Fab first listen: Giles Martin gives the ‘Friends’ theme an orchestral Abbey Road makeover
A quarter-century ago, when powerpop duo the Rembrandts were recruited to co-write the Friends theme, “I’ll Be There For You,” they had the Beatles on the brain. The song’s instantly familiar ringing chords were actually inspired by the Fab Four’s “I Feel Fine” — “It was a George Harrison kind of a line,” the Rembrandts’ Phil Solem tells Yahoo Entertainment — and Solem’s bandmate Danny Wilde even started on his career path after seeing the Beatles in concert twice as a young boy in 1965 and 1966. “It completely altered the course of my young life. I stared not giving a s*** about school or anything — I just wanted to play rock and write music!” Wilde recalls.
So it’s obviously a full-circle moment that the Rembrandts’ most famous recording has gotten the “full-tilt” Beatles treatment, as Wilde wondrously puts it. For the beloved Friends sitcom’s 25th anniversary, none other than Giles Martin — late legendary Beatles producer George Martin’s son, and the man in charge of the recent deluxe reissue packages of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The White Album, and Abbey Road — has entered the hallowed Abbey Road Studios with the 74-piece London Metropolitan Orchestra (and the fabled Mrs. Mills piano!) to create the first studio-commissioned orchestral version of the iconic theme song. The result is “I’ll Be There For You (Friends 25th Anniversary – Orchestral Version),” premiering above on Yahoo Entertainment. The song will be available on streaming and download services tonight (Wednesday, Sept. 18) at 9 p.m. PT/12 midnight ET.
“We feel privileged to be brought into the world of Friends, and add a bit of fun to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the series,” Martin tells Yahoo. “Life throws different things at you, and much like Abbey Road, whose legacy has lasted for generations, so has Friends. We have taken inspiration from the Beatles with the London Metropolitan Orchestra’s version of the theme song, and it further proves that generations shift and age, but things like Friends stay the same. You can go back to it and enjoy it the same way you always did.”
“It’s amazing,” Wilde gushes. “It’s a super-huge honor. I think it’s so, so, so cool that our two worlds have met and sort of crashed into each other.” The orchestral single’s clever cover art even features the series famous couch stretched across the even more famous Abbey Road crosswalk.
The new orchestral Friends theme was produced and arranged this month by Martin, orchestrated and arranged by conductor James Seymour Brett, recorded and mixed by Sam Okell, and master-engineered by Simon Gibson. The entire recording/mixing/mastering process took just three days — a whirlwind experience similar to that of the original 1994 version, when Friends co-creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman, who’d co-written the basic sketch of the song with composer Michael Skloff and Songwriters Hall of Famer/frequent Earth, Wind & Fire collaborator Allee Willis, first approached the Rembrandts.
“The executive producer Kevin Bright came to us because he was a Rembrandts fan, and he liked the way our band sounded and wanted us to interpret the song that Michael and Allie Willis had started. We just put our Rembrandts stamp on it,” Wilde recalls. “We were sitting down with Michael at my studio, and I had a little piano and he was just playing what they had. And then Phil and I picked up guitars and started doing our thing. And they were very generous with our involvement. They really wanted our input, to turn it into more than just the vocal and piano tune. That was like on a Thursday. And then the following Saturday, we got the band together, went into the studio, and just bashed out the-the arrangement. I think we hit upon it pretty much from the beginning with the riff and the tempo and everything. And it ended up sticking and everyone loved it.
“And that was it. It aired the next Thursday and we figured, ‘OK, that’ll be that.’ But obviously that wasn’t that. It blew up, and the show blew up. And you know, it just got crazy from that point on.”
Interestingly, the original concept for the Friends theme was much darker: When the Rembrandts were sent the pilot episode to get an idea for the feel the producers wanted, the opening fountain-frolicking scene was cut to R.E.M.’s doomsday anthem “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” Solem reveals, “We created [a version of the Friends theme] that was darker. We were in a darker mood at that time; our album that was currently about to come out or had come out, had a lot more of a cloudy mood to it. And so we created the next verse and bridge and we took it in another direction — and then when the producers heard that, they said, ‘Um, hey, how about we get together and we collaborate on these lyrics?’”
“That version turned out killer. I love it! It has a whole different bridge,” says Wilde. “Some of our fans — you know, the superfans — have versions of it. You see it leaked out there, every once in a while.”
But it was a much shiny-happier version that made it to the masses in 1994 and eventually inspired Giles Martin this year. “I’ll Be There for You” became such a smash — topping the Billboard Hot 100 Airplay chart for eight weeks (and becoming the biggest-selling single of 1995 in Canada) after the Rembrandts recorded a full-length version for radio — that the duo even had to rush-release a music video for the tune. The quirky clip, shot with the Friends cast on the Saturday Night Live soundstage in New York City, was actually very Beatles-on-Ed Sullivan in vibe. “It was just silliness. There might have been some alcohol involved on camera,” Wilde chuckles. Adds Solem: “We hung out at the bar with Matt Perry for a couple of hours, I think. We poured back a few.”
Wilde admits that the “I’ll Be There for You” experience was bittersweet at the time. “I don’t expect people to say, ‘Oh, I feel so sorry for your success,’ and I don’t want to be that guy,” he stresses. “But we were like the darlings of college radio, and once the Friends song started to take over everything, it really changed the trajectory of our career and where we wanted to head. Our fanbase sort of started to dwindle. We’d go to a show and notice that there’d be moms with their kids and stuff. It became more like playing fairs and matinee shows and things like that. In our heads, we were still the ‘alt’ guys making ‘cool’ music, but we couldn’t get our second or third video on MTV, because MTV only wanted to play the Friends song. So it definitely became sort of like, ‘Oh boy, what have we done?’” (Side note: For what it’s worth, the official Friends soundtrack album, released in 1995, was actually pretty hip, featuring tracks by Toad the Wet Sprocket, k.d. lang, R.E.M, Paul Westerberg, the Pretenders, Grant Lee Buffalo, and even Joni Mitchell and Lou Reed.)
The Rembrandts temporarily split in 1997 due to the pressure (“We thought, ‘Let’s just take some time off and let this thing fade, and we’ll come back and start over,” Wilde explains), but now they are grateful for Friends. “At the end of the day, 25 years later, it’s still a foot in the door. Every band on the planet would kill to have a chance to have a song in a TV show or a commercial now. We were there a little early, I guess, but it’s an awesome thing,” says Wilde.
The Rembrandts’ first studio album in 18 years, Via Satellite, came out this month, but the duo say it was never timed with the Friends anniversary, of which they were entirely unaware. “It’s kind of one of those stars-aligning things,” laughs Wilde. Wilde and Solem, who live 2,000 miles apart, had been sporadically working on Via Satellite for more than 12 years, and then it took time to find the right label, Blue Elan, to release it. The album continues the line of hooky powerpop that can be traced way back to Solem and Wilde’s roots in Los Angeles ‘80s powerpop scene in bands like the Quick and Great Buildings — and, in another stars-aligning, full-circle development, it coincides perfectly with their new Giles Martin/Abbey Road connection.
“Being so heavily Beatle-influenced, we never wanted to let that go,” Wilde muses. “The powerpop wave seemed like, ‘Let’s just keep carrying that torch,’ with the Raspberries or whatever. … So many bands of that time, when we were coming up [in the 1970s], didn’t want to let it go. And I think it’s kind of nice that Phil and I really haven’t ever let it go. It’s just ingrained in our DNA.”