Looking back at 50 years of Bond in song, as Adele takes on the ‘Bassey role’

Dame Shirley Bassey. Pic: PA
Dame Shirley Bassey. Pic: PA
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HAD things gone differently for Amy Winehouse, would Adele be singing the theme tune to Skyfall? It’s one of many intriguing “what ifs” associated with the Bond movies.

Some time in 2008, infamously, Winehouse and her producer Mark Ronson began work on a song for Quantum Of Solace. For reasons that ­differ depending on who you ask (the studio freaked out at the drugs stories, she missed the deadline, she just didn’t like the song), the job never got finished and Jack White and Alicia Keys stepped in instead.

Winehouse was an obvious choice for the same reason that Adele is now an obvious choice – she sounds a bit like Shirley Bassey. With Goldfinger, ­Diamonds Are Forever and, to a lesser ­extent, Moonraker, Bassey set the template for what is now regarded as the “classic” Bond theme – a gravelly, soulful, belting female voice over string arrangements by John Barry (or, more recently, David Arnold pastiching John Barry). But the Bond series has never had two Bassey-like theme songs in a row (Goldfinger was followed by Tom Jones’ Thunderball, Moonraker by the more restrained For Your Eyes Only) so if Winehouse had got her act together, the chances are Adele might have missed out.

As it happens, though, it’s worked out very neatly. Unlike Quantum Of Solace, a frantically paced, clunkily plotted, loose ends-tying sequel to Casino Royale, everything about Skyfall – the Aston Martin in the trailer, director Sam Mendes’ claim that he’s “put everything I’ve ever wanted to put in a Bond movie into this movie”, the timing (marking the series’ 50th anniversary), the return of much-loved character Q, has hinted that the intention is to create a “classic”, celebratory, nostalgic Bond movie rather than mess with the formula. A classic theme song – which Adele has very much delivered, even basing part of the melody around the iconic John Barry title music first heard in From Russia With Love in 1963 – drives that point home.

And this is part of the job of a Bond theme. A Bassey or Bassey-like song has long been used to reassure us that the film we’re about to see is going to be classic Bond, while the absence of one is used to send the opposite signal. In Diamonds Are Forever, the return of Bassey pointedly soundtracked the return of Sean Connery after the temporary wobble that was George Lazenby in On Your Majesty’s Secret Service (which had, in turn, signalled it was something different by not having a song at all, opting for an instrumental theme instead). When Connery bowed out after Diamonds, the series opted for a radically different kind of theme song for Live And Let Die.

After the lurch towards a grittier, more hard-edged Bond in 1989’s Licence To Kill – in which a grim-faced Timothy Dalton seemed more interested in taking bloody revenge than saving the world from supervillains or charming women into sex – recruiting Tina Turner to sing GoldenEye, a shameless piece of Shirley Bassey pastiche written by Bono and the Edge, was an effective way of signalling the return of a more classic Bond. This was, of course, the flippant, debonair Pierce Brosnan, equal parts Sean Connery and Roger Moore, a version of the character who was so clearly an unreformed, predatory rascal that a female M was required to balance things out. (And this was not done with much subtlety – “I think you’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur,” said Dame Judi, in a scene that still looks like a desperately clunky get-out clause for scriptwriters wrestling with how to make a non-sexist film about a man whose chief past-time is bedding as many women as possible).

One of the most striking departures from the Bassey template was You Know My Name by Chris Cornell, from Casino Royale. Like Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, the song raised eyebrows at the time but in retrospect proved a perfect choice. Watching the film again, the brutality of this grittier, more grown-up take on Bond is still striking – not the bodycount (which is less than in most Bond films) but the fact that you see its effects. One of Craig’s finest moments as 007 is a scene in a hotel bathroom in which Bond, covered in blood and bruises after a nasty, life-threatening fistfight in a stairwell, downs a shot of vodka to steady his obviously shattered nerves. Cornell’s music – well groomed but rough edged, full of macho bravado but vulnerable too – captured the film’s mood exactly. And, in some ways, it is a “classic” Bond theme – if you hark back to Thunderball and Live And Let Die rather than to Goldfinger.

For me, Bond theme songs are at their most interesting when they defy expectations – although this only works up to a point. Madonna’s Die Another Day ­flagrantly disregarded the brief rather than cleverly subverting it, and – like many of Madonna’s attempts to shock – came across as a brattish, self-absorbed strop. Much better are the songs which acknowledge and respect the rules but subvert them, like Wings’ Live And Let Die, or the songs on David Arnold’s tremendous Shaken And Stirred album from 1997, on which Jarvis Cocker, Iggy Pop and others covered 11 favourite Bond themes. If you’ve never heard David McAlmont’s flamboyant gay version of Diamonds Are Forever, Aimee Mann giving Nobody Does It Better a whole new meaning just by singing it with deliciously withering sarcasm, or Pulp performing All Time High as if it’s the soundtrack to a porn movie, then you’re in for a treat. This is the album that, having impressed John Barry, got Arnold the job as new composer for the Bond films. And it almost led to Pulp doing a real Bond theme. Sadly that ended up as another “what if”, as their Tomorrow Never Dies was rejected in favour of Sheryl Crow’s. At least, unlike Winehouse’s lost Bond theme, you can listen to it – retitled Tomorrow Never Lies, it ended up as the b-side to the single Help The Aged. It is fantastic, classic Pulp. It would, however, have ended up soundtracking an underpowered, silly film in which the arch-villain was a Rupert Murdoch-style media mogul, so perhaps it was for the best.

• Skyfall is in cinemas from 26 October. Adele’s theme song is out now