There was a time when James Bond soundtrack albums mattered. Not surprisingly, this was when Sean Connery reigned and 007 title songs were as much a part of the British Invasion as the hits from the Beatles, Stones, Petula Clark, etc. Not only was the on-screen Bond formula of guns, gadgets, and girls imitated countless times, so was the iconic John Barry music that was every bit as much a lynchpin of the 007 mythos. In fact, beyond the classic songs from Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, and Nancy Sinatra, Bond soundtracks were admired for Barry’s Stan Kenton-inspired jazzy mix of swinging saxophones, muted trumpets, and lush orchestrations that became part of 11 Bond films.
Barry’s golden era began with From Russia With Love (1963), took the world by storm with Goldfinger (1964), and culminated with Connery’s 1971 send-off, Diamonds Are Forever. Then Roger Moore picked up the Walther PPK and things changed considerably. While the title songs continued to be a major part of the tie-in merchandising for each outing, the vinyl soundtracks had lost something. For one matter, other composers alternated with Barry including George Martin, Marvin Hamlisch, and Bill Conti, who each wanted their own stamp on the legacy.
As a result, there wasn’t the musical continuity Barry had provided, not only in his distinctive sound but in recycled compositions like his “007 Theme,” first heard in From Russia With Love. In addition, musical tastes had changed. Hamlisch, for one, took note of the Bee Gees and funky wah-wah sounds to shape his “Bond 77” theme in The Spy Who Loved Me. By Moonraker (1979), Barry too had evolved, leaving behind the jazzy brass in favor of lusher string sections for Octopussy (1983) and A View to a Kill (1985).
Barry’s final effort, 1987’s The Living Daylights, was one of his finest and pointed to new directions for the future. For one matter, he incorporated then-current techno sounds to punch up the action sequences. For another, he used three songs, the title hit from A-ha and two numbers co-written with Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders), to give him a deeper well to shape thematic material. From that point forward, Bond films tended to begin and end with different songs. But it took two films and two composers, Michael Kamen and Erik Serra, for Barry’s true successor to take to the podium.
In 1997, David Arnold scored Tomorrow Never Dies which began his run of five Bond films. Immediately, he learned title songs had less to do with the film they opened than music videos, as in the case of the one for TND by (leggy) Sheryl Crow. In fact, the hits now seemed to come from one camp; the score, another. This meant less integration of the musical themes. At the same time, Arnold was a composer for his times which meant no muted trumpets and few saxophones were heard. Rather, the scores emphasized the techno beat Barry had experimented with back in 1987. Arnold helmed three Pierce Brosnan scores and then, once again, everything shifted.
For Daniel Craig’s debut in Casino Royale (2006), two things happened musically. By design, the producers wanted to downplay the old themes until the final moments, so Arnold had to be as non-Bond as possible for most of the score. Not by design, Chris Cornell fumbled his first version of the title song, “You Know My Name,” which he posted online and then recalled for a redo. As a result, for the first time, a Bond title song didn’t appear on a very un-Bondian soundtrack album. Strangely, Quantum of Solace (2008), noted for passages echoing themes from Casino Royale, did include the title number from Jack White and Alicia Keys, “Another Way to Die”, but not until the end of the album. With that release, Arnold’s tenure came to an end, at least for now.
Enter: Thomas Newman.
On several levels, no other composer, including Barry, has come to the 007 franchise with a better pedigree. His father is the noted Alfred Newman, his uncle the equally noteworthy Lionel. Other film composers in the family include his brother David, sister Maria, and cousin Randy. Newman has scored more than 50 films, been nominated for 10 Academy Awards, a Golden Globe, and won a BAFTA, five Grammys, and an Emmy. But none of his credits really suggest a composer destined for working on a 007 film.
Newman came to Bond by way of new director Sam Mendes, who apparently asked for the choice of the composer as part of his contract. Mendes and Newman first worked together back in 1999 in American Beauty and then collaborated on Road to Perdition (2002), Jarhead (2005), and Revolutionary Road (2008). Without question, this relationship would be important for scoring Skyfall as, not for the first time, much of the movie would be driven by action and minimal dialogue. This results in the fact Newman’s music would receive considerable screen time. The question is now: Offscreen, how does the soundtrack of Skyfall measure against the 007 musical legacy?
First, there’s one glaring omission. Adele’s excellent title song is not included. As with Sony Classical’s Casino Royale release, the only nod to the title music is in Newman’s one orchestral use of the Adele Adkins, Paul Epworth composition Newman calls “Komodo Dragon.” Gone are the days when a Bond film opened and ended with two original songs. For whatever reason, Sony Classical seems to be signaling there are two different audiences for Bond music: one that enjoys the pop songs, the other the instrumental score. I’m among those who feels cheated by this choice. For a full and potentially classic Bond soundtrack, it should not come out as a truncated, headless package with the theme relegated to download or CD single status, especially a song universally lauded as one of the best of the breed in many a moon.
However, it’s more than evident the ninth Bond composer has given us a very high-quality musical experience. I admit feeling a bit jarred hearing only two notes of the Bond theme before Newman launches into the very exciting five-minute-long “Grand Bazaar, Istanbul,” which fills the speakers with atmosphere, energy, and Bondian drama. Gone are the swinging horns of Barry, although there’s no lack of symphonic brass work and luscious strings. The techno synthesizers of Arnold are downplayed with occasional exceptions like “Enquiry.” Instead, Newman relies much on thundering percussion, and from time to time, the guitar lines of Monty Norman’s “The James Bond Theme” as on “Breadcrumbs” and “She’s Mine.” As Daniel Craig is a darker 007 than his predecessors, many of the passages are more haunting and moody than earlier scores. And, as there’s no real love story here, there’s not much one can really call romantic.
Another major difference between Skyfall and soundtracks of old is its length. It’s just five seconds shy of 78 minutes, which would have been a two-record set back in vinyl’s glory days. There are 30 tracks, although some are less than a minute. In short, it’s difficult to say the music of Skyfall fits into the familiar Bond tradition. It’s a bit like trying to compare apples to Octopussy or the 1967 and 2006 versions of Casino Royale. Craig is a very different Bond, the new Q and Miss Moneypenny are nothing like their namesakes, and Thomas Newman is no John Barry. In this case, that’s not a bad thing. Newman firmly had his finger on the pulse Mendes was building, and that’s just how it should be. While the script’s plot might have been more personal than what Blofeld had in mind all those years ago, the music of Newman gives Skyfall an epic depth appropriate for a film intended to breathe new life into an aging secret agent.
No doubt, James Bond will return. Will Sam Mendes? If so, likely so will Newman as well. If so, we can look forward to more vibrant music worthy of what’s up there on the silver screen. But, Sony, give the singer a little respect—as well as your soundtrack customers. You might find a wider audience if the full package is really the full package.