The ‘Friends’ Theme Song Briefly Killed the Band That Recorded It
When a peppy pop-rock duo from Los Angeles called The Rembrandts signed on to sing the theme song for some rinky-dink sitcom about a bunch of pretty white people in New York drinking coffee, no one told them life was gonna be this way.
“I’ll Be There For You” is arguably the most recognizable opening tune in the history of television, but the band behind the hit has a complicated relationship with the Friends theme that proved to be their biggest break. In an interview with The Guardian, Danny Wilde, one half of The Rembrandts, reflected on the impact the song and its iconic four claps had on him and his music partner Phil Solem. Wilde revealed that he and Solem initially forbade the studio from putting their band name in the show’s credits for fear of being labeled “sellouts,” explaining that, once the word got out that The Rembrandts were behind the tune, “it killed our cool vibe” — as well as Wilde and Solem’s collaboration.
I guess they weren’t there for each other.
“It all happened wildly fast,” Wilde began. “Our manager said a sitcom was looking for a theme song and Kevin Bright, the show’s executive producer, was a Rembrandts fan. Would you be interested?” Friends producers David Crane and Marta Kauffman originally attempted to license R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People” for their new show, but after they failed to secure the rights, the co-creators decided to create an original song with lyrics written by themselves.
Just two days later, The Rembrandts were in the studio ready to record what would become their biggest hit. However, production hit a snag that should feel familiar to anyone in the entertainment industry when the suits upstairs insisted on their own involvement in the creative process. As Wilde explained, “The producers came to the studio and wanted to do the handclaps, but they couldn’t get it at all,” which is especially ironic seeing how tens of millions of fans would go on to absolutely nail the claps during countless intro sequences over the next three decades. “We were like: ‘Guys, it’s just four claps.’ They did a few takes, we told them it was fine, then after they left, we erased it and put in our own.”
With the 43-second version of “I’ll Be There For You” recorded, The Rembrandts returned to their normal lives as a “pretty hip band,” and Friends premiered without anyone in the music scene hip to the names of the “sellouts” behind the jingle. However, the sitcom stuck the landing in its first season, and very quickly, both Friends and its theme song were massive hits. The studio rushed to record a full-length single with The Rembrandts, which jumped to the top spot on the Billboard 100 pop charts and lifted the veil on the duo behind the banger.
“Once people realized it was us, we went from doing cool clubs to matinee shows where parents would bring their kids,” lamented Wilde. He added that the theme song’s unexpected success created a rift between the bandmates, too, explaining, “The song became an albatross round our necks and broke up the band for a few years. My bandmate Phil Solem had pretty much had it.”
Wilde and Solem went their separate ways, with Solem returning to his native Minneapolis to work on new, non-TV music with the band Thrush. Wilde released a solo album, and every time he heard that jingle and the dreaded four claps, he was reminded of the blessing and the curse that is, to this day, the biggest break of his career. “Friends is on 24 hours a day somewhere,” Wilde acknowledged. “Every time it gets played, there’s a little ‘ker-ching!’ It’s only a nickel or whatever, but they add up. It put my kids through college and got me a beautiful home.”
Almost three decades later, Wilde appreciates everything “I’ll Be There For You” did for him despite his complicated feelings at the time. “I’m not rich, but I’m comfortable. We were snobby about it early on, and it messed with our heads. But what a gift it’s been. I might be living on the streets if it wasn’t for that song.”
Wilde and Solem reunited in 2000, and have continued to create music together ever since. They even perform “I’ll Be There For You” from time to time, provided the paycheck is right. “If people are willing to pay you to do something you’re proud of, why not?” Wilde pointed out.
After all, sometimes it pays to be stuck in second gear.