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The Rembrandts: 'So no one told me it was going to be this way'

The Friends theme-tune was a worldwide hit and became the soundtrack for a generation. But its success nearly destroyed the men who recorded it. Fiona Sturges talks to The Rembrandts' Danny Wilde about That Song

Tuesday 27 April 2004 00:00 BST

You'll have heard it hundreds, no, thousands of times. Chances are you don't know who sings it though, if requested, you could probably recite it word for word, backwards if necessary. It's a song that has, over the last 10 years, wound its way into your consciousness uninvited and languished there like a drunk that doesn't know when to leave the party.

You'll have heard it hundreds, no, thousands of times. Chances are you don't know who sings it though, if requested, you could probably recite it word for word, backwards if necessary. It's a song that has, over the last 10 years, wound its way into your consciousness uninvited and languished there like a drunk that doesn't know when to leave the party.

"I'll Be There", the jingly-jangly, relentlessly upbeat theme soundtrack to the comedy series Friends (the final episode of which goes out next month on Channel 4) is the work of the southern California band The Rembrandts. It was the song that both made their name and signalled their demise. Theirs is a typically rock'n'roll tale of band-struggles-to-be-heard, band-makes-it-big, band-vow-never-to-work-together-again - though nowadays their singer, Danny Wilde, is philosophical about the song which nearly finished his career.

"I don't have any feelings about it either way anymore," Wilde sighs. "First it was this albatross, but now it's become a part of pop culture and there are moments when I'm really very proud of it. At a time when bands are constantly trying to promote themselves via television or the movies or whatever, what happened to us doesn't seem so extraordinary."

When Friends first began in 1994, however, The Rembrandts found themselves accused by both fans and fellow musicians of selling out. "We went from being the darlings of the alternative scene to a proper mainstream band," recalls Wilde ruefully. "Before Friends we'd been playing all these underground venues. But 'I'll Be There' was so huge that we ended up playing stadiums almost overnight. We'd do these matinee shows and see 10-year-old kids in the crowd, singing along. When we were interviewed we were always asked how many claps there were in the song. I think we lost a lot of our original fans at that point, and many people stopped taking us seriously."

Though they were barely known in this country, the Rembrandts had already had a handful of minor hits in the United States, among them "That's Just the Way It Is", "Baby" and "Johnny, Have You Seen Her?" before they landed the Friends gig. It was Kevin Bright, the producer of the show and a self-confessed Rembrandts fan, who put them forward as contenders for the theme tune (other artists under discussion were Natalie Merchant and REM's Michael Stipe, though both reportedly turned it down).

"He and the writers Marta Kauffman and David Krane wanted a proper song, not just something that had been dreamt up by a jingle writer," Wilde explains. "He also wanted a real band involved, one who already had a bit of a following."

Wilde and his songwriting partner Phil Solem were invited to the Friends' studios and shown the pilot. "We liked it immediately, and it had some good people working on it. So we thought 'Why not? Nobody will even know it was us, anyway'. During the first season, we weren't even listed on the credits."

The Rembrandts had always written their own material but with "I'll Be There," their input was minimal. The musical director Michael Skloff had already came up with a tune, while a lyricist named Allee Willis had written some lyrics. Wilde and the band were brought in to tweak the lyrics and provide the instrumentation. Did he like the end result?

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"Oh sure," he exclaims. "We completely made it our own. I remember thinking it was awesome, a really cool little pop tune. It had great harmonies and this upbeat vibe. More than anything, it was fun. Plus, Phil and I were really jacked to hear it on the TV show. It was only when it all blew up and we became known for this Monkees-style jingle, that the shine kind of wore off."

As the series' popularity burgeoned, US radio stations found themselves besieged by requests for "the Friends theme tune." But, being only 40 seconds long, the song wasn't available as a single. In the end, DJs at a Nashville station took matters into their own hands and, with the help of some studio trickery, made their own extended version. Spotting an opportunity to make some cash, The Rembrandts' record company then dispatched the band to an LA studio to record a full-length single. "I'll Be There" stayed at Number One in the charts for 11 consecutive weeks. Against the band's wishes, it was also tacked on to their third album, LP, which went on to sell two millioncopies.

"It wasn't so much added at the eleventh hour as the thirteenth," grumbles Wilde. "We felt that the song went against the more serious, alternative vibe of the album. It sounded like nothing else we had done. Mind you, we stopped complaining when we saw the sales figures."

Wilde concedes that the band's split in 1997 was a direct result of the single. "You could say it became something of a curse, yes. We were tired of it being the only thing we were known for, and we were tired of being on the road. After the third album came out and did so well we toured for three years. We weren't writing any new songs and we weren't spending any time in the studio. The whole thing became a grind. There was no outright animosity between us, but we needed a break from each other."

Wilde subsequently made music as a solo performer, while the bass player, Graham Edwards, went on to become part of the production team The Matrix, which produced hits for Avril Lavigne and Liz Phair. The drummer, Pat Mastelotto, joined prog-rockers King Crimson. After a four-year period of silence, Wilde and Solem finally got in touch again in 2001. "We decided to let bygones be bygones and get back to work," Wilde remembers. "We always knew we had this great chemistry in the studio. It seemed a shame to let that go."

Now in their late forties, Wilde and Solem have struggled to make their presence felt in a pop landscape dominated by scantily clad teens and graduates of reality TV. In a last-ditch attempt to capitalise on glories past, they are preparing to put out a collection of greatest hits which will, yes, include "I'll Be There" along with "a couple of new tunes for the kids".

Wilde admits that, when all's said and done, he's got much to be thankful for. The success of Friends indirectly turned The Rembrandts into millionaires and, briefly, the toast of the music scene. But he still comes over all bashful when I ask if dollar signs appear in his eyes whenever he sees Friends on the telly. "To be honest I don't even notice it anymore," he mumbles unconvincingly.

But you can't be short of a bob or two

"Well, let's just say I'm not going to retire on it, but I've managed to put both my kids through college. We get paid for performance, which means we make something every time it's on TV, but we never got publishing royalties."

Now, even with the show coming to an end, Wilde knows that there will be no escaping That Song. "With the repeats, that show is sure to outlive me," he says with a sigh, adding, "But I guess that's kind of cool, isn't it? That way, The Rembrandts will never be forgotten."


Dawson's Creek

As soppy and melodramatic as the show's protagonists, the theme to the teen series Dawson's Creek, "I Don't Want To Wait", was the work of Paula Cole, an acutely sensitive singer-songwriter from Rockport, Massachusetts. Cole, who toured on Peter Gabriel's Secret World Tour in 1993, included the track on her second album, 1996's This Fire which went double platinum. "I Don't Want To Wait" was in fact the second choice for the series' producers. The intended theme tune was Alanis Morissette's "Hand In My Pocket", though - perhaps wisely - Morissette changed her mind at the last minute and withdrew the song.

Ally McBeal

Blonde bombshell Vonda Shepard's wistful ditties fell on deaf ears until she landed her big break through her friend David E Kelley, the creator of Ally McBeal. In 1996, Kelley invited Shepard, who started her career as a backing singer for Jackson Browne, to sing the theme tune "Searchin' My Soul". She also become a regular cast member, playing the house performer at Ally's local bar. As the series grew in popularity, Shepard's career took off and a bidding war for the rights to the soundtrack began. Sony won and Shepard recorded three "Ally McBeal" albums, a mix of covers and originals. Since the series was axed in 2002 Shepard has continued to tour, though a new album is yet to appear.


Everybody may know your name in the Boston bar where Sam Malone and his motley group of barflies set the world to rights, but few knew the name of the man who sang the theme tune. The voice was, in fact, that of the singer-songwriter Gary Portnoy. Before landing the Cheers gig, Portnoy released a self-titled debut album on Columbia in 1980, to little fanfare. Sadly, little has been heard of him since, although an original Cheers bar stool, inscribed with the song's lyrics and the singer's autograph, was reportedly auctioned off over the internet in 2001 for a four-figure sum.


Al Jarreau, the Wisconsin R&B singer who started his professional life as a social worker, attracted a modest following in the mid-Seventies with the albums Glow and Look to the Rainbow and won a fistful of Grammys. However, it wasn't until he landed the theme tune to the comedy series Moonlighting ("there is the sun and moon/ They sing their own, sweet tune"), starring Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd, that he had a bona fide hit. Since then, his popularity has waned with a series of less-than-impressive albums and compilations.

The White Horses

The tune to the Yugoslavian children's TV show about a girl's equine adventures, recorded by the young Irish singer Jackie Lee under the name "Jacky", topped a list of best songs in the Penguin Television Companion last year. Written by Michael Carr and Ben Nisbet, the track reached the top ten in 1968. This was to be one of only two hits that Lee had in Britain (the other was the theme to another children's series, Rupert The Bear). Lee's career limped on for another six years before she took early retirement in 1973.

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