Overtones of James Bond’s music

November 9, 2012

Here’s a fun game: Sidle up to just about anyone you know over the age of 30, adopt your best Sean Connery accent and declare, “Bond, James Bond,” start humming that well-known theme and see if your companion doesn’t join you inside of five seconds.

The music of the Bond films might be even more addictive than the kiss- and punch-heavy plots themselves, with their blend of the debonair and, to be honest, a sort of lounge-lizard swagger. Just try and imagine what a Bond film would be without its key musical set pieces, whether it’s the themes that have been in attendance since “Dr. No” (1962) or ones from the new “Skyfall.”

Bond — in any of his iterations — is no more Bond without his expected sound cues than a certain shark is even remotely predatory without the sonic assistance of John Williams. But whereas the titular creature of “Jaws” did more or less the same thing over and over again — see human, munch, repeat — the Bond films bounce from one locale and story line to another, with the music serving as our constant frame of reference. And so it probably deserves a biography unto itself: a snappy, efficient and gossip-heavy one such as “The Music of James Bond” by Jon Burlingame, a standby on the film-music beat. He gives each Bond film — except “Skyfall” — its own chapter, complete with a compact narrative of who wrote what, who was brought in to sing a choice number only to be replaced at the 11th hour, who disputed authorship of which ditty you’ve probably hummed 100 times, and so on.

John Barry, who worked on a dozen Bond films, quickly emerges as their sonic auteur and, from a certain point of view, the man most responsible for the staying power of the Bond franchise. That is, after Barry clears himself of an initial dust-up regarding who wrote the “James Bond Theme,” that melange of bravura surf-rock twang, skittish bebop and brassy swing jazz that premiered in “Dr. No” and has stayed in pop culture’s collective memory ever since. Monty Norman got the credit — and the royalties — but Barry brought in the appropriately named Vic Flick to lay down that most film-friendly of guitar riffs, for which he “was paid all of 7 pounds, 10 shillings,” as noted by Burlingame.

Anyone even remotely familiar with the Bond oeuvre knows, of course, that all manner and make of musicians have dotted the soundtracks. And so we range from Duran Duran to Paul McCartney (and George Martin, too) to Tom Jones — who was required to hold a note for nine seconds — to even Louis Armstrong, at the very end of the great trumpeter/
vocalist’s life. Some of Barry’s soundtracks function as legitimate albums — albums that would work even if the films never existed — which speaks to a level of their artistry.


‘The Music of James Bond’ by Jon Burlingame (Oxford Univ.)

In short, there is some complex stuff going on in these soundtracks, which, at times, have more in common with the various motifs of “The Well-Tempered Clavier” than they do any notion of “Quick! Use the music to signal that something scary is about to happen!” There’s a book-within-a-book quality to the proceedings, thanks to a running commentary threaded at the bottom of the pages — in a handy gray box — that breaks down the music in a way that a layperson can understand what’s going on, and for what purpose, complete with time cues if you want to bounce back and forth between book and film. Thus, 35 minutes into “Licence to Kill”: “Bond meets M and resigns, done to a downbeat, Bond Theme-inspired string line.” Burlingame makes the key point that Barry himself saw his Bond work as Mickey Mouse-esque in nature, with an inherent cartoonishness. But one man’s cartoon, of course, is another’s shaken martini.

Fleming’s first book, “Between Cloud and Horizon: A Relationship Casebook in Stories,” will be published next spring.

the music of james bond

By Jon Burlingame

Oxford Univ. 293 pp. $34.95

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