Thirty years ago this week, a burgeoning, but not yet ubiquitous children’s network by the name of Nickelodeon launched its first original animated series. Introduced on August 11, 1991, under the brand name “Nicktoons”, Doug, Rugrats, and The Ren & Stimpy Show would quickly become hits and change the course of animation, television and popular culture in general. To mark the anniversary, The ring looks back on Nick’s many iconic characters and the network’s legacy as a whole with the Best Nickelodeon character support. Below is an excerpt from a conversation this week. Ringtone Music Show with Jim Lang, the composer of Hi Arnold! Listen to the full interview here.
I want to start by going back to the 90s and talking about the golden age of Nickelodeon. You’ve had shows like Blue indices, you had Hi Arnold!, you had Rugrats, and you had people like Coolio who made the theme song for Kenan & Kel. Can you describe Nick’s world around this time and the process in which you and series creator Craig Bartlett came together to work on the series?
Well, first of all, Nick at that time was the product of some great, awesome women who animated. The power of girls was palpable at the executive level. The women we worked with and the women who started the network were trying to do something that had nothing to do with animation as it was practiced at the time. Their aesthetic was renegade, and they were really open to doing stuff that was just letting the creators run around with crazy ideas. Ren and Stimpy, perfect example of this. But Craig and I met while working for a company that does theme parks and visitor centers, so it was very buttoned up. In fact, at the gig I met him, he was locked in a warehouse in Japan with a group of Japanese engineers trying to make industrial robots do “Funky Chicken”.
So we bonded on this concert and the rest was history, as they say. But we had done a few things together before Hi Arnold! came up with. I knew Craig was an entertainer and I had certainly seen the Arnold claymation stuff when we started. But I didn’t really have any idea what the concert was going to become or what the show would be like. And in fact, I don’t think any of us really did. The whole idea of Hi Arnold! was that he was reminded of the reverie in class. If you’ve seen the original claymation videos, he’s sitting in the church and imagining while they’re praying, walking down the valley of the shadow of death and all the crazy stuff, visualizing it all. So he was a dreamer, but he hadn’t quite become the ordinary man he had become on the show. And that process of developing that character, watching that character develop and being part of it was really great. It was, I think, one of the coolest things about this gig.
I want to talk a bit about you as a composer. Tell me about those recording sessions, the musicians you got together, the band formation for these songs. How was it for you?
Well, technology has a lot to do with it. We all assume that technology is a big part of music because of the way we make music now, but you have to remember that at that time MIDI was only a few years old. And so the traditional process of making music for TV had been turned upside down because you could sit in a room with a computer and basically build an entire track without having other hot bodies involved. I’ve played in bands, I’ve toured with Joe Cocker, the Pointer Sisters, Todd Rundgren and people like that. But for me in bands, there was always a frustration that I couldn’t get exactly what I wanted, the sound I had in mind. And now all of a sudden you could use a computer and you could get exactly the sound you wanted to have in your head.
So a big part of the process of making this show music for me was putting these weird elements together and then at the end of the process like Nick Kirgo, who played all the guitar on the score, or Bill Liston who played. all the wood, bring them in at the end and put the icing on the cake. I didn’t have a big studio. I was working in my basement. You can stand in the middle of the room and touch the ceiling with your hand. So having a session was basically watching someone lug around a bunch of crap on Baxter Street, which is the third steepest street in Los Angeles. And then put them in a corner of the room, then push the disc.
Do you feel like you have a signature sound? Because for me, when I listen to so much of this music, I obviously hear, the sounds of Fender Rhodes, the Moogs. I’m going to guess and say that Roland keyboards and Yamaha keyboards from the 90s are here.
I don’t know if I really could. I’ll say one thing, I love playing bass. I love to play synth bass, and therefore often, especially in the Hi Arnold! queues, it would start with a bass groove or rhythm figure that incorporated a lower part into it. I have always been a very punchy keyboardist. I don’t have a lot of dexterity, but I like that polyrhythmic thinking where you’re basically playing drums on the keyboard. So I think a lot of things came out of that, at least the groove oriented stuff.
I want to come back to that, the influence of jazz. I recently found out yesterday that you were also a songwriter on one of my other favorite shows, Lloyd in space, which is such an underrated spectacle.
Oh, get out of here, that’s great.
I love this show, but it made me think back to the days of the 90s and early 2000s, and the music that was being created around that time. When you look at a company like Disney, it was very pop-oriented. Was there any reluctance when you approached them and said, âHey, here’s the sheet music for that kids show. It’s jazz, it’s fusion, it’s funk â?
I think we had a music conversation with the producers, when we were talking about the show’s theme song. Craig always had the idea that there was a swing mentality somewhere around music. And he always used to sing that little “Arnold, you fool,” the finger jumping in the background. âArnold, you fool. And so we sat down with the leaders and talked about the theme of the show. And we sang this thing and we were about three notes in it and they were moaning low at the other end of the table. So it was like, “OK, well, I guess that’s not going to work.” But that was the only time and then obviously Craig and I talked about what we wanted to do musically before doing the show.
We had both listened to Jason Bentley’s concert at the time, and Jason played a lot of acid jazz. And we just thought it was a really cool mix of that great pop jazz era of the 60s and contemporary beats. We thought, “Hey, that’s a really good touchstone for making music. Hi Arnold!âBut to really answer your question, I never got a note from the executives on the music for the show. And in fact, there were times when I tried to get them to say, ‘Ouch.’ I was like, ‘ OK, this is a chase scene or something, I’m going to try and pretend I’m the Art Ensemble of Chicago. âAnd see if I can come out so that they say,â No you don’t. can’t do that on TV. âAnd they never said anything.
Wow, this is crazy.
It is a real blessing. Doing animation and filming in general is very collaborative and that’s one of the really cool things about it. But also being given the lead and being allowed to go out and explore, do whatever you want, that’s a rarity and it’s great when it happens.
I think so often older people who work on children’s shows or media tend to think, âJazz is irrelevant. Children don’t like jazz. Jazz is no longer culturally important. But it’s funny because if you watch the base of a lot of kids TV shows, I think of The pink Panther, I think of people like Vince Guaraldi, it’s just straight jazz. Why are we wrong?
I think people tend to assume that kids can’t handle complexity. I think it’s a curse to do entertainment for children, especially animated entertainment. Craig and I were working on another show once and we were doing a song that was inherently complicated. We were trying to do a song about dinosaurs from A to Z, and you can imagine with names like ichtyosaurus and names like that, you do a song where you use all these names, 26 of them. It’s gonna be a mad attempt. And the song was really complex, and the conversation with the leaders was, “The kids will never have this.” And I said, “One of my favorite songs when I was young was ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ and the whole thing was, it was a challenge to be able to learn to say this song.”
So, no, kids really like things that challenge them. And as you quoted, there are some great examples of jazz that have been used in children’s entertainment. Mr. Rogers Obviously, there was nothing but upright jazz piano behind this whole show. And they didn’t hesitate for a second, and it was completely organic.
To hear the full conversation, see the episode of The ringing music show here.