No Time to Listen

Billie, Hans and why we should give the latest James Bond music a chance...

I’ve been a fan of James Bond for as long as I’ve sucked in air. If you read my blog, you probably already know that. I am going to be all over No Time to Die like a rash in a couple of months - weirdly in a dream last night, I was distressed that I couldn’t remember the name of the upcoming Bond film, and was convinced it *wasn’t* called No Time to Die! Even subconsciously I’m thinking of 007.

The run up to any Bond film is rife with speculation and given No Time to Die is coming out at the apex of online commentary and toxic fan response, there have been a lot of people leaping on any point its production may not be a seamless journey to box office dominance and decrying it as the end of James Bond as we know it. Rational heads understand that a) almost every film hits bumps in production and b) James Bond will still be around long after we are all dead. Trust.

Anyway, almost as crucial to speculation as what’s in a Bond film, is in how it sounds. The music of Bond is a key piece of the alchemy as to why these films have been so successful. The ‘Bond theme’ is as ubiquitous in the cultural lexicon as the ‘Bond villain’ or ‘Bond girl’ (even if the culture around that term is evolving). The score is secondary, pored over more by Bond nerds and film score enthusiasts, but it’s still more of a talking point than who might be scoring Avengers 6: Infinity Galactic Supernova Conflict or whatever. And every time, people get their knickers in a twist when a) someone who sounds exactly like Shirley Bassey isn’t singing the theme and b) someone who doesn’t score exactly like John Barry isn’t writing the music.

Look, here’s the thing, I love all three of Bassey’s Bond themes. Even the one to that titanically weird load of rubbish that is Diamonds Are Forever (put the roast on as soon as you see the Moon buggy). Barry, almost a decade in his grave now, will be impossible to ever match in terms of the music he gave us over 25 years of Bond films. He was a grand master. His scores were all varied and incredible. Hell, the first dance at my wedding in 2018 was to the orchestral version of Louie Armstrong’s ‘We Have All the Time in the World’ from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (I knew I was marrying the right woman when she agreed to that). These people are icons who gave us music set to timeless Bond movies in an age where this franchise was becoming the most iconic cinematic series—outside of Star Wars—of the 20th century.

Yet every time a new film comes along, the same old frustrations arrive. Who is this kid Billie Eilish (who the great John Rain of SMERSH Pod said was appropriate as her surname sounds like something Sean Connery would pronounce) and how does her music fit the brand? Oh God! Hans Zimmer? Boo! He’s rubbish! Bring back David Arnold! That’s the case with No Time to Die, the latter stepping in after original composer Dan Romer was replaced because his score was apparently too “out there” (who knows). But it happened with Spectre and Sam Smith (a theme I admittedly didn’t like but I didn’t moan about him beforehand). It certainly happened with Adele for Skyfall, which easily has become the most memorable and iconic Bond theme since probably Tina Turner’s GoldenEye back in 1995. I mean seriously, if you’re not a Bond nerd, can you honestly remember who sang the song to 1999’s The World Is Not Enough?

So yeah. The same old argument, Time in, time out, built on an existing prejudice based not just on the current artist but also the history of the Bond franchise, steeped in great music as it is. And almost always, the eventual productions prove these naysayers wrong. Skyfall & Spectre both had classy, often beautiful scores from the great Thomas Newman which entirely fitted the style of the late-Daniel Craig era. I still attest that Jack White & Alicia Keys’ ‘Another Way to Die’ from Quantum of Solace is a kickass Bond theme to an average movie which has been sorely under appreciated for over a decade. The late Chris Cornell for Casino Royale produced my third favourite Bond theme with the belter that is ‘You Know My Name’. We again return to the same point. Difference doesn’t have to mean a poorer return. Evolution is good. Trying new things makes sense in a world Bond is already having to change within in order to remain part of.

I appreciate Hans Zimmer isn’t to everyone’s taste. There’s an eternally raging debate among fan communities online about whether his music has any artistic merit whatsoever. But, come on, are you at least not a little bit fascinated to hear what someone as accomplished as Zimmer will do with a Bond movie? I know I am. I would be were I not a fan of his percussive, bombastic style. I think we all assumed a Zimmer-Bond score would never happen outside of Christopher Nolan directing the film and while he was a last minute replacement to some extent, it remains an exciting concept. He will no doubt bring a sense of dark grandeur to proceedings. I think his score for Inception might point the way a little, given how Bond-esque that film at times was. I’m most fascinated to hear what he’ll do with Monty Norman’s iconic theme than anything else. Will he drip feed it in like Newman or weave more deliberately like Arnold? I suspect the former. Either way, I can’t wait to hear it.

Billie Eilish is a completely unknown quantity to me. I’d never heard of her before the announcement, let alone heard her music. The fact she has 3m followers on Twitter proves this is more that I have a massive blind spot for contemporary music than anything about her! She is also insanely talented at such a young age (18) and stands to be the youngest ever singer of a Bond theme. But I checked out some of her stuff on Spotify today and I can totally see why they’ve gone with the tune she has written for No Time to Die with her brother. She has a husky, soulful edge to her synth-pop infested vocals which I can just imagine set to a Daniel Kleinman credit sequence. Give songs like ‘everything I wanted’ or ‘bad guy’ a whirl and try and set them, in your head, to a modern Bond sequence. It works, guys. And this is coming from a geeky white man rapidly approaching 40 who feels vaguely like a 19th century European explorer in Africa in approaching pop music, half expecting to find some kind of deadly, confusing cultural surprise around every corner! I’ve never been cool but listening to Billie Eilish for a while, I almost feel it. Almost.

Keep an open mind, I guess is my point, when it comes to the music of Bond. I’m sure if the internet had been around in the 60’s plenty of people would have described Tom Jones as a whipper-snapper and how dare he try and match Bassey or Matt Monro, but he belted out a ‘Thunderball’. Maybe Eilish will too. Maybe Zimmer will immerse and electrify us. Even if someone else does it better, I for one can’t wait to see if maybe, baby, they actually *are* the best.