Sunday, January 20, 2013

Nobody Does It Better

I recently had an e-mail discussion about the James Bond films, when the talk turned to the Bond theme songs. That was when I attempted to describe Madonna’s horrific contribution to the series with Die Another Day: “Imagine Alvin and the Chipmunks singing out-of-tune through a fan, and then the music editor printing out the sheet music, feeding it through a propeller blade and reassembling the tune in whatever order came out. And you have her theme. Atrocious stuff.” Unfortunately, that description could work just as well for much of today’s music, or at least the stuff I hear. I'm afraid I've long been driven away from the world of music. Crap spews forth from the radio in seemingly-endless waves. When I go to a store or to a coffee shop I can't escape it, but I choose not to listen to any of it on my own free time.

But strictly speaking, I do listen to a type of music. I absolutely love listening to musical scores from movies, such as the work of Hans Zimmer (The Dark Knight Rises, Gladiator, and Inception are among my favourites). Another one of my passions, in case you haven’t noticed over the last little bit, is James Bond. I positively love the books of Ian Fleming and also love the series of films that they inspired. Many of these films were scored by the legendary John Barry, and I love listening to them. Some scores are better than others, of course, but Barry provided the music that kept tying the series together despite all the different actors portraying 007 throughout the years. I guess it was only a matter of time before somebody wrote a book about the music of James Bond. Enter Jon Burlingame, author of The Music of James Bond.

The Music of James Bond quite simply provides you with a history of the music of the James Bond films. This, incidentally, includes the two non-canon Bond films, Casino Royale (the plotless mess of a spoof) and Never Say Never Again (which brought Sean Connery back to the role). The story of the movies and their production is often told over and over again, but the story about the music can be just as fascinating.

We start, appropriately enough, at the beginning, with the score of Dr. No. This of course includes the famous James Bond theme and the story behind its creation. Burlingame then walks you through the entire movie’s music, showing you how it was used in various places. The formula is repeated with the rest of the Bond films up to Quantum of Solace.

This made for some fascinating reading. After all, now I know how the theme to Live and Let Die was written, and why John Barry couldn’t score a number of the Bond pictures, and it also took me through the search for a new composer after John Barry’s departure. It walked you through the composition of all the title songs, and how the philosophy slowly changed. John Barry liked to weave the theme songs into his scores, but as time went on producers became more and more concerned with making a massive pop hit rather than writing a good song, and so we got some very calculated choices, such as bringing on popular boy bands Duran Duran and a-ha, which in turn brought hordes of screaming fan-girls to premieres. (It was an innocent time; Twilight had yet to be written.) “Creative differences”, to put them mildly, were one of the big reasons that John Barry left the series after The Living Daylights.

Of course, once John Barry left, a successor had to be found, and it only took a few movies to find him: David Arnold, whose work always reminded me eerily of John Barry’s, especially at his best. I particularly liked his work on Casino Royale, which gave us the best Bond theme in recent memory. Although Thomas Newman’s score for Skyfall is perfectly acceptable, I honestly don’t think it matches Arnold’s work on the series, and there are only a few standout moments on the album. (It's still a good score but it's better when accompanying the movie.)

Let me be clear: I’m no music critic. I happen to have a decent musical ear (having taken piano lessons for years) and I know that I like some music and that other music gives me a massive headache. I can talk about it in general terms, but I won’t sit here and analyze a song note-by-note and end everything by constructing a complicated seven-dimensional graph. Neither does Burlingame. This is an easy book to understand, obviously written by a fellow admirer of the music of James Bond.

If you’re like me and love that music, this is a book for you. If you like listening to film scores this might also make for interesting reading. But mainly, this is a book that will be enjoyed by fans of the music; it’s an opportunity to discover the history behind their creation. One of the appendices, incidentally, deals with interesting potential Bond songs throughout the years, such as a Johnny Cash song called Thunderball which is still something of a mystery to Bond music fans today (it's unlikely that the producers, searching for a chart hit, would have gone with a country-edged song). Overall, this was an enjoyable read, and when I get to reviewing the Bond films later this year I hope to use some of my newfound knowledge when talking about the music.


  1. Sounds like a good read. I share your enthusiasm for (most of) the Bond music. Barry was a genius and the songs he co-wrote for OHMSS and Moonraker were under-rated at the time. The spoof Casino Royale has a brilliant soundtrack with one all time classic song and the vinyl version is much sought after.

  2. Great post!! I LOVE Bond music, I've been listening to 'em for as long as I can remember. I'm definitely buying the Best of Bond album in MP3 format, and I'll be skipping track 21 of Madonna, ugh!

  3. Very enjoyable read! I listen to Bond themes and scores at least once a week, and I never get tired of them. I've actually heard the Johnny Cash "Thunderball" theme, as it was recently released on one of his posthumous "Personal File" CDs. Definitely different from the Tom Jones version. :-)


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