James Bond: Why outrage over pop star Billie Eilish is wrong – Martyn McLaughlin

The theme songs of the James Bond film franchise form a curious and bewitching sub-genre unique in pop music, writes Martyn McLaughlin.

Billie Eilish may help refresh the Bond franchise as 007 prepares to pick up his bus pass (Picture: Rich Fury/Getty Images for iHeartMedia)

If the producers of the James Bond films live in a constant state of anxiety that their franchise is in danger of slipping its moorings as a cultural phenomenon, they must be reassured by the clenching of teeth and clatter of keystrokes that has greeted their choice to write and perform the next instalment’s theme song.

The endorsement of Billie Eilish, an 18-year-old Gen Z star revered for her minimalist, ghostly appropriations of goth pop and 1990s hip hop, was about as surprising as Sean Connery’s Japanese disguise in You Only Live Twice – and to many 007 aficionados, just as unnerving.

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Those up in arms protest that Eilish’s noirish electro delights are a little too kooky for Bond, although such carping also belies a deeper rooted grievance: her age. The idea that a teenager – a Californian teenager at that – could be entrusted to carry the torch for a Great British Institution™ is anathema to a certain demographic.

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Mainly, it is populated by men in their late 40s with framed portraits of Roger Moore hung in their garden sheds, who cleave to a prelapsarian vision of Bond, long before changing times and commercial imperatives smoothed his rougher edges. In their eyes, Bond theme songs must conform to a strict musical template, and singers must bring bombast, drama, and big voices to the table.

Taut, thrilling soundscapes

There is an understandable inevitability about all this. Bond themes occupy a peculiarly enduring sub-genre in pop’s disposable world, of their time yet never quite belonging to it. They are instead part of a greater, slowly evolving canon.

This is in large part due to the provenance of John Barry, the Yorkshire lad with the rasping trumpet, who self-deprecatingly dismissed his Bond film scores as “million dollar Mickey Mouse music”.

His soundscapes are taut, thrilling places, where orchestral spasms and punchy brass sections signpost ever-present dangers with sudden, swooping descents from major chords to minor ones. Add a smidge of jazzy vamp, swirling Monty Norman-inspired strings, and the formula was entrenched for decades to come. “It’s music that describes a life with no consequences to your actions,” mused David Arnold, who himself composed the scores of five Bond films and never strayed far from the template.

Barry carried his distinctive style over into the theme songs, adding an extra few signatures for good measure. Obtuse lyrics vaguely referencing suffering? Check. Lung-busting lead vocals? Check. The truth is, as early as 1963, the Bond films were creating their own sense of nostalgia, and the music was a crucial mechanism in that powerful – and lucrative – device.

A few stinkers

Granted, this prohibitive structure laid down a thin line separating homage from pastiche, and gave rise to a few stinkers, not least Lulu’s execrable Pontins knees-up for The Man With The Golden Gun. Mercifully, such follies were outnumbered by some great recordings.

The career-defining performance by Nancy Sinatra on You Only Live Twice – a gently whipped, dreamy, butterscotch delight – is for my money, the best of the lot, and strange as it may seem, we should be thankful Barry did not get his way in hiring Aretha Franklin for the gig. An honourable mention, too, must go to the gleefully bonkers Diamonds Are Forever, a soaring, ménage à trois of Shirley Bassey at her sensuous best, Barry’s stabbing harp arpeggios, and lyrics by Don Black which, if read in an inappropriately comic voice, could pass for a reader’s letter to Razzle.

With such a unique musical pedigree, it should come as no surprise that so many fans of Bond are resistant to change. Yet history has demonstrated the wisdom of handing the reins to artists and granting them a qualified freedom.

Sure, the pneumatic techno dirge of Madonna’s Die Another Day, which strived desperately to stake a claim as the first Bond anti-theme, sounded as if you had dosed your aunt’s tea with ecstasy and handed her the wean’s VTech Baby Sing Along microphone. Every rule has an exception, remember.

Subverting expectations

Come the dawn of the 1970s, the post-Beatles Paul McCartney was in the grip of a debilitating addiction to Fair Isle tank tops, but thankfully still capable of finding the rock chops to carve out Live and Let Die, a splendid, power-chord propelled paean to murderous revenge, complete with jaunty reggae-piano breakdown. It was unmistakably the calling card of McCartney, while definitively Bond.

What harm is there in giving the idiosyncratic Eilish the chance to do likewise? She has made her name by subverting expectations of how female pop stars should sound and look, and can imbue the thrill of the new in a film series now aged 58 – tantalisingly close to being able to leave its Aston Martin in the driveway in favour of a free bus pass.

The reality is the Bond producers have long known the right artist not only serves as a money-spinning cross-promotional tool, but allows them to tinker with and – whisper it – refresh the series without compromising its protagonist or plotlines.

In any case, it is worth remembering the first blast of music which accompanied 007’s debut in Dr No, beginning with that peerless Peter Gun-styled twanging Bond theme before inelegantly segueing into a calypso drumbeat and Byron Lee and the Dragonaires’ reggae rendition of Three Blind Mice.

Billie Eilish will have to pull out all the stops to displace such a marvellously baffling outlier in the Bond theme canon. Let’s hope she’s game.