The 1980s was a boom time for kid’s TV thanks to an FCC deregulation ruling that allowed series based on toy products. All of a sudden, the floodgates were open and soon G.I. Joe, M.A.S.K., Transformers, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, and other shows inspired by toy lines were on store shelves. To quote Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, “it was a glorious time.”
What helped make these series so memorable were the theme songs that told young viewers about what they were going to see in the catchiest way imaginable. As a result, the decade is responsible for some of the best-loved themes in cartoon history. As we all bask in the first glimpse of the new DuckTales (which needs to only gently update its theme), let’s look back at the best of the best.
Before he was inflicting Josh Gad fighting Pac-Man in Pixels on the masses, Chris Columbus brought Galaxy High to Saturday mornings on CBS. The show chronicled the adventures of two Earth teens — lunkheaded jock Doyle and lovable scholar Aimee — as they attended a high school featuring students from across the galaxy. The underrated toon only ran for 13 episodes back in 1986, but remains fondly remembered thanks in no small part to its Daft Punk-ian theme song from The Eagles’ Don Felder.
Heathcliff and the Catillac Cats
In the 1980s, there were Garfield people and there were Heathcliff people. While Garfield was more of a passive character, Heathcliff liked to mix things up and take a more active role in his adventures. Regardless of which orange cat you prefer, chances are that you will also agree that the above theme song is a jam.
Disney’s Adventure of the Gummi Bears
You have to hand it to whoever is singing the theme song here, because he is selling the high-drama and excitement of a cartoon based on a tooth-rotting candy with the type of hushed reverence not heard since Kipp Lennon’s theme song for Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.
The American adaptation of Japan’s Space Battleship Yamato series, Star Blazers was originally produced in the 1970s but is included on this list for two reasons. First, the show was heavily syndicated throughout the ’80s, and second, because its theme song is so incredibly rousing that it is perfect for any era.
People animals? That’s a freaky scene. But between this and Manimal, the concept was huge in the 1980s. Which isn’t to say that Thundercats didn’t have a tremendous theme song, because clearly it does. Especially since an eight-year-old Mark Ronson wrote it, according to the unassailable internet.
Yo Joe! The greatest of all expository cartoon themes. As you can see from the video, the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero theme stayed pretty consistent save for the animation that supported the music. That is until the more showy, “G.I. Joe Takes Manhattan” movie extravaganza and the “Cobra Theme.” Which, after watching, tell me you wouldn’t throw your money at a G.I. Joe musical. TELL ME.
The enduring appeal of transforming robots means that this theme will be beloved by future generations in the same way we look back upon classical music masterworks. Not that there’s any comparison. I’d like to see that fancypants Mozart try to make himself into a truck.
With the 1980s ushering in the age of MTV, it made sense that a cartoon in which music videos played an integral role would be created. Enter Kidd Video. This weird series that debuted on NBC in 1984 featured three teens (including The Brady Bunch‘s Cousin Oliver, Robbie Rist) who are rehearsing in a garage when they are brought to a trippy place known as the Flipside by the evil Master Blaster (sort of the musical equivalent to the Collector from Guardians of the Galaxy). What is most noteworthy about the series is that each episode featured a music video — either from an act of the era or an original creation from Kidd Video themselves — making this series an interesting footnote in music video era.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
This song will now be in your head for the foreseeable future. You’re welcome.
As if this song isn’t cool enough on it’s own merits, it also played a crucial role in making Doug E. Fresh & Slick Rick’s “The Show” one of the greatest rap songs ever.
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe
Although largely instrumental, the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe theme is still eminently hummable. Is this available as a ringtone? If not, it should be.
Seeing how the show revolves around music, it would be a vast disappointment if Jem’s theme weren’t up to snuff. That’s not a problem, as you can see here. This truly outrageous theme even includes a break-in from The Holograms’ rival act, The Misfits, who announce the simple truth that their songs are better. Later seasons replaced this foreverjam with the lesser “Jem Girls” theme, one that alienated the show’s considerable male audience.
Star Wars: Droids
The Police’s Stewart Copeland co-wrote and performed this song for ABC’s mercifully short-lived Star Wars: Droids series. The show followed C-3PO and R2-D2 as they got into adventures that took place before they met Luke Skywalker. Although not nearly as dire as other Star Wars prequels, the show’s serialized nature (usually a great thing) made the stories drag — committing the most cardinal of sins by making a galaxy far, far away seem like a pretty boring place. Recently, the Canadian Transformers tribute band The Cybertronic Spree began performing the theme, “Trouble Again,” live in concert — resulting in nostalgia overload bliss.
DuckTales. Oooh ooh! Obviously no list of 1980s cartoons would be complete without this, the greatest of all themes from the decade. (With the toon it comes from arguably also being among the best of the ’80s thanks to its smart storylines that didn’t belittle the viewing audience and some terrific voice work.) Why is this one so successful? Because it is memorable and sums up the show’s raison d’être to viewers in a tightly packed 60 seconds. Brevity baby! You can find the lyrics for the song here, as if you didn’t have them memorized already.