“I wanna be the very best / Like no one ever was.”
Those lyrics either mean something to you or don’t. If a tingling chill of recognition didn’t just roll through your body, this story will probably mean little to you.
For mysterious reasons, the HuffPost newsroom speakers blasted music at the end of almost every work day throughout the early months of 2017. Most of the song choices caused a shared moment of nostalgia among colleagues, none more so than the original “Pokémon” theme.
With that wave of excitement that rolled through the office, HuffPost decided to return to the late ’90s and learn how the theme ― now inarguably one of the most popular songs in American culture history ― came together. After speaking with the theme’s co-writer John Siegler, it became clear that the now iconic song could have been completely different.
For example, that now ubiquitous line, “Gotta catch ‘em all,” was originally a different phrase entirely.
“Lyrically, it changed a few times,” Siegler told HuffPost. “Because they kept changing their hook line. ‘Gotta catch ‘em all.’ Before that it was something else.”
"Catch ‘em if you can" was one of the original contenders and did make its way into an early version of a theme song. Norman Grossfeld, collaborator on the original "Pokémon" theme
Siegler had been working for a production company called Rave Music, which created advertising jingles and TV theme songs at the time. Another John at Rave ― John Loeffler ― ultimately became the theme’s other writer. This company worked with the licensing firm 4Kids Entertainment, which ― among other components ― was in charge of commissioning the “Pokémon” theme.
“It was always my intention to come up with a tagline for marketing purposes that would also be included in the theme song,” 4Kids Entertainment head of production Norman Grossfeld explained to HuffPost. “’Catch ‘em if you can’ was one of the original contenders and did make its way into an early version of a theme song.”
It may be hard to imagine the far less emphatic “Catch ‘em if you can” taking off in the same way as “Gotta catch ‘em all.” The latter was a beloved rallying cry for buying the toys, the cards and all the other Pokémon merchandise. In comparison, the former is a hilarious shrug and a half-hearted declaration to do what you feel like.
In any case, with details like this, Siegler was certainly forthcoming in explaining how the theme that (if you’ve gotten this far in the article) you do recognize and love came together.
Below, a Q&A with Siegler. But first ...
The writers initially didn’t understand the concept of “Pokémon” before writing the theme.
John Siegler: [We received] a bunch of materials which ... we really had no idea. It was incomprehensible to us what the show was about. Finally, we talk a little bit, “Well, it’s about friendship, and you know, loyalty, and blah blah blah,” and so we just wrote a song.
It was very, I got to tell you ― it all seems pretty obvious to everybody now what the show’s about ― but at the time, we didn’t get it at all. We were older.
It was just some weirdo cartoon to us. It was just another gig. That’s all it was, it was just a gig and we did it. And it turned out to be [this] phenomenon.
It was just some weirdo cartoon to us. John Siegler, co-writer on the original "Pokémon" theme
It took the immediate excitement of Siegler’s young son after an early “Pokémon” screening for him to see the show’s potential.
Siegler: I don’t know if I’ve told this story before, but when we did the first episode of “Pokémon,” the very first one, 4Kids had a screening of it at the IMAX at Columbus Circle [in New York City]. So I brought my son, who was like in second grade. I had already written the theme song for the show. It was written, it was done and it was in the show.
And we’re watching this thing. I really honestly didn’t get it. And my 8-year-old son, when it was over, totally got it and started peppering us all with questions. So it was just, you could tell right at that moment that this thing was going to be a hit with kids. It played into so many things little kids [enjoy], giving them power and all the different things that they can do.
He so got it, it was unbelievable. I was astounded. I really was. Because I didn’t get it. [Laughs]
Despite having a jingle-writing background, Siegler didn’t use any particular sales tricks for the song. His formula was just to write a really catchy pop tune.
Siegler: My thing has always been that I’ve really loved pop hits. Like really hooky pop hits. That’s always been kind of my favorite thing. And that really served me super well in the jingle business because it was just my instinct to write a quick pop-sounding, hooky melody for whatever lyric we were assigned.
We didn’t have a formula of any kind. Our only formula was, we got to write something that’s really hooky that people were going to really latch on to right away.
The massive success ended up being a point of pride, even if the gig had initially been confusing. The writers also made a ton of money.
Siegler: Oh my God, it was awesome. I mean, we were thrilled. I remember sitting and watching “Saturday Night Live” that fall and there was some Pokémon joke. I was like, “Holy shit! We’re on ‘Saturday Night Live.’”
The other thing was, financially, it was a real eye-opener, too. We were making more money than we had ever made. And it was just, like, falling off the trees. It was unbelievable. But something of that magnitude, that’s like a once in a generation kind of thing. At that time, you could print toilet paper [with Pokémon] and sell millions of them.
We earned our fees for the actual doing it and then we earned our ASCAP and BMI for the broadcast rights, which was awesome. Because, at a certain point,
“Pokémon” was on I think six days a week. So six days a week, in those days, pre-streaming and all that, was really meaningful financially for the composers.
And then the other thing that we owned was, when we sold CDs ― and we sold a lot of CDs ― we got paid as writers and as producers [due to royalties]. But did we get a piece of the Pokémon underwear, no. The Pokémon bedsheets? No, we didn’t have any of that. But it was all good as far as we were concerned. We were thrilled.
At that time, you could print toilet paper [with Pokémon] and sell millions of them. John Siegler
If nothing else, Siegler feels very lucky. He doesn’t consider himself an “Artist” like Kanye West or Beyoncé, but the gig was exactly what he’s always wanted to do ― write songs with catchy hooks.
Siegler: Someone like Kanye, I consider them to be more artists than me. I’m a commercial artist kind of guy. Even though I could play bass guitar on anybody’s record, that’s a different situation. But as a writer and composer, I don’t consider myself like an “Artist.” Kanye definitely considers himself an “Artist,” but you see the difference.
So if you’re somebody like Beyoncé or Kanye and you don’t like the results of Thursday afternoon’s recording session, you just do another one. Most of the time, we didn’t have that luxury. We had x amount of dollars and whatever we got done that afternoon, that was it.
I do think we’re very lucky. I think we were the right guys in the right place at the right time. And not to take away anything from what we accomplished, but it could have been ― I know 20 guys in New York City who could have done just as good a job, if they had gotten the call for the gig.
I could easily never write another song and I’d be comfortable. But this is what I do. I have a recording studio in my house and the thing that I enjoy most, other than being with my family, is writing a hooky pop hit. That’s what I like doing.
And I see no reason to stop.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.