Songs On Screen: All week HitFix will be featuring tributes by writers to their favorite musical moments from TV and film. Check out all the entries in the series here.
There are very few constants in the world of pop culture.
James Bond, however, appears to be eternal. It's more than a movie franchise at this point. It's a generational milestone that gets handed down. My dad took me to my first Bond movie. I'll take my sons to their first Bond movie. And I have no doubt that 20 years from now, there will be a new James Bond and my kids will be able to take their own kids to enjoy it.
I am equally sure that whatever Bond film they go see will open with a song written by a hot recording artist, and that song will be on the charts while the film's in theaters, and we'll probably even get some cover versions of it some time after that. If there is anything that has been true of the series almost from the start, it has been that the theme song is one of the most compelling and interesting parts of any Bond movie, particularly when paired with a title sequence either by or inspired by Maurice Binder.
My own personal relationship with James Bond began in a crowded movie theater in 1977. I was seven years old, and my father, seeing my nascent fascination with movies, took me to see “The Spy Who Loved Me”. And while I love many of the Bond themes as songs, I think “Nobody Does It Better” remains the absolute best of the series, and one of the great movie theme songs of all time.
So what makes it different?
While I think there are plenty of Bond themes that are good songs in their own right, that would work whether you knew they were from a movie or not, part of the reason for their malleable place in pop culture is because they're sort of nonsensical. “You Only Live Twice” is a beautiful song, and the Bjork cover version of it is one of those recordings I dearly love on every level, but part of the reason it can withstand so many interpretations is because of how vague it is.
“You only live twice or so it seems
One life for yourself and one for your dreams
You drift through the years and life seems tame
Till one dream appears and love is its name”
What does that have to do with James Bond? Or spy movies in general? Or anything, really? It doesn't.
“And love is a stranger who'll beckon you on
Don't think of the danger or the stranger is gone”
Again… it sounds great, but it is nonsense. Paul McCartney's “Live And Let Die” is absolutely hilarious as a set of lyrics, but it works as a song because of the orchestration and that lush arrangement and the overall driving quality of the song.
I mean, McCartney's song is crazy if for no other line than “But if this ever-changing world in which we live in makes you give in and cry/Say live and let die,” which I can't even begin to unravel as a thought.
With “Nobody Does It Better,” though, Carly Simon and Marvin Hamlisch finally put together what was essentially a mission statement for James Bond. It was the first Bond film since “Dr. No” that didn't share the same title as the film, but that was fine, because it captured an attitude perfectly. What's odd is that the Hamlisch score for “The Spy Who Lived Me” is kind of a disco nightmare, all synth and cheese, but the song is one of the most simply arranged themes of the series. The emphasis is squarely on Carly Simon's vocal performance, as it should be, and she positively smolders on the track. There's a reason it was her biggest hit, and it has become a signature tune for her, even providing the title of her greatest hits album.
It's also one of the few individual movie themes from the series that made an appearance in another one of the movies in a clever moment in “For Your Eyes Only,” where it was an audio code that activated one of the Q branch devices.
While the song wasn't given the same title as the film, the title is an actual lyric, and for once, it feels like one of the Bond girls singing directly to Bond himself.
“Nobody does it better
Makes me feel sad for the rest
Nobody does it half as good as you
Baby, you're the best
I wasn't looking' but somehow you found me
I tried to hide from your love light
But like heaven above me
The spy who loved me
Is keepin' all my secrets safe tonight”
While I love the original version, I think it's also been covered to pretty tremendous effect at times. There's a great live recording of Radiohead where Thom Yorke introduces “the sexiest song alive” and then makes a case for his claim. Personally, it's the Aimee Mann version that flattens me every single time. There's something about the match of Mann's languid deadpan with the sort of woozy cascade of praise of the lyrics that makes it irresistible.
I have a theory about James Bond that your first Bond movie determines quite a bit about your ultimate preferences in Bond films. People who were fans of the books before there were movies were immediately taken with Sean Connery's take on the character, and substitutes were hard to accept at first. Most people my age who started with Roger Moore have a fondness for him above anyone, and the tone of his films is what they think of as the “right” tone for Bond films. I know a number of people who saw Brosnan first, and they consider “Goldeneye” the defining Bond film., spurred in part by their fondness for the “Goldeneye” FPS that was such a huge hit. I have a really weird and complicated relationship with Bond in general, but no matter what, the thing that I always think of first, before anything else, when you say those two words… James Bond… is that opening few notes on the piano, and the transition into the Maurice Binder sequence from that iconic shot of the parachute adorned with the giant Union Jack… and that purr of Carly Simon telling Bond just how amazing he is. Even more than the actual Bond theme, this is what I think of as Bond's defining musical moment. It also set the bar for me for title sequences and title songs in general, communicating everything to me about the world of Bond all at once.
Just for fun, why don't you tell me in the comments which band you believe should have recorded a Bond theme but didn't? I'll start by saying Amy Winehouse and Portishead both got royally screwed by not being pressed into service to our favorite movie spy.