Various Artists: The Best of Bond . . . James Bond: 40th Anniversary Edition

Various Artists
The Best of Bond . . . James Bond: 40th Anniversary Edition
17 September 2002

The music at the beginning of a James Bond film is as much a part of the nostalgic revelry of the series as the spy’s penchant for roadsters and promiscuity. After the obligatory opening action sequence, the film’s audience is immediately treated to a montage of catapulting nubile women’s profiles, with wonderfully gaudy musical accompaniment. Having absolutely nothing to do with the plot of the film, but setting the tone perfectly, these celluloid mosaics define the films. As the series gained in popularity, the level of musical star the film’s producers were able to woo into performing was raised higher and higher. Listening to The Best Of Bond . . . James Bond, it’s amazing how many of the tunes, all of which were specifically commissioned for the series, are still easily recognizable. They’re certainly a contributing factor to the success of this longest running of cinematic franchises. The title song from any single James Bond film is as corny as it is decadent.

It’s a foregone conclusion that a collection of music from the James Bond series should open with John Barry’s familiar score. Barry, an English avant-garde jazz composer in the 1950s known for his instrumental singles, was tapped to write the theme music for Dr. No, the first Bond film, in 1962. The film, and musical accompaniment, were immediate smash hits. The slick guitar line, a pouncing saxophone accompaniment, crashing cymbals and a smooth, swinging horn section were all major departures from anything being done in film soundtrack at the time.

While the cold war thriller From Russia With Love followed Dr. No with its 1963 release, the CD collection chooses a different route for its track order. Mixing pop hits from the likes of A-Ha and Sheryl Crow with older work by Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones, the collection’s producers have done a splendid job of creating an album that’s very listenable. For example, Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better” blatant homage to the arrogant, womanizing, irresistible Bond is immediately followed by Duran Duran’s new wave contribution “A View to a Kill”, which appeared in theaters ten years later. The Duran Duran song is also notable for the music video spoof that the group jokingly made for MTV at the time of release. The video ends with the lead singer responding, when asked by a fan who he is: “Bon. Simon LeBon.” Classic.

Shirley Bassey, who marked three of the Bond films with her illustrious, operatic voice, shines in this collection. First, with the title track to 1964’s Goldfinger, perhaps one of the most recognizable of the Bond themes. It’s difficult not to picture Odd Job, with his razor-sharp top hat, or the woman painted in gold as Bassey slowly saunters through this tune. It’s one of the better-composed songs in the collection, thanks to John Barry, who integrates his original score here. In fact, Barry is quoted as saying that “the musical style really came together [with Goldfinger]. Everything came together with that film.” Bassey also belts out the Bond sound on “Diamonds Are Forever” seven years later, and for the third time with “Moonraker”. Regardless of how corny the lyrics are, Bassey maintains her awe-inspiring operatic voice. “Goldfinger” is clearly one of the collection’s highlights, and “Moonraker” is also good.

Bassey’s style and arrangement set the tone for later themes, such as Rita Coolidge’s rendition of “All Time High” from Octopussy, or Sheena Easton’s “For Your Eyes Only”. Each of these songs pays homage to Bassey’s standard. They’re full productions, with deep string sections and melodramatic lyrics — but still fun to listen to.

What’s most surprising is the power that lesser known artist such as Nancy Sinatra bring to the collection. Her rendition of “You Only Live Twice” is as subtle as Shirley Bassey’s style is grand. The film that shares the song’s title was supposed to be Sean Connery’s last Bond film, and the studio promised audiences around the world that everything about it would be over-the-top. Producers approached Nancy Sinatra after “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” became a smash hit in 1967, and she agreed to sing the John Barry penned theme song. Just listening to the guitar work dancing with the harp, and those strings in the bridge is beautiful. Fans of Robbie Williams will quickly notice the source of the sample from his hit “Millennium”, from 1998.

Also adding wonderful flamboyance to the collection is Tom Jones’ performance of “Thunderball”. The song is ornate and magnificent, incorporating all the drama that you’d expect from both James Bond and the Vegas icon . It’s actually one of the better Bond themes. Paul McCartney and Wings’ classic makes its appearance here too, and stands proud amongst its counterparts. Live And Let Die, the first Bond film to feature Roger Moore in the title role, was also the first time that a rock and roll band was asked to create the theme song. McCartney didn’t let anyone down, using backing vocals that sound like something off of The White Album. At one point, the song breaks down into pure funk, as if McCartney was channeling George Clinton or Stevie Wonder.

The Bond theme songs were part of the fabric of the films, and also part of the studio’s marketing scheme. Incorporating the latest in popular music helped keep the series hip throughout its 40-year history. Unfortunately, not all of the Bond themes work musically. In fact, some are difficult, even, to mock A-Ha, the Norwegian trio whose animated line-drawing video for “Take On Me” is one of MTV’s most memorable, lend their not-so-awesome talents to “The Living Daylights”. Meanwhile, Gladys Knight tries to inject some R&B into “License to Kill”, and instead succeeds only in producing a cheesy version of Shirley Bassey’s classic “Goldfinger” theme. There are a few other dogs here too, but not enough to turn off anyone who is a fan of the series.

The newer additions to the Bond collection, from the past decade, stand up to their classic predecessors with varying results. Sheryl Crow sounds completely out of her league singing the title song of Tomorrow Never Dies. She just doesn’t have the voice or singing style for this type of work. “Goldeneye”, written by Bono and the Edge for Pierce Brosnan’s first Bond film, is rendered well by Tina Turner. She succeeds in mixing a little R&B with the franchise’s trademark grand sound. The truly interesting track from this period is Moby’s take on John Barry’s original score. Forty years later, James Bond films are still being made. The fact that the producers are continuing to choose cutting edge composers to add credibility to their series reveals why the chain has been around for so long. In 1995, when a pre-Play Moby composed the electronic remake of the original score, the series had come full circle and started fresh at the same time. The creators, like their fictional title character, were never afraid to be ostentatious. This is the appealing charm of James Bond.