Sunday, 3 February 2013

The Music of James Bond - a review

Music is as significant a part of the James Bond films as the jaw-dropping stunts or the plots that go, in Fleming's words, beyond the probable, and is deservedly the subject of in-depth analysis. The Music of James Bond by Jon Burlingame tells the story of missed opportunities (including a shelved plan for a Moonraker symphony), legal wrangles (notoriously over the authorship of the James Bond theme), recording-studio disputes (the creative differences between John Barry and a-ha are well known), but above all wonderful, genre-defining music.

Although many people contributed to the soundtracks that accompanied the Bond films, the music was shaped and developed largely by one man, John Barry, who made the James Bond sound as instantly recognisable as, say, the music of the classic Western or that of Hitchcock's later masterpieces.

The book is packed by some fascinating facts that are likely to be new to even the most scholarly of Bond aficionados. Eric Rogers, the man who scored many a Carry On film, conducted the orchestra during the recording of the Dr No soundtrack. Led Zeppelin’s legendary guitarist, Jimmy Page, was a session musician during the Goldfinger recordings. An extra verse penned for 'Diamonds Are Forever' was dropped because the song was too long. Frank Sinatra agreed to sing 'Moonraker', but the deal mysteriously fell through. Vic Flick, who played guitar on the James Bond theme for Dr No, played the same guitar while recording the James Bond theme for Licence to Kill. Wyclef Jean contributed background tracks for the Haitian scenes in Quantum of Solace.

Taking a meme's-eye view, what especially interested me were the origins and evolution of the James Bond sound. Audiences of Dr No in 1962 are unlikely to have been completely surprised by the soundtrack, as it built on material that already existed. Composer Monty Norman borrowed elements from his musicals and was also inspired by Jamaican styles, particularly the calypso. Norman's score, notably the James Bond theme, were then given the full treatment by the well-established and popular jazz group, the John Barry Seven. And just as Norman took ideas from his earlier projects, so to did John Barry, on sole scoring duty after Dr No, take ideas from his other work. Jon Burlingame notes that some of his themes from You Only Live Twice, for example, were reminiscent of music for The Whisperers, while aspects of the score for The Man With The Golden Gun owed something to his music for The Day of the Locust.

Throughout the film series, the Bond scores continued to be influenced more generally by the external musical environment, and almost naturally evolved as they incorporated new sounds and techniques. Jazz or easy-listening styles, which dominated the Bond scores of the 1960s, gave way to synthesisers and disco in the 1970s. A harder-edged pop sound accompanied some of the films of the 1980s, and technological innovations were coupled with John Barry's increasingly symphonic approach (one that he would use to Oscar-winning effect in later, non-Bond films). Following Eric Serra’s industrial (and to an extent unfairly maligned) take on the James Bond sound for GoldenEye in 1995, David Arnold returned some of the traditional musical elements to the Bond scores (horns made a rousing comeback), but kept them modern with electronics, drum programming and unusual instruments. Latterly, the scores of the Daniel Craig era, while retaining traditional elements, have been concept-driven, with music contributing both to character and story.

Jon Burlingame's research and level of detail are impressive, even when discussing rejected theme songs, such as the many songs offered for Tomorrow Never Dies, or Amy Winehouse's embryonic theme for Quantum of Solace (elements of which would be incorporated into David Arnold's 'No Good about Goodbye', a song that appeared on Shirley Bassey's album, The Performance). As for the legacy of the work of John Barry and others, this is clear by the huge number of artists who have covered Bond themes, but also when we watch Austin Powers or other spy spoofs. The music is an integral part of the Bond film and inevitably imitated along with the gadgets, cars, action, exotic women and megalomaniac villains. From the music's origins and evolution to its legacy, Jon Burlingame's The Music of James Bond is exhaustive, and deserves a place on every Bond fan's bookshelf.

3 comments:

  1. Good review but I wished you had made a comment on the sound track for On Her Majesty's Secret Service which in my opinion ranks as one of the greatest soundtracks in worldwide cinematic history. Why it has not achieved iconic status like the soundtracks for movies such as The Godfather, The Good, the Bad & The Ugly, The Magnificient 7, Star Wars, Lawrence of Arabia, Chariots of Fire etc, remains a mystery to me.

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  2. Good review but I wished you had made a comment on the sound track for On Her Majesty's Secret Service which in my opinion ranks as one of the greatest soundtracks in worldwide cinematic history. Why it has not achieved iconic status like the soundtracks for movies such as The Godfather, The Good, the Bad & The Ugly, The Magnificient 7, Star Wars, Lawrence of Arabia, Chariots of Fire etc, remains a mystery to me.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. I agree - the OHMSS soundtrack is fantastic, and probably my favourite Bond soundtrack. It certainly deserves to sit alongside all those greats you mention.

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