"Steve was this ass-kicker of a guy who did not enter a room with subtlety. He needed something that reflected that.”
An integral part of WWE is a wrestler’s entrance music.
For the past 32 years, the man behind the music was Jim Johnston.
Johnston wrote over 10,000 pieces of music for WWE, and one of his albums – WWF The Music Vol. 3 – even reached platinum status, selling over 1.2 million copies in the United States.
Johnston’s most famous piece of work is “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s iconic Disturbed/Glass Shatters theme song. Looking behind the music, Johnston reflected back on the step-by-step creation of the song, which began in 1996 when Austin asked Johnston if he could create the feeling similar to the one he experienced while listening to Rage Against The Machine’s Bulls on Parade.
“From his vignettes, I saw that Steve was this ass-kicker of a guy who did not enter a room with subtlety,” said Johnston. “He needed something that reflected that.”
Immediately, Johnston put his guitar in his lap and thought of how to best capture the “Stone Cold” character in song.
“I had in my mind that this would be driving and low, but it needed something relentless about it,” said Johnston. “It needed to capture someone who entered a room and made you think, ‘God only knows what happens next.’ So I started playing driving notes on my guitar – dat dat dat dat dat in a minor key – that implied danger.
“I thought of a car accident, only because of the horrible sound it makes. Then I went to glass, but the sound of the glass was so thin that I needed to make it bigger so I added the car crash.”
The opening includes glass breaking, an explosion, and a car crash. Johnston wrote the song in 20 minutes, then recorded the first version eight hours later.
Although Johnston was a perfectionist with his music and constantly critiqued his own work, he knew this piece perfectly suited Austin.
“Right away I said, ‘I get it. That’s Steve Austin,’” said Johnston. “That was the best part of the job: creating a theme that fit the character. As soon as you heard Steve’s, it felt like it had already been his theme for years.”
Johnston laughed at the original version of Austin’s theme. He created the piece of music on a Telecaster, which is ubiquitous in the country world but uncommon in the world of hard rock.
“It was utterly inappropriate for that style of music,” said Johnston. “I ended up recording the song with a Gibson Les Paul, which is a really popular rock guitar.”
Johnston noted that he did not have much interaction with the talent, but that Austin was one of the few people to seek him out and personally thank him for all of his work.
“Steve Austin was comfortable saying thank you, which was a little uncommon,” said Johnston. “He was always very appreciative of my efforts, and of other producers in WWE who would put together his videos and vignettes, and he went out of his way to thank me. Steve was very pleased with the song, and always told me that it quickly allowed him to get in the right mood and into character.”
The beginning of Johnston’s 32-year run with WWE was purely happenstance. He started off hungry, and that is meant in a very literal sense.
“There was only one Japanese sushi bar nearby where I lived in Connecticut,” said Johnston. “That is my favorite food, and I’d go there frequently. I’d always see the same people there, and one of the guys, Brian Penry, was Vince McMahon’s art director at the time. He mentioned that Vince had asked him to prepare a video for a cable TV convention, and he asked if I could put some music on it. Through that, I met Vince.”
That 1985 project marked Johnston’s first with McMahon, and he worked for the WWE until the company let his contract expire in Nov. 2017.
“There were some politics and people I wasn’t wild about it, but I suppose that is to be expected in any corporate environment,” said Johnston, whose role of creating entrance music now belongs to the CFO$ tandem of John Paul Alicastro and Michael Conrad Lauri. “I was pretty disillusioned where the company was going musically. Although I believe they are talented guys, I thought the themes were becoming commoditized and formulaic. Too many wrestlers had themes that didn’t tell a story about the character, it just felt like music that coincidentally played when a wrestler walked out, as opposed to something that tells the story of the character.
“In the big picture, I’ve written as many angry songs about guys coming to beat you up as I had in me. I think I’ve covered that genre. The end and the change was shocking at the time, but I hope it works out for them. I’ve been writing a ton of music since and I’m actively putting together the next chapter in my life.”
Johnston does not identify himself as a wrestling fan, but he has a tremendous amount of respect for the profession.
“Just because John Williams did the scores for E.T. and Star Wars does not automatically make him a giant fan of aliens or space travel,” explained Johnston. “I would categorize myself as a non-wrestling fan. I see the appeal and there are times when I could get really excited about it, but I wrote music for what I was hired to write. I threw myself into what I was writing.”
Johnston’s comment is a considerable understatement, as his work includes some of the most memorable themes in the history of the business. His long and distinguished line of hits include Austin’s theme, Vince McMahon’s No Chance in Hell theme, Edge’s You Think You Know Me, The Rock’s If You Smell, Chris Jericho’s Break The Walls, and DX’s Are You Ready?
Even without WWE, Johnston remains a musician and will continue to create music.
“I have my home studio in Connecticut and it will be interesting to see what comes next,” said Johnston, whose website – jimjohnston.com – is coming soon and will feature new music.
Johnston played all the instruments in his music for WWE. If a song required an instrument he did not know how to play, he would simply learn it. Yet his work is not entirely well-known in the industry because of a quirk in WWE television production.
“Vince’s shows have no credit roll,” said Johnston. “While a lot of fans know about me, and I have great appreciation for that, people in the industry don’t. So it’s a new process for me to self-promote myself. I love orchestral scoring and scoring films, so I’m trying to go in that direction, as well as getting songs out for people who don’t write their own material, particularly country artists.”
The man who will forever be linked with WWE made one parting request, and that was to thank the people who have enjoyed his work.
“It is incredibly humbling,” said Johnston. “People have sent letters and emails that were so emotional that they made me tear up. I am grateful for every kind word.”