Copyright 1997 Times Newspapers Limited  
Sunday Times

October 12, 1997, Sunday

SECTION: Features

LENGTH: 1156 words

HEADLINE: The spy we love

BYLINE: Andrew Smith


Why are all the coolest rockers queueing up to record James Bond theme tunes? It's no mystery to ANDREW SMITH.

In 1971, the Vietnam war was in full swing and the western world was moving into recession. The Beatles had split amid incredible acrimony and the Rolling Stones were being accused of corrupting youth. You'd have had no idea of any of this from watching that year's Bond film, Diamonds Are Forever. Until 1994, Bond films appeared to exist in a parallel cultural universe. Then Portishead released their stunningly atmospheric, Mercury Award-winning album, Dummy. Nobody who had ever sat through Goldfinger or You Only Live Twice or From Russia With Love needed to ask where that group had sought their inspiration. The work of the Bond soundtrack composer, John Barry, was stitched into the very fabric of that album. You couldn't miss it. Clearly, Bond's significance now extended beyond an uncanny ability to save the planet from total destruction at the last minute.

Since Dummy, Barry has become a name for musicians to drop. The words "John Barry? We were into him way before Portishead and Dummy, man" have become a staple of the modern pop interview. What we've realised is that Barry's scores are to Bond what hair was to Samson, even though other composers have followed in Barry's footsteps. Shorn of those trademark sweeps and cascades, of the oblique harmonies and distinctively idiosyncratic arrangements, Bond would stand no chance at all. Oddjob would make mincemeat of him. Plenty O'Toole would look elsewhere. Even when the movies themselves have not deserved them, Barry's music has been superbly evocative. There can be few people in the English-speaking world incapable of humming at least one of the title songs.

David Arnold can hum all of the title songs. He has just scored and, with lyricist Don Black (who collaborated with Barry on Diamonds Are Forever and Thunderball), written the title song for the 18th Bond production, Tomorrow Never Dies. Involvement in that project gave him the impetus he needed to realise a long-cherished dream. Thus it was that, over recent months, a selection of vocalists was invited to Air Studios in north London to tackle a range of better-and lesser-known Bond themes. Those who found their way onto the resulting album, Shaken and Stirred, include Chrissie Hynde, Iggy Pop, Jarvis Cocker, David McAlmont and Shara Nelson (the voice on Massive Attack's seminal Blue Lines album). Instrumental contributions have come from Leftfield, drum'n'bass notable LTJ Bukem and Propellerheads - whose lively reading of On Her Majesty's Secret Service has already been issued as a single.

Collections such as this usually disappoint, but Shaken and Stirred has been assembled with such energy and verve as to buck the trend. Particularly fine are Iggy Pop's improbably emotive delivery of We Have all the Time in the World, from the end of On Her Majesty's...; Transglobal Underground singer Natacha Atlas's spicy From Russia with Love; the camp drama of McAlmont's Diamonds Are Forever; Leftfield's stirring Space March; and Hynde's chaotic Live and Let Die (Liam Gallagher, who was recording Be Here Now at Air, was originally slated for this, but dropped out). In all cases, Arnold's thoughtful, vigorous arrangements are as important as the vocal performance.

Visiting Arnold at Air, you naturally fall to discussing the choices he made. Where is the majestic You Only Live Twice (originally sung by Nancy Sinatra)? Why do Pulp take on All Time High, from - of all things - Octopussy? (Arnold says: "I told Jarvis that was my least favourite song, that I wanted him to do From Russia with Love and he said, 'No, I like that song, it's got a sadness to it.' ") More importantly, why has he included the insipid Nobody Does It Better, ably sung by the American singer Aimee Mann, but which features one of the most toe-curlingly inappropriate lyrics of all time, from the wildly overrated Carole Bayer Sager? Arnold's version is much better than the original, by the way.

"I'm glad you're saying that, because people love that song," Arnold smiles, going on to reveal that Radiohead and Tori Amos both wanted to do it. "Some think it's the best of them all. But when we were talking about the lyrics, I thought, I have no idea what this song's about. 'Heaven above me/The spy who loved me/Baby, you're the best'? A similar thing happened with the new one, Tomorrow never Dies, which k d lang sings. Halfway through, she suddenly stopped and asked, 'What does "Tomorrow never dies" mean?' Everything had been going great until that moment."

Born in Luton, the son of a boxer turned club singer, Arnold has had an unlikely career. Only in the past three years has he been given the chance to score movies such as The Young Americans and, later, Independence Day (for which he won a Grammy) and A Life Less Ordinary. Early in his career, he auditioned for the Clash. Then he worked for nothing on a succession of independent short films while doing a series of dead-end jobs to pay the rent. He was spotted by Alan Parker, after one of the no-budget shorts he'd scored won a BBC Young Film-makers' competition. Parker was a judge. "One week, I was cleaning the inside of cornflake ovens for a living," he notes. "The next, I was opening the door for Madonna and Mel Gibson at Alan Parker's Bel Air mansion."

His stated aim, in both Bond projects, was to recapture the grandeur and excitement of the likes of Goldfinger. "I wanted to go completely old school with it, which was a problem, because there aren't that many singers around who can sing that sort of song any more. Who is the contemporary Shirley Bassey? There are only a few people who can carry a song like that."

Ask those involved - all of whom jumped at the chance to take on a Bond theme - what the allure of Bond is for them and you get a variation on a single theme. It's his Britishness. The fact that you know nothing about his background means that we can all associate with him. "Yeah," says Martin Fry, who stepped into Tom Jones's shoes for an intriguingly dark rendition of Thunderball, "he's quintessentially English and there aren't that many English heroes. And the opening sequences are still the best in the business. As to the music, it's never dated because it sounded so old-fashioned to begin with."

Arnold sums it up best, though, when he says: "When you watched them for the first time, the films made you feel invincible. This guy had the cars, the gadgets, the girls, a licence to do anything he wanted at any time, anywhere in the world, without any fear of consequence at all." In short, being James Bond is the next best thing to being in Oasis. No wonder he's done so well.

Shaken and Stirred is released on October 20. Themeology: The Best of John Barry, which includes the Persuaders Theme, Midnight Cowboy and Born Free, is out now.