‘Succession’: how composer Nicholas Britell wrote the show’s iconic theme tune

The story behind that earworm piano riff – plus Kendall Roy's Frank Ocean-approved rap

A great TV theme can help elevate a show to modern classic status – whether it’s the grandness of Game of Thrones, the creeping dread of Mad Men, or the wry, slapstick opening of Curb Your Enthusiasm, a theme song that has almost become shorthand for getting yourself into a tricky and painfully awkward situation.

Succession – the hit HBO show that follows the mega-rich Roy family in a sharp study of inherited wealth and limitless power – benefits from having one of these instantly-iconic themes. Penned by composer Nicholas Britell (Moonlight, The Big Short), it’s a dizzying, disorientating and dissonant piece that has been described as having “deranged magnetism” and a “smashed-music-box sound”.

It’s been so culturally embraced that the music has inspired endless memes. There’s been suggestions for lyrics to go with the music, which include the rather apt series summary: “All the rich white folk are going to argue, and then whoever’s best is going to win a kiss from daddy”. There’s a meme of Michael Jordan listening to it on a bus before a crucial Chicago Bulls game, the clip taken from a scene in Netflix’s The Last Dance, and another of Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker striding down the stairs to Britell’s very recognisable piece. And, of course, endless others.

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Where the idea came from

Speaking to NME via the phone, Britell says the tune was born from a simple brainwave. “I wanted to explore the idea of ‘If the Roy family could imagine their own music, what music would that be?’” he says. “I started to theorise that it would be this really dark, classical sound.

“Every era has its own musical grammar. If you look back at the late 1700s, there were certain musical conventions that the public of the time were enamoured with. In Succession, it was fun to explore these things,” he adds. “In the late classical era, composers would have used a culminating moment towards the end of a piece. To me, when I hear [the Succession theme], it has a feeling of drama but also a momentous becoming. Like you’re on the periphery of something happening.”

Succession main cast. Credit: HBO/Press

It needed to be funny as well as catchy

Britell notes that while the “dark classical world links so interestingly with the show’s characters,” there had to be an element of humour too – a “mixture of absurdity and seriousness that reflects the duality of the show”.

While the show is “about a very serious subject – concentrations of wealth and power among fewer and fewer people, which is a crucial issue of our time”, it’s the added behind-the-curtain depiction of the Roy family’s internal struggle that is, ultimately, not too dissimilar from most domestic problems. Sure, our family dinners may not descend into ‘Boar on the Floor’ levels of carnage, but we can all relate to the basic dysfunction going on here. And it’s these “ridiculous moments – the realities, the fights, the human side” that Britell wanted to incorporate in his work.

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“I’m fascinated by finding strange sounds that somehow link together,” he explains. “I love hearing out of tune pianos – and there’s something interesting about things that aren’t perfect. I purposely leave the pianos detuned, and the mix is purposely off-kilter. When I’m mixing the bass in Succession, I always turn it up a little ‘too much’, because that feels right to me for the show… [I also] experimented with out-of-tune pianos, sleigh bells and all sorts of other things.”

Nicholas Britell at the 2019 Creative Arts Emmy Awards. Credit: Getty/JC Olivera/WireImage

Hip-hop was a big influence

Britell was able to visit the set while the cast was filming the show’s pilot, an experience that fed into the music he would later conjure up, especially the series’ opening sequence depicting a psyched-up Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) rapping along to Beastie Boys’ ‘An Open Letter To NYC’ as he arrives at his family business HQ.

“I thought [hip-hop] could be an element too,” Britell explains. “I wanted to incorporate some oversized hip-hop beats… While I grew up as a classical pianist, when I was in college I was in a hip-hop band – I used to make like four beats a day. But I’ve never had the opportunity or canvas to explore these things on the scale that Succession enabled.”

The moment it all came together

When Britell was finalising the Succession theme, he says it felt like a “eureka” moment. “When you put things together and realise it’s working, it’s almost like a physical or emotional response,” he says. While he was confident that the work encapsulated the overarching feelings of the show, it still needed final approval from showrunner Jesse Armstrong and Adam McKay, the show’s executive producer and director of its pilot episode.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘I hope they like this because if they don’t, I actually don’t know what else to do’,” he says. “I felt like, ‘this is it’. So I emailed it over and Jesse almost immediately responded and said, ‘I think the right response to this is: Fuck yeah!’”

Logan Roy (played by Brian Cox) in Succession. Credit: HBO/Press

Pusha T’s post-premiere remix

As the popularity of Succession – and its theme – took off, there was one fan-led idea in particular that kept cropping up, Britell says: “After Season one, people were constantly like, ‘When is someone going to rhyme on this beat.’ I thought that it was a cool idea but said to myself that if we were going to do it, then we’d have to do it on the highest level and find a virtuoso rapper.”

And who is more virtuoso than Pusha T? The former Clipse star, whose raps often explore much of the same themes of luxury and power that’s depicted in the show, teamed up with Britell for ‘Puppets’, a remix of the Succession opener which sees Push rap: “Family, fortune, envy, jealousy / Privilege, passed on legacy / Secrets, sabotage, borderline felony.”

Britell says of the team-up: “Honestly, the first person I thought of, like the highest of high, was Pusha T – his style and versatility. He was already a fan of the show and as soon as I mentioned it, he said he’d love to do it. The most fun part of what I do is the collaborations, whether that’s with directors, showrunners or a legend like Pusha T. I’m still in awe of the fact that I got to work with Push.”

Bonus: how I wrote Kendall Roy’s iconic ‘L-to-the-O-G’ rap

If you ask any Succession fan, they’ll say that the theme isn’t the only musical highlight of the show. There’s also the beautifully awkward moment in season two where Kendall, the gilet-loving heir to the Roy family empire, delivers a rap in honour of his father Logan Roy’s (Brian Cox) 50-year career that manages to rhyme “shaper of views” with “creator of news”. Even Frank Ocean was impressed by the scene, later texting Strong to congratulate him on his performance. But the person responsible for the beat Kendall spits? Well, that would be Britell.

“Jesse got in touch and told me that Kendall was going to perform a rap for his father – because of course he would. Kendall doing a rap for Logan in itself is going to be a cringeworthy event, but if it’s just cringeworthy and falls flat then it doesn’t really work. It needs to be cringeworthy and well-executed.”

“Kendall is basically the same age as I am and most people form their musical predilections in college, so I thought it would be really [funny] to take a beat [I wrote] from that time, that probably would represent Kendall’s tastes too. Jeremy then asked me to record a demo of it and I made him promise that the recording would never come out. Then Jeremy practiced to that.”

“Full credit to Jeremy Strong, he did that all live. That’s fully his performance,” adds Britell. “To rap a sequence like that is not easy and requires a whole rhythm sensibility. It’s a very different skill set from acting. I think he did an incredible job.”

Seasons one and two of ‘Succession’ are available now on Binge and Foxtel On Demand.

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