(c) Eon Productions
No doubt it’s a sign of my old age but I’m bemused that currently the airwaves are buzzing with the sound of a new James Bond movie theme song – Writing’s on the Wall by Sam Smith, which next month will accompany the opening credits of the 24th official Bond movie, Spectre.
A new Bond theme song – already? Why, it seems like only yesterday that Adele was everywhere, hollering about skies crumbling and standing tall and facing it all while she belted out the theme song for Skyfall. Yes, time definitely passes faster as you age.
Unfortunately, while I thought the Skyfall song was decent – not a classic, but it worked as a serviceable pastiche of what a James Bond song ought to sound like – I haven’t been impressed by Sam Smith’s effort. No doubt it’ll be popular among those many millions of people out there who’re stricken with vapid musical tastes and the misguided belief that Simon Cowell is God. But I find it as bland and unmemorable as most other James Bond songs from the past two decades. I really can’t remember anything about, for instance, those sung by Tina Turner (for 1995’s Goldeneye), or Sheryl Crow (for 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies), or Chris Cornell (for 2006’s Casino Royale), or Jack White and Alicia Keys (for 2009’s Quantum of Solace). In fact, the only songs I liked were Skyfall and the one that synth-rock band Garbage did for The World is Not Enough (1999).
I should add that I definitely do remember Madonna’s song for Die Another Day (2002), but only because it was bollocks.
Incidentally, there’s been talk on social media about how much Writing’s on the Wall sounds like Michael Jackson’s Earth Song, which was a hit for the alleged Prince of Pop twenty years ago. Earth Song is imprinted on British minds as the song that Jackson performed onstage at the 1996 ceremony for the British Rock and Pop Awards (BRITS). During the performance, with no trace of self-awareness, Jackson was suspended above a throng of young children who made out they worshipped him like a Jesus-style messiah. (This was after he’d had to pay a large sum out-of-court to settle a charge that he’d had underage sex with a boy called Jordan Chandler.) Famously, this distasteful, self-aggrandising and idiotic spectacle prompted one member of the BRITS audience, Jarvis Cocker, front-man of the Britpop band Pulp, to protest by invading the stage, bending over and fanning a pretend-fart at the cameras.
I’d like to think that at the start of Spectre when Sam Smith’s Earth Song-clone plays over the credits and we’re treated to the sight of ghostly naked ladies floating through the ether as is the custom in all James Bond credits sequences, a ghostly Jarvis Cocker will suddenly float through the ether too, bent over and fanning pretend-farts out of the screen. But it probably won’t happen.
Pulp, actually, have some James Bond connections. On Shaken and Stirred, a compilation of covers of Bond songs put together in 1997 by latter-day Bond composer David Arnold, they attempted a version of All Time High, the Rita Coolidge effort that graced (or disgraced) 1982’s Octopussy – although the song was such a dog that even they couldn’t do much with it. Around the same time, they submitted a song to the Bond producers that they hoped would be the theme for Tomorrow Never Dies – but it was rejected. The song subsequently turned up as a B-side on the Pulp single Help the Aged (1997). It’s a pity. While Pulp’s Tomorrow Never Dies is hardly in the same class as 1995’s Common People or Disco 2000, it’s rousing enough when it gets going and it’s certainly better than the Sheryl Crow dirge that was used.
I’ve been reading recently about James Bond songs that were commissioned from and / or submitted by famous performers over the decades but were ultimately turned down. It’s a fascinating ‘what if…?’ subject. Here’s the article in question, from the online edition of the magazine The Week.
As well as Pulp and Tomorrow Never Dies, these musical Bond might-have-beens include the Pet Shop Boys, whose tune This Must Be the Place I’ve Waited Years to Leave was intended as the theme for 1987’s The Living Daylights; St Etienne, who also had a go at recording a Tomorrow Never Dies song; and Swedish teeny-bop dance-pop dorks Ace of Base, who tried to get the gig for 1995’s Goldeneye. That last film was the first Bond one to take place after the end of the Cold War – a fact that Ace of Base remarked upon in their masterful, Bob Dylan-esque lyrics: “We’re in the ’90s, nothing is the same / The Cold War is replaced by different actors using different names.”
One artist I’m sad didn’t get a chance to provide a Bond theme song was shock-rock legend Alice Cooper. In the mid-1970s – when he was notorious for a stage show that involved the bloody chopping up of fake babies and mock executions by electric chairs, gallows and guillotines – Cooper recorded a song for 1975’s The Man with the Golden Gun. The reason his song didn’t make it into the film wasn’t because of its quality but because he submitted it one day after the deadline. Mind you, the song that was used for the film was sung by someone who was almost as terrifying as Alice Cooper: Lulu.
Six years later, great New York / New Wave band Blondie contributed a song to the 1981 Bond movie For Your Eyes Only, only to have it turned down in favour of one sung by the Scottish pop starlet Sheena Easton, who’d just become famous on the back of an appearance in the proto-reality TV show The Big Time. Again, Blondie’s For Your Eyes Only isn’t up to the standard of their classic hits, such as Union City Blue (1979) or Call Me (1980), but it’s jaunty enough and preferable to the pallid song that did end up as the theme. Incidentally, Easton made history as being the first singer of a Bond song to actually appear in the opening credits while the song was playing. At the risk of sounding like a male chauvinist pig, I have to say that I’d rather have watched the delectable Debbie Harry cavorting through those credits instead.
But surely the most fascinating song commissioned, but not used, was for 1965’s Thunderball. It was sung by Johnny Cash – yes, Johnny Cash! – and it begins with the lyrics, “There’s a rumble in the sky and all the world can hear it call / They shudder at the fury of the mighty Thunderball”. This gives the song an apocalyptic quality reminiscent of Cash’s The Man Comes Around (2002), which itself accompanied the credits sequence of the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead.
Admittedly, I doubt if Cash’s song had any chance of beating the Tom Jones Thunderball that was used in the end because it’s unashamedly country-and-western in tone. It doesn’t conjure up the image of an insouciant Sean Connery in a tuxedo searching for SPECTRE-hijacked nuclear missiles in the 1960s Caribbean as much as it conjures up the image of a squinting Clint Eastwood in a dirty poncho, neckerchief and bullet-holed hat riding into a dusty one-horse town in the 1850s Wild West to sort out a power struggle between rival gangs. Still, it’s a fascinating collision between two great icons of popular culture, the Man in Black and the Man with the Licence to Kill. Though while Connery’s Bond is undoubtedly a ruthless, cold-hearted shit at times, he isn’t in the same league as some of Cash’s characters, such as the one in Folsom Prison Blues (1955), who “shot a man in Reno / Just to watch him die.”
Thanks to the miracle of Youtube, you can now watch the credit sequences of Tomorrow Never Dies, The Man with the Golden Gun, For Your Eyes Only and Thunderball accompanied by the alternative tracks by Pulp, Alice Cooper, Blondie and Johnny Cash.
Finally, there’s another category of non-Bond Bond songs: ones that weren’t written with the Bond movies in mind but which, when you hear them, cause you to think, “Wow! That should’ve been a James Bond song!” A while ago, I saw Justin Hawkins, of the tongue-in-cheek glam-metal band The Darkness, on the heavy-metal channel Scuzz TV and he argued that Nirvana’s 1993 anthem Heart-Shaped Box would’ve made a great Bond song. It’s an interesting idea, although I can’t quite hear the resemblance myself; and I’m sure the sensitive Kurt Cobain wouldn’t have been happy to have his song played against a montage of ghostly naked ladies floating through the ether and silhouettes of Roger Moore in his flared Saville Row suit. But in fact, on the Internet, someone has tried to turn it into a Bond song:
One song that was so achingly Bondian that I could never understand why the filmmakers didn’t snap up the rights to it immediately was 6 Underground, performed by the glossy 1990s trip-hop band the Sneaker Pimps. Mind you, the song’s Bondian sound is hardly surprising, considering that it borrowed a sample from 1963’s Goldfinger – not from the theme song sung by Shirley Bassey, but from the John Barry-written tune Golden Girl, which plays during the scene where Connery discovers Shirley Eaton’s body covered in gold paint.
Lately, I’ve read comments on social media claiming that one of the greatest songs-that-should’ve-been-a-Bond-one is Supremacy (2012) by the alternative / progressive rock band Muse. I’m not a big Muse fan but I have to agree. Indeed, if I were watching a spectacular Bond opening sequence – such as Roger Moore skiing off a cliff and opening his Union Jack parachute in 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, or Pierce Brosnan riding a motorbike after a pilotless plane and into a near-bottomless chasm in Goldeneye – and then Supremacy’s thunderous guitar suddenly kicked in for the credits, the massive surge of adrenalin I’d experience would probably be enough to kill me. It’s my old age, you see…