In We’re No. 1, The A.V. Club examines a song that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that has changed over the years. In this installment, we cover The Rembrandts’ “I’ll Be There For You,” which spent eight weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Airplay chart starting on June 17, 1995.
When Friends premiered in September 1994, it was a moderate hit, lingering outside of the Nielsen Top 10 but regularly drawing between roughly 18 and 21 million viewers a week for non-repeats. As soon as the calendar flipped to 1995, however, something suddenly clicked for the show: According to Nielsen ratings, the January 5 episode (“The One With Mrs. Bing”) drew over 26 million viewers and was the seventh-most-watched show of the week. For the rest of the season, Friends remained ensconced in the Nielsen Top 10, and eventually ended up finishing at No. 8 for the year.
Much of the show’s charm had to do with the cast, of course, and the endearingly awkward sitcom situations into which they got themselves. But Friends also stood out because of its theme song, “I’ll Be There For You,” which was performed by Los Angeles pop-rock duo The Rembrandts. By now, the song is a ubiquitous part of ’90s musical lore, thanks to its ringing guitar riffs, the keening harmonies of Rembrandts co-songwriters Phil Solem and Danny Wilde, the friendship-touting lyrics, and those four chipper handclaps. Due to the theme’s popularity, a longer, fleshed-out version of the theme song was created and appears on The Rembrandts’ third album, L.P. (which arrived in May 1995, just as Friends’ first season was wrapping up). But how the song actually landed on L.P. and ended up becoming a radio sensation is one of the decade’s stranger and more convoluted music stories.
First and foremost, Friends almost didn’t have an original theme song, and the sub-one-minute version of “I’ll Be There For You” heard at the start of the show is actually a collaboration between multiple people. Allee Willis, one of the co-writers of “I’ll Be There For You,” told The A.V. Club that “three weeks to a month” before Friends premiered, a theme song was proposed “because it might help promote the show if it were a hit song.” Michael Skloff, a music composer married to Marta Kauffman, one of the show’s creators/executive producers, came up with a verse and chorus. Another Friends executive producer, David Bright, called up a music publisher to try to find a lyricist for the demo.
“Because it was a Warner Brothers show, they had to go with a writer who was signed to Warner Brothers,” Willis said. “So he called up my publisher, although he didn’t know [I was signed there] at the time, and asked if they had a writer that was both commercial and quirky. Anytime anyone used that word ‘quirky,’ I would get the gig.” Fortuitously, Willis—who had previously written hits for Earth, Wind & Fire (“September”), the Pointer Sisters (“Neutron Dance”), and Pet Shop Boys (“What Have I Done To Deserve This?”)—was trying to finish out her songwriting contract, and owed one-seventh of a song to her publisher. The two camps made a deal: If she wrote lyrics for the Friends theme, she could consider her obligations to her publisher fulfilled.
At the time, Willis was far more interested in exploring the then-nascent internet, and wanted to get out of the songwriting game. “The Friends theme for me was clearly an escape from the music business,” she said. Musically, the existing demo was also not her cup of tea. “I did not like the song at all, mainly because I was known for all of this R&B and soul stuff, and this was the whitest thing I had ever heard. The little demo that was done of it, it almost sounded country-ish. It didn’t sound as Monkees, which is what they were going for—you know, like it sounds now.”
Still, Willis dug in and worked to capture the essence of the show in the lyrics, going off of producer notes and staying in “constant communication” with Bright. “The typical way that I write is that I try and collect as much information as I possibly can,” she explained. “So I watched the pilot a few times, and I wrote down every characteristic about every character. You know, my first thought was that one line will be about Rachel, one line will be about Phoebe.
“[On the show] these are people that would do anything for each other,” she added. “So really, it’s a song about loyalty, basically. The line ‘I’ll be there for you’… I’m not sure who wrote that, but that title was given to me. I always knew that’s where [the song] had to end up. That’s kind of really it.” All told, it took Willis a “solid week” to craft the song’s lyrics. “Because I save everything, I still have everything I wrote, and single-spaced typed lines, it’s 26 pages long, just to get down to that original TV theme,” she says. “It was a lot of work to get to one 45-second song. But it paid off, so I can’t complain.”
The Rembrandts came aboard the Friends theme project also at the behest of Bright, a fan of the band. “We saw the pilot and it was kind of funny, it had ‘It’s The End Of The World As We Know It,’ the R.E.M. song, sort of temped in,” Danny Wilde told The A.V. Club. “We’re going, ‘Fuck, man, R.E.M., that’s pretty cool. Yeah, we’d be interested.’” The pair agreed to be involved if they were able to have some creative input. “There was a verse and a chorus,” Wilde said. “You know, we put our chisel on it. We had the riff you know at the beginning [and] we changed a couple of the words.” With the TV show’s premiere looming, the creative timeline was accelerated: The band met with Skloff on a Thursday and recorded and mixed the song the following Saturday, less than a week before Friends premiered.
After the theme song was out in the open, The Rembrandts kept their involvement with it low-key. The band was an established act with a Top 40 hit (“Just The Way It Is, Baby”) under its belt, but was known for more introspective, nuanced music rooted in ’60s and ’70s rock. Plus, they were nearly done making the record that would turn into L.P. and, as Phil Solem told The A.V. Club, being musicians aligned with a TV show had a much different connotation 20 years ago.
“When we first did it, we did not necessarily want to be associated with any form of entertainment outside the realm of our little world of making records,” he explained. “Back in those days, and this is the crux of the biscuit here, is that in 1994, the last thing a serious band would do would be involved in a television show. We’re flattered that they thought of us and that they somehow thought that the sound that we had was representative of this whole thing. We saw the show and thought it was great, but had no idea that it would actually explode into what it is. We went along with it, but the whole idea was, ‘We’re anonymous, okay? Nobody’s going to know.’”
That anonymity didn’t last long, especially after two employees of the Nashville Top 40 station Y107 (WYHY), assistant program director/midday DJ Tom Peace and program director Charlie Quinn, decided to capitalize on Friends’ growing popularity in late ’94 and early ’95. “[Tom] was talking to me one day and said, ‘That theme song is so great, I just wish that there was a song out there,’” Quinn told The A.V. Club. “And I said, ‘Well, how do you know there isn’t? Go check.’ He checked the web and looked around, talked to a couple of record people and so forth, and came back and said, ‘There’s nothing, just this 45-second version from television.’” Sensing an opportunity, the men took the song, went into a production studio and Frankensteined a longer version of “I’ll Be There For You” by looping the snippet three times and then adding on the final refrain as a coda. It took Quinn “probably 20 minutes max” to stitch together the two-minute version. “I mean, it just fit like a glove. There was not much editing necessary.”
WYHY added the pop-song-length take into “power rotation” (i.e., nearly 60 spins a week). The reaction from listeners was immediate and intense: They thought it was a legitimate, commercially released single, and wanted to know where they could buy it. “People were calling us [like] ‘Oh my God, you’re the only station playing this in town anywhere!’ and ‘I’ve never heard of this song before. When did it happen, and when did it come out?’” Quinn said. “And, of course, we didn’t really help in that situation. There was nothing we could do. We didn’t have the rights to the song, and we couldn’t distribute our version of it to anybody and do anything for any of the listeners.” In fact, all WYHY could do was continue playing their version of “I’ll Be There For You”—and send copies of the song to radio stations in other cities to play, after demand for the tune increased.
“[Creating this version of the song] was totally done with the intent of being a stunt,” Quinn said. “We thought if we could get a little bit of attention locally and maybe some talk in the trade magazines, in that insular little world, that would probably be fun for us, and we would enjoy it. People would begin to recognize the station as doing things that are interesting and unique. So having it move into a national scene for us and getting the exposure that we did was far more than we expected.”
Naturally, WYHY’s cut-and-paste job quickly drew the attention of reps at the Rembrandts’ record label, who were not exactly thrilled: Quinn recalled he started getting “gentle reminders from them that it’s not really a song and you’re not benefiting anybody by playing it” about a week after the premiere. Pressure to stop playing the song increased over time, especially after WYHY ignored these requests. “The rep from the company was like, ‘You’ve got to take this off, man. The thing is, no one’s getting any credit for it, and it’s not for sale in the stores… It’s not really helping, and the band is trying to fulfill their image of continuing to be an alternative-rock band, and they don’t want the exposure from the Top 40 radio.’ Because as you can imagine, [being on Top 40] drove it toward kids, and [the band was] trying to be in a different category and genre.
“At times, it was unpleasant,” Quinn added, in reference to the label pressure on him. “But the thing is, there was such a ball rolling with other radio stations that it was just an undeniable situation that it was going to become a song.”
In fact, once the bootlegged version of “I’ll Be There For You” caught fire on radio, the Rembrandts’ label insisted the band go into the studio and record a full-length version of the song, which would then be used to promote L.P. For the duo, the timing couldn’t have been worse: It was March 1995, and by this time, L.P. was actually completed—in fact, Wilde said promo versions were already circulating to radio—and they were being asked to tack on another song and mess with the cohesion of an album they were proud of as musicians.
“We were getting heavier,” Solem recalled. “After being on tour for four years, we were doing a lot more kind of rock stuff, just from playing live a lot, and we just wanted to amp it up. So our next record was going to display some of this power that we’d been not putting on albums in the past. It was a big change, and to have a song like ‘I’ll Be There For You’ [on the album], as awesomely as it turned out, just didn’t seem like it sat well with the rest of the material.”
Today it’s easy to see why The Rembrandts were reluctant to add “I’ll Be There For You” to L.P.: Tempo- and tone-wise, the song sticks out like a sore thumb when compared to the rest of the album. Although the chiming jangle rager “This House Is Not A Home” and Beatles-esque “Don’t Hide Your Love” are close to the brisker “I’ll Be There For You,” the rest of L.P. is far darker, both musically and lyrically; excursions into Hammond organ-burnished heavy blues rock (“Easy To Forget”), hotrodding rock ’n’ roll (“Lovin’ Me Insane”), and sideways power-pop (“Comin’ Home”) more closely resemble Crowded House’s introspective songwriting and Jellyfish’s penchant for ornate ’70s pop and rock.
Compounding matters was that L.P. was coming out on a different label, after a series of business deals saw the band’s original home, ATCO Records, merge into East West Records, which was in turn folded into Elektra Records. The Rembrandts were thrown from an artist-friendly environment into something driven by the bottom line. “Our first two albums, we got the deluxe treatment from [our label]—they were like family,” Solem said. “And then things kind of fell apart when the third record was coming out, because they shifted all of the people around. You know, a lot of people got fired and there was a new president and all of this stuff. It seemed like the whole ’90s were up against the same [thing] and every band was going through it: ‘Oh, we’re on this label and now we’re on some other label—not because we want to be.’”
This meant the band had little leverage when it came to both the fate of L.P. and the whims of its career. “We didn’t want to put [“I’ll Be There For You”] on the record,” Wilde said. “I mean, our record was already done and it’s like, ‘Hey, this is our art—we’re done—this is all we’ve got to say.’ And they go, ‘No, it’s not coming out.’ It was like that. They said, ‘This record does not come out unless you put a full version of the song onto the album.’ They wanted it to be the lead-off song and we just said, ‘No, that’s not going to happen. That’s not the first impression of where we are at musically that we want people to hear.’ But then everything just sort of went out of our hands.”
Plus, the take on “I’ll Be There For You” that appears on L.P. is actually a different version than the one The Rembrandts intended for the album. Recorded in Madonna’s studio (“I don’t know why we ended up in that studio, but that’s what happened,” Solem said), this little-known take features different lyrics and a longer, synth-speckled bridge. Still, even the band taking the initiative to extend the song caused friction. “We got spanked for doing that,” Wilde recalled. “We didn’t even really think about it, we just went in and cut it. Then the shit hit the fan with Warner Brothers Television and the writers were incensed that we had the gall to go in and finish the song without their permission. So we just said, ‘Hey, sorry, let’s all get together and you guys get involved and we’ll do another version.’” So we did that and basically that’s the version that was on our record.” (For the record, Willis wasn’t involved with this version: “I didn’t want to, because I didn’t even want to write music anymore at that point.”)
The Rembrandts did manage to eke out a few small victories: “I’ll Be There For You” ended up as a hidden track at the end of the album. (Which was also for the best: Had it been the first song on the album, it would’ve been an incredibly jarring preface to the album’s actual opening track, the slow-burning, vaguely psychedelic “End Of The Beginning.”) And “I’ll Be There For You” wasn’t released as a single, which meant that anyone wanting a high-quality, CD copy of the song needed to buy L.P.
“They were waiting for us to put out a single and fighting us for it and our manager wouldn’t budge,” Solem said. “He said, ‘There will be no single.’ Because it was at No. 1 on the charts as a song, we would have had a No. 1 charting single had we released it. But it would only have been boom, in and out. Our album wouldn’t stand a chance. Whether it would in the first place or not, I don’t know—I guess that’s past the point. But it was a business move that we agreed had to happen. If they were going to put us in that position, I thought it was pretty clever that [our manager] said, ‘Put it out just on the album. If people want that, they’d have to buy this record.’”
And people did buy the record: L.P. was certified gold in August 1995 and platinum in January 1996. “I’ll Be There For You” was also a radio sensation, spending eight weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Airplay chart. However, when The Rembrandts tried to drum up interest in other songs on the album, they faced resistance: “This House Is Not A Home” was released as L.P.’s first official single, and it was pretty much ignored. “Radio wouldn’t play it because they still had so much gas on the Friends thing,” Wilde said. “To us, that [single represented] really who we were, and [it] really kind of messed us up to think that the album really wasn’t being heard. Even though it sold a million-plus copies, I think it was basically driven by the TV-show theme.”
The Rembrandts were in a bizarre spot, having unwittingly latched on to a pop-culture phenomenon that made them both well known and invisible. “It was very weird to do shows that used to be people coming into a venue and waiting for us to come on and sing along with our songs—and suddenly, the audiences were like moms and daughters [and] they just were waiting for that one song,” Solem said with a laugh. “And they didn’t care about the rest of our set. So that was kind of a real tough… you know, that period, I wouldn’t want to go back to that.” Wilde was more blunt about the shift: “We were the darlings of alternative radio and all of the sudden they’re not playing ‘Follow You Down’ and some of our deeper songs, ‘Just The Way It Is, Baby,’ and the obvious ones. And yeah, the audience changed. It was all about Friends. It wasn’t even like, ‘Well, let’s go see The Rembrandts’; [it was like], ‘Let’s go see the band that does the Friends song.’ So it was pretty weird.”
For a pair of musicians who had been making music together for years at this point, first as part of the skinny-tie power-pop band Great Buildings and then for the last five years as The Rembrandts, being known as the band associated with the Friends theme ended up being a “golden albatross,” as Solem put it. “It was hard to make the adjustment as artists,” he said. “You know, we had a hit from a few years before that [with ‘Just The Way It Is, Baby’] and we were just trying to get back to that level. And we thought, ‘Okay, this third album, it’s going to be something on here.’ But you know, [for the hit] to be a song that was not even intended to be on there in the first place made it a little bit rough. There was a period of kind of not being that excited about it so much.
“And I think we lost a gigantic portion of our original audience. Because as I mentioned earlier, [getting involved in a television show] was just not a thing to do for a band like ours. And suddenly being that made us look like, I think to our peers, it appeared that we sold out. And that was a hard thing to take. Because no way did we sell out—we were just doing what we do.”
Solem said “I’ll Be There For You” “caused [the band] to kind of get derailed for a while there.” He ended up leaving The Rembrandts for a few years, in part because he was disillusioned with “just the whole business behind [the song]”: “I was completely appalled at that and it made me go kind of berserk.” Wilde made a solo album, Spin This, that ended up being released under the moniker Danny Wilde + The Rembrandts, much to his consternation: His label threatened to shelve the record unless The Rembrandts’ name was somewhere prominent.
Solem rejoined the band in 2000, and 15 years later, The Rembrandts are still very much an ongoing creative concern. In fact, at the moment, the band is gearing up for some summer tour dates, and it also has a new studio album, Via Satellite, that’s hopefully being released soon. (Wilde, meanwhile, has a solo EP coming soon he describes as “a little rockier, a little more Americana.”) And just recently, “I’ll Be There For You” served as the impetus for more new Rembrandts music: After recording a promo video of the song in fall 2014 to promote Friends coming to Netflix, the band was inspired to record an acoustic album featuring some of its favorite songs.
“Just looking from there to now, it’s been quite a stretch, you know, the roller coaster and everything,” Solem said. “We’re trying to come back without saying we ever went away, which is kind of tough, because a lot of people just think, obviously, there’s no way that band is around anymore. You hear a lot of, ‘So, since you guys got back together,’ or ‘Yeah, you used to be in The Rembrandts.’ It’s like, ‘No, no, we never broke up.’ We just took a break and we’re just trying to maintain.”
In hindsight, “I’ll Be There For You” existed in the interesting space and time just before the internet drastically changed the way people discovered and consumed music. On the one hand, its popularity was a byproduct of the ’90s monoculture, an era when a cultural phenomenon could still be pervasive. But at the same time, “I’ll Be There For You” also benefited from people’s growing ability to access the internet; Solem noted that online curiosity about the theme song (and the identity of its performers) started increasing about a month after Friends debuted.
Charlie Quinn also drew parallels between how music is spread today and his role in helping “I’ll Be There For You” snowball in popularity: “Word of mouth always is more effective than anything you can do to advertise or promote something, as you know from the way that viral web experience has changed music. I would say that might have been one of the very first experiments in viral marketing.” And Solem sees how the song’s symbiotic relationship with Friends presaged the way bands today approach promoting and packaging their music. “Nowadays, if you don’t have a song that’s being used for some kind of entertainment besides the musical aspect of it, then you’re crazy,” he said. “It’s all about that now. So I feel like we were at the very cutting edge of what that was, but it cut us first.”
The Rembrandts have also softened toward “I’ll Be There For You” over time, partially because of the incredible impact it’s had on people worldwide. “I’ve talked to people who have learned to speak English from that show or the song,” Solem noted. “It’s crazy.” And eventually, people did start to equate the song with the band, and respect them for it. “People, friends, family and other musicians, we say, ‘Yeah, yeah—that song,’ and they go, ‘What are you talking about? That song is great, man! Nobody else could have done that song like you guys. It’s a total Rembrandts song.’” Wilde said. “So I’m very proud of it now as opposed to before, because it really put L.P. on the backburner. Not even a backburner; it just kind of buried it. But you know, now it’s fucking awesome.”
Two decades years later, the strong love for Friends reruns ensures that “I’ll Be There For You” endures. But more than that, it’s remained one of the last great examples of a TV theme song that enhances a show’s premise. “My goal was to write something that would make someone very happy by the time it was over,” Willis said. “The way the record was done, the arrangement of it, [also added to that]. It picked up exactly what the show was, which is what the best TV themes do. Most TV themes don’t accomplish that—this one did.”
Willis too has come around to the song in recent years, in part because of an opportunity she had to conduct a marching band version of the song for her alma mater, the University Of Wisconsin. “The band leader, who has been there for something like 45 years, did the most spectacular arrangement of this song,” she said. “It really wasn’t until I was conducting it that I went, ‘Oh my God, this is a much better song than I ever thought it was.’ And I started hearing things that were actually in the original record that I had kind of missed before by just dismissing it as this very simple song. There were kind of these drum rhythms and things going on in the second half of the verse that I had missed in the record, but somehow heard in this band arrangement.”
And fittingly, “I’ll Be There For You” also helped The Rembrandts make a lifelong pal: Friends actor James Michael Tyler, who played Gunther, the Central Perk barista in love with Jennifer Aniston’s Rachel. “He’s become one of our best buds,” Solem said. “We hang out all of the time. So we got the best friend out of Friends. It was great.”