When Skyfall opens in the U.S. on Nov. 9, it will be the 23rd film in the James Bond series. High-intensity action films are a dime a dozen these days, thanks largely to the successful mold pioneered by the Bond films. But the Bond franchise stands for more than just explosions, bridge leaps and car chases. Threaded neatly into each Bond film is music designed to enhance the action and adventure, and burnish the main character's cool and collected demeanor.
Prior to Bond, films and TV shows like Peter Gunn were largely about tough blue-collar private investigators who didn't scare easily and survived on their wits. In the James Bond age, the good guy was a secret agent—a cerebral white-collar spy who wasn't tracking down bank robbers but protecting the world from an odd collection of insatiably greedy evil-doers whose takeover plans were global. The music reflected both the stakes and the mission.
In Part 2 of my interview with Jon Burlingame—a film music historian at the University of Southern California and author of The Music of James Bond (Oxford)—we talk about Shirley Bassey and Nancy Sinatra, among other topics...
JazzWax: Did Shirley Bassey enjoy recording all three of her themes? Did she want to record others?
Jon Burlingame: She said she loved singing both Goldfinger and Diamonds are Forever. In fact, she did sing the planned follow-up to Goldfinger, which was Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, originally intended as the Thunderball theme. Dionne Warwick sang it too.
JW: What happened?
JB: Warwick's version had been planned for the opening titles, and when that was discarded, Bassey re-recorded it as a possible end-title song, since Tom Jones had, in the interim, recorded a new theme for Thunderball. Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang ultimately was not used and remained in the vaults until 1992.
JW: And Moonraker?
JB: Bassey recorded Moonraker as a favor to John Barry when a version by Johnny Mathis was deemed unsatisfactory. Bassey actually did an entire album of Bond themes in 1987 but chose not to release it. When it was issued without her permission, she sued and that album is now very hard to find.
JW: Who decides who sings themes, and why was that decision always pretty much spot-on? What’s the process?
JB: The success of Dr. No—and the chart success of the record version of the James Bond Theme, which hit No. 13 in the U.K.—led co-producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman to conclude that a song that could get on the radio would provide added promotional value.
JW: But the choice of singer was always pretty smart.
JB: True. Once John Barry fully took over music direction starting with Goldfinger, he would figure out who was right for a theme, who was hot at the time and who could potentially hit the charts. Then, in consultation with the producers, he’d make the choice. It didn't always work, of course. Louis Armstrong was a brilliant choice for We Have All the Time in the World for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but the song didn't chart.
JW: Who came up with the idea to have tender pop clash with mighty classical in Live and Let Die?
JB: For many years I thought that Paul McCartney came up with the tune and that George Martin invented all those orchestral pyrotechnics in the middle. But Martin has indicated that the entire idea was McCartney's, and I'm now not really surprised. Paul’s late wife Linda came up with the reggae-styled midsection of the tune—What does it matter to ya? etc. But McCartney learned a lot from working closely with Martin in the 1960s and, as you know, McCartney has written a number of orchestral works in recent years.
JW: And Martin's role?
JB: McCartney knew he needed help at the time, and called Martin to write the arrangement and conduct the orchestra for the demo. Martin's arrangement won a Grammy.
JW: Which James Bond theme recording has the oddest back-story?
JB: Probably Moonraker, which had a wonderful Paul Williams lyric and had been slated to be sung by Frank Sinatra. Johnny Mathis later sang it, but the recording was shelved and, at the last minute, Hal David wrote a new lyric. After John Barry ran into Bassey at a Beverly Hills hotel, Bassey wound up recording it days later.
JW: Any others?
JB: Tomorrow Never Dies has an odd back story as well. It was the result of a "cattle call" in which the studio invited lots of artists to submit possible songs. As vocalist Sarah Cracknell of the group Saint Etienne later said, "I remember afterward that there were loads of bands with B-sides of singles called Tomorrow Never Lies or Tomorrow Never Flies."
JW: Who was supposed to sing a Bond theme but didn't and wound up regretting it?
JB: I think, secretly, many artists—although their public reactions tend to be, "Oh, well..." A few turned down the opportunity, notably Bonnie Tyler, who said no to Never Say Never Again, one of the "unofficial" Bond films. Johnny Rivers [pictured above] was supposed to sing the vocal version of Casino Royale in 1967, another "unofficial" Bond film. But he hated the song. England's Julie Rogers sang an early version of You Only Live Twice, thinking she had the gig.
JW: What happened?
JB: When Barry and Leslie Bricusse decided to rewrite it, they called Nancy Sinatra instead. Others tried to write and submit Bond songs—notably Johnny Cash for Thunderball and Alice Cooper for Man With the Golden Gun. But they were foolish to think they had a chance when the Bond films were essentially a family operation, and John Barry was very much part of that family.
JW: The themes have done as much for the film series as the car chases and womanizing. Why exactly?
JB: The Bond songs are a surprising and unique aspect of the 007 films that can be considered within their original cinematic contexts or simply played and enjoyed on their own. No film franchise has been so successful for so long, and the Bond themes are in some ways reflective of the changes in our tastes in music as well.
JW: How so?
JB: You shift from middle-of-the-road tunes like From Russia With Love and romantic ballads like You Only Live Twice in the 1960s to the rock of Paul and Linda McCartney and softer rock of Carly Simon on Nobody Does It Better in the 1970s, the MTV-generation songs of Duran Duran and a-ha in the 1980s and the Bono/Edge contribution of Goldeneye, sung by Tina Turner, in the 1990s. And beyond, to Chris Cornell and Adele in the 2000s. It's unique and wondrous and an indelible part of the Bond mystique.
JW: Which is your favorite James Bond movie theme?
JB: I have lots of favorites. If I had to pick one vocal and one instrumental, both would be from the same film: John Barry's instrumental theme for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service—brilliantly spiced with the Moog synthesizer. I also love the John Barry-Hal David love song We Have All the Time in the World, which proves so meaningful at the end of the film when Bond gets married and tragedy ensues.
JW: Which one wins out?
JB: That’s tough. Both are very powerful, in both musical and emotional ways. Let's put it this way: I walked down the aisle at my wedding to a string quartet arrangement of We Have All the Time in the World.
JazzWax pages: Jon Burlingame's The Music of James Bond (Oxford) can be found here. It's exactly what you want—the stories behind each theme's development and sidebars that provide even deeper drill-downs.
Jazzwax tracks: Below is John Barry's theme to On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Just hover your cursor to the left of the song title in the gray bar and click the "play" triangle.
The track is from the new Best of Bond: James Bond 50 Years—50 Tracks (Capitol) two-CD set.