How The Wonder Years built one of teen TV's best soundtracks ever
Showrunner Bob Brush looks back at the music that made The Wonder Years such a teen TV classic.
The Wonder Years comes out swinging with its very first music cue. The Byrds' era-encapsulating "Turn! Turn! Turn!" sets the scene as middle-aged Kevin Arnold (Daniel Stern, in voiceover) introduces us to his younger self (Fred Savage) and his 1960s adolescence. It's the first of several pitch-perfect needle-drops in the pilot alone, which also features Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now," Tommy James & The Shondells' "Crystal Blue Persuasion," and Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman," which accompanies Kevin's first kiss with his crush Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar).
Over the six seasons that followed, The Wonder Years would build a truly remarkable soundtrack, featuring just about every classic '60s hit you can think of: "Respect," "Good Vibrations," "The Times They Are A-Changin'," "Be My Baby," "Purple Haze," and "For What It's Worth" are just a handful of the nearly 300 songs used across the show's 115 episodes. That soundtrack now stands as a time capsule, not just of that era in music, but of an era in pop-culture history when it was possible for a TV show to license so many iconic tunes. (The Wonder Years originally ran on ABC from 1988 to 1993.)
"At that point, most record labels and most artists were really happy to have their songs used," longtime Wonder Years showrunner Bob Brush tells EW. "We didn't have a lot of problems getting people to okay the song usage. In some cases, we had to have people make phone calls for us, or go through somebody they knew who knew Paul Simon or whoever, but in general it was a pretty straightforward deal to get to use the music."
Brush, who took over as showrunner midway through the second season (after the departure of series creators Neal Marlens and Carol Black), can't recall any instance in which the creative team couldn't secure a song they wanted to use. They even successfully licensed the Beatles' legendary 1964 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, for about $75,000, as Brush remembers. (By comparison, Lionsgate reportedly shelled out $250,000 to use "Tomorrow Never Knows" on Mad Men in 2012.)
"We convinced the studio to pony up by telling them that we were about to do the definitive story about rock and roll in the '60s," Brush says, "and that it was absolutely going to be the greatest Wonder Years ever. And then we shot the show, and it was awful. Nothing worked in it, and we kind of crammed the songs in. [A studio executive] walked in my office, sat down, looked at me, and said, 'I want my money back.'"
He wasn't the only one. The Wonder Years' soundtrack precluded a home video release for years due to licensing costs, and its early appearances on streaming often featured replacements for key songs. A complete series DVD set finally arrived in 2014, after distributor Time Life reportedly spent a seven-figure sum to clear the original songs. Several still had to be left out, but that version of the series, with most of the original music cues intact, is now streaming on Hulu.
Brush, though, has never seen the show with any songs replaced: "It would make me very sad," he says. "[The music] was part of the dramatic texture of the show. You might as well have changed the entire scene."
Indeed, the songs on The Wonder Years were more than just period-specific ambience. "The Times They Are A-Changin'," for instance, accompanies the ending of a memorable episode in which Kevin's father (Dan Lauria) blows up at his daughter, Karen (Olivia d'Abo) for moving in with her boyfriend. The episode closes with Kevin's parents comforting each other to the tune of Bob Dylan's '60s anthem, which seems to express both that era's generational divide and the characters' sorrow at being unable to bridge it.
"I like to think that we were maybe the first [TV show] to do this, to use pop songs to really elucidate the characters," says Brush. "The music was another arsenal at our disposal, because we used it to tell the story, not just to decorate the story."
Accordingly, great effort was taken to select the right song for any given moment. "Ideas for the songs came from everybody. Almost anybody who knocked on my door and said, 'How about this song,' I would put it up and see if it worked," Brush recalls. "One of the great things about doing The Wonder Years was, I could rewrite all the narrations to find the story that we had shot, rather than the story that we had intended to shoot. And because of that, I could weave narration in and out of the songs, and really make the music part of the dramatic continuum of the show."
That focus on songs' dramatic potential also meant less fealty to strict period accuracy. One of the show's most memorable needle-drops wasn't released until 1978: Bob Seger's "We've Got Tonight." The ballad soundtracks a major milestone for Winnie and Kevin, as they mouth "I love you" to each other through Winnie's bedroom window.
"There was a joke in [using] 'When a Man Loves a Woman' in the pilot, and the joke was, 'These are just little kids,'" Brush says. "But as you went along, it became, really, a statement about the pain and the real emotion of that age. The thing about 'We've Got Tonight' is that, on one hand, it was an older guy singing it and it was about older people, but on the other hand, it so brought out what these characters were gonna be, and who they were, and all the stuff that was nascent in their being. At that moment, it really seemed like it was the time to say, this relationship, at least in Kevin's mind, is serious, and he at this moment is a serious guy, feeling this way. I think that's why it worked."
With a reboot on the way from ABC, it's clear that The Wonder Years continues to resonate with viewers (it's No. 14 on EW's list of the best teen TV shows ever). And as Brush sees it, the show's use of music is no small part of that.
"We tried to enfranchise the idea, which now seems more obvious, that kids grow up before they're 12 years old, and that this is an age when the heart is so vulnerable," he explains. "And that's what music does; music turns you into a 12-year-old. When you hear a great song, it peels away all of the tough stuff, and says to you, 'This is real emotion.' I think that's the reason that the music feels so personal [on The Wonder Years]. It really said, 'We're saying something important here about the most formative years of your life.'"
In other words, after all these years, you can still watch the show, and hear those songs, with wonder.
Read more from I Want My Teen TV, EW's summerlong celebration of teen shows past and present.