“The James Bond Theme,” The John Barry Orchestra, 1962.
Another day, another obvious song choice? What can I say, folks, you know me so well. This is the original version, written by Monty Norman, arranged and performed by John Barry and his orchestra for the debut of the 007 series, Dr. No, fifty-two years ago. Interestingly enough in that movie’s opening credits sequence the theme is chopped up and rearranged to suit the transitions of the animations and the captions, but the revolutionary sound remains: Vic Flick’s electric guitar, drenched in reverb, racing through a surf-rock-inspired lick that to this day is an indication that something mind-blowingly cool is about to happen. Never has another leitmotif offered that sort of guarantee, still valid after all these decades.
Although John Barry’s is the name most associated with the “Bond sound,” the film series has been through a good assortment of composers during its tenure, each of whom has attempted to leave his individual echo behind. Beatles producer George Martin was the first to follow in Barry’s footsteps, offering funk and jazz-flute stylings to Roger Moore’s debut Live and Let Die. The renowned Marvin Hamlisch, fresh off Oscar wins in the mid-70’s, gave The Spy Who Loved Me a fusion of traditional grand orchestra and disco, a trend explored to its somewhat ridiculous end with Rocky composer Bill Conti’s work on For Your Eyes Only in 1981. At the end of the 80’s, it seemed you could not have an action movie without Michael Kamen at the conductor’s podium, and so Licence to Kill accordingly inhabits the world of Kamen’s Die Hard and Lethal Weapon work with plenty of Latin flavor for the plot revolving around South American drug lords. French composer Eric Serra attempted to relaunch Bond in 1995 with his unique synthesizer-based approach, leading a significant number of fans to jam cotton in their ears and clamor for a return to the ways of days past. David Arnold’s assumption of music duties for five straight films beginning in 1997 brought the orchestra back to the forefront, but layered with computerized rhythm tracks in accordance with the lightning pace that movie audiences now demanded of their chase scenes. Most recently, Thomas Newman’s complex, dignified, by turns stately and others relentless style in Skyfall led to the first major awards nominations for Bond music in decades. Throughout these evolutions, though, the James Bond Theme has remained the vital ingredient, no matter what form it finds itself rearranged into. You can’t have a Bond movie without the Bond theme – a lesson learned well by the makers of the clumsy, half-hearted Never Say Never Again.
The James Bond Theme, like the hero who struts across the screen in his tuxedo as it plays, is a reassuring constant. Though it may flex and stretch in reaction to or in anticipation of the times, it remains unbreakable, unmalleable. Play it on a guitar, on a piano, with a host of trumpets, on a set of bongos; the true feel of it never changes. Everyone knows how it’s supposed to go; everyone can hum a few bars when asked. Like so many of our greatest songs, it belongs to everyone, to a multitude of moments. For me the Bond theme can evoke either waiting for my father to come home on a Friday night with a Betamax rental of Diamonds are Forever, or parking myself on the couch with my son to watch a Blu-Ray of Quantum of Solace. It can make me stand a bit straighter, cock my eyebrow and offer a risible pun while watching gin and vodka pour from an ice-cold martini shaker. I know I’ll never be James Bond (nor would I really want to, as I’m fully aware that his lifestyle is destructive to the soul) but I can model myself after the best of what he represents: confidence, taste, refinement and charm. For a character dreamed up by one author crouched over a typewriter in sweaty Jamaican heat to become a cultural icon outlasting any pretenders to the throne, he must be able to touch something primal in our minds, to tap into aspirations we didn’t even know we had. As we grow older and watch this character evolve with us, his theme song becomes connective tissue between the dreams of wide-eyed youth and the nostalgia of the adult. An unbroken line from which we can pluck any memory we wish to relive, any old wish we feel like dusting off and setting out into the world, just to see what might happen.
Going to the movies is one of the last things we do as a group in our society these days – inasmuch as social media has made connection easier, that connection is still for the most part one person sitting alone with a device, interacting with digital data. However, when you are sitting in an audience and that electric guitar fires up, you can sense the shot of adrenaline jolting through the veins of everyone around you. Everyone gets it. Everyone knows what everyone is thinking and feeling about it, and we can smile at each other in recognition. You’re in this collective of shared cool, and it’s an experience whose frequency is diminishing as the years creak on. But it will linger as one of the last vestiges of such things, welcomed every few years with the newest installment. When Warren Zevon was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he said he hoped to live long enough to see the next James Bond movie. One needs offer little more than that as affirmation. Bond, and his theme song, are forever – as are we.