Jim Johnston: The man behind WWE’s legendary theme songs, why he’s not in the Hall of Fame, thoughts on AEW

Jim Johnston is a music composer who worked as the music producer for WWE from 1985 – 2017. He is the man responsible for the legendary theme songs for Stone Cold Steve Austin, Triple H, Mick Foley, Degeneration X, The Undertaker, Vince McMahon, Shane McMahon, Randy Orton and countless others. During the course of his 32-year career with WWE he composed more than 10,000 pieces of music before he was released in 2017. Jim joins Chris Van Vliet from his studio in Greenwich, CT where he talks about how he started working for WWE, his process behind creating music, some of his favorite themes, why he doesn’t think he will be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame and he ends the interview with a beautiful piano rendition of The Undertaker’s theme song.

On music always being big in his life:

“Early on my grandmother was always singing. My family is from Pocahontas Arkansas, she got a scholarship to go to Julliard to study opera. That wasn’t on the cards, she wasn’t going to leave her husband in Pocahontas to study opera. But she played the organ and she sang every week of her life in church. She would also play when we visited in the summer. My dad also had an organ, and my parents listened to a lot of different kind of music. I’ve just always noticed music, I would hear it in other rooms. There was this pivotal moment where my parents had taken me and my brother to an amusement park. We’re walking around and I hear music playing. I go round the turn and there is this band on a stage. They are very Beatles-esque, just playing away. If there are music drugs, I had 48 needles hanging out of my arms at that point. That was all I needed to hear, I’m doing that. It’s pretty interesting, because I have massive stage fright, I can barely play my wife a new song. So I never became a performer, nor did I want to. I wanted that feeling, I could have stayed there for as long as they could have played. Everyone has moments where they are truly moved by music. From then on I begged my dad to buy me a guitar. He wouldn’t, but he rented one for a year.”

On music being a potential career:

“I wanted to, but my father had doubts. If you want to go into music as a living, that’s a long shot. You’re playing the long odds on that one. You need a bunch of things to come together. You need a certain innate skill. If you don’t have that, you have to be a combination of tremendous performer and really good PR skills. Some people pull that off, they can surround themselves with others that can carry the load. I always did the plastic arts, meaning physical arts, painting etc. I was going down the path of being an architect or graphic design. I had been accepted to architectural school, but right before I was going to go, I said to my dad I can’t go. I said I had to try this music thing. He was disappointed.”

On trying to balance work and music:

“I was supporting myself as a carpenter and falling into the forever trap of doing it during the day and working on my music at the night. But of course by the time 6 o clock comes around, you want to go out for a beer with your friends, you’re tired and you want to go to bed. Music isn’t a 9 to 5 job either, it’s like a 16 hour day job if you want to accomplish something.”

On how he got to WWE:

“I was coming up the ranks by doing a lot of work for HBO and MTV. I was scoring stuff and doing anything I could get my hands on. My favourite food was sushi and there was only one place in town that had it. The guy started with 4 seats and it turned to 8 seats. It was like a local bar, you would see the same people in there when you went in. One night I went in and someone said to me ‘Didn’t you say you write music?’ He then explained that he worked for WWE and he was the art director for them. He had been asked to put together a video for a cable TV convention, and he needed music for it. Through that I met Vince McMahon, we hit it off really well. This was when there wasn’t entrance music. Vince’s father told him ‘If you put music to this programme, you will completely kill this business.’ So big miss by dad there. Vince and I just sort of kept developing the idea. First it was show themes, and a couple of guys had a theme. It was just an organic process, there was no long term plan. For a while, it was only babyfaces that got themes. That was something I pushed back on, heels needed good music. Finally, that turned too and heels got good music too, they are no different to babyfaces. Heels you love to hate, faces you love to love.”

On his first piece of music he heard live:

“I think it was the theme for WrestleMania 1. It was a big saxophone theme, and it was such a rush to hear my music played for the first time in an arena. That was the closest I was going to get to that feeling people talk about when they do concerts. I get that connection with the audience and that rush and that feeling.”

On Jim’s contract status while in WWE:

“For the first 15 years, maybe longer, Vince and I just had a handshake agreement. I wasn’t an employee. It wasn’t like he didn’t want me as an employee or I didn’t want to be, it’s just we were fine with the way things were. It wasn’t until the company went public, and it was bring on the lawyers. They come in and do risk assessments. They are like this guy can just walk out and work for the NFL tomorrow, that wouldn’t be a good thing. So then I got a contract and became an employee. In my admiration for Vince, I think we would have worked until my last day with a handshake and both be perfectly happy.”

On the process of writing a new theme:

“I never really got a whole lot of information. If I could see any video, that helped tremendously. Where I start, I want to know a basic tempo and vibe. If it’s a giant guy, it’s going to be a slower theme. The tempo reflects he’s a big guy. The guys that are smaller, you want to reflect the energy. You start there and I just try to find something that resonates. I just start playing stuff and something will make me go that’s it.”

On quick turnaround times for themes:

“[Chris pitches the scenario “We’re debuting this new guy tonight and he needs a theme.”] Oh that happened all the time. That was not rare in the least. Sometimes like an hour and a half. I would get a call from where they are shooting TV and they needed something. The writers decided this guy was in a tag team but now he’s solo, so they say give me anything. It’s easy to say that, but I felt a great responsibilities. Part of these guys successes were in my hands. I think the music in WWE and AEW is all really homogenous and mediocre. It doesn’t have anything to do with the character, and that’s why there are less big stars. I don’t think that there are no potential big stars on the rosters. Before Steve Austin was Steve Austin, he was The Ringmaster. These guys need the right story, the right costume and the right music. These themes are serving multiple masters in a way. It’s entertainment for the audience, a big boot in the ass for the wrestler, and to get them in the right headspace of their character and to get them jacked up to do a great performance. You’re supposed to go out there and be your character with generic wrester guy music. You’re supposed to be out there and be on top of the world. I think that’s a big ask.”

On the importance of entrance themes:

“I always saw WWE as a live movie. I always felt the stories and the characters were like from the movies. Their themes need to be like from Jaws or Darth Vader. You have to hear it and think like yeah, OK, here comes Steve Austin. You don’t need to know anything else. You don’t need to know the storyline, you don’t need to know who he is wrestling tonight. You don’t need to know what happened last week or what’s going to happen next week. All you need to know is that Steve Austin is coming out, and it’s like boom I’m good to go. You’re instantly in that defiant, go screw yourself frame of mind. You take that out of the wrestling business, I think that’s an enormous component. It’s like you’re putting too much responsibility onto the audience. If you are watching a movie, and the movie isn’t very good, you’re not following the movie. If the audience reaction is confusion, you’re fighting a losing battle.”

On if AEW ever contacted him:

“No and it always amazed me from a business angle. If I was in that work room, I would say ‘Vince just fired Jim, this is a way we could really stick it to them. Find that guy and get him in here this afternoon.’ It doesn’t make sense to me.”

On his favorite collaborations:

“I guess the ones with Motörhead we’re really exciting. I think that was a lesson in don’t ever pre-judge. Lemmy has a pretty formidable reputation of being a bit of a wild guy and a well known drinking problem. But then to finally meet him and be in the studio with him, he could not have been more of a gentleman. He was a really interesting guy to talk with, things are never what you think.”

On writing Billy Gunn’s Ass Man theme:

“[I got it] from him because he already was the ass man. He had Mr Ass on his ass. To this day the thing that gets me is the double entendre pun of that song. It still makes me laugh right now. It comes off as a sexual thing, yet his character was a little bit of a buffoon. I’m not sure if it was on purpose or the way he played it. But put the comma in ‘I’m an ass, man.’ But that kind of stuff was the best of WWE, they were having fun. But now everyone is just so serious. All the top guys, Austin, Rock etc were fun. It was more dry humour, sarcasm.”

On some of his final projects:

“I wrote quite a few things, but they weren’t being used because I was being politically squashed. It was End of Days for Baron Corbin. Which was very apropos, if you look at the lyrics, there’s always something personal to the themes. A lot of the times it’s very personal. Baron’s was purely an epic I’m bringing end of days on you, it’s very biographical. Also I’m talking about the end is coming, I’m bowing out. The big goodbye was my end of days. There’s a lot of stuff in there, anger and disappointment. But that happened a lot. I wrote No Chance In Hell when I was really angry with Vince. It was a literal telling of what I saw, you have no chance against this guy. He doesn’t play by the rules.”

On himself singing on themes and the use of outside music:

“Certainly not that many, and for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I didn’t sing a whole lot. Generally speaking, finding good singers is the most difficult thing I deal with. Once you find the singer, they are part of the gimmick. I couldn’t use Chris Warren [singer of DX theme] on anything else. But you can expand it out, because Triple H was in DX. But you can only stretch it out so far, because people will hear a different theme and think that’s the guy from DX. For me, I always thought it was so crucially important. When WWE started to use pieces of outside music, people thought it was bigger if you use outside music. I believe that’s true for something like a pay per view theme, to brand the pay per view, such as Highway to Hell [Summerslam 1998]. But not as a theme. When you hear someone’s theme, you have no associations with that other than that person. You can’t have Undertaker coming out and people thinking about the first time they made out with their girlfriend. You just want hyper focus, and people to be immersed in this world of this character. Outside music, whether they like it or hate it, they associate it with that.”

On royalty cheques differing on where they are played or length of theme played:

“Timing yes, definitely, and where yes. If you have a piece of music that’s played for 1 minute on USA network, lets say that $100. If that played on CBS in primetime, it could be a couple of thousand dollars. I’ve never tried to [compare], it’s hard unless you have the same piece played on multiple shows. There’s actually a controversy going on right now with performance rights societies. So many people are getting their content through streaming, and composers are getting less. It has to change, because it is happening exponentially fast. The bigger problem now is what are the terrestrial TV stations going to do? How are they going to transition, is regular TV going to fade away?”

On being able to use his music in other projects:

“Every piece of music has 2 owners, the composer and the publisher. In a situation like mine, I’m the sole composer and WWE is the sole publisher. There are 2 ways at looking at it. Either I won 50% and they own 50%. But the music industry is 200%, I own 100% of the composition side and they own 100% of the publishing side. The weirdness to that system is if you’re the publisher, you have all the power. For example, Ford could come to us and say they want to use Stone Cold’s theme for the new F150. I could say great idea, and the publisher says no, and they are not doing it. Along with that, I can’t do anything with my own music, because they are the publisher. I have to go to them and get permission to sell it. If not I am dead in the water. It’s very weird not to use my own music for something. Post WWE, I found myself where I have to recreate a reel of music which is mine. Even a few songs that were my songs, they are mine. But the master is owned by WWE. So I can’t use that recording. This is what is happening with Taylor Swift, she is re-recording the masters. There are a lot of unfairness’s in the music industry.”

On a possible Hall of Fame induction:

“I think if they haven’t already they’re not going to. It’s one of those pesky things where you don’t want to be petty about it. But it’s like you guys did fire me, but you want me to come back and put me over by doing the Hall of Fame. Would it be an honor? Sure. But at the same time it would be uncomfortable. There are people there that I don’t want to see and don’t want to shake their hand. But it’s not a big aspect of my life now. But one of the positive things after doing WWE for so long is to write whatever you want.”

On what he is grateful for:

“This period of time. Chapter one was WWE and chapter 2 is imminent. My wife and just being blessed by God to live a great life.”

Image credit: Sports Illustrated

Jim Johnston can be found on Twitter here.

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