The Music of James Bond

Dr. No Original Sound Track Album Cover
Dr. No Original Sound Track Album Cover

One of the perks of blogging is that it gives one a license to write about topics that one really is not an expert on (a trait that my readers have doubtless discovered on their own).  And speaking of licenses to do things… there is the double zero license to kill, granted by the British Government to a select few secret agents in the fictional world of Ian Fleming’s James Bond.  It is hard to believe, in this world of Edward Snowden, NSA snooping on American’s phone and internet messages, and government sanctioned murder via drones, that not only were James Bond and his somewhat quaint by today’s standards license to kill, as well everything associated with spying, all the rage back in the 1960s, but also that the movie phenomenon has continued right up to the present day.  My son Brian was nice enough to give me a present last Christmas of “The James Bond 50” that consists of all the James Bond movies over the last 50 years.  I was always a fan, and this wonderful Blu Ray set allows me to see all the movies again in order.  I have been watching about one a week, giving me some precious entertainment over this final year of my medical career.  When I get back to Skyfall, it should be January, 2014.  I am also reading Sinclair McKay’s The Man With The Golden Touch which is a great source of insight into these films.

It is interesting to watch the films again from today’s perspective.  I have gotten as far as the start of the Roger Moore era.  The movies, aside from being an interesting glimpse into the culture of the 60s and 70s and showing how far we have come in terms of sexism and racism, are entertaining and have high production values.  They have always been very popular, apparently the second most popular movie series of all time (the first? Harry Potter).  Sean Connery, Roger Moore, and even George Lazenby in his single outing On Her Majesty’s Secret Service all bring a different spin on Bond.  Connery is tough and gritty, Moore is suave and debonair, but a little silly, and Lazenby is handsome but understandably insecure, this being the first and only acting attempt of the former used car salesman turned model.  Ironically his performance probably emulates the Bond of the novels best, who was a considerably more insecure and complex character than that portrayed on the screen.  What strikes me most on re-watching these early Bond films though is how crucial and how good their musical scores are.

At the end of every Bond film there is a statement that reads “The James Bond Theme was composed by Monty Norman.”  Norman was a writer of Broadway songs and was hired to compose the music for Dr. No.  The producers of the Bond films, Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were apparently dissatisfied with Norman’s version of the James Bond theme and brought in John Barry to arrange it, resulting in the version so well know today.  The guitarist Vic Flick played the theme and was paid a one time fee of £6.  Over the years Norman (who is still alive) has won several libel suits over authorship of this theme, so, if you are reading this post, Monty Norman, I don’t dispute your authorship of the theme.  As part of the evidence introduced in the libel suits, Norman produced a song from an unpublished musical written in the 1950s prior to Dr. No.  The song, called “Good Sign Bad Sign,” is pretty awful, but there is part of the familiar guitar riff in it, in a Hindu sitar style.

I’m not sure we know how this was adapted by Norman to become his rejected version of the Dr. No James Bond Theme, but we do know what happened when the late John Barry, who I believe was a film music genius, got hold of it:

Barry was chosen to write scores for the next several Bond films.  He did not write the theme to From Russia With Love, but did orchestrate that score.  He then wrote the great Goldfinger theme, belted out memorably by Dame Shirley Bassey.  The next film Thunderball has a great score, though the film itself is not the best of the oeuvre.  Barry originally wrote the title theme “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” which is a great tune with about as silly lyrics as you can imagine.

This title song, sung by Dionne Warwick was rejected at the last minute because (maybe among other reasons) it did not contain the word “Thunderball” in its lyrics. The unsung version of this song is heard throughout the score of the movie.  So Barry had only a few days to come up with a new song, which turns out to be another great song, sung by Tom Jones.  According to the singer he held the last note so long that he passed out at the end of the song.

A great parody of this song is the opening of the otherwise forgettable Spy Hard, sung by Weird Al Yankovic, including his take on Tom Jones’s passing out at the end of the song:

Barry went on to write several more of the James Bond scores.  His indelible musical stamp, along with title sequences by Maurice Binder, the incredible sets of Ken Adams (remember the volcano interior in You Only Live Twice, complete with working monorail, or the interior of Fort Knox?), and the personalities of the different Bond actors, helped make the films what they are.  I close with my favorite, the orchestral theme to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  What a great driving theme, perfect to accompany the thrilling skiing sequences of that movie:

Note: given the vagaries of YouTube and fair use of copyrighted material, on which YouTube definitely treads a fine line, I apologize if either some of the above links don’t work in the future, or if someone feels copyright has been violated.  If the latter, please notify me and I will remove the link.  — DEM

By mannd

I am a retired cardiac electrophysiologist who has worked both in private practice in Louisville, Kentucky and as a Professor of Medicine at the University of Colorado in Denver. I am interested not only in medicine, but also in computer programming, music, science fiction, fantasy, 30s pulp literature, and a whole lot more.

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