Thursday, August 31, 2017

Simpsons Music!

With the news that longtime composer for The Simpsons Alf Clausen (along with his orchestra) had been fired from the show, I got to thinking about my favorite pieces of music from the show's run. The show's still on, but I know it's not gonna sound the same. Orchestras in TV shows, especially cartoons, are pretty rare these days. The Simpsons and anything Seth MacFarlane makes have been some of the last survivors of this. Seriously, regardless of who takes over for scoring the show, I keep fearing it's gonna be like when Looney Tunes replaced Carl Stalling and Milt Franklyn with Bill Lava.

Milt Franklyn's part starts at roughly 2:53 while Bill Lava's starts at 3:16, and man is there a world of difference between the three of them.

But I'm getting besides myself. Lets listen to some music. We need to begin where the show does: with the theme song.

Composed by Danny Elfman and far and away the most recognizable piece of music from the show. At the time, an intro like this for a TV show was unheard of. It's about a family that runs home to watch TV! TV theme songs usually introduced characters with matte paintings or just having them pose for the camera, but this minute and a half segment tells you all you need to know about the family: Homer works at a nuclear power plant, and is pretty bad at his job. Bart is a troublemaker. Lisa is into music, but is mischievous in her own way. And Marge is the mom that goes grocery shopping with the baby. To this day, the part that sticks with me is that toy steering wheel Maggie "drives" the car with. After years upon years of watching this, I just now noticed that the toy wheel was attached to Maggie's seat and not the dashboard. It just seems so obvious in retrospect, and that's the beauty of this show. I can watch every episode for the last 25 odd years and catch something new every time.

The intro seen above is actually the second version. The version that only played during the first season was roughly the same, but with a few differences. We see more of Lisa on her bike, Bart steals a bus stop sign that weirdly drawn people run after, and slightly different sound effects that makes the whole thing seem a little off. Like the rest of the show at the time, the animation is much cruder but also more fluid, giving it some much needed charm.

And halfway through the twentieth season, the show converted to HD and thus a new intro came with it.

Like the other two, the animation here reflects the rest of the show at the time: it's slick and the colors are more vibrant, but sadly stiffer. Other Simpsons sites have talked about this more in length, so I'll just leave it here and move on. I do appreciate all the easter eggs (and there are loads of them), but the feel of the show seems different. It's still a family that runs home to watch themselves on TV, but it's now a show that's aware that it's a show that's been on a long time, and seems more like going through the motions than anything else. There's no jokes to them, it's all just there for the sake of being there.

There have been other variants of the intro, too, like in Cape Feare when the family became the Thompsons, a version that was set after the movie and Springfield was being rebuilt, and even a live-action version.

But the best variants are definitely the ones made for the Treehouse of Horror episodes.

So spooky, I'll be honest when I say that I was slightly scared of these intros as a kid. I guess at such a young age, I took Marge's threats of showing "3000 Miles to Oregon" to heart. And as luck would have it, I found a playlist of every Halloween intro and embedded it above.

And now on to one of my favorite pieces of music within the show itself. And you can't mention music on the Simpsons without my personal favorite: the Land of Chocolate music.

I'm not sure if this was Alf Clausen's doing or a piece of stock music, but whoever was responsible for this is worthy of sitting in the pantheon of the greats like Mozart, Beethoven, and John Williams. It's so floaty and whimsical, you can't help but dance along like Homer is. It's also one of the best cutaway gags in the show, years before Family Guy ran this trope into the ground.

The music is similar to my second favorite, the music that plays when Burns and Smithers run the nuclear plant themselves in Last Exit to Springfield.

Like the Land of Chocolate music, it's very whimsical, but with a touch of Raymond Scott's Powerhouse or something of that ilk. It definitely feels more like a trip down an assembly line rather than a run through a fantasy land, but the point comes across just well. And I've mentioned here before that this sequence contains my favorite piece of the animation in the series.

I don't know who is responsible for this, but I thank them. I have no idea why I love it so much, but I do.

And speaking of Last Exit to Springfield, I love Lisa's protest song.

When Homer and the rest join in, you can't help but get tears in your eye, and then the tears turn into laughter when Lenny requests Classical Gas. The show used to be really great at pulling your heartstring every which way possible.

Speaking of which, I need to bring up the genius that is the Streetcar musical.

As the story goes, the writers set out to make an episode where Marge is cast as the lead role in play of A Streetcar Named Desire. One problem: due to legal reasons, they could only use one line from the book. So what did they do? They made it into a musical and wrote their own lyrics, dammit! It's pure genius. Above is the opening song, where everyone sings about how crummy New Orleans is (a spoof of the opening to Sweeney Todd). The city of New Orleans was so peeved at this song that the show had to apologize for it the following week.

And as we all know, it was the worst thing to ever happen to New Orleans. And on the topic of unlikely genius musicals, gotta give it up for Stop The Planet of The Apes, I Want to Get Off!

On paper, this should not work. A parody of Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus," about Planet of The Apes, and filled with nothing but dumb Borscht Belt jokes. But it manages to work! It's the perfect storm of greatness: great music, cheesy jokes, Phil Hartman singing, and a breakdancing monkey man.

And we can't talk about amazing spoofs without See My Vest.

Thanks to what's known as The Weird Al Effect, I know the lyrics to this way better than Be Our Guest by a mile. Honestly, I don't remember any of the original lyrics besides the grey stuff, that's how much this song has seeped into my head.

Also, does anyone else thinks Burns sounds like Ren from Ren & Stimpy during this song? Just me? Okay.

Another amazing song was "We Do," the Stonecutters song.

This is a good song that becomes incredible thanks to the backing orchestra. Again, lots of whimsy behind a song admitting that it's behind every major conspiracy, like making Steve Guttenberg as star and robbing cave fish of their sight.

I'm going to go back to scores because I almost forgot about Sideshow Bob's theme.

It's a lawyer-friendly version of the theme from Cape Fear, but it's become so iconic to the character that it plays in all of his appearances since season five's Cape Feare. Yeah, some of the old titles weren't really creative, but that was from an era when no one but the crew knew what the episodes were called.

Something this show pulls off very well is how they handle the elementary school band.

When you usually hear kids playing music in anything, it's either really crummy because they're just learning how to play (or, they're, you know, really crummy), or unnaturally good. Like, you know there's professional artists recording all the music, because playing well is all they know. This orchestra handles the kids they way they actually play: doing the best they can, but not good at all. There's really no good video footage I can find right now of just the band playing, but you can hear it in the theme song. It's why Lisa gets kicked out of class, she's too good for them. It's stifling her, and she wants to play the music SHE wants to play.

And because it's getting late and I'm tired, I'm gonna end it with the Monorail Song.

It's another parody, this time of "Ya Got Trouble" from The Music Man, and it completely nails the tone of the absurdity of the situation. Like in the original song, a charismatic man in a straw hat arrives in town and creates a problem that can only be solved by listening to him sing. Only according to Lyle Lanley, Springfield's trouble is not in its crumbling Main Street, but that it lacks a monorail. This is a man who could've sold the town anything, but for some strange reason he went with a monorail.

And again, that's something that makes the Simpsons so incredible. It takes something familiar, like a plot of an old musical, create a stranger premise from it, and then from that the entire show turns into a disaster movie ripped out of the seventies.

I know that I've barely scratched the surface on this, and I'd like to hear your comments on your favorite Simpsons music. Thanks for reading.

All screenshots and gifs courtesy of Frinkiac. The gifs look weird, and I apologize for that. If anyone can fix it, let me know.

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