Just after the intro sequence, after the most famous and popular spy in the world smashes something in a fast paced thrilling action scene, the drama changes its form into an over-the-top cliché clad guilty pleasure music number. Okay, there’s the theme, which changed a bit over time, but only for the sake of being up to date, the main melody, progression and vibe never went anywhere. Aside from that, probably the world’s most famous piece of film music, there’s the song. Your proper pop/rock song, performed by the current big thing, with a random result. Sometimes a masterpiece, sometimes a missed opportunity that eventually does become a hit. When everything is said and done, the 'Bond song' is a great opportunity for both the film’s producers and the musicians. Let’s take a quick journey through the music sheet history of Bond films and see why the latest song fails royally.
Daniel Craig as Bond, James Bond. Photo: Sony
There are two certain things in life. The first one is that Bond gets himself suspended whenever he can, the second is that the Bond song has brass, sass and infinite class in it. Often simple in their structure, Bond songs shine musically (in the classical sense of the term) in the details, small parts and melody fills that make sure your Martini is shaken and not stirred. From her majesty’s vocal service's best voice, Dame Shirley Bassey to the likes of Adele and Jack White, the songs were dangerous and seductive, just like the 007. In order for those songs to be seductive and edgy, snappy and popular, style was always more important than substance, although the substance (lyrics) itself often represented the agent’s psychological profile in the movie.
Shirley Bassey performing in West Germany in 1973. Photo: Mallet100 /Wikimedia Commons
Some of the Bond songs stood the test of time so well that their modern pop counterparts can’t beat them in any category (this works for songs not related to Bond films too). If we make a rough cut through the fabric of Bond music, two moments stand out – Shirley Bassey’s Diamonds Are Forever and Duran Duran’s A View To A Kill. Even though the quality of the titular movies can be a topic of many many long discussions, the songs seem to have a 00 status on their own. Bassey is a Bond veteran, her voice gained her the Royal title and she made her Bond songs practically immortal, because, you know, diamonds ARE forever… Puns aside, if diamonds could be heard, they would sound like Diamonds Are Forever. The song is subtle, strong, seductive, shiny and sparkly. It has been covered a lot, too, Arctic Monkeys did a good one with that. Since 1971, the song’s been used as an example of a perfect Bond song. Until…
…Until Duran Duran came and created a boom with their own kind of pop music which was exceptionally written and performed. They introduced snappy and clever cockiness to Bond songs. The legend has it that John Taylor (band’s bass player and a lifelong Bond fan) approached Albert R. Broccoli (the franchise producer) on a party and slurred something like 'When are you going to get someone decent to do one of your theme songs?' Duran Duran being fans of the films, led to them doing the song with so much passion (it was, actually John Barry, the series’ main composer at the time, who arranged their musical ideas into the final song) that it created a new moment in Bond songs history and in pop music. It added the drama to the pop scene, and it added the pop to Bond films. After the Duran boys have done their take on Bond, only the greatest and hottest music names were to follow. The next decade (90’s) had Tina Turner sing a song written by Bono and The Edge of U2, followed by Sheryl Crow and US/UK band Garbage, which gave way to Madonna to experiment with pulpy electronic pop in Pierce Brosnan’s final instalment Die Another Day. Funny piece of trivia: Madge’s song won the best and the worst song award that year. By that time, the franchise did become a little bit trashy pulpy on-the-verge-of-SF blockbuster adventure.
When the 00 status was taken from Brosnan, Daniel Craig, the greatest shock (for now) that the Bond community had to deal with, took the wheel and the producers decided they were going for an edgy Bond, James Bond. Casino Royale gave us the grunge era rock star Chris Cornell singing You Know My Name, followed by an awkward duet of Jack White and Alicia Keys, followed by glorious Adele and her magnificent, Shirley Bassey-ish song Skyfall. With that, we come to the latest song in the series, Sam Smith’s Writing’s On The Wall. The song itself isn’t bad, but in terms of James Bond movies... It would be a perfect song for a Meryl Streep drama, not for the Spectre, which, by the way, shows a growing interest for going back to the classic Bond style. The composition feels like it was written in less than 30 minutes with a music generator application. Smith never uses his voice the way he can and it leaves us wishing for the song to end as quickly as possible, something we get for the first time in a James Bond experience. It got streamlined. One can certainly hope that the sanctity and pulpiness of a Bond song will return next time in its full grace. Until then, diamonds are forever.