The ingredients of a great James Bond movie title song
- Alex Johnston
- 25 September 2015
We break the songs of 007 down into their basic tropes and see how Sam Smith's measures up
There are great Bond theme songs, there are humdrum Bond theme songs, and then there's 'The Living Daylights'. The recent internet kerfuffle about who was going to sing the next Bond song, the outcome of which we completely failed to predict [Editor: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ win some, lose some], shows that the Bond song is still a crucial component of a Bond movie, raising the curtain, setting the tone and perfuming the atmosphere. The late John Barry created the template between 1964 and 1971: 'Goldfinger', 'You Only Live Twice', 'We Have All The Time In the World' and 'Diamonds are Forever' are still what we think about when we think about a Bond title song.
It took a Beatle to demonstrate that you didn't have to be John Barry to write one. Wings's 'Live and Let Die' is rightly celebrated for its combination of wide-eyed Macca insouciance and orchestral hysteria. Nevertheless, during the Seventies, the Bond music began to pong a bit. 'Moonraker' is a dull, safari-jacketed attempt to recapture the thrill of the 60s and 'The Man with the Golden Gun' is an abject trainwreck, but Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager's 'Nobody Does It Better', sung by Carly Simon, is second only to 'Diamonds are Forever' as the best Bond song of the decade.
The 80s were the nadir. A-ha's 'The Living Daylights' is a song you forget even while you're listening to it. 'Licence to Kill' shamelessly stole the hook from 'Goldfinger' and failed to catch anything with it. Duran Duran managed an injection of melodrama with 'A View to a Kill', but quality control was properly restored by, of all people, Bono and The Edge. 'GoldenEye' brilliantly exploited the menace in Tina Turner's voice, and almost but not quite makes you forgive U2 for forcibly downloading their crappy album into the iTunes libraries of the world.
Since then, the Bond songs have been fairly consistent if not always inspired. Madonna's 'Die Another Day' suffers from some oh-so-2002 Autotune warbling, but is redeemed by its bonkers video, in which Madge fences with herself, gets dunked in a bucket of water by prison guards and at one point inexplicably exclaims 'Sigmund Freud!' No, we don't know what that's about either.
The last Bond song, Adele's 'Skyfall', was the best since the Connery years. And then Sam Smith gave us 'Writing on the Wall', of which more below. So what are the ingredients of a great Bond song, and how does Mr Smith's effort measure up?
A Bond song can't amble, skip, bounce or be wishy-washily soulful (sorry, Sheryl Crow). Death, preferably in the form of heavily-armed mooks, has to be around the next corner. It helps to be in a minor key, although 'Goldfinger', the most iconic Bond song of all, is actually major key. Tension is crucial. More than it needs to make you cry, a Bond song needs to excite you.
Verdict: Sam Smith sounds less like he's crouching in the shadows with a gun, more like he's been staring for hours at the Photos section of an ex-girlfriend's Facebook page.
2. An orchestra
You can't have a Bond title song without an orchestra. You just can't. Ask A-ha.
Verdict: 'Writing on the Wall' has strings all right, but it's a tinkly piano ballad and the strings are deployed with far too much good taste.
3. A leather-lunged singer capable of serious decibels
You got to be able to shout that orchestra down, baby. Shirley Bassey is the Bond singer emeritus in this respect, but special mentions go to Simon Le Bon, Chris Cornell and k.d. lang, whose 'Surrender', sung over the end titles of Tomorrow Never Dies, was considerably better than the main title song. Trivia fact: in order to be able to generate that huge final note in 'Goldfinger', Miss Bassey had to duck behind a studio partition and take off her bra. Talk about commitment.
There are exceptions: Louis Armstrong delivered 'We Have All The Time In The World' with cool restraint, and Adele's relatively light voice was perfect for a song that explored Bond's vulnerable side. But in general, you need to crank it.
Verdict: Sam, there's vulnerable, and there's being a big girl's blouse.
4. Decent lyrics
A good Bond title song will have lyrics that live up to the music. Even the great have slipped up: Don Black, whose lyrics for 'Diamonds are Forever' are majestically angry, also wrote the awful 'The Man with the Golden Gun'. But the best Bond songs have worked on more than one level. 'Nobody Does It Better' is wittily self-admiring, 'GoldenEye' is in part about the experience of watching a Bond film; 'You Know My Name' is an appropriately swaggering way to introduce a new actor to the role.
Verdict: 'Writing on the Wall' contains the line 'I never shoot to miss.' 'Shooting to miss' is not A Thing. It's just missing.
5. A shout-out to previous Bond music
There are certain musical figures which sound distinctively Bondian, and one of them is playing off the tonic note against the second; you hear it in Monty Norman's Bond theme (dang da-da dang dang), and in the second and third notes of the phrase 'Gold-fing-gahhhh!' 'Writing on the Wall' alludes to this figure with its opening string phrase over minor harmony, but having established the track as sounding vaguely moody in a Bondian sort of way the song then goes, well, job done, and mopes off feeling sorry for itself.
Final Verdict: 'Writing on the Wall' takes its place alongside Rita Coolidge's 'All Time High' and the Pretenders' 'If There Was A Man' on the list of Bond songs that, if you manage to remember them in a trivia quiz years from now, will score you crucial bonus points and make everyone think you're weird.
Spectre is released in the UK on Mon 26 Oct.