‘Writing’s on the Wall’ is the title song to the James Bond film, Spectre, which is released this month. “I want to feel love / Run through my blood,” sings Sam Smith on the chorus, in a pained falsetto. Feel love? Colour me disbelieving. James Bond is a player, not a boyfriend; a cynic, not a romantic. “I want to make love” might pass muster in a Bond song, but even then, it’s a little on the cloying side. No one beds anyone in a James Bond film for reasons other than naked self-interest. Ideally, I want to hear a bit – or a lot – of libidinous ego in a Bond tune, but it sounds like the only action poor Smith is up for is a good cry. A maudlin Bond song: how tiresome.
Tearfulness is Smith’s stock-in-trade. Earlier this year he won four Grammy awards off the back of his gazillion-selling album In the Lonely Hour, a collection of ballads as watery as dish soap. In early October, Smith’s popularity, combined with the brand recognition of Bond, helped ‘Writing’s on the Wall’ reach number one on the UK singles chart, the first Bond song to do so. By comparison, Shirley Bassey’s magnificent ‘Goldfinger’, the title song of the 1964 movie, stalled just outside the UK top 20 on its release – further proof, if proof were needed, that the listening public is a fickle beast, and that we rarely know what’s good for us when it arrives. Or maybe that’s just the British. ‘Goldfinger’ was big in Japan.
There’s no surpassing ‘Goldfinger’, so subsequent Bond composers and performers have paid homage to it, either explicitly (Gladys Knight’s ‘Licence To Kill’, from 1989, borrows the opening two-note phrase) or implicitly (‘Writing’s on the Wall’ features swooping strings and deliberate pacing). Adele chose this route, too, on ‘Skyfall’ (2012), which won her an Oscar for Best Original Song. Adele is one of the few contemporary pop stars with a voice that compares to Bassey’s, and ‘Skyfall’ has the kind of ascending vocal line that is her signature; she arrives at the high notes with ease, as if the task were no more difficult than reaching for a light switch. But the song’s mood is pensive, lacking in vivacity – and so are the recent Bond films, which, for all their grandeur, seem to take place in the shadows. Perhaps there’s no way to do a Bond film these days other than as a part apology for the fact that the series exists at all, with its retrograde gender politics and nostalgia for the British Empire. Still, I prefer the Technicolor flamboyance of the Sean Connery years. I just can’t see Daniel Craig ever emerging from the water with a fake seagull strapped to his head.
Bond music began, of course, with Dr No (1962), the first Bond film, which starred Connery. Much of the soundtrack reflects the film’s Jamaican setting. The film’s English composer, Monty Norman, wrote on the island, recruiting local musicians like Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, and guitarist Ernest Ranglin, who would go on to play an important role in the development of Jamaican reggae. (Incidentally, a young Chris Blackwell worked as a location scout on Dr No; it was his label, Island Records, that would later introduce reggae luminaries such as Bob Marley to the wider world.)
But the most enduring music from Dr No was made in London. The original ‘James Bond Theme’, one minute and 45 seconds of stealth and swagger, was recorded on 21 June 1962, at Cine-Tele Sound Studios, Kensington Gardens Square. Conductor and arranger John Barry, quoted in Jon Burlingame’s book The Music of James Bond (2012), describes the scene: “No strings, just five saxes, nine brass, solo guitar, and rhythm section. I got paid £200 and that was that.”
What value for money. ‘James Bond Theme’ is an instrumental movie theme second only to that of Star Wars for popular recognition. It’s a piece of music so fused with the iconography of the Bond films that it’s difficult to separate our impression of one from the other. Wit, menace, sultriness, dash: we find them all in the Bond theme. The opening four notes, a see-sawing semitone phrase played by the brass section, instantly evoke a covert, back-alley atmosphere, as if Bond or one of his enemies were treading just behind you. After four bars the guitar arrives, quick and dirty enough to suggest Bond’s globetrotting, bed-hopping style, and midway through the saxophones erupt. Danger! Atomic bombs! Exploding cake! Sharks!
We owe the theme’s main riff to the early-’60s craze for surf guitar. The part was performed by session musician Vic Flick – and not, as you might imagine, on an electric guitar, but on an amplified acoustic guitar with heavy strings, played with a plectrum, which creates the vigorous but slightly brittle tone. Together, Flick and Barry had fashioned something of a prototype for the Bond theme with their work on the music for Beat Girl (1960), a B-grade teen flick that nevertheless boasted the first British movie soundtrack released on LP.
Authorship of the Bond theme has been disputed ever since the track was laid down in the studio. Monty Norman is credited as the theme’s composer, in part because the famous guitar riff came from an earlier musical score that he had written and then shelved. But John Barry’s role in arranging the theme cannot be overlooked, and it was Barry who went on to compose 11 Bond scores, including those for Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice (title theme performed by Nancy Sinatra), Diamonds Are Forever (Bassey again, and nearly as brilliant as her Bond song debut), and 1985’s A View to a Kill, in which Roger Moore played Bond and the title theme was performed and co-written by reigning pop heartthrobs Duran Duran. ‘A View to a Kill’ went to number two in the UK, and remains the only Bond song to have hit number one on the US Billboard singles chart. The film clip shows Simon Le Bon blowing up a helicopter and then a blimp by way of a detonator cunningly disguised as a Walkman, which makes me hope that some future Bond song features a death-dealing iPhone, so that future generations may, in turn, laugh at our technological wonders.
The ’80s were largely Bond’s power ballad years: Sheena Easton’s ‘For Your Eyes Only’ (1981), Rita Coolidge’s ‘All Time High’ (from 1983’s Octopussy), and, following Duran Duran, Norwegian trio A-ha with ‘The Living Daylights’ (1987). A-ha’s is the only James Bond title theme apart from Sam Smith’s to feature male falsetto – it’s also a much better song.
During the ’90s, Bond songs reverted to the Bassey–Barry template of the Bond diva: Tina Turner’s ‘GoldenEye’ (1995), written by U2’s Bono and The Edge, was a classy, efficient variation; less so Sheryl Crow’s ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ (1997) and Garbage’s ‘The World Is Not Enough’ (1999). Garbage’s effort is musically close to Sam Smith’s, and lyrically it makes a similar mistake, by beginning as a lament (“I know how to hurt / I know how to heal”) that seems to give expression to Bond’s conscience.
Shouldn’t we be applauding a sensitive, 21st-century Bond who has feelings to go along with his weaponry? After all, Daniel Craig’s reboot Bond is not just pugnacious but a little bit vulnerable – he got his heart broken in Casino Royale (2006), the origin story, based on Ian Fleming’s first published Bond novel. Yet it feels wrong, as does Smith’s song, because the thrill of Bond, for an audience, is to watch the power of ego unfettered by rules. Bond takes what he wants, acts how he pleases, and never says sorry.
Songwriters ignore the bloodlust of the Bond ethos at their peril. Even if the violence has become less silly and the geopolitical subtext more dour, Bond films still rely on fantasy and a Bond song still needs pizzazz. So either hire Rihanna – this year’s ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’ proved that she has more audacity, and a more wicked sense of humour, than any of her current chart rivals – or get Dame Shirley back. Nobody does it better.
There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.
That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.
The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.
Select your digital subscription