50 Years of Bond Music

2012 sees the 50th anniversary of the most enduring film franchise in cinema history.  By the golden anniversary of 1962’s Dr No, there will have been 23 James Bond adventures featuring six 007s, countless Bond villains, hundreds of beautiful Bond girls and almost two dozen of the most instantly recognisable theme songs in cinema history.

50 years of James Bond

Over five decades the music associated with the Bond films has become part of the history of the movies.  Many of the songs are as recognisable as the films themselves and have had a lasting impact on the art of composing film music.

Bond music can be split into two distinct parts.  Firstly, there are the title songs associated with each of the individual films.  From the instrumental James Bond Theme from Dr No to Alicia Keys and Jack White’s Another Way To Die from Quantum of Solace, 22 songs have thus far graced the opening credits of a Bond film.

Secondly, there are the movie scores – endless hours of instrumental songs in styles from calypso to disco, electronica to easy listening.

Before I examine the 22 title tracks that have become modern standards, it’s important to highlight the role of three men who have shaped the way that the unique sound of 007 has developed over the years.

The development of the sound of 007

Between them, Monty Norman, John Barry and David Arnold have scored seventeen films in the 007 series.  With no disrespect to George Martin, Marvin Hamlisch, Bill Conti, Michael Kamen and Eric Serra – each of whom added their own take to the Bond sound – the music we identify as a distinctly Bond soundtrack are thanks to these three men.

The first two Bond composers – Monty Norman and John Barry – met on the first Bond adventure, Dr No.  Norman had been handpicked by Bond producer Cubby Broccoli, impressed by the composer’s work on West End musical Belle or The Ballad Of Doctor Crippen.  Barry, meanwhile, was a young, talented commercial orchestrator who was asked to arrange Norman’s James Bond Theme, using a ‘big band’ sound to create the powerful sound heard on the soundtrack album.

Norman’s iconic Bond theme – not Barry’s, despite the legendary composer’s frequent assertions and court battles – was based on a song he had written some years previously for the first draft of a stage musical called The House of Mr Biswas.  The song, Good Sign Bad Sign, had an instantly catchy hook and Norman adapted the melody as an instrumental track with the result being the memorable James Bond Theme that we still love today.

While Barry may have been responsible for the arrangement of the theme, Norman remains responsible for arguably the most famous and instantly recognisable film theme in the history of cinema.  The James Bond Theme has been used in every Bond film for 50 years, and will remain as long as the franchise continues.

With Norman not interested in scoring the second Bond film, Broccoli and co-producer Harry Saltzmann shortlisted two young composers for From Russia With Love.  After his superb arrangement work on the James Bond Theme for Dr No, John Barry was the obvious choice to take the reins but the producers and director Terence Young were worried about the composer’s lack of big-screen experience.

Saltzmann preferred the talents of Lionel Bart (who would later have great success with the film Oliver!) but, after some deliberation, Barry was chosen.  In the meantime, Saltzman had committed himself to Bart and that is why the theme song From Russia With Love is a Lionel Bart composition.

The choice to hire Barry would fundamentally shape the Bond sound for each of the 20 subsequent films.  Lush orchestral arrangements became the hallmark of Barry’s work and his regular use of bombastic brass gave 007 action sequences a distinct identity.  His own themes – the likes of the 007 theme and Space March – featured regularly throughout the series and his collaborations with lyricists Don Black, Anthony Newley, Leslie Bricusse and Hal David produced some of the classic Bond title songs.

It’s impossible to understate Barry’s contribution to film music.  His five Oscars, perhaps surprisingly, were never for his work on Bound soundtracks – although 007 remains arguably his most famous work.

Barry’s final Bond soundtrack was 1987’s The Living Daylights.  The producers hired well known composers Michael Kamen and Eric Serra for the next two adventures, but by the time Tomorrow Never Dies came around, the search for a safe pair of hands was intensifying.

The 34 year old Brit, David Arnold, had been responsible for arranging and producing 1997’s Shaken and Stirred: The David Arnold James Bond Project which involved eleven contemporary artists including Pulp, Chrissie Hynde and Iggy Pop covering classic Bond themes.

John Barry was extremely complimentary about Arnold’s work, saying: “He was very faithful to the melodic and harmonic content, but he’s added a whole other rhythmic freshness and some interesting casting in terms of the artists chosen to do the songs. I think it’s a terrific album. I’m very flattered.”

Indeed, Barry was so impressed with Arnold’s work that he recommended the composer to Bond producer Barbara Broccoli who hired the 34 year old to score Tomorrow Never Dies.

Arnold’s great success was to pay great respect to the classic Barry soundtracks of old while updating the instrumentation for the PC generation.  His work on five Bond films is terrific, maintaining the traditions established by Barry while managing to introduce more synthesisers and electronica.

The real shame for Arnold was that he wasn’t allowed to write more of his title tracks.  With all the Bond soundtracks, the ones that always work the best are the ones where the composer is also responsible for penning the title track.  On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Moonraker and Octopussy are all superb as they weave Barry’s title track throughout the whole soundtrack.  Those pieces – mainly in later films – where a popular commercial artist has provided the theme in isolation – think Goldeneye, Die Another Day and You Know My Name (from Casino Royale) – lack the same cohesion.  Arnold’s soundtracks are superb but he only wrote one of the five title tracks for his 007 films.

The one remaining oddity regarding Bond soundtracks is that none of them have ever won an Oscar.  Indeed, Marvin Hamlisch’s The Spy Who Loved Me was the first Bond soundtrack to ever be nominated, as late as 1977.  While the music may be as memorable as any other film over the last five decades, the Academy has never thought it worthy of the biggest prize of all.

Bond themes amongst the most well known cinema songs ever

Live and Let DieNobody Does It BetterGoldfinger.  Three of the most famous film themes in history.  The list of great Bond themes is as long as the list of films themselves, with many of pop’s greatest artists having contributed to the Bond archives.

However, there’s an interesting contradiction when considering the Bond themes.  The producers always craved commercial success over awards, although a Bond title song has never reached number one in the UK singles charts.  Neither has a Bond song ever won the ‘Best Original Song’ at the Academy Awards, despite many of them now being recognised as modern standards.

Leslie Bricusse, lyricist on Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice recently told Andrew Collins on Radio 4: “Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, who were the producers, were only interested in the commerce of it. I don’t think the art was an important ingredient for them as they always took the person who was hottest at the time and the singer who was hottest at the time.

“So that’s why Lionel Bart who had just written Oliver got to do From Russia With Love, Shirley Bassey was hot – that’s why they picked Shirley – they picked Newley and me to write the lyric. Cubby and Harry just wanted the commercial success, which happened with quite a lot of the Bond songs.”

On the whole, the Bond themes have been commercial successes.  Ten of the themes reached the UK Top Ten, with a further six reaching the Top Forty.  Duran Duran’s A View To A Kill remains the biggest hit of them all, reaching number 2 in 1985.

Everyone has their favourite Bond song.  Whether you prefer Nobody Does It Better – one of the 20th century’s great movie love songs – or a-Ha’s terrific The Living Daylights, the argument will rage forever.  Louis Armstrong’s We Have All The Time In The World, Dionne Warwick’s Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and kd lang’s brilliant Surrender also deserve a mention as all three are fantastic examples of that most cherished of cinematic treats – a James Bond song.

The opinions expressed in the article are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the website owner.

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