The songwriter and craftsman behind the WWE’s most enduring themes reflects on his tenure with the banner, his work with the wrestlers and time in the studio with Lemmy.
Words by Yvonne Villasenor
A single glass shatter. Ring of an ominous death bell. A degenerate voice asking, “Are you ready?”
For wrestling fans, these brief, albeit unforgettable sounds mark the beginning of some of the most adrenaline-pumping entrance songs of all time.
The mastermind behind these unrivaled themes?
None other than long-time composer Jim Johnston.
Johnston served as WWE’s composer, producer, and director of music for 32 years. A 13-time BMI Film & TV Award winner, Johnston is one of the most prolific composers in the music industry whom many still don’t know what he looks like, his story, nor his creative process behind creating thousands of pieces of music.
However, let it be known that every hardcore fan knows Johnston’s name and work. And even for those not familiar, it’s likely they recognize at least one theme he’s made.
After all, Johnston’s BMI catalog consists of over 10,000 pieces dating from Wrestlemania I to Baron Corbin’s “I Bring the Darkness (End of Days)” theme.
Through his entrance music, Johnston worked behind-the-scenes to help create an unforgettable sports-entertainment experience for millions of wrestling fans over the span of his career. His work is so beloved that he’s constantly referred to as the John Williams of professional wrestling. And every year, the wrestling community calls for his (rightfully earned) WWE Hall of Fame induction.
Growing up, Johnston took piano and trumpet lessons but gravitated toward playing guitar in part because of his love for The Beatles. He wanted to play everything — and the self-taught musician practically can nowadays with the exception of a few string instruments — but a guitar seemed like the most approachable possibility, he says.
“I started on guitar and then started learning other instruments from there because I could get my hands on them, basically,” Johnston says from his home studio.
Some of his favorite musicians include James Taylor, Sting, Joni Mitchell, Billy Joel, Jimi Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin.
When it comes to music, Johnston says the basis for what he cares about in music follows: Does it sound good? And does it make you feel something?
These two criteria are undoubtedly what contribute to his music being as timeless and definitive as it is.
The night before leaving for grad school to study architecture, Johnston opted for a career in music — a passion he certainly knew he wanted to pursue.
“I don’t think I ever had a specific plan. I think that’s because I was, fortunately, raised by a businessman father who I think instilled in me to be cautious about deciding what your future is,” Johnston says. “Because the more you do that, the more you’re going to cut off happy accidents.”
Whether you believe in fate, coincidences, or happy accidents, that’s exactly what would land Johnston a job with WWF.
“It was purely happenstance from going to a local sushi bar and meeting the art director [Brian Penry]. We had met earlier, and I had said, ‘I’m a composer.’ He needed help with something, and that’s how I met Vince [McMahon],” Johnston says. “It just quickly rattled away because [McMahon] had recently bought the company from his dad, so he was bound for the moon.”
When the opportunity with WWF came about, Johnston admits he wasn’t a wrestling fan. “I certainly knew of pro wrestling, but I wasn’t watching,” he says.
At the time, Johnston says McMahon couldn’t make changes fast enough, which made it an exciting time to be around. Upon first meeting the chairman and CEO, Johnston describes how the entire company was renting a few offices in a small corporate building.
“It wasn’t some expansive company. It was Vince’s office, Linda had the office over here, and then there’s the art department, which was two people over there,” Johnston says. “It was a small operation, and it just grew so rapidly.”
He continues, “There was no music. It’s almost hard to believe now that the business back then was no music, no big lights. It’s just an arena or gymnasium, and two guys walk down a ramp and kind of mix it up for a while and yell at each other. They’d leave, a little pause, then two more guys would come down the ramp. But it was popular.”
With JJ Maguire and Jimmy Hart also making music for the company at the time, Johnston says there was an immense amount of pressure with his job but clarifies it was “good pressure” because the environment was exciting.
Not only did Johnston compose countless walk-up songs and pay-per-view themes, but he often wrote, recorded, and mixed all at the same time.
“It was not all that unusual that there’d be a new character coming in or a character change, or two guys who were a tag team are now splitting up and they’re going to be individuals, so one guy is going to keep the original music and one guy needs new music,” Johnston says. “I might find out about that at 3 or 4 p.m. and have to come up with something [by 6 p.m.]. Now obviously, it’s not going to be a super polished, finished recording. You have to write something that works that gets them through that night’s show. So whether you want to or not, you learn to write fast.”
When making music for wrestlers’ entrance music, Johnston says he got “very little information.” If it was a new character making their debut, he explains he’d be lucky enough to get video footage from when they were in previous promotions.
“The biggest thing, I think for me, is seeing how [the wrestlers] walk,” Johnston says. “It’s not really their costume or how they speak in the ring. Everybody has a tempo, I discovered. Once you’re looking, it’s relatively easy to find. When you really see if there’s a mismatch with that person’s internal tempo and their theme music, you will see that the music is holding them back. It’s like you want to dance faster, but the tempo of the song is too slow, or if you want to dance slow and romantic, but you’re dying for the band to slow down.”
He continues, “For the wrestler to perform in an ideal fashion, when they come down, they can’t be hampered by music that’s holding them back or speeding them up.”
Johnston shares an example of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and his entrance music and the way he pivots, moves, and stops almost as if it’s a dance.
“After that it’s, ‘Is it a big guy or a little guy?’” Johnston says. “Generally, the big guys kind of will get a halftime version of that, and the small, wiry guys get quicker tempos.”
Then finally, Johnston also takes the wrestler’s appearance into account.
From there, he says he’ll sit and play until something seems like it fits and catches his ear, then pursues the sound.
Johnston fully understands the importance of entrance music and it being the first impression fans have of a professional wrestler. When someone’s music drops, the crowd will roar in either cheers or boos based on that person’s character. This symbiotic relationship between a performer and their music has the ability to amplify their star power.
When it comes to one of the most famous entrance songs, The Rock’s is undoubtedly among the top of the list.
Johnston says it was “very unusual” to have clips of the wrestler’s talking throughout their songs. But of course, it was a must for “The Great One.”
“I just felt that The Rock was — and is — such a great talker, and that how he talked and how he could talk shit to the other guys was really clever and really funny stuff. It was so part of his gimmick that I thought it just seemed natural that his voice is an incredible part of his persona and that we need to hear that like one more musical instrument that sort of underscores who his character is,” Johnston says. “I was sure that his opening, iconic saying was going to be, ‘You smell what The Rock is cooking?’ because that just lights up the crowd. I thought, ‘Okay, I’m using his V.O. Let’s keep it rolling. And I’ll just put in some little snippets along the way to remind everybody he’s still here.’”
Triple H arguably has had some of the best themes throughout his career. Johnston and musician Chris Warren, whose Zack de la Rocha-like vocals graced the DX theme, produced “My Time” in 1999.
After Triple H established himself as “The Game,” Johnston wrote him a new entrance theme in five minutes. This theme would be passed on to Triple H’s good friend, the legendary Lemmy Kilmister, to perform with Motörhead.
“I have to say that I went into the first time working with [Motörhead] with some trepidation, because, you know, everybody heard all the stories about Lemmy being pretty much a wild man and a really odd character,” Johnston says. “He couldn’t possibly have been more of a gentleman with me. He was just so kind, easy to work with … He was always respectful and cooperative and just a good guy and a good guy to hang around with. All the guys in the band were, all three of them.”
Johnston would later collaborate with Motörhead on Evolution’s “Line in the Sand” and Triple H’s “King of Kings.” He explains the process:
“For ‘King of Kings,’ I literally put a vocal on in my best Lemmy voice. It was embarrassing, but it gets the point across. When you’re demoing a song for a band, you try to do it kind of as close to how you really hear them doing it … If you do it for them and say, ‘Do this but in your great band style,’ it makes the whole process very straightforward.”
Randy Orton’s “Burn In My Light” theme by Mercy Drive was initially made for his babyface turn as the World Heavyweight Champion in 2004. As the years passed, the hungry and arrogant “Legend Killer” made the transition to the cold and unhinged “Viper.” This massive change in his character called for entrance music much more brooding and sinister.
At the time of Orton’s new gimmick, Johnston says he had difficulties coming up with music for him.
He explains, “I couldn’t find something that fit. A lot of the times when something doesn’t come easily, you write something and then you play some video of him coming down the ramp and see, ‘Does it connect? Or does it seem like somebody else’s theme is playing while he’s coming down?’”
Because Orton mostly let his actions do the talking in 2008, Johnston says he realized he had to do his part to create a backstory as to why this might be.
“I had this idea that the reason he seems so quiet is because he’s one of those guys that’s got all this crap happening inside his head. It’s very deep inside him. It just doesn’t happen to come out. So, I thought, ‘This guy hears voices,’” Johnston says. “Once you get there, it’s so great because then you have a map, and when you realize that and now look at the lyrics, they’re just a kind of prose way of saying exactly that, ‘I hear voices in my head.’”
Johnston says when he presented the song, he didn’t think WWE would go with it because of how dark it is. The song has been synonymous with Orton for 15 years.
The late ‘90s and early ‘00s were a special time for hard rock and metal. This high-energy, aggressive sound inevitably carried over into the WWE’s Attitude Era and Ruthless Aggression Era.
Bands including Motörhead, Drowning Pool, Limp Bizkit, P.O.D., and Saliva rocked the stage for WWE fans, whether it be for someone’s entrance music or a pay-per-view theme. This was also apparent in WWE’s Raw and Smackdown selection of themes performed by musicians including Marilyn Manson, The Union Underground, Drowning Pool, and Papa Roach.
The first Smackdown theme “Everybody on the Ground” hyped fans for their weekly tune-in on Thursdays. When making the song, Johnston was unable to find a vocalist, so he did it himself in what he says was his take on metal vocals and sang complete gibberish aside from the title of the theme.
“I didn’t find out until years later how those guys do that style because it sounds like they’re shouting, but they’re not,” Johnston says. “They take the microphone and literally put it inside their mouth. That’s why it sounds sort of muted and breathy, and it’s much more whispery … It’s distorting the diaphragm of the microphone because there’s so much breath hitting it and that’s what creates that sound.”
“But I was doing it screaming my brains out,” he says with a laugh. “Thank God I always kept the door locked or they would’ve put me away.”
Johnston says he’d be surprised if the theme took more than an hour and a half to make. “The more you get out of your way, they arrive faster,” he adds.
Fans will know the many pay-per-view songs were hard rock and metal, ranging from “Touché” by Godsmack and “Sold Me” by Seether to “Downfall” by TRUSTcompany and “Enemy” by Sevendust. (Search any one of these songs on YouTube, and you’re guaranteed to find a comment dropping the pay-per-view name and top feud.)
When asked about how musical decisions like these were made, Johnston says, “We did that quite a bit then because I had some friends at the labels, and they were realizing that WWE was its own format, like it was its own MTV, and then you could bring bands on this program. We did some deals with bands where the general deal was, ‘We’ll use one of your songs as a pay-per-view theme and you record one of our themes.’”
This would be the case for bands including Disturbed, Saliva, and P.O.D. and themes for Steve Austin, Batista and Chris Jericho, and Rey Mysterio, respectively.
Licensed themes, such as Rob Zombie’s “Never Gonna Stop (The Red Red Kroovy)” and Alter Bridge’s “Metalingus” for Edge, Limp Bizkit’s “Rollin’” and Kid Rock’s “American Badass” for The Undertaker, EndeverafteR’s “No More Words” for Jeff Hardy, and Powerman 5000’s “Bombshell” for the Dudley Boyz, were also used as a means to cross-promote.
“Some of it was business. We had a relationship with a label [who’d say], ‘Limp Bizkit is coming out with a new album. Can you help us promote the album?’ and it’s like, ‘If you do let us use this song for this purpose, they get airplay and we get the use of a great song,’” Johnston explains. “Only when people got really, really big did they have the leverage to ask for an outside song.”
Rock and wrestling go hand-in-hand, dating back to 1985 with the WWF debut album, The Wrestling Album. Although it was a fun, star-packed album produced by Rick Derringer, none of the songs received much radio play.
It’d take a decade before the first wrestling compilation album was released, starting with WWF Full Metal: The Album. The album featured themes for Shawn Michaels, Razor Ramon, and The Undertaker, to name a few.
Three years later, it was clear wrestling albums became increasingly popular with WWF The Music, Volume 3 charting at number ten on the US Billboard 200 and reaching platinum status. This kicked off what would be a string of success for the company’s following albums.
WWF The Music, Volume 4 was also certified platinum and charted at number four. The next album WWF The Music, Volume 5, which was heavy on hard rock and metal, charted at number 2 in 2001.
Johnston shares his thoughts on the massive feat:
“That was incredibly exciting because I was always aware of who was doing well on the Billboard. Volume 4, I think that was the first [album] that Vince let me put myself as the artist. Up to then, and I think after that as well, the artist was always ‘WWE.’ I had a good friend, who’s still at Interscope Records, named Steve Berman. When the Billboard list came out, and I was number two for Volume 5, it was ‘Jim Johnston.’ He calls me up, and he goes, ‘You know, everyone in the music industry is asking themselves a question this morning, ‘Who the fuck is Jim Johnston, and why is he number two on the Billboard list? I have never heard of him.’
That gets back to the whole weirdness of this skeptical attitude towards pro wrestling. And even though I have this incredible fan base who’s loving the music and saying, ‘You’re my favorite composer,’ there’s basically no recognition from the music industry. If I was in any business other than pro wrestling doing this, I would have been invited to every cocktail party in New York and Los Angeles that ever happened. But with pro wrestling, you’re just an outlier. So, he was joking, but basically, it was completely true as well because people were expecting to see The Beatles up there, and it’s like, ‘Who’s Jim Johnston?’”
He continues, “The entertainment industry is tough. If you want to be in it, you have to leave your ego at the door because it’s gonna get stepped on one way or another … Then on the other side of it is when you say, ‘Wait a second. Do I really want to go to those cocktail parties?’”
Johnston later made WWE Originals featuring John Cena, Chris Jericho, Lita, Eddie and Chavo Guerrero, Rey Mysterio, Kurt Angle, and more. The CD and DVD featured segments with himself and Austin.
“[Austin’s] just such a funny guy. I could never be an actor, but it’s so funny to be in that situation where he’s so good at it. There were a lot of times where I thought like, ‘Is he going to actually hit me? Or is he going to take my guitar and smash it over my head? How in character are we exactly?’” Johnston recalls with a laugh. “There were a lot of times where he was like, ‘Drink the beer, drink the beer.’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t want to drink the beer.’ So, I’m trying to go along with it, and I’m thinking, ‘What if he might make me drink the beer? Literally.’ He’s so funny and just such a good guy.”
Johnston worked on numerous wrestling compilation albums throughout the years; the final releases being the WWE: Uncaged series featuring unreleased entrance theme songs.
After spending over three decades in the WWE, Johnston’s time with the company ended in 2017, marking the end of an era where theme songs were made with the utmost attention to detail and consideration for the talent and their story.
“People think it’s easy, for some reason, to write entrance themes. It’s like, ‘It’s wrestling. What the hell? I mean, write some music for the guy. It’s no big deal.’ They don’t get that it’s like scoring a movie. It’s not like you just come out with an okay groove, put a guitar on it, and you’re done … It has to be a sound that makes sense and has something to do with the story, character, and person.”
Since his departure from WWE, Johnston has continued to create compositions and revel in his innate curiosity for doing “a little bit of everything.” From writing songs for existing performers to orchestral bass music, Johnston leaves no stone unturned when it comes to his work. Although, he says he loves movie scores more than anything “because the power of music to visuals is such an incredibly powerful medium.”
After composing thousands of themes in his career, he’s been asked to write a few more. However, he can’t disclose for whom.
“I used to think about themes all the time because that’s just the world that I was in,” Johnston says. “So, you might sit down at the piano and play just to play and go, ‘Oh, that would be a good theme.’”
At this point in his career, Johnston says he’s most keen on writing a score to a dark drama, finding singers to collaborate with, and writing material for a rock band.
For a man whose life revolved around making music and meeting deadlines nonstop for over 30 years, it comes as no surprise that, to this day, Johnston is constantly coming up with ideas. He saves each one onto his phone and generates about 150 ideas every two to three weeks before having to save them onto a hard drive or clear them out.
“I think you have to take those magical little moments and take a second to pursue it right then and there if you can. Just write a few sentences. I think there’s so much mystical stuff that happens in the creative process that we don’t know. Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot better where I’ll just sit down, and I’ll have an idea that immediately if I’m going somewhere, I’ll turn on my phone to save the idea, but also to not pre-decide, ‘Oh, that’s a good idea, and that will be a rock song.’ It’s like, I don’t know what it is yet. Maybe it’s a classical choir piece. I don’t know yet. But you have to give yourself almost permission, I guess, to have it be something that you weren’t expecting it to be.”
If you’d like to contact Jim Johnston about composing a song or film score, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org