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5 November 2015

The heart of James Bond has always been in the theme song

There is a pattern now of trying to set Bond up as a somewhat tortured soul, with lots of past, lots of hinterland. That opening song has to do an awful lot of work.

By Tracey Thorn

Two separate people tweeted me the other day to suggest that “Disappointing”, the recent duet I sang with John Grant, would make a good Bond theme song, and I must admit that I was extremely flattered. It’s a great compliment, the suggestion that you have come up with something dazzling and swish enough to work over those famous opening credits. Bond films are unique in placing so much emphasis on a song, and the build-up to their release always revolves partly around the revelation of who will sing the theme tune.

Aside from the selection of who’s going to perform at the Eurovision Song Contest – which is more of a career kiss-of-death than a highlight – I can’t think of another event that is all about the choosing of a singer. I sometimes wonder whether the public imagines all of us – All The Singers – sitting by the phone, waiting for a call that mostly never comes. As for me, I rate my chances at zero, though two things work slightly in my favour: first, the grand tradition of the Bond theme being sung by a woman, from Shirley Bassey, Nancy Sinatra, Lulu and Carly Simon through to Sheena Easton, Tina Turner, Madonna and Adele; and second, that it is usually a non-rock torch song, a bit camp, a bit overemotional.

A rock song, especially one performed by a male rock singer, has seemed to me, on the rare occasions the producers have tried it, to be a mismatch. Bond himself – despite the modern settings – is an essentially pre-rock’n’roll character. With his suits and his cocktails, he’s a Don Draper figure, and set next to rock musicians would look as uncomfortable as Don at one of Megan’s parties, awkward and diminished in the company of bearded, pot-smoking hippies. Like when Frank Sinatra wore a Nehru jacket and beads and got married to Mia Farrow. You can imagine Bond in a casino, but not at a gig. He can hold a gun but would look ridiculous with an electric guitar.

And so the theme song has to respect this, and understand that it exists within a cabaret, soulful-but-slightly-MOR tradition. For a male singer to make it work he has to be comfortable in that guise. Scott Walker would have been perfect, although in the end his “Only Myself to Blame” wasn’t used as the theme song for The World Is Not Enough, as it was meant to be. Was it too languid and melancholy? Too self-pitying? Or so world-weary that it was in danger of making Bond sound old? Sam Smith – who I think, I hasten to add, also fits perfectly – has spoken of having to amend the lyrics to his song “Writing’s on the Wall” after meeting with Sam Mendes and Barbara Broccoli, in response to concerns that his naturally vulnerable lyrical persona might make Bond look weak.

Which raises the question: who are we supposed to think is singing the song? Whose voice is it we are hearing? There’s a sensibility to the Bond song which is often glamorous and seductive, so is it a Bond girl singing to James? Or are we – and I think this is especially true in the case of the recent films – meant to imagine it as a moment of direct expression from, and insight into, the psyche and emotions of Bond himself? There is a pattern now of trying to set Bond up as a somewhat tortured soul, with lots of past, lots of hinterland. That opening song has to do an awful lot of work.

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Anyway, having said all this, I’ve just been to see Spectre and found it rather underwhelming. I missed Judi Dench as M and Miss Moneypenny being an action heroine, like she was in Skyfall. It made the film seem a bit more obviously macho again, though thankfully Sam Smith avoided any hint of that with his dramatically falsetto vocals. The opening credits work like a pop video – not surprisingly, because that segment is directed by the video director Daniel Kleinman – imagistic and self-contained, bearing not much relation to the film. And at the centre, as the song plays, is not Sam the singer, but Daniel Craig the actor, impassive as ever, while all the emoting is done for him by the gloriously camp melodrama of the song. 

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This article appears in the 04 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The end of Europe