In many ways, James Bond has a lot in common with progressive rock. Both have been around a long time, both have gone in and out of fashion, both try to reinvent themselves while sticking to a tried and tested formula, many of their original line-ups are dead and the early stuff was the best.
And they both take an awful long time to produce anything (except for Big Big Train and Steve Hackett, who seem to have musical diarrhoea).
The Bond movies have given us some banging tunes that I suspect may be on the guilty pleasures list of many a prog enthusiast. Indeed, if one of the defining attributes of prog is its willingness to go completely over the top then songs such as Goldfinger, Thunderball and Diamonds Are Forever are practically Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
Another prog trope is the use of instruments from other musical genres, and the Bond soundtracks certainly do that. Right from the off they included twangy electric guitar, played by Vic Flick, and later incorporated synthesisers and programmed electronic drums. David Arnold even shook dried goat’s testicles for the opening sequence of Casino Royale, and on the latest score there’s guitar by Johnny Marr of The Smiths and drums by none other than Jason Bonham.
The producers of the first 007 movie, 1962’s Dr No, made two very clever decisions that helped create the template for the following 24 films. They cast Scottish bodybuilder Thomas Connery (yes, that was his real name) as Ian Fleming’s spy. And they employed John Barry Prendergast (yes, that was his real name too) to arrange Monty Norman’s sketchy musical ideas into the James Bond Theme.
Barry was a good choice because he straddled the orchestral and pop worlds – trained to compose by the organist of York Minster, he was a trumpeter who led his own moderately successful group, The John Barry Seven, that combined jazz with Shadows-style twang guitar. He became an arranger for Adam Faith and scored Faith’s first few films, including Beat Girl.
Paid £250 to arrange the James Bond Theme, Barry was surprised to see it all over Dr No and thought he deserved more money. As a sop, the producers told him they’d call on him if there was a sequel – and, of course, there was. Barry went on to score eleven of the 25 films, most notably Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever, ending with The Living Daylights in 1987.
He set the musical standard by creating bold, brassy scores, with the trumpets scored so high they almost screamed, interspersed with bitter-sweet melancholic moments, weaving the title song through the films’ soundtracks and knowing when to just write “Play James Bond Theme here” on the sheet music and let that stirring big band blast do the rest. He was a melodic genius, and his scores work as well away from the films as they did in the cinemas – listen to Dawn Raid at Fort Knox from Goldfinger, Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang from Thunderball, Fight at Kobe Dock from You Only Live Twice and practically everything from Diamonds Are Forever. Bold, beautiful, melodic and evocative – no other Bond composer has ever matched him.
And that’s the problem, really. Barry is still, ten years after his death, such a towering presence that subsequent composers have either tried to do something completely different (so it doesn’t sound like Bond at all) or followed the template (so it sounds like they are mimicking Barry). David Arnold was the one who came closest to inheriting the mantle, but for Bond 25, the one that’s drawing people back into cinemas again after the pandemic interruption, the baton has been passed to German-born Hans Zimmer.
Mr Zimmer is an extremely prolific and successful film composer, with The Lion King, the Pirates of the Caribbean series, The Dark Knight trilogy and Blade Runner 2049 to his credit. He has three Grammys, two Golden Globes and an Oscar. He should be able to score a Bond film in the time it takes to shake a martini.
But here’s the second problem: Since the Daniel Craig reboot, the gags and gadgets have been dialled down and the emotional content turned up to eleven. The result is that recent scores have been darker and moodier, with miserable, minor key theme songs to match and less of the brassy, swinging triumphalism. No Time To Die is no exception – from the pre-credits sequence set in Puglia to the missiles raining on the villain’s secret hideout, most of the score occupies a grim place, only occasionally breaking out when Bond is being chased or chasing.
There are also frequent musical nods to a previous movie, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, in which Jimmy’s wife got shot dead at the end. So not a lot of laughs there either.
The score is not a complete downer. The action sequences thunder along in a most satisfactory manner, although they probably make too much use of the ol’ James Bond Theme. There’s some cheeky Cuban rhythms and trumpet in Cuba Chase and the final tracks, during which [THIS SECTION CENSORED BY THE ANTI-SPOILER POLICE], pack a real emotional punch.
As for the theme song by Billie Eilish, I’ve had more fun at a vasectomy clinic. Bereft of any apparent melody or hook and sung in a low moan as if she’s got the hangover from hell, it’s utterly forgettable, just like most of the Bond songs from the last two decades. In fact, the last one that was memorable in any form was 1995’s Goldeneye, performed by Tina Turner.
So, to sum up: Anyone who professes to be a connoisseur of good music ought to have a couple of James Bond scores in their collection. And they should both be composed by John Barry. Sorry, Hans.
01. Gun Barrel (0:56)
02. Matera (1:59)
03. Message from an Old friend (6:35)
04. Square Escape (2:07)
05. Someone Was Here (2:57)
06. Not What I Expected (1:24)
07. What Have You Done? (2:15)
08. Shouldn’t We Get To Know Each Other First? (1:22)
09. Cuba Chase (5:41)
10. Back to MI6 (1:30)
11. Good to Have You Back (1:17)
12. Lovely to See You Again (1:26)
13. Home (3:45)
14. Norway Chase (5:07)
15. Gearing Up (2:53)
16. Poison Garden (3:58)
17. The Factory (6:43)
18. I’ll Be Right Back (5:00)
19. Opening the Doors (2:45)
20. Final Ascent (7:25)
21. No Time to Die (4:04)
Total Time – 70:12
MUSICIANS (on Instrumental Tracks):
Johnny Marr – Electric Guitar
Arturo Sandoval – Solo Trumpet
Jason Bonham – Drums
Luis Jardim – Latin Percussion
Pedro Eustache – Solo Woodwinds
Amir-John – Flamenco Guitar
El Amir – Haddad
…and a very large orchestra
MUSICIANS (on Title Track):
Finneas O’Connell – Bass, Percussion, Piano, Synthesiser
Billie Eilish – Vocals
Record Label: Decca
Date of Release: 1st October 2021