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Temperamental artists, unexpected hits, and Bond

Today, 5 October, we celebrate James Bond Day, and this year has been a great one for 007. In January, both song and score for Skyfall won Grammys, and 18 September marked the 50th anniversary of the general release of the film Goldfinger in UK cinemas. Shirley Bassey’s extraordinary rendition of the title song played a key role in its success. In these extracts from The Music of James Bond, Jon Burlingame recounts the stories behind some of the great title songs.

Goldfinger

More significantly, the public seemed to be paying equal attention to Goldfinger’s bold, brassy Barry score. “The musical soundtrack is slickly furnished by John Barry, who also composed the title song,” noted Variety’s film critic; its music critic later praised the album as “the strongest Bond film score to date.” In the United Kingdom, the soundtrack album made the charts on October 31 and reached number 14. But in America, it appeared on December 12 and rocketed up the charts, reaching number 1 on March 20, 1965. It edged out the Mary Poppins soundtrack (which in turn had displaced Beatles ’65 at the top) and remained the most popular album in America for three weeks.

Goldfinger would be the only Bond soundtrack album to reach the top of the charts. Barry was nominated for a Grammy Award, and although there was no Oscar attention—for Barry, that would come later, and not for James Bond—there was the satisfaction of worldwide commercial success. United Artists Records released Barry’s driving rock instrumental of Goldfinger (with Flick on guitar) and, a few months later, an LP titled John Barry Plays Goldfinger (acompilation of his arrangements from the first three Bond films plus a handful of easy-listening tunes).

Thunderball

The whole song was written over a mid-September weekend. And Welshborn singer Tom Jones, an old friend of Black’s who had already had two top-10 hits earlier that year (“It’s Not Unusual” and “What’s New Pussycat?”), quickly agreed to sing it. Black liked his “steely, manly voice.” Britain’s New Musical Express announced Jones’s signing on September 24, and they went into the studio on October 11 to lay down the track.

“I was thrilled to bits when they asked me to do Thunderball,” Jones remembered many years later. “There was a connection, because Les Reed, who wrote a lot of my big songs, was John Barry’s pianist. The most memorable thing about the session was hitting that note at the end. John told me to hold on to this very high note for as long as possible.” Jones’s now-legendary final note lasts nine full seconds, and in the isolated vocal recording he can be heard running out of breath, although that last part is buried in the final mix with the orchestra. “I closed my eyes, hit the note and held on,” Jones said on another occasion. “When I opened my eyes the room was spinning. I had to grab hold of the booth I was in to steady myself. If I hadn’t, I would not have passed out, but maybe fallen down. But it paid off, because it is a long note and it’s high.”

Diamonds Are Forever

Eighteen years earlier, Marilyn Monroe had sung “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” to iconic status in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Black’s words would make a Bond song equally famous. “Diamonds Are Forever” is more about fleeting relationships and less about the permanence of those shiny jewels that are often the remnant of a love affair—although one phrase in particular would result in the song becoming slightly infamous, and possibly costing it an Academy Award nomination.

It’s in the second verse: “hold one up and then caress it / touch it, stroke it and undress it.” “Seediness was what we wanted,” Black would later explain. “Sleaziness, theatrical vulgarity. It had to be over the top.” Or, as Barry himself would reveal in numerous interviews 20 years later, that particular verse was more about male genitalia than about precious stones: “Write it as though she’s thinking about a penis,” had been Barry’s advice to Black.

Moonraker

Williams met with Sinatra and his longtime aide “Sarge” Weiss at Sinatra’s office on the old General Services lot in Hollywood. “The amazing thing is, there was nothing there to play the demo on,” Williams recalled. “Sarge finally came up with a rusty old portable radio with a cassette player, mono, salty from the beach. And that’s what Frank heard the song on. And he loved it. ‘Marvelous, Mr. Paulie, marvelous.’ This from Music Royalty to me, and I was thrilled,” Williams said.

Sinatra opened a briefcase, which contained his datebook (and a .38, Williams noted), and they discussed possible dates for recording. “I left his office walking on air. We were all delighted. Then Frank was out. I don’t know what happened but, I was told at the time, Cubby and Frank had a big fight and he was history.”

No one remembers for certain why Sinatra ultimately declined to sing “Moonraker.” It may be that he had second thoughts, or that his ambitious Trilogy album was already in preparation and he preferred to concentrate on that. The story of a falling-out between Sinatra and Broccoli may be apocryphal, because Frank and Barbara Sinatra were all smiles at the New York premiere of Moonraker on June 28.

Skyfall

The final honors to come their way were the Grammy Awards, nearly a year later because of the later eligibility period of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Both song and score were nominated and, on January 26, 2014, both won. Newman was present to accept his award. Skyfall had been a worldwide sensation: it became the highest-grossing film ever in Great Britain, taking in over £94 million in just six weeks. It eventually earned more than $304 million in the U.S. to rank as the fourth highest-grossing film of 2012. Its final worldwide box-office tally of $1.1 billion propelled it to the no. 8 spot among all-time box-office leaders.

Its title song had become the first Bond music ever to win an Academy Award, its score only the second ever nominated. By the end of 2013, the Adele single had gone platinum, selling over 2 million units, while Newman’s score album had sold over 30,000. Sam Mendes was signed to direct the next Bond film, set for release in October 2015. Bond, and Bond music, was bigger than ever.

Image credit: Golden Girl © Eon Productions, 1964

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