IASPM-US Interview Series: Adrian Daub and Charles Kronengold, The James Bond Songs

by Greg Weinstein on November 4, 2016

adrian-daub charles-kronengold the-james-bond-songs

In The James Bond Songs, Charles Kronengold and Adrian Daub —a musicologist and a literary scholar respectively, and Stanford University professors— talk to Nayive Ananías about their research on fifty years of James Bond movie theme songs, reflect on the essence of pop songs, and delve into the evolution of capitalism.

Nayive Ananías: To start, I’d like to know why you decided to delve into the James Bond songs. And what’s your favorite Bond song and why?

Charles Kronengold: What hooked us was how much these songs say about the music and culture surrounding this incredibly long-lived movie franchise. The songs aren’t always well-put-together, up-to-date sounding, or particularly coherent. And starting with “Goldfinger” they’ve resisted changing —for more than fifty years— while music and the rest of the world have been zipping past them. But in their messiness and stubborness they encapsulate how weird it is to make and listen to pop songs, and they comment on all sorts of cultural and geopolitical change the films don’t deal with.

For these reasons our favorite is probably “Live and Let Die.” It’s both completely crazy and completely faithful to Bond-song conventions. Its lyrics show McCartney’s struggle to deal with the title phrase, which the film’s producers imposed on him, and with the convention of having to speak for or address the already venerable James Bond character. Musically it’s a Frankenstein monster: Tin-Pan-Alley verse, hard-rock chorus, big orchestral freakout, and demented reggae bridge. And we all know McCartney hardly needed to do this song—he didn’t need the money, he didn’t need any association with the Bond brand, he didn’t need to impress anyone. So just by showing up and doing their jobs (as the lyrics say), McCartney and Wings and George Martin can tell us a lot about aging, masculinity, making art for money, how we identify with music, and much else.

NA: Because new Bond films will premiere, you may have to update your recent analysis. That happened in the case of Sam Smith’s “Writing’s On The Wall” (2015). What can you say about that song? I think it shows influences of “The World Is Not Enough,” especially at the beginning.

Adrian Daub: Yes, “The World Is Not Enough” was clearly one of the antecedents, and I think we would have liked the song better if it had continued cribbing from Garbage. Instead, we felt it got too bogged down trying to resemble “Skyfall,” usually to its detriment. Garbage’s song has the classic Bond mix of romantic ballad and menace, Sam Smith’s song has zero swagger, zero menace. It, like Adele’s song, is essentially a mourning song. That shortchanges the Bond-song format, and it’s a misunderstanding of the canon. The place where we think the song has a really great sense of canon is where critics attacked it most viciously: the incredibly reduced, dialed-back, timid chorus. That had never been done, that kind of falsetto was unprecedented, and Sam Smith deploys his signature style very effectively in these moments. Any good Bond song listens attentively for the rules and then breaks some rules. Sam Smith is great when he’s breaking the rules, but he could have stood to have broken a few more of them.

NA: In the book you say the Bond sound is John Barry’s creation. He added the surf-guitar riffs and the big-band brass arrangements. Over the years, Bond songs have tried to follow that pattern. Paul Epworth, the composer of the 2012 Bond song “Skyfall,” said he’d discovered “the modal structure or the chord that seemed to always unify” the Bond songs. The Bond songs are tied to a canon, but they should always provide novelty (I think, for instance, of “Another Way to Die” and “You Know My Name”). What are the limits of those new elements —before they end up “destroying” a Bond song? What’s the core of the canon that should be respected?

CK: These questions about novelty, limits, and the core are truly key. Pop songs always embody some tension between tradition and novelty, the Bond songs more than most. John Barry’s stamp on the whole franchise can’t be overestimated, even though he left the fold in 1987. His song for Goldfinger becomes an inevitable point of reference. A funny thing happens, though: everybody knows you have to go back to “Goldfinger” and “The James Bond Theme” but nobody agrees on what you take from them: is it the female diva, the blaring brass, the surf guitar, the famous chromatic motive, the cruel streak in the lyrics, or something subtler, like shifts from major to minor, convoluted melodies, puns, recessive rhythm sections? Or something more meta, like old-fashionedness, or messiness? In other words there’s no agreement on what constitutes the conceptual core. For that reason, Adrian and I found ourselves wanting the songs to push harder at the limits: we feel like the Bond song is a pretty indestructible genre. We even think Madonna’s “Die Another Day” works well as a Bond song. (Nobody likes this song but us and maybe the two Swedish guys who got $7 million to make the music video…).

NA: Quoting from the Madonna song you note that, possibly, the audience doesn’t want the Bond songs to “shake up the system” and “break the cycle.” Maybe some of the songs opened fissures within the audience. Is it the audience, then, that helps establish the canon of Bond songs?

AD: Audience expectations certainly have come to matter quite a bit with Bond songs: there are different constituencies these songs have to please, and it’s becoming harder and harder to please them all. But I wouldn’t say the audience provided the initial impetus for this odd canon; or if they did it was in very indirect ways. It was the producers who, after the success of Goldfinger (film and song), sought to slavishly ape everything about that film, including the song. That’s unusual for the period, at least for tie-in songs —it’s something we associate with instrumental scores. The only way that audience demands drove this rather restrictive sonic vocabulary was the following: as things about the Bond universe kept changing (including Bond himself), it became more and more important to find easy (and cheap) ways to establish continuity. That meant gadgets, babes, and the music.

NA: These songs are written on demand and with certain imposed melodic ideas. They can make us rethink the relationship between artists and the music industry. What critical reflections can emerge from the experience of Bond songs?

CK: Mostly, again, about the tensions pop songs embody: we want songs to be products of inspiration, to be spontaneous, to show the singer’s feelings. But the Bond songs remind us we’re also cool with artists delivering ideas that aren’t their own, working under tight constraints, dealing with challenges, presenting songs that aren’t good enough for them, making us wonder why they’d bother to do this somewhat unrewarding and unflattering thing in the first place. What Adrian says about the limited effects of audience demands on the Bond songs is important too. It’s like we know the Bond-franchise brass doesn’t care about us except as consumers, we know the artists are just doing it for the paycheck, and we know chances are we won’t think about the song a month from now—but we don’t care. We can take pleasure from the fact that the artists are constrained, the producers are trying to micromanage the song (and failing), and we audience members won’t stay in love with the thing forever.

NA: k.d. lang’s “Surrender” was the main song for Tomorrow Never Dies, but it was rejected by the producers. Ultimately “Tomorrow Never Dies” by Sheryl Crow was chosen. You point out that songs like “Surrender” have androgynous lyrics —and k.d. lang is out as a lesbian. When I listen to her song, I really find James Bond elements: strings, brass and a surrounding voice. What’s your opinion about such discrimination and the constant heteronormativity imposed on the Bond songs?

AD: Well, the producers have some plausible deniability, in that Sheryl Crow was the bigger deal in 1996. But it is striking that they replaced the undeniable queerness of lang’s song with the incredibly heterosexist (and just plain old sexist) “Tomorrow Never Dies,” where the female voice is pining after James Bond. It is noteworthy, of course, that Crow’s song is perhaps more retrograde in this respect than most of the 60s and 70s Bond-songs: its temerity is really quite extraordinary, and actually kind of un-Bondian. Bond songs had long been pretty heterosexist, but they also upended the gender politics of the Bond films in interesting ways: this is where women got to speak, women who were very different from the sexpots the films usually presented. Crow’s song falls back pretty far behind that standard, even though it was established in 1964.

NA: It has been speculated that a woman might star in the upcoming Bond film. Roger Moore said James Bond can’t be gay or a woman because that “was not what Ian Fleming wrote.” How should that new Bond song work? Who should sing the theme and why?

AD: A female Bond would be great and would make a lot of sense. But I think the kind of song that would accompany a female Bond would vary quite dramatically depending on what precise direction the films took with that idea. If we take seriously that the songs work if they present something like the film’s unconscious, where the rules and logics of the rest of the film apply, but only in this warped and refracted way, then a lot will depend on whether the female James Bond is young or old, how she presents gender-wise, whether she sleeps mainly with men or women. And of course we can’t act as though flipping the genders of actor and singer somehow leaves both in exactly reverse positions —too much cultural baggage attaches to our conceptions of the female songbird, or the “leading man.” But I think there are ways to do it: a male singer in a gay-best-friend kind of position (think Peter Sarstedt’s “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely),” but with more bite) could work, a young woman serenading an old one, a grizzled old one singing to a young one—I think all of these positionalities would create some interesting friction that could make for fascinating songs.

CK: And whether or not there’s ever a female Bond, or a Bond of color, this question connects with a central theme of the book: who’s asked to sing a Bond song and why, and how does the singer bring her style, career, ethnicity, regional origin, age etc. into the Bond franchise? Our book asks this about women, singers of color, younger and older singers, people associated with rock, Brits and Americans (and the occasional Norwegians), artists like Madonna who aren’t noted as having great singing voices, and so on.

NA: Could a Bond song exist without lyrics? What do the lyrics provide for the Bond aesthetic?

CK: Well, the franchise tried an instrumetal title-song for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and it didn’t quite work. For one thing it created a bad fit with the “anonymous” one-time Connery replacement, George Lazenby: in the absence of a recognizable face of James Bond, the film probably needed brand-friendly lyrics, and a recognizably Bondian singing voice.

AD: The opening theme to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is less of a song, it’s more like a brief orchestral suite. I think the Bond-song lyrics have been enormously important precisely because they seem to speak past what the film actually ends up being about. They are a bit of misdirection, they purport to speak to one thing and end up telling us very little about it. “Skyfall,” “Goldfinger,” “Thunderball”—all these songs deliberately fail to tell us what the hell their title actually means, but they go through the motions to suggest they are doing just that. This is the dimension that gets lost in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, where the main vocal song (“We Have All the Time in the World,” by Louis Armstrong) arrives in the middle of the film, underscores a montage sequence, and is perfectly obvious in how it comments on the film itself. It underscores how secretly central these songs and their visuals are, even though they sometime seem to go so deliberately off-topic.

NA: Finally, what’s the next topic you’ll research?

AD: Charlie and I obviously have our own individual projects (mine will be on ballads, a topic I got fascinated with while thinking about “Goldfinger”), but we’re also planning another book together. This one will be about montages —not about the high-minded montage techniques of Eisenstein et al., but about the much-maligned, much-parodied musical montage. Ralph Maggio training, Tom Cruise playing volleyball, that sort of thing.

CK: That’s right. Starting in the post-classical 60s, these musical montages really proliferate. We think they end up changing cinema from the inside out: narrative, music, sound, characterization, place, mise-en-scène and editing are all affected by these audiovisually intense montages. My own book-in-progress is called Crediting Thinking in Soul and Dance Music; the connection here is with musical montage in African American Cinema, from the black action films of the early 70s through Spike Lee, hip-hop cinema, and beyond.


Nayive Ananías is a journalist and Master in Latin American Musicology of Alberto Hurtado University, Chile. She has worked in several newspapers and magazines, in the Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM), and has researched popular music topics, such as protest song during the Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship and, nowadays, the queer music scene in Chile. In 2016, she was prize jury for Best Musical Publication of Pulsar Awards, of the Chilean Copyright Society (SCD).

Charles Kronengold has written on twentieth-century Western art music (Elliott Carter, Morton Feldman, John Cage, Debussy, Schoenberg, Varèse), popular-music genres (funk, soul, disco, bossa nova, pop), film, and such philosophical subjects as composers’ intentions, the roles of accidents in theory, and the relevance of African American music to current debates about the “post-secular.” His recent research has concerned the ways that modern artistic genres condition, depict, embody and help to transform the activity of thinking. He is the author of the forthcoming Live Genres in Late Modernity: American Music of the Long 1970s; a book-in-progress, Crediting Thinking in Soul and Dance Music; and, with Adrian Daub, The James Bond Songs: Pop Anthems of Late Capitalism. A new book-project, tentatively titled Sensing Thinking in Urban Cinema, focuses on the audiovisual depiction of nonverbal thinking. He received his B.A. from Yale and his Ph.D. from UC San Diego, and was a Society for the Humanities Fellow at Cornell. At Stanford he is Assistant Professor of Music and affiliated faculty in the American Studies Program. In 2016–17 he is a Faculty Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center.

Adrian Daub‘s research focuses on the long nineteenth century, in particular the intersection of literature, music and philosophy. His first book, “Zwillingshafte Gebärden”: Zur kulturellen Wahrnehmung des vierhändigen Klavierspiels im neunzehnten Jahrhundert (Königshausen & Neumann, 2009), traces four-hand piano playing as both a cultural practice and a motif in literature, art and philosophy (an English edition of the book recently appeared as Four-Handed Monsters: Four-Hand Piano Playing and Nineteenth-Century Culture (Oxford University Press, 2014)). His second book Uncivil Unions – The Metaphysics of Marriage in German Idealism and Romanticism (University of Chicago Press, 2012), explored German philosophical theories of marriage from Kant to Nietzsche. His most recent book, Tristan’s Shadow – Sexuality and the Total Work of Art (University of Chicago Press, 2013), deals with eroticism in German opera after Wagner. One of his current book project will trace the fate of the dynasty in the age of the nuclear family, the other will present a comparative study of the ballad-form in nineteenth century Europe. In addition, he has published articles on topics such as fin-de-siècle German opera, the films of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, literature and scandal, the cultural use of ballads in the nineteenth century, and writers like Novalis, Stefan George, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and W.G. Sebald.

Previous post:

Next post: