept the stock stuff. You see, this song, with its laid-back (dare I say it?) Hogan-esque style has sapped some of the energy from the fans and from Sting as well. It's hard to get behind a guy with a theme that doesn't fit him. And Sting's presence doesn't have the same effect since then. The old stuff painted Sting as a super-hero type, while this thing just puts him in the "been there, done that" category of wrestler, which is just what Sting has become.

Wrestling themes used to serve a purpose. They used to paint the picture aurally. Watching a pro wrestling card, better yet seeing it live, should be a non-stop thrill ride. It should be a pleasure for your eyes and ears. (I won't comment on your nose,...) You should feel a bit like you're in a wind tunnel. It should have that rock-concert enthusiasm to it. And the music plays a big part in that sensation.

I'm sure many of you got cold chills when you heard "Real American" (written originally for Barry Windham and Mike Rotundo) and saw Hulk Hogan walk down the aisle, or felt like going, "Whooooooo!" when "2001" played, Ric Flair styling and profiling and strutting his stuff. Not to mention when Randy Savage came out to "Pomp and Circumstance", Liz in tow. Today, the Undertaker theme does the same thing (of course the light crew helps). Unfortunately, it seems as if today's wrestlers themes aren't as defining as those mentioned above.

I don't know who started using music as introduction accompaniment. Some say it was the Freebirds, some say it began with Jerry Lawler in Memphis, some others would point to Hogan, or the Von Erichs. Regardless of who started it, it has become a part of the wrestling experience. Everybody has a theme today, and it is because of those seeds sown in the early 1980's.

Of course, the previous decade is the one in which the straight press suddenly started paying attention to what people were really listening to, and pop culture became mainstream. Wrestling, as it filtered from being a cult art form played out on low-caliber UHF TV station, broadcast very fuzzily on 10" black-and-white TVs to the mainstream accepted show that it is today, embraced music to introduce its wrestlers, and for the most part, it was via commercial pop hits. The Freebirds used the Lynyrd Skynyrd tune that they took their name from, while all the Von Erich kids had music. David had ZZ Top's "La Grange" and Tanya Tucker's prophetic "Texas", which has the line "If I die, I don't wnat to go to heaven. Texas is where I want to stay." (or something like that; I haven't heard the song in years) Kerry had Blondie's "Call Me"(?) before wisely settling on Rush's "Tom Sawyer". Kevin used Ted Nugent's "Stranglehold", an odd choice for such a good guy.

As we go forward in the 1980's, we find that Memphis was a hotbed of wrestling videos. The Rock and Roll Express did one to Kiss' "I Wanna Rock and Roll All Night", Jerry Lawler did one to the other King (Elvis) warbling "My Way", the Fabulous Ones did a "Sharp Dressed Man" video, and Austin Idol was accompanied by Joan Jett's cover of a Gary Glitter tune "Do You Wanna Touch Me?" which is hilarious. Jimmy Valiant, after turning face in 1983 (and what a face to turn!) used the Manhattan Transfer's cover version of a 1960's tune "Boy From New York City", sending out this hillbilly wannabee with a long beard and long white hair to kiss unsuspecting people in the crowd, high-five everybody, go into the ring for 30 seconds and beat some scrub with two lame elbow smashes for the pin. After which, he would try to kiss the referee. The crowd loved it, of course.

1984 was really the golden year of bringing music to all wrestling organizations. That was the year that Vince McMahon nationalized the WWF and Verne Gagne, in response, nationalized the AWA with the help of Jim Crockett (who ended up stealing Verne's business). It was also the year that music took over. About half of current professional wrestlers entered the ring unaccompanied, but the number was dwindling weekly as wrestling promoters used more and more fast-paced matches. World Wide Wrestling didn't use ring announcers. Instead, they just got you right to the action. And since, the guys were coming on your TV screens unannounced, many of them used theme music to make their grand entrances. Remember how "Sharp Dressed Man" would blare on World Wide, and the crowd would at first scream, then go, "Awwwwww" because instead of a good guy coming out, it was that stuck-on-himself heel, Gorgeous Jimmy Garvin?

Grand theater, this was.

It was through the efforts of three mega-icons in the sport that music was made a viable option. One was Hulk Hogan, who used Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" from Rocky III to enter WWF arenas. In fact, the first time he ever used it, Hulk wound up beating the Iron Sheik for the WWF title. It stuck, and it worked. For the next year or so, Hulk would make Survivor even richer than they were.

And the other two were a tag team that Verne Gagne took a liking to and signed with the AWA. I'm talking, of course, of the Road Warriors. Although the LOD recorded a song called "The Warriors Tonight", it was Bill Ward's opening drumbeats that sent a chill through all of our bones as Ozzy Osbourne pronounced, "I am Iron Man"! Cue the Roadies running down the aisle, whereupon they'd enter the ring and proceed to beat the snot out of their opponents. These guys took an old Black Sabbath number and made it a staple of professional wrestling history. It was the most perfect fit any commercial theme ever had to the people using it.

Well, pretty soon, everybody had theme music. Some of it worked, like Junkyard Dog clamering down the aisle to Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust", to Eddie Gilbert strutting his stuff to Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff". Ricky Steamboat had the awesome intro to Alan Parsons Project's "Eye in the Sky" to accompany his new "Dragon" persona. The Rock and Roll Express, upon joining the NWA, began using the 1950's-tribute song recorded by ELO, "Rock and Roll is King". Dusty Rhodes used lots of different music, including Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock and Roll" and some Willie Nelson stuff, while Barry Windham and Mike Rotundo accepted the Reagan-era patriotic yells of the crowd to Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA". And Chris Adams and Gino Hernandez became the first of many to use George Thorogood's "Bad to the Bone".

There were lots of clunkers, too. Songs that just didn't fit included Manny Fernandez coming out to Michael Jackson' "Beat It"(?), the High Flyers (Greg Gagne and Jim Brunzell) appearing to Bruce Springsteen's "Badlands" (which may have referred to the AWA front office at the time), and what did Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" have to do with Iceman King Parsons? (I have a personal hate for that song, being a fan of the 1979 Baltimore Orioles, who lost the World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates, who made that song their theme. It is stuff like this that traumatizes the youth of our country,....)

But the songs fit. "Iron Man" described the Road Warriors to a T. Dusty Rhodes was a hard-partying Southern boy who had a flashy "Stardust" persona (Any wonder his son is now cross-dressing? Goldust was a role Dusty was meant to play!) Jimmy Garvin and later the Fantastics WERE "Sharp Dressed" men. And the Fabulous Ones, who abandoned that song for Kenny Loggins' "Footloose", were a couple of crowd-pleasing pretty boys who liked to shake it for the females in the audience, who would serenade Steve and Stan with ear-splitting screams.

Now the problem with this was that every time the wrestlers used these songs, the wrestling organizations had to pay a cut to the artists. Vince McMahon, being the prescient being that he was at the time, decided to make original theme music, at first, just for the first WWF Wrestling Album, but also to keep the costs down and to put more money in WWF coffers. It worked, of course, because Vince and the Hulkster knew big wheels in the entertainment industry, and made music in the WWF a big-budget deal. No expenses were spared, because Vince was making money hand-over-fist. Vince got a good bunch of musicians, with the help of Cyndi Lauper and Rick Derringer, to make quality songs for his wrestlers. From the first Wrestling Album came "Real American", Hillbilly Jim's "Don't Go Messin' with a Country Boy", and "Grab Them Cakes", as well as Nikolai Volkoff's awful "Cara Mia", and Jimmy Hart's cute "Eat Your Heart Out Rick Springfield", (What ever happened to Rick, anyway?), and since the WWF owned the publication rights, they never had to pay royalties fees again.

In the NWA, Jim Crockett had the same idea, but for not the same reason. The trouble was, he couldn't afford to pay the artists to use their songs anymore. He was trying to keep up with Vince. So Dusty Rhodes did "You Can't Judge a Book By It's Cover", which was pretty good, considering Dusty's lack of vocal range, and Ricky Morton, unfortunately, took his tag team name too seriously and recorded the truly awful "Boogie Woogie Dance Hall", one of the worst songs ever in recorded history, right up there with Roseanne's "Star Spangled Banner" and that tape of your Aunt Winnie singing "When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobbin Along" at your fifth birthday party after she took a couple swallow of her own punch bowl from her flask in her pocketbook. At least Dusty could carry a tune. He couldn't carry it far, but,....

The ironic part of it all was that other organizations, who were losing money (and ground) to Vince, couldn't afford to make original songs, so they had to pay royalties' fees to use commercial songs. Still, they did the best they could under the circumstances, and if one of their wrestlers had an original theme, like Adrian Street or Michael Hayes, that got played. In fact, an AWA fan rewarded a budding Leon White for winning the prestigious World Cup of Wrestling Tournament in Europe with a theme song, "Bull Power", alluding to the way Leon had cut his remaining hairs in the sign of the bull. This was the first step leading Leon to a prosperous career as The Man Called Vader.

As we get to 1988, the WWF unleashed its second wrestling album, "Piledriver" with Koko B. Ware singing lead on the title track. He was given the song as his new theme music, but it didn't fit him at all. His 1990 "Bird, Bird" was much more Koko-esque. In fact, he still uses it in the AWF.

That album gave us Rick Derringer's "Demolition", which is one of the best wrestling themes ever, Jimmy Hart's "Crank it Up", which was inexplicably given to the good guy tag team of the Young Stallions, and of course, the annoying, but endearing, Honky Tonk Man theme. We also got our first taste of rap from Slick, with "Jive Soul Bro" which accompanied he and his wrestlers for the next couple of years. But what did Robbie Dupree's "Girls in Cars" have to do with Tito Santana and Rick Martel?

The WWF, though was striking on all cylinders with a lot of its instrumental stuff. Jake the Snake Roberts' dark, organ-driven theme is still scary stuff today, embracing the coldness we all have inside. And I don't think they ever could match a guy up better with an original theme song better than the music that accompanied Brutus Beefcake to the ring. It was not rock and rollish, had a trace of dance music with its drum machine beat, and the sense of the comic with its tweaking at the end of every other stanza. That was a good suggestion of either the snipping of hair or the almost see-through Chippendale clothes that Brutus wore to the ring. You decide for yourself.

All this stuff had a residual effect on the business as a whole. As wrestling became more instrumentalized, wrestling became less sport and more entertainment. The matches were quicker paced, and the music contributed to that, giving it that circus feel that many have demeaned so much.

The NWA got help from the Turner music library when Ted eventually bought out Jim Crockett in 1988. Lex Luger got his hard-rocking theme which appears in the strangest of places on occasion (I heard it on a old episode of the BBC/Nickelodeon cartoon series "Duckula"), Sting got his heart-pounding music, and as 1989 approached, the use of movie themes from the Turner library accompained both Terry Funk ("Once Upon a Time in America", more specifically the eerie theme that accompanies Charles Bronson's Harmonica character) and the Samoan Swat Team ("Halloween"). Ric Flair was put in charge of booking, and he brought back commercial music. So, the Steiner Brothers were led to the ring by Guns and Roses "Welcome to the Jungle", while the Dynamic Duds, I mean Dudes, mounted turnbuckles to strip to the Beach Boys/Fat Boys' collaboration "Wipe Out", adding vocals to an instrumental piece recorded by the Surfaris. The themes matched the wrestlers perfectly, and we got the cold chill feelings when Funk would wander out to that weird harmonica music. But the Steiners really didn't hit their stride until they usurped the theme music from the CNN series "The Capitol Gang". Then, they rolled!

As we move into the '90's, some endearing original themes endure. The Undertaker's original forboding gong-laden pipe organ dirge did much to elevate the character's presence in the minds of many in the audience. Somehow it did seems 10 degrees colder when the undertaker walked in the arena!

Many would put the Hart Foundation's synthesizer dirge in there as a classic, but I wouldn't. The only thing endearing about it is who used it. Bret Hart didn't get a decent theme until this music was sped up and rocked out in 1995. Now, it's cool.

And there were clunkers. The Rockers were cool in the AWA when accompanied by Judas Priest's "Livin' After Midnight", but the music Vince gave them, now passed onto the New Rockers, sucks. This is ROCKING? No wonder Shawn threw Marty through a plate glass window,...

Jimmy Snuka's music began with an embarassing "Shoop, shoop" at a time when Vince was at his apex of his cartoon-fest creative phase. (My longtime friend Stephanie postulates that Vince gets most of his character ideas by locking himself in a room with about 8 dozen donuts, a couple of packs of cookies, and 12 boxes of candy, and waits for the sugar rush to kick in.) And don't even mention Terry Taylor,...

But we got some goodies, like the Big Boss Man's theme, and Ted DiBiase's "hauntingly beautiful" (as my good friend Joe Crowe would say) "Money, Money, Money, Money, Money" theme kicked in. The LOD were prevented from bringing their "Iron Man" theme to the WWF which was redone by another group of musicians because WCW, I guess got a cut out of it. (They did let the Roadies bring in Rocco, their childhood doll, though,...good one, Vince,...) Their new instrumental theme, punctuated by Hawk's opening declaration of "AAAAAAAAAHHHHHH WHAT A RUSH!" worked almost as well as "Iron Man". And soon, we got Scary Sherri doing "Boy Toy" as a tribute to Shawn Michaels. Punctuated by the glass-shattering "Oh, Shawnnnnn!", it is a piece of wrestling history. Good themes all, and not all were rock and roll/heavy metal tunes, which seemed to be all that WCW could crank out for their guys.

WCW by now had stepped up its production values and had its first wrestlers with pure music gimmicks. P.N. News was an entertaining round mound of rap sound, with his rapping before (and after) every match. He could get a crowd going! And we had "Heavy Metal" Van Hammer, who had a good theme song, but couldn't actually play a guitar. It didn't matter. People liked him anyway.

About 1992, WCW started getting serious with its music, and put together tracks for its own wrestling album. Cursed with WWF-envy, they tried to match the WWF tune for tune with its 1993 album, and I guess Michael Hayes had something to do with it, as the Freebirds finally abandoned the all-time classic original wrestling anthem "Bad Street USA", with "I'm a Freebird, What Was Your Excuse?", which he and Jimmy Garvin debuted on the January, 1992 Clash of the Champions. Garvin and Hayes both wrote and sang the song. After that, the powers that be decided to get the album together. Once Bill Watts left, the album got released. It gave us some really good stuff, like Barry Windham's new theme "He's Smokin'", which would have worked better had he been a face at the time (of course, when it was written, he was,...). We also got the Willie Nelson type, "Natural" for Dustin Rhodes, which was proof that WCW got it. Not everybody had to come out to rock and roll music and be over. Johnny B. Badd's new theme replaced a dismal piece of 1950's-style stock music, and pumped up Johnny's image, and Cactus Jack's personality fit "Mr. Bang Bang" perfectly. It was too cool for words,...

But the clunkers on the album inlcuded Rick Rude's new theme, "Simply Ravashing", which was really awful for a heel. It replaced the hastily-thrown together "Black Cat"-type theme that he had used since joining WCW in October, 1991. The previous stuff was better. And Ricky Steamboat's theme was so dreadful that WCW yanked it for a menacing "Dragon"-like theme music to accompany him down the aisle and punctuate his fire-eating act. (He must have had a lot of indisgestion,...)

As we go to the present, we are surrounded by Jimmy Hart now doing themes for former WWF stars in WCW that sound suspiciously close to their WWF themes. Hulk Hogan's "American Made" is "Real American" on steroids, without the downbeat and the kindness of the Derringer tune. Honky Tonk Man's "Honky Tonk Baby" was so close, however, that any attorney would rule in Vince's favor should he choose to sue. (HTM will use it again, as he is WCW bound.)

And the WWF put out their new album, with a bunch of themes. One comment,...Shawn singing his "Boy Toy" song doesn't work as well as when Sherri sang it. The original song was not only written for a heel, but was written as a grown woman's gushing like a 12-year-old over some Hollywood Hunk. Shawn singing it is confusing, and it is inappropriate music for the WWF Champ.

I know I just beat this to death, but I had to say something about it. Wrestling music is as big a part of the atmosphere and history of the sport, and to me, it adds (or detracts) to the effectiveness of the characters. This history is far from complete, but I hope I educated some of you on why I'm so irritated about this. It shouldn't bug me that Lex doesn't care about his theme music, but it does.

Jeff Yelton lives in Westminster, Maryland and has watched wrestling for 23 of his thirty years. He holds a Bachelors of Science degree in Journalism from the University of Maryland. In his spare time Jeff collects wrestling tapes (he owns over 60 of them) and baseball cards, surfs the net, watches TV, and helps manage the Global Wrestling Alliance, an e-mail fantasy wrestling fed, which is in its fifth year in Cyberspace.

Copyright 1996 - Jump City Productions