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WKRP's Musical Legacy

By Mike Breen · September 18th, 2013 · Cool Issue
blondie-parallel-lines-aBlondie's breakthrough Parallel Lines album got a big push from WKRP in Cincinnati
WKRP in Cincinnati debuted 35 years ago when I was a child just developing what turned out to be a lifetime obsession with music. I missed its initial run, but through reruns it became an interesting place to hear either cool new music I hadn’t heard or cool new (to me) music that I loved and was just discovering. 

Today, TV shows feature all sorts of contemporary Rock and Pop songs. It has become a way to break new music. But WKRP in Cincinnati was one of the first shows to have the songs on its soundtrack (usually snippets of what the station’s DJs were playing) drawn primarily from current FM Rock hits (“current” then meaning the ’70s/early ’80s). And it was always fun to spot some weird new band on the many posters decorating the fake radio station. 

The quirky little sitcom that many outsiders still bring up any time “Cincinnati” is mentioned (even during the Bengals’ recent Monday Night Football victory) was on for three years before MTV debuted, but in many ways it reflected that cable channel’s spirit in its infancy, integrating Rock music with an entertaining visual component and whacky personalities (DJs/VJs) and helping to bring some relatively cutting edge sounds into America’s living rooms. 

Here are a few “fun facts” about WKRP’s music connections: 

• The show’s first season, debuting in Sept.

18, 1978, featured snippets of songs by Pink Floyd, Bob Marley, Elvis Costello, Ted Nugent, The Beach Boys, Eddie Money and Foreigner. 

• The real band Detective played the Punk-inspired fake band Scum of the Earth in an early episode titled “Hoodlum Rock” (the alleged genre of the station-trashing visiting band). The lead singer of both bands was Michael Des Barres, who was featured in wife Pamela Des Barres’ groupie confessional books, later had a recurring role on Matlock MacGyver and briefly replaced Robert Palmer in the Duran Duran side project Power Station. Detective released a pair of albums on Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song Records in the late ’70s; unlike Led Zep, Detective really did go over like a lead balloon. 

• The show’s theme song, given the catchy title “WKRP In Cincinnati Main Theme,” was a breezy Soft Rock ditty that earned a singer named Steve Carlisle one-hit wonder status (if you even consider peaking at No. 65 on Billboard a “hit”). The show’s closing-credits “theme song,” played at the end of every show, was a bulging-eyeball rocker called, again quite cleverly, “WKRP in Cincinnati End Credits.” The track was hastily put together by session player Jim Ellis, who was recording some of the show’s non-song background music when he knocked out the tune and sang a “scratch vocal” guide track to record over later. Listening back, he decided to keep the gibberish words as a kind of parody of nonsensical Rock lyrics.

Here’s a great “translation” video of the closing credits song, kicking off with the immortal line, “Went to the botch and I barf tonight, uh yeah":

• In season one, DJ Johnny Fever not only plays Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” on his broadcast, but home audiences actually hear him announce the band’s and the song’s names. It was fantastic promotion for the up-and-coming Blondie, whose huge breakthrough album, Parallel Lines (with other seminal singles like “Hanging on the Telephone” and  “One Way or Another”), came out the same month WKRP in Cincinnati debuted. The band reportedly gave the show a Gold record plaque celebrating the album’s major sales numbers as a “Thank You” card; it can be seen in the background as set design on several episodes in later seasons. 

• The downside of featuring all of this unique music on primetime television? Song licenses don’t last forever, meaning future episodes in syndication and on DVD and other forms of release of the WKRP series (Hulu currently streams episodes) would be costly to keep intact, original music and all. Instead, the syndicated and DVD releases of WKRP featured newly recorded, vaguely similar low-cost music in place of the original songs. Many reviews of the show’s DVD release (already delayed for years as affordable song permissions were being hunted, mostly unsuccessfully) trashed the collection upon its release in 2007, citing the canned music as the sole reason it sucked. ©



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