Thursday, 28 September 2017

JAMES BOND: The music

For me, the music is the most important element of the James Bond franchise. Even more so than any of the other trappings, the soundtrack - particularly the James Bond theme - is the element which ties the franchise together and gives the movies a depth and cool that - more often than not - they would otherwise lack.

Dr. No

Like the movie, Dr No's score is an embryonic version of what was to come. The centrepiece is the James Bond theme. Written by Monty Norman, based on a musical he had previously composed, the theme was arranged and performed by the John Barry Seven. Barry's arrangement elevated Norman's composition and landed him the job of scoring most of the films between 1963 and 1987. This theme remains a mainstay of the series and an aural signature for the character.

Most of Norman's score is missing from the soundtrack album, which is made up of source tracks Norman recorded with musicians in Jamaica. The most interesting track is 'The Island Speaks', an atmospheric piece which plays during Bond's journey to Dr. No's island.

The rest of the album is interesting as a curio. One track which re-appears in a couple of different versions, is 'Dr No's Fantasy'. Another, slower version is confusingly named 'The James Bond Theme' - it's interesting and kind of eccentric, but it's not quite strong enough to stand up on its own.

Hopefully, Norman's full score gets a re-release at some point in the future. As it stands, this album is only notable for the first appearance of the Bond theme and the song 'Jump Up'.

From Russia With Love

Monty Norman was replaced by John Barry for the sequel, and the series' musical signature was cemented. This score introduces the first of Barry's alternative Bond themes. Entitled '007', it is more staccato and orchestral - there are points where it sounds like a wireless set relaying information. More adventurous and romantic than the Bond theme, Barry would re-use it in four later Bond scores.

The rest of the score is fantastic. Atmospheric, tense and evocative of its various locales without tying itself down the same way Dr No does. It's a classic adventure score, filtered through Barry's jazz influences.

The title song is serviceable, but lacks a little punch. More successful are the instrumental versions of the theme which reoccur throughout the film (the version which plays over the opening credits is great, especially when it segues into the Bond theme halfway through).


Packing as much style and swagger as the movie it accompanies, after fifty-something years there is something evergreen and exciting about John Barry's Goldfinger score. From 'Bond Back In Action' through 'Dawn Raid on Fort Knox', it is  a triumph. Even the incidental tracks, like 'Into Miami', are great. The song is solid gold, and Barry lays it through the score in a way that ties the whole thing together.

The one downside to Goldfinger, score and movie, is that future films and composers would try to use it as a template, to much diminished effect. 


The movie is a little middling; the same cannot be said for the score. It is not as propulsive as Goldfinger, but it is more atmospheric, and slower-paced, which makes it more enjoyable as a listening experience.

This is the first time in the series history where most of the score is built on the melody to a song that did not make the film. 'Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' was recorded by Shirley Bassey and Dionne Warwick, but the producers felt the song should have the title of the movie. The result is a soundtrack which is about 15% influenced by Tom Jones' title song. His song is fine, but I think I like 'Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' - it's too bad it never had a shot. The result is richer - I don't think 'Thunderball' is as interesting in instrumental form is 'Kiss Kiss...'

Barry develops a 'mystery' theme through tracks like 'Moving the Body' and 'Searching for Vulcan' which is very memorable (every time I go swimming, it starts playing in my head). It gets its most muscular workout in the build-up to the underwater battle ('Underwater Mayhem...').

A bit more stately than its predecessor, Thunderball is the aural equivalent of a day at the beach.

You Only Live Twice

A bit overshadowed by the scores either side of it, You Only Live Twice remains a really enjoyable Bond score. The song is not an all-timer, but it ranks just below the first division, and Barry makes good use of its melody in the rest of the score. Despite the movie's focus on spectacle, the score feels more geared toward romance than action. 'Mountains and Sunsets' is one of the best single tracks in the franchise, and had its main notes incorporated into the Robbie Williams' song 'Millennium'. The one off-note is the re-appearance of '007', feels awkward and out of style with the rest of the score. This version also feels a bit stiff and cold.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service

All of the previous scores in the franchise, no matter how good, were leading up to this.

Influenced by Barry's misgivings about new Bond George Lazenby, OHMSS is the most mature and tonally sophisticated soundtrack the franchise has ever produced. The main title theme is a glorious one-off. Like Dr No, which opens with the James Bond theme, Barry developed an instrumental theme that carried through the movie. Powered by a Moog synthesiser, bass guitar and horns, it is propulsive and exciting, but leavened with a melancholic edge. One has to wonder if - had Lazenby continued - Barry would have re-used 'OHMSS' as a secondary character theme ala '007'.

The other centrepiece is 'We Have All The Time In The World', sung by Louis Armstrong. A beautifully understated ballad, it is the only real love theme in the franchise's history. Barry weaves between 'OHMSS' and this song throughout the score, only occasionally pulling out the old standby.

The Bond theme is also affected by the movie's fatalism - Barry uses an electric piano in place of the usual guitar for the melody, which undercuts its swagger. It makes more sense when Barry segues into the familiar theme over the closing credits. It is almost like the series formula reasserting itself following the death of Mrs Bond.

Top to bottom the best score the series ever had - the title theme is one of Barry's most successful experiments, and, most significantly, the score feels so of a piece with itself that when the Bond theme pops in, it feels incongruous.

Diamonds Are Forever

A weird revision of his brassy Sixties style, Barry tips his hat toward contemporary trends (particularly funk), while retaining his focus on traditional orchestration. This is the point in the franchise where the quality of the film and the quality of the soundtrack  begin to diverge.

Built around one of the series' all-time greatest songs, Diamonds Are Forever is one of Barry's most location-inspired scores. Track to track, this score oozes with the cheap glitz and sleaze of Las Vegas. It's not as good as OHMSS, and a step down from his work in the Sixties, but it remains one of my personal favourites. The electric piano which popped up in OHMSS returns, but is less obvious - there is a strange beat where Barry uses it to briefly echo the previous score's version of the Bond theme (pay attention during the pre-credit sequence when Connery's face is shown).

Aside from the song, the highlights are Wint and Kidd's theme - off-kilter and creepy - and '007 and Counting', which is the one time where the score hits the feeling of Barry's earlier scores. The one bummer is 'Moon Buggy Chase', which is shrill and repetitive (it is almost like Barry hates the scene as much as the viewer).

A bit more throwaway, but still a lot of fun, Diamonds Are Forever is the runt of the Connery run.

Live and Let Die

George Martin was a genius, and in terms of replacements it is hard to argue against him. It helps to have that song, but Martin's soul and funk-inspired score is extremely addictive. 'Whisper Who Dares', 'Trespassers Will Be Eaten', 'Boat Chase' and 'Underground Lair' are worthy of Barry himself. The score is a bit dated, but the injection of funk works so well it almost does not matter. Built off a great song, Live and Let Die still has a solid case for being the best James Bond score not penned by John Barry.

The Man With The Golden Gun

John Barry returned for his seventh tilt at the wheel, and while it is solid, there is something underwhelming about the whole package.

It could be the song, which I don't hate, but as a foundation for a score it is not on the same level as the previous scores. There is something a bit irritating about having those opening notes repeated over and over again - they just don't stack up to a 'Goldfinger' or a 'You Only Live Twice'.

Contradictorily, the most fun track is the western saloon-style instrumental of the title song, which plays during the pre-title funhouse set piece. It's just as eccentric as Lulu's version - maybe that's why the more traditional orchestral variations fall flat, they lose some of the song's character.

The Spy Who Loved Me

This soundtrack is the first real dud of the series, which is depressing since it was composed by the late, great Marvin Hamlisch, and features one of the best songs ever made.

The main problem is that it is very inconsistent, and, for the CD release, there is not much of it - the best parts of the score are not on the album (where is the music from the car chase?). The first few notes of 'Bond 77' are great, but then it turns into a disco dance tune, and the rest of soundtrack follows suit. If this was played in a club I would dance to it, but in the movie it is a total misfire.


My god what a study in contrast in tone between film and music - John Barry returns to deliver the limpest score of his tenure. The song is flaccid, but overall his approach is all wrong for the OTT nonsense onscreen. It is ultimately too slow and stately, which kills any sense of excitement. A very strange approach, especially considering how the film feels like a live action cartoon.

It's not a complete wash. Barry's score for the space sequences is beautiful, as he augments the orchestra with a choir. Otherwise, it is like the theme song - completely forgettable.

For Your Eyes Only

At the dawn of the eighties, John Barry took another break, and Rocky composer Bill Conti took over. Like the previous Barry stand-ins, Conti went for a contemporary tone. Once again that tone was disco, which was basically dead by the time this movie was released.

This score is so odd - in its own way, it hits the emotional beats of each scene, but the disco style is such a clunky fit that the it just sounds like the score to a Magnum PI episode. The disco influence on the gun barrel music is so overt every time I watch the movie I expect Moore to moonwalk backwards into frame.

'Melina's Revenge' is a personal favourite - it is actually two tracks combined; the first half covering the death of Melina's parents, and the second half is the music from the pre-title sequence, which plays as Bond takes over control of the helicopter and gets rid of Blofeld. It is very seventies, but the way the music kicks in is just magic.

The title song is memorable, although it's not a particular favourite of mine. To Conti's credit, he makes good use of its melody throughout, which might explain why the disco aesthetic is not as smothering as it could have been.


Octopussy is a score (and a movie) that has slowly risen to become one of my favourites. As with Moonraker, Barry goes heavy on the strings for a more expansive, classical sound. For some reason, this score works for me in a way that Moonraker did not. 'Bond Look Alike' and 'Palace Fight' in particular are great fun, managing to be a little playful while also building a bit of tension. It feels like the score to a light caper, which is perfect for this, the Moore-iest of Moore Bond movies.

I have grown to tolerate the theme song, although that may have more to do with Matt Gourley's incessant praise of it on the James Bonding podcast. The big problem is that it does not feel big enough - it feels more like one of the franchise's secondary theme songs ('If There Was A Man' from The Living Daylights; 'If You Asked Me To' from Licence to Kill), rather than something to anchor the movie on.

A solid outing for Barry, Octopussy marked his brief return to being James Bond's fulltime musical accompaniment.

A View To A Kill

Once again John Barry saves a terrible film with a score it does not deserve.

This score is absolutely beautiful. I used to dislike Barry's eighties scores - I missed the brass and jazz textures, but I have come to really enjoy the emphasis he placed on strings. There is something rather melancholy and beautiful about his instrumental version of the title song, particularly the use of a flute solo to stand in for Simon LeBon.

The Living Daylights

The arrival of a new Bond also marked the end of an era, as John Barry's last stab winds up acting as a fitting finale to his tenure.

Aside from some dated synths, this ranks as one of his best scores. The song is okay, but that is due to Barry's contributions, which overcome the nonsensical lyrics. In addition, his re-orchestration of the song in the score is terrific.

Part of this score's strength may be because this is the only time in the franchise in which all of the film's musical themes are based on songs: aside from the title song, we get the Pretenders' track 'Where Has Everybody Gone', which is another first in that it is the only time a henchman gets an identifiable theme tune of his own. It's a cool song, although I feel like it could use a bigger female vocal - if franchise mainstay Shirley Bassey had sung it, it would probably be better known. Barry's orchestral versions of the song ('Necros Attacks'; 'Inflight Fight') are also dynamite.

Barry also bases the romantic theme on another Pretenders song, 'If There Was a Man', which plays over the end credits. The song is adult contemporary cheese, but the orchestral versions in the score are really good (the album includes an alternate instrumental which is far better).

I criticised the synths, but I have to say Barry uses them well, especially in 'Ice Chase'. They don't overwhelm the orchestra like they do in the late nineties films.

Overall a superb summation to John Barry's work on the franchise.

Licence to Kill

When John Barry was too sick to return, the producers enlisted Lethal Weapon and Die Hard composer Michael Kamen to give this darker movie a more contemporary edge. The results are, as usual, underwhelming.

The main problem is that it lacks a real signature of its own. The most obvious problem is that it does not incorporate the melody of the song into the score. It is not a deal-breaker, but there is no other theme in the score to give it some character of its own.

Kamen's version of the Bond theme is fine (the slow-build which plays as Bond rises out of the water behind the sea plane is great), but the rest of the score does not amount to much.


Eric Serra was famous for his synth scores to Luc Besson movies like Le Femme Nikita and Leon, but he was out of his (fifth) element on this movie. The biggest misstep in the franchise, GoldenEye was such a miscalculation that it is the one time in which another composer was hired to re-do parts of the score.

'The GoldenEye Overture', which plays during the pre-credit sequence, is fine and works with the scene, but overall Serra's techno aesthetic is totally at odds with the movie's tone. It is a testament to the movie's other qualities that the score does not torpedo it.

The 'standout' examples of how badly Serra bungles the task are 'Ladies First' (which plays during his flirtatious chase with Xenia Onatopp) and his rejected music for the tank chase. Composer John Altman was brought on at the last minute to quickly come up with an orchestral score for the tank chase which made heavy use of the James Bond theme. Altman's contribution was left off the soundtrack album, but you can find a version of it floating around on Youtube.

Otherwise the score feels like a mash-up of bad elevator music and the soundtrack to a late eighties porno.

Tomorrow Never Dies

The arrival of David Arnold as composer led to a decade of musical stability for the Bond franchise.

Tomorrow Never Dies is one of his best soundtracks, even though it features the elements that would derail his later scores for the Brosnan era: a big dollop of Barry (strings, brass, and horns) with contemporary textures (in this case, drum'n'bass).

Unlike his later Brosnan-era scores which emphasise elements of techno, with Tomorrow Never Dies Arnold makes sure that they are subordinate to traditional brass and strings.

Barry-like touches are present throughout ('Hamburg Break-In' echoes Barry's "Bond Back In Action' from Goldfinger), and Arnold brings back the James Bond theme in an energetic arrangement that re-invigorates the old standby.

And while the Sheryl Crowe song is dire, Arnold's own Bassey-esque 'Surrender' (sung by kd lang) made it to the end credits. Like Thunderball, Arnold composed the score with the melody for this song as the backbone, but Crowe's song wound up getting the prime slot.

One of the best scores in the series, with Tomorrow Never Dies the Bond series got its mojo back.

The World Is Not Enough

More techno-influenced than Arnold's first score, and not nearly as fresh, The World Is Not Enough does earn points for being a little more tonally varied than its bold, brash predecessor. Arnold lends this score more pathos to match the more mature intentions of the film.

As a score this one actually ranks with Barry for doing a better job at hitting the tone than the film it accompanies. The action cues are fantastic, but the real highlight is 'Elektra's Theme', which features throughout the movie as a motif for the characters' effect on Bond and the narrative trajectory. 

I am lukewarm on the title song - objectively there is nothing wrong with it, but there is something lacking from it. Maybe it just fits the template too closely - it really has no defining character of its own.

More offbeat is 'No One Else To Blame', a moody ditty Arnold came up with to play over the end credits. Sung by Scott Walker, it hits the downbeat tone of the movie - clearly the producers agreed, since they had Arnold go back and replace it with an up-tempo version of the James Bond theme, to leave the viewers on a high note (the song is included on the soundtrack album).

Die Another Day

While not as bad as GoldenEye, this score represents the nadir of David Arnold's tenure. The movie is out of ideas, and, sadly, so was the composer. He struggles manfully to bring drama and excitement in 'Hovercraft Chase' and 'Anatonov', but his music lacks variation and nuance. Once again, he is hamstrung by a terrible title song,which was produced too late to be used in the score. Overall Die Another Day comes off as loud, hollow and tied to its time.

Casino Royale

Purposely depriving himself of the James Bond theme, which had become something of a crutch in his previous scores, Arnold rises to the occasion with tracks which accentuate the movie's tone and themes. His romantic theme for Vesper Lynd is lovely, and while 'You Know My Name' is a bit middling as a title song, Arnold's uses of its melody in the score are glorious (particularly on the heart-pumping 'African Rundown'). When the Bond theme finally makes its appearance, it feels earned. One of the best scores in the franchise.

Quantum of Solace

Not a bad effort (and better than the song) but Quantum of Solace is a bit of a dip in quality from Arnold's previous score. 

He continues the restraint of his work on Casino Royale, utilising the familiar theme for only a few minor moments and picking up 'Vesper' in a few places to ensure thematic continuity. However Arnold's largely at the mercy of the movie, which is the most relentlessly action-oriented in the franchise. He makes a lot out of the movie's quieter moments, injecting lashings of pathos ('I Never Left') and comedy ('Field Trip') in among the action cues.

On that front, Arnold is on great form: 'Time to Get Out' and 'Pursuit at Port Au Prince' are great. The real highlight may be 'Night at The Opera', which gets the pulse racing without leaning into the percussion or synthesisers.

Quantum would perhaps have been more memorable if the melody of the score was tied to the title song, but this is another Arnold joint where contemporary taste overruled musical unity. Arnold later used the melody of this score for the song 'No Good About Goodbye' for Shirley Bassey. Rumours persist that this song was rejected in favour of the White-Keys track. I have no idea what the truth is, but the song is so close to the melody line that runs through Quantum that it is hard to dismiss as a coincidence. 


With the arrival of Sam Mendes in the director's chair, Skyfall also marked the series debut of his favoured composer Thomas Newman. An Oscar winner with a solid pedigree, on paper Newman sounds like a great stand-in for David Arnold. But that is not the case.

While it is not terrible, Newman's score for Bond 23 is relatively anonymous. As always, the big problem is a lack of memorable melody - Adele's 'Skyfall' gets referenced in 'Komodo Dragon' and it is great, but it is missing from the rest of the movie. 'New Digs' has some nice agitated guitar and Newman reaches some Barry-esque romanticism with the evocative 'Severine' and 'Modigliani', but otherwise it sounds like Modern Blockbuster Score 101.

Even the Bond theme, when it reappears, feels a little uninspired - Arnold always gave it a bit of panache and originality, but Newman seems to be going for the original vintage, with no flavour of his own.


Following his middling effort for Skyfall, Newman returns to deliver a score with even less character than his first. Like Skyfall, it is not without its good points: the opening track, 'Los Muertos Vivos Estan', features Tambuco on percussion. By itself it boasts more energy and swagger than anything else on the album. But once again, the score feels indebted to a contemporary aesthetic that is heavy on simple themes and motifs, but light on strong melody. It does not say much that the most memorable track on the album is the instrumental version of Sam Smith's insipid theme song.

Here's hoping whoever gets the gig for Daniel Craig's swansong can end his era on high note.

No comments:

Post a Comment