If you want to jump straight to our NFL Films playlist, go ahead.
Football Is Back
Most major collegiate football powers played their first game of the season this past weekend. The NFL kicks off in a couple of days and a full slate of games on the weekend. Every team starts with an 0-0 record and hope is in the air. Football is Back!
For lots of American sports fans at this time of year, the air smells a little sweeter. Food tastes a little better. There's a swing in one's step and each week has more of a structure with one game day and six days off.
Part of the allure of NFL football over the past 50 years has been the mythology created by the league's partnership with NFL Films. For those of you who aren't overly familiar with their work, they are the production company who've forever made those dramatic slow motion highlight movies with dramatic music and gravel-voiced announcers.
Facenda & Spence: Sam Spence
Although NFL Films was created by Ed Sabol and operated by his son Steve Sabol ever since, there are two other names who hardcore sports fans think of as synonymous with NFL Films: John Facenda and Sam Spence.
Spence was a composer who did an awful lot of the iconic music of NFL Films. We'll get into his work extensively below. Just realize what an incredible (and highly-budgeted) endeavor their music was - full orchestras for most pieces, often with new ones each week of the 14-week season.
This is gonna seem like a joke but I mean it: Sam Spence was one of the 5 most important composers of the 20th century. Yes, he’s behind Gershwin and Ravel, about equal with John Williams and maybe Philip Glass for importance. But whose music do you think has been heard more: Igor Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein or Sam Spence?
Facenda & Spence: John Facenda
Even more of a household name among dedicated NFL Films fans is John Facenda, who was their announcer for 20 years, 1965-1984. His voice brought gravitas to anything. If John Facenda recorded your grocery list it would sound like the St. Crispin's Day speech from Henry V. He earned the nickname, "The Voice of God."
I'm going to list some choice voice-over quotes from Facenda and Sabol. This are going to seem ridiculous but sometimes when you hear them in the right moment, and with the right music, they can give goosebumps:
* "Through the chill of December the early winter moans ï¿½" but it’s that January wind that rattles old bones."
* "The Chargers offense flew on the wings of Mercury, but their defense struck with the hammer of Thor."
* "It starts with a whistle and ends with a gun."
Similar to a great head coach and quarterback tandem, it's impossible to separate the talents of copywriter Steve Sabol and announcer John Facenda. Like Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, one would not have the same success without the other.
The raison d' etre of this whole post is to give you a great playlist of music to give you that NFL Films experience. At the risk of patting myself on the back too hard, I think I've done it.
32 songs for 32 NFL teams. Sam Spence music occupies 18 of the 32 slots, a tribute to his longevity, quality and how many pieces he created week in and week out. Some other names here like Syd Dale and Keith Mansfield bring a little more swing to the occasion. While David Robidoux is the NFL Films go-to composer over the past 15 years or so; a little more serious but you'll hear it every time you watch the NFL Network.
Songs written by Sam Spence (unless otherwise noted). * denotes not available in Spotify list. 1 - Round Up *
It's a shame that Round Up isn't available on Spotify. Just listen to that one - it's got everything we're looking for in NFL Films music. 2 - The Raiders
The narration of "The Autumn Wind" paired with this music over shots of Gene Upshaw blocking and John Madden cheering is some of the best marriage of sound and film in the 20th century. 3 - Ramblin' Man From Gramblin'
Doug Williams IS the rambling man from Grambling. The NFL Films music that I love is often this kind of swing instead of the bombastic stuff. 4 - Gathering Crowds (John Scott)
On YouTube you’ll see this as the music for the Steel Curtain shellacking of the Vikings in the 70s. But I swear this used to be the music for NBC’s SportsWorld, their 80’s Wide World of Sports knockoff. It was definitely one of the This Week In Baseball themes. 5 - Action in Memphis (Johnny Pearson)
Johnny Pearson was a brit who composed a lot of film and tv music. He’s also the genius who wrote "Heavy Action", the classic 70s Monday Night Football theme music. (More on that in next week’s companion post on sports show opening music.) 6 - Funky Fanfare (Keith Mansfield)
Keith Mansfield has made some great sports theme music. But you might also recognize this as "Our Feature Attaction" is about to start music in old movie theaters, in Tarantino’s "Death Proof" or on The Sklar Brothers podcast. 7 - Forearm Shiver
Great horn section. I can’t remember which NFL Films it was used in, but it feels like the soundtrack of a bunch of brutal Dick Butkus late hits. 8 - The Game Plan For Sudden Death
Can anybody corroborate if this was the music for the legendary 1977 AFC Championship when the Colts couldn’t stop the Raiders and slow-as-fuck Dave Casper (the "ghost to the post") 9 - Jet Set (Mike Vickers)
Just like with Gathering Crowds above, this was also a TWIB (This Week In Baseball) theme. With "Jets" in the title, I should picture Richard Todd throwing out and up to Al Toon or Wesley Welker but I’m actually envisioning Marv Albert introduce a James Scott light heavyweight fight from Rahweh State Prison on NBC’s SportsWorld. 10 - Classic Battle
Another iconic NFL Films opus. Seems older, circa 1968 so I picture the Packers or Colts putting together a 4th quarter drive here. 11 - Hero In Waiting (David Robidoux)
David Robidoux because the heir apparent to Sam Spence for NFL music. His stuff is definitely a bit more grandiose. But this one many colors to it the further you go. 12 - The Pony Soldiers *
The mysterious flute and harpischord could put you in the mind of The Magnificent Seven but you’re more likely to picture Larry Csonka fighting his way through a Bob Kuechenberg / Larry Little blocking hole. 13 - Over The Hill Gang
This is noted as Super Bowl V highlights music so I’m picturing Bob Hayes on the galloping part of the song, and Bob Lilly laying people out on the rougher stuff. 14 - Brass In Action (Keith Mansfield)
I seem to remember by the early 1980s they were relying more on other composers, around the same time that Philly announcer Harry Calas took up weekly highlight duties post-Facenda. With the Philadelphia connection in mind, I’m picturing a lot of Harold Carmichael sideline routes here. 15 - The Hell Raisers (Syd Dale)
Now we’re back to swingin’ music with cowbell, horns and lots of hard-hitting linebackers and mud fields. 16 - Sunday With Soul
There is so fucking much going on in this song: Spastic bongos, faux James Bond horns and piano, then an insane B part with nutty organ over tympani drums. I’m sorry. I have this too low on this list. 17 - A Chilling Championship
The opening horns sound like the opening horns from the movie Patton. If you don’t picture the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field hearing this, then you’re not a football fan. It seems wrong to listen to this without John Facenda saying something about warriors of the gridiron. 18 - Headcracker Suite
Sam Spence getting more modern here with guitars. A little bit of a bold "homage" to Mason Williams’ "Classical Gas" in the middle, but the guy had to make great music for 20 weeks of football highlights. 19 - Artful Dodger (Syd Dale)
If this hasn’t taught you to respect the hell out of Syd Dale by now, I don’t know when you’ll learn. Was this used over footage of Fran Tarkenton scrambling backwards 35 years before hitting a receiver for a TD? 20 - March To The Trenches
Another one that should give you football chills. I think this was used on the Chunky Soup commercials with Donovan McNabb’s mom in an NFL Films homage. 21 - Tijuana Trip
Eat your heart out, Herb Alpert. This should be the theme song to Tijuana. Or for Mel Blount tipping an interception to himself. 22 - Lombardi Trophy History (David Rabidoux)
This has become the signature music for newer NFL Films. It’s what you hear on a loop if your Sunday Ticket game channel stays on too long. And it’s the kind of highlight music in the modern, glossier video era of NFL Films, like a David Tyree catch. 23 - Duel In The Dust
More of that swinging 1960s heist music, where the Sabols set this to game film of pychos like Bronco Nagurski taclking people to death. 24 - Running to Time (Syd Dale)
Just great film music. You could equally picture Lynn Swann making a diving Super Bowl catch to this as you could picture an epic car chase on Mannix. 25 - Sideline to Sideline
High octane full orchestra music. The alternate title is "Gotcha" and is the Maynard Ferguson track he never made. It’s part of the Super Bowl VII highlight package, so you’re gonna get a lot of Jake Scott slo mo and the undefeated Dolphins blanking the Redskins offense and maybe even Garo Yepremian’s infamous worst play of all time. 26 - Hit and Run (Ralph Dollimore)
It’s a thin line between spy show music and 70s football soundtracks. It was a golden age to be a trombone studio musician. I would say you can picture Roger Staubach running for 12 yards to this but Roger wasn’t cool enough for this music. 27 - Documentary Department (Keith Mansfield)
Mansfield is perhaps second to Sam Spence as an NFL Films music all star. He had memorable sports show themes in England as well. 28 - Worldwide March
You might not feel like listening to this one at the gym or away from football footage. But it’s got Chuck Noll’s Pittsburgh Steelers all over it. 29 - Power Montage (Keith Mansfield)
This one has a bunch of themes and movements to it. Always funky and alternatively majestic and foreboding. You might want to consider this one on your gym playlist. 30 - The Bomb Squad
There is no way in hell I can picture anything but Darryl Lamonica dropping back and hitting Cliff Branch in slow motion with this one. I will not even listen to a counter-argument on this. 31 - Today We Make History (David Rabidoux)
Another Rabidoux grand theme that’s a staple of the modern NFL Films music library. It’s not fair for me to criticize its lack of funk or flair, that’s not what Rabidoux does. Still perfect for the right football film. 32 - Salute To Courage
Here’s another one where I hear Harry Calas. I miss that sweet, kind-of-slurring bastard taking his sweet time with the weekly highlights. The strings-heavy bridge in hear is great champagne-pouring locker-room-celebration music.
Extra For Experts
This got my sports watching juices flowing too much. Here are a few more NFL music highlights in bullet point form.
* Super Bowl Shuffle YouTube I still have designs on recording a rock version of this in the studio, except my Bears fan father would roll over in his grave.
* Pro Bowl Shuffle Metatube One of the best things on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show.
* Wiz Khalifa - Black and Yellow YouTube The original. Let to so many hip-hop knockoffs, although I do think Lil Wayne’s "Green And Yellow" might be superior.
* Broadway Joe - YouTube There have been a lot of novelty songs. But in the 50+ years since, there may never have been a cooler sports figure than 60’s Joe Namath in NYC.
* Touchdown Music For Each Team YouTube Worth a deep dive. Special props to the Dolphins.
* Rudy soundtrack YouTube This music just sounds like football to me. If you never have gotten a little choked up watching Rudy, then you’re made of wood. Although, don’t get me started on Brian’s Song.
Top 10 Team Fight Songs / Chants
1. Who Dat Sey Dey Gonna Beat Dem Saints - YouTube Leave it to New Orleans the best music city in America to come up with the best football cheer
2. Houston Oilers #1 - YouTube It’s the same as the Miami Dolphins fight song but when you’ve seen Bum Phillips and Earl Campbell sing it, they own it
3. Steelers Fight Song - YouTube Is just "The Pennsylvania Polka" with different lyrics. Has the iconic "The Steelers are so great and they play the best of all" and they mention both Gerela's Gorillas and Franco's Italian Army.
4. J-E-T-S Jets, Jets, Jets - YouTube It's just a cheer instead of a song, but wow. Best thing the franchise has had going for them for a decade.
5. Buffalo's Going To The Super Bowl - YouTube I heard this first via NFL Films when I was about 8 and have never gotten the melody totally out of my head
6. San Diego Super Chargers - YouTube The worst thing about the Chargers moving to L.A. is losing this song
7. Bengals Growl - YouTube Killer tuba and this lyric: "An offensive brute - run, pass or boot"
8. Hey, Hey, Tampa Bay - YouTube Every bit as disco era as the Chargers song with the little laser sounds
9. Hail To The Redskins - YouTube Would be higher on the list if if it wasn’t so damn, you know, racist
10. Go, Pack, Go! - YouTube The poor man's J-E-T-S chant, but when horns get involved it's pretty good.