You may not have known Jim Johnston's name, but you definitely know his songs.
Screen capture via YouTube/WWE
It’s a little weird to remember that, decades ago, pro wrestlers didn’t have theme songs. They’d make their way to the ring to boos and cheers but no musical announcement, until the real drama started in the ring. There were a few outliers—notably Gorgeous George, whose use of “Pomp and Circumstance” served to bludgeon the 1950s audience over the head with the idea that his character was effete, snooty, and maybe gay—but they really were outliers. It was back in the serious days of pro wrestling, when what was expected was a laser focus on the in-ring storytelling, backed with short promos in service to that action.
By the 1980s, that all changed. The Baby Boomers were fully in control of pro wrestling, and their tastes slowly squeezed out or altered their forebears’ often austere notions of what the form should be. Pro wrestling got a little wilder (it was already wild) and a whole lot louder. Theme music became a vital part of pro wrestling, piped in over systems and given foregrounding in television production. You could hear the characters embodied in their theme music; the memorable ones weren’t the wrestlers who picked a song they liked, but the ones who picked a song they liked and made sure it matched their personas.
Down south, the approach to theme music was typified by The Fabulous Freebirds, who claim they were the first to add the idea of rock 'n' roll theme songs as a standard part of pro wrestling dramatics. Their claim is disputable, but the effect of their entrances was not: Lynyrd Skynyrd's “Freebird” announcing the arrival of a hated heel team decked out in Confederate flag attire was not a politically neutral occurrence and tapped into a deep well of white New South grappling with its history. Because if the flag is good, but it’s being used by hated heels beating the hell out of the beloved Von Erichs, what does that mean? And by extension, what does the theme song mean in this context?
Leaving that question dangling, one of the problems with licensing music is that eventually, and especially during a wrestling boom period, the license holders are going to figure out they can make a lot of money through licensing fees. That’s if they’re asked at all; Dusty Rhodes briefly came out to Prince’s “Purple Rain,” which is a situation which beggars belief, given the late musician’s lifelong obsession with controlling his music.
The WWF at the time skipped over the problem of licensing music altogether by going hard on creating music in-house. If you employ the musicians, there’s no licensing fees to pay and you get to keep the songs forever. Even better, if you hire really, really good musicians, then you have the chance of weaving those songs into a broader cultural history around pro wrestling with no secondary or tertiary meaning to muddle what it’s about. Or, to put it another way, “Purple Rain” has a lot of contexts outside that time Dusty Rhodes wrestled Ric Flair at Starrcade ‘84, but “Real American” is pretty much just a pro wrestling song.
One of the really, really good musicians Vince McMahon hired was Jim Johnston. Johnston reportedly just left the company after 32 years there, writing more theme songs than it’s possible to list here. He was prolific, and he was stylistically adventurous.
An example of just how disparate the outcomes from his talent were: He wrote the Ultimate Warrior’s repetitive metal riff and turned around to write the Undertaker’s somber, slow funeral march a few years later.
If there’s a WWE theme song you remember, odds are Johnston wrote it, and even better odds that he consulted on it if he didn’t write it. His late 90s output is a parade of the memorable: “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, The Rock, D-Generation X, Chris Jericho, Billy Gunn. It just stretches on and on into the 00s. We all have a favorite and we all know immediately what it is—mine is probably Edge’s industrial tinged first theme, which sounds exactly like the sort of stuff Cleopatra Records used to shove onto their endless compilations and which I still have a weird craving for to this day. It’s also better than his last theme song. Sorry.
It doesn’t matter what yours is. All that matters is that you have one, and you do. It’s not so much that the music is good, at least not in the sense that you’d listen to it in the car or match it to a day to day mood. It’s that the music precedes and becomes one with the character it’s attached to. There is no “BY GAWD, THAT’S STONE COLD’S MUSIC” without the music which is so recognizable, so intrinsic to the character, without music that is worth recognizing. However it came about, Johnston was a master of figuring that out. It’s easy to recognize the enduring proof of his genius—say a wrestler’s name and invariably the first thing which comes to mind is the theme song.
But Johnston is gone now, retired from WWE at not even 60 years old after his contract ran down. In truth, it’s been reported at a few places that he’d been slowly squeezed to the margins over the past few years, with the songwriting duties picked up more and more by CFO$. And honestly, while the style is still different enough from Johnston’s that it feels a little weird, CFO$ have already made some pretty iconic theme songs in Shinsuke Nakamura’s, Bobby Roode’s, and AJ Styles’.
Which points to one of two things. The cynical thought is that writing pro wrestling theme songs isn’t actually that hard and that the bulk of the work is carried by the wrestlers, anyway. It’s not like the territories didn’t have some cool original music once the licensed songs fell out of fashion.
The other thought, the one I choose to believe, the optimistic one, is that the best pro wrestling theme writers were alchemists able to meld characters more straightforwardly big than a standard drama’s with music that was likewise larger than life. In this view, no, of course Jim Johnston wasn’t writing to a standard of the greatest pop music in the world. But that wasn’t his job. His job was to write for the world of myth, not the world of flesh. The world of dead men and heartbreakers. Myth demands an outsized sense of self, and its music likewise demands to be ego made sonic. Johnston got that and, regardless of his diminished role over the past few years, it feels as though something has irrevocably changed at WWE going forward.