Believe it or not, it’s now been 20 years since Mighty Morphin Power Rangers premiered, changing the way ’90s kids saw the world by combining teen drama with dinosaur robots. It also introduced a generation to the power of electric guitars as the show’s immortal “Go Go Power Rangers” theme has become a pop culture staple and irrefutably responsible for the baddest-assest riff in the history of children’s television. To commemorate this milestone, we spoke to the series’ composer Ron A. Wasserman, who now scores many projects including Hot in Cleveland, about how the theme came together, scoring with rock music and the restrictions of the increasingly politically correct world of ’90s children’s television. It’s Morphin Time!
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How did you get involved composing for children’s television?
Television was nothing I had even thought of. I started playing piano when I was three, and had my first published work at five-and-a-half (a fingering exercise), and after that through school it was pretty obvious that all I was interested in was music. I was in band orchestras, but I wasn’t much into reading music and was pretty much politely asked to leave by every music teacher I ever had and told I should think of another career. I played in a band and worked various temp jobs. In 1989 I was brought in to [children’s television production company] Saban for a weekend to engineer and mix for their composers who were writing cartoon cues. A horn player blew out three one-minute cues with various endings, and when I asked him how much he made, he told me $150 each. I’m, at that point 30-40-thousand dollars in credit card debt and living in an absolute hellhole. I figured I should learn about this business and get in because if I can pull $450 a night, that would change my life. They hired me full time to engineer and do whatever they needed. The studio had a lot of downtime, and in that downtime I would live and starting composing cues. I offered some to composers to get some notes, and they gave me a lot of direction.
How did you wind up getting the chance to compose the “Power Rangers” theme?
I had been getting the chance from Saban to compose some really primitive direct-to-video [children’s programming] that he was buying from somewhere else in the world and re-releasing with a lame score under it. I started cutting my teeth on that stuff, and at the same time he was developing ideas for bigger shows and had been hellbent on this “Power Rangers”-style show. In ’91 they brought in footage for a show they were going to call “Metalman” that I banged out a heavy-metal theme for, and that just died. Fast-forward a year later, they bring in the rough-cut opening for this show Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and I remember the difficulty of going “Morphin” and not “Morphine Rangers.” One night they came in and said they needed a theme. I asked if they had any suggestions, and they said they had a goldmine with the word “Go” from the “Inspector Gadget” theme 12 years prior. I first came up with that guitar riff, and decided I was going to go, instead of kiddie stuff that I despised since I was a kid, write this for an adult and just do a balls-to-the-wall theme. The whole thing took two-and-a-half hours with my guide vocal, and if you listen hard to that original version, my high harmony is kind of pitchy because I had never sang on anything before. The next day they came to me and said Fox went crazy over the theme. I said “Great, who are we going to have sing it?” And they went “No, Fox went crazy over your theme. You’re gonna be the singer on it.”
Do you recall first realizing when it was really taking off?
I think Fox, from what I’d heard, had no faith in the show, so they gave it an 8:30 AM timeslot, which is the kiss of death because kids are in school. Within a few weeks, tardy rates were sky-rocketing at schools and somehow someone put it together it was because kids wanted to stay home and watch “Power Rangers.” I feel nothing from this other than “Oh, good, this is a really big show.” Fox ordered more, and I would score-and-score-and-score and someone said it would be great if we had a song-per-episode, so now songs had to be written. Saban got a ton of fanmail and, while most of it were about the actors, a hell of a lot of them were about the music as well. So, I was the star composer of Saban, but they played it low-key as, which I found out much later, they thought I might go to another network.
Did you hear from any of your heroes regarding the theme?
Valerie Bertinelli and my wife became friends when we were signed to Universal because she became a fan of our band. Every time we would go to their house, Eddie Van Halen would pull me aside where we would be just screwing around. It was a little surreal to hang out with the premiere best guitar player in the world. He actually told me at one point he tried to learn part of [the theme]. He didn’t know that I don’t play any guitar. Any guitar sound you heard that was impossible to emulate was done on the keyboard. He said his son became a huge fan of “Power Rangers” and said “Dad, you gotta learn this!” He said “It takes me two weeks to figure out how you played that fucking thing, but I got it so Wolfie was happy. So, how did you do it?” I go “You got a piano? It’s real easy on the piano.” The triplet part I used midi and, I believe, dropped the tempo to play fast.
What made you decide to re-record and release a collection of music from the show last year?
Well, the original Power Rangers: A Rock Adventure album was going to just be the songs, but Saban was taking so much heat from parents all the way up to Al Gore and Tipper Gore for the music being too violent and causing problems with kids, which is ridiculous. At one point, I was given a list of words I couldn’t use. As far as I remember, they said “never use ‘hit,’ don’t use the song ‘Fight’ anymore, nothing about violence and all major chords now, no more minor chords,” so essentially the same thing the church did back in the 16th century. I wouldn’t have ever had to recut any of those songs had the original album came out as the first draft with no dialogue or sound effects. I’ve always been shocked that, even since that time, nobody’s wanted a rock score again. It’s still the only [children’s] score that’s constantly spoken about and had legs forever. I’ve never been asked to do anything like [“Power Rangers'” score] ever. That’s my only disappointment from it. If it’s such an icon, how come nobody else has ever wanted it? That’s always been a shock.
Have you heard much from fans who were introduced to music through your work?
In ’94 I remember [being told] I had a fanboard. I remember buying a modem and finding the messageboard on AOL to start a dialogue with the fans that has never, ever stopped. I still get two to three emails a day and have probably answered 70,000 questions. I’ve never ignored a single one. Some people say it’s the first thing they loved. Some have written, and you don’t know if this is true, that they put on my record and had the strength to go on. I’ve heard from bands who [it’s] introduced to rock and have now signed their first record deal. I feel very good about it because I’m a strong believer of karma, and that’s why I believe it happened in the first place, to give to people who desperately needed it at various times of their lives.
Speaking of those interactions, your band with your wife, Fisher, were one of the first bands to really take advantage of the internet back in 1999. With how much that’s changed in the industry looking at the internet in the past year, how do you feel about the current state of the digital music distribution?
One of the reasons we got signed was because our piano vocal ballad was being downloaded 30,000 times a day at MP3.com and they thought “this guy knows something.” Radio is a mess, everything is word-of-mouth now and it has become niche markets. If you look at the Top 25 of Billboard 15 years ago, it would be trends of rap-rap-rap-rap-pop rock-rap-rap-rap. Now, you look at iTunes, it runs the gamete. “Oh, Justin Timberlake! Oh, Opera! Oh, Pink! Oh, Imagine Dragons! Oh, Metallica!” Now people know how to find and are only going to buy what their niche is. There could be big niches, and that will work until they hit a certain point until somebody on Wall Street buys that niche label and then they destroy it.
You’ve said that your favorite song that you’ve composed for the show is “We Need a Hero.” Why is that?
It’s always been my favorite because it’s always been the saddest song. That song meant the most to be because it was around that time that the news had turned to nothing but bad stories. All kids had grown up with their heroes like Hopalong Cassidy or maybe Batman, and there was nothing really up until Power Rangers, which was the last real worldwide hero story that kids looked up to. Today, my kid will see Iron Man and he won’t say “It’s so cool, I wish I could be Iron Man,” he’ll say “Man, the special effects were amazing!” For me, it’s a political song asking who do kids have to look up to these days? They’ll start to look up to somebody, and it doesn’t end up working out. It’s a sad, sad song.
Have any other songs from the show has any subversive messages or hidden inspirations?
Oh, you name a song and I’ll give you brief backstories because none of theme have anything to do with the show.
How about “I Will Win?”
That was right before my breaking point, it was my personal victory song. I wrote it right before the Power Rangers film, which I wasn’t allowed to score. I had meetings with 20th Century Fox and said we should make an hour-and-a-half long version of the television show and keep the music true to the show for the kids. Only, let’s get real guitars and real drums. I did three dailies and Fox calls and says “Perfect.” A week later I got a call that I was off the film because “Haim (Saban) says you’re off the film.” I run into him and say “I don’t understand, I thought it was going to be the same as the show?” and he says “Let me tell you Mr. Wasserman, you’re no John Williams.” I wanted to, at that point, say “And you’re no Walt Disney.” It turns out what actually happened was Saban had his name on everything as composer, so Fox wouldn’t let him do that because they’re union, so “if Wasserman’s the composer, he gets the music credit.” Haim and I always got along and I have nothing against him in the world, but that song was basically a “fuck you, I’m out of here soon, and somewhere down the line you’re going to read all of the projects I’m involved in.”