We’ve done a fair bit of writing about James Bond here at Motion State. From the wonky “continuity” to an increasing need to indulge a wider audience to shitty henchmen to the way writers get away with writing the same damn movie all over again, 007’s bases are more or less covered. Heck, we even spun a conspiracy theory about Bond and Star Wars that only broke recently, now that the tables are turned and Star Wars is suddenly the more prolific franchise of the two. Double heck: we even wrote about Never Say Never Again, the “unofficial” Bond adventure featuring a plot primarily involving deep tissue massage and jazzercise. Despite the advice of the title, I’m supremely confident saying never again on that one.
The thing we’ve somehow avoided discussing is the music of the Bond franchise. Excluding franchise themes written by John Williams — Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, etc. — Bond is arguably the film series in which the theme music is most inextricable from the mere notion of the franchise itself. You pick the theme out in an instant and you wouldn’t mistake it for anything else. When I hear the words “James Bond” the first thing I think of is this:
Putting aside the fact that the Dr. No chase takes us around the same bend in the road a few times, this sequence contains two iconic moments that would gestate film by film to become enduring characteristics of every Bond film: the dry gallows-humor one-liner to cap the action scene and, more to the point, the part where the hero looks like a fucking badass while the John Barry Orchestra busts out the “James Bond Theme” for all it’s worth.
“Bond Theme” (not to be confused with the “007 Theme,” a more upbeat piece by Barry that debuted in From Russia with Love) became as much a part of the franchise as the tuxedo or the shaken martini. Slow-moving orchestral chords, high impact brass, quick surf guitar with the treble turned all the way up — if you’re scoring a Bond film and you don’t have these elements, then you’re doing it wro…
Oh, wait, right: Casino Royale.
The 2006 pseudo-reboot of the franchise intentionally spit in the face of Bond tradition in a number of well-documented ways. (“Shaken or stirred?” To this the once-suave spy snaps: “Do I look like I give a damn?”) But what of the music? David Arnold, composer on the franchise since Tomorrow Never Dies, returned for Casino Royale to ostensibly bring the same –ness he brought to his other Bond films. And he delivered: for a film of almost non-stop action, the score delivers some surprising moments of levity and sparkle. My personal favorite moments come near the end of the film, wherein Bond is “retired” and he and Vesper are languishing on white-sand beaches and fancy Venetian hotels. Arnold’s “City of Lovers” recalls the lush Bond music John Barry wrote near the end of his tenure scoring the franchise:
But we’re not here for “City of Lovers,” which almost seems to belong to a different movie entirely; we’re here for “You Know My Name,” the opening credits theme sung by none other than Chris Cornell. If Daniel Craig’s blonde hair was only an inkling of this Bond’s departure from the last Bond, then a raspy American alt-rocker fronting the main theme drove that departure home without ambiguity:
So is “You Know My Name” any good? There are really two questions in there, asking if it’s any good as a Bond theme and also if it’s any good at all. In The Week‘s analysis of Bond themes, Scott Meslow distills the art of the opening title croon down to two crucial tips: “Tailor your song to the strengths of your Bond, and don’t try to replicate the songs that came before yours.” He throws in a third tip for good measure: “If you want to write a great 007 theme, make sure it’s going to be in a great 007 movie.” Those are…pretty vague guidelines, no? Even Telegraph‘s “How to Write a Bond Theme Song” is short on advice outside the usual: theatrical ballad, “sinister” harp arpeggios, explosive trumpet bursts, and a toweringly camp lead vocal performance.
Some have noted the prevalence of the minor ninth chord in Bond-music-à-la-John-Barry, and indeed the chord makes a front-and-center appearance in “You Know My Name” right after the opening chord of the verse (“City of Lovers” has it, too). In fact, Adele’s “Skyfall” producer Paul Epworth referred to the minor ninth as the “harmonic code” of a Bond theme. Insofar as “You Know My Name” finds a suave use of this particular voicing, plays to the gritty strengths of Casino Royale‘s reboot mentality, doesn’t sound even remotely similar to any previous Bond outing and, okay, sure, happens to be attached to a pretty good movie — why, we’ve got a hit on our hands!
Subjectivity, you say? Fine. Rolling Stone ranked the Royale theme a lowly #19 (out of 22) and pointedly referred to it as an “alt-rock dumpster fire.” An original BBC review calls Cornell’s voice “a nuisance” and calls the theme in general “lumpen,” which is actually a compliment if you say it with a British accent. But context is king, I say, and both of these negative reviews seem to consider the theme to Casino Royale outside the context of — get this — the actual movie Casino Royale. While it seems the reverse should be true (“shouldn’t we hold Bond themes accountable same as any other music?”) it’s the first question we posed above that’s actually more important. Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger” is a great Bond theme and, arguably, also a great song, but it’s a bit tough to believe anyone’s listening to “Goldfinger” unless they’re a) writing a rant about Bond themes or b) about to watch Goldfinger. By the same token, while “Higher Love” by Steve Winwood might be the greatest song ever written, it would probably suck as a Bond theme.
Casino Royale‘s score pulls more from “You Know My Name” than it does from “Bond Theme,” “007 Theme,” or any of the scores of the preceding films. Only at the very end of the film, when Craig’s newest iteration finally drops the catchphrase “Bond…James Bond” — that’s when we hear the old familiar theme that every other Bond film used as a crutch. Is the overall score the best in Bond’s history? No. Is the theme the best since “Goldfinger”? Probably not. But it feels like a fit, if taken as a whole, to have Cornell’s talents and iconography behind the credits. Heck, I’d hear a case for “Name” being a good Bond theme even if you removed Cornell entirely. As proof, here is a solo guitar cover by an extremely good-looking young man devised for the express purpose of uncovering that “code,” that –ness of a Bond theme.
Was this experiment a success? Tough to say, I’m sure, as the stunning handsomeness on display here is a bit distracting. But, hey, maybe that’s a nice neat bowtie metaphor. Maybe you feel the same way about “You Know My Name,” about Casino Royale, about the Bond franchise in general: the heartthrob factor is undeniable, but everything else is dealer’s choice.