If you want lessons in womanizing, dressing to the nines, or ordering martinis, James Bond is your man. If, however, you’re looking for a review of British music history over the last 50 years, the world’s favorite secret agent has no idea what he’s doing.
Oscar nominations were announced in early January and, to no one’s surprise, they jumped on the “let’s give Adele a shot at another trophy” bandwagon. Even if the Academy doesn’t follow the Golden Globes’ lead and gift “Skyfall” with the prize for Best Original Song, the movie of the same name has already won. The 23rd film in the James Bond series is also its biggest grosser (“Billion Dollar Bond: ‘Skyfall’ Crossed $1 Billion Milestone”, ABC News, 30 December 2012). Even before Bond burst into billion-dollar territory, the franchise had been called, depending on how one crunches the numbers, the most successful of all time (“The Biggest Movie Franchises of All Time in 2 Charts,” The Atlantic, 19 July 2012).
The songs accompanying these blockbusters have often been hits as well. Roughly half have gone top ten in the US or UK. A handful, including “Skyfall”, have done it on both sides of the Atlantic.
Don’t, however, let the hit status of these songs fool you. Everyone’s favorite British Secret Service employee may be a complete original, but when it comes to literally marching to his own drummer, his ability to rock a tux does not mean he knows how to rock your radio.
The relative “it” factor and success of “Skyfall” aside, most of the 007 themes over the years reveal an institution largely determined to ignore musical trends in favor of saccharine ballads to pipe into elevators. No, I’m not talking about the Grammy Awards committee (often famously derided as “the Grannies”), although there are alarming similarities.
Let’s rewind half a century to October 1962. The first James Bond film, Dr. No, opened in the UK Sean Connery took on the role of the famous secret agent created in a series of novels by Ian Fleming. The character’s look, uncanny knack with women, and mastery of whatever new-fangled technology came his way made him one of cinema’s greatest icons.
The legendary film franchise is one of the most famous exports in British history, but it takes a backseat in his Aston Martin when compared to the Fab Four. While Bond was taking out bad guys, The Beatles were taking over radio. The band from Liverpool also thrust itself on the UK scene in October 1962 with its chart debut of “Love Me Do.” Their look, uncanny knack with women, and mastery of whatever new-fangled technology came their way made them one of music’s greatest icons.
However, one icon was a gang of hippies with mop-top hair who made beatnik music for teeny-boppers. The other icon looked dressed and groomed for, well, a Grammy ceremony.
Naturally, the tuxedoed gent’s musical tastes aligned pretty well with his well-dressed Grammy brethren. While American radio and retail was being reinvented by the Beatle-led British Invasion, Grammy love was doled out to throwbacks like Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong. Meanwhile, 007 themes were crooned by people like Frank Sinatra-soundalike Matt Monro (“From Russia with Love” from 1963’s film of the same name) and, well, Louis Armstrong (“We Have All the Time in the World” from 1969’s Her Majesty’s Secret Service).
Oh, both institutions acknowledged Paul McCartney and Co., but they were cases of either too little (the handful of Grammys the Beatles did receive) or too late (Paul’s other band, Wings, recorded the title song to 1973’s Live and Let Die).
Live and Let Die marked the franchise’s first acknowledgment of the existence of rock and roll and debuted Roger Moore as Bond. However, the next decade was pretty much a return to form. Rock in the '70s was defined by Led Zeppelin’s stamp on heavy metal and Pink Floyd’s brand of psychedelic and progressive rock. By decade’s end, the Sex Pistols and The Clash led rock and roll’s first revolt against itself. Meanwhile everyone’s favorite martini-swilling womanizer went right back to swaying to adult-contemporary-ready ballads sung either by UK natives (Lulu, Shirley Bassey, Sheena Easton) or US counterparts trolling the same sonic ground (Carly Simon, Rita Coolidge).
Even as Bond refused to change, the music of the '80s was in constant motion. The punk movement transformed into new wave which in turn fueled the Second British Invasion as synth-driven British bands flooded the living rooms of American teens desperate for music videos. The fledging network MTV built its platform on a steady reservoir of the promo clips popular on British music shows. Bands with big hair, bold clothing, and behemoth-sized personalities relished in the new-found attention.
Even a man who dressed primarily in black was enamored by the bright colors. MTV favorites Duran Duran were tapped in 1985 to record the title song for “A View to a Kill”. It remains the only 007 tune to hit number one stateside or across the pond.
While Bond got another makeover, first with Timothy Dalton for a couple outings and then with Pierce Brosnan, there was no changing the outdated musical tastes of England’s famous fictional spy. British bands The Smiths, The Cure, and Depeche Mode forged the template for college rock. By decade’s end the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays were the darlings of the music press, praised for trumpeting the shoegazing genre. This led to the much-ballyhooed battle of the guitar-based bands Oasis and Blur in the mid-'90s. With such a plethora of game-changing sound at their disposal, the brains behind Bond turned to a stable of proven US chart veterans like Gladys Knight, Tina Turner, and Sheryl Crow who all proved woefully incapable of tackling the US charts.
In 2002, Die Another Day restored hope for musical relevance with Madonna’s top ten title hit. Naturally it signaled the end of an era rather than a beginning. This time, however, the change was for the better.
Daniel Craig stepped in as the series’ seventh 007, if one counts David Niven’s comic turn in the 1967 spoof Casino Royale. To accompany the reboot, Chris Cornell delivered “You Know My Name” for the 2006 version of Casino Royale and Jack White served up “Another Way to Die” (with an assist from Alicia Keys) for 2008’s Quantum of Solace.
Because of their rock credentials, the songs were welcome entries in the Bond canon, but emphasized the same message as most of their predecessors: songs tailored to everyone’s favorite globe-trotting spy offer little or no insight on the music going on back home. That is, unless Mr. Shaken Not Stirred had secretly applied for American citizenship. Roughly the first half of the Bond movies were soundtracked by UK artists. Since 1989, the only act with any tie to the United Kingdom was when Garbage, fronted by Scottish singer Shirley Manson, trotted out “The World Is Not Enough” in 1999 for the movie of the same name.
The world’s top gadget freak wasn’t just abandoning his own country’s music, but jumping on musical trends a decade late. As the frontman of Soundgarden, Cornell had been right at the forefront of the grunge a decade earlier. As half of The White Stripes, Jack White was arguably the biggest star of the return-to-garage-rock movement at the turn of the century.
Still, Daniel Craig’s Bond Version 7.0 offered hope. This wasn’t the same secret agent we’d come to know through more than 20 movies. Maybe he could jump off buildings and into moving helicopters backed by music lifted straight from BBC Radio 1. It took 50 years, but by tapping Adele for “Skyfall” the Bond series finally picked a song by a British superstar actually at the cusp of a movement. Thanks to Adele and predecessors like Amy Winehouse, Joss Stone, and Duffy, the Brits were right smack in the heart of an English blue-eyed soul singer era which would have made Dusty Springfield proud.
We’ll see what happens next time out. One good song choice does not a new direction make, but I’m crossing my fingers. Maybe the Bond tunesmiths will reshape history and craft the songs they should have made in past outings. Personally, I’m hoping for a Sex Pistols reunion in which they re-record “God Save the Queen” infused with a dose of John Barry’s famous instrumental 007 theme. The movie can open with Bond and the Queen of England landing a helicopter at the Olympics in London. Hey, stranger things have happened.