Over the holidays, Radiohead released their ultimately rejected contribution to the soundtrack of the latest James Bond thriller, Spectre. Lead singer Thom Yorke launched it out via Soundcloud, offering it up as a free download.
The track was set aside in favor of Sam Smith’s “Writing’s On The Wall,” a song that was met with a level of derision even the producers of the James Bond series — who have been hit and miss over the years on this subject — couldn’t have anticipated. Whatever followed Adele’s theme for Skyfall, which found the series going back to a classic sound reminiscent of earlier theme songs, was going to get some knocks. “Writing’s On The Wall” tries to mine the same vein as “Skyfall” with big dramatic flourishes, but lapses into melodrama. It doesn’t work well as a Bond theme because it is such a misread of the testosterone-fueled crux of the series.
And yet, of the two, the choice for Smith’s tune is obvious now having heard “Spectre.” Bond tunes are built with two ingredients: excess and perversity. These songs generally reach for an opulence of instrumentation that is at best gaudy, and at worst tacky and obscene. “Writing’s On The Wall” never gets to a thunderous rhythm proclaiming doom on the ramparts, but it certainly finds Smith wringing out a crying towel leaden with tears. That bigness is in line with the exacerbated emotions and scale of a Bond movie.
Radiohead’s song, although baked in with gorgeous string accompaniment, has that well-worn glitch beat pulled from the Kid A/Amnesiac mindset. That missed-the-mark pattern reminds the listener of “Pyramid Song” without the wonderful resolution of the latter, where the instrumentation drops in to clarify that the weird rhythm wasn’t weird at all. The strings look back to “Harry Patch (In Memory Of).” Rather than playing with the Bond tropes, Radiohead have made an elaborate…Radiohead song. In that context, of course the producers went with Smith who, for better or worse, has given himself over fully to what the world of James Bond seems to require, even if it never suits the character.
The other wing of the two things Bond title tracks need is perversity. What I mean by that is that the classic Bond films ask you to root for someone who you really should be rooting against. James Bond is the guy that always wins, he never dies, he takes what he wants, however he chooses, and when he feels like it. He’s not a rapist, because women are subservient to him at first glance, but he very well could be if he is compelled to by an untouchable conquest. He is a killer, and moreso, a killer without remorse. He weeps for no one. James Bond is a monster of the id, dressed in a tuxedo. How do you get people to side with that?
Apparently, you follow him into a house for Mr. Biswas. Composer Monty Norman was tapped to work on the first Bond picture Dr. No. Norman was also the composer of a musical based on the book A House For Mr. Biswas written by V.S. Naipaul, released in the early-1960s, but he could not get his head around the sound of a remorseless killing machine with insatiable appetites. He eventually adapted a song from the musical, “Good Sign, Bad Sign,” into what we recognize as the Bond theme. Although often credited as its composer — and indeed he had the lion’s share of composition duties on those early Bond flicks — John Barry was merely the orchestrator for Norman’s piece, now inextricable from the character.
By co-opting the exotic nature of the original, Norman sidestepped all of Bond’s worst traits by making him a world-traveler through music. In an era when such travel was more luxurious and unattainable than it is now, the implicit request is “just go with it.”
The series finally hit its stride with the third theme, Shirley Bassey’s booming version of “Goldfinger.” You’ll notice a trend in these early tracks that they start off in one direction and usually swing away to another. “Goldfinger” was written by Barry with lyricists Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, and in its earliest incarnation had Newley singing. This was a poor decision as the characterization of Auric Goldfinger in the song is rather smarmy, a dancer with danger, a lounge lizard draped in glamour. In other words, Newley performed Goldfinger as a parallel to Bond, not as an adversary. When Bassey took over as the vocalist, she brought with her what the song was all the time: a warning.
Her nickname was “the brassy Shirley Bassey” and there’s no question about it when you hear her belting out lines about webs of sin and their poisonous attractions. She’s almost operatic, truly a diva in the role, and it was perfectly in line with that need for excess in a Bond theme. So much so, in fact, that she was brought back for the follow-up theme for Thunderball. Only, not quite. Famously known for 007’s thinking with his testicles, having a theme song saying “Thunderball” a lot seemed like a bad choice. The song was to be “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” which is not much better. Bassey gave it her all, but in this frame her all was too much. This was a song about Bond, not his enemy, and required softening up. It was the problem that occurred when working with that first Bond track all over again.
That was achieved to a degree by the next vocalist to take a stab at it. Dionne Warwick was the 1960s chanteuse that made the team of Hal David and Burt Bacharach household names, and she did bring a softness and humanity to the animalistic traits of a song called “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” It was still a song with a stupid name though, and the film’s producers reckoned that a theme song without the movie’s name in it made no marketing sense. The immovable in the equation was that Thunderball was based on the Ian Fleming book of the same name, so that title could not change, as difficult as it was to work with.
Eventually Tom Jones was brought on and a new song was fashioned. Jones is thoroughly a professional, but one expects he had to have a couple belts of some hard drink in order to bark out “So he STRIKES…like THUNDERBALL!” with such conviction.
Most of these choices work with the 007 character, not against. Other subservient approaches include Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better,” Sheena Easton’s “For Your Eyes Only,” and Gladys Knight’s “License To Kill.” There are the few artists that forceably molded the Bond bravura into their own thing, which is a lot of what Radiohead attempted to do. The most successful in this approach was Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Live And Let Die.” Employing the same mini-suite structure heard in “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” and “Band On The Run” McCartney runs from Bondian ballad to bombast, to action score, to…reggae? Then back again.
Some will argue that the success here is due to the genius of McCartney for subversion. I don’t agree. Coming so close to the dissolution of The Beatles and the ascendancy of McCartney as solo artist, the song wins largely through antecedent goodwill. Had it been done by another artist at that time, it would have been drubbed as an apostasy against the church of 007. (It has been, since then, done by MANY other artists.)
Another group that successfully wrapped Bond around their fingers was Duran Duran with A View To A Kill, but the feat was not all that difficult. With sexually voracious and world-traveled tunes like “Hungry Like The Wolf” and “Rio,” one could argue that Simon LeBon and company were already leading a life of agents with license to (lady) kill. Taking John Barry’s orchestrated theme and hammering it into their mold, what comes out on the other side is a killer Duran Duran tune that just happens to work exactly as one expects a Bond theme to. Both sides win.
While I like this tune a lot, the downside of making a Bond theme yours first and foremost is that you might not have a firm grip on hat that means. A-ha’s “The Living Daylights” is a terrific track — one of my favorite themes from this series, believe it or not — but it is hard to dispute it is more like A-ha making a Duran Duran song for Bond than them making a Bond song themselves.
It would not be long before the trend swung in the other direction, back toward the expectations of the series versus the subversion of it. That began with Tina Turner’s version of “Goldeneye” written by Bono and The Edge of U2. It was not a U2 type of song, but Turner gave the vocals that tight, two-fisted approach that made it an honorable successor to Shirley Bassey. In retrospect though, as a very specific theme, it feels like a sequel to “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” Turner’s theme from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, a song I think is superior on both counts — as a representation of the film’s narrative and just as a song you want to hear.
But it started the series back on a road, and that eventually led to possibly one of the best and most unlikely pairings between these movies and an artist. “The World Is Not Enough” was performed by Garbage, led by the dynamic Shirley Manson. The movie itself is supremely stupid, featuring Denise Richards as a sexed-up scientist named Christmas Jones, thus giving Pierce Brosnan’s 007 the opportunity to say, “I think Christmas is going to come twice this year.” (Facepalm.)
The Garbage this is so much smarter. It both wallows in and retrofits the cliches found in the theme songs. Manson sings as the prey, the hunted, such as all the Bond girls seem to be, and does so in a classic, highly orchestrated fashion. But she also sings like a hunter, an active participant, a dangerous character that is not passively taking whatever Bond is giving. Heck, she might even be Bond herself. It is a tricky and well-played gambit.
Daniel Craig has said, off and on, that Spectre will be his last Bond film. He’s had enough, and indeed these movies take a lot out of actors. Aside from being inextricable from them for the rest of your career — with Sean Connery being the only exception — the same character can only go through the motions so long before the actor has had enough. That doesn’t mean that Bond films are dead though. That almost never means that. Even when George Lazenby took over for Connery for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the closing credit remained “James Bond Will Return” even though Lazenby did not. It was Connery doing the returning for Diamonds Are Forever, right along with Shirley Bassey in the theme, with producers doing their damnedest to claw back fans from a drastic change.
Such changes are equally reflected in the musical approaches. When Roger Moore left, so did the campy sheen, traded in favor of the grittier Timothy Dalton. Pierce Brosnan returned Bond to glamour, glitz, and absurdity. Craig was all about stripping down the character rather than building him up. In each film, something that is key to the legend of the 007 character is taken, destroyed, or turned on its head. James Bond was turned inside out like a glove in this arc. The speculation is that the next actor will likely catapult from the darkness into a broader, lighter format. An analog would be like a move away from DC Comics serious grit to Marvel Comics universe-rebuilding. I suspect that we will see this when (if?) the next Bond gets announced in 2016.
Until then, anything can happen on the music side. they could double-down on the legacy. They could swing wide and have the newest pop sensation take a crack at it. About the only thing that is certain is that, whatever they do, excess and perversity will be unavoidable parts of the final product.