(Source: www.vanityfair.com)

In the spring of 1986, in the bedroom of a walk-up apartment on South Beverly Drive in L.A., a semi-struggling songwriter named Mark Mueller pressed “record” on his rudimentary reel-to-reel tape recorder, sat down at his Roland Juno 1 synthesizer, and started thinking about ducks.

Disney was looking for a theme song for a new animated series called DuckTales. They wanted a sense of adventure and excitement, a tune that would complement the technicolor energy of the show itself. Most importantly, Disney’s music executives explained, they were after a poppy, radio song—not a “cartoon song.”

Mueller’s agent recommended that he shouldn’t get his hopes up.

A few decent artists had recorded his songs over the years: George Benson, The Captain & Tennille, Syreeta Wright, Lou Rawls. He’d written the first single off opera singer Plácido Domingo’s first, and only, pop album, and the Pointer Sisters had recorded a song of his for the We Are the World charity record.

Even so, the 30-year-old’s songwriting career had mainly consisted of a series of near-misses. He had stacks of cassettes of demos for songs no one wanted. Luckily, he had just scored his first hit: Heart’s “Nothin’ at All.” It was on the strength, and airplay, of that track, that he was able to obtain a meeting with Disney.

And, before long, duck inspiration did strike. That day on South Beverly Drive, the chords, the melody, the lyrics—verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge—came pouring out of him.

Life is like a hurricane,
Here in Duckburg;
Race cars, lasers, aeroplanes
It’s a duck blur.

Mueller could be as loud as he liked: his downstairs neighbors, two elderly sisters named Fern and Evelyn, were hard of hearing. If he were more self-conscious, he probably wouldn’t have found himself exclaiming “woo-hoo” at the top of his voice.

Mark Mueller in 1986 in what he calls his “songwriter’s outfit” and a DuckTales poster Mueller received as a gift from Disney.

Courtesy of Mark Mueller.

The whole thing took around 45 minutes to write. Mueller presented the resulting demo to the Disney music execs in person—“Mark’s really stood out,” remembers one of them, Chris Montan.

Mueller was paid “a whopping $1,250” for the song, he says. “And that was only if Disney used the song on the show and it actually aired. Which, fortunately, it did.”

Thirty years after DuckTales first aired, in September 1987, Disney’s reboot will premiere on Saturday, August 12—with a one-hour TV movie titled Woo-oo! Regular episodes begin airing September 23 on Disney XD. In December, Disney promoted the reboot with a video featuring the new DuckTales cast—among them Danny Pudi, Ben Schwartz, and David Tennant—tackling the theme song. Nearly 5 million people have watched it on YouTube alone.

At last count, a search for “DuckTales theme” on YouTube provided 362,000 results. You can listen to the DuckTales theme done a capella or with wailing power-metal vocals, as Hungarian power pop, ska-tinged rock or in the style of an 8-bit video-game chiptune track, performed by a brass band or the clarinets section of the Penn State Blue Band.

There’s a R&B slow-jam rendition, and a soulful bedroom performance by a pre-fame Darren Criss, as well as the seemingly endless versions performed on solo acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass guitar, piano, and drums, plus one done entirely in animal noises.

There’s a parodic riff on duct tape, takes by Scientifically Accurate and CollegeHumor, and at least one alarmingly N.S.F.W. spoof, starring Webby Vanderquack and a Beagle Boy. One video, with 1.1 million views, pairs the unaltered original music with the clip for “Single Ladies.” Another video, with seven times as many views as that one, re-creates the opening sequence with actual ducklings.

In a category of its own, in 2016, Laurie Hernandez jived to the theme on Dancing with the Stars. (Judge Julianne Hough praised Hernandez’s performance: “You are Disney’s Beyoncé!”) And, if you visit Marie’s Crisis piano bar in Manhattan, there’s a chance you’ll find yourself in the midst of a giddy sing-along version of it, as I did recently.

Mueller is regularly astonished by the pervasiveness of his own creation. “When people find out what I do for a living, they’ll always ask if they’d know one of my songs,” he says. “Sometimes they won’t know my pop hits.” (For one, Mueller co-wrote Jennifer Paige’s 1998 hit “Crush.”) “But almost everywhere I’ve gone, people know DuckTales. The reach of it is so mind-blowing.”

“Just recently I was playing with my band at a club,” says Jeff Pescetto, the theme’s original singer. “A group of guys from England walked up and said, ‘We heard your voice and knew right away that it was the guy who sings the DuckTales theme song.’ They were so excited to meet me. I just couldn’t believe they recognized my voice.”

DuckTales aired in more than 100 countries in 25 different languages. It was the first American cartoon broadcast in the former Soviet Union after the Cold War; in Hungary, those born in the early-to-mid 80s are known as “the DuckTales generation” (Kacsamesék generáció).

Only in Korea, and only for a time, did the show have a completely different theme song: a nauseating little ditty, replete with irritating quacking noises and performed by children.

That unfortunateness aside, Mueller’s theme song was free to become a global phenomenon. And it did—albeit with modified lyrics. Roughly translated, the opening lines of the Norwegian version are “Come along … meet an acquaintance. Scrooge, Donald, people and animals offer you excitement. Here, almost everything happens. Here, almost everybody lives.” The Spanish theme promises “many adventures … with the bad guys and also the good ones”. The French version emphasizes Scrooge’s impressive status and wealth: “He’s the greatest boss of all the city . . . He’s the most powerful . . . He’s worth billions in gold, in dollars.” Even the “woo-hoo!” gets fine-tuned from culture to culture. It’s more of an “oh-oh!” in Finnish; the Norwegians go for “ah-ha!”; the Polish offer a frisky “yoo-oo!”

The rebooted DuckTales theme was arranged by Michael “Smidi” Smith and TJ Stafford, with former American Idol contestant Felicia Barton on lead vocals. “There was never a question as to whether we would use the original theme song in the new series,” says Jay Stutler, vice president of Disney Television Animation’s music division.

“It was actually a pretty surreal experience,” says Stafford. “I have such a nostalgic soft spot when it comes to DuckTales the cartoon, that to actually work on the theme song was a little confusing at times. The music made me feel the feelings I had as a child rushing home and watching the cartoon, yet I had to act like an adult and take it seriously.”

“My only note to Felicia during the production process,” says Smith, “was, ‘Sing it like you can’t believe that you are singing the DuckTales theme song.’ She did it, and absolutely killed it.”

The DuckTales theme team in 1986: Mark Mueller (composer), a junior engineer, and Jeff Pescetto (singer). At the bottom is Gregg Karukas (demo engineer, synths) in his garage studio.

Courtesy of Mark Mueller.

As a piece of music, the DuckTales theme has an extraordinary tendency, as neurologist Oliver Sacks described the phenomenon in his book Musicophilia, to “bore its way, like an earwig, into the ear or mind.” Its irresistible earworminess is so notorious that it was once the subject of an (admittedly slight) Onion joke.

Search for “DuckTales theme” on Twitter, and you’ll find Twitter users everywhere singing the same tune, literally—declaring that the tune has gotten hopelessly stuck in their heads. In the DuckTales promotional “money pit” photo op at Disney’s D23 Expo in July, the rebooted theme played on a constant loop, with many guests in the vicinity audibly humming and singing along.

“It’s in my head as I’m answering these questions,” Stafford told me, while preparing to board a flight at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport. “It will now be stuck in my head the entire flight back to L.A.”

“Immediately after recording, the tune was basically running through my head constantly for weeks,” guitarist TJ Hill says. “Ever since, this tune has been stuck in my head at least a few times per week. If it isn’t me humming it, my wife will spontaneously sing a line from it and bring it back. I guess you could say the theme has pitched a tent in our house. And I’m 100 percent O.K. with that.”

Psychological studies tell us that the more often we hear a song, the more likely we are to enjoy it. Nostalgia plays a part too. For many, the DuckTales theme is inextricably tied up with happy, potent memories of childhood, of after-school television-watching and put-off homework.

But the DuckTales theme also happens to be a superb piece of music. It’s not only a high point of an underrated musical form, but an exquisite miniature pop classic in its own right.

It begins with a bopping bass line—octave-jumping quarter notes and an eighth-note syncopation, a close relative of the attention-seizing intros of Hall & Oates’s “You Make My Dreams Come True” (1980) and Kenny Loggins’s “Footloose” (1984).

Grammy award-winning keyboardist Gregg Karukas engineered Mueller’s demo and played on the final version. At that time, he was playing in contemporary instrumental bands around town, including with a young Kenny G in a group called The Rippingtons—the beginnings of smooth jazz. He’d also tickled the ivories for the incidental music in Cheers. Karukas had converted his garage into a studio, equipped it with a baby grand piano and a stack of synths. (Mueller and Karukas also experimented with more overtly quack-like sounds. These were, mercifully, dropped.)

In accordance with Disney’s instructions, Mueller injected as much thrilling comic-book imagery into the lyrics as possible, conjuring a dizzying array of tempestuous weather, speeding vehicles, sci-fi gadgetry—and ducks:

“Life is like a hurricane—”
“Here in Duckburg.”
“Race cars, lasers, aeroplanes—”
“It’s a duck blur.”

Those crucial first and third lines employ a rhythmic meter called catalectic trochaic tetrameter, a rare scheme that Shakespeare uses for the lines of the fairies in Midsummer Night’s Dream (“Through the forest have I gone”).

Joining Mueller and Karukas in the garage studio was Jeff Pescetto, a singer-songwriter whose vocal style was influenced by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Robert Plant, Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles. Disney tried out other, more high-profile singers at considerable cost, Pescetto remembers, before finally deciding his demo vocals were the best of the lot.

It’s easy to hear why. Listen out for how Pescetto attacks the line “or re-write history,” sounding rawly excited about the prospect (as the electric guitar gets a groove on in the background).

The arrival of the chorus is an ecstatic event. Writing it, Mueller realized he’d left a couple of gaps just after the rousing cry of “DuckTales!”—six beats each of valuable potential melodic real estate. Perhaps tapping into his own feelings that day, he instinctively threw in an exhilarated “A-woo-hoo!”

It works because Pescetto’s “a-woo-hoo” sounds genuinely enthusiastic; the woo-hoos of the Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance” (1983) feel cheerlessly unspontaneous by comparison.

The chorus also heralds the entrance of an exuberant horn arrangement, contributed by longtime Quincy Jones collaborator Jerry Hey—already a four-time Grammy Award winner by 1986. Gary Grant and Hey himself played trumpet, with Bill Reichenbach on trombone. The three of them were a prolific unit in the 80s; it wasn’t long before DuckTales that they were contributing blazing brass lines to Earth, Wind & Fire and Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

“I knew the song was catchy,” says Hey, “but having played on so many songs that I thought might be hits but weren’t, I never know what the audience will like. Still, as I learned from Quincy, you give 100 percent effort in making music and hope the public responds to it.”

The extended movie version of the DuckTales theme has a second verse, with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fowl-themed wordplay (“Bold de-duck-tion never fails”). But in the version most often heard, the theme ascends a synthy scalar staircase to the mood-shifting bridge: “D-d-d-danger lurks behind you”—not just explicitly addressing the rapt viewer but, with the trembling lyric, signifying that even the singer is imperiled. (Thirty years after Pescetto laid down his version, this was Felicia Barton’s favorite bit to sing.)

The bridge contains one of the more cunning key changes of the 80s, subliminally upping the ante for the final chorus. (Compare it to Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” recorded around the same time, whose key change catapults its vocalist into the stratosphere.)

As if rallying for the euphoric victory lap, the horns thrash out a furious flurry of notes—technically demanding, especially for Reichenbach on trombone, and most audible in the instrumental end-credits theme. The lick recalls the brassy turbulence that announce the choruses of “Rosanna,” also arranged by Hey and performed by the trio. Finally, there are three more impassioned declarations of “DuckTales,” plus one instance of “. . . Bad and good luck tales!” and a delightfully daft clarification, which Pescetto manages to sell, as ever: “Not pony tails or cottontails.” There’s a battering of the toms, and it’s all capped off with one more mighty splash of brass—the perfect exclamation point.

The track was recorded at Group IV studios, off Sunset Boulevard, a studio that counted Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson and the Count Basie Big Band as regulars, and where Alan Silvestri’s scores to Romancing the Stone, Predator and, later, Who Framed Roger Rabbit were recorded.

The whole thing lasts just one hot minute. Short of Scrooge McDuck reaching out of the television set to slap you in the face, it could hardly have made a bigger impression.

A new still from Disney’s DuckTales.

Courtesy of Disney.

For Pescetto, there was a time when DuckTales felt more like an albatross. “My friends and family asked me to sing it everywhere we went,” he says. “I had no idea how popular this song would become over the years. To this date, I am probably best known as the singer of the DuckTales theme song.”

Immediately afterward, Pescetto went on to sing the themes to Chip ’n Dale: Rescue Rangers, also composed by Mueller, and Darkwing Duck. “I wasn’t very proud of that. Being a singer-songwriter, you want to be known for songs played on the radio. I didn’t want to be known as a cartoon-series singer.”

Pescetto’s feelings about the DuckTales legacy have softened over the years. Having a child of his own may have helped: “My daughter grew up watching DuckTales and she danced and sang the theme song every time it aired,” he says. “These days, I am very proud of the fact that DuckTales theme has touched so many people. I’ll forever be grateful to Mark Mueller and Disney.”

Mueller is still working as a songwriter, and still gets royalties when the show airs, anywhere in the world. It’s tempting to wonder whether, by now, he has a Scrooge McDuck-style vault of his DuckTales earnings.

“It’s not exactly like that,” he says. “It’s not a swimming pool. It could be a kiddie pool.”

Every now and then, he checks YouTube for the latest cover version. “A recent favorite of mine was a Polish guitar school with 28 kids playing it,” he says. “So cute.” (He enjoys the “Single Ladies” mashup too.)

One of his dearest memories of the experience is of a letter he received in 1987, from the mother of an autistic child. “She told me that she and her husband had never been able to communicate with their young son . . . until he heard the DuckTales theme song,” he says. “They would sing it back and forth to each other. It was the first time they could really connect. You never know where your songs will go and what impact they will have.”

Mueller has also held onto a gift he received from Disney around that time: a DuckTales poster, emblazoned with the words “Disney is Forever.” “At the time, I didn’t think twice about it,” says Mueller. “But I’m thinking they may have been right.”

There’s just one last thing to clear up. Is it “woo-hoo” or “woo-oo”?

Judging by the spelling of the movie special, and Felicia Barton’s ultra-cool delivery, Disney favors “woo-oo.”

“‘Woo-hoo’ is the spelling I’ve always had in my head for it,” says Mueller, before adding, “Actually, it was more ‘a-woo-hoo’.”

In any case, he doesn’t really mind. “‘Woo-hoo’ or ‘woo-oo’ or ‘a-woo-hoo,’ it’s just supposed to sound and feel fun. And when they’re saying it 30 years later, any way you want to spell it is fine with me.”

More Info: www.vanityfair.com

Advertisements