March 27, 2008

MTV Theme

Stupid Question ™
June 24, 1999
By John Ruch
© 1999

Q: Who wrote the original MTV guitar theme? Was it written specifically for MTV, or was it from something else?
—Mark Hill

A: Well, I can tell you the name of the man who probably knows. And I can tell you why it’s not easy to find out.

But for a definitive answer, we’ll have to wait for one of two things to happen: an animator’s memory to improve, or MTV’s PR department to quit being incompetent jerks.

The “theme” was an energetic guitar riff played over footage of a rocket launching, followed by astronauts on the Moon planting an MTV flag.

A shortened version of this clip was used to put MTV on the air at 12:01 a.m., Aug. 1, 1981. The full clip was used hourly as a station ID. It was used until Feb. 5, 1986, when it was pulled in the wake of the Jan. 28 explosion of the space shuttle “Challenger” as a sign of good taste.

This ID was the brainchild of Fred Seibert, MTV’s director of on-air promotions.

If anyone knows who wrote the theme, it’s him. And if you’d asked your question prior to April 1, I probably could’ve called him and asked him. However, he’s now president of MTV Networks Online and all questions to him must go through MTV’s PR department—no exceptions.

MTV’s PR department has provided two empty promises, two misdirected calls and no help whatsoever. (I want my MTV!)

But even Seibert may not remember, since the music was apparently written on the spur of the moment. Buzz Potamkin, the animator who put together the ID footage, said, “Somebody did it on the spot, not on assignment.”

He also remembers that, “It was an original song, I can tell you that.” That jibes with the fact that the credits to the 1986 film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” which contains the entire MTV theme, cite only MTV, not a separate artist.

But Potamkin doesn’t remember the musician’s name and is still searching his files for clues. “It was composed by a local New York composer. An independent rock guy in New York.”

There are many pretenders to the crown. Tom Clack, owner of the studio where the recording was done, said his engineer Doug DiFranco wrote the theme.

Reached at another studio, DiFranco said, “I didn’t write it and I don’t know who wrote it.” He didn’t perform it, either. “I know this question has come up before,” he said, “and we haven’t been able to figure it out.”

A Jan. 31, 1999 Newsday obituary for New York musician and record store owner Tom Pomposello credited him with writing the theme, a claim vouched for by friends and co-workers.

“Tom was around back then and he did do work for MTV,” said Potamkin.
Ah, so he’s the one who wrote the theme? “No.”

“About six zillion people have said they were part of MTV,” Potamkin said. “What’s that thing about, ‘Success has many fathers, failure is an orphan’?”
And so it goes, until Buzz remembers or MTV relents.

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