Saturday 16 February 2013

The Music Of James Bond

On Her Majesty's 
Secret Score Vice

The Music Of James Bond
by Jon Burlingame
Oxford University Press 
ISBN: 978-0199863303

I want to point out, up front, that Jon Burlingame’s new book, The Music of James Bond, is an invaluable addition to the bookshelves of any movie score lovers home. There are some negative things I’ve got to say about it but these in no way belittle the fact that this is pretty much an essential purchase if you are interested in the Bond phenomenon and the scores that go with it.

That being said, I did find the writer a little less interested, in most of the chapters, in concentrating on the actual scores to the films themselves and the way they were created and developed, and more interested in the various stories around the genesis and the recording of the actual Bond songs themselves which, although its true they sometimes (not always) provide thematic material for the scores to riff on, are for me the least interesting aspect of a Bond score. Especially now that we have two Bond CD’s, the recent Casino Royale remake and Skyfall, which didn’t even see fit to include the song on the album of the film.

There are some lengthy descriptions of the musical highlights of the film with time references which are displayed in a bottom, grayed out bar on many of the pages, but I found this to be really just place marker kind of stuff and, for the most part, nothing really meaty about the underscore itself. The gray bars also are a bad layout choice in this particular book because both the main text and the grayed out box text are running simultaneously and not ending on the same pages... just continuing over to the next page. So you need to either keep darting backwards and forwards to get the bits you missed, or make a conscious decision to just read one or the other over a chapter and then go back and read all the stuff you missed. Personally, I just see this as bad design and found it to be the one really big weakness of the book.

Another disappointment is the fact that the first Bond production, the 1954 version of Casino Royale, is barely mentioned and only then when it comes to talking about the 1967 version. This ruffled me the wrong way because the 1954 Climax version from TV, quite apart from being the straightest adaptation of the novel (with some obvious and reluctant caveats), pretty much marks the first music for a James Bond adventure. Yeah, okay, the cues used in this were almost certainly library cues tracked in to the production but, even so, I wanted to know who wrote them and what was on the producers’ minds when they chose certain “needle drops”. Unfortunately, this book doesn’t cover this.

It does, however, cover two of the non-EON Bond scores, the aforementioned 1967 version of Casino Royale and the Thunderball remake Never Say Never Again. But again, this book is not called The Music of the James Bond Movies... it’s called The Music Of James Bond and I was a bit underwhelmed with the fact that only the character’s cinematic adventures have been earmarked here for musical exploration when there are also TV spin offs and video games which might have also yielded rich results.

I also found myself surprised that, for what is supposedly a fairly specialist subject area, I actually had been able to glean a lot (95% maybe) of what was gathered here over the years from other sources... I really didn’t think I knew much, or anything, about the subject when I started the book, but as I went through I realised that I did... or at least knew as much as the writer was willing to share anyway (strikes me there are some possible untold stories lurking between the lines of this book which might have opened various cans of legal worms if Mr. Burlingame had told them... but that’s just conjecture on my part).

However, now that I’ve said my piece there, I should probably point out that the information about the Bond songs and scores that is available in this book, is expertly assembled and the writer conveys it all in a chatty, easy to read style which, in some ways, makes you feel like you’re visiting with old friends or relatives who trot out the same but always entertaining stories time after time. And all the good ones you expect are all in here. You know the ones...

The one where Shirley Bassey is singing Goldfinger but her lungs are too constricted to hold the notes so take after take she sheds more clothes until she finally gets it right and is topless in the recording booth. Or the one where Tom Jones almost passes out from holding that high note at the end of Thunderball. Or the one where Nancy Sinatra can’t quite get the hang of it so John Barry has to build her vocal track up from a gazillion little snippets to get You Only Live Twice in a useable state. These little well known comfort stories are all here for your perusal and, importantly, they are all in one place and easily findable on a film by film basis.

Perhaps written for the Bond music novice, rather than for the people who have travelled the road of these stories in little, bite sized chunks over the years, Jon Burlingame’s The Music Of James Bond is, as I said when I started this short review, an invaluable guide to all the main stories on the music of the Bond phenomenon over the years. It’s not technically alienating in its use of the descriptions either, so even “musically illiterate” readers like myself will be able to pick up this book and give it a go. Definitely a big recommend for me and certainly something I’d expect to come across in any soundtrack lovers home.

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