Sunday, November 18, 2012

Spy Song: The Ten Worst Bond Themes

All right, hold on tight now.  It's down, down to the wire.  Set your hopes up way to high.  Living's in the way we die.

That was from a-Ha's theme to The Living Daylights, which I had named one of the Ten Best Bond Songs.  Now I turn to the other side, the Ten Worst Bond Songs. It is inevitable that with 23 films (24 if like me you count the unofficial Never Say Never Again), the title songs wouldn't always be brilliant.  These ten songs have fans and defenders, but since I don't judge by the artist but by how the song works in terms of whether it fits into the story, whether it is memorable, and whether it is good, I think I can make my assessment with a certain sense of security.

It looks like there is a common denominator when it comes to bad Bond Songs: they all try to out-Bassey Shirley Bassey.   Dame Shirley can be romantic and be full-force, moving easily from the lush romanticism of Moonraker to the power of Goldfinger.  Most other singers (in particular the ones on our list) can't make that shift or make it as easily as Bassey.  Instead, they try to channel Bassey (usually, but not always the romantic Bassey) instead of being true to their own voice. 

That unfortunately lessens the song and the singer.  They come off as knock-offs of Dame Shirley and poor versions of themselves.  It also sadly reminds us OF Bassey's renditions of other Bond Songs, which is even worse.  My advise to all future Bond Song singers: To Thine Self Be True.  Don't copy or try to out-belt or out-coo Shirley Bassey.  It will never work.  The best Bond Songs come from those who sing the songs in THEIR way, not in someone else's way.  The worst, sadly, try to do impersonations (usually of Shirley Bassey) and tend to fall on their faces.  Yes, Shirley Bassey set the bar high up, but if you do your own thing, you will be among the best.    

With that, let's begin our countdown, from 10 to 1, for the Ten Worst Bond Songs.

10.) All Time High (Octopussy)
       Sung by: Rita Coolidge

Now, I have to start by saying that I personally like All Time High and I love Octopussy.   It's a nice song.  Having said that, I do think that it's in my worst by default: it just landed there because so many other songs were better, both as songs in and of themselves and as Bond Songs in particular.

When I hear All Time High, the song itself is pleasant and I think well-sung.  It just doesn't say "THIS is a Bond Song".  What it says is that it's a nice, soft pop song that is virtually indistinguishable from any mid-80s soft, pop song from the 80s.  Again, not a terrible song (at least to me), just not a great song, and certainly not a Bond Song.

09.) You Only Live Twice (You Only Live Twice)
        Sung by: Nancy Sinatra

Again, I don't think You Only Live Twice is a horrible song.  Far from it: it's nice, pleasant, and there's nothing wrong with that.  It even manages to work in some vaguely Oriental sounds to match the Japanese setting.

Therefore, why then is You Only Live Twice in my Bottom Ten?  Is this another by default case? Partly.  The other part is that its very lush nature always appears at odds with the chaos of ending SPECTRE's reign of terror, revenge, and extortion.  Not to mention that for me, it's a little TOO much on the romantic side.  The very Asian-like melody that fits You Only Live Twice isn't something that I thrill to.  Is it playing with Asian music or copying it or even ridiculing it?  This is not a song I hate, just not one that I particularly care for.

08.) Thunderball (Thunderball)
       Sung by: Tom Jones

It looks like the Bond producers thought, 'who is the male version of Shirley Bassey?'  Their conclusion was Tom Jones.  Nothing against Tom Jones: he can sing.  However, while the previous choices are ones that I like/don't hate but don't think are all that good, Thunderball is the first one on this list that I actually dislike.

It would have been difficult for ANYONE to match or equal Bassey's rendition of Goldfinger, so Jones had his work cut out for him.  He gave it his best shot: holding the last note of 'thun-der-BALL' as long as he could, but I can never get away from thinking it's not only wildly exaggerated but far too bombastic.  This idea of having to overblow the Bond Songs, I think, originated with Thunderball.  I've listened to it over and over again, hoping to change my mind.  I haven't: it still sounds WAY too big.   

07.) Licence to Kill (Licence to Kill)
       Sung by Gladys Knight

Can we talk 'overblown'?  Again, nothing against Gladys Knight: she's an icon, a legend, and a great singer.  However, the song itself is SO OVERWROUGHT with emotion that it veers towards parody.  I find it so over-the-top with its "I love you more than anyone" message that I'm honestly surprised more people don't just start laughing at its emotionalism.  Moreover, I find the lyrics rather silly. "Got a licence to kill/and you know I'm going straight for your heart".  I can't understand what that means. That sounds like a threat, not a promise of love. 

Licence to Kill has two other problems apart from weak lyrics.  At close to five minutes, it's the longest Bond Song (unnecessarily so) and it also has Knight's at times perplexing delivery.  Having heard it many times (both for myself and as part of the film), I always, ALWAYS, hear her say, "Got a licence to HIT", which makes it unintentionally hilarious.  Some people have told me they hear her say, "Got a licence to HEAL", which is even more laughable.   It's bad enough when you have poor lyrics, but even worse when the lyrics people hear make the song sound ridiculous.

06.)  The World is Not Enough (The World is Not Enough)
         Sung by: Garbage

Listening to The World is Not Enough, I think it does its best to sound like what people think a Bond Song should sound like: romantic, and a bit bombastic (that Thunderball legacy again).  I don't hate the song, or at least as much as I used to. 

My beef with The World is Not Enough is that it simply isn't a memorable one.  It sounds a bit too slow, as if trying to fit a bit too hard into our Bond Song expectations rather than be true to Garbage's own sound.  It might have worked better if Shirley Manson & Company had been allowed to rock more, be harder in their sound rather than tone it down to go for a more romantic mood.  Still, I DO love when she says, "The World is NOT Enough...".  It's just about everything else that I don't get excited about.

05.) Tomorrow Never Dies (Tomorrow Never Dies)
       Sung by: Sheryl Crow

I love Sheryl Crow.   She is a great singer/songwriter, and I imagine that if Tomorrow Never Dies had been sung by someone else (say, a Shirley Bassey or even an Adele), it might have worked better.  Unfortunately, it was Crow herself who cooed at us, and that is where our problems begin.

Crow is more a rock voice than a ballad voice.  I'm sure she can do soft-tempo songs (sorry, never been to any of her concerts), but like Garbage's The World is Not Enough, whenever one singer tries to sing in the style of another, it just sounds wrong in so many ways.  Crow CAN sing; she just can't sing like Bassey (though she gave it her damnest try).  Making Tomorrow Never Dies a more disastrous choice is in knowing that k.d. lang's Surrender (Tomorrow Never Dies), heard at the closing credits, is a much better song. 

04.) Never Say Never Again (Never Say Never Again)
       Sung by: Lani Hall

Now, I'm aware that Never Say Never Again is not an official Bond Film, so therefore, should I count it at all in any Bond retrospective?  Well, since I already have it seems a bit of a moot point.  What surprised me about Never Say Never Again is that once I did like it.  Once.  Now, after listening to Never Say Never Again, I find it amazingly boring.  If one removed the lyrics, one could imagine listening to this while in an elevator. 

What ruins Never Say Never Again is that it is badly integrated into the opening.  While all the official Bond songs had great opening titles that the song complimented, Never Say Never Again is the only Bond film to have what is a supposedly romantic song play while Bond is killing people left right and center.  It just looks awful.  It's amazing no one involved in NSNA stopped to say, "Does this just look weird...Lani Hall singing a love song to the sight of people getting strangled and blown up?"

03.) The Man With the Golden Gun (The Man With the Golden Gun)
        Sung by: Lulu

The Man With the Golden Gun is a pretty bad experience.  It has a bad Bond Girl.  It has a bad henchman.  It has a bad returning character (what EXACTLY IS Sheriff Culpepper doing in Thailand?).  And guess what?  It has a bad Bond Song.

After the great success of Live and Let Die, they opted to amp up the energy with another big song.  However, minus the instrumental aspect (which isn't all that bad) almost everything that could go wrong did.  First, they had Lulu try to be big a la Bassey.  It didn't work.  Lulu's a great singer (hear To Sir With Love).  However, she had to be herself, not a pale copy.

It had some abysmal lyrics: "Love is required/whenever he's hired/It comes just before the kill".  What the hell does THAT mean?  You have to sleep with the Man With the Golden Gun before he kills someone for you?  Even worse, the slow part had the following lines: "His eye may be/On you or me/Will he bang/We shall see".  Lulu it appears was instructed to draw as much sexual connotation out of the word "bang" as possible, which just makes it unintentionally hilarious.     

Poor Lulu.  She just never had a chance.   

02.) Die Another Day (Die Another Day)
       Sung by: Madonna

Dear Madge, thank you for your contribution of the title song to Die Another Day.  We realize that since you've deluded yourself into thinking you are actually British (as opposed to being from Detroit), you think you have an inside knowledge of one of our great cultural icons (hope that gig of you being a Doctor Who monster works out for you). I'm sure you were thinking that what James Bond needs is to have a hit club song, one that is ready-made for remixes.  If that was your goal, well you still didn't quite hit the mark.

Die Another Day is appropriately robotic in both melody and vocals, as you Auto-Tune your voice to fit a staccato delivery to shockingly inane lyrics.  "I'm gonna wake up/Yes and No".  Well, which one, dear?  Furthermore, you keep telling us what you're "gonna" do, but what you didn't do was write a good song, let alone a good Bond Song.  We're still trying to figure out what part you're "gonna" kiss.  Also, we're not sure how to tell you this, but when you coo "Sigmund Freud/Analyze THIS", you can't really say you're "gonna avoid/the cliche" because telling Freud to 'analyze this' IS a cliche.  Finally, you sound like a robot.  Repeating the last lyrics isn't a sign of genius (real or self-proclaimed).  However, we wish you the best of luck in your goal of destroying your ego (a monumental task).

Sincerely, All Bond Fans.

01.)  Another Way to Die (Quantum of Solace)
        Sung by: Jack White and Alicia Keys

Another Way to Die disproves the idea that two heads are better than one. The first and so far only duet in Bond Song history was a total mishmash between White's grungy style and Keys more soft R&B influenced interpretation.  I however, can't blame the dual voices for simply the worst Bond Song.

Another Way to Die is a song in desperate search of a melody.  It goes all over the place.  Its lyrics are awful.  The song is not remembered at all, and it never fit to the images of the title sequence.  Even worse, Another Way to Die was selected over two better submissions.  The first, No Good About Goodbye, was sung by Dame Shirley Bassey, and I'll grant that it might sound a little old fashioned, but it still works as a good song.  The second, Forever (I Am All Yours) managed to actually work the line 'quantum of solace' into the lyrics flawlessly, and even better, sounded contemporary and both romantic and urgent.  Why Another Way to Die was ultimately selected is not just a mystery, but a total disaster.

However, given that Quantum of Solace itself is an absolute disaster (my friend Fidel Gomez, Jr.--who may or may not be dead--called it when he said QOS was the worst Bond film he'd ever seen) Another Way to Die is the perfect song for the film: chaotic, confused, ugly, boring, and hideous in just about every way imaginable except for the closing credits...which signal that the nightmare is finally over.

There it is: the Ten Worst Bond Songs.  Next time, the Ten Best and Ten Worst Bond Henchmen.

James Bond (Lists) Will Return...

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