Thursday 8 December 2016

Sassy Shirley Bassey: the Bond theme queen

Published 18/10/2015 | 02:30

Dame Shirley Bassey never planned to be a singer
Dame Shirley Bassey never planned to be a singer

It was a statistic that seemed so incredible as to be completely untrue. Surely Sam Smith's 'Writing's On the Wall' is not the first Bond theme to be a UK number one? But a simple investigation proved that yes, this flaccid, forgettable effort for the forthcoming Spectre, is the first ever to top the charts across the Irish Sea.

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Adele - one of the biggest selling singers of the century so far - didn't manage it with her fine orchestral effort, 'Skyfall', in 2012 (it reached number two), and emblematic songs from Paul McCartney and Wings ('Live and Let Die') and Carly Simon ('Nobody Does it Better') also failed to hit that coveted top spot in 1973 and 1977 respectively.

Most remarkably of all, Shirley Bassey never achieved the feat with her three Bond songs - 'Goldfinger', 'Diamonds Are Forever' and 'Moonraker', each titled after films of the same name. In fact, 'Goldfinger' from 1964 only managed to go to number eight in the UK chart. Arguably the greatest Bond theme of the lot - and not just because it appeared in the film that essentially defines the franchise - it is probably the most emblematic song of Bassey's entire career.

Last year, she was even moved to re-record 'Goldfinger' for her new album as she insisted there had been two notes in the original that she had long been unhappy with. Age has not withered that powerful voice one bit and the version that appears on Hello Like Before is gloriously vibrant, even if it doesn't improve on the evergreen version we know and love.

“The James Bond soundtracks; all of them are amazing, every single one of those changed my life. I am talking about the old-school, I’m talking about Shirley Bassey, I’m talking about ‘Goldfinger’, man, of course. I was listening to them the other day and I was just, like, totally going out of my head. I just think the way they used to create music back in the day, it was magical, it was a special thing.” - Labrinth
“The James Bond soundtracks; all of them are amazing, every single one of those changed my life. I am talking about the old-school, I’m talking about Shirley Bassey, I’m talking about ‘Goldfinger’, man, of course. I was listening to them the other day and I was just, like, totally going out of my head. I just think the way they used to create music back in the day, it was magical, it was a special thing.” - Labrinth

The story behind the original is part of James Bond lore. Composed by John Barry - who worked on no fewer than 11 films in the series - he was romantically entangled with Bassey at the time and canvassed for her to sing the song. The lyrics were written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, who would go on to win an Oscar seven years later for their work on Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Neither Newley nor Bricusse where shown 'rushes' from the film or given details of its plot, so the pair had to play with the idea of a spy with a "Midas touch". George Martin is listed as producer on the song's credits - he was Bassey's regular producer at the time - but it was Barry himself who oversaw the recording at London's CTS Studios on August 20, 1964. The recording ran through the night with Barry demanding repeated takes due to technical glitches or mistakes from members of the orchestra.

The Welsh singer's vocal was said to be pristine from one take to the next although as the night wore on she had difficulty holding that climactic final note. "I was holding it and holding it," Bassey later recalled. "I was looking at John [Barry] and I was going blue in the face and he's going, 'Hold it just one more second'. When it finished, I nearly passed out."

Hitting the high notes: Sam Smith's new Bond theme 'Writings on the Wall' has made it to the top of the charts.
Hitting the high notes: Sam Smith's new Bond theme 'Writings on the Wall' has made it to the top of the charts.

The film and the song are so indelibly linked more than half a century on that it's hard to think of one without the other, and yet the movie's producer Harry Saltzman was not enamoured by the efforts of Barry and Bassey. "That's the worst f***ing song I've heard in my f***ing life," was his crass appraisal. Time restraints did not allow for another theme to be written and recorded.

Bizarrely, Saltzman did not warm to the song as the decade wore on and he was of the same mindset when it came to Bassey's second Bond theme, 'Diamonds Are Forever', from 1971. There's just no accounting for taste, is there?

Both of those songs - though not her effort for the Bond-in-space film Moonraker - would come close to most polls for best themes in cinema history, and not just in the run of films for the womanising British spy with a fondness for fast cars and martial arts.

Most of the recent efforts, with the exception of Adele's Basseyesque 'Skyfall', have been decidedly weak. Hopes were high that Jack White and Alicia Keys would deliver something special for Daniel Craig's second outing as Bond, but 'Another Way to Die' didn't come close to living up to the sum of its parts - something that can also be said of the film it accompanied, Quantum of Solace.

British singer Shirley Bassey performs on May 23, 2013 during the amfAR's 20th Annual Cinema Against AIDS during the 66th Annual Cannes Film Festival at Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Cap d'Antibes, southern France.
British singer Shirley Bassey performs on May 23, 2013 during the amfAR's 20th Annual Cinema Against AIDS during the 66th Annual Cannes Film Festival at Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Cap d'Antibes, southern France.

Similarly, Madonna's 'Die Another Day' and Chris Cornell's 'You Know My Name' failed to hit the spot for, respectively, Die Another Day - Pierce Brosnan's final performance as 007 - and Casino Royale, Craig's first attempt at the character.

So, outside of Bassey's first two Bond themes, what are the other heavy-hitters? The aforementioned 'Live and Let Die' and 'Nobody Does It Better' would have to be included and there's certainly a case to be made for Nancy Sinatra's 'You Only Live Twice' from the 1967 film of the same name.

Pop and Bond haven't gone together very well - a-ha's 'The Living Daylights' was the fruit of an unhappy collaboration with John Barry while the less said about Sheena Easton's 'For Your Eyes Only' the better.

A notable exception was Duran Duran's giddy 'A View to a Kill', the epitome of 'guilty pleasure' which soundtracked the antics of the ageing Roger Moore in his last Bond film. It's also the only Bond song to date to top the US Billboard 100 (it got to number two in the UK).

There's one Bond tune I haven't mentioned yet and it might just be the best of the lot - even if it isn't strictly a theme song. Louis Armstrong's majestic 'All the Time in the World' soundtracked the love scene between George Lazenby's Bond and Diana Rigg towards the end of On Her Majesty's Secret Service. (It's the only film where Bond marries.) Legend has it that it was recorded in just one take. Written by Barry with lyrics by Hal David, it was the last song the jazz great recorded before his death.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service suffers from the wooden performance of Lazenby but its soundtrack is the best of the entire franchise. It's Barry's most consistently engaging score, and the most varied too.

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