2012 is a milestone year for Bond fans, seeing both the 50th anniversary of the first episode in the film franchise, Dr. No, and the release of the 22nd in the series, Skyfall, due this month. As a teaser, Adele’s eponymous theme song was unveiled last week – of which more later. As TGTF’s celebration of all things Bond-ian, we run through a short history of Bond movie themes.
Where better than to start than at the beginning, with Dr. No, which, strictly speaking, didn’t have a theme song of its own. The honour it did have, however, was to introduce an unsuspecting public to the sinister, bombastic delights of Monty Norman and John Barry’s title theme, the story of which is just as tortuous and thrilling as any Fleming plot. Norman had to go to court to defend his authorship of the James Bond theme three times; the latest in 2001, after a Sunday Times article alleged it was primarily a John Barry composition. Norman won all three cases, and received royalties unchallenged for years before and since. No matter its authorship (and a keen ear can hear the influence of both Norman and Barry), the song itself is a near-genius piece of composition. Expertly conjuring an orchestral breadth from its big band arrangement, and featuring a guitar riff timeless in both tone and melody from the superbly-named Vic Flick, the appearance of major sevenths in a minor key and liberal use of the ‘blue’ diminished fifth generates a macabre tension in the harmony, which Barry’s brass blasts amplify to almost unbearable levels of drama. Surely the most recognisable movie theme of all time, and amongst the finest 2 minutes’ of music ever conceived.
Monty Norman never again worked on a Bond film, in contrast with John Barry, who went on to score eleven more, including the title songs (except Lionel Bart’s competent if somewhat tame From Russia With Love). Goldfinger is where the franchise really hit its stride: Barry is at his menacing best in the opening brass fanfare and contrasting demure strings; the first of three Bond outings for Shirley Bassey matches the orchestra’s passion with a barnstorming vocal never bettered in the whole series, although Tom Jones almost achieves that high accolade with Thunderball, another tour de force performance from composer, orchestra, and singer alike, Jones famously fainting after holding the song’s final note for as long as he could manage. You Only Live Twice sees Nancy Sinatra in a more reflective mood than the bombast of the previous two episodes, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is blessed with Louis Armstrong’s final recording, and Bassey returns along with Connery for Diamonds are Forever.
A Barry hiatus saw him temporarily replaced on composition duties by the wonder pairing of George Martin and Paul McCartney, whose Live And Let Die was recently, and rightly, voted the best Bond theme of all time by no less an authority than the listeners of Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s film review. (You can watch the iconic Macca/Wings-infused title sequence below.) The first rock band theme, but no less Bond-ian for it, the McCartney/Martin effort strikes the perfect balance of lushness and aggression: an apposite way to signal the franchise’s change of tone as Moore picks his way through the mean streets of Harlem. Barry’s return, for The Man with the Golden Gun, carries more than a whiff of self-parody in its wah-wah guitar and blaxploitation overtones, and is, by Barry’s admission, his weakest ever theme, Lulu’s charms insufficient to drag it into the charts on either side of the Atlantic.
Marvin Hamlisch’s expert handling of the Barry style for The Spy Who Loved Me generated a worldwide hit for Carly Simon in ‘Nobody Does It Better’ and makes one wonder why Hamlisch never returned to the franchise. It being the late ‘70s, synthesisers and disco influences were creeping into the traditional big band style, to mixed effect. Moonraker is about as humdrum as a Barry/Bassey recording is likely to get: the tone more gentle and orchestral, presumably to reflect the yawning silence of space; the thuggish brass is sorely missed.
By the time of For Your Eyes Only (again Barryless), the rot – the 1980s – had truly set in. The truly dreadful Sheena Easton title song, seemingly played on a child’s synthesiser, is notable solely as a historical artefact, demonstrating how the 1980s FM radio sheen invaded even the most hallowed of musical institutions. Barry returned for Octopussy, but Rita Coolidge’s ‘All Time High’ was barely better than Easton’s effort. Was this really Bond’s fate, to drown in a deluge of 1980s schmaltz?
Thankfully, to draw the Moore era to a close, Barry reached out for help, and found inspiration in a collaboration with Duran Duran. They knew how to harness the electronic sound for drama and tension rather than sickly sentiment, whilst Barry kept the orchestra bubbling underneath: The samples of ‘A View to a Kill’, its stratocaster and synth stabs add up to the finest Bond theme of the electronic era, charting higher than any Bond theme before or since on both sides of the Atlantic. [It also has a hilariously ridiculous spy-themed promo video, which you can watch below. - Ed.] Presumably, recruiting a-ha for The Living Daylights was meant to engender the same success – it didn’t, the resulting collaboration being a mostly forgettable, insipid thing. And thus ended the Barry era of Bond music. Patchy, but at its best, particularly in the early years, nothing could come close.
Licence to Kill mystifyingly chose Gladys Knight’s MOR r&b over a re-recorded version of the original theme tune by Eric Clapton and original guitarist Vic Flick. Evidence that the plot had well and truly been lost. It would be 6 years before Goldeneye released Eric Serra’s underrated avant-garde electronic minimalism on unsuspecting Bond fans. Featuring familiar themes given unfamiliar treatments (the main riff played on timpani, anyone?), anyone who spent hours playing the superb Nintendo video game will be more familiar with the nuances of Serra’s soundtrack than any other in the series.
David Arnold helmed the next five films, spanning 13 years, and failed to deliver a true classic theme for any one. Which brings us to Adele’s effort. Thomas Newman appears to be adopting the David Arnold “no surprises” approach – no blast of horns, no sneering vocal, just a gentle piano intro, developing strings, smooth, diva-ish vocal, choir call-and-response, and end. The intro’s too long, and there are some dreadful “moon in june” rhyming couplets. Not bad, not special, not enough to break the 27-year drought since ‘A View to a Kill’. Time and hindsight may treat the recent themes more kindly, but arguably the line “Nobody does it… quite as good as you… baby you’re the best,” could well have been written about the great John Barry himself.