In Random Tracks, I review a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958.
The Rembrandts- “I’ll Be There For You”
PEAK: #17 on October 7, 1995 (b/w “This House Is Not A Home”)
SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy”
One major art form that has been dying out in recent times is the TV theme. For the longest time, a theme song used to be a big part of a show’s identity but on a lot of the big shows now, you hardly hear any memorable theme songs. This undoubtedly has to do with the rise of streaming and on-demand viewing where people are more inclined to watch shows on their own time now and can just skip over the intros. There’s also a business aspect to it with shows putting more emphasis on content and commercials making it hard to come up with themes that fit within their time constraints.
TV themes by their very nature aren’t designed to be pop chart hits but it has happened time to time starting at the beginning of the Hot 100 era when Henry Mancini’s “Theme From Peter Gunn” peaked at #8 in 1959 while its accompanying soundtrack was named by Billboard as the year’s top-selling album. (“Theme From Peter Gunn” is a 9.) In the coming decades, more TV themes would get adapted into pop song length tracks and become major hits including several that have hit #1, “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia),” “Theme From S.W.A.T.,” “Welcome Back,” “Miami Vice Theme,” and “How Do You Talk To An Angel.” The Rembrandts’ “I’ll Be There For You” could have very well been one of those #1 TV themes. In 1995, the song was the theme to NBC’s hottest new sitcom and thanks to that popularity was turned into a three-minute pop song but thanks to actions taken by the band, it was not tearing up the Hot 100 even as it dominated radio during that summer.
If the people at Warner Bros. Television had their way, the theme for Friends wouldn’t have been “I’ll Be There For You” but instead R.E.M.’s jangly hit “Shiny Happy People” from 1991 but the band turned it down. (“Shiny Happy People” peaked at #10. It’s a 5.) With only weeks until Friends’ premiere, Warner Bros. decided on creating an original theme in the vein of R.E.M. specifically their 1987 classic “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” (“It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” peaked at #69. R.E.M.’s highest-charting single, 1991’s “Losing My Religion,” peaked at #4. It’s an 8.) Friends creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman along with veteran songwriter Allie Willis, the writer behind hit songs for Earth, Wind & Fire, the Pointer Sisters, Pet Shop Boys, and Dusty Springfield, came up with the initial theme you hear in the show about the idea that no matter how shitty your life may get, you can always rely on your friends to get you through it all.
Before becoming forever associated with a sitcom theme, the Rembrandts, the duo of Danny Wilde and Phil Solem, had been around for a half-decade but go back even further. Wilde and Solem had first met around 1981 when they played in Great Buildings, a Los Angeles-based power pop band. Great Buildings weren’t that big releasing only one album before breaking up. By the end of the ‘80s. Wilde and Solem formed the Rembrandts and in 1990 put out their self-titled debut which spawned the hit “Just The Way It Is, Baby,” a solid mellow rocker which peaked on the Hot 100 at #14 meaning it’s technically their highest-charting single even if it isn’t their best-remembered song.
By 1994, the Rembrandts had released a second album and getting ready to release a third one L.P. with a couple of other singles charting in the lower half of the Hot 100. They weren’t exactly the biggest act in the world but they were a known quantity and more importantly had a big fan in Friends producer Kevin Bright who put their name into consideration for the theme. The duo weren’t exactly thrilled at the offer but with a short deadline and being the only Warner Bros. act available, they went along with it. They met with the show’s people and went in to record the less than minute-long theme with Bright, Kauffman, and Crane adding those famous handclaps after the first line so they could contribute something to the song.
Friends premiered in September 1994 and was an immediate ratings smash finishing the 1994-’95 season at #8 in the Nelson ratings tied with Murder, She Wrote. Even with that success, “I’ll Be There For You” wasn’t thought of as anything more than a TV theme. That is until a radio DJ in Nashville began looping the song for three minutes on air leading to lots of listeners calling in to request the looped song helping it spread to stations across the country. Seeing a big hit on their hands, the Rembrandts’ label had the group record a full pop song version of “I’ll Be There For You” while also holding back the release of L.P. which had already been sent out to radio. The Rembrandts, working with the writers from Friends, had written a version that fitted more with their new album but the show’s people rejected it for being too dark and instead wrote a second verse and bridge that continues with the song’s main theme with a little guitar solo to boot. The two members of the Rembrandts don’t have a writing credit on the TV theme but thanks to their additions have credit on the full song.
Released in May 1995 right as the first season of Friends ended, “I’ll Be There For You” was an immediate hit on radio and in less than a month was the top song on Billboard’s Radio Songs chart holding the top airplay spot for eight weeks starting the week ending June 17th. By all accounts, it was one of the top songs of 1995 and in several countries charted high but you wouldn’t get that looking at the Hot 100. In putting the song out, The Rembrandts, not feeling comfortable with their biggest song being a TV theme they didn’t have much of a hand in, intentionally kept “I’ll Be There For You” from being released commercially as a single and per Hot 100 rules at the time, that meant one of the biggest songs of the summer and the year, a surefire #1, wasn’t able to chart.
It wasn’t until September when “I’ll Be There For You” was finally made available as a single for people to buy getting put on the B-side to their next single “This House Is Not A Home,” a harder jangly ‘60s type song that feels more in line with the Rembrandts’ style. (Good song too.) Billboard wound up counting both songs together as a double A-sided single. Airplay was declining by then but thanks to sales from people happy to buy “I’ll Be There For You” without buying the album, “I’ll Be There For You” placed with “This House Is Not A Home” managed to get up to #17 within a few weeks.
Discussing “I’ll Be There For You” as a song feels weird since it’ll always be known more as the theme to one of the biggest sitcoms ever than a full pop song. As a TV theme, the song does its job in the way you expect a TV theme to do its job. It’s a short catchy singalong that gives you the basic premise of the show with the kind of hook that sticks with you forever even if you’re like me and don’t watch Friends a lot. As a song though, “I’ll Be There For You” falls into the issue that plagues most other TV themes stretched out to be a pop song in that you can tell the people behind it are stretching out a song longer than it needs to be. In the second verse, there’s the line “Your mother warned you there’d be days like these” which contradicts the opening line “So no one told you life was gonna be this way” which only highlights how slapdash this feels.
That said, I don’t totally hate “I’ll Be There For You.” It’s obviously a corporate creation that makes no attempt to hide it but it’s still a well-put-together song. The song may sound like a cheap rate version of the jangly alt-rock R.E.M. are known for but as a fan of that sound, I don’t mind it. As a song, it’s a fun little jam with a hugely memorable chorus along with competent-sounding performances. As both a TV theme and a pop song, “I’ll Be There For You” does what it’s supposed to do. For a TV theme stretched out to pop song length, there are certainly worse examples than this.
To further promote the song as well as the show, a music video was made with the Rembrandts and the Friends cast members and it might just be my favorite aspect of the song. As the Rembrandts tell it, the video kept getting delayed as the cast were too busy with the show and the promotion until they found the right time to shoot together. The initial concept was gonna be the cast of Friends sneaking into a Rembrandts concert and knock them out with a frozen fish. But when the band met with the cast, they rejected that idea coming up with other ideas before shooting the video for a few days at Rockefeller Center on the set of Saturday Night Live.
The final “I’ll Be There For You” video is pretty minimal. It’s just the Rembrandts performing on a soundstage in a style similar to the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night. (The instruments are also similar to what the Beatles used in the movie.) Throughout, the cast of Friends ambushes the stage to join in on the performance even taking control of the instruments away from the band members. Even in its minimal style, I like the video since it’s fun to watch the Friends cast goofing around with the Rembrandts. They all look like they’re having a good time together. It turned out to be the perfect way to do the video than whatever idea was planned before.
On the strength of “I’ll Be There For You,” L.P. peaked at #23 on the album charts and was certified platinum but it didn’t lead to more hits for the Rembrandts. Even after the song’s success, the duo resented their biggest known song being a sitcom theme they largely didn’t write. Phil Solem left the group not long after in 1997 to join a group called Thrush while Danny Wilde continued the Rembrandts releasing an album in 1998. A couple of years later, Solem reunited with Wilde and have put out two albums since with their last one being in 2019. The duo still performs and in recent years seem to have made peace with “I’ll Be There For You” being their biggest song performing it whenever there’s a tribute celebration of Friends. As long as people still like Friends and as long as they’re still making money off it, Friends will always be there for the Rembrandts.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Weird Al” Yankovic, someone who I’ll be seeing live in a few weeks, performing an “I’ll Be There For You” parody called “I’ll Repair For You,” a parody he’s never released, at a 1996 concert joking with the crowd that he had written it as the theme to Home Improvement:
(“Weird Al” Yankovic’s highest-charting single, 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” peaked at #9. It’s a 7.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s an outtake from the 2013 movie We’re The Millers where the cast plays “I’ll Be There For You” as a way to prank cast member Jennifer Anniston:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Meghan Trainor’s cover of “I’ll Be There For You” released in 2019 to commemorate Friends’ 25th anniversary:
(Meghan Trainor will eventually appear in The Ones of the ‘10s.)