Secret Agent Songs
David Arnold's multi-artist tribute to 007's greatest hits.
By Charles Taylor
JANUARY 5, 1998: The most needlessly uncharacteristic moment in any James Bond film comes in Goldfinger when Sean Connery complains that serving Dom Perignon at the wrong temperature is as bad as "lishning to the Beatlesh without earrr muffsh." Apart from putting 007 in the uncomfortable position of displaying bad taste, the line sticks out because it's a nod to the people the filmmakers assumed were their audience -- the ones who paid strict attention to what Playboy had to say about hi-fi systems and mixing cocktails.
But Goldfinger was released in 1964, the year those same "Beatlesh" broke on this side of the Atlantic, and the Bond phenomenon that followed is unmistakably a part (albeit a minor part) of the same pop explosion. In the theaters, swinging bachelors found themselves seated next to pop-music fans. It wasn't until 1973's Live and Let Die that the producers of the series took off their own earmuffs long enough to use a rock song as a Bond-movie theme (fittingly, giving Paul McCartney the last laugh). And the look of the '60s Bonds -- those sumptuous resort locations that spelled m-o-n-e-y as much as s-e-x -- wasn't groovy and now! in the way the look of Austin Powers forebears such as James Coburn's Flint movies and Dean Martin's Matt Helm series tried to be. Bond was Saville Row, not Carnaby Street; the bar of the St. James Club, not the dance floor of the Ad Lib. But what Bond movies shared with pop music was their energy, their ability to surprise you and seem right on top of their moment. I'm not suggesting that even at their best (Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice) the Bond movies deserve to be considered alongside Rubber Soul. But from installment to installment they offered the excitement of seeing talented people top themselves.
Shaken and Stirred: The David Arnold James Bond Project (Sire) makes the Bond-pop connection explicit. This reworking of theme songs (and a few instrumentals) from the Bond movies might have been a camp joke that fit in nicely with the rest of the lounge-music craze. There is an inescapably campy element to these songs. There's no way to play down the bombast Shirley Bassey brought to "Diamonds Are Forever" and Tom Jones to "Thunderball." For the most part, the performers here meet that show-bizziness head on and do the songs their way, managing to walk the fine line between having a sense of humor and condescending to their material as a joke.
The performances that producer David Arnold has put together convey an ironic affection for the lushness of the music and, by extension, the movies it comes from. The album hangs together as a fantasy of a Bond movie -- sophistication and drama with a subtext of adolescent longing for sex and action. Arnold has laid on lush strings (in Pulp's version of "All Time High," originally done by Rita Coolidge) and horns that function almost as percussion (in the version of "Thunderball" by ABC's Martin Fry) as a tribute to the Bond films' scores -- especially those done by John Barry. Shara Nelson's version of "Moonraker" could replace Shirley Bassey's original and nobody would sense anything amiss. By observing just the right degree of fidelity, Arnold has suggested not just how the tradition of James Bond themes might be continued, but how the movies themselves could be revivified. Perhaps the reason Arnold's score for the new Bond, Tomorrow Never Dies, is standard action-movie bombast is that the picture itself is standard action-movie bombast. Shaken and Stirred makes a much more satisfying, much more convincing Bond movie.
Some of the artists here are extending styles in which they've already worked. Fry, whose first album as part of ABC was the neglected 1982 classic The Lexicon of Love, a set of fully orchestrated pop songs, is right at home covering "Thunderball." And Pulp's wildly funny version of "All Time High" gives Jarvis Cocker a chance to play out his almost Brechtian version of an insidiously insincere Lothario against a plush background. It's as if the cocksman from your local pub had won a weekend at a luxury hotel and was working the lounge for pickups. And though Natacha Atlas's "From Russia with Love" is a long way from the mixture of Middle Eastern music and dance rhythms you find on her albums, she carries it off in true diva fashion.
Shaken and Stirred also works as a neat summation of the nexus of ambient, electronic dance music, soundtrack music, exotica, and world music that's more and more becoming a part of mainstream pop. That jumping around from one thing to another is a perfect complement to the jet-setting appeal of Bond movies. Arnold hasn't just relied on artists who are at home in that milieu, such as Leftfield (covering "Space March") or LTJ Bukem (who does a killer drum 'n' bass version of Monty Norman's "James Bond Theme"); he's made a place for artists who work in other styles. Aimee Mann's "Nobody Does it Better" acknowledges every punch line that Carly Simon glossed over in trying to sell the number as a piece of MOR seduction. That's not just a matter of changing "it" to "me" in the line "Just keeps it coming," but of bringing to the song her trademark mixture of wariness and vulnerability. She sings this ode to secret-agent prowess with the bemused tone of a woman who knows she should be smarter than falling for the stud she's about to.
The biggest surprise is Iggy Pop's take on "We Have All the Time in the World" (from the best non-Connery Bond, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and performed gorgeously in the film by Louis Armstrong). It's a set-up that's rife for a goof -- Iggy as a lounge singer. But he doesn't settle for a gag. He knows he can't pull off this sort of singing, but he approaches the song with an honest wish to respect its tenderness.
Nobody takes on the loveliest Bond theme, "You Only Live Twice," in which John
Barry blended Asian motifs into an MOR ballad. And surely somebody should have
a go at "For Your Eyes Only" (I'd put my money on Pet Shop Boys). But Shaken
and Stirred is an oddball triumph to a weird little niche of pop music, and
it doesn't substitute hipness for affection. A few weeks ago, these pages
carried this assessment of recent Bond themes: "It's not a good sign when your
series's most recent recallable theme is Duran Duran 'A View to a Kill.' " The
writer was being kind (I'm damned if I can remember it myself), but he has a
point. When my wife found out that Sheryl Crow did the latest theme, she
groaned, "Why couldn't they have gotten Liz Phair?" That's the sort of
imagination the Bond series needs. One of the glories of pop music now is the
way artists admit, happily, to the damnedest influences. The producers of the
series need to allow 007 to be paid homage by his unlikeliest admirers. To
paraphrase Bond's famous exchange with Goldfinger, we don't expect Bond themes
to die, we expect them to rock.
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