Recently, I’ve been through a stage I experience about once a year – I listen about three times to the soundtrack from the fourth James Bond film, Thunderball. It’s only this time, though, that I’ve really come to appreciate exactly why I do it.
I first listened to the soundtrack in its entirety when I was sixteen. Soon, it became my regular companion whilst staying up late to do assignments after a shift at my supermarket job. I’d put on the Thunderball score and bash out one or two thousand words in its duration. Perhaps because I was usually half asleep while writing, I have absorbed every note in the score and it’s one of my favourite candidates for mental re-arrangement when it’s quiet and I’m bored.
Reminiscence aside, Thunderball is probably one of, if not the best scores out of the eleven that John Barry wrote for the James Bond series. By the time Thunderball was made, Barry had scored two Bond films (or three, depending who you believe in the legal quagmire around the music of Dr No), and had established the style and tone that the music of the whole series would be based on. Consequently, the score is a lot more mature and varied, with Barry really going all out to create an atmosphere which complements everything that appears on the screen.
The score has a strong start – the opening bars of “Chateau Fight” (above) are amongst the most foreboding in the film. Two extremely brassy statements of the James Bond theme, accompanying first a punch-up, and then the flight of a jetpack, follow those dark bars.
The next most notable cue would have to be “Switching the Body,” (above) a mysterious and suspenseful piece consisting of a repeated minor flute pattern accompanied by what sounds like harpsichord. If there were music to be used while sneaking around in real life, this would be it. “Switching the Body” is the first statement in the score of a recurring motif that Barry employs to accompany scenes of searching; it appears more or less the same, but with some different string and piano highlights in “Loading Bombs into Disco Volante,” and more brassily in “Search for Vulcan” and “Finding the Vulcan.”
The music used during “Street Chase” (above) and “Death of Largo” is drawn from Barry’s “007” alternate Bond theme that he composed for From Russia With Love. Both the abovementioned cues use slightly different instrumentations around the same motif, and it makes a nice change from the other iterations Barry used before and after Thunderball. He restates “007” in its entirety during the “Underwater Mayhem” piece. Personally, the variations used in Thunderball are my favourite uses of the theme in the series.
Thematically, Barry’s score for Thunderball is a lot stronger than some scores in the series, but was almost not this way. I’ve already covered a lot of the more incidental themes, but you can always expect, especially in earlier entries in the Bond canon, that there’ll be some major emphasis on the title song throughout the score, worked into a few key places. Thunderball is (almost) unique in the series in that it actually has two title themes. The more famous is Tom Jones’s “Thunderball,” which appears over the main titles of the film. It’s punchy, it’s brassy – it, along with Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger” before it, established what a Bond song is all about. However, the title theme was originally to be a song first recorded by Shirley Bassey and then by Dionne Warwick, “Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” inspired by a nickname for James Bond coined by an Italian journalist. John Barry had just about finished the score when the decision to change the title theme was made. He rushed some “Thunderball”- inspired cues into production, and so that theme appears instrumentally throughout the film, notably in the background of the casino and as a SPECTRE assassin unknown to Bond is giving him a lift at high speed in a Mustang – both as yet unreleased on CD – during those first notes of “Chateau Fight,” and early on in “Switching the Body”. It only really gets a decent outing in “Bond Below Disco Volante.” It’s a shame that the “Thunderball”-based cues aren’t as well developed as they could be.
Naturally, because of the late change to the title song, “Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” gets a much better showing throughout the score. It appears in a lush loungey arrangement as “Café Martinique,” and then in a key scene during “Death of Fiona,” (above) as an ‘intense bongo-laden cha-cha,’ as Wikipedia so eloquently put it. As a title song I prefer “Thunderball,” but I find the “Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”-based cues to be a lot more fun.
As a film, I like Thunderball, though it is very slow moving in parts. The underwater photography is great, and groundbreaking at the time, but it wears a little thin after a while. Fortunately, there is this fantastic score bookending it all, which makes the film seem a lot more suspenseful than it sometimes is. I love this score simply because John Barry did a grand job with it – it’s full of local flavour and grand orchestral instrumentation that wouldn’t be heard again until he wrote for Moonraker in 1979. This is the stand-out of John Barry’s 1960s Bond scores, and should figure in the top five of any Bond music enthusiast.