The James Bond Songs: Pop Anthems of Late Capitalism
The story of the Bond song is the story of the pop song -- and perhaps even the story of its end.
Adapted from The James Bond Songs: Pop Anthems of Late Capitalism by Adrian Daub and Charles Kronengold with permission from Oxford University Press USA. Copyright © 2015 Oxford University Press and published by Oxford University Press USA. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.
James Bond and the End(s) of the Pop Song
he James Bond films have a large and loyal audience; their songs do not. Beyond a small coterie of superfans, we care about them for a month or two, and then forget them. And why not? They hardly represent the heights of popular music, they won’t change anyone’s life. And yet they keep getting pushed out into cultural space as if you cared. Since 1965 there have been at least thirty songs, and at least forty compilations of those songs, pressed in over a dozen countries. But mostly we wanted to write this book because we think the Bond songs say something about what’s happened to pop music since the early 1960s, and what’s happened to us as listeners to pop.
Over this fifty-year span, the process of making and hearing pop songs has been turned upside-down. Pop records have been produced under vastly different technological and institutional regimes for an ever-widening range of audiences who are being addressed in all sorts of ways. A pop song from 2014 might be unrecognizable as such to a listener transported from 1964. Or not; pop music of the post–rock and roll era has also managed to preserve older themes and pre-rock musical aesthetics. The Bond songs fascinate us precisely because of this mix of change and stasis. They reveal and conceal pop’s many transformations. They grasp a singular strand of pop-music tradition in a viselike grip that even Jaws and his fellow Bond heavies would admire.
A Bond song begins in a kind of no man’s land. It’s neither part of the narrative nor entirely independent from it. What these songs are actually “about” can be surprisingly difficult to parse. And together these songs form a canon unlike any other. The songs themselves are interesting artifacts, of course. Some have aged better than others, but none has aged all that well. Some may inspire nostalgia, depending on your age. Others may leave you dumbfounded, certain you’ve never heard them before in your life, even though you’re pretty sure you caught the movie once on TNT. In this they’re like many other film songs. But their status as a canon can direct our hearings and rehearings in particular ways, especially because they press on the pop song’s sore spots: uncertainties about its addressees, demands that it sound both “familiar” and “new” (and the instability of these two aesthetic categories), and stubborn questions about whether pop music actually has a purpose.
The songs that open the James Bond movies are commercial products, tie-ins to the films designed to sell movie tickets and, ideally, storm the pop charts. Everybody knows they may be quickly forgotten afterward (quick: who sang “All Time High”?). But that’s the price to pay for having a song with a mission. Bond songs have to both conform to contemporary top-40 hits in important respects (you don’t want them to sound too weird for radio play) and be sufficiently different from top-40 songs in order to be recognizable as part of the brand. These songs are assemblages of particular features intended to do a specific job. There may not be a formula, but there’s a list of ingredients, a sense of proportion, and so on. While other pop songs may try to make us forget that they likewise have jobs to do, Bond songs really can’t and won’t. But for all that, these records are not particularly slick. They stick out on the charts even when they climb them. And once these songs have been edged out of the spotlight, the charts seem a less strange, far more boring place. The Bond songs may sound a little like the songs above and below them on the charts, but they are also substantially different. They’re awkward and lumbering pop chimeras, beholden to conventions pop abandoned decades ago.
When you listen to the songs that open the Bond movies (and a handful of others that run over the closing credits), you realize that they weren’t “of their moment” even when they were first recorded. James Bond was a creation of the fifties and became an emblem of the early sixties—and his development was arrested there. The gadgets and babes kept up with the times (and an interesting book could be written about the changing tastes reflected in the curves of the Bond girls), but the songs remained resolutely stuck in time. At least partly: the blaring brass, orchestral textures, and murder-ballad-style texts remained fixtures well into the 1990s. But each Bond song nevertheless brought those well-worn textures into dialogue with the music of its moment, and thus with the hopes, anxieties, and politics of that moment.
That dialogue was central to the job these songs had to do in the films they opened. For all the constraints the increasingly formulaic Bond universe placed on these songs, their job consisted of getting the audience into a headspace in which, say, the 60s and the 80s could coexist. The lights would dim in a 1983 theater, and the opening sequence would feature the boxy cars and boxier coats of the era. Then the silhouetted strippers would start gyrating, the song would come on, and in a weird way the movie told you that you were now in two places at once. The song said this through its instrumentation, its lyrics, its voice. The visuals of the opening sequence would tout the timeless values of the series’ universe—diamonds, guns, and T & A—but the song would talk about time and history. It would try to sound like 1964’s iconic “Goldfinger” in some way, it would acknowledge its own failure to do so in some way, and it would present a voice (perhaps familiar, perhaps unknown) to hold up to all the other voices that had come before.
Every Bond song establishes a relation between Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger” and the year of its film’s release—differently, depending on the sensibilities, age, and styles of the artists involved, as well as the particularities of that year’s top-40 pop. And as the Bond songs accumulate, each new song has to piece out its relation to more and more musical stuff. If you’re composing a Bond song the first step is to listen to the old ones; what what you hear will influence how you understand the exact nature of your job. And of course there’s always a chance you’ll mishear the older songs, misunderstand the tradition, or forget to account for a few of the Bond songs that bear upon yours. That’s part of the risk—an unusual one in pop music. In tracing the history of the Bond songs, you trace pop music’s own sense of its history. Pop, which often thrives on being of-the-moment and disposable, usually doesn’t want to concern its audience too much with its own provenance, often preferring to pretend it doesn’t have any. The performers knew, of course, and some savvy listeners might too. But they weren’t who the record was for. Bond songs, by contrast, are for people who know the Bond songs.
Self-reflexivity forced itself upon Bond singers far more urgently and obviously than it impinged on their non-Bond work. There they could strategically forget, something that the Bond songs made impossible from the first. Almost from the beginning the Bond songs registered the tensions between older and newer aesthetic practices, technological regimes, and modes of distribution. There never was a moment when they weren’t strange and a little out of time. Even Bassey, the queen of the Bond song herself, had most of her non-Bond success in Vegas—another bauble of 60s kitsch preserved in time, like a fly in amber, by the glacial grind of capitalism while the world around it moved on.
To see how inimical this untimeliness is to the way pop music usually works, consider the following. Classical music has gods: you ascend to heaven and you are one more of the elect. You do not displace someone else—the ascension of Brahms and Wagner didn’t displace Mozart and Beethoven. But pop stars, and to a lesser extent the songs that make them temporarily famous, always exist under the threat of being disposable and local; that’s why we have kings of pop. They ascend the throne; they throw some orgies and command some minions; and lackeys put their faces on any piece of merchandise big enough to carry it. But all the while there are pretenders and would-be assassins waiting in the wings. Then you get forced off the throne, or you expire on a Las Vegas toilet, and suddenly someone else is walking around in your vestments and hogging your throne. You die, you lose your cachet, you get charged with some sex crimes, and suddenly Neverland belongs to the bank and your crown passes on to someone else.
In all these respects, the Bond song is unusual pop. A new Bond song never displaces the last one. Unlike the top-20 acts that often depend on their audience forgetting that their music had a history (aided no doubt by the fact that some fans are so young that they simply don’t remember any of it), Bond songs forced some of pop’s most business-as-usual crooners, belters, hacks, and scribblers—some of the most shameless purveyors of disposable tunes—to insert themselves into a lineage, to grapple with all the artists who had played this particular game, without any hope of replacing them or outdoing them. Bond songs are about the early sixties, yes, but they’re also about how their own moment differs from the sixties. Over the decades they’ve found many ways of measuring that difference.
Pop music is supposed to travel well. It’s supposed to sound good on different continents, in different contexts, to wildly different audiences who probably hear wildly different things. It should sound good on a stereo system, through headphones, on a cheap transistor radio, banged out on a piano, or intoned by a six-year-old. It should be intelligible even if it’s heard only in part, even if you only catch a few phrases wafting through the windows of a passing car. Above all, a pop record is supposed to make us forget that it can change as it grows old—as we grow old. The moment you realize you’ve aged out of the target window for a particular kind of pop music is when you recognize a song as a cover and no one else around you does. It can be embarrassing to possess memories that everyone else is too young for. And it can be worse when you feel you can’t shake pop’s memories of its own history: it’s even more embarrassing when you listen to a pop song and hear other people’s memories. The James Bond songs are precisely the kind of pop music that makes you feel old.
Adrian Daub is Associate Professor of German Studies at Stanford University and author of three books about music and culture.
Charles Kronengold is Assistant Professor of Music at Stanford University and author of a forthcoming book on musical genres of the 1970s.E