The James Bond Songs: Pop An­thems of Late Cap­i­tal­ism by Adrian Daub and Charles Kro­nen­gold

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The James Bond Songs: Pop An­thems of Late Cap­i­tal­ism by Adrian Daub & Charles Kro­nen­gold, Ox­ford Univer­sity Press, 228 pages

All but a hand­ful of James Bond films, be­gin­ning with the se­ries’ in­cep­tion in 1962, when pro­duc­ers Al­bert R. Broc­coli and Harry Saltz­man brought nov­el­ist Ian Flem­ing’s Dr. No to the screen, have come from a sin­gle Bri­tish pro­duc­tion com­pany. This makes for a cer­tain con­ti­nu­ity, a fa­mil­iar for­mula of guns, sex, vil­lainy, and the age­less touch­stone of brass and surf gui­tars that is the “James Bond Theme.” An­other part of the 007 rit­ual: a pop song par­tic­u­lar to the film that plays while the open­ing cred­its roll over a slith­er­ing pa­rade of fe­male bod­ies in sil­hou­ette. Over the years those songs, de­signed to cap­ture the largest au­di­ence, have been per­formed by name­brand com­mer­cial artists, a group that in­cludes Tom Jones, Tina Turner, Du­ran Du­ran, and k.d. lang.

The most mem­o­rable of them, even more so than Paul and Linda McCart­ney’s an­them for Live and Let Die, came early in the se­ries and was sung by Shirley Bassey. The James Bond Songs claims that Bassey, next to Bond him­self, is the per­son most iden­ti­fied with the 50-plus-year-old fran­chise even though she never ap­peared, as Madonna did, on­screen. “Goldfin­ger,” writ­ten by John Barry, Leslie Bri­cusse, and An­thony Newley, is the Bond song against which all other Bond songs are judged. As the au­thors point out, Bassey’s as­sertive de­liv­ery of a warn­ing against a man ob­sessed by the glit­ter­ing me­tal makes her the an­tithe­sis of the com­pli­ant sex ob­jects known as Bond girls. Yet, with the pos­si­ble ex­cep­tion of Pussy Ga­lore, she’s bet­ter re­mem­bered than any of them.

Stan­ford as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of mu­si­col­ogy Charles Kro­nen­gold and Adrian Daub, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of Ger­man stud­ies at Stan­ford and author of a book about eroti­cism in Ger­man opera, Tristan’s Shadow: Sex­u­al­ity and the To­tal Work of Art, be­lieve the evo­lu­tion of the Bond songs ex­plains what’s hap­pened to pop mu­sic since the early 1960s. Changes in style and in­stru­men­ta­tion, as well in how mu­sic is made and mar­keted, have had a cor­rupt­ing in­flu­ence, just as the pur­suit of wealth cor­rupts Bond’s neme­ses. The songs have been so in­flu­enced by hoped-for com­mer­cial suc­cess that they were not, as the au­thors write, “‘of their mo­ment’ even when they were first recorded.” Their de­vel­op­ment, like Bond’s, was “ar­rested in the ’60s.” The songs, in their own way, all at­tempt to re-cre­ate the suc­cess of “Goldfin­ger.” Nowhere is that more ob­vi­ous than in Adele’s Grammy win­ner for the 2012 film Sky­fall. Many of the songs are for­got­ten as soon as the next film is re­leased. Who re­mem­bers “An­other Way to Die” per­formed by Jack White and Ali­cia Keys for Quan­tum of So­lace?

Read­ers can have a lot of fun call­ing up the mu­sic dis­cussed here on YouTube, mar­veling at how few of the songs ring a bell. But the book isn’t about nos­tal­gia. Its pur­pose is to show the songs as a prod­uct of brand­ing. Each one’s re­la­tion­ship to its film is of­ten clouded, sug­gest­ing some­thing about the vil­lain’s mo­ti­va­tions, as in “Goldfin­ger,” or grant­ing a look into Bond’s sub­con­scious, as in “Sky­fall.” (Sam Smith’s “Writ­ing’s on the Wall,” from the new Bond film Spec­tre, falls into the lat­ter cat­e­gory.) Bond songs are not time­less but op­er­ate out­side of time, look­ing to cap­ture the past and make it sound mod­ern. Even a-ha’s 1987 New Wave-in­spired “The Liv­ing Day­lights” was be­hind the curve. In this, the songs are like Bond him­self, a char­ac­ter who seems per­pet­u­ally stuck in the 1960s. This dated qual­ity of Bond songs car­ries over to the orig­i­nal “James Bond Theme” with its splashy brass and surf gui­tar. As first heard in the 1962 film Dr. No, the in­stru­men­tal theme (and its vari­a­tions) has been a trade­mark of nearly ev­ery Bond film since. Yet, as the au­thors point out, it was done in a style that “was al­ready in de­cline at the time.”

All this leads the au­thors to dis­cuss how pop mu­sic, as ev­i­denced by the Bond songs, is mostly born of com­mer­cial pres­sures. Th­ese in­flu­ences are a re­sult of the many hands that go into the songs’ mak­ing: the com­posers, mu­si­cians, and record­ing en­gi­neers. They also in­clude the de­mands made by the con­tent of the film and the fran­chise’s long his­tory, not to men­tion the film’s pro­duc­ers, who “butt in with bizarre ul­ti­ma­tums.” Like much of pop mu­sic, the songs are prod­ucts of cal­cu­la­tion that must make money. Sur­pris­ingly, some of them hide an anti-cap­i­tal­ist mes­sage. Look at the havoc wreaked by a man, as Bassey sings, who loves only gold. Yet Bond him­self, dressed in a tuxedo and ready for the next martini, rep­re­sents an­other side of cap­i­tal­is­tic ex­cess. He’s just not out for world dom­i­na­tion.

The James Bond Songs, es­pe­cially good at dis­sect­ing the mu­sic and its place in the films, is most in­ter­est­ing when it’s flesh­ing out the Bond char­ac­ter and his era. More than a book for mu­sic lovers and Bond devo­tees, it’s a wise state­ment of how com­merce tries to pass it­self off as art. The Bond fran­chise may be li­censed to kill, but — at least in its mu­sic — it doesn’t al­ways hit the tar­get. — Bill Kohlhaase

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