WWE composer Jim Johnston's 10 favorite entrance themes
January 23, 2013
Back in 1974, pop music artist Kiki Dee released the hit single “I’ve Got the Music in Me.” The title of that song came to mind while talking to the man who has been credited with composing entrance themes for WWE Superstars for nearly three decades, Jim Johnston. We at WWE Classics wanted to find out what goes into creating a Superstar’s music, so we visited Johnston in his expansive Stamford, Conn., studios. Sitting comfortably around countless guitars, massive amplifiers and a grand piano, the musician revealed that his compositions always begin with a blank page.
“I’m relatively uninformed. A lot of times, I’m told there’s a new Superstar, and their name is ‘blank,’ ” Johnston explained. “After that, it gets kind of sketchy, so I ask for some footage of the talent so at least I can see how they move. That’s always the starting point for me. A talent’s size and appearance go a long way to determining what I need to produce.”
Somewhat surprisingly, a Superstar’s persona is not a vital ingredient for Johnston’s creations.
“I think it’s good that I don’t get too much information, because it could easily take me in the wrong direction,” Johnston said. “I try to react to what I see. I look at the footage and think, ‘What’s this person really like?’ If I feel something, I try to draw that out in composing their music.”
The one thing that Johnston rarely gets is input from the Superstars themselves.
“It can really confuse the issue,” he admitted. “Many times a Superstar will tell me what kind of music they like to listen to, but that has nothing to do with what would be a good theme for them. I sort of approach it like a movie. These themes are a soundtrack to the movie of this person. It really has to do with the story.”
And after all these years, Johnston still finds composing Superstars’ themes challenging. Sometimes the formation can be obvious, while other times it’s like figuring out the solution for a Rubik’s Cube.
“The whole process of composing is a mystery. I don’t really know where it comes from,” Johnston said. “Sometimes I’ll sit down and something just shows up. As an example, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s theme came really fast. I just picked up a guitar and played that groove. Very easy. It’s most difficult to me when an individual doesn’t have a lot of personality.”
Having learned a little about Jim Johnston’s craft, WWE Classics asked the musician to compose a list of his 10 favorite WWE Superstar themes. Needless to say, this was a very challenging proposition for him, to where the following themes (to name a few) made his “honorable mention” list:
“S.O.S.” (Kofi Kingston)
“Here Comes The Money” (Shane McMahon)
“Girls In Cars” (Strike Force)
Gangrel/The Brood Theme
Dude Love Theme
And now, in no particular order, here are Jim Johnston’s 10 favorite entrance themes. These songs should be played loud.
"Stone Cold" Steve Austin
Johnston recalled early struggles developing theme music for the man who would become one of the biggest stars in ring history.
“Steve Austin came to WWE as The Ringmaster, which was one of the dullest characters ever,” he said. “I mean, you talk about a guy without a persona. What did The Ringmaster mean? Was he from the circus? What is it? I have no idea what I wrote, but I bet it wasn’t very good.”
Only after The Ringmaster began filming vignettes as the defiant “Stone Cold” Steve Austin did the theme come to Johnston.
“Steve had his black trunks and black vest and looked like someone you didn’t want to screw with,” Johnston said. “We debuted the theme as the tag to the vignettes introducing Steve’s new persona.”
When WWE Classics asked Johnston about the famous glass shattering sound effect, the composer told us it was his idea. “But I had difficulty creating a glass break that felt violent enough,” he revealed. “[Austin’s] glass break ended up being a combination of three different glass breaks, someone falling downstairs and a car crash all mixed together.”
“When I write the songs, I feel like I’m writing for the Superstar as opposed to other songwriters who compose somewhat autobiographically,” Johnston explained. “But most of the time, I’ll realize six months later that a song was completely autobiographical.”
For Johnston, this was especially true when his frustrations with the world were manifested while composing Randy Orton’s theme. The song, which was recorded by rock band Rev Theory, opens with the lyrics: “I hear voices in my head/They counsel me/They understand/They talk to me.”
“I look back on that song now, and those words were exactly what I was thinking at the time,” Johnston recalled. “I had never verbalized that anger and it was the voices in my head that were playing out this anger inside me.”
The Prime Time Players
“ ‘Making Moves’ is a new track that was done with Sugar Tongue Slim,” Johnston said while discussing The Prime Time Players’ catchy entrance theme. “[Sugar Tongue] was kind enough to do the rap for us and he was a pleasure to work with.”
The cocky duo of Titus O’Neil and Darren Young needed a theme that complemented their brash personas. And after looking at the pair in action, it didn’t take Johnston long to put one together.
“That was one that just came quickly. I looked at these guys and knew what I wanted to do and knew the tempo,” Johnston said. “I wanted to do something that was obvious, but also not so obvious.”
The staccato drumbeat of the track matched with the undeniable charisma of the Atlanta MC produced a hip hop cut that wouldn’t be out of place on major radio — proof that WWE has come a long way since the days of Men on a Mission. The composer wasn’t shy about how he felt about the final product.
“I think this theme is going to take The Prime Time Players to a whole new level.”
“My buddy Chris Warren sang that theme,” Johnston said of D-Generation X’s rousing entrance track. “Boy, is he a wild guy. I wanted something that sounded rebellious. I found Chris and told him to just let it go.”
The song that would eventually send Triple H and Shawn Michaels into battle didn’t come easily to Johnston. The composer explained that he wanted a signature for the theme, much like The Undertaker’s gong, but was having trouble developing the sound.
“I didn’t want something that kicked you in the butt, but something that teased you into it,” he said. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”
The famous intro didn’t come to Johnston until he was in the studio recording with Warren.
“I stood in front of him at the microphone,” Johnston recalled. “And he was a sweaty wreck because he had just been singing and screaming, and I started feeding him lines.”
What came next was completely organic.
“Out came, ‘You think you can tell us what to do?’ ” Johnston sang in rhythm. “ ‘You think that you’re better?’ ”
And with that, sports-entertainment’s greatest anti-establishment anthem was born.
Johnston told WWE Classics that Hakushi’s theme, a song called “Angels,” had been previously written for no Superstar in particular.
“I gave the song to Vince [McMahon],” Johnston recalled. “And I said, ‘If you ever have a Superstar that is, in some way, the opposite of The Undertaker by wearing all white, I’ve got a theme for him.”
After passing off the tune, Johnston never believed it would surface on WWE programming, but it turned out to be perfect accompaniment to the mysterious acrobatics of mid-90s Japanese daredevil Hakushi.
“I thought it was long forgotten,” Johnston admitted. “I think it was a year later, and then sure enough, Hakushi showed up and Vince gave him that song.”
When Johnston started talking about former WWE Champion Ultimate Warrior, what he said was hardly breaking news.
“One of the craziest men I’ve ever met in my lifetime, but man, could that guy put on a show,” Johnston said. “The match between him and that theme was perfect. When that thing hit and that guy shot out of the back like a cannonball, the energy in the room went up by 500 degrees.”
In a “chicken or the egg” scenario, it’s unclear whether Warrior shook the ropes before or after being given his theme. Still, it’s impossible to deny that the pounding track fit the Superstar from Parts Unknown better than a neon pair of tights.
“He was such an intense guy,” Johnston said. “What an entertainer. He could light that arena up. It was an amazing thing to see. Just to be around the guy, you felt like he would start shaking you like that. It wasn’t like you’d see him backstage and he’d be calmly reading a novel.”
Former WWE Diva Maria’s theme, “With Legs Like That,” came from collaboration between Johnston and a California band named Zebrahead on what the composer called “a simple punk song.” But there was nothing rebellious about Johnston’s inspiration for the track.
“I have to give credit where it’s due,” Johnston said. “I wrote it inspired by my wife. It was just a crazy, teenage, hormone-filled fun song.”
If anybody can induce those feelings, it was the gorgeous Maria. And while the rocking tune’s opening line of “Here she comes again/Like good medicine” left many WWE fans scratching their heads, it fit the beautiful Diva perfectly.
( MORE MARIA)
“I can’t help it,” Johnston said of Val Venis’ provocative entrance theme. “I love that song and you just can’t help but like that guy.”
The controversial Venis needed music that complemented his racy persona, and the sexy saxophone did the trick.
“He played the part so well,” Johnston said. “I still get a kick out of that theme every time I hear it.”
Johnston explained there was no denying the irresistible Venis.
“I love the groove to the song,” he admitted. “It sets up this interesting persona that’s sleazy, but you like him.”
Johnston couldn’t pick just one of Triple H’s many themes for his list of 10 favorites.
“I’ve written so many songs for that guy,” Johnston said. “I had to enter him into the top 10 as a category.”
The longtime WWE composer went all the way back to discussing Triple H’s early days in WWE as a Connecticut blueblood when he used snooty harpsichord music for his theme.
“But truly, one of my favorite songs was ‘My Time,’ ” Johnston said of the theme The Game used in 2000. “It certainly seemed like Hunter was about to break out and be a big star in WWE.”
Later in Triple H’s career, Johnston penned songs like “The Game,” “Line in the Sand” and “King of Kings” that were performed by Motorhead, a favorite band of the company’s COO.
“Triple H had become friends with [Motorhead frontman] Lemmy,” Johnston explained. “And they were more than happy to be involved. It was a great treat for me to work with those guys.”
“I received very little information on The Undertaker other than he was a very large, dead man,” Johnston reminisced with WWE Classics.
The composer wasn’t sure what that meant, but it ended up resulting in one of sports-entertainment’s most iconic pieces of music.
I sat at the piano and wrote this incredibly delicate piano theme thinking it was a funeral dirge,” he said.
When he was done, Johnston knew it wouldn’t work. A nearly 7-foot Phenom couldn’t approach the ring to a little piano ditty.
“But what if this Superstar was being buried at St. Patrick’s Cathedral?” Johnston wondered. “They’d probably play the theme on some gigantic organ and there would probably be a chorus and bells.”
The composer added the other elements to round out the song, and the orchestration stuck as The Deadman’s longtime theme, which has varied only slightly in the past 20 years.
“It became an opus,” Johnston said. “And that guy’s had a career that deserves an opus.”