Adrian Daub says he’d never wish the duty of singing a James Bond theme song on any of his favorite artists.
“The songs are such ungainly beasts, and I think a lot of people who we’d think would sound amazing would be kind of ground up by them.”
Daub, who studies literature and music at Stanford University, is an expert on the perils and possibilities of Bond theme songs. Since the movie franchise started in 1962 with “Dr. No,” many of the biggest names in the music business have signed up to sing the title songs, including Paul McCartney (“Live and Let Die,” 1973), Gladys Knight (“License to Kill,” 1989), Madonna (“Die Another Day,” 2002), and most recently Sam Smith with “Writing’s on the Wall,” for the recently released “Spectre.” In a new book, “The James Bond Songs: Pop Anthems of Late Capitalism,” Daub and his coauthor Charles Kronengold, also of Stanford, examine the history of what Daub calls these “deeply strange cultural objects.”
Sam Smith’s ‘Writing’s on the Wall’
Bond songs have some obvious qualities: big band arrangements with brass and strings, brassy female voices or rolling male voices carrying long melodies. The blandly ominous title of the movie always has to be a part of the lyrics, which creates a situation, says Daub, where you have serious artists “belt[ing] out these nonsensical phrases with utter commitment.”
Then there’s the purpose of the songs. Partly they exist to market the movies, through radio play a generation ago and social media today. In six weeks on YouTube, Sam Smith’s single has been viewed nearly 42 million times.
Popular success is not enough, though. The Bond producers came up with several hit songs through the 1970s and early 1980s, like “Nobody Does it Better” by Carly Simon (number 2 on the US charts) and “For Your Eyes Only” by Sheena Easton (number 4). Those sounded little like traditional Bond songs, though, and soon after, Bond stewards decided to revert to form.
“Chart performance isn’t what producers are after,” Daub says. “They had a winning formula, and they abandoned that precisely because chart success was to some extent beside the point.”
What that point is depends on whom you ask, but, generally speaking, the songs are meant to interpret the film in a way that makes it easier for audiences to digest.
“They reveal things that are true of the films themselves but aren’t as apparent in the films,” says James Buhler of the University of Texas Austin, who has written about the music in the Bourne series. “In a sense, the songs are concentrated nuggets of the larger cultural project of the Bond films.”
To Daub, the purpose of the songs is less to distill the films than to make these fantastical, somewhat nostalgic tales come together and seem real.
“They are supposed to make plausible to you something the movies just never acknowledge, which is that James Bond walks through a world where somehow the gadgets are from say, 1985, the morals are from the mid- to late-1960s, and the geopolitics are from the mid-’50s. The movies gloss over that, they can’t find a way to make that cohere. In music you have more options.”
Pulling together these different elements is a tall order both for movie directors and for singers. Daub thinks the most successful Bond songs are the ones that find a way of doing something creative within the genre, without working against it. He cites “Live and Let Die” as the best Bond song in that regard. He also says there’s peril in being too conservative, which may be the trap that Smith fell into with “Writing’s on the Wall.”
“It’s incredibly slavish in following the Bond song formula and slavish in following Adele and that usually does not make a good song,” Daub says. “There’s a rule of second songs in Bond songs: ‘Thunderball’ tries to do ‘Goldfinger’ again, and it’s not so good. ‘The Living Daylights’ tries to do ‘A View to a Kill,’ and it’s not so good.”
Yet if Smith played it too safe on his turn, there’s at least one mega-act that Daub is convinced would do far worse: the British rock band Coldplay, which puts out smoothly universal pop songs that border on elevator music.
“If Coldplay ever gets the nod, I would find copies of my book and burn it,” he says. “They already over-accommodate to every format they work with. If anything, Adele and Sam Smith are too professional by half. Those guys, my goodness, they would have painted by numbers.”