Happy 2021! At the time of writing this we are about less than a week into the New Year and the world hasn’t burst into flames or anything just yet, so I’d say that we’re off to a good start. Just another 360-odd days to go. I said at the end of the last entry that the next album that would be covered on A-Side Glance would be Kid A but frankly I think the best time to listen to that is when you’re already in a bit of a downer mood, to help you come full circle. So until the bad news rears its ugly head again, we’re going to talk about James Bond.
Once again this edition of Sampling Soundtracks is rooted in my early exposure to video games on the Nintendo 64, the game in question of course being GoldenEye 007. Thanks to that, I ended up finding the film it’s based off in my grandparents’ VHS collection along with Octopussy, watched them both and before long I became a fan of the James Bond films. With my magnifying look into the world of music I have started to pay more attention to the soundtracks that accompany each film in the series, from the likes of Monty Norman and John Barry, to David Arnold and Thomas Newman. For this entry I’m going to take a selection of instrumental pieces heard across the 24 Bond films. I could talk about each film’s respective theme song, or the soundtracks to the video games like the above-mentioned GoldenEye, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish to look into another time. This is mainly just out of intrigue but also because it kills time as we await No Time To Die being delayed for the gazillionth time. That film was meant to be out in 2019 for crying out loud.
Just a heads up going into this, I won’t be talking about the James Bond theme itself or its many, many variations heard throughout the franchise. If I did, we would be here far too long and I’m pretty sure you’ve got better things to do then read a five thousand word essay on why Michael Kamen’s take on the Bond theme is the best of the lot or how Eric Serra did the best piece of music for the gunbarrel.
To start things off, let’s have some of the…less than stellar moments from our resident composers.
Monty Norman’s Dr No score
No full disrespect meant to Monty Norman, after all he did give us the Bond theme which is one of the most classic musical renditions in all of cinema. But when that isn’t playing and he has to come up with something else he lends a tune that would be more suited to a Disney film. Admittedly, this was the first Bond film and a true Bondian score was one of the kinks that had to be worked out. Unfortunately you can’t really help but laugh when there’s an exceptionally loud blare of music as the Three Blind Mice make a lame attempt to assassinate Bond, or the orchestra accompanies each time Bond twats the tarantula.
The Man with the Golden Gun – The slide whistle
John Barry had only two weeks to compose the score for The Man with The Golden Gun. I’m sure if given more time he would have realised just how much a slide whistle would dilute what should be considered one of the best stunts in the entire series.
GoldenEye – Ladies First
There are parts of Eric Serra’s one and only Bond score that I will happily defend. This is not one of them. One of the main criticisms of the GoldenEye soundtrack is that it sounds better suited as elevator music and I think this, one of the most 90s tracks ever 90s’d, best exemplifies that.
Right, that’s enough negativity. Let’s have some positivity.
The secondary Bond theme, the one you would hear on and off through the Connery era for an action setpiece that didn’t quite suit the Monty Norman tune. I used to dislike this one as a kid actually but it has grown on me. To me it screams courageous adventurer, kind of more Indiana Jones than James Bond, but at the end of the day that’s what Bond is: courageous, unflappable, always running headfirst into danger.
Goldfinger – The Laser Beam
We all know the scene. We’ve all seen it parodied a thousand times. We all know that dialogue between Goldfinger and Bond. But that scene would only have half worked if it weren’t for the music that steadily gets louder and more frantic as the laser slowly approaches Bond’s knackers.
You Only Live Twice – Mountains and Sunsets
To lean into the Japanese setting for You Only Live Twice, John Barry’s music has more of an oriental flavour behind it that makes this film’s score stand out from the others in terms of sheer beauty, and none sound more elegant than those beautiful swirling strings that bookend the track Mountains and Sunsets. Of course there’s the dramatic middle portion that highlights that this is still a Bond film and he’s got a World War to avert (As a side note, honourable mention to climactic track Bond Averts World War III for its sheer intensity).
The entirety of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is John Barry’s finest hour as Bond composer in my book. Everything from the gunbarrel to the credits is peppered with his best tracks as he experiments with a new instrument in his repertoire; the Moog synthesiser. It screams late 60s class and adds a layer of hurriedness and intensity to the scenes it can be heard in, especially the safecracking sequence. You can’t pick a single best track out of this film’s music, just listen to the full thing. Do not skip Lazenby!
Moonraker – Flight Into Space
Say what you like about Moonraker, but if there’s one thing it does right it is the execution of the journey into outer space. I’m not overly fond of the entire soundtrack but that piece of music that accompanies the shuttle from Earth to the space station is magnificent. Like with the laser sequence in Goldfinger, the visuals are only half the tale; the model work in this sequence is brilliant but if it weren’t for Flight Into Space, with its choir adding to the beauty of leaving the planet behind, the scene would have been universally shat on. However, thanks to John Barry, it’s only shat on by purists who call this the jump-the-shark moment for the series.
For Your Eyes Only – Runaway
Enter Bill Conti. Yes, that Bill Conti. The one who did Gonna Fly Now for the Rocky films. He did a Bond film. And if you couldn’t tell we had entered the 80s with For Your Eyes Only, here’s Bill to give you a loud and proud reminder. The highlight of his one and only Bond score has to be Runaway, which for me is the ideal kind of track for a Moore-era chase thanks to it being not overly dramatic, settling for a tune that has a jovial vibe to it. Classy and camp. That’s our Rog.
A View To A Kill – ‘The Three Amigos’
After some weaker compositions in the 70s, I think Barry had something of a renaissance period with his final Bond films. A View To A Kill, while not one of the best films in the series, does boast one of the better soundtracks, one that harkens back to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Only this time, the 60s-sounding Moog synthesiser has been replaced with an 80s-sounding electric guitar. It does date things ever so slightly but fully suits the film it accompanies and reflects well on the mental state of main antagonist Max Zorin; classy but erratic. The main action setpieces of AVTAK (Bond escaping Siberia, the fire truck chase, and the battle atop the Golden Gate Bridge) all use the same orchestral composition but with different variations of the guitar. The final appearance of the tune on the bridge is the best in my book, selling the effect of Bond and Zorin doing battle in the skies.
The Living Daylights – Air Bond
John Barry ended his time with the series with The Living Daylights and what a score to go out with. Again, very 80s, but also with some of the most hard hitting brass that evokes memories of the moodier compositions of From Russia With Love and Goldfinger, most notably shown with the grandiose piece that blasts out as Koskov flies off to freedom in a jet. Triumph rarely sounds so epic.
The World is Not Enough – Casino Jazz
I love a bit of jazz. That’s all.
Casino Royale – African Rundown
Let’s talk about David Arnold proper now. I feel like I should like him more than I should. Don’t get me wrong, he does what he sets out to do and does it well, whether it be romantic or exciting or both. For some reason it just doesn’t normally click with me aswell as Barry’s work. I think what also doesn’t work in my favour is the fact that I have sworn off tracks that primarily incorporate the Bond theme for this entry and most of Arnold’s best work does include that (for example, Bike Chase from Tomorrow Never Dies or Come in 007 Your Time is Up from The World is Not Enough). So perhaps with the deliberate move to not include the Bond theme at all until the end credits of Casino Royale, Arnold gets to show his potential a lot more and boy does he do that with African Rundown. One of my favourite pieces of chase music for one of my favourite chases, full stop.
Skyfall – Tennyson
And so we end things with the most recent addition to the roster of composers who have had a crack at the Bond films, Thomas Newman (Well at least until No Time To Die is released and we officially hear Hans Zimmer’s score). There are a lot of tracks to choose from (so much so that he lifted half the soundtrack and plonked it in Spectre, but that’s besides the point), Quartermaster and Welcome to Scotland being particular highlights, but when you think of the Skyfall soundtrack you’ve got to think of Tennyson. The ultimate track to suit the feeling of arriving in just the nick of time. Judi Dench reading poetry as Bond sprints across London would have only had half the impact if it weren’t for this track, the cherry on the cake from Newman.