The notion of a jock, a grind, a beauty queen, a burnout, and a large, anthropomorphic canine piling into a detailed van to solve mysteries has proven indisputably, irresistibly evergreen. In the 46 years since Joe Ruby and Ken Spears co-midwifed Scooby-Doo, this franchise has become a cross-media juggernaut so imposing that it’s easy to forget how shaky its early footing was. Decades before property-splintering was standard operating procedure, television executives were reshuffling and repackaging the adventures of Scooby, Velma, Fred, Daphne, and Shaggy with a turbo-charged cynicism that puts today’s Marvel Comics and Hasbro shenanigans to shame. There have been 14 Scooby-Doo iterations on TV alone, each one demanding a fresh new theme song to reintroduce the franchise to a new generation or sub-generation. I listened to these themes over and over again. Here are my findings.
14. Scooby’s All-Star Laff-A-Lympics (ABC, 1977-1978)
This sub-Wacky Races lead-in is arguably the nadir of Hoyt Curtin’s compositional career: splashy horns rip off The Newlywed Game, a chuckle-headed sportscaster prattles on and on, and effects scatter like birdseed.
13. Be Cool, Scooby-Doo! (The Cartoon Network, 2015-)
Jake Monaco, who has scored or co-scored a handful of movies you’ve never heard of, serves up a curt, unmemorable 18-second theme for the post-post-millennial Scooby set. If not for the eye-rolling Scooby dooby doooooooooo tacked on at the end—the sole concession to exposition—this thing could’ve surfaced anywhere: a bothersome pop-up ad interrupting a video-game app, the pre-movie infomercials nobody pays attention to, etc.. It’s like an anti-theme.
12. The New Scooby and Scrappy-Doo Show (ABC, 1983-1984)
A overtly saccharine, forgettable take on prior themes. I couldn’t locate a songwriting credit for this one, probably because—understandably—no one longs to be associated with it.
11. Scooby-Doo and Scrappy-Doo (ABC, 1979-1980)
Lightning booms; jagged, scary horns sound. Then Lennie Weinrib’s Scrappy Doo introduces himself to Messick’s Scooby, and things get really frightening, as Scrappy’s already tiresome Napoleon-complex schtick swallows the theme whole. This is instructive; this is a warning. But who, you ask, is responsible? I retort: Who cares?
10. Scooby & Scrappy-Doo/Puppy Hour (ABC, 1982-1983)
Curtin and Dean Elliott cheese out an unimaginative rehash of the earliest Scooby-Doo themes, sliming in a Greek girl-group chorus who hail Scooby in a vaguely suggestive way. As the introduction draws to a close, dialogue from Scrappy-Doo, a roundly loathed abomination, surfaces.
9. The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo (1985)
I gotta give Curtin his props for this one: For its first 20 or 25 seconds, this theme is legitimately frightening, in a “middle-school Halloween party” sort of way. Vincent Price vamping it up! Spine-tingling organ chords! Lightning-strike effects! When the floor is opened to the rest of the cast, everything goes south, underscoring the wrongheaded inanity of this particular series.
8. The New Scooby-Doo Mysteries (ABC, 1984-1985)
Curtin, William Hanna, Joseph Barbera, and Ron Jones team up to Frankenstein Michael Jackson’s performative tics and the Ghostbusters theme into an opportunistic pop-culture nightmare that may move you to pummel yourself into unconsciousness.
7. Shaggy & Scooby-Doo Get a Clue! (The CW, 2006-2008)
You’re probably thinking “shouty bargain-bin NOFX homage,” but the reality is “post-post Devo Mark Mothersbaugh.” This is painful-to-swallow craft—if admiringly direct, in lyrical terms—engineered by an ’80s rock icon who long ago figured out where his bread is buttered.
6. A Pup Named Scooby-Doo (ABC, 1988-1991)
John Debney would go on to an Academy Award nomination for scoring The Passion of the Christ. En route to that milestone, he composed this, which suggests Chuck Berry rocking a sock-hop. Fitting, somehow, for a deeply irreverent franchise reboot. Who could get mad at this one?
5. Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated (The Cartoon Network, 2010-2013)
Matthew Sweet—yes, the Matthew Sweet of Girlfriend and “Sick of Myself”—can claim credit for this spooky, vaguely psychedelic instrumental number. Startlingly brief, festooned with eerie keyboards, and punctuated with a sheepish scooby-dooby-dooooooooo, it does a better job of driving its point home than most of its brethren.
4. What’s New, Scooby-Doo? (The WB, 2002-2006)
What if Phil Spector had commanded Blink-182, at the point of a sharpened bayonet, to write and cut a Scooby-Doo theme in 10 minutes? We’ll never know the answer, but Simple Plan’s bratty, nth-wave punk number here is sharp and effective, even as it is wholly disinterested in capturing the essence of the show; I catch myself randomly humming this one far more often than I care to admit.
3. The Scooby-Doo Show (ABC, 1976-1978)
Barbera, Curtin, and Hanna regroup here for a theme that departed from those of its two predecessors. The chorus line foregrounds Casey Kasem’s Shaggy character, whose interjections become part and parcel of a sales-pitch jingle spiced with effects. This theme went bombastically bananas in a way that makes its New Scooby-Doo Movies counterpart seem modest by comparison, so much so that you’d assume embarrassing digressions were afoot already; they weren’t, but the world certainly didn’t have long to wait.
2. The New Scooby-Doo Movies (CBS, 1972-1974)
Suddenly this franchise was hot, and big time: The Harlem Globetrotters! Laurel and Hardy! Batman and Robin! So Curtin, Hanna, and Barbera flipped the epochal Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! theme into something boldly, orchestrally show-biz, jettisoning verses and spotlighting Messick’s scaredy-cat dissembling as the titular Great Dane.
1. Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! (CBS, 1968-1970)
From those forebodingly turgid opening loops to that period garage-pop red meat, the masterful tone and economy of David Mook and Ben Raleigh’s camp OG Scooby-Doo theme cannot be overstated. Lyrically plain and dispassionate, this Monkees-esque theme perfectly mirrors the series it preceded: zestful, madcap, slightly rough around the edges. Singing along at home is almost as fun as picturing this earworm rattling around in Thomas Pynchon’s anonymous skull until he coughed it up as a reference in Inherent Vice. And thus the circle closes.
Raymond Cummings is a writer and critic living in Lewisburg, PA. His work has appeared in Pitchfork, The Village Voice, SPIN, and Splice Today; “Vigilante Fluxus,” his latest collection of poetry, was published in February.
Lead art by Sam Woolley.