Non-Bond Bond songs

 

(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.

 

From clashmusic.com

 

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.

 

http://theweek.com/articles/576016/johnny-cash-alice-cooper-blondie-fascinating-history-rejected-james-bond-theme-songs

 

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.”

 

From biography.com

 

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.

 

From popmatters.com

 

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.”

 

From billboard.com

 

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.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oHpH-iziTho

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9tV8v697SBY

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M3anh2SV-7s

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I-AN5mJF13A

 

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:

 

http://forum.renoise.com/index.php/topic/42312-remix-heart-shaped-box/

 

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.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2eBZqmL8ehg

 

From playbuzz.com

 

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…

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=avM_UsVo0IA

 

An appointment with Willow’s Song

 

(c) British Lion Films

 

It’s May 1st – which, depending on your point of view, is either International Workers’ Day or May Day, the occasion of maypoles, hobby-horses, fools, Morris dancers, the Lord of Misrule and other things with jolly, if slightly sinister, pagan overtones.  I associate May 1st with the latter, of course.  Which gives me an excuse to write yet again about Britain’s greatest horror movie, 1973’s The Wicker Man, whose memorable climax takes place during the May Day celebrations being held on the reverted-to-paganism Scottish island of Summer Isle.  If you’ve never seen The Wicker Man, I should say to you now: (1) shame on you; and (2) watch out – this entry will be full of spoilers.

 

Seven-and-a-half years ago I was working in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, whose small enclave of expatriates – mostly diplomats and aid workers – held a weekly cinema evening.  Noticing that the next such evening fell on October 31st, i.e. Halloween, I dusted down my DVD of The Wicker Man and persuaded Pyongyang’s little cinema society that this would be a good time to show a classic horror movie.  For most of its running time, the audience seemed pleasantly bemused by the film.  They enjoyed a good chuckle at how the pagan islanders led Edward Woodward’s Sergeant Howie on a merry dance around Summer Isle, taunting the uptight Free Presbyterian police officer with their innuendo-laden folk songs and their unconventional sense of public decency (e.g. organising mass couplings in the local graveyard, dancing naked through flames in the centre of stone circles).  But the people sitting closest to me kept leaning over and whispering, “Isn’t this supposed to be a horror film?”

 

Then the film’s final ten minutes arrived, Sergeant Howie had his appointment with the wicker man and the room fell silent.  The silence continued for several minutes after the film ended – broken only by the voice of a Scotswoman who worked at the British Embassy.  She kept wailing to everyone around her, “Scotland isn’t really like that!  Scotland isn’t really like that!”

 

Later, a Dutchwoman whose husband headed the Red Cross and Crescent’s operations in Pyongyang – she had an appropriately Earth Mother-type vibe to her – came over to me with a big smile and said, “I really liked that.  But you know, most of the film felt like a musical to me.”

 

And indeed, one reason why The Wicker Man is special is its music.  (Meanwhile, the lack of music is one reason why the 2006 American remake directed by Neil LaBute and starring Nicholas Cage sucks – though to be honest, there are many reasons why it sucks.)  The man responsible for the film’s music was New Yorker Paul Giovanni, who assembled a number of songs, some self-composed, some traditional folk songs, and performed them with the folk-rock band Magnet.  Clearly a renaissance man, Giovanni was also a playwright and actor during his career.  Tragically, in 1990, he died from pneumonia, a complication caused by HIV/AIDS infection.

 

The centrepiece of The Wicker Man’s musical soundtrack is Willow’s Song – sometimes known as How Do – the haunting ballad song by Willow Macgregor, the luscious daughter of the island’s hotel owner, while she tries to lure Howie into her room one night.  To ensure that Howie gets the message, Willow performs a nude dance as well.  Howie manages to withstand Willow’s saucy enticements – just about – only to discover later that the episode was arranged by the crafty pagan islanders to determine whether he’s a virgin or not.  Willow is played by Britt Ekland and this is probably her greatest cinematic moment.  No doubt when Britt goes to meet her maker, which hopefully won’t be for a long time yet, it’ll be the scene that they’ll show on the TV news as a tribute to her.  (Well, it’s either this or a bit from The Man with the Golden Gun – which would you choose?)

 

(c) Silva Screen

 

However, it’s not Britt Ekland we hear singing Willow’s Song – the vocals have been attributed, by different people at different times, to Rachel Verney or to Annie Ross.  Also, Ekland was pregnant during the shooting of The Wicker Man, so it isn’t her naked body that we see during the scene either.  (The filmmakers hired a stripper to act as her ‘body double’ and in at least one interview with her I’ve read Ekland has remarked cattily about the size of the double’s bum.)  Come to think of it, considering how little is really heard or seen of Britt Ekland in this scene, Britt’s greatest cinematic moment doesn’t actually have much Britt in it.

 

It was ignored at the time of its release but, over the years, the prestige of The Wicker Man has grown.  Much of its mystique is due to its music and Willow’s Song in particular has received a lot of attention, with a number of artists having a go at covering it.  I suspect the most famous version is the one done in the 1990s by cinematically-inspired electronica band the Sneaker Pimps – with vocals courtesy of Kelli Dayton, the female singer whom the band recruited for their most acclaimed album, 1996’s Becoming X.  (Not only does Becoming X contain Willow’s Song but if you have the right edition of the album you’ll find as a bonus track a version of Gently Johnny, the second best song that Paul Giovanni / Magnet recorded for The Wicker Man.  The scenes with Gently Johnny were chopped out of the film’s original print but years later were restored to the Director’s Cut of it.)

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=murBjRV896Q

 

The Sneaker Pimps’ version is still recognisably the movie’s Willow’s Song, although it comes with a lush, synthesised sheen.  Filmmaker Eli Roth liked the Pimps’ take on it so much that he incorporated it into the soundtrack of his notorious 2006 ‘torture porn’ epic Hostel – the Wicker Man reference signifying that Something Bad is going to happen shortly to Roth’s own, hapless protagonists.  I don’t find Hostel as objectionable as many other people do, but nonetheless I feel that the delicate, pleading tone of Willow’s Song is incongruous in a movie that’s basically about dumb American backpackers getting tortured to death.  Interestingly, both The Wicker Man and Hostel go against the philosophy of conventional, conservative horror movies (like John Carpenter’s Halloween) that holds that only characters who prudishly say no to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll will escape being victims, while immoral characters will die horribly.  In The Wicker Man, it’s the only adult virgin on the island who goes up in smoke at the end.  In Hostel, the backpacker who survives the carnage is actually the most promiscuous one.

 

Before the Sneaker Pimps’ version, in 1991, indie band the Mock Turtles had done a take on Willow’s Song (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QlIcy5gOIuo), while 12 years later soulful British rock band the Doves attempted it too (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1NKlL6x3aIw).  Both the Turtles and the Doves’ versions are distinctive thanks to the fact that a man, not a woman, does the singing on them.  In 2006 Scottish folk singer Isobel Campbell, best known for her collaborations with Mark Lanegan, covered Willow’s Song and unsurprisingly her version followed a more traditional, folky blueprint (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DHpHC54s2s0).  And a year later the indie-dance group the Go! Team – a marmite-type outfit whom you either really like or find intensely irritating; I have to say I quite like them – covered it too, although their version seems not to be available on youtube.

 

Definitely worth mentioning is a version by the eerie, theremin-loving combo Spacedog, who clearly decided to go for it and deconstructed the song totally.  They mixed in a sample from another classic British horror film – the ‘power of the will’ monologue delivered by actor Charles Gray while he played the villain in 1968’s The Devil Rides Out – and the results are impressively phantasmagorical.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VUFDhf4XBaI

 

Willow’s Song has a Wikipedia entry that lists at least eight other versions – which isn’t bad for a song that accompanies a scene in which a woman tries to seduce an older, unprepossessing man, but is rebuffed; in a film that baffled its studio, got chopped to pieces before its release and was, initially, financially unsuccessful and critically shunned.  Perhaps it’s the strange juxtaposition of elements that makes the song memorable.  Its sound is gorgeously ethereal and delicate but, when you listen to the lyrics, you realise it’s pretty bawdy too.  Willow promises Howie “a stroke as gentle as a feather,” and later boasts, “How a maid can milk a bull!  And every stroke a bucketful.”*

 

Come to think of it, the contrasts in the song are similar to the contrasts in The Wicker Man itself, a film packed with humour, music and cheerful lewdness but ending with a horrific act of cruelty.  These unsettling contrasts have helped the movie’s reputation to grow in the last 40 years, to the point where it’s now seen as a classic of British cinema.

 

*Maybe this line gave the Farrelly Brothers the idea for the gag in their 1996 movie Kingpin where Woody Harrelson milks a bull – although he’s under the impression that he’s milking a cow.