Former WWE composer Jim Johnston had one of the longest tenures with the company, as he worked there for 32 years (1985-2017). WWE was far from the global behemoth it is today back when Johnston first started, and he was asked if he worked directly with Vince McMahon in those early days in an interview with Kiwi Talkz.
“Early on, it was Vince, because when he bought the company from his dad, it was a seriously small operation. It was Vince, his wife Linda, and I don’t know, five other people in a small, rented suite of offices he worked in then. He’s an extremely driven dude, so he really ramped it up quickly,” stated Johnston.
“So early on, it was him. Then later on, his right-hand guy, Kevin Dunn, I mainly went through him. But even then, it was largely Kevin relaying the information from Vince or discussions about a character. It was rarely — thank God — directly from the wrestler. And I don’t mean that in the sense that I didn’t like any of them or they were a pain to deal with. It’s that they didn’t fully understand, the difference between music you like and what’s appropriate as a theme for you.
“The best analogy that most people can embrace is when a director is putting together a movie. What he or she likes to listen to in their car has no bearing on what is gonna be the right music for the soundtrack to the film. Most of the wrestlers would tend to immediately default to either. ‘I want something like Stone Cold’s theme because they equate that to making him a star, so give me something like that and I’ll be a star.’ Or it’s their favorite Metallica song they like to work out to in the gym and they want something like that. I would always feel uncomfortable trying to explain to them that that’s really not your character.
“Although I didn’t write Shawn Michaels’ theme, it was a great example to say, ‘Do you think Shawn Michaels goes to the gym and listens to I’m a sexy boy?’ Yet, it worked as a great theme for him for years, and years, and years.”
While Johnston didn’t create HBK’s theme, he did create many memorable WWE themes, including the Ultimate Warrior’s. Johnston talked about how a wrestler’s style or physique helps create their theme.
“Warrior was pretty easy, actually. Part of what I would look for is a tempo energy for people. If it was someone I hadn’t seen before, I would ask if there’s any video available,” Johnston said. “Are they a gigantic guy? Then it’s gonna be a slow tempo. Are they a smaller, wiry guy that moves quickly? Then it’s gonna be a faster tempo.
“Beyond that, some people have a kinetic energy. They may be nervous, or moving, or head twitching. That’s going to give you a tempo. Warrior was BOOM! It’s like a rocket ship coming out from backstage.”
Johnston then picked up an acoustic guitar and played Warrior’s theme music, using the quick cadence that goes along with his high-energy character.
“It couldn’t be more simple, but that’s who that guy is. But it really worked for him. And he’s doing the rope thing; he was a wild guy,” said Johnston.
Perhaps the most-played theme song in WWE history is The Undertaker’s theme in all its incarnations. Johnston also derived his theme song from The Undertaker’s gimmick and thought the slow, melodic music fit for him.
“Undertaker is simple but there’s also a complexity to it as well. It isn’t like it’s really, complex cord changes; it’s just simple in E minor. It’s a nursery rhyme, really, in how I wrote it because it’s the only thing I could figure out it sounded like? I was gonna say that it’s the only thing that sounds like death, but it doesn’t really sound like death. To me, it sounds more like sorrow, and I always found that was an interesting part of how I saw Undertaker’s character. We don’t know what happened to this guy or how he got here, but it probably was not all good,” said Johnston. “There was probably some sad stuff that happened to him.
“So when I did this nursery rhyme thing, it just fit for some reason.”
Johnston agreed that the Undertaker’s theme is probably the one he’s remixed the most since there are so many iterations of both The Undertaker’s music and the character itself.
The Undertaker’s entrance to the ring is part of what made his character so special and that wouldn’t have worked unless everything about the entrance gelled together. From his slow walk, to the lights dimming, to the bell, to the music itself, it all really added to the mystique of The Undertaker character. Johnston admits this ambience is not an easy thing to pull off.
“I think there is a really strong parallel with the Star Wars theme. There’s an incredibly fine line in that kind of stuff between, ‘Boy, does this work! This is great!’ And, ‘This is absolutely laughable!’ It’s like, ‘We’re supposed to believe this guy is dead because he wears a long, black, leather jacket? How stupid do you think we are?’ I think about it in the same light as Darth Vader. It completely works yet the guy in the suit is not even Darth Vader. It’s a different voice and a different guy,” said Johnston.
If you use any of the quotes in this article, please credit Kiwi Talkz with a h/t to Wrestling Inc. for the transcription.