(Above: Her Majesty gets an assist from 007 to open the London Olympics in July, 2012.)
By Joel Francis The Daily Record
James Bond, the most famous spy in the world, first graced the big screen in “Dr. No” 50 years ago. This weekend, 007 will appear on the big screen for the 25th time in “Skyfall.” To celebrate both events, The Daily Record presents a three-part retrospective examining and celebrating the often wonderful and sometimes puzzling world James Bond theme songs. This series originally appeared in 2008 in advance of “The Quantum of Solace.”
When Roger Moore replaced Sean Connery as James Bond, the producers retooled the series to include the grittiness of the recent Dirty Harry movies and “The French Connection.” In “Live and Let Die” Bond chases a corrupt Caribbean politician who deals heroin and happens to be black. They also snagged one of the biggest stars on the planet to write and perform the latest Bond theme – ex-Beatle Paul McCartney.
McCartney’s theme song reunited him with Beatles producer George Martin, who scored the film. Martin was the first person other than John Barry to score a Bond film.
Not only was McCartney’s song the first rock Bond theme, but it was the first one to be written and performed by the same person. The film’s producers had wanted a soul singer, but Martin prevailed and McCartney was allowed to sing. The song starts with a soft melody and understanding lyrics, before bursting into a whirlwind of strings and horns. The change in tempo and texture underscores the protagonist’s philosophical change, from “live and let live” to “live and let die.” The song is a staple of McCartney’s live shows and was performed at his Super Bowl halftime concert in 2005. The less said about Guns N’ Roses 1991 cover, the better.
Barry was back in the scoring saddle for “The Man With the Golden Gun.” He teamed with lyricist Don Black on the title song and the results were predictable. British singer Lulu made her name with the No. 1 hit “To Sir With Love,” the title song to Sidney Poitier’s 1967 film, but she’s given little to distinguish herself with here. Deep in the mix, a guitar spews crazy licks underneath a battalion of churning trombones, but Lulu’s vocals stay safely in the Bassey mold.
Proto-shock rocker Alice Cooper claimed his song “The Man With the Golden Gun” was written for the film but rejected by its producers. The song is an aggressive slab of hard rock completely out of step with anything the producers had used before, so its unsurprising Cooper’s version didn’t appear until it was included on the tastefully titled “Muscle of Love” album.
In 1977, Carly Simon became the second American (after Nancy Sinatra) to sing a Bond theme. “Nobody Does It Better” was the first Bond theme without the same name as its movie, in this case “The Spy Who Loved Me,” although songwriters Carole Bayer Sager and Marvin Hamlisch did work the title into the lyrics.
The song revitalized Simon’s career which had been in a five-year gradual decline since her 1972 hit “You’re So Vain.” It was No. 1 on the adult contemporary charts for seven consecutive weeks and was nominated for two Grammys.
Despite its soft rock arrangement, “Nobody Does It Better” works well as a Bond theme. Writing about the character instead of the film is a refreshing change. Simon’s vocals are nearly devoid of the sex most female Bond singers infused in their delivery. Simon’s approach is more of devotion than lust, which not only supports the arrangement, but makes the song more honest.
“Moonraker” paired Bassey and Barry for the final time. Bassey’s third turn on a Bond theme happened after Johnny Mathis declined the song at the last moment. Her delivery is much smoother than on “Diamonds Are Forever” and “Goldfinger,” but it compliments Barry’s lush orchestration. For the first time, Barry’s horns are pushed far to the background. His strings are suspended, weightless in space, and the arrangement is accentuated with a light touch of disco.
The formula of pairing the score composer with a lyricist and giving the song to a pop singer was very much intact as the Bond film franchise entered the ’80s (and its third decade) with “For Your Eyes Only.” Unfortunately, the results were not as memorable. Sheena Easton set a precedent when she became the first singer to perform the title song onscreen. The gauze of synthesizers and strings and forced melody have rightfully relegated the song to footnote status. The producers would have been better served accepting Blondie’s title submission, which appeared on their 1982 album, “The Hunter.”
For his 13th Bond film, Barry turned to Tim Rice, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s lyricist, for help. The result, “All Time High,” was sung by Rita Coolidge. Like Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better,” “All Time High” spent multiple weeks at No. 1 on the Adult Contemporary chart and does not share the its film’s title (in this case “Octopussy“). Unlike Simon’s song, though, “All Time High” hit the all-time low in Bond songs.
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.”