Narendra Kusnur's music musings …


This is the end
Hold your breath and count to ten
Feel the earth move and then
Hear my heart burst again

ADELE’S mesmerising voice fills the air the moment the train-top action sequence concludes in the latest James Bond movie ‘Skyfall’, and the credits are shown against an underwater scene. For the British singer, the entry into the prestigious James Bond club is another feather in the cap, after the string of Grammys she won earlier this year for her album ‘21’.

Musically, Bond has always been beautiful. Over the past 50 years, ever since ‘Dr No’ was released in 1962, the soundtrack has played an extremely important role in James Bond movies, with film enthusiasts following the score as much as the action scenes and cinematography, other essential ingredients of the brand. While the ‘James Bond Theme’ is one of the most recognised pieces of film music ever, the choice of the title track’s singer has also been a subject of much discussion, especially since Shirley Bassey rendered the marvellous ‘Goldfinger’ back in 1964.

Here, let’s talk of the film scores first, and then discuss the songs.

The extra-popular ‘James Bond Theme’ was written by Monty Norman for ‘Dr No’, though a controversy arose when John Barry, who led the orchestra in that film and composed several subsequent themes, claimed it was his score. In fact, Barry has composed the soundtrack for nine of the 23 Bond films, followed by David Arnold, with five newer ones.

Other well-known film composers to wield the Bond baton include Marvin Hamlisch (‘The Spy Who Loved Me’) and Michael Kamen (‘Licensed to Kill’). In ‘Skyfall’, director Sam Mendes, working on his first Bond movie, stuck to close associate Thomas Newman, who composed music in his earlier ventures ‘American Beauty’, ‘The Road to Perdition’ and ‘Revolutionary Road’.

The music in Bond movies is very situational, and often captures the mood of the moment perfectly. For each composer ― and there have been quite a few ― the challenge is to sound absolutely fresh with each film, and yet retain the basic theme as often as possible.

Various people have re-arranged Bond tunes for commercial release. Recently, EMI Music has put out a collection of original pieces to mark 50 years of the brand. And if you’re looking for an absolutely amazing compilation, check out a CD called ‘The Very Best of James Bond Themes’, played to exceptional arrangements and superb jazz improvisations  by the Undercover Agents Orchestra. A very rare CD, and if you find it, you’ll be lucky.

While most new Bond themes have retained elements of the original piece, the title songs are as varied as can be, ranging from soulful balladry to rocking grunge to synthesiser-driven pop. Welsh diva Shirley Bassey has done the most songs – besides ‘Goldfinger’, she had the unforgettable ‘Diamonds are Forever’ and ‘Moonraker’.

Interestingly, a large number of title songs have been sung by women. Popular ones are Nancy Sinatra (‘You Only Live Twice’), Carly Simon (‘Nobody Does it Better’ in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’), Tina Turner (‘Golden Eye’, interestingly written by Bono and The Edge of U2) and Sheena Easton (‘For Your Eyes Only’) Others are by Rita Coolidge (‘All Time High’ in ‘Octopussy’), Lulu (‘The Man With The Golden Gun’), Madonna (‘Die Another Day’), Gladys Knight (‘Licensed to Kill’), Lani Hall (‘Never Say Never Again’) and Sheryl Crow (‘Tomorrow Never Dies’).

The men singing Bond title songs include Matt Monro (who was superb in ‘From Russia with Love’, effortlessly hitting the high notes towards the end), the versatile Tom Jones (‘Thunderball’) and Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell (who gives a grunge feel to ‘You Know My Name’ in ‘Casino Royale’). Jazz legend Louis Armstrong sang the secondary tune ‘We Have All The Time in the World’ in ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’. And of course, Paul McCartney was joined by his band Wings on ‘Live And Let Die’, where the music was composed by Beatles associate George Martin.

The Bond catalogue has also heard some unusual renditions, which foray into experimental territory. The duet by Jack White and Alicia Keys in the ‘Quantum Of Solace’ song ‘Another Way to Die’, and British new wave band Duran Duran’s ‘A View to A Kill’ were totally different from most songs from the genre. Norwegian duo A-ha did a synth-pop piece in ‘The Living Daylights’, whereas alternative rock band Garbage came up with the neatly orchestrated ‘The World is Not Enough’.

Another lesser-noticed characteristic of James Bond music is the tendency of composers to use tunes written by others. Besides western classical composers Mozart, Vivaldi, Tchaikovsky and Chopin, Bond movies of the past have included popular themes from other films like ‘The Magnificent Seven’, ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and ‘Dr Zhivago’. In ‘Skyfall’, the climax features an extract of the Animals’ 60s version of John Lee Hooker’s ‘Boom Boom’.

In the end, while the signature theme remains an eternal favourite, which Bond song has been the most popular?

General belief would hint at Bassey’s ‘Goldfinger’ or ‘Diamonds Are Forever’, but a BBC Radio poll conducted a couple of months ago sprung a surprise by declaring Paul McCartney and the Wings’ ‘Live and Let Die’ as the winner,  followed by Carly Simon’s ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ song at second spot, with  ‘Goldfinger’ strangely making it to No 3.

‘Goldfinger’, of course, is currently leading a poll conducted by The Telegraph London website, garnering 21 per cent of the votes, much ahead of Adele’s ‘Skyfall’ ― No 2 at 13 per cent ― and A-ha’s ‘The Living Daylights ― third at 12.5 per cent. This survey, however, gives participants an option of only 11 songs.

The poll results may not really matter, as each person would have his or her own favourite, and answers would also depend on the age profile of the participants. What’s consistent is the quality of the Bond songs, even though the styles of various performers have differed vastly.

So while we celebrate 50 years of this magnificent music, let’s again soak in Adele’s voice, which is the flavour of the season.

Let the sky fall, when it crumbles
We will stand tall
And face it all together
Let the sky fall, when it crumbles

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Comments on: "For Your Ears Only: The music of James Bond revisited" (3)

  1. 19.11.12

    Dear Naren:

    To yet another marvellous blog, I must add trivia obtained from BILLBOARD…

    Last week, the soundtrack to “Skyfall” became the highest charting album in the James Bond film franchise since 1985, as the set arrived at No. 100 on the Billboard 200 chart. The Sony Masterworks album entered the chart with 5,000 copies sold according to Nielsen SoundScan, marking the highest rank for a Bond album since “A View to a Kill” shot to No. 38 on July 27, 1985.

    Notably, “Skyfall” is only the second Bond soundtrack in the franchise’s 50-year history not to include its corresponding title theme (the other: 2006’s “Casino Royale”).

    The “Skyfall” soundtrack consists entirely of the film’s score by 10-time Academy Award nominee Thomas Newman. Generally speaking, the Bond soundtracks are nearly all-score affairs, but they usually include the title song and, perhaps, a few other vocal recordings.

    While it’s not on the album, Adele’s rendition of “Skyfall” is commercially available as a stand-alone digital single (via XL Recordings/Columbia Records) and rises 56-33 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song, which debuted and (so far) peaked at No. 8, sold 91,000 downloads in the week ending Nov. 11 (a gain of 66% over the previous week).

    “Skyfall” is the first Bond film soundtrack to chart during Daniel Craig’s tenure as the title character. He has been Bond in three films thus far (“Skyfall,” “Quantum of Solace,” and “Casino Royale”). Previous to the week under reference, the last Bond set to reach the tally was 2002’s “Die Another Day” (No. 156).

    “Skyfall” arrives after the film’s blockbuster release in the U.S. and Canadian theaters, racking up the largest opening weekend in the series’ history — $88.4 million in the three-day span between Nov. 9 and 11, according to Box Office Mojo.

    Here’s a look at how all of the James Bond film soundtracks have charted on the Billboard 200:
    [In the order of: Title, Peak, Peak Year]
    “Skyfall,” No. 100 (so far), 2012
    “Die Another Day,” No. 156, 2002
    “Tomorrow Never Dies,” No. 197, 1998
    “GoldenEye,” No. 180, 1995
    “A View to a Kill,” No. 38, 1985
    “Octopussy,” No. 137, 1983
    “For Your Eyes Only,” No. 84, 1981
    “Moonr aker,” No. 159, 1979
    “The Spy Who Loved Me,” No. 40, 1977
    “Live and Let Die,” No. 17, 1973
    “Diamonds Are Forever,” No. 74, 1972
    “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” No. 103, 1970
    “You Only Live Twice,” No. 27, 1967
    “Thunderball,” No. 10, 1965
    “Goldfinger,” No. 1 (for three weeks), 1965
    “From Russia With Love,” No. 27, 1964
    “Dr. No,” No. 82, 1963

    Yes, I am a follower of the respective title tracks but, unfortunately, not the soundtracks. Nevertheless, it provides us yet another musical bond, as it were…

    Warm regards,
    Parag

    • Thanks Parag for the wonderful trivia. Interestingly, the Adele single has been released by EMI as a tw0-track CD (vocal version plus instrumental) at Rs 99. Probably has to do with Adele’s recording contract

  2. […] Read the unedited version of this article on the author’s blog here. […]

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