Blogalongabond – Licence to Kill: A Song to Die For

Contributor Michael Mand takes a look at the rich history of Bond music, culminating with an appreciation of his own personal favourite theme tune.

The word ‘iconic’ is often overused; however, when it comes to the James Bond film series, there are undoubtedly numerous iconic elements, from the cars to the catchphrases and the actors themselves. Perhaps the most iconic Bond feature of all, however, is the music. This includes both the original Bond theme (perhaps the most instantly recognisable piece of music in all of cinema) and the individual films’ disparate theme songs, recorded by an array of contrasting artists and always the subject of competition and debate.

The iconic James Bond theme

The James Bond Theme” sets out the blueprint for the series; teeming with drama and menace, flailing horns and grandiose production. Written in 1962 in the surf rock style popular at the time, the original, defining riff was played by guitarist Vic Flick (who received a generous one-off fee of six English pounds for his performance). The authorship of the theme has been the subject of dispute over the years. Initially credited to Monty Norman, the theme was recorded by the John Barry Seven. Barry, who would go onto become the composer most associated with Bond, claimed credit for the piece, culminating in a court case which came down on the side of Norman. Since its debut in Dr No (celebrating its 50th anniversary this year) each Bond film has seen a different arrangement of the theme, often reflecting the film’s setting, star and title song.

Flick later worked with The Beatles on A Hard Day’s Night, coming under the production eye of George Martin, one of a number of producers/composers who would take the helm when Barry was unavailable. Martin teamed up with Paul McCartney for the first time post-Beatles on 1973’s Live & Let Die. The list also included Michael Kamen, Eric Serra, Marvin Hamlish & Bill Conti before David Arnold stepped into the breach full time. With directorial duties passing to Sam Mendes for the forthcoming Skyfall, Arnold has been replaced by Mendes’ long-time collaborator Thomas Newman.

Another notable musical trademark of the Bond series is the increasing tendency to use snatches of famous soundtracks from other films, as well as self-referential appearances of previous Bond themes and even the use of classical scores. One such example of the former is the appearance of Maurice Jarre’s ‘Theme from Lawrence of Arabia’ during The Spy Who Loved Me’s desert scene.

For every film an individual theme song

If the Bond series’ incidental music is familiar, then far more debate and speculation surrounds the individual theme song which usually accompanies each film’s title sequence. Matt Monroe’s version of ‘From Russia With Love’ was the first vocal track to accompany a Bond film (though it was played over the closing titles), while the following year saw Shirley Bassey make her Bond debut with Goldfinger. Bassey went on to record two further themes, and remains the only person to have had the honour of performing more than one. The use of Tom Jones and Lulu in subsequent films continued the standard pairing of mega-lunged singer with brassy, show-stopping tune.

By the 1970s and early ‘80s, this approach had given way to drippy ballads performed by female singers, including Sheena Easton’s ‘For Your Eyes Only’, Carly Simon’s ‘Nobody Does It Better’ (from The Spy Who Loved Me) and Rita Coolidge’s ‘All Time High’ (Octopussy); the latter two rare examples of theme songs which don’t share the film’s title (this trait has recently reappeared, but then you try shoe-horning Quantum of Solace into a song lyric). There was also a conscious effort to make the songs reflect contemporary musical trends, while retaining their ‘Bond-ness’; this manifested itself in the disco feel of the pre-title music in 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me and the choice of ‘80s pop titans Duran Duran & a-ha to soundtrack A View To A Kill and The Living Daylights respectively.

Increasingly, the choice of artist recording the Bond theme has become the subject of fevered speculation, competition and controversy, perhaps as much as the choice of actor to play Bond himself. While recent performers have ranged from the hopelessly naff (Madonna, Chris Cornell) to the bizarre (Jack White’s duet with Alicia Keys), it’s interesting to look at the artists who missed out, in the same way as I previously considered the actors who almost played 007.

The Pet Shop Boys submitted a version of ‘The Living Daylights’ in 1987, which was later reworked as their 1990 album track ‘This Must Be the Place I’ve Waited Years to Leave’; Alice Cooper and Blondie recorded unused versions of ‘The Man With the Golden Gun’ and ‘For Your Eyes Only’; the 1997 film Tomorrow Never Dies attracted entries from Pulp, Marc Almond, Space & The Cardigans, before the bizarre decision to opt for the dismal Sheryl Crow. Speculation is already rife about the theme to this year’s Skyfall, with Adele, Noel Gallagher, Muse & Lady Gaga among the motley crew apparently in contention. A personal preference would be for Radiohead (take a listen to ‘Down is the New Up’ from the extended In Rainbows for a taste of how this might sound) or Arctic Monkeys (recall their Glastonbury cover of ‘Diamonds Are Forever’?), while the great might-have-been is perhaps the late Amy Winehouse.

Note to Eon: Robbie Williams must NEVER be allowed near a Bond theme.

The greatest Bond theme of all time

So, to my personal favourite. As this was ostensibly to be an article about Timothy Dalton’s 1989 swansong Licence to Kill, let us turn to the film’s true star: Gladys Knight. While the film itself is a solid effort, featuring a more confident turn from Dalton than in the preceding drear-fest The Living Daylights, a plot involving personal revenge and the suspension of Bond’s 00-status (plus a surprisingly fresh-faced Benicio Del Toto as a henchman), the most memorable aspect is Knight’s magnum opus of a theme song.

The Empress of Soul (for it is she) beat a mooted collaboration between Flick and Eric Clapton to the gig and, in the absence of Barry, was paired with Narada Michael Walden (he of ‘Divine Emotions’, ‘80s fans), Jeffrey Cohen and producer Walter Afanasieff. The result was the definitive Bond theme. Borrowing liberally from Bassey’s ‘Goldfinger’, it was suitably self-referential, featured trademark brass and bluster and benefitted from a soaring vocal performance from Gladys herself. Topped off by a somewhat gangsta lyric which suggested that our Glad was ready to pop a cap in the ass of anyone who might dare try it on with her man, it was even cool enough to make its debut on Radio 1’s Big Beat Show, normally the home of hip hop and R’n’B.

‘Licence to Kill’ was the last of the great Bond themes, encapsulating all of the traits that had been established in the decades before, and overshadowing the disparate shambles who have since taken up the mantle. Somehow, I just don’t see Noel Gallagher living up to a song that remains one of the great film openers, with or without The Pips.

Blogalongabond is the ingenious brainchild of blogger The Incredible Suit. Contributor Michael Mand can be followed on Twitter @grindermand.

1 thought on “Blogalongabond – Licence to Kill: A Song to Die For

  1. Ashley Clark

    The first reference to Narada Michael Walden on PPH. It’s taken too long, frankly.

    Anyway, great piece Michael, though I have a fair amount of love for Tina Turner’s ‘Goldeneye’, even if it’s not necessarily a classic.


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