Thursday, October 25, 2012

A big deal - in celebration of James Bond theme music

When you're a child everything lacks the correct perspective. That is why Marge Simpson has a huge blue ceiling-dusting beehive: because to The Simpsons' creator Matt Groening that's what his mother's hair looked like from the floor-height perspective of being a small boy.

When I was a child, small deals were big deals. Like, for example, the mother of the bass player in Mud worked in my local Sainsbury's. Or that Sally James from Tiswas lived in the area (just Google her...). The Eurovision Song Contest was another big deal, along with who won It's A Knockout and its mad continental cousin, Jeux Sans Frontières.

Doctor Who was - and, I believe, still is - a very big deal indeed. The 'appointment' of a new Doctor (yes, pedants, I know he's "regenerated", but let's live in the real world, eh?") was an enormous deal. But for me, the grand daddio of big deals is, was and always will be Bond, James Bond.

From the first time I saw clips of the Live And Let Die boat chase on Michael Rodd's groundbreaking movie quiz Screen Test, I knew Bond was going to be a big deal for me.

It was, though, a while before I actually saw a Bond film all the way through. This was the era when children actually went to bed at bedtime, and not just slope off to watch TV on their own set (in our house "the television" referred to just that - a single, living room television).

Today Bond films are available to watch at anytime on DVD or Blu-ray Disc, but then, the premiere of a Bond movie on TV was an event, and an evening event at that. As a result, I'd be lucky to watch up until the first ad break before being dispatched upstairs. My, them '70s were harsh...

Thus, the first Bond movie I saw at the cinema was The Spy Who Loved Me in July 1977. This was my tenth year, and with Star Wars also coming out that summer, it was my first immersion in proper cinema (for the record, school holiday visits to see Disney's Bedknobs & Broomsticks and Herbie Rides Again did not constitute the all-senses assault cinematic experience).

Being PI (pre-Internet), too, cinematic big deals were different. Films were marketed by tie-in toys and special edition cereal packets. Movie 'buzz' was something within the film industry, not gossip inside any old Starbucks. The Bond films, however, were - to me at least - a breed apart (and still are). Their original producers, Albert "Cubby" Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, developed their own formula for hyping up a new Bond film, and it was built around creating the same expectation each time - starting with the film before ("James Bond will return in...").

Firstly, fans would get excited about the film's opening scene. Since Dr No, released 50 years ago, a Bond movie must have it's opening 'gag', a scene that either informs the remainder of the film, or at least gets it underway with a spectacular stunt.

In the case of The Spy Who Loved Me, it was Bond being chased off a mountain by Russians angry that he'd just been shagging Ringo Starr's wife (long story). This culminated in one of the most famous stunts in film history, the ski jump by stuntman Rick Sylvester (filling in for Roger Moore) who releases a Union Jack parachute and lands to safety.

Secondly, the opening gag must dissolve into an oblique title sequence by Maurice Binder, in which silhouettes of naked women float about like cruising mermaids around the apparent silhouette of a dinner-suited man carrying a gun, which he fires, wiping into the first actual scene of the movie.

That Binder more or less repeated the same sequence each time is eclipsed by the third most vital element, one which overshadows everything else at this stage of the film and, to be honest, continues to fire debate and open argument still, 50 years after the first time you heard the words "the name's Bond, James Bond".

I am, of course, talking about The Bond Song. It is so famous, so redolent, so important, that it even has its own proper noun. Because The Bond Song is a big deal. And it began with The Bond Theme, Monty Norman's fabulous string and brass arrangement first heard over the opening credits of Dr No and featuring one of the most famous guitar riffs in history, played by Worcester Park, Surrey-born session musician Vic Flick. With his Paragon Deluxe guitar plugged into a Vox AC15 amp, Flick allowed the sound to bleed into adjacent, open microphones, creating that distinct, reverbed twang. He  received a one-off fee of £6 in the summer of 1962 for the session.

Since then, the Bond song has evolved, and has become a genre in its own right. That distinctive chord progression of the string section can be performed anywhere on its own, and people will still instantly think 'Bond'. Over the years, composer John Barry (and more recently, his 'heir' David Arnold) have, mostly, kept the Bond theme within certain parameters - sweeping strings and a strong feeling of glamour, excitement and danger.

Then there's the choice of performer. This IS a big deal. The early, Sean Connery films not only benefitted from great, detail- and style-minded directors like Terence Young, Guy Hamilton and Lewis Gilbert, but also their choice of theme songs and their singers: Matt Monro (From Russia With Love), Shirley Bassey (Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever), Tom Jones (Thunderball) or Nancy Sinatra (You Only Live Twice).

These remain - for me, at least - the quintessential Bond theme songs. With Roger Moore taking over the title role from Connery (via George Lazenby), the Bond franchise welcomed the 1970s with a change of musical direction, and Paul McCartney and Wings'  Live And Let Die. It's still a great song, with its switching of tempos from reggae to rock making it a nightmare to drive to. But then it was the first time the Bond people took a contemporary approach - something that hasn't always been a success since.

"Writing a James Bond song is a tough assignment, I should know - I've co-written one," says Sean Hannam, who when not working as a journalist is a DJ and musician. Sean is a passionate Bond fan, but equally passionate about the traditions of Bond - especially its music.

"Four years ago, after watching Quantum of Solace, I and my singer/songwriter friend Matt Hill, who records as Quiet Loner, decided to embark on a mission," Sean recalls. Together with arranger and studio wizard Will Dobson ("our very own Q!"), they set about writing their own contribution to the canon of Bond themes.

Sean explains that they'd been bitterly disappointed by the number of poor songs in recent Bond movies: "Like, for example, Jack White and Alicia Keys' blustering and bluesy Another Way To Die, which played over the opening credits of Quantum. We thought we could do much better."

Sean Hannam, Matt Hill and their studio 'Q', Will Dobson
"We went back to Ian Fleming for our inspiration - always a good place to start," Sean recalls. "Firstly, we chose the title, The Property of a Lady, from a [Ian] Fleming short story of the same name. Matt and I were attracted to the various connotations of the title: who is the lady? Could it be the Queen, could it be 'M', as portrayed by Dame Judi Dench, or could it refer to Bond himself, being the property of a lady?

"With this in mind, I penned a suitable lyric. I wanted to capture the feel of an old Bond song like Goldfinger - which is still the best Bond song by far -  but to also make it sound relevant to [Daniel] Craig's new era of 007. I thought my words should mix the camp rhymes of Goldfinger's lyricists Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, but with a touch of darkness and revenge."

The end result incorporated classic Bond song words like "danger" and "stranger'", as well as references to the deaths of Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale and Bond's new bride Tracy in On Her Majesty's Secret Service ("...those that he's loved have all withered and died...").

"If that wasn't enough to please Bond fans," Sean adds, "I also threw in some classic 007 imagery and themes –  exotic locations, girls, fire, revenge, death and destruction."

Hannam and Hill took the view that even when a new Bond actor takes over, or a new director joins the franchise, they should bring something fresh, but also tip a trilby to the past. "Judging by the reviews of Skyfall [which opens tomorrow] it manages to do this very well," Sean feels. "It pays homage to the iconic 007 films of the '60s, but also manages to play around with the formula, subverting the audience's expectations, but, ultimately, creating a very modern movie that's dark, exciting and daring, but that still captures the best of Bond."

That, Sean feels, should apply to the music as well. "It's a difficult trick to pull off. Adele's Skyfall song just sounds like one of her bland, dinner party background ballads that's been swathed in moody strings and big brass to give it some added drama. It simply isn't sexy or dangerous enough to be a Bond song. It so dearly wants to be considered as a classic, Bassey-style Bond anthem,  but, instead, it's as if someone's dressed up 007 in a cheap tuxedo from Primark."

Tough words indeed, but indicative of just how precious a film franchise Bond is. Remember when they announced Daniel Craig? Outcry that 007 - the quintessential tall, dark and handsome action hero - would be played by a shortish blond Liverpudlian. Most people now consider him to be the best Bond since Sean Connery...

When David Arnold took over from the late John Barry to score Tomorrow Never Dies, the self-confessed Bond fan had already shown form with his theme song featuring Björk for the thriller Play Dead, as well as his excellent compilation Shaken And Stirred, featuring covers of Bond themes by David McAlmont, Pulp, Propellerheads and others. It was clear that Arnold already had the formula.

And yet, the Bond producers have continued to tamper. "Madonna's Die Another Day attempted to drag Bond onto the dance floor, but ended up as a clunky orchestral-techno hybrid monstrosity," says Sean Hannam. All in all, Die Another Day was not 007's finest moment, given the CGI horror that it largely was.

The trouble with Bond theme songs is that, when poor, they act as a lightning rod of criticism for the film itself. Sheryl Crow's Tomorrow Never Dies was the wrong voice on the right song in a mostly forgettable Bond outing. Ditto Garbage on The World Is Not Enough. You have to go back to Goldeneye - written by U2's Bono and The Edge, and sung by Tina Turner - to get a half-decent, on-formula Bond theme.

Sean comments that while Soundgarden's Chris Cornell's You Know My Name from Casino Royale tried to toughen up the Bond sound to coincide with newcomer Daniel Craig's portrayal of 007, it also failed. "Failed miserably," says Sean. "It's an instantly forgettable soft rock song that lacks style, charm or excitement."

As we now know, Sean and Matt's Bond lost out to Adele for Skyfall. "If only we'd had the budget to be able to afford a full orchestra," he says. "Matt's vocals were definitely channeling crooner Matt Monro, who sang the theme to From Russia With Love  - my favourite Bond film."

Adele was a strong early choice for Skyfall. Love her or loathe her, her melodramatic balladeering, not to mention the phenomenal global success of her 19 and 21 albums more or less made her a shoe-in. There have been precedents: Lulu recorded The Man With The Golden Gun at the height of her 70s fame, while Carly Simon's Marvin Hamlisch/Carole Bayer Sager-penned Nobody Does It Better came out while she was the darling of the LA music scene. It's also a brilliant Bond song, fitting for the flared trousered, eyebrow-raising, scenery chewing lounge lizard era of Roger Moore.

So, who for Bond 24? Let me offer a surprise choice: Liam Gallagher. Just listen to I'm Outta Time from the final Oasis album Dig Out Your Soul. Written by the junior Gallagher, it had all the hallmarks of a classic Bond theme, even if from the last person you'd associate with anything about Bond.

Then there is Muse. "Forget them," says Sean bluntly. "They seem to be the popular choice with the general public at the moment, but their histrionic, prog-rock shrieking is far too over-the-top and cringe-worthy." I fully agree.

And so a suggestion Sean and I also agree upon wholeheartedly: Richard Hawley. "He’d be a dead cert to compose a heartbreaking ballad to rival Louis Armstrong's We Have All The Time In The World from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service," says Sean, who could see the Yorkshire crooner produce something dark, moody and dramatic to go with the Craig-era Bond. "What if he partnered with fellow Sheffielder Alex Turner, whose Arctic Monkeys side project, Last Shadow Puppets, are perfect at crafting swooning, cinematic soundtracks with twangy guitars and lush, orchestral backing?"

The name that comes back again and again, however, is the singer who has sung on three Bond songs and is probably the most associated with the form: Shirley Bassey. "For Skyfall," says Sean, "I think Shirley Bassey should have been invited back to belt out a new song, ideally penned by composer and arranger David Arnold and veteran lyricist Don Black.

"An Arnold, Black and Bassey collaboration would've been a fitting tribute to the 50th anniversary of the 007 movies," adds Sean, "and to John Barry, who created the Bond sound, but, sadly, died in 2011. Black once said in a TV interview that he thought Shirley should sing all the Bond songs. He's got a point. When it comes to Bond songs, nobody does it better!"

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