Once in awhile the Internet lets you know that you’re not alone in your strange obsessions. With me, it was the brief logos and music cues that often appeared after TV shows in the 1970s and 1980s. There was something vaguely faceless and sinister about them, as if “Devo Corporate Anthem” was a cover of a real song. I remember being somewhat spooked by the PBS logo after Sesame Street, with the descending synth that suddenly burst out of the television. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they scared me – not like, say, the Beatles’ “Revolution 9,” which we’ve discussed before – but I found them weird.
I didn’t realize that other people shared this sentiment until today. I was listening to The Fogelnest Files podcast while racking up some overtime at work. Today’s episode – number 20 – featured a whole segment dedicated to what they called “scary logos.” They played this YouTube montage, and it’s a nightmarish parade of bold graphics, monolithic corporate logos that people have actually nicknamed (Viacom is “the V of doom;” Screen Gems is “the s from hell”), synthesized jingles, urgent drumbeats and trumpet flares. It all makes sense when you see them one at a time.
It turns out that this is a full-fledged meme. There are wiki sites dedicated to these odd, haunting pieces. There is an actual movie, The S From Hell, making its way through the film festival circuit; its website comes complete with a detailed list of links. I had no idea. All these years I thought I was suffering alone!
Though it may be rubbing salt in open wounds, I’d like to suggest a few logos and identifiers that impacted me. Here are five that come to mind.
1) Television closeouts in general. In the days before 24-hour cable and infomercials, television stations actually used to sign off the air at night. This would usually consist of a short opinion piece, perhaps a prayer or spiritual message, and then a disembodied announcer’s voice reciting FCC-mandated legalese and wishing us good night. Often this would be followed by “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and then, suddenly, a test pattern. At least with the Screen Gems logo you knew another program was coming; a station signing off could seem like a terrifying trip into oblivion. Here’s WNBC-TV, 1980. Here’s WNEW-TV, also 1980. Morning sign-ons could also be scary, as evidenced by this clip of WOR-TV.
2) The General Cinema movie theme. There have been several versions of this, each becoming more jazzy and cartoonish as they progressed. This early one, however, features a drumbeat with guitar parts edited in abruptly and randomly. As this score plays out, an odd-looking projector, only vaguely resembling the General Cinema Corp.’s initials, spews out dots and words. Finally the drums alone pound, and everything stops.
3) The Golden Harvest movie theme. Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest studio was one of the top producers of kung fu films in the 1970s (along with Shaw Brothers, whose own theme was more campy than creepy). Begins with four ominous drumbeats, then a horn fanfare, and then – completely unexpected – a couple of Mellotrons slowly sliding up an octave. It reminds me of the scarier moments of the White Album, especially the ending of “Long Long Long.”
4) The Associated Artists Productions (a.a.p.) logo. For awhile, they distributed the Warner Bros. and Popeye cartoons for television. Rather than the usual Warner Bros. shield, these shorts would begin with the a.a.p. logo on a plain blue background. It would then fade back, and images of Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, and (on top) the apparently severed heads of Porky Pig and Daffy Duck. Disconcerting enough, but at least they didn’t broadcast this truly terrifying atomic trailer for most of their properties.
5) The beginning of Davey and Goliath. NYC television used to broadcast this show super-early, around 6:30 or so, on weekend mornings. We were a Jewish family – not that observant, but I did go to Hebrew school. Now imagine waking up, turning on the television, and seeing four Claymation trumpeters in front of a huge, blood-red Christian cross shield. Scary stuff if you’re a kid. A production of Art Clokey, whose Gumby intro was almost as strange: beginning with an ominous harp, then switching to a cheerful song.