No matter what era they take place or which actor is brandishing the Walter PPK, there are several essential components to any Eon-produced James Bond film: a cunning villain, loads of beautiful women, eye-catching gizmos, and an instantly familiar score. There is distinctive musical language that characterizes Bond’s cinematic adventures, credit for the development of which largely goes to composer John Barry, who scored a dozen films featuring Ian Fleming’s hero between 1962 (the franchise-launching Dr. No) and 1987 (The Living Daylights). It was Barry’s favoritism for certain musical keys and his repetition of that familiar guitar riff set to traditional orchestration — bolstered by a particularly muscular brass section — that has persisted through the adventures of six leading actors, and makes the audience immediately aware that no matter which actor is up on screen that they are watching a film about Agent 007 and not, say, Simon Templar or Jason Bourne or any other super spy you could care to name.
Central to each Bond film’s soundtrack is the title theme, which often (but not always) shares its name with that of the movie it is featured in, and is performed by a pop superstar. Over the last five decades, the Bond title theme has become as recognizable a musical form as the power ballad or the drinking song, and a veritable who’s who of music superstars have competed for the honor being chosen to sing for the secret agent’s latest cinematic adventure. Yet for every Paul McCartney or Madonna who’ve been able to add “Did a Bond theme” to their list of accomplishments, many more marquee names — including Alice Cooper, Blondie, Johnny Cash, Pet Shop Boys, and Pulp, among others — have had their efforts rejected by Eon. Sometimes the pairing of an artist and those Barry motifs is so right that it feels like its realization is inevitable — Adele was mooted as an obvious choice for years by music scribes, and now she sings the title song for this year’s Skyfall. Yet Eon’s judgment is not sacrosanct, which is unfortunate when a song comes along that’s so Bondian you wish that it had made the titles instead of some of the blander offerings that have actually received the official nod.
In honor of 50 years of Bond music, Sound Affects offers up five songs that would slot in admirably between gun sight eye-views and complicated stunt pieces. This list doesn’t concern itself with songs actually pitched as Bond themes (though I do enthusiastically recommend looking up Saint Etienne’s submission for Tomorrow Never Dies, and Johnny Cash’s “Thunderball” must be heard to be believed). Rather, it concisely illustrates that the James Bond film series’ cultural resonance is so profound that all it takes is an unmistakable twang of a guitar string, a well-timed blast of brass, and a certain sultriness of the voice to instantly bring to mind one man and one man only. Hint: his last name is Bond.
ABC – “Poison Arrow”
When this Sheffield group hooked up with producer Trevor Horn in the early 1980s, its members told the former Buggles frontman that they wanted to make “superhuman” records. Horn more than obliged, and the end result was The Lexicon of Love, a cinematic post-punk fusion of disco grooves, Dylanesque wordplay, and Rat Pack debonair that set the tone for much of British pop for the next decade. Though Lexicon on the whole sounds like the sort of music 007 would perpetually keep in his Aston Martin’s CD player, it is “Poison Arrow” that must be singled out as the album’s apex. It is a melodramatic lament of poisoned love and betrayed intentions, conveniently adorned with a title that conflates love and danger and containing at least one sexual entendre in the lyrics. It’s hard to choose what is more thrilling, the tension-building pre-chorus or Martin Fry’s skyscraping falsetto chorus.
Depeche Mode – “Policy of Truth”
If the Bond film series wasn’t on hiatus during the first half of the ’90s, Depeche Mode would’ve been a worthy choice to pen a number for a soundtrack in that period. Coming off of its most successful album Violator (1990), the synthpop quartet had parlayed its marriage of gloom-laden romanticism, pop savvy, and forward-thinking production to essentially become the Beatles of electronic music. Early ’80s rival Duran Duran got a shot at recording a Bond theme (1985’s “A View to a Kill”), and the darker yet still accessible Mode certainly warranted — and still warrant — one. In unlikelihood of any opportunities for the foreseeable future, the smoldering “Policy of Truth” makes for a fitting could-have-been choice. “Truth” deals with typical Depeche themes of guilt and penance, drawn out in tantalizingly measured tones by an ice-cool Dave Gahan.
Monaco – “What Do You Want From Me?”
The ’90s New Order side project Monaco boasts a name straight out of a Bond plot outline, and “What Do You Want from Me?” has the sleek jet-set vibe to match. Never mind Peter Hook’s gravelly verses, it’s the “Sha-la-la la la-la-la” hook, that sweeping chorus, and that phenomenal bridge section — all urgent guitar and swelling strings — that necessitate the presence of this song playing over a packed movie theater’s sound system.
Portishead – “Sour Times”
Really, you could make a case for most any cut off of Portishead’s Dummy to appear in a 007 adventure, for references to John Barry’s ’60s themes were but one of the many retro reference points that waft freely throughout the 1994 trip-hop masterwork. Yet it is on the desolate single “Sour Times” that the ’60s spy guitar is at its slinkiest and the strings at their most foreboding, while Beth Gibbons manages to sound both seductive and tortured in the most understated manner possible. Gibbons’ repeated cries of “Nobody loves me” may seem too vulnerable for a Bond theme, but the less emphatic yet equally crucial follow-up line “Not like you do” brings the song back into Fleming-friendly tempestuous-romance territory.
Spandau Ballet – “Gold”
Though not intended as a proposed film theme per se, Spandau’s Gary Kemp has stated that his group’s 1983 hit “Gold” was his attempt to write a Bond theme-style song, and openly acknowledges the influence of John Barry. If only the ’80s 007 filmography could’ve found a place for it. All simmering danger and overblown strings and brass, Kemp utterly nailed the Bond/Barry motifs when writing this epic number, and singer Tony Hadley gamely belts it out with a force to rival Tom Jones’ stunning performance on the Thunderball theme. Even if Spandau never got a chance to score a Bondian opening credits shot, the globe-trotting music video is an able substitute, even going as far as to reference Shirley Eaton’s death-by-gold-bodypaint scene from Goldfinger.