‘Music of James Bond’ author says scores are compelling
Q & A
James Bond could always depend on John Barry.
Barry, a noted composer for film who died in 2011, was the man who developed the James Bond “sound” — cool spy music appropriate for flipping a blonde aviatrix into a stack of hay, blowing up a fake volcano or evading a shark in a swimming pool.
Bond and Barry have another “JB” in their corners. Jon Burlingame, a native of Northville and now a well-known music journalist with industry trade publication Variety in California, has authored a book ideal for fans of music, cinema and the bed and bedlam British agent.
“The Music of James Bond” was released by Oxford University Press in October. The 304-page book contains 100 photographs and stories about Barry, Frank Sinatra, Shirley Bassey and Eric Clapton. Some of the stories behind the songs and scores have been told for the first time.
Burlingame, who is also an adjunct assistant professor of scoring for motion pictures and television at the University of Southern California and covered Fulton County for the Schenectady Gazette in 1983 and 1984, was happy to give a briefing about Bond music and the new hardcover book.
Q: How did this book come to be?
A: Like so many of us who grew up in the ’60s, we loved James Bond films. But I, in particular, loved John Barry’s music and he had done 11 of the films. When he died, I started thinking about a way to sort of look at Barry’s music in some depth. There had already been two books written about him, so it was too late to write a John Barry biography. But I thought here was an opportunity to look at Barry’s music, specifically to the Bond films. And also being aware that the 50th anniversary of the franchise was coming up in 2012, the timing seemed ideal.
I had been a John Barry fan from the late ’60s and John Barry’s sound is really the sound of the Bond films. So that’s what was important to me and that is what was interesting, and I knew, having interviewed Barry many times throughout the ’90s and early 2000s, there were interesting stories here to be told — not just about the Barry scores but about the others as well, people like Bill Conti and Marvin Hamlisch and David Arnold. I just knew that there was a compelling story to be told.
Q: Sean Connery was a big reason for the success of the first Bond films. How did Barry’s contribution add to this success?
A: You can say in general that music is an underappreciated aspect of the filmmaking process. A lot of people don’t realize when music is working on them, and specifically in the case of the Bond films, John Barry created a Bond sound beginning with his arrangement of the Bond theme in “Dr. No” in 1962 and then writing the score for “From Russia With Love” and then writing the song and the score for “Goldfinger,” he really molded the sound of Bond in music. And so when you ask, “Is he a big part of the success of the franchise?” I say the answer is yes and it’s just that people don’t realize it because the music gives you the sound and the style and the excitement of those pictures. Without that particular sound, it wouldn’t be Bond.
Q: How do you describe the Bond sound?
A: In a couple of ways. The Bond theme in particular is not only iconic, it’s kind of a great example. It’s stealthy, it’s sexy, it’s bold, it’s sassy, particularly when you think about things like the “Goldfinger” theme with the “wah . . . wah . . . WAAAH.”
It’s all of those things. It’s my argument in the book that John Barry invented a new sub-genre of film music, which is the spy music genre. It’s a specific kind of vibe and it could only have happened as a result of the Bond films. And as a result of the Bond films, pretty much every spy TV or movie that followed had to follow that model, if you will. You get Jerry Goldsmith’s “Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” which is a little jazzy as well as kind of militaristic. You get Lalo Schifrin’s offbeat, compelling 5/4 for “Mission: Impossible.” And certainly, in the spy genre like Goldsmith’s “Flint” films, it sort of follows this Barry model that was created. So it’s a whole brand new kind of action-adventure music that started in the ’60s with the Bond scores.
Q: Some films scores just haven’t held up, are not memorable. But many of the Bond scores have aged gracefully. How come?
A: There’s a tough question to answer. There was something powerful and dynamic about those scores that I think we just don’t very often get today and haven’t gotten for a while. I’m partial to the Barry scores in part because he sort of created the genre as I say, but I think more modern movies . . . I think it’s a fact and I’ve said this on a number of occasions in different contexts, filmmaking is different than it was in the ’60s, the pace is different and very often what directors want in a score is different. Sound effects are so important to most directors today that when putting sound effects and the music into a final mix for their films, very often the music either gets turned down or if it’s a really strong theme, it sometimes scares directors because they don’t want the music to outshine their visuals or the overall feeling they’re trying to convey. I just think music today in general is less compelling than it was in the time that we grew up. And that’s not just Bond, that’s overall.
Q: What’s your favorite Bond song?
A: I’m very partial to the “Diamonds Are Forever” song. I love “Goldfinger” and I love “We Have All the Time in the World” from “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” But there’s something about that “Diamonds” song, the tune, the lyric — which is kind of suggestive and provocative — and John’s own arrangement of his own tune, and Shirley Bassey’s vocal. Sometimes, I think that may be the best of them all. And it disturbs me greatly that it wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award. But in that era, I think the Oscar people simply did not take the Bond films seriously as artistic achievements. And so all of those early Bond songs were passed over. It’s kind of a shame.
Q: Did the songs change with the times? Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” from 1973 was kind of a hard- edged theme for a Bond film.
A: “Live and Let Die” is really sort of the entry of rock ’n’ roll into the Bond genre, and you then move forward to “Nobody Does it Better” from “The Spy Who Loved Me” more of a pop vibe, certainly a lot softer with the Carly Simon single. Then you move into ’80s and we enter the MTV era, and you get Duran Duran and A-ha doing Bond songs and, forgive me, but where are they today?
Q: I always kind of liked that Duran Duran song.
A: “A View to a Kill” — that went to number one, you know, in the United States.
Q: Is it still a big deal for an artist to land a Bond song?
A: When you think about the pressure that was on Adele after the worldwide, huge, colossal success of her “21” album, if you think about the pressure that was on her, what is she going to do next — the fact that she agreed to do a Bond song [“Skyfall,” from the current Bond movie] says a lot about how important the James Bond franchise is certainly in Great Britain where she lives and, of course, she is herself a Brit, but also the opportunity to join this 50-year franchise that has Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones and Paul McCartney and Carly Simon and, in the later years, Tina Turner and Madonna. To join those ranks is a big deal.
Q: Have there been any misses in the Bond films? Music that just didn’t catch on?
A: The score for “Goldeneye” in 1995, which was done by the French composer Eric Serra, has been widely considered the least successful ever because it’s largely electronic and very much out of the mold. I don’t know that I’d use the word “unsuccessful” necessarily, but there have been departures from the Barry tradition along the way.
Marvin Hamlisch was very much his own writer and Bill Conti was very much his own writer. When they did “The Spy Who Loved Me” and “For Your Eyes Only,” they brought their own style and sound to the Bond films, but it wasn’t quite the same as the John Barry scores. What I like about the David Arnold scores — there have been five of them since 1997 — is that he very much follows in the Barry tradition but updates the sound to today’s contemporary rhythms.
Q: How about some behind-the-scenes stories from the Bond songs?
A: Two quick stories. Shirley Bassey is in the recording studio recording the title song for “Goldfinger.” Barry said, “Shirley, you’ve got to hold that note just a little longer.” That last note. It goes “He loves only gold . . . only gold . . . he loves . . . GOLD!” That’s the last line and she’s not holding it long enough.
All of a sudden, within the vocal booth, which is somewhat hidden from the rest of the orchestra, you hear a rustling and Shirley’s brassiere comes over the side. She has unencumbered herself sufficiently that she can belt out that last note to John Barry’s satisfaction. I got that, by the way, from more than one musician who was present at the time. They couldn’t see anything because she was in this shielded booth, but they could see it when the bra came over the side.
A second story. “Thunderball” was not the song intended for “Thunderball.” It was a song called “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” because John Barry had read somewhere that the Italian nickname for Bond was “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” So he wrote, with Leslie Bricusse, who wrote the “You Only Live Twice” lyrics, he wrote this song for “Thunderball” called “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and then he based the whole score on that tune.
He’s spending day after day recording the score, he’s already recorded the song with Dionne Warwick, and all of a sudden, halfway through the process, word comes from United Artists that they don’t want a song called “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” What they want on the radio is a song called “Thunderball” so it will promote the title of the movie. “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” is thrown out immediately and he’s got to scramble to write a brand new song called “Thunderball” which he does over a weekend. He gets Tom Jones to sing the song and the rest is history.
Q: The Bond films seem to be celebrating a resurgence with Daniel Craig in the role. What do you see for the future of the franchise?
A: I think Bond is going to go on for a long time because the producers seem smart about how to re-invent every so often for a new generation of fans. Hopefully, the music will continue to be compelling, too.