Sunday night, the biggest sports-entertainment spectacle of the year, Wrestlemania 29, returns home to the New York/New Jersey area that birthed the event almost 30 years ago. While fans are flying in from all over the world to see such colossal match-ups as John Cena vs. The Rock and Brock Lesnar vs. Triple H, just as important to the “Mania” of Wrestlemania is the music.
Diddy will be on hand to perform the event’s official theme song “Coming Home,” and legendary rockers Living Color will be playing WWE superstar CM Punk to the ring as he prepares to do battle with The Undertaker. Factoring in that Sunday’s event will be broadcast in over 100 countries in 20+ languages, WWE remains one of the largest global platforms to expose an artist. Last year’s Wrestlemania saw then-recent Bad Boy signee Machine Gun Kelly have his first major mainstream exposure playing John Cena to the ring. Other musical guests have been as diverse as the WWE roster itself, including everyone from Aretha Franklin and Cee-Lo to Flo Rida and Motorhead making appearances to perform, not to mention licensed themes for their pay-per-view events from artists that vary from Metallica to Tinie Tempah to Christian rap-rocker Toby Mac.
Partnering with the company has not only increased these artists’ visibility, but has had a dramatic effect on their sales as well. Wind-Up Records’ Civil Twilight had one song used in a single video package promoting Sunday’s event and, according to WWE VP of Music Neil Lawi, sales jumped up the next week over 300 percent. In 2011, when then-WWE Champion CM Punk began using Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality” as his entrance music, it sold 125,000 that year, up from the annual 20,000 which the song had previously been selling. Such an effect is understandable as music the company licenses gets heard worldwide from every television playing WWE programming.
Also important to WWE’s presentation is its own in-house produced music, the vast majority of which has been created by one man: Jim Johnston. For over 25 years, Johnston has tailor-made the songs that accompanied the entrances of some of the biggest superstars to step into the ring. With hundreds of unique original compositions to his name, his work has become synonymous with the characters and memorable moments that continue to solidify the company’s unique space in pop culture. We spoke to Johnston about the art of the entrance theme.
Before your time with the WWE, you did some music for MTV, was there much of a transition between your other work and sports-entertainment?
Well, I was not just working for MTV, I was just a freelance guy composing what I could get to compose. MTV was a very hot thing at that time, and I did a bunch of their IDs, and a bunch of shows for HBO. I guess I didn’t see much of a transition. As a composer, you’re working on what’s in front of you at the time. I really loved the opportunities to do all sorts of things and tried hard to not get pigeonholed. I was very conscious of doing different things, and I feel that’s why this situation did so well.
With the WWE roster being among the most diverse on television, requiring a just as varied selection of music, how did you become proficient in so many different genres?
I haven’t got the slightest idea. I just took them on as they came up. I remember when I had to write a theme for The Great Khali. I went on Google and researched “Punjab province” and the first thing that caught me was the area he’s from was the confluence of five rivers, which is why I named the song that. I went on, followed every link I could and listened to the top Punjab pop music. Somehow, I was able to osmosis the stuff in and figure out how to make those sounds. When weird things come up, that’s what I love, taking on that new challenge. I’ve always loved all kinds of music.
At what point when the company’s creating a character do you compose their entrance theme? Is there any back-and-forth with the talent themselves?
In general, there isn’t much back and forth with the superstar. The timing of it can be anything from a few weeks before they debut to literally the same day. A lot of times I’ll get a call on Monday at 3:00 PM that we’ve got a guy debuting tonight and he needs some music. It gets a little hairy at times, but over the years you get used to it. Basically, if at all possible, it’s great to get video of the guy to see how he moves, because that gives me a big clue. If you walked in the room, I could tell you the right tempo of a theme for you, just by seeing you walk because everybody moves with a tempo. I first try to key in that part, like are they fast and frenetic or big and plodding? Then, it’s like scoring a film. Do we want to feel scared? Happy? Courageous? Rebellious? I always try to key in on what I want the audience to feel when they hear this music and see this guy.
Do you ever test different characters’ music at non-televised events before they make their debut?
No. There’s not really time. I pretty much take my best shot at what I think is going to work, and most of the time if it’s not perfect, it’s in the right ballpark. More than anything, there just isn’t time to develop multiple ideas and do in-the-field testing.
Is it much different composing themes that are collaborations with known recording artists?
It’s very straight-forward. That started just to incorporate the sounds of some of these great young bands that are out there, as well as to help me with timing because I compose very quickly but the process of recording is physical and takes a certain amount of time. To hand off the recording part to a band that may be perfect for that particular sound is just a win-win for everybody. The process is very simple. I write the song, I work on the demo that is relatively close to what the final piece will be, and then I hand it off to the band and tell them “here is the song, make it your own now.” A lot of times it works incredibly well. There’s lots of times it does not work at all, but you never hear about those because they do not make the light of day. But in a lot of cases, like the three different songs I wrote for Motorhead, you get back exactly what you’re expecting because it’s Motorhead. They do the Motorhead thing, and knowing that, I’m writing a Motorhead song to begin with. It’s pretty easy for those guys to knock it out, and it’s actually fun getting to put a demo vocal on and trying my best to sound like Lemmy, which does not come naturally to me by the way.
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I recall reading that your original studio was in a church basement.
Yes, and it was probably the worst place for a studio. If you went to a studio designer and asked for the worst possible scenario for a sound studio, they would have described this room. It was literally a bomb shelter with four walls, floor and ceiling of exposed concrete. I’d have to monitor on headphones, and I recall hearing services in church right above me and hearing the shuffling of feet during communion. But when you’re starting out in the music business, you take what you can get.
Was there a particular moment you recall music becoming really important to the product?
It was like on a logarithmic curve going straight up of music importance. It went from guys walking out with nothing who would grapple around and then leave when the next guys would grapple around, to this guy having music and this guy having music. It was one of those things that obviously worked so well that the guys with the music were getting the big pops from the crowd. It quickly developed to guys getting a theme when they got to a certain level of success, like a benchmark to stardom. Not that long after, the other guys had music too. Maybe, by design, their music wasn’t meant to be so entertaining. One guy [wrestling plumber T.L. Hopper] I recorded a bunch of toilets for his entrance theme, so that was not a musical concerto to say the least. Music became important early and quickly, and now it’s critical to the product as a big rock-and-roll music show. Except it’s not just rock-and-roll, and I think that’s so important. We can’t just have a cavalcade of classic rock music, we have to mix it up so that it’s all over the map so there’s a delineation between characters and storylines.
Are there any entrance themes or bits of WWE production music that feature your actual voice on them?
Wow, this is for the serious trivia lover, it is me singing Dude Love’s theme and, while it stretches the definition of the word, I did “sing” one of the early Smackdown themes. I was hearing some early metal stuff and was always shocked how bad the vocals were, and that the lyrics were absolutely unintelligible. The theme I had written was in this style, and I couldn’t find a singer, so I did it myself. There are no lyrics, I just sang gibberish. I had fans contact me for a lyric sheet which, of course, I could not provide.
You actually played live once for a WWE crowd at Wrestlemania XIV.
That was a stretch for me. I have a pretty well documented case of stage-fright. I’m not a natural performer in the very least. I was able to pull that off because it was so over-the-top. The Boston stadium was filled to capacity and people were going out of their minds, you’re so inconsequential down there that I was able to disappear into the moment, it was fun.
Have you ever played live at any additional WWE shows?
I played live once at Madison Square Garden, and there was a period when we had “The Raw Band,” which was fashioned after a “Tonight Show” kind-of-band. We played during commercial breaks to entertain the house audience.
Is there any piece you’ve composed that you’re particular proud of that you wished more people knew about?
I’m sure there are, but with so much going on on a day-to-day basis, it’s difficult to think of them all. One of the things that I do that people don’t even know I do, is a lot of orchestral scoring for promos and cold opens. It’s one of my favorite things to do because it’s generally so emotional because you’re really storytelling in a movie style fashion. Some of those pieces I’m really proud of, but sadly they’re used once and they go away. But I’m very proud of a bunch of those.