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The Untold Truth Of The Friends Theme Song

The world can be a pretty rough place sometimes. You know how it is: No one told you life was gonna be this way. Your job's a joke, you're broke, your love life's DOA. It's times like these when we can all use a friend — and for ten seasons between 1994 and 2004, no Friends were more reliable (and reliably hilarious) than Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), Ross (David Schwimmer), Monica (Courteney Cox), Chandler (Matthew Perry), Joey (Matt LeBlanc), and Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow). Their relatable foibles, crazy romantic entanglements, and improbably large New York City apartments often mirrored our own crazy lives (well, maybe not that last thing), and the amazing chemistry between all six cast members made Friends a cut or two above your average sitcom.

The series' endearing opening credits sequence, which featured the cast messing around in a water fountain in a park at night (as so many of us often do), was soundtracked by a song that has become burned into the brains of the show's fans. "I'll Be There For You" by pop duo The Rembrandts became a national phenomenon thanks to Friends, hanging around on the Billboard charts for a whopping 26 weeks and peaking at #1 in June 1995. But it took quite a bit of doing to wrangle the distinctive tune into existence — and if the show's producers hadn't been denied their initial choice, it wouldn't have existed at all.

R.E.M. turned down a request to use one of their songs for the Friends theme

There's a bit of disagreement among the involved parties around the specifics, but one thing everyone seems to agree on is that the Rembrandts — who, up until that point, had released two little-heard albums forgettably titled The Rembrandts and Untitled — were not the first choice to provide the theme song for Friends. Initially, the series' creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane had their hearts set on R.E.M., a band which had seen considerably more success. Their 1991 release Out of Time had topped the charts all over the world, sold a kajillion copies, won three Grammy Awards, and produced three hit singles: "Losing My Religion," "Radio Song" (which improbably featured rap legend KRS-One), and the tune that Kauffman and Chase originally wanted for their show's theme, "Shiny Happy People."

In a 2019 conversation with NME, R.E.M. lead singer Michael Stipe and bassist Mike Mills recalled that an inquiry had been made about using their song for Friends' theme. "I think they went to [us] first for the theme song, and [we] said no," Stipe said. Mills then chimed in to say, "Apparently they were thinking about using 'Shiny Happy People' as the theme song, which I just recently heard about, but apparently that's the case." In fact, an unaired pilot for the show — at the time titled Friends Like Us — did in fact use that very tune for its opening sequence, which can be seen on YouTube. It's probably a good thing that R.E.M. declined to play ball, though, because "Shiny Happy People" is absolutely one of the most annoying hit songs ever recorded, as even Stipe would now agree — and it likely would have had a fair number of viewers tuning out after ten seconds, never mind ten seasons.

The Friends creative team helped write the theme song

In 2014, The Rembrandts (Danny Wilde and Phil Solem) sat down with Buzzfeed News to discuss their most well-known song. Interestingly, they remembered a different R.E.M. tune accompanying the opening sequence of the pilot that was sent to them by producer Kevin S. Bright: the 1987 hit "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)." Remembered Wilde, "I think they thought it felt, tempo-wise, that was where they wanted to go [...] [Bright] was a fan of The Rembrandts from other records that we had made, so he called our manager."

Just a few days later, the band found themselves sitting down with Friends' musical director Michael Skloff, who had already sketched out the tune's basics, and Kauffman's husband Allee Willis, who had some ideas about the lyrics which the band quickly filled in the blanks on. "We Rembrandt-ified it," Solem said. "We were like, 'If it's gonna be us, it's gotta be this.' 'We wouldn't say that, we'd say this.'"

Just a couple days after this brainstorming session, the band were in the studio to cut the tune, which is where it all came together. "[The studio is] where we hashed out the idea and made sure all the parts [worked]," Solem remembered. "Allee was sending faxes with the lyrics on them, like, 'Here's a new line!' 'Try this one!' 'How about this?' At the end of the day, we had a rough version." Very rough, as it turned out — because the day had actually turned to night by the time the session was over, and as Wilde admitted with a smirk, "We maybe had a couple of beers that day." But the nearly minute-long theme song had nevertheless come together over the course of only three days, and then, as Solem said, "What seemed like five seconds later, it was on TV."

The full-length version of the Friends theme only happened because of one guy

Friends premiered in September 1994, and it was an immediate hit, ending the season ninth in overall viewership and besting such iconic series as Roseanne, Mad About You, and Frasier, according to Classic TV Database. "I'll Be There For You" stuck in the craw of audiences in a way that wasn't entirely expected — but which was brought decisively to light by Charlie Quinn, the program director of a Nashville radio station. Wilde told Buzzfeed News that Quinn had come up with a novel solution to the mountains of requests his station had been receiving for the song: he had edited together a loop, a three-minute version of the tune which was really just the theme played four times back-to-back.

"[Our new album] was already finished and advance copies had already shipped to radio," he remembered. "But the record company said, 'Hold the press! Wait a second! We've got this crazy runaway hit!' So then we went in and recorded the full version." They were met in the studio not only by Skloff and Willis, but... a few others too. "At that point, the producers got in on the writing," Solem said. "So we all just sat around, tossing ideas around. There was a lot of interaction. It was, like, seven people."

The Rembrandts weren't sure how to feel about the song

The full-length tune ended up on the Rembrandts' 1995 album L.P. (those guys could really have used some help with their album titles), and if it stands out a bit from the other selections on the record, well, there's a reason for that. "There was a version that we did with a different second verse and a completely different bridge," Solem said. "We tried to make it more like what the rest of the songs on our album [sounded like], and [the Friends producers] didn't like it because it kind of went a little dark. It never got put out, but there's some secret copy floating around."

At first, as might have been expected, the guys weren't completely thrilled with the rather un-Rembrandts-like tune that had been shoehorned onto their record. "We didn't know that it was a good thing at the time because we were too close to our album," Solem said. "[The album] just came out. It was our baby. And then, someone is saying, 'Your baby really should wear this hat.' 'No, that's not the baby's hat!'" Wilde agreed, saying that he felt the song "didn't really fit," on the album — but, he had to admit, "it helped sell that record!"

That, it did. L.P. spent 21 weeks on the Billboard chart, peaking at #23 — far better than the band's previous two efforts had managed (The Rembrandts peaked at #88; Untitled had failed to chart at all). The band now seems quite comfortable with the legacy of "I'll Be There For You," one of the most memorable TV show theme songs of all time — and a song that never fails to cheer us up, even when it hasn't been our day, our week, our month, or even our year.