It’s nearly James Bond time again, folks! With just weeks until the release of SPECTRE, about which I am of course extremely excited (see here and here for how I’ve distracted myself in the lead up), it seemed appropriate to do some more Bond ranking! This time, it’s of the famous “Bond sound” – a quest to determine the best James Bond soundtrack. Because EMI/Capitol/whoever else are furiously protective of their copyrights, I’ve struggled at times to find excerpts to support my assertions. But you all know what a fan I am; you should probably just agree with me. Or buy the soundtracks. Whatevs.
Anyway, on with the show!
23. Dr. No (Monty Norman/John Barry)
The trouble with a series in which more or less all the music is of a generally high standard is that something has to come last. To this end, the very first film, Dr No, does not contain a single note of bad music. It just doesn’t present itself as a great solo listening experience, free of the film (not aided by the pathetic soundtrack releases it’s received in the last 50 years).
Throughout, Monty Norman (with John Barry lurking in the background) weaves a classic, quite 1950s orchestral score underneath the low-key but gripping action on the screen. Brass instruments provide a great amount of the atmosphere, but screeching woodwinds and strings make appearances underneath the takedown of one of Dr No’s Crab Key henchmen. Of particular note are the perfectly timed brass stabs that accompany James Bond’s ruthless and shoe-aided destruction of a tarantula.
This video takes it to extremes.
Of course, the James Bond theme features heavily (whether it was written by Norman or Barry remains disputed). Never heard again quite as effectively as in its original arrangement, the Bond Theme introduces us to a cool customer, but the middle section also informs us that he is quite capable of action as bombastic as the trumpets imply.
Much of the Jamaican source music begins to grate, and “Underneath the Mango Tree”, by its trillionth restatement, ceases to be a charming little ditty and becomes incredibly overstated.
The score for Dr No remains a strong and unique but pedestrian entry in the world of Bond music.
22. Octopussy (John Barry)
You can hear, and feel, the entire franchise creaking in this movie. Luckily, it’s got a fantastic plot, and theoretically, the music should be good too. If you listen to the actual notes, John Barry crafted another lovely atmospheric score, with more exploration of the orchestra than he had ever done previously for a Bond film. The trouble is, it’s conducted at such a slow pace that every. single. beat. feels laboured. Watch the film and listen as those military trucks in the pre-titles sequence roll on by. This sounds like the snooziest military on earth, with only a slight hint of menace.
Barry’s Indian-influenced music is again just a little snoozy, and his arrangement of the Bond theme during the tuk-tuk chase, whilst I once rejoiced at its orchestral majesty, lacks a snappiness which Barry would finally address in The Living Daylights with a few minor adjustments four years later.
The main criticism I have with this score as recorded is Barry’s conducting, and I know it’s not really fair to criticise a conductor’s interpretation of his own music because he of all people would know how it should sound, but it just lacks punch! The tempo just doesn’t have enough movement, the brass lacks impact, the strings aren’t as flowing and lush as they usually would be. On the Bond Back In Action releases during the early 2000s, Nic Raine and the City of Prague Philharmonic performed some excerpts from this score at a higher/faster tempo, and it makes a world of difference.
21. A View To A Kill (John Barry)
By 1985 and A View To A Kill, John Barry seemed to have run out of ideas, along with the rest of the crew, but anyway. This score is largely a retread of Octopussy, which was itself a reuse of many ideas from Moonraker, and as such there’s not really much to add.
The cues which accompany Max Zorin’s blimp overflying (overfloating?) San Francisco are quite enjoyable, and lend an impending sense of doom to proceedings, even though it’s a good 45 minutes before he actually does anything. Indeed, if you have a listen to the music it’s almost as though there were words to go with it. I tried thinking of some once, but then stopped because I am neither a poet, nor a lyricist.
One nice throwback on Barry’s part is an evocation of the fantastic “Ski Chase” music from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, this time with some period-appropriate electric guitar instead of Moog synthesiser. This part of the score plays under 007’s ski-borne escape from the frozen tundra of the western USSR, pursued on snowmobiles by the villainous KGB.
Of course, this is almost immediately ruined with a lower-than-average cover version of the Beach Boys’ “California Girls” accompanying some super cool snowboarding action, in one of the ‘hilarious’ pop culture jokes that the producers loved to make during the Moore era that were, inevitably, totally un-funny.
Once again, a solid score by John Barry, with legendarily solid work on the theme song with Duran Duran, but one that doesn’t really bring anything new to the table.
For my rankings of the Bond films up to now, start here.