As previously noted, longtime WWE composer Jim Johnston was recently a guest on Prime Time With Sean Mooney. In addition to many other topics, Johnston discussed how entrance music came into being in WWE, his process for writing entrance themes, composing legendary works for Ultimate Warrior, 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin, and The Undertaker. Also, Johnston gave thanks to three WWE legends who have been supportive to him over the years.
During the interview, Johnston recalled that entrance music came about pretty organically in WWE. Johnston went on to say that he championed the cause of having good music for heels.
"It was a pretty simplistic business and then to start having entrance themes ramped up the energy extraordinarily," Johnston professed. "It just sort of grew in a very organic way. Babyfaces got music. Heels tended to not get music or, and later, heels got music, but it was toilets flushing. We wanted no confusion over you were the heel here. And then, later, and I will take credit on this one, I think because I do believe I suggested it, actually, it was a little bit of a crusade for a while. I was like, 'why do the heels have to have bad music? I mean, why can't they have good music? Aren't these the guys that we love to hate? And if we put them over as heels more, won't we love to hate them even more?' And then, that continued and I do remember, on Vince's side of the equation, he got to a point where he did make it a policy, 'no more crappy music - everybody gets a good theme'."
On the subject of his songwriting process, Johnston explained that he always started by looking to the source of the performer's power.
"The first thing I generally look at is size. Are they lighter, and wiry, and fast moving?" Johnston continued, "or are they a big, plodding, so the music has to fundamentally express the weight and the power of the person or what is the source of their power?"
Interestingly, Johnston rather modestly claimed to be nothing more than a conduit for the music and that his songwriting process really entails playing till something comes to him.
"it's just sort of thinking about it and it's like a faith issue," Johnston explained. "You just play until something comes and a lot of the time, something comes in five seconds and a lot of times nothing. You'll be playing and be like, 'this [riff] sounds like a big guy, but not this big guy.' And you just have to have the faith to sit there and keep playing and eventually, miraculously, something would come."
With respect to Ultimate Warrior's entrance theme, Johnston indicated that he watched Warrior's entrance and had to come up with something that cut to the chase. Moreover, coming up with that signature guitar riff took only five minutes.
"Warrior was relatively easy in the sense that I saw some tape of him coming to the ring and it's like, boom, he's there, so I felt immediately like there's no intro in particular. We're in. And I just thought that it struck me that the guy was so high energy and frenetic, so I think the first thing I played was just that, here he comes! Here comes this guy who's jumping and shaking the ropes. And so that one was a layup, basically. I mean, it worked out well and it's nice when it's a layup, but he kind of wrote that one for me with one look at the guy. Oh, it was a five-minute process! And then, recording it probably took a day."
As for 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin's entrance song, Johnston stated that so much of the 'Stone Cold' character was based on real anger Austin had about place in his professional wrestling career.
"With Austin's theme, he had been so frustrated with his career that part of the whole anger seen in him is real. He was so frustrated. He knew, not in an arrogant way, but he knew he had a real gift for this business and he could do this if he just got a shot. And in the south, he kind of got a shot, but never what he really wanted to be. Then, when he finally made it to WWE and he was 'The Ringmaster', it wasn't what he really wanted. It didn't resonate with him at all."
Johnston tried to come up with a theme for 'Stone Cold', much like John Williams' score for JAWS, that sounded angry and relentless.
"I just knew I needed something that sounded pissed off. That was the main goal," Johnston divulged. "I knew Steve needed something that was more… something screwy that doesn't flow, so the first thing was doing something from an E to an F, just a half-step. I think I started doing something like that and quickly that developed into [the legendary riff]. And then, behind that, I knew there had to be this driving drumbeat that was just relentless. It doesn't matter what you do, this guy's going to continue to come after you because he's so pissed off and he is not pulling away. And that worked out well."
Johnston, who always prided himself on helping the talents get over during his 32-year WWE run, said he is happy that the entrance theme served Austin well more than he is happy with the composition itself.
"More than anything, I was most happy, not with the composition, but that the composition served Steve and helped him become the star that he deserved to be."
According to Johnston, the only direction he got on The Undertaker's theme was that he was big dead guy.
"That one did not come in five minutes because I was just trapped with, 'okay, he's a dead guy.' I didn't receive a lot of input other than kind of, 'well, he's this huge kind of dead guy.'"
Johnston shared that he noticed a tragic element in watching footage of The Undertaker and said he wanted to come up with a score that sounded tragic. In thinking about backstory of The Undertaker, Johnston came to the conclusion that 'The Phenom' was a tragic character because someone important in his life had died.
"In thinking about it and seeing footage on him, what struck me was there was this tragedy element to him, this very tragic element where it's like, 'what happened to this guy? What made him this way? Was he beaten, tortured? What made him so dark and what drew him so strongly to death, and the dark side, and graveyards, and everything?'" Johnston answered, "someone had died. I wanted to come up with a way to make something tragic, like something horrible, and someone had died."
While many classic composition by Johnston took a few minutes to write, The Undertaker's theme took about five hours to write.
"When it just takes longer to get to, it doesn't necessarily mean I have a greater sense of doubt if it's right and it wasn't that long. We're just not talking five minutes. It was over the course of five hours."
At the close of the interview, Johnston put over a few WWE legends who have been kind to him over the years, namely Austin, Chris Jericho, and The Undertaker.
"I just want to give a shout out to a couple of people who've always been incredibly gracious, and grateful, and kind, and polite, and because I rarely get a chance to see them anymore, just on the outside chance they listen to this, but Steve Austin, just a terrific guy and I want to thank him for all of his kindnesses to me. Chris Jericho, just a home run guy who's incredibly kind. Yeah, yeah, and Mark, The Undertaker, just an incredibly sweet man. He has always been incredibly kind, and gracious, and I'm so appreciative of that. It really means a lot to me."
Check out the interview here. If you use any of the quotes from this article, please credit Prime Time With Sean Mooney with an H/T to Wrestling Inc. for the transcription.
Source: Prime Time With Sean Mooney