How ‘Those Were the Days’ Became the Perfect TV Theme Song
When Norman Lear died this week at the age of 101, he was mourned as one of the most important voices in television history. He had so many hits, but one beloved sitcom stood above the rest: All in the Family, the groundbreaking series about a bigot whose narrow worldview is consistently challenged at a time of generational and cultural crossroads in America. Even if you were too young to watch All in the Family during its 1970s heyday, it’s possible you know its theme song, which is just as iconic.
A great TV theme song defines its program. It creates a sonic snapshot — an ineffable sense of the thematic and emotional essence — of what you’re about to watch. If you really love a sitcom, you probably love its theme song, too. These crucial musical openings have evolved over the years, and in some ways All in the Family’s theme, “Those Were the Days,” is now pretty antiquated. But if anything, its old-fashioned qualities make it even more indelible today. After all, it was meant to be antiquated back then, too.
Almost nobody remembers who wrote the classic theme songs. “Where Everybody Knows Your Name”? That was Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart-Angelo. The Moonlighting theme? Al Jarreau. “Woke Up This Morning”? Alabama 3. “Those Were the Days” came from a successful writing team, Lee Adams and Charles Strouse. Multiple Tony-winners, they worked on acclaimed musicals like Bye Bye Birdie. Before there was a Superman movie starring Christopher Reeve, they delivered the 1966 Broadway show It’s a Bird... It’s a Plane... It’s Superman. In their partnership, Adams wrote the words and Strouse handled the music, with Strouse also contributing the instrumental scores to films like Bonnie and Clyde. But they were more than just professional collaborators. “He’s my best friend,” Strouse said in 2008. “We’ve been through everything together.”
In the late 1960s, the duo hooked up with Norman Lear, who wasn’t yet the Hollywood titan he’d soon become. Lear had produced and written the script for 1967’s Divorce American Style, which starred Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds, followed by the musical-comedy The Night They Raided Minsky’s. Directed by a pre-French Connection and Exorcist William Friedkin, and starring Jason Robards and Britt Ekland, Minsky’s was produced and co-written by Lear, who asked Adams and Strouse to come up with songs for the film.
“I immediately found Norman to be one of the most approachable guys I’d ever met,” Strouse wrote in his 2008 memoir Put on a Happy Face. “To this day, he has a wonderfully warm, considerate way of dealing with people. The same is true of others, of course, but given Norman’s gigantic success and position in the entertainment and political world, one would expect a warping of spirit — but not at all.”
Prior to these films, Lear had been working in live television, and his fame would be ensured thanks to his return to the small screen soon after. He became interested in adapting a British series, Till Death Us Do Part, which is about a family whose patriarch, Alf (Warren Mitchell), is a racist. Alf has a good-hearted wife (Dandy Nichols) and he’s often fighting with his son-in-law (Anthony Booth), who’s far more liberal. “That dynamic of the father and the son and the political arguments and the bigotry and so forth — that was my father,” Lear later recalled. “I grew up with that. I couldn’t believe it hadn’t been my idea, it was so clearly a show.”
Lear had a tough time convincing the networks, however, shooting a few different pilots for the show before CBS finally gave him the okay to make what would eventually be titled All in the Family. Along the way, he had tapped Adams and Strouse to craft a theme song. Just as Lear had drawn from his relationship with his dad to conceive All in the Family’s indelible Archie Bunker, Strouse saw “Those Were the Days” as a callback to his own childhood.
“Like many women of her generation, my mother played piano,” he wrote in Put on a Happy Face. “When she was growing up in Brooklyn in the early part of the 20th century, most households had a piano as their key source of home entertainment.” Strouse and his mom would often buy sheet music, excitedly going home to try out new songs. As he puts it in his memoir, “Those were the happy memories: the whole family standing around the piano singing a new song while my mother played.”
All in the Family was, at one point, going to be called Those Were the Days, and Lear had instructed the songwriting duo to come up with a theme that focused on the central characters. Adams took the title as an inspiration to consider Archie (Carroll O’Connor) and his wife Edith (Jean Stapleton), imagining the couple rhapsodizing about the good ol’ days, back when there was no welfare state and Glenn Miller was popular. “And you knew who you were then,” they sing wistfully. “Girls were girls and men were men.” Strouse often would get credit for the song’s satiric underpinnings, but he’d always correct people: “(It) was an idea of Lee’s — this was a man living in the past. And it was a brilliant idea.”
“Those Were the Days” was the original “Get off my lawn” in which grumpy older folks complain about the kids these days — a sentiment perfectly in keeping with All in the Family’s thematic thrust. The song had been part of the show from its early pilots: In a 2015 interview, Adams recalled, “(Lear) said, ‘Look, I can’t pay much for this, but I’ll give you a piece of the publishing.’ Three years later, he finally got the show on. We saw in the paper that the show title was now All in the Family, so we assumed our song was dead. Sure enough, he kept that song.”
Lear had wanted to record it with an orchestra but didn’t have the money to make that happen. Strouse stepped in, mentioning how fondly he remembered those days with his family around the piano. Why not just have Archie and Edith duet on piano? “Norman took my advice,” Strouse recalls in his memoir, “and now all over the world, you can hear the wonderful screeching sound of Jean Stapleton’s voice. It always makes me think of my mother.”
It’s hard to imagine “Those Were the Days” with an orchestra — eventually, it was released as a single in a jazzy, ragtime-ish treatment — and it’s just as impossible to picture anyone other than O’Connor and Stapleton singing it. Belting out the tune, in character, with vigor rather than grace, they perform the tune as if it’s some old ditty that’s been around for decades. The creaky piano, the creakier voices: “Those Were the Days” was nostalgic and endearing, but also laced with a contempt for modern life, a resentment that the world has passed this couple by. They sound as culturally out of step as the song they’re warbling.
But there’s also a slyer twist of the knife occurring simultaneously. In his 2020 book Those Were the Days: Why All in the Family Still Matters, historian Jim Cullen points out that the lyrics don’t make all that much sense, “(w)hich is why it works so well.” For instance, Archie longs for the days of Herbert Hoover, but he would have only been about five when Hoover became president. And if the Bunkers are moaning about the welfare state, well, “it was the greatest thing to ever happen to the white working class of his childhood, when it became a lifeline for millions of Americans trying to hold on amid a terrible economic crisis,” Cullen writes. “Labor unions, unemployment insurance, social security — each of these pillars of the welfare state directly aided the Archie Bunkers of the world, who were far more likely to be Roosevelt Democrats than Hoover Republicans.” In other words, Archie thinks he misses some rosy bygone era, not realizing that he has benefited from the things he assumes are ruining the country.
Running from 1971 to 1979, All in the Family won 22 Emmys, tackling everything from abortion to race to the Vietnam War. Popular and critically praised, the show paved the way for Lear’s dominance of the medium — soon, he followed its success with the likes of Maude, Sanford and Son, One Day at a Time, The Jeffersons and Good Times. His sitcoms were unafraid to discuss politics and current events, although he emphasized the importance of humor to get the points across. “My favorite part of laughter is how it brings people together,” he said in a 2017 interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “I’ve stood behind an audience thousands of times and watched them when they’re really laughing, the way they come out of their seats and go forward and then fall back. There isn’t a more spiritual wave of humanity based on what they’re feeling at the moment. It has everything in the world to do with gratitude and affection and so forth. They’re loving the moment that they’re experiencing as one. … I can’t think of anything that makes me feel better than watching an audience in the middle of a belly laugh.”
Some of his other programs had memorable theme songs, too, but perhaps none as epochal as “Those Were the Days.” Over the course of All in the Family’s run, the song was tweaked slightly, but it remained the sitcom’s musical fingerprint, its wry acknowledgment of this flawed, lovable couple at its center. (So beloved was the show that “Those Were the Days” almost cracked the Top 40.) And long after All in the Family left the air, replaced for a time by Archie Bunker’s Place, the song still resonated in the culture — especially thanks to future sitcom writers who’d come of age loving the series.
In The Simpsons’ ninth season, there was an episode called “Lisa’s Sax,” which flashes back to Lisa’s initial discovery of her love for the instrument. To set the scene, the show included a reference to the All in the Family opening, with Homer and Marge taking the reins from Archie and Edith, coming up with new lyrics. It was an appropriate homage: The Simpsons was a new twist on the Lear sitcom, with Homer as a modern-day Archie, Marge his long-suffering Edith. (Less-remembered is, 20 years later, The Simpsons revisited the gag, with Lear himself making a cameo this time, threatening to sue.)
But perhaps the most prominent homage to the All in the Family intro is one that most viewers may not notice. It’s the opening of Family Guy, with Lois and Peter at the piano, doing their own version of the complaints about how society has gone to hell in a handbasket. The song isn’t the same, but the concept is. “(O)ur song really was a tribute,” Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane said in a 2015 New York Times joint interview with Lear. “Because most people in comedy agree that All in the Family was the most brilliant comedy series in the history of TV.”
And then there were the bizarre covers. In 1972, Henry Mancini delivered a smooth, jazzy rendition of “Those Were the Days” that excised the original’s biting irony. Five years later, Sammy Davis Jr. did a swingin’ version that was even more egregious of a reimagining. Both songs sounded exceedingly pleasant and groovy — it was as if their performers didn’t seem to understand the words at all. (Or, maybe worse, they took them at face value, genuinely lamenting that the past was better than the present.) Polished and pretty, these covers were uncomplicated nostalgia — Archie would have loved them.
After All in the Family, Adams and Strouse continued to collaborate, composing the hit musical Applause, based on All About Eve. (They had a lot less success with 1981’s Bring Back Birdie, a flop sequel to Bye Bye Birdie.) Strouse was part of another blockbuster, the 1977 musical Annie, with lyrics by Martin Charnin, which got turned into the 1982 film. And, remarkably, Adams and Strouse are both still with us — Adams is 99, and Strouse is 95 — outliving their friend who’d asked them to write a song for his first smash series so long ago.
In 2019, ABC mounted Live in Front of a Studio Audience, a series of live remakes of famous episodes from Norman Lear sitcoms. Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei took on Archie and Edith for the All in the Family redo, even trying their hand at “Those Were the Days.” Harrelson hammed it up too much, but Tomei nailed Stapleton’s nasally exuberance.
Tomei had been nervous about singing “Those Were the Days.” In an interview at the time, she recalled, “That was one of the first questions I asked: ‘Are we doing the song?’ Half-hoping and half-fearing. It was built into the schedule. And then maybe by day two or three (director) Jimmy Burrows thought, ‘No, let’s do the song live as well.’ That just sent the next level of pressure and chills and adrenaline through my body.”
She was worried because, as intentionally inelegant as the original was, it’s “Those Were the Days” — it’s a piece of television history, except still so alive and present. With its old-timey shuffle and Tin Pan Alley style, the song became the sound of a past you can never retrieve, welded onto a show that insisted that the country move toward a more progressive future — whether Archie was ready or not.
“Those Were the Days” made Strouse think of his childhood, and it probably did the same for many who watched All in the Family. But childhood was over: Vietnam and Watergate and the feminist movement and the counterculture were pushing America into a new world. The song feels so comforting and quaint. It sounds like a eulogy for what we’ve lost. But it’s really an ambivalent farewell to outdated modes of thinking — about politics, about social responsibility, about sexuality, about everything. Those were the days, and thank god they’re over. Sorry, Glenn Miller.