Scoring Her Majesty’s Secret Service

No James Bong Blog-a-Thon would be complete without a post somewhere about the music of Bond, would it? Why, no! That’s why I’m here, folks. I fill a need.

Any discussion of the music of James Bond must begin, and probably end, with John Barry. Barry is an English composer who has had a very long and storied career. Apart from his work on the Bond films, Barry has also written notable scores to films like The Lion in Winter, Born Free, Out of Africa, Body Heat, and Dances With Wolves, for which he won an Oscar. Barry is still kicking and still active as a composer, although he doesn’t much write for films anymore, and he hasn’t scored a Bond film since 1987’s The Living Daylights.

Starting with Dr. No, the series had a distinctive musical voice, grounded in the string-and-percussion heavy sound of the 1960s, with a lot of “stinger” notes from the brass punctuating things. Dr. No‘s opening sequence kicks us right into the musical sound-world of James Bond: after the gunbarrel sequence (which is actually “scored” in that film with some odd electronica), the famous James Bond Theme kicks in for the first time ever.

Now, the James Bond Theme has been a subject of controversy for many years. It is always credited in the films as having been written by a man named Monty Norman, but this has been a point of contention for a long time, and it was even the topic of a court case in Great Britain some years ago. I don’t know what was decided in that case, but my general notion is that Norman gets credit for the theme, but Barry’s been arranging it as he sees fit ever since. (Or, at least, that’s what he did on his tenure as the Bond composer-in-residence.)

Dr. No‘s score is dominated by Jamaican rhythms, and to modern ears the score at times seems to be making gestures in pretty silly fashion. The James Bond Theme, for example, plays in its full arrangement early in the film not when Bond is doing serious spy work but when he’s finishing up his game of baccarat and is on his way back to his apartment. Likewise, the score is occasionally dominated by a song called “Under the Mango Tree”, which is…well, there’s no way to sugarcoat it. It’s a silly song. I’ve always found Dr. No‘s score to be much like the rest of the film: I can see where it’s pointing the way the rest of the series will go, but it’s not terribly satisfying on its own.

Barry would return for From Russia With Love, a score that’s more confident of itself. Notable here is that the film’s song is only heard in its vocal arrangement (crooned nicely, if not spectacularly, by Matt Munro) during the end credits, while Barry writes an impressive up-tempo arrangement of it for the opening credits, featuring a series of staccato brass chords as an opening figure that’s highly distinctive. (David Arnold would use those same staccato chords many years later in a few of his own Bond scores, one of many ways he’s paid homage to Barry.) The scoring for the Orient Express sequence is some wonderfully suspenseful “travel montage” music indeed, and the score’s a lot more confident, excepting one “danger” cue that is tracked from the Dr. No score.

With Goldfinger, Barry started to hit his stride. This score is like the song: big, brassy, and without a trace of subtlety to be heard within it. This is many enthusiasts’ favorite Barry Bond score (although not mine), particularly thrilling are the cues underscoring the flight of Pussy Galore’s Flying…whatever they were called. Flying Circus? Flying Uruk-Hai? I don’t remember…but it’s great stuff. And of course, the theme song, belted out by Shirley Bassey, is the model for all Bond songs, even if it’s not my favorite.

Thunderball would bring an even bigger and brassier score, well befitting a film whose main goal was to be just plain bigger than the iconic Goldfinger. Barry’s score for Thunderball is, to my ears, even better then Goldfinger, even if it’s slightly schizophrenic at times. Barry wrote a song for the film called “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and, as was his wont, incorporated that song’s tune into his score all over the place, only to have the producers ask him to write a new song that used the film’s title in its lyrics…hence we hear Tom Jones belting out about a man who “strikes…like thunderball”. (What does that mean? Nobody knows!) Interestingly, if you listen to the song’s original recording, you can almost hear Tom Jones losing consciousness after that last note which he had to hold for something like a day and a half. Thunderball also features the second instance of Barry’s secondary Bond Theme, which he titled “007” (previously used in From Russia With Love in a proto-form).

Next up was You Only Live Twice, in which Barry wrote in faux-Japanese style. This was in no way authentic Japanese music, but what a British composer would write if asked to write something sounding Japanese. It’s an extremely lyrical score, much more melodic and fluid than Thunderball. The song is sung by Nancy Sinatra, and even though it boasts a beautiful melody, it’s not the most memorable of Bond songs.

This brings us to what is, for me, the best Bond score of them all, befitting the best Bond film of them all, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. This score is brilliant from start to finish: it boasts amazing melodies, some of Barry’s best action writing, a pounding main theme (for the instrumental opening credits music), and a gorgeous cue for the helicopter flight through the Alps. Barry gives the film’s song, “We Have All the Time In the World”, a number of different arrangements, one of which is proud and almost arrogant, another of which is terribly sad and lonely, and yet another which is just ravishing. I love this score deeply; it’s one of my favorite film scores ever. “We Have All the Time In the World” is only heard in its vocal arrangement during neither opening nor closing credits, but rather about a third of the way through the film, as scoring for a love montage between Bond and Tracy.

Barry would close out the Connery era with Diamonds are Forever, in which he goes back to some of the Goldfinger sound, all the way to using the same singer for the song, Shirley Bassey. It’s not that great a score, frankly, but it has a lot of nice moments and a nice sound of “glitter” to it, befitting the diamonds of the plot. That’s actually a strength of Barry’s throughout: he’s able to always suggest various things about each individual film, be it the “gold” of Goldfinger, the undersea adventure of Thunderball, the love story of OHMSS, the diamond glitter of Diamonds are Forever.

Roger Moore’s arrival as Bond would also see Barry’s first temporary departure from the series. Live and Let Die was scored not by Barry but by George Martin, a producer for the Beatles. As much as I dislike LaLD (it’s my least favorite Bond film by a long margin), I have to give Martin his due: this is a nicely written score, not totally divorced from the John Barry sound but also bringing some new approaches to the table. Roger Moore plays Bond with more overt swagger, and the score reflects that view of the Bond character pretty well. The title song is performed by Paul McCartney and Wings, and it’s an odd song, although it’s had a longer life on oldies stations and the like. The song is hindered by a very odd middle section that is in a completely different style than the beginning and end.

John Barry would return for The Man with the Golden Gun, which is, like the rest of the movie, mainly OK. It’s not one of the better scores by any stretch, but it’s got some strengths, mostly in the film’s last act. Barry gets to revisit his pseudo-Asian writing, and some of it’s pretty nice. The film’s song is sung by Lulu. I actually have a bit of a soft spot for the song, even if it’s really silly and way too frenetic.

Next up was The Spy Who Loved Me, which boasts a terrific title song (Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better”, which if not for “Goldfinger” would probably be the series’s best known song) and a frankly awful score by Marvin Hamlisch. I hate this score, and it’s my second-least favorite in the series. Its sound is dominated by outlandish 70s funk stuff, sounding downright disco at times. The score does nothing to help the film establish a sense of suspense, and the underwater music just stands out as awful when considered alongside Barry’s underwater music for Thunderball.

Luckily, Barry would return for Moonraker, in which he gives us a score that’s one of the slowest I’ve ever heard. Seriously, in terms of tempo, this score is one slow cue after another. It’s not a bad score, at all, and it’s got some really nice moments, but wow, is it slow. It’s like listening to a symphony where every movement is marked “Andante”. (Not “adagio”; that would be too slow.) Barry also reuses his “007” secondary theme for Bond, not heard since Diamonds are Forever (it’s heard during the Brazil boat chase). This film would also kick off a new habit of Barry’s, that he would use in each of his remaining Bond scores, using the James Bond Theme in the film as an action cue for the respective film’s silliest chase scene (although that point is debatable in A View to a Kill).

Barry would leave again for For Your Eyes Only, so scoring duties would be taken over by Bill Conti. He takes the “Disco Bond” approach again, but this time it works a lot better; first of all, he wisely limits the “Disco” sound to the action cues, using a more traditional sound for the “normal” scenes; second, the action cues work very, very well. This score has some addictively listenable stuff inside it. The main weak point comes at the very end, though; after some wonderfully atmospheric writing for Bond’s ascent of St. Cyril’s, the score mainly becomes plodding suspense stuff after that. But to that point it’s all very good, with some orchestral and techno effects used to create the kind of unique atmosphere that Barry did in his glory years in the 60s. Sheena Easton’s song is a nice 80s ballad, and interestingly, this is the only time that the singer of the song actually appeared in the opening credits sequence.

Barry came back again for 1983’s Octopussy, which would be the first of his final three Bond scores. It’s a good score, although not really one of his best. Barry’s onetime skill at giving each of his Bond scores a distinctive sound of its own, evocative of the film’s character or location, isn’t terribly on display here, aside from a bit of Indian percussion here and there. Still, the action cues are well-crafted, and there’s some very nice tension-filled scoring for the knife-wielding twins as they chase down 009. Rita Coolidge’s song isn’t bad, if you’re into the kind of song you hear on radio stations that tout themselves as presenting “the best soft rock of the 70s and 80s”. The song makes for some nice love music during the score, but as a Bond song, it’s not terribly exciting.

A View to a Kill would be Roger Moore’s final appearance as Bond, and Barry gave him one of his better scores. The action music is raucous and fun, with nice use of electric guitar, and the love music makes impressive use of a title song (by Duran Duran) that wouldn’t at first hearing seem to lend itself to that sort of thing.

Barry would wrap up his James Bond tenure for good with The Living Daylights, the first of Timothy Dalton’s two Bond films, and in my view, he would end his tenure with one of his best scores of the series. It’s a richly melodic score, using not just the title song (by a ha, whom Barry apparently found difficult to work with) as a basis for action cues, but also two songs by The Pretenders: “Where Has Everybody Gone?” and “If There Was a Man”, the latter of which forms the basis of the film’s love music. Highly notable is the wonderfully atmospheric music that accompanies Bond and Kara’s trek across Afghanistan. TLD is a highlight of the series.

For Licence to Kill, the producers turned to Michael Kamen, who was making a name for himself in the late 80s scoring action films like the Lethal Weapon series. (His biggest successes, such as his score to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, were still in the future.) Kamen’s score to Licence is something of a mixed bag. On balance I like its different approach and sound, befitting a film that dared to venture afield from the typical Bond formulae. It’s less melodic, but it’s got its own sound, which I appreciate. The film’s two songs, the title number sung by Gladys Knight and “If You Asked Me To”, are decent if not terribly notable songs.

After a six year absence, Bond would return to the screen with Pierce Brosnan in the role for Goldeneye, a terrific film that only really suffers in a major way in one area of production: its score. The producers went with Eric Serra, who turned in what is, to my ears, the single worst score ever written for a Bond film. It’s full of techno sounds that are awfully distracting, it boasts no notable melodies at all, and it only really works as a score at the very end of the film, during the final fight between Bond and Trevelyan. I don’t like this score at all. Bleecchh. (I’m not a big fan of Tina Turner’s song, either.)

For Tomorrow Never Dies, the Bond producers brought in one of the brighter film music voices to emerge during the 1990s, David Arnold. Arnold’s work seems to pretty sharply divide film music fans; in my experience he’s one of those “love him or hate him” types of composers. I like his work, especially his Bond work. His sound is often evocative of Barry, without aping him too closely. Arnold does tend to use a techno approach quite heavily, especially in his action cues. This can bother some listeners, but I generally find it enjoyable for the most part. TND has two songs: a title number by Sheryl Crow that’s just OK, and a really good song by kd lang that is used on the end credits and actually forms the melodic basis of much of Arnold’s score, which seems to suggest that this song was originally to be the main one before Crow was brought on board.

The World is Not Enough features a song by Garbage that I actually like a lot. TWINE is such an odd film; it’s got some really great stuff going for it but it also has this awful tendency to shoot itself in the foot. Arnold’s score satisfies the film’s needs nicely, though. (There’s actually a second song on the album that wasn’t used in the film; I wonder if it tested poorly in some way.)

Die Another Day has Arnold doing much the same thing as in the previous two films. If there’s a criticism to be made of Arnold’s Bond scores, it’s precisely that: there often isn’t a whole lot that sets them apart, soundwise. The title song by Madonna has been largely derided because it’s a very techno-oriented song. I don’t hate it, but it’s very far from being one of my favorites. In truth, I’ve listened to DAD very few times since I bought the CD when the film came out.

Finally, David Arnold was retained for Casino Royale, despite that film’s status as a reboot for the franchise. He took a terrific approach here, often hinting at the James Bond Theme without actually quoting it directly until the very end of the film. Chris Cornell provides a really good song, “You Know My Name”, which he then for some unimaginably stupid reason refused to allow to be presented on the film’s soundtrack album. Why? Who knows? There can’t be a smart reason for that. Arnold’s score is much more emotional in nature, befitting one of the most emotional Bond films.

And that brings us to Quantum of Solace. Stay tuned….

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