As Coronation Street turns 60 and passes 10,100 episodes, Eric Spear’s pining and plaintive theme tune has been – apart from Ken Barlow – the only constant in the show, appearing four times per episode (intro, outro and buffering the ad break). The characters come and go, the original set has been moved, and production has been repeatedly hampered by coronavirus – high-budget “Hollywood spectacular elements” for the 60th anniversary had to be cancelled. But the tune remains: 22 seconds that strove to distil a mythical sense of the north, written by a man from Croydon a fortnight before its first broadcast, and now the most played piece of music on British TV.
Speaking in 1965, the year before he died, Spear said he was called at home in Guernsey and invited to Manchester to see test footage of a new working-class drama that Granada was developing and which needed title music. “I was briefed very beautifully on this,” he said. “They wanted something melodic, but not too much so. They wanted something rhythmic, but it mustn’t be jazz. They wanted something exciting, but it mustn’t be too thrilling.”
After lunch, they all stepped outside into a Mancunian street akin to the one the show was based around. It was raining but, remembers Spear, “suddenly the sun broke through the clouds”. The director, now alive to the possibilities, declared he wanted the theme to convey precisely that. That sense of golden hope piercing darkness is there in Spear’s composition: mournful cornet notes sailing over a light shuffle, originally with trumpet, clarinet, muted trombones, drums played with brushes, stand-up bass and acoustic guitar.
In his book 50 Years of Coronation Street: The (Very) Unofficial Story, Sean Egan claims that Spear’s tune was almost rejected. “It now seems barely conceivable,” he writes, “but The Street’s producers did not immediately fall in love with Spear’s theme.” They considered replacing it with a commercially released track by the CWS (Manchester) Band, but because they had already paid Spear (it was claimed he got just £6 for his efforts), they went with his version.
“It’s very simply structured and it’s very easy on the ear,” says Mike Cotter of the tune. Cotter has long played the kind of brass band music used in the Corrie theme. He started playing cornet in 1948 and eventually became musical director at Darwen Brass in Lancashire, before retiring. “It has a cornet solo in it which, in itself, is northern, as we don’t do trumpets in brass bands.”
Coronation Street producer Iain MacLeod celebrates the show as “the first time, really, in a big meaningful way, that the lives of working-class northerners in all their minutiae were depicted on television, which was quite groundbreaking”. He says it is difficult to tinker with the theme as the audience, so cushioned by the warmth of its familiarity, make their disapproval known. The original recording lasted until early 1970 when it was replaced by a slightly slower version, re-recorded again in 2010 – MacLeod says the 2010 re-recording was actually “a subtle shift back towards the heritage version” but this “caused absolute uproar” among viewers.
That is because this timeless music simply cannot date. In 1960, the theme was already deeply nostalgic for a rhapsodised past, stretching back to the early 1900s as the sun set on Victorian industrialisation. As MacLeod says, “it already existed out of its time from the moment it was first broadcast”.
When editing the show, he insists on having the theme play into the first scene to get him in the same frame of mind as the typical viewer, adding that the music is so powerfully evocative that it could be regarded as an early form of sonic branding, the type of thing where “Nokia or Mattel spend millions of pounds paying somebody to come up with a little three- or four-note trill”.
Its stark modesty is its real magic, suggests Cotter. “We were always taught to keep it simple,” he says of his decades both playing in and conducting Lancashire brass bands. “It’s iconic. Get rid of that and you’ve got rid of the show.”
There have been contortions, though. In 1962 Pat Phoenix, who played Elsie Tanner in the show, released her single The Rovers Chorus, and on the B-side sat Coronation Street Monologue where, over Spear’s music, she saturninely intoned about “rain and more rain, wet rooftops, houses huddled together under a yellow blanket of smoke” and got a co-writing credit for her work. There was a tremendous reggae reworking in 1983 by the I-Royals (with, naturally, a dub version on the B-side). Less brilliantly, someone called DJ Eugene McCauley did a hard dance remix in 2020 that also samples UTV continuity announcer Julian Simmons. It is, frankly, execrable.
MacLeod cautions it should never be modernised in a doomed attempt to draw in a younger audience. He compares it to looking at the Mona Lisa and believing it is lacking “a bit of eyeliner and lippy” – it simply works too well to ever change it. “It’s not my job,” he says, “to mess around with a masterpiece.”