Friday September 18, 2015

007 trivia: Things you probably haven't heard about James Bond theme songs

British secret service agent 007, also known as James Bond, through the years. (AP, Getty Images)

British secret service agent 007, also known as James Bond, through the years. (AP, Getty Images) (AP/Getty Images)

Listen 8:41

Next week, Sam Smith's "Spectre" will debut as the newest James Bond theme song. Brent takes a look at some of the quirky and surprising elements of past Bond themes, from classics like "Goldfinger" to 007 fails like A-Ha's "The Living Daylights." Our guests are Adrian Daub and Charles Kronengold, Stanford University professors and co-authors of "Bond Songs: Pop Anthems of Late Capitalism."

UPDATE 10/31/15: We called back Charles Kronengold to hear how he rates the new Sam Smith Bond song "Writing's on the Wall."  

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Brent Bambury: If it fits the classic Bond Song mould, what are you expecting from the Sam Smith theme song for "Spectre"?

Charles Kronengold: Well, I think part of it is going to be doing, maybe, a little of those sonic touches that the Bond songs usually do. They're often quite backwards-looking. So, is it going to have a string section? Is it going to have two thick brass arrangements? And it's probably going to have some feel of slight lugubriousness, or ponderousness. Something that makes it a little bit too deliberate for most pop songs.

BB: And are those all elements that you remember from the first James Bond songs that you heard when you were kids?

Adrian Daub: Well, I have to say, my first Bond song was "Moonraker." Moonraker was my very first 'grown-up' movie, and I think on some level I assumed that's how grown-up movies were supposed to behave. You know, you watch a man be thrown from an airplane by a man with steel jaws. The man with steel jaws crashes into a circus tent. And you cut to three minutes of weird shapes doing a sort of screensaver routine. And a song comes on. And I sort of just took that on faith, that that [was] what it was supposed to be.

BB: Let's go back to the most recent Bond theme. Take a listen to this, and we'll talk about it.

So that's Adele with "Skyfall," and she sounds just as committed as Shirley Bassey was when she belted out "Goldfinger." But the thing about both of those songs that makes them alike is that neither of them really makes an awful lot of sense. Is that a common feature of a Bond song?

CK: Yeah, it certainly is. I mean, you think about how funny it is to sing a song about a 'moonraker' or a 'thunderball' when you don't know -- and even the movie doesn't seem to know -- what exactly that might mean. And you have to do it as if it's the most serious business you've ever engaged in. And Adele, it turns out, is good at that -- in the same way that Shirley Bassey was.

BB: Let's listen to another artist, now, committing fully to a Bond song. This is from Thunderball and here's Tom Jones, giving everything he's got in the final syllable.

Okay. I make that out to be nine seconds of 'ball.' Was that as intense an experience for Tom Jones as it is for the listener?

AD: Apparently even more so, because we're all still conscious. The story is that Tom Jones actually fainted at the end of singing that long note. And I think we're all still conscious. The funny thing is that Shirley Bassey does exactly the same thing at the end of "Goldfinger," and that didn't generate any funny stories. She just comes in, she can sing, she does her job. And it's great. She also holds her note at the end of "Goldfinger" for nine seconds.

BB: Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey both represent a certain particular kind and style of singing, a certain class of singing. But Thunderball could have had a very different theme. Let's listen to this.

That's the one and only Johnny Cash and an unused version of the theme of Thunderball. What can we learn about the Bond song phenomenon when we look at the unused songs? There are quite a few of them.

AD: Well, the rejection of this song -- and the rejection of anything that didn't have Tom Jones belting 'thunderball' until he passed out -- told you that the producers had something different in mind. They kept going to different people until they got a song that was essentially a Goldfinger pastiche, and that repeated the Bond theme and the title of the movie until, you know, someone lost consciousness.

BB: And the values of the kind of music that you were talking about earlier --  the lyrics and the 'lounge' aesthetic of each song -- do you think that that's the reason why Alice Cooper's version of "The Man With The Golden Gun" was not used?

AD: That one is, frankly, baffling to both of us.

CK: Yeah. I mean, the thing about that song is that it's actually the perfect, most professionally produced Bond song you could imagine following Paul McCartney's great song for Live and Let Die. So you have a guy who at the time was considered very crazy. And that's probably why the producers of the Bond movies didn't want to get involved with him. I mean, he's a guy who was apparently biting the heads off of various kinds of poultry. But the song is actually a perfect Bond song; I think it's just that they didn't want to be associated with somebody who was too much of a kind of 'rock and roll' persona.

BB: All right, let's listen to a song that is mostly forgotten -- but it could be argued is pivotal to the whole Bond song story.

That's Norwegian pop group A-ha, best known for their hit "Take On Me." We heard their Bond theme there, "The Living Daylights" from 1988. What's the significance of that song?

AD: Well for one thing, it marked the end of John Barry's long and storied career as a Bond songwriter. This was his last one. He had been doing it for almost 30 years at that point, and he was working with a group of men 30 years younger than him. For a long time, this sort of Bond consensus had worked, where you made these songs for 20-year-olds by 30-year-olds with a bunch of 50-year-olds at the helm. And this was where that broke down, you know. The ecosystem just wasn't supportive of that kind of weird alchemy that the Bond songs perform -- where it's sort of 1988 and 1964 all over, both in the same moment.

BB: And where are we now? I mean, it feels with Sam Smith and with Adele we're back into a kind of synchronicity with the time.

AD: Exactly. I mean, Adele doesn't have to distend her usual vocal style at all to sound like she might be performing in an off-strip casino you know circa 1964. She sounds like that always.

BB: Adrian and Charlie, I love talking about this and we have barely scratched the surface but we have to wrap it up. Can you boil it down to its essence for me? After all these years, why do we still care about these songs?

AD: I think that there's a rare opportunity in the Bond songs to encounter pop history. Pop is so easily passed over and forgotten. You forget what you listen to 10 years ago. Bond songs remind you: This is what you cared about in 1977; this is what you cared about in 1988; and this is what you care about in 2015.