“Spectre” is upon us. The 24th installment of the popular James Bond series starring Daniel Craig and Christoph Waltz hits theaters today. Audiences, however, have already received a taste of what’s to come with the release of the latest Bond theme, Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall.” The reviews have been mixed, and Smith’s ballad has provoked passionate debate among fans.
Yet as discussed as Bond anthems are, they almost never receive any serious consideration as pop-songs in their own right.
In response to this apparent lack, Adrian Daub (Department of German Studies) and Charles Kronengold (Department of Music) have penned a book on the oft-overlooked themes of the hit franchise: “The James Bond Songs: Pop Anthems of Late Capitalism.” This week, The Stanford Daily sat down with both professors to talk about their work, their criteria for what makes a great Bond song and their opinions on the two most recent Bond songs: Adele’s “Skyfall” and Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall.”
The Stanford Daily (TSD): I imagine you both watched James Bond films growing up. What were your first impressions?
Adrian Daub (AD): My introduction to Bond was “Moonraker” (1979) in 1989. It was my first grown-up movie. I remember very well watching the opening sequence where Bond throws Jaws out of an airplane. And then it cuts to the song “Moonraker.” And so naturally I thought, “Hmm…so this is how every grown-up movie is supposed to start off.”
Charles Kronengold (CK): I first watched them on Saturday afternoon TV on reruns, and I remember being so shocked by the unspeakable level of violence they contained. People were knocking out people’s oxygen supplies, collecting scalps underwater and throwing pretty ladies out of hotel windows. Needless to say, it made an indelible impression on me.
TSD: What makes a successful Bond song, in your view?
AD: The songs we pride the most are the ones that don’t try to run from the constrained, blatantly commercial demands of the job, songs that don’t try to repress their bizarre natures, songs that embrace the messiness of the format.
CK: Yeah, the messiness is really the key in some ways. The best songs are the ones that are the most Frankensteinian in their monstrous constructions. These songs don’t try to hide their incongruities and are able to reflect the incongruities inherent to the Bond song canon. A perfect example would be Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die.” It’s one of our all-time favorites, made by a beloved figure: an ex-Beatle. And it’s an interesting case because it’s McCartney in his throwback mode writing pop songs for hire. Its shifts between the rock and orchestral sections, coupled with this really demented reggae break in the middle, make it a really fascinating case study on what a Bond song should do.
TSD: Many people view Adele’s song “Skyfall” as a return to form for Bond songs, an anthematic song that recalls the soaring heights of something like “Goldfinger.” What are your feelings on “Skyfall”? Does it reach the Shirley Bassey standard?
CK: For us, it doesn’t. “Skyfall” feels superior to the canon in really obnoxious ways. Paul Epworth (the producer of “Skyfall” and frequent Adele collaborator) claimed that he cracked the “secret code” of the Bond songs. But then when you listen to the song, you realize he grasped what everyone else before him grasped, which are the obvious things: slow and deliberately clichéd lyrics, brass, strings. It has a straightened sense of certainty to itself that most Bond songs don’t have. It also thinks a Bond song is only about mourning the past, and because it’s set in this ponderous mode, it has none of the swagger, bite or aggressiveness that the great Bond songs do have.
AD: The problem with “Skyfall” is it’s too single-minded. It gets the parts of the Bond song right that are easy to get right, and the most interesting and harder parts — that eclectic élan of horniness and fear and confusion — are totally absent from the relatively straightforward “Skyfall.” That, to us, feels like a real diminution of the format. Adele didn’t understand that her song wasn’t the exception; it was merely another in a list of similar songs. You’re not that special, Adele!
TSD: Sam Smith’s new song for “Spectre,” “Writing’s on the Wall,” has been released. What are your impressions? How does it stack up to the rest of the Bond song canon?
CK: Initially, I thought it was incredibly single-minded for a Bond song. It’s the “Haha Baby” of Bond songs: a song for the age of YouTube, doing only one thing for its entire length and really meme-like — you don’t get much out of it the second or third times around.
But then after we heard it more times and after reading the vitriolic reaction against it on the Internet, we changed our tune a little bit.
AD: We got the feeling that Sam Smith was a more careful listener than Adele. Clearly, Smith listens to the canon and hears that when you yell out the movie-title in the chorus, you belt it to the rafters. Sam doesn’t do that; he scales it way, way back, and we get this incredibly vulnerable-sounding falsetto. That struck us as a pretty interesting tweak on the formula.
Overall, though, it’s not one of the greats, by a mile. Maybe if he committed more fully to the insanity of what he was being asked to do, it would sound better. At the same time, however, it reflects a curious historic moment today when the ’60s have become a nostalgic playground. It’s not surprising the Bond songs have become an annex to that playground.
And it certainly doesn’t hurt that people today love to return to that ’60s sound. We always joke that with Sam Smith and Adele, they didn’t have to stretch their styles too much to reach the Bond sound because they were doing it already. When people were hoping Lana Del Ray would do a Bond song, we thought, “No. Why should she? She’s basically done 10 of them already.” There is a kind of tonality in songwriting these days that’s already participating in a historic, almost nostalgic, moment. And the Bond songs are perfect grab-bags for those artists because the songs take them back to that era.
Contact Carlos Valladares at cvall96 ‘at’ stanford.edu.