The Number Ones

November 9, 1985

The Number Ones: Jan Hammer’s “Miami Vice Theme”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.


Before any images hit the screen, the mechanized snares ring out, rat-tat-tat, like machine gun fire. Then the camera spins around, and we’re blasted by sun as it comes glaring down through palm-tree fronds. Flamingos stampede down a hill, then we’re in a helicopter as it speeds above churning surf. Then, finally, the words come up onscreen: “Miami” in neon green, “Vice” in neon pink. The logo looks like it’s advertising a revolutionary new hair-care product. All around it, there’s a pulsating, radioactive pink glow. That 10-second burst of imagery is enough to evoke a time, a place, a setting, a feeling, a specific grade of cocaine. It’s the most ’80s shit that ever happened.

Virtually everything else in the Miami Vice intro screams that same time and place — the bikinis, the speedboats, the spiral sculpture, the grilles of expensive cars. It’s a bracing burst of supremely mid-’80s glamor. The music matches the images: Drum-machine thunder, staccato Fairlight bloops, screaming electric-guitar wheedles. Together, it feels overwhelming, disorienting, almost assaultive. It yanks you right out of whatever stupor you’re in and throws you headlong into a place that’s full of sex and money and things that go fast.

There’s a legend that Miami Vice began when NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff wrote a two-word phrase down on a slip of paper: “MTV cops.” Michael Mann, the executive producer and showrunner of Miami Vice, has disputed that story, but “MTV cops” is still pretty much the aesthetic of the show. Mann, who’d already directed the movies Thief and The Keep, made sure to keep everything on the show as bright and artificial as possible. He dictated that earth tones should almost never appear, and he made Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, his two lead detectives, look like pop stars, dressing them in Ray-Bans and Armani jackets and throwing them in Ferraris that no cop could afford.

Music was a huge part of the show. In the oral history I Want My MTV, Mann says that he was watching a lot of MTV at the time and that “MTV influenced editing — now, we were cutting picture to music… You didn’t need to bring an audience through so much clunky, conventional exposition of the story. That kind of stuff was obsolete.” In a famous scene from the 1984 Miami Vice pilot, Johnson and Thomas’ Crocket and Tubbs drive through Miami at night. Everything syncs up with Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight,” and the feeling of anticipation gives the scene a dreamlike quality. (“In The Air Tonight” peaked at #19.)

By the time Miami Vice began its second season in 1985, it was one of the top 10 shows in America. A month after the season-two premiere, MCA released the first Miami Vice soundtrack album, and it knocked Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms out of the #1 spot on the album chart, then held down that spot for 11 weeks. That soundtrack album went on to sell four million copies. Glenn Frey, the former Eagle who’d guest-starred in a season-one episode, got to #2 with “You Belong To The City,” a song that he’d written specifically for Miami Vice. (“You Belong To The City” is a 4.) “Smuggler’s Blues,” another Frey single from the soundtrack, peaked at #12. But against odds, the biggest hit from the soundtrack turned out to be the theme song — a jittery, shiny minute-long instrumental from a Czechoslovakian-born jazz-rocker who’d never made a hit before.

Jan Hammer was near 40 when he hit #1, and he was probably the baldest man on MTV at the time. Hammer came from Prague, and both of his parents were musicians. His father was a doctor who’d played in clubs during his time in medical school, and his mother was one of the best-known singers on the the Czech jazz scene. Hammer, who’d played jazz all through high school, left Prague in 1968, when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia. He got a scholarship to the Berklee School Of Music. Later on, Hammer became a US citizen.

For a few years, Hammer toured as a sideman for the jazz-pop singer Sarah Vaughan. (In the Hot 100 era, Vaughan’s highest-charting single is 1959’s “Broken Hearted Melody,” which peaked at #7. It’s a 6.) Then, in 1971, the former Miles Davis sideman John McLaughlin recruited Hammer to join the first lineup of Mahavishnu Orchestra, one of the original jazz fusion groups. Mahavishnu Orchestra broke up in 1973, and Hammer went on to make ’70s and early-’80s records with people like Jeff Beck and Journey’s Neal Schon. (As a solo artist, Jeff Beck’s highest-charting single is “People Get Ready,” the cover of the Impressions classic that he and Rod Stewart released in 1985. It peaked at #48. Journey’s highest-charting single, 1982’s “Open Arms,” peaked at #2. It’s a 7. As a member of Bad English, Schon will eventually appear in this column.)

Hammer joined the film-score world in 1983, when he did the music for the male-stripper bomb A Night In Heaven — the movie that would also give us Bryan Adams’ “Heaven,” another 1985 chart-topper. Soon after, Hammer met Michael Mann through a friend and heard a quick description of the new TV show that Mann was working on. Hammer played Mann a piece of music that he thought would fit the show, and that piece of music became the Miami Vice theme. Hammer understood the whole feel of Miami Vice perfectly, and he went on to score most of the show’s five-season run.

On that Miami Vice soundtrack, Hammer fleshes his minute-long theme music out to a full three minutes, and it sustains the mood that whole time. The whole track is a series of tense interlocking hooks — jittery keyboard stabs and itchy drum-machines and replacement-level blues-rock guitar-shredding, all combining into a big sonic steamroller. The cranked-up adrenaline of that theme music never really subsides, even during the inevitable breakdowns. Instead, Hammer’s music sounds like an even-more-juiced-up take on the kind of thing that Giorgio Moroder was doing around the same time. It feels like a whole wave of keyboard sounds crashing into you at high velocity.

For all its new-generation aesthetics, Miami Vice is still a cop show, and Hammer’s theme exists along the grand continuum of hard-strutting instrumental cop-show themes. Plenty of those themes have been commercially successful. Past Number Ones artist Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn theme peaked at #8, and his Music From Peter Gunn album was the top-selling LP of 1959. (The Peter Gunn theme is a 9.) In 1969, the Ventures reached #4 with their version of Morton Stevens’ Hawaii Five-O theme. (It’s a 7.) In 1976, the Rhythm Heritage version of “Theme From S.W.A.T.” made it all the way to #1. Hammer’s Miami Vice music is unmistakably a product of its time, but its music has the same pulse-pounding feeling as those older hits.

There must’ve been some weird “MTV cops” feeling in the zeitgeist. A couple of months after Miami Vice debuted on NBC, Beverly Hills Cop opened and eventually became 1984’s highest-grossing film. Don Johnson’s Sonny Crocket and Eddie Murphy’s Axel Foley don’t have that much in common, but they’re both fast-talking, good-looking charmers who are happy to go undercover. Both Miami Vice and Beverly Hills Cop had soundtracks that topped the Billboard album charts. Both of them, weirdly, had Glenn Frey songs that peaked at #2. (Beverly Hills Cop had “The Heat Is On.” It’s a 6.) And both Miami Vice and Beverly Hills Cop had triumphantly synthy instrumentals that also became hits.

Of the two tracks, I prefer Harold Faltermeyer’s Beverly Hills Cop joint “Axel F,” which sounds a lot like a cop-show theme. (“Axel F” peaked at #3. It’s a 9.) “Axel F” is simpler and more playful, with more of a central pulse and fewer brain-shattering synth effects. But Hammer’s Beverly Hills Cop theme has its own excitable grandeur, and it never lets up. Also, the Miami Vice theme has a cooler music video — Crockett and Tubbs chasing Jan Hammer, a master criminal whose evil plan seems to revolve entirely around sitting in a dark room, thrashing at a Fairlight and a drum machine and a guitar and a keytaur while Miami Vice footage plays on screens all around him. Apparently, there’s a version of the video where Hammer escapes in a helicopter at the end. That’s cool as shit.

What a weird time — anonymous ex-art-rock studio guys banging away at expensive electronics and cranking out instrumentals that turned into big hits, all intended to build up the idea that cops are somehow cool. Those cops seemed so cool that the actors who played them briefly became actual pop stars. Eddie Murphy’s “Party All The Time” peaked at #2 in 1985. (It’s a 6.) A year later, Don Johnson’s “Heartbeat” peaked at #5. (It’s a 4.)

“Cool cops” is a concept that seems entirely foreign to the present moment. It’s gone. Even after the rise of house and techno, instrumental music doesn’t make the same impression it once did, either — at least on the American pop charts. After the Miami Vice theme, it would be decades before another instrumental hit #1.

Jan Hammer kept scoring Miami Vice until 1988, a year before the show was cancelled. After that, Hammer scored a few more films, like the underrated 1990 Dolph Lundgren rampaging-alien joint I Come In Peace and the 2006 documentary Cocaine Cowboys, and he made more records with his old friend Jeff Beck. Jan Hammer never made another single that charted on the Hot 100 after “Miami Vice Theme,” but he’s still the highest-charting artist named Hammer in Billboard history. (The highest-charting single from MC Hammer — no relation — is 1990’s “Pray,” which peaked at #2. It’s a 5.)

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Larry Bird winning the 1986 three-point shootout while the arena jams “Miami Vice Theme”:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Malice rapping about humming “Miami Vice Theme” on the intro track from Clipse’s 2002 classic Lord Willin’:

(As lead artists, Clipse’s highest-charting single is the 2002 Kelis/Pharrell collab “When The Last Time,” which peaked at #19. As guests, their highest-charting single is Justin Timberlake’s 2002 track “Like I Love You,” which peaked at #11.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Lil B rapping over “Miami Vice Theme” on his 2011 freestyle “Miami Boss”:

(Lil B has never had a Hot 100 single as a solo artist. As a member of the Pack, his highest-charting single, 2006’s “Vans,” peaked at #58.)

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