Published on October 10th, 2012 | by Hamish Crawford0
Nobody Does it Better: Fifty Years of James Bond Music
I know you’ll judge me—but it’s true. There was a Heineken ad recently, and whereas 99.98% of you might see it and think, “Oh, they just played the James Bond theme”, I thought, “Oh, they played the David Arnold arrangement of the James Bond theme from the end of Casino Royale (which played over the scene where nattily-waistcoated Daniel Craig tries his rifle out on Mr. White’s leg, to be pedantically precise)”.
To be fair, I have a slight advantage—if you can call it that—owning, as I do, no fewer than four of the Bond movie soundtrack CDs and a further three Best of Bond compilations. Someone really should put a warning on those boxes—I had no idea how habit-forming they were. Out of their natural habitat—playing alongside Maurice Binder’s endearingly tacky opening credits—the music’s power is further enhanced.
So many people have grown up with these songs, that we all need a minute to ponder the strangeness of many of them, and indeed the whole idea. It’s a very ‘60s idea of multi-media coverage—one whose success cannily meant that the title of the latest Connery-starring epic played regularly over radios internationally without Albert R. Broccoli or Harry Saltzman paying a cent. The surreal pay-off to this means that there’s a ‘70s reggae song written by George Martin and Paul McCartney, named after a twenty-year old spy novel. But Live and Let Die works; so much so that it is actually a decent Wings song. Incredible, right?
Now, every songwriter in the Double-O section was immeasurably lucky to have Ian Fleming’s wonderful titles to start from: A View to a Kill, From Russia With Love, You Only Live Twice … the world-weary romance, the hints of danger, and the sheer pulpy punch that make these epigrams so good on paperback covers and movie posters also lends them the class of an Aston Martin DB5 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra blaring trumpets behind them. There’s a musical ring to even The Man With the Golden Gun that, say, E.M. Forster (to pick another author with a knack for memorable titles) lacks. Although I’d love to hear Nancy Sinatra belt out A Room With a View (“Meeting you, in a room with a view”… oh wait, that’s Bond again).
Even the least initiated, least Bond-soundtrack-savvy (‘luckiest’, my dad would say as he ejects the Living Daylights soundtrack from the car) could identify the halcyon days of the 007 ballad. It would be the moment John Barry’s coolly parodic jazz-meets-strings lushness collided with the lyrics of Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, and the strident tones of Dame Shirley Bassey, to create that pop phenomenon, “GOLD-FING-AHHH” (if you’ve heard the song, you know that’s the only way to write it). Barry recalled the song was torture to write, strung around a particularly ludicrous Fleming villain name but forbidden to reveal any story details. Barry, Newley, and Bricusse duly devised a chilling and thrilling ode to the abstract terrors of Mister Goldfinger (“the man with the Midas touch/ A spider’s touch!”).
Like the movie, it was a runaway success, high on the Billboard chart and everything—a measure of the extent of Bondmania. It led to the equally brilliant, and even more successful, Thunderball sung by Tom Jones, which was the first Bond song to focus on the secret agent himself (“They call him the winner who takes all … so he strikes …like Thunderball!”). Bassey gave an equally preposterous encore with the gorgeously camp Diamonds Are Forever (“Unlike men, diamonds linger”), a surprisingly haunting number aptly described by Simon Winder as a “sweat and polyester soundtrack”. But neither she nor Barry could liven up the hopelessly pedestrian Moonraker, that barrel-scraper in so many departments—despite an over-ambitious triangle player’s Herculean efforts to add energy.
The Goldfinger pattern has led to some memorably meaningless lyrics. Given the Bond series’ nominal concern with 007’s licence to kill, it’s no surprise that a great many of these fortune cookie maxims related to death. “You only live twice, or so it seems/ One life for yourself, and one for your dreams”, “Living’s in the way we die”, “There’s no point in living if you can’t feel alive”, “If you take a life, do you know what you give?” … don’t put any of these on birthday cards. It makes it all the stranger, then, that the theoretically slam-dunk song title—Gladys Knight’s 1989 “Licence to Kill”—is just standard ‘80s love-mush (“You know I’m goin’ straight for your heart”) and owing to a misplaced backing vocal from Ms. Knight’s Pips, it actually sounds like she’s singing about a “licence to kilt”, whatever that is (do I need one for the annual Crawford caber toss?).
Aside from Goldfinger, the three Bond songs that have justly endured the decades are interesting exceptions to the norm. “The Look of Love” is characteristically sweet and swinging Burt Bacharach-Hal David (and sung by Dusty Springfield) that has become a summer of love standard—but it was written, of course, for 1967’s unofficial Casino Royale (subject of my rose-tinted reminiscences elsewhere). As befits its sideways status, it has a naïve romance to it that pairs better with lovestruck Peter Sellers than smirking Sean Connery. David then defected to the official movies to write, with Barry, the touching lyrics for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service love song “We Have All the Time in the World”—as warbled by the incomparable Louis Armstrong, a fitting match for the only properly romantic movie in the series.
Carly Simon’s 1977 “Nobody Does It Better”, from The Spy Who Loved Me, is in a similar vein—its relaxed tempo and triumphantly soppy lyrics perfectly tuned to the era of Love Story (it was written by ubiquitous ‘70s composer Marvin Hamlisch—“But like heaven above me/The Spy Who Loved Me/Is keepin’ all my secrets safe tonight”). The sincerity and charm of all three hasn’t even been dented by their incessant abuse by clip-show compilers, Guinness ad-men, Kanye West and Jay-Z, or corporate PowerPoint presenters—a true testament to their undimmed majesty.
After the chart-topping heights of “A View to a Kill”, Duran Duran’s masterful mood piece (and a-Ha’s slightly less impressive follow-up for 1987’s The Living Daylights, whose synth-keyboard accompaniment gives me a Pavlovian urge for Special K whenever I hear it), the series settled into a musical pattern of irrelevant soft-rock. From Licence to Kill right through to Quantum of Solace’s duet “Another Way to Die”, the songs archly combine the subjects of Goldfinger and Thunderball by warning the listener of the dangers of James Bond himself. This takes an outright disturbing turn in 1995’s GoldenEye—whose turgid, S & M-themed lyrics (“Golden chain take him to the spot”) were penned by Bono and the Edge. The image of insistently macho U2 members stalking Bond (“You’ll never know how I watched you from the shadows as a child”) turns an otherwise forgettable song into a camp classic.
But however wretched the title tracks can get, all hold an innate fascination for their time-capsule qualities. It takes only a listen to Madonna’s “Die Another Day” (and a suppression of the involuntary gag reflex) to remember the sound of 2002 with painful exactness. In that context, Adele’s selection for the next instalment, Skyfall is about the most inevitable since … well, since Alicia Keys and Jack White doing the last one. Why, then, have the last lot been so troubled? I think it may be as simple as that absent Fleming snap. In its absence, component words have been recycled beyond their natural lifespan—I mean, “Another Way to Die” is a rephrased “Die Another Day”, and “You Know My Name” sounds like a desperate Ron Burgundy rather than an ever-cool James Bond. Working “Skyfall” into the song was tough, but thank goodness Adele wasn’t left struggling with a portmanteau to the effect of “Lose Life in Some Other Manner”.
Which leaves just one important thing to mention: the James Bond theme itself, so powerfully cool and culturally prevalent that the merest scratching of a nylon guitar string subconsciously recall it across the world. Though credited to Monty Norman, and legally his, it truly belongs to the great John Barry. The guitar version in From Russia With Love through Diamonds Are Forever is clearly definitive, but my personal favourite is the string-led mid-80s Roger Moore/Timothy Dalton arrangement. It has been empirically demonstrated to be the most exciting piece of music ever recorded—try ironing, doing the dishes, or going for groceries with it blaring thrillingly in the background, and prepare for your life to change. From Connery snarling “Bond, James Bond” through a wreath of smoke to Craig hissing it with Heckler & Koch in hand, Norman and Barry’s work remains as compelling a shorthand for larger-than-life adventure as ever.
So for a window into five decades of perfectly preposterous pop music—and so much more besides—I owe the world’s least secret agent my sincerest thanks. From a fan who loves you slightly more than Miss Moneypenny—but, you’ll be relieved to hear, less than Bono and the Edge—happy fiftieth, Commander Bond.
Five Other Classic Bond Songs Not Mentioned Above:
- “From Russia With Love” (1963, sung by Matt Monroe)
- “You Only Live Twice” (1967, sung by Nancy Sinatra)
- “Surrender” (from Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997, sung by k.d. lang)
- “The World Is Not Enough” (1999, sung by Garbage)
- “Another Way to Die”—absurd title notwithstanding (2008, sung by Alicia Keys and Jack White)
And Five That Are, for the Record, Completely Rubbish:
- “Moonraker” (1979, sung by Shirley Bassey)
- “All Time High” (from Octopussy, 1983, sung by Rita Coolidge)
- “Never Say Never Again” (1983, sung by Lani Hall)
- “Goldeneye” (1995, sung by Tina Turner)
- “Die Another Day” (2002, sung by Madonna)