Above: Johnny Cash’s alternate version of “Thunderball.”
By Joel Francis
After nearly 50 years of slugging spies and bedding beauties, the premier of a James Bond movie has become an cultural event. The opening credit sequences of these films are events among themselves. Even though some of the biggest names in rock have performed a Bond theme song, the producers have always treated the number as a throwback to the Broadway and pop numbers of the 1950s.
When Bond made his big screen debut in 1962’s “Dr. No,” Ray Charles’ “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” variants of “The Twist” and the Four Seasons topped the Billboard charts. The theme song for “Dr. No” was a bizarre calypso arrangement of “Three Blind Mice.” Thankfully, the nursery rhyme is preceded by Monty Norman’s immortal James Bond theme. Norman’s theme was reinterpreted in every Bond film thereafter. It’s still exciting to hear the surf guitar race into the explosion of horns. The song is over-the-top, suspenseful and dangerous, but the swinging drums winkingly confide in the viewer that everything is in good fun.
Bond was back the following year with “From Russia With Love.” This time, producers hired Broadway songsmith Lionel Bart, best known for his work on “Oliver!,” to write an original theme song. Bart’s lyrics, coupled with soundtrack composer John Barry’s music, are the embodiment of the bachelor pad/Playboy image. Singer Matt Monro made his name performing in the nightclubs, caberets and lounges Bond would have haunted offscreen. Their lounge music is the embodiment of the bachelor pad/Playboy image that reeks of wood paneling, shag carpeting, hi-fi stereos and rotating beds. In other words, it’s straight out of Bond’s world.
Three-time Bond songstress Shirley Bassey made her debut with “Goldfinger.” Although the film hit screens during the year of Beatlemania, there is no hint of rock and roll in the title song written by the musical theater team of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley. Barry’s bombastic horns are matched only by Bassey’s brassy delivery. “Goldfinger” is not only one of the most memorable Bond songs of all time, but it’s also the first memorable Bond song.
Barry and Bricusse didn’t stray far from the template when they approached Tom Jones to sing “Thunderball.” Jones puts his pelvis in the delivery, but the arrangement is essentially “Goldfinger”-redux. While they may have been working with a formula, it’s a strong one – “Thunderball” works nearly as well as “Goldfinger.”
An alternate “Thunderball” song was given to Johnny Cash to perform, but rejeced by the film’s producers. It seems even at the peak of his pills phase, Cash was more man than Bond could handle.
Rock and roll finally appeared in the serpentine guitar lick that opens Nancy Sinatra’s performance of “You Only Live Twice.” Even with the guitar, Sinatra’s sexy vocals rest on a pillow of strings accentuated by a harp. The number was Barry and Bricusse’s third consecutive teaming, and constructed from fragments of 25 separate takes. Bassey must have felt left out, because she covered the song in 2007, following in the footsteps of Coldplay, Bjork and Robbie Williams (who sampled the original for “Millennium”).
“On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” is a misfit in the Bond cannon, musically and theatrically. The title sequence is a throwback to the orchestral opening of “Dr. No.” Barry’s instrumental theme is notable for its deep Moog synthesizer notes, chugging rock bass and the soaring trombone melody, later taken over on trumpet. Barry, who scored every Bond film to this point, composed a great alternate to Norman’s original Bond theme. During the mid-’90s electronic craze, the Propellerheads created a 10-minute remix of the song.
Barry teamed with Burt Bacharach’s lyricist Hal David to write the film’s love theme, “All The Time in the World.” Saturated by fingerpicked guitar and a saccharine string section, the song couldn’t be further from jazz, despite the vocals of Louis Armstrong. Satchmo is in full-on “What A Wonderful World” mode. Lesser singers would buckle under the weight of the arrangement, but Armstrong is able to emote the lyrics perfectly, even if someone else is playing the trumpet solo.
As the calendar flipped to the 1970s, Bassey was given her second stint on a Bond theme. “Diamonds Are Forever” is the sexiest Bond theme since Sinatra’s. Barry’s arrangement is full of the soft strings and horn punctuations that viewers had come to expect, but he tosses in an unexpected splash of funk at the halfway point. The wah wah guitar and subtle nod to Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning “Theme from Shaft” could be what drew Kanye West to the song when he sampled it for his 2005 hit “Diamonds of the Sierra Leone.”