The Amazing Story Behind “I’ll Be There For You,” According To The Rembrandts
The Rembrandts’ “I’ll Be There for You” is easily one of the most popular television theme songs of all time. But there’s more to the song that introduced audiences to a sixsome of New York City twentysomething Friends — Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), Ross (David Schwimmer), Monica (Courteney Cox), Chandler (Matthew Perry), Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow), and Joey (Matt LeBlanc) — than its catchy lyrics, upbeat tune, and accompanying clapping. BuzzFeed News recently sat down with the men behind The Rembrandts — Danny Wilde and Phil Solem — on Friends’ iconic orange couch at the Central Perk pop-up shop in New York City to find out how “I’ll Be There For You” came to be.
Friends executive producer Kevin S. Bright, who formed Bright/Kauffman/Crane Productions in 1993 with Marta Kauffman and David Crane, was looking to do something a bit different with the Friends theme song. He was in the market for a melody similar to that of R.E.M.’s 1987 hit “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” which is the song that accompanied the Friends pilot when Bright first sent it to Wilde and Solem. “I think they thought it felt, tempo-wise, that was where they wanted to go,” Wilde said. “Kevin had it in his head that he didn’t want to have a jingle writer write the theme song for the show. He was a fan of The Rembrandts from other records that we had made, so he called our manager. Our manager called us on Monday and we said, ‘Sure, we’ll try it out. We’ll see what happens.’”
As the bandmates recalled, that following Thursday in mid-September 1994, they sat down with Michael Skloff, the Friends theme song composer and also Kaufman’s husband, and Allee Willis, the brains behind the lyrics. “Michael Skloff was the only guy who was responsible for the music and the vibe of the show. He had an idea for how the song ought to go, so we got together and we pitched some ideas,” Solem said. “We Rembrandt-ified it. We were like, ‘If it’s gonna be us, it’s gotta be this.’ ‘We wouldn’t say that, we’d say this.’”
Two days later, on Saturday, Sept. 17, they went into the studio to cut the record. “That’s where we hashed out the idea and made sure all the parts work,” Solem said. “Allee was sending faxes with the lyrics on them, like, ‘Here’s a new line!’ ‘Try this one!’ ‘How about this?’ At the end of the day, we had a rough version.” But the band went back into the studio the following to re-record some vocals since it had gotten late and admittedly, Wilde added with a smile, they’d “maybe had a couple of beers that day.” “So, it was over the course of three days that we were actually working on it,” Solem said. “And then, what seemed like five seconds later, it was on TV.”
But not before some finishing touches were added. “We thought we were all done, and then, we went in to hear the final mix and the clapping was in there,” Solem said. “I was like, Who thought of that? That’s like the best part!” Wilde said the show’s executive producers wanted to make a contribution to the clapping portion of the song as well. “Kevin Bright, Marta Kauffman, and David Crane wanted to be part of the record so they wanted to try the clapping part,” he said, before pausing and putting his face in his hands. “Oh my god. All they had to do was go (clap, clap, clap, clap). And it was like, ‘Take 25!’”
And, you’ll note, Wilde clapped four, not five times when he recounted that story. He was happy to clarify that it is indeed four claps, not five in the song, which even confuses some of the cast members. “I watched that Jimmy Kimmel thing a couple weeks ago and Courteney, when it came to that part, she goes (clap, clap, clap, clap, clap),” Solem said. “She did it five times. I was like, Court. FOUR!”
Friends was worthy of some applause when it made its debut on Sept. 22, 1994. The pilot came in as the 15th-most-watched television show of the week, scoring a 14.7 Nielsen rating and bringing in 21.5 million viewers, which only CBS’s The Big Bang Theory comes close to sitcom-wise these days. “It was pretty cool,” Wilde said of hearing the song they’d recorded less than a week earlier on air for the first time. “That was back in the day when the theme song was almost 50 seconds. It was great.”
But that wasn’t the end of the journey for “I’ll Be There for You.” Charlie Quinn, the program director at Nashville radio station Y107, looped the original 45-second version of the song a few times, turning it into a three-minute pop song. “It got a crazy amount of requests. The phone lines started blowing up and all the sister stations started playing it and it went national,” Wilde said. “Our record at the time, L.P., was already finished and advance copies had already shipped to radio. But the record company [East West Records] said, ‘Hold the press! Wait a second! We’ve got this crazy runaway hit!’ So then we went in and recorded the full version and scrapped all the other cassettes, CDs, and vinyl and added it to the record.”
Solem and Wilde thought they’d be able to write the full-length version of the song themselves, but the brains behind Friends were still very much involved. “Here’s what was really crazy: At that point, the producers got in on the writing. So we all just sat around, tossing ideas around,” Solem said. “There was a lot of interaction. It was, like, seven people!”
“There was a version that we did with a different second verse and a completely different bridge,” he continued. “We tried to make it more like what the rest of the songs on our album were and they didn’t like it because it kind of went a little dark. It never got put out, but there’s some secret copy floating around.”
Despite the creative struggles behind “I’ll Be There for You,” Wilde and Solem reached out to thank Quinn for the song that became a blessing in disguise for The Rembrandts. “To think that he actually just looped the song three or four times and it became what it is is pretty funny,” Solem said with a smile. “You have to put a lot of time behind you to realize what a really great thing it was,” Wilde added.
“We didn’t know that it was a good thing at the time because we were too close to our album,” Solem said of L.P.. “It just came out. It was our baby. And then, someone is saying, ‘Your baby really should wear this hat.’ ‘No, that’s not the baby’s hat!’” “It didn’t really fit,” Wilde added. “But it helped sell that record!”
As did a music video that The Rembrandts and cast filmed in 1995. “It kept getting postponed and postponed and postponed because the cast members couldn’t all get together,” Wilde remembered of the video that took three days to shoot on Saturday Night Live’s Rockefeller Center stage, which was covered in a white background.
Originally, the video was highly scripted. “There was a scene that the director had specifically written where the cast was going to be trying to get into one of our shows, as if they would do that,” Solem joked self-deprecatingly. “They were going to get into one of our shows and apparently, they were going to bring this frozen fish and use it to, like, knock us out.”
But, when Solem and Wilde met with the Friends cast in New York in Aniston’s hotel room shortly before production on the video was set to begin, they “didn’t like that idea.” “We sat around a table and talked about it. And the cast was like, ‘I don’t think we should do what this says to do.’ Then everyone just started pitching ideas for that,” Solem said. “The fish thing was what set it off. They were like, ‘We could never hit anyone with a fish.’” Wilde added, “Everything just went out the window.”
Though there is no frozen fish in the final cut of the music video, what’s certainly visible is the rapport amongst the cast, something both Solem and Wilde have fond memories of, and a lot of ’90s sunglasses and faux instrument-playing. The Rembrandts didn’t give any of the Friends stars tutorials on how to fake their musical skills, but they said Cox took her time behind the drum kit very seriously. “She was talking about her drum prowess and the drummer who we had for that wasn’t even our drummer. He was just hired for that shoot and he was trying to give her some lessons, but she was like, ‘Pfft. I can do this.’ She got all mad at him,” Solem said with a laugh.
Two decades after that fateful week in the studio, Solem and Wilde sang “I’ll Be There for You” at Warner Bros.’ Central Perk pop-up shop and had James Michael Tyler, who played Gunther, the fictional Friends coffee shop manager, join them on vocals. And though they don’t mind singing the song these days, The Rembrandts have new music their focusing on: Their first full-length record in about 10 years Via Satellite is coming out soon. But Friends will always be with them.
“I’ve run into the cast members before at parties in L.A.,” Solem said.
“Yeah, Phil walks by and he goes (clap, clap, clap, clap),” Wilde joked with a grin.