Danny Elfman discusses composing the iconic 'Simpsons' theme: 'Homer Simpson will be on my gravestone'

Danny Elfman (Photo courtesy of MasterClass)
Danny Elfman (Photo courtesy of MasterClass)

Danny Elfman has a beyond-impressive CV that ranges from fronting the pioneering new wave Oingo Boingo to writing dozens upon dozens of movie scores, including 16 for Tim Burton.

But the renowned composer — who recently launched his in-depth MasterClass, Making Music Out of Chaos — tells Yahoo Entertainment, “I always joke, if I die right now, Homer will be on my gravestone, going ‘Doh!’ There's just no way I can get around that.”

Elfman is referring to his most instantly recognisable and beloved composition, the whimsical theme for The Simpsons, which made its debut on Dec. 17, 1989.

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“It’s ironic that after 100-plus film scores — each of which might have taken me somewhere between six weeks and four months of intense work — my most known piece of music, 30 years later, was really just one day of work for me in my life,” he chuckles. “It really was that quick.”

Elfman recalls first meeting with Simpsons creator Matt Groening to view an uncoloured, 2D sketch of the series’ now-iconic opening sequence. “I got it completely. It was totally clear. The energy, the silliness, the characters, it was all there. It wasn't rendered-out and as colourful, but it was totally clear to me exactly what it was.”

Elfman knew right away that he didn’t want to compose anything modern-sounding to accompany the quirky visuals.

“As I watched, I said, ‘This just reminds me of a crazy old Hanna-Barbera theme,’ probably because in The Flintstones, Fred was running with his feet in the primitive car. It just had that zany feel. And I said to Matt, ‘If you want something contemporary, I'm not the guy for it.’ I really wasn't a fan of any contemporary TV themes in that era; they were all kind of jazzy and boring, and they just didn't do anything for me. The great themes, for me, all came out of the previous older era, like Mission: Impossible — the killer themes coming out of the '60s into the '70s. So I said, ‘If you want something crazy and retro, that's what my senses are telling me.”

Groening agreed, and Elfman headed home, feeling inspired. “I literally wrote [the theme] in the car on the way home. By the time I got to my house from the meeting, it was done. My only thought was to make sure I didn't hear another piece of music and forget it. So I drove home, ran down to my studio — I had a four-track tape player, at that point — and I worked out the parts. It took probably a couple of hours. I did a demo with all the parts, put it on a cassette, and sent it in. And a couple days later, I got a call from Matt saying, ‘That's it! Let's do it!’ And that's exactly what we recorded, a week later.”

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The theme has since soundtracked the ever-evolving introductions of nearly 700 Simpsons episodes, from Bart Simpson’s afterschool chalkboard punishments to the animated family’s increasingly bizarre sofa scenes. It has also inspired countless cover versions.

“I've heard incredibly weird stuff on YouTube; somebody will send me some musician's insane rendition of it,” says Elfman. “Not that long ago, I saw a Japanese guitarist, drumming on guitar strings, playing the right and left hands of the melody with the accompaniment simultaneously, on two guitars. It was mind-blowing.”

But Elfman’s favourite Simpsons theme remake has a personal connection. On 1996’s “Homerpalooza” episode, which starred alt-rock artists of the day like the Smashing Pumpkins and Cypress Hill, noise-rock experimentalists Sonic Youth radically reimagined the track as a squalling, squealing guitar improv.

The band’s lineup included Elfman’s girlfriend from his days at Los Angeles’s University High School, Kim Gordon.

“The greatest pleasure for me was having Sonic Youth cover it,” Elfman says. “At that point, my life and Kim’s life were very much in different universes, but I was really happy when I found out. Of course, I was incredibly proud of Kim. It was remarkable, to see how this group of friends I’d had in high school had turned out. The only reason I got into music was because of them, this little group. One of the guys, Michael Byron, became an avant garde composer. Kim Gordon started Sonic Youth. Leon Schneiderman, my other best friend, became the saxophone player in Oingo Boingo. It was a group of crazy kids that were very artistic and musical, and they made me want to pick up an instrument. I’ve talked with Kim a few times [about Sonic Youth’s Simpsons cover]; I see her every now and then, and we joke about it.”