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