"Hawaii Five-O" rocks

September 23, 2010

Or the theme music does, anyway -- I never cared much about the original TV series, which was hugely popular from 1968 all the way through 1980, no thanks to Jack Lord's wooden acting. And I'm even less interested in the recently debuted New Millennial update of the show. (The sharpest TV critic I know watched it and pronounced it exceedingly "meh," and she rarely is wrong, except maybe about her fondness for "Glee.")

That intro music, though -- wow!

Back when I was learning to play the drums, the true test in Jersey City, New Jersey, for whether an aspiring timekeeper had mastered the instrument was if he could play along in the basement with that theme music blasting and faithfully replicate those wild, rolling tom-tom fills. At least, that was the crucible dictated by the best drummer at Hudson Catholic Regional High School for Boys, a beefy long-haired body-builder type who also could play along with all of the odd time signatures in "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway" by Genesis, and who could do a pretty mean John Bonham, too, when he played Zep tunes with a cover band that regularly gigged on the west side.

For the previous generation, the drummer's ring of fire had been the surf classic "Wipe Out" by the masters of that genre, the Ventures. In that case, it was all about the solo in the middle of the instrumental, which was easier to fake so long as you kept rolling on the snare and toms and crashing on the cymbals; not even many drummers really knew that solo note for note. In contrast, the "Hawaii Five-O" theme required finesse as well as chops, since the drumming acrobatics were more integrated into the tune. And because of its ubiquity in the living room, everyone knew how that ditty went.

(Me, I couldn't really play either -- I preferred drumming along with my headphones to Pink Floyd at one extreme and the Ramones at the other.)

The tune that's been called the most memorable TV theme song ever was written by a Hollywood composer named Morton Stevens who, as it happens, was born right next door to Jersey City in Newark, and who racked up quite a few other memorable credits, including "Gunsmoke" and "Police Woman," before his death in 1991. He also was musical director for the Rat Pack--Frank of course was from Hoboken, and guys from the 'hood look out for each other in Jersey, just as they do in Chicago.

According to a fun piece in The Honolulu Star Advertiser, Morton originally planned to recycle the music he'd created for another failed pilot, but his wife Annie told him that was all wrong for this new Hawaiian cop show. "He went in and started smacking the piano around," 79-year-old Annie Stevens recently recalled. "He was so angry -- and that's why it has that sock-o in there." In the end, the composer was thrilled with the new tune. "He was glad I made him mad."

Wisely, the producers of the reboot knew better than to tinker with perfection. "We didn't want to mess with something that's great, that people are looking forward to hearing," executive producer Peter Lenkov said in a statement from the network. "The new version is close to the original but is a little more aggressive -- a little bigger."

I'm not so sure that's accurate, though I wouldn't go so far as one disgruntled critic of the new theme: Ventures guitarist Don Wilson. Shortly after the old "Hawaii Five-O" premiered, the Ventures, who by then were being eclipsed by the new Woodstock gang of musical heroes, recorded a cover of the theme song that made it to No. 4 on the pop charts, selling several million copies. The band still plays the song at every oldies concert it does to this day.

"We are "ËœHawaii Five-0!'" Wilson told the Honolulu Star Advertiser. "I tried my best to get [the producers of the new series] to use our version of it, but they decided to go with a synthesizer, an electronic version."

The new theme hardly qualifies as techno; I think it's pretty faithful to the original, and still pretty darn cool. But take a listen, A/B the new one below with the old above, and decide for yourself. And good luck trying to drum along.