How to watch “The Wonder Years” with Joe Cocker’s original theme song

Joe Cocker performing at Woodstock, 1969.
Joe Cocker performing at Woodstock, 1969.
Image: AP Photo
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

British rock legend Joe Cocker has died, aged 70. His most famous performance was a rasping, aching cover of The Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends,” at the Woodstock music festival in 1969. It enjoyed a second, broader spell of fame in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the theme song of The Wonder Years, the hit TV show that defined coming-of-age for a generation of Americans:

But when Netflix acquired the show in 2011, the singer on the opening credits was not Cocker, but an anonymous—and considerably less soulful—crooner trying to sound like him:

For some Wonder Years nostalgics, erasing Cocker was a heinous offense. “Each note, systematically destroying my childhood with what can only be described as a sweaty-sounding rendition that pisses on the essence of what Cocker brought to the cover,” wrote one blogger.

So what happened to the song?

As Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff explained recently, Cocker’s was one of many hit songs that were licensed for television long before anyone imagined that people would be able to store TV shows and movies on small plastic objects in their own homes, and watch them as many times as they wanted. So licenses typically covered only a few broadcasts. As the videocassette, DVD, DVR, and streaming eras progressively dawned, relicensing the music to make those shows available on demand became ruinously expensive. As a result, many never even made it to DVD, and those that did had the unlicensed music bowdlerized out of them.

But last October, The Wonder Years finally came out on DVD, thanks to the efforts of StarVista, a Time/Life company that seeks deals with record companies to reissue TV shows. And opening the show is the Joe Cocker version of “With A Little Help From My Friends.” The company told VanDerWerff that if it hadn’t been able to get the OK for Cocker’s song, it probably wouldn’t have tried to get permission for all the other golden-oldie music in the show, but would have abandoned the project.

The complete series—115 episodes—will set US buyers back $250, plus tax and shipping. So if you’re not a diehard Cocker fan, get on Netflix. And if you are a fan, but you don’t want to pay $250, get on Netflix, mute the sound during the opening credits, and play the YouTube version over the top of it.