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#ThemeSongTuesday (12/1/15): The Themes They Are a-Changin'

A wrestler and their theme song have a connection similar to a film and its score. Both have to be synergistic and infectious enough for it to leave a lasting impression on its audience. If there’s “somethin’ strange in your neighborhood”, how do we already know who we’re gonna call? How is it that we instantaneously know who we’re about to see when we hear the glass shatter, or which movie is being referenced when we mention the BBBRRRRMMMMMMM horn blast? 

You’re now singing the Ghostbusters theme, imagining Stone Cold’s entrance, and reliving Inception because of brilliant composers that create memorable bits of music for stories and characters they fully understand, and up until 2012/2014, Jim Johnston was the man responsible for creating just about every single iconic WWE wrestler’s theme song—The Undertaker, Lita, and The Rock to name a few—while also composing music for both the company’s various brands and closely-affiliated products (That include the World Bodybuilding Federation and XFL. Yikes.)

Since then, the WWE moved Johnston to its film division and has passed the torch to writer/producer duo John Alicastro and Mike Lauri, 
also known as CFO$ (Although Alicastro and Lauri have sometimes identified themselves separately as CFO$ and Kromestatik, respectively). Now with two music directors, they’ve decided to somewhat separate composition duties. While Alicastro predominantly handles creating entrance songs for talent (Becky Lynch, Dean Ambrose), Lauri focuses on brand themes like NXT’s “Roar of the Crowd” and RAW’s “The Night”.

Despite the slightly mixed reception CFO$’s been getting since they took over, I actually think they’re doing just fine. For guys that had to continue the work of man who had built up a legacy and a consistent connection with the fans for over three decades, they are doing absolutely fine. This week on #ThemeSongTuesday, let’s all listen to tracks from both the industry legend Jim Johnston and the new-school CFO$.

Source: WWE / WindUpSongs

To start things off, let’s listen to what is considered by many as some of their best work.







Right off the bat, you’ll notice a large contrast between Johnston’s themes. His overall experience as a composer shows through the vastly different instrumentals, pace, and general dynamics he uses for each composition. That’s what made him so brilliant at composing themes for wrestlers who would end up being legends themselves. You felt the history of these characters (before they’d even been written) through his music. 

When asked to make the theme song for The Undertaker (who hadn’t debuted at the time), all he was told was that he was a “big dead guy”. That’s it. With just those few words to describe him, Jim Johnston sat down at his piano and wrote what would become The Phenom’s timeless theme song (with a little help from Chopin's “Funeral March”).



Aaaand now, we have CFO$’s themes:






Ah, so here is why a huge chunk of the IWC doesn't enjoy CFO$: a majority coming from the duo have a uniform sound depending on the character’s archetype. They don’t necessarily all “sound the same”; they all just seem to follow a similar pattern and get formulaic. 

For example: Are they a badass? BRING IN THE HEAVILY DISTORTED GUITAR RIFFS, VOCALS, AND/OR QUICK DRUM PATTERNS.






Are they more of a badass, but with a pop-culture-influenced gimmick? QUICK, GET THE TECHNO-CLUB-POP SOUNDBOARD AND GET TO RECORDIN’.






Let’s also not forget the greatest CFO$ theme song tag team: Team WOAHHH!




From what we’ve heard over the past few years, this formula can either be great or downright disastrous. Another one of CFO$’s top-tier themes include “Retaliation” for Dean Ambrose:

 

The heavily distorted guitars and post-hardcore pace suit Ambrose and his Lunatic Fringe persona. From that filthy, chainsaw-like build up you hear when it kicks off, you know Ambrose is out to tear his opponent apart. This is an example of a harmonious relationship between a wrestler’s personality and his music; and while it is a solid theme, the same thing could be said about Kevin Owens’ “Fight”. 

Now, this is where the monotony of the formula becomes apparent, and can negatively affect a theme. Listen to Seth Rollins’ “The Second Coming”:

 

For a character with such depth and a colorful history, all we get for it musically are repetitive heavy metal riffs and double pedal kick drums? The Architect deserves more. The Man deserves more. Seth-freakin’-Rollins deserves more. Hopefully, CFO$ cooks up something new for his return. Something that can break their patterns and sound amazing. Basically, the opposite of Cesaro’s theme:


This one honestly stopped making sense after a while. My brain tried to neatly label it as “Slipknot feat. Ambulance Siren At Random Intervals”, but even that couldn’t make “Swiss Made” sound the least bit coherent. At least Carmella’s theme “Fabulous”—despite being a complete ripoff of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”—made sense both musically and in connection to her character.

  

CFO$ themes are generally predictable, and predictable doesn’t always mean bad. Finn Balor’s theme is great and fits his unique gimmick, but still is guilty of following their composition patterns. Noticing the “CFO$ Formula” just makes you appreciate the diversity of Jim Johnston’s work even more in comparison. Even for wrestlers that had similar character traits, the themes composed for them by Johnston never felt repetitive.


The Rock was a badass, but this theme helped identify the type of badass he was and still is. The track opens with his commanding voice, then flows almost like a strut when everything comes in; the guitars heavy yet controlled. The Rock always seemed like a raging yet disciplined charismatic bull, and this theme feels exactly like that. A heavy, but also steady charge.


Jericho, too, was a badass, but not in the way The Rock was. Ironically, Chris Jericho’s badassery felt more akin to a rockstar’s. Experienced, technical, and often sleazy. It only makes sense that “Break The Walls” sounds like a raunchy stripper track.


And then we have Brock Lesnar, who we all know is a fucking bad ass. This is where Johnston saved the most vicious for last. He composed “Next Big Thing” for The Beast Incarnate, a man who is as powerful as he is quick. The theme for the most dominating superstar in the WWE today ironically contains similar elements to Cesaro’s (heavy distorted guitars, record scratches). The difference being: Jim Johnston’s ability to vary themes gave so much more depth to these characters.

Then again, we should remind ourselves of who we’re comparing and contrasting CFO$ against here. It took Johnston decades to become amazing at what he does, and CFO$ has only been with the WWE since 2012. There are several factors in being able to properly make a wrestler’s theme song. Maybe the lack of diverse themes comes from recent the lack of diverse character writing and development. Maybe along with the company and its brands, the theme-writing process changed over the years, too. Maybe we’re all just being extra hard on “the new guys”. Remember that Jim Johnston was also responsible for this:


He does have his fair share of misses along with his library of hits.

So: Jim Johnston or CFO$? Well, Jim Johnston was the pioneer. He composed and performed his own music and sometimes even worked with outside artists to help create music for certain superstars. No, not just with Motörhead on Triple H’s “The Game”, but with:


 

Breaking Point for RVD’s “One Of A Kind

 

Killswitch Engage for CM Punk’s “This Fire Burns

 

Even with Lil’ Kim for Trish Stratus’ “Time To Rock & Roll

He wrote for more than just wrestlers. He composed themes for characters in a story being told through the medium of professional wrestling. He is the John Williams to our Star Wars, providing us with the soundtrack to all our memories; reminding us why we cared about these characters and loved the experience in the first place. 

CFO$, on the other hand, has only just begun a strange, new saga (where Sheamus is WWE World Heavyweight Champion). We have yet to see what they can do, but again, considering the shape the company is in and what they have to work with, CFO$ are doing fine. So, obviously, there is no fair way of answering that question. Ask me again in 2040, when CFO$ has built their own legacy and has a body of work to rival Jim Johnston’s.

Oh, wait. Jim Johnston composed The New Day’s theme.


Never mind. Jim Johnston wins!


*****

When he isn't writing Smark Henry's #ThemeSongTuesday column, Lorenzo Magnaye hosts the #HomeRun on 99.5 PlayFM. It's a good thing, too, since his childhood consisted mostly of watching professional wrestling and listening to his parents on the radio. He's only recently rekindled his love for the WWE, and has been trying to make up for missing out on everything post-WrestleMania XX by praying to Seth Rollins thrice a day. Follow him on Twitter: @RenzoSaurus!

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