James Bond - Killer Tracks
After an arid decade of misses, Jack White and Alicia Keys have revived the fortunes of the James Bond title song. Rodge Glass ponders the art of writing 007 themes
When Bond's latest music maker, Jack White, told Rolling Stone magazine recently that he wanted to 'join the family of Barry, Bassey, Connery and Craig', he cleverly omitted any reference to the occasional black sheep of the 007 family.
After all, writing a great Bond theme should be easy. Start off with a dramatic orchestral intro, hire a crooner with a big voice to sing something mysterious about danger in an over the top manner (preferably including the title of the film), throw in a dash of sentimentality in the middle eight (to play during the love scene), add a fanfare ending, plenty of haunting brass, and voila - success! Right? Well, not quite.
James Bond returned in Goldeneye in 1995 after a six year break; since then, every official theme tune has been a stinker. From Sheryl Crow's pedestrian 'Tomorrow Never Dies', to 'The World is Not Enough' by Garbage, (the only time they didn't sound scary in their whole career) the bosses have got it wrong time and again. Does anyone remember Madonna's tuneless dirge 'Die Another Day'? In fact, does Madonna even remember it? How about Chris Cornell's 'You Know My Name' from Casino Royale? That seemed the strangest choice of all. Even roping in David Arnold, who has scored the last five Bond films, failed to save that one. But it wasn't always this way.
Most of the theme songs up to 1989's Licence to Kill were not only hits at the time of the release, but the best of them also symbolised the films they came from. They became shorthand for the time period, made careers for some (Sheena Easton), resurrected the careers of others (Gladys Knight), and were initially Bond-associated but grew to have a life of their own too. The most popular and lasting of these are Shirley Bassey's 'Goldfinger' and 'Diamonds are Forever' (recently covered by the Arctic Monkeys during their Glastonbury headline slot), but there were also the likes of Duran Duran's 'A View to a Kill' or A-ha's 'The Living Daylights', both of which had all the over-the-top drama of 80s pop but suited the films they featured in as well. Back in the 70s, Paul McCartney's 'Live and Let Die' was just about the only time he has ever managed to sound edgy, and even Carly Simon's 'Nobody Does it Better' from The Spy Who Loved Me is now a wedding song staple. Not all the old themes got it right, though. Tom Jones's Thunderball attempt is still the least popular of all, along with 'All Time High' from Octopussy, by Rita Coolidge, now totally forgotten by all but the most avid Bond followers. But the old hit rate was a lot better than it is now. So what to do for Quantum of Solace? Call in a true fan who understands the tradition, plays John Barry's Bond soundtracks in the back of the tour bus, and actually wants to do it. Enter Mr Jack White.
'You're definitely taking on a responsibility - there's a tradition of powerful music in all these films,' White has said of his duet with Alicia Keys on 'Another Way to Die.' 'But that's why I'm involved creatively with music - for challenges like this. That's what I live for.'
The collaboration - the first duet in Bond soundtrack history - sounds like the kind of thing MTV would dream up for the finale of their annual awards bash, probably with fireworks going off somewhere. It should be terrible. But virtually everything Jack White touches turns to gold, which is partly why the folks at Bond HQ approached him to write this song - that is, after they finally realised Amy Winehouse probably wouldn't be able to stand up for long enough to record her vocal to go with Mark Ronson's backing track. They can't afford any more risks, or another flop. Thankfully, 'Another Way to Die' is the best Bond theme in years, taking all the elements fans identify with but updating it in a way that isn't crass, or cheesy, or a pale pastiche of previous efforts. The strings swell slowly in the verse. The brass is lazy in all the right places, with sharp, fast-paced stabs in the chorus à la John Barry. Keys' piano part is dark and theatrical, and the guitar has that buzzy, half-strangled sound that's all over the last White Stripes and Raconteurs albums.
007 himself, Daniel Craig, has said of the film: 'I'm really happy with the style of this movie. I think we've nodded back to the old ones and some of the old Bond ideas, but we've made an incredible individual movie.' And White was keen to channel that sentiment in the music.
'I'm excited to be part of this time period of Bond,' said White. 'I think Daniel Craig is the most exciting thing to happen to this period of film, and he's bringing something very fresh to it'.
Bond composer David Arnold has said of the latest Bond incarnation, 'It's got a kind of dirty, ugly, but very kind of sexy feel to it.' It's also sinister, because White has written it to fit in with the themes of the film, with the chorus ending: 'a man on your side/someone you think you can trust/is just another way to die'. White has said of the track: 'The whole song is about trust. After reading the script, I started to focus on Bond and his inability to trust anyone, even himself … Then I had the idea of Alicia being involved and us doing a duet, and that got me on to having male and female takes on the same idea.'
It may seem like a strange union, but while they're in different fields White and Keys have plenty in common, and it makes sense that they should be admirers of each other's music. Few women in American R&B actually play an instrument, write their own material and take inspiration from the likes of Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone, but Alicia Keys has managed to carve out a place as those divas' obvious heir in a business that rarely allows time for artists to grow, change or take risks.
Like White, Keys has steadily built a following, picked up tons of awards, started an occasional acting career and developed a reputation for writing odd, ambitious popular music with real soul. She also has a voice that makes many of her contemporaries look very ordinary. As 'Another Way to Die' is produced, written and mainly played by White (he even plays drums here, so watch out Meg, now he really doesn't need you) it does sound more like him than her. But as in the best Raconteurs songs, the dual vocal really works, with the occasional wailing and ad-libbing that sometimes spoils Keys' solo material reigned in here to good effect.
The singer has admitted she had hoped to work with White for a while. 'When the idea of collaborating with Jack White on this theme came up I was very excited because I'm a very big White Stripes fan, and I've always wanted us to work together.' White agrees, adding, 'We're both coming to the world of Bond from different places, so we both had our eyes wide open.'
Not everyone likes 'Another Way to Die' of course, but among Bond aficionados it seems to have enthusiastic approval. Alright, so Noel Gallagher hates it, but his problem seems to be more about the fact that he wants to write a Bond theme himself, and doesn't like the fact that 'the greatest British agent of all time has to be soundtracked by a bunch of fucking Americans.' Well, perhaps Bond fans should be thankful the Americans took over. Since Noel hasn't gotten around to finishing his attempt yet, someone had to step in. And after the famously aborted Winehouse idea the odds were on a Leona Lewis ballad for a while there. Think how bad that could have been … and rejoice!
Dr No, Die Another Day, For Your Eyes Only, From Russia With Love, Live and Let Die and Thunderball are all available on Blu-ray from MGM & Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. Quantum of Solace is out on Fri 31 Oct.