Tag Archives: 1999

Rocks In The Attic #799: Various Artists – ‘Go (O.S.T.)’ (1999)

RITA#799Following hot on the heels of his breakthrough hit Swingers, Doug Liman’s Go is a quirky little film dealing with youth culture at the end of the 1990s. It borrows liberally from Quentin Tarantino, in particular the time-switching of Pulp Fiction, as it intertwines three stories set in one day in Southern California and Las Vegas.

In the first story, a group of supermarket workers head to a weekend rave and get caught up in a drug deal that goes bad, in the second story one of their co-workers heads off to Las Vegas with another bunch of friends, and the final story covers the tale of a pair of TV actors forced to take part in an undercover drug sting.

As much as I admire 1996’s Swingers, the film that made a star out of Vince Vaughan and boosted the profiles of Jon Favreau (also its writer), Heather Graham and Ron Livingston, I’ve always found it quite bleak. For a Vegas (and Reno!) film dealing with the seedier side of the city, away from the neon glamour of the tourist traps, I much prefer Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight, released in the same year.

RITA#799aI found 1999’s Go to be much more of a fun ride than Swingers, although admittedly not as groundbreaking. It has an ensemble cast, featuring both Timothy Olyphant and Katie Holmes in early roles, and I’ve always wondered whether this was the film that Tom Cruise saw before he set his sights on Holmes. Or maybe he was just a Dawson’s Creek fan.

Sadly, Swingers and Go were the last small-budget indie films that Doug Liman directed. His talents were obvious and his subsequent filmography shows how much he impressed Hollywood with these two films. His next project after Go was 2002’s The Bourne Identity, and he followed this with similarly-sized blockbusters as 2005’s Mr. And Mrs Smith, 2008’s Jumper, 2014’s Edge Of Tomorrow and 2017’s American Made. He’s currently in post-production on a sequel to Edge Of Tomorrow, taking its name from the alternate title of the 2014 film: Live, Die, Repeat And Repeat.

The soundtrack to Go is very much of its time – all big beats and samples, typified by the inclusion of Fatboy Slim’s Gangster Trippin’. When I first heard the soundtrack was getting a vinyl reissue, I thought that it was another example of record companies scraping the barrel, and so I sat on it until I was able to pick it up in a sale. I’m so glad I did, as it’s chock-full of gems. No Doubt’s New and Len’s Steal My Sunshine get top-billing alongside the Fatboy Slim track, but it’s the lesser-known tracks that I’m here for.

Jimmy Luxury’s Cha Cha Cha, featuring a sample of the Tommy Rowe Orchestra, is a funky little gem, Air’s Talisman is one of the many highlights of Moon Safari, and Lionrock’s Fire Up The Shoesaw is just fabulous, not only for its stuttering sample of Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Are Made For Walkin’, but more for it’s delicious sample of Fight At Kobe Dock from John Barry’s score to You Only Live Twice (the title song of which, of course, was sung by Nancy Sinatra).

Hit: Steal My Sunshine – Len

Hidden Gem: Fire Up The Shoesaw – Lionrock

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Rocks In The Attic #783: Travis – ‘Live At Glastonbury ‘99’ (1999)

RITA#783I can’t help but think that Travis missed the boat. They were actually stood on the boat at one point, and everybody was waving them off. Then they looked behind them, and realised that everybody was waving at Coldplay, who were stood on an even bigger boat, sailing off into mainstream waters.

1999 marked the year of my first Glastonbury, and Travis were crowned the breakthrough performance of the festival. I stood there with thousands of others on the Saturday afternoon as they played the Other Stage. The festival had been dry and sunny so far, but threatening rainclouds started drifting over the fields.

A fortunate bit of serendipity occurred when the heavens opened as the band played their current single, Why Does It Always Rain On Me? The soaked crowd was delighted, as were the BBC executives broadcasting the highlights of the festival, and the music press heralded the band as the champions of the festival. They returned to headline a year later.

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I saw Travis headline in 2000, but I also caught Coldplay, playing the Other Stage at a similar time slot as I had seen Travis the year prior. I already knew a few of Coldplay’s singles – Shiver and Yellow had already been released, and the radio was already playing Trouble in advance of its October release. I bought their debut LP, Parachutes as soon as it was released a few weeks later.

History seemed to repeat itself: Coldplay were labelled the breakthrough performance of the 2000 festival, and they swiftly became the darlings of the music press and BBC Radio. Just like Travis, they returned to headline the next Glastonbury (in 2002, with 2001 being a fallow year).

But over the years, while Coldplay went from strength to strength, becoming a household name for casual music fans and a shortcut for bland, post-Britpop radio-friendly rock, Travis just seemed to…disappear.

Everybody had agreed that The Man Who, Travis’ second studio album that they were touring at the time of their ’99 performance, was a belter. It spent 11 weeks at number 1 in the UK album charts, and sold over 3.5 million copies. But then Coldplay came along and seemed to blow them out of the water, probably while Travis were stood on that boat in the harbour.

Aside from hearing about their drummer breaking his neck diving into a swimming pool, and an out-of-court settlement for ‘borrowing’ the Wonderwall chord progression for Writing To Reach You, I haven’t heard much else from Travis. Their third album, the aptly named The Invisible Band, was the last I heard from them. What happened?

Hit: Why Does It Always Rain On Me?

Hidden Gem: Blue Flashing Light

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Rocks In The Attic #671: Aimee Mann & Jon Brion – ‘Magnolia (O.S.T.)’ (1999)

150678 - SMALLER SPINECould Magnolia be the best film of the 1990s?

Rolling Stone rank it at a lowly #26, twelve places behind director Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous film, the arguably more accessible Boogie Nights. The magazine voted Scorsese’s Goodfellas at #1 (followed by a more esoteric run-down than you would expect from Rolling Stone: #5 – Pulp Fiction, #4 – The Silence Of The Lambs, #3 – Safe, #2 – Hoop Dreams).

A reader’s poll in Rolling Stone, ranking the twenty-five best movies of the decade, doesn’t even mention Magnolia, again with PTA’s Boogie Nights making the cut (faring a little better at #19). Not surprisingly, the poll’s top five are populist choices – #5 – Fight Club, #4 – The Shawshank Redemption, #3 – Goodfellas, #2 – The Big Lebowski, and #1 – Pulp Fiction.

RITA#671cBut who cares about polls and lists? They’re usually only there to provoke discussion – and quite why Rolling Stone could vote a three-hour documentary about basketball hopefuls from the inner-city slums as the second-best film of the year is anybody’s guess. I loved Hoop Dreams, but is it better than anything from Tarantino, the Andersons (Wes and Paul Thomas) or Fincher?

Even Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film – the casino-centric Hard Eight (1996), starring Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson, deserves a look-in. It’s the kind of film that makes you want to inhabit a casino, let alone visit one.

A textbook first film, you can see a lot of the visual flourishes that are the hallmark of films like Boogie Nights and Magnolia before he started to move away to more static filmmaking. The easiest of his trademarks to spot is the fast dolly-in, usually as a character enters a scene or an object becomes the focus of the narrative. These shots define PTA as much as the inserts and birds-eye views of Wes Anderson’s films, or the tracking shots of Scorsese.

The number eight resonates strongly with Paul Thomas Anderson and Magnolia. He debuted with Hard Eight – the number on the dice needed by the craps-playing Philip Seymour Hoffman; he’s just released his eighth feature, Phantom Thread; and the number eight is a symbolic fingerprint of Magnolia – the film culminating with the threat of Exodus 8:2: ‘If you refuse to let them go, I will send a plague of frogs on your whole country.’

RITA#671aSo Anderson spends the three hours of Magnolia interpreting Christianity and emerges with a delicious pun, insinuating that the biblical plague of raining frogs was caused by the producers of the quiz show who wouldn’t let Stanley visit the toilet. He would revisit the themes of religion more seriously later in his career, but this is where he put his toe in the holy water.

It could be claimed that nothing happens in Magnolia, that it’s boring and uneventful. And while it possibly does try to do too much, with too many characters – even Anderson himself has suggested that it’s overlong – its real strength comes from its pacing. I don’t think another film exists as dedicated to building tension as Magnolia. From its opening scene, until the aftermath of the frog-raining finale, the tension builds and builds, until the clouds break and we get a well-deserved resolution across each of the story arcs.

One important aspect, of course, is the music. The soundtrack is comprised of three key elements – pop songs from Supertramp and Gabrielle, together with snippets of the opera Carmen and Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, a suite of original songs from Aimee Mann, and a lush original score by Jon Brion.

This new release from Mondo Records represents the first time that the soundtrack has been released on vinyl. Split across three discs, the first discs offers the Aimee Mann songs, while the remaining two discs offer the Jon Brion score.

The beautiful packaging also follows the themes of the film, with new artwork by Joao Ruas and the three discs coloured in (1) Sky Blue, (2) Cloudy Blue, and (3) Translucent Gold – in other words, clear sky, cloudy sky, and frog!

Hit: One – Aimee Mann

Hidden Gem: Stanley / Frank / Linda’s Breakdown – Jon Brion

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Rocks In The Attic #509: Don Davis – ‘The Matrix (O.S.T.)’ (1999)

RITA#509I love The Matrix. It’s one of my favourite films of the ‘90s; probably my favourite science-fiction film of that decade. It’s an awesome movie, but I think I like it more for what it represents than for what it actually is. For me, the Matrix represents a truly wonderful thing – the end of George Lucas’ reign over special-effects movies in Hollywood.

Yes, Lucas was responsible for a great deal of my childhood cinema: the three original Star Wars films, and the three original Indiana Jones films. A round of applause, please. But that’s it. Nothing else. His 1973 breakout hit American Graffiti might be an enjoyable slice of 1950s nostalgia, but Back To The Future did it much better in 1985. And let’s not get started on the Star Wars prequels or the fourth Indiana Jones film.

His legacy is one of the things that ultimately curses him: Industrial Light & Magic. The special effects house set up to handle the myriad of effects shots in the first Star Wars film ultimately came to monopolise Hollywood in the decades that followed. The company may have been trendsetters in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and they hit a peak with the groundbreaking effects in 1992’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day, but by the late 1990s they had lost their edge. Nothing was special anymore; they had become complacent. The company that had once blown everybody away were now resting on their laurels.

Then a film was released in 1999 out of nowhere. Titled The Matrix, it was written and directed by brothers Larry and Andy (now Lana and Lilly) Wachowski, responsible at that point for only directing one film, Bound (1996), a crime thriller starring Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon.

The Matrix came along with no hype. From the outside it looked like just another science-fiction film out of Hollywood, with a steam-punk aesthetic that we had seen before in dull gothic flicks like The Crow (1994) and Dark City (1998). The lack of advance word even led to UK film magazine Empire relegating the film to its ‘Also released this month” section.

I saw the film at the cinema with my good buddy Stotty. Talk about being blown away. I was so engrossed that a Coca-Cola-induced urge to go to the toilet mid-way through had to be repressed. I wasn’t going to miss a second of this, particularly after being sideswiped by the film’s major left turn around twenty minutes in.

The idea, in retrospect, is simple: introduce the audience to the main character, then towards the end of the first act, suggest that the narrative you’re following is a fallacy, and that the film’s protagonist is being similarly hoodwinked. Hollywood had recently provided a film with a similar narrative hook, in Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998). Truman Burbank figures it out for himself when he overhears some radio chatter, almost gets pulverised by a studio light falling out of the sky, and notices the regularity of people bicycling down his street, but in The Matrix, our protagonist relies on others to wake him from his dream. Films ever since have played with the elastic nature of narrative. It seems like they’re ten a penny these days, but back in the late ‘90s it felt refreshing and new.

Everything about The Matrix seemed well thought-out. The design, the cast, the music, the sound, the editing, everything; but what grabbed people most of all were the special effects. The Wachowskis rewrote the book, taking their lead from the infinite possibilities of Japanese Anime rather than traditional Hollywood special effects. Finally, seven years following Terminator 2: Judgement Day, here was something that we hadn’t seen before: Bullet Time.

John Gaeta from Manex Visual Effects, working out of Alameda, California, developed a prototype of the effect prior to the film, and the Wachowskis jumped on it. Gaeta’s concept was based on an old idea – that a moving image is simply a sequence of still images played at high speed – but Gaeta’s application of the method to film action sequences was ingenious.

A simple stunt, for example one character jumping up to kick another character, could be transformed from something very simple to something extraordinary. A rig featuring dozens of still cameras would bet set up around the actors, and the cameras would shoot the movement in the scene, before being compiled together to form a moving image. By employing a fairly simple idea, the filmmakers created the illusion of movement around the action, capturing the shot at super-slow motion, but still travelling at high-speed, hence ‘bullet’ time.

There’s an element of The Matrix borne out of a clichéd Hollywood trope – that of the white male protagonist being the saviour of the universe, or the ‘one’ as Neo’s anagrammatical name would suggest – but despite this, the films manages to still feel fresh. The main protagonist is derivative to a degree, taking the base elements of George Lucas’ original Star Wars conceit – that our hero is possessed with a magical ability to transcend all evil forces – but there’s so much innovation in the film, it’s easy to overlook this. It’s like receiving a pair of socks on Christmas Day, but finding that they turn you invisible when you put them on. Erm, thanks Aunty Flo.

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about The Matrix without mentioning the sequels. At the time, they were exciting but just like the Star Wars prequels from George Lucas (him again), they suffered from a preponderance of weightless digital effects and little in the way of practical effects. Most Hollywood sequels are lazy rehashes of the same ideas that made the first film so interesting. The Wachowskis couldn’t be accused of this though; if anything, they overthought their sequels, giving them a highbrow slant that hasn’t been see in a sequel since The Godfather Part II.

It’s great to have Don Davis’ score to the film on this lovely slab of green wax. I probably enjoy the score as much as I love the pop soundtrack, which despite a few timeless classics is starting to feel very much of its time. I’m not familiar with Don Davis’ other work, but this is a great score – and its refreshing for a big action film to be scored by somebody other than John Williams, James Horner, Danny Elfman or Hans Zimmer.

Hit: Main Title

Hidden Gem: Welcome To The Real World

Rocks In The Attic #436: Various Artists – ‘Rushmore’ (1999)

RITA#436One of my favourite films of all time, and I finally have the soundtrack on vinyl. Up to now, only the lesser Wes Anderson films have been granted a soundtrack release on vinyl – the Moonrise Kingdom 10” from Record Store Day’s Black Friday a few years ago, and The Darjeeling Limited from Record Store Day earlier this year.

Don’t get me wrong, the soundtracks to Anderson’s films are always universally awesome; it’s just that the later films themselves aren’t a shade on his early films. From The Darjeeling Limited onwards, he’s been repeating himself, with nothing that fans of his early work haven’t seen before. And those weighty Oscar nominations for The Grand Budapest Hotel don’t mean a thing – only that the Academy are consistently terrible at recognising talent early on. Just like Scorsese’s The Departed, The Grand Budapest Hotel is far from being Wes Anderson’s finest achievement.

So back to Rushmore. In 1999, I finished University and moved back into my parents’ house. Due to the nightly boredom of living with my parents again, I joined a video shop – and without a car I used to walk the three miles there and back whenever I wanted to visit the shop. One of the first films I rented was Rushmore. I was an instant Wes Anderson fan from that moment on. His brand of whimsy, teenage rebellion and school-notebook perspective on life really struck a chord with me.

Part of the reason those early Wes Anderson films work so well are the scores by Mark Mothersbaugh. From Bottle Rocket through to The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, Mothersbaugh has been an integral component of Anderson’s work, offering a surprising range of musical styles that you’d never expect from the lead singer of Devo. From Fantastic Mr. Fox onwards, Anderson has turned to Alexandre Desplat as a composer; and while there’s nothing wrong with Desplat’s soundtracks, a Wes Anderson film without Mark Mothersbaugh is to me like a Spielberg film without John Williams.

Hit: Ooh La La – The Faces

Hidden Gem: Making Time – Creation

Rocks In The Attic #430: Muse – ‘Showbiz’ (1999)

RITA#430I used to be a big fan of Muse. Right from the first album too – essentially ever since I read in the NME about a guitarist with crazy effects pedals in an up and coming band from Devon. Then I heard Sunburn in a club somewhere and I was hooked. Muse to me sound like the natural progression of Radiohead if they had gone in that direction after The Bends rather than the avant garde bullshit they swapped their guitars for.

I was lucky enough to see Muse touring this album; a mid-afternoon set on the Other Stage at Glastonbury in 2000. I would see them touring the second album too, and then I stupidly overlooked their headlining slot at Glastonbury touring the third album (but that’s another story altogether).

The Radiohead comparisons are inevitable, with this debut record being produced by John Leckie, producer of The Bends. Showbiz – the title song – draws the most comparisons with Radiohead, borrowing the ominous slow-burn they perfected across The Bends and OK Computer.  I remember being stood at festivals when Muse first came out and listening to people trying to pigeon-hole them. “They’re just Radiohead in different clothes.” “Nah, they’re Queen for the 21st century.” Whatever. It’s a shame that when bands come out, they just have to be put into a box. People can’t just accept that a band exists on its own merits. But then once a band is accepted, that band is then used as a comparison for newer bands. “Royal Blood? They’re just Muse mixed with the Black Keys, aren’t they?” Ad infinitum.

The great thing about Muse when they started out is that they were a solid package right from the get-go. If you look at that Glastonbury set from 2000, Matt Bellamy has all the vocal histrionics down pat. This wasn’t something he developed over time (like Chris Martin’s woeful hopping on one leg holding his ribcage with one arm). It was also nice to see Bellamy dive into the drum kit, hanging onto bass player Christopher Wolstenholme’s back, at the end of the set too. It was things like this that made me sit up and realise that rock and roll was coming back, after a few years anxiously waiting for Britpop to go through its final death rattles.

Hit:  Unintended

Hidden Gem: Fillip

Rocks In The Attic #400: Various Artists – ‘The Best Of James Bond – 30th Anniversary Collection’ (1992)

Bond 00A new Bond film – Spectre – is imminent, set to be released on the 6th of November 2015. To say that I’m looking forward to it is a major understatement. Hopefully it can restore my faith in the series, after the let-down of the appalling Skyfall – a Bond film for non-Bond film fans.

To celebrate the 400th Rocks In The Attic blog post, here are the twenty four* previous Bond themes, ranked from worst to best.

Bond 0(*Prior to Spectre, there are actually twenty three Bond films in the official series, but Dr. No doesn’t really have a theme song, other than Monty Norman’s original James Bond Theme, and that tune really belongs to all of the films. I’ve also included the themes to the two unofficial Bond films – the spoof Casino Royale from 1967, and 1983’s Never Say Never Again – because they’re well worth considering).

24. Die Another Day – Madonna (2002)

Bond 1Die Another Day is not only hands-down the worst Bond film, it also has the honour of having the worst theme song. If there’s one person who needs to stay away from films, it’s Madonna. The producers even gave her a part in the film! Her filmography reads like a criminal record. Body Of Evidence? Who’s That Girl? Swept Away? If you haven’t seen these films, keep it that way. Die Another Day was released in the midst of her attempt to reinvent herself as a British person, all flat caps and tweed jackets. Ugh. Pass the sick bucket.

23. For Your Eyes Only – Sheena Easton (1981)

Bond 2Carly Simon’s theme to The Spy Who Loved Me was such a hit in 1977 that the producers spent the early 1980s trying to replicate its success. This and the theme to the next film in the series, Octopussy, are some of the weakest Bond themes – all synths and dated atmospherics, about as far away as you can get from what a Bond theme should be. For Your Eyes loses more points for repurposing the title of the film into a cheesy double-entendre.

22. All Time High – Rita Coolidge (from Octopussy, 1983)

Bond 3I guess when you’re faced with a title like Octopussy, you’re going to need to change the name of the song. Nobody wants to hear somebody crowbar the words ‘hussy’ and ‘fussy’ just so that they can rhyme them with ‘Octopussy’. Or do they…? I’m not too sure what that song would be about, perhaps something along the lines of Bond not being particularly choosy about his women: With girls, he was never fussy / He’d take them all, any hussy / But the one that really took his eye / No word of a lie / Was Octopussy.

21. Tomorrow Never Dies – Sheryl Crow (1997)

Bond 4Just as the early-‘80s was a fallow period for good Bond themes, so was the late-‘90s. There’s nothing particularly offensive about Tomorrow Never Dies or The World Is Not Enough, but there’s nothing great about them either. They both sound like they’ve been written by a computer program designed to write Bond themes: Start. Open file. Insert menacing three-note ascending motif. Run.

20. The World Is Not Enough – Garbage (1999)

Bond 5David Arnold might have hit his stride now, but back in the ‘90s he was really struggling. John Barry left a big pair of shoes to fill (size 007s probably), and subsequently Arnold’s first few soundtracks seem to crumble under the pressure. His choice of theme-tune artist is a little strange for this one too. Garbage were indie darlings back in 1995, but by 1999 they were an afterthought. A less than exciting second album didn’t help, and their Bond song was released long after the honeymoon was over.

19. Casino Royale – Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass (from Casino Royale, 1967)

Bond 6Herb Alpert & The Marijuana Brass, more like. If you’ve never seen 1967’s Casino Royale, don’t bother. It’s a big, sloppy mess of a film. The music, however, is much better. Aside from Burt Bacharach’s The Look Of Love, performed by Dusty Springfield, you get this short, sharp slap of catchy ‘60s trumpet jazz. Although it’s one of the few highlights of the film, I’ve only rated it low down because it’s so far out of step with the rest of the theme songs.

18. You Know My Name – Chris Cornell (from Casino Royale, 2006)

Bond 7Getting the singer from Soundgarden to do a Bond song – for 2006’s Casino Royale – sounds like a fantastic move. Just listen to a song like Jesus Christ Pose from 1991’s Badmotorfinger – the guy can wail. So on paper, it sounds great. But the more memorable Bond themes have something – a certain je ne sais quoi, usually in the form of a hook or a riff, or a catchy chorus. This has nothing of the sort. In fact, it’s so forgettable it’s almost a black hole (sun) in my knowledge of Bond themes.

17. Goldeneye – Tina Turner (1995)

Bond 8Bono and the Edge wrote a fantastic film theme in 1995, just not for a Bond film. Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me was released as the theme to Joel Schumacher’s otherwise woeful Batman Forever. It’s everything a Bond theme should be – majestic, sweeping, cutting edge and quite simply, cool as fuck. Their other effort, for Goldeneye, performed by Tina Turner – no stranger to a film theme, herself – is the exact opposite. It’s cold, uninviting and the worst thing about a great film in the series.

16. The Living Daylights – A-Ha (1987)

Bond 9John Barry’s final entry in the Bond soundtrack canon is one of his weakest. Buoyed by the success of working with a successful pop band – Duran Duran on A View To A Kill – he tried a second time with A-Ha, the Norwegian darlings of the moment. The song sounds very over-produced, and this is evident when listening to A-Ha’s preferred ‘cut back’ version, found on their album Stay On These Roads. This actually sounds like the A-Ha of Take On Me and The Sun Always Shines On T.V. and is a far better fit for a Bond film.

15. The Man With The Golden Gun – Lulu (1974)

Bond 10If you think Lulu’s Bond theme is bad you should listen to Alice Cooper’s rejected song for the film. A different song entirely, it’s an oddity that thankfully never saw the silver screen (it would beat Lulu’s version by appearing on Alice’s 1973 album, Muscle Of Love). I actually like the Lulu song – it’s high camp entirely fitting for a Roger Moore film. There’s one famous detractor though – its composer John Barry would later go on record to say that the song, and the score for the film, was the weakest of his many contributions to the series. “It’s the one I hate most… it just never happened for me.”

14. Licence To Kill – Gladys Knight (1989)

Bond 11The most incestuous Bond theme (the producers of the song were sued over its familiarity to the Goldfinger theme), Licence To Kill is probably the last of the traditional Bond themes. From this point on, the themes went further down the pop route, shepherded by David Arnold. The baby boomers passing the baton to generation X, if you will. The studio where they recorded the theme to Licence To Kill was filled with bowls of seedless oranges – as the producers were confused by Gladys Knight’s ultimatum that she would only record the song without the pips.

13. Thunderball – Tom Jones (1965)

Bond 12Legend has it that Jones fainted at the end of the recording of this song, due to the long sustained note. Truth or myth, who knows? It is a beast of a note he holds, so it isn’t out of the realms of believability. In Thunderball, we have the very first example of the Bond theme trying to repeat a tried and tested formula. A year earlier, Shirley Bassey’s Goldfinger – also with a long sustained note at the climax of the song – had pointed to the way forward. From now on, brass was key (a brass key?) in the sound of Bond themes. With Thunderball, John Barry tried to repeat what he had achieved with Goldfinger – it just isn’t as good a song, with a confused approach to the film’s title (Don Black’s lyric personifies Thunderball, and presents it as a character in the film – a la Goldfinger – when in the film, it was just a codename for Bond’s mission – ‘Operation Thunderball’).

12. Moonraker – Shirley Bassey (1979)

Bond 13Shirley Bassey’s third and final Bond theme may be her weakest, but it’s still a lovely slice of film music. It does lose points for sounding a bit like something you would expect to hear on The Love Boat – strange considering that this film is the series’ only departure into science-fiction. You’d think that they might have tried to do something a bit harder with the theme song, but maybe it was just the strings of John Williams’ Star Wars score they liked.

11. Skyfall – Adele (2012)

Bond 14At the time of writing, the artist for the theme to Spectre has not been announced, but it’s rumoured that Adele may be reprising her duties from Skyfall to sing her second theme. I couldn’t be happier about this. If there’s anybody who deserves a repeat performance, it’s Adele; she could be the Shirley Bassey of our times. She’s definitely got the lungs for it, and the classy, ballgown-wearing credentials.

10. You Only Live Twice – Nancy Sinatra (1967)

Bond 15That ominous orchestral sweep that opens this theme is one of the most threatening sounds committed to vinyl. It also sounds like the orchestra are walking backwards, into the main motif. It reminds the listener that despite the lush swings, this is still a Bond theme – even though when we hear this for the first time in the film, Bond has just been assassinated. OR HAS HE??? The theme is notable for being the first to be performed by a non-British artist, Nancy ‘daughter of Frank’ Sinatra. It’s also the little known fourth theme to be sung by Shirley Bassey, covered for her 2007 retrospective album, Get The Party Started (a full album of Bassey covering Bond themes had been earlier withdrawn from sale in the late ‘80s and again in the early ‘90s).

9. Never Say Never Again – Lani Hall (1983)

Bond 16Probably the most overlooked Bond theme, Lani Hall’s contribution to the ‘unofficial Bond film’ of 1983 will never be included on Bond theme compilations, or used in any of EON’s promotional materials. What a shame, because it’s pretty good. If they shot a porn parody of Bond – and I’m sure that one, if not many, must exist already – it would probably sound like this. The thing about porn parodies of Bond films is that you wouldn’t need to change the titles too much – Goldfinger speaks for itself, as does Thunderball and The Man With The Golden Gun. More specific, niche tastes would be covered by Moonraker, Dr. No and, ahem, Goldeneye.

8. Diamonds Are Forever – Shirley Bassey (1971)

Bond 17The theme to Diamonds Are Forever needed to be something special. It marked the first time a Bond singer had returned for a repeat performance – something nobody else has managed to do, except Bassey herself for a third and final time in 1979. Bassey’s second effort is everything a Bond theme should be – sexy, dangerous and with a universal appeal. Diamonds Are Forever also holds the title for being the funkiest Bond song, with a slinky bass line that Bootsy Collins would be proud of.

7. Another Way To Die – Jack White & Alicia Keys (2008)

Bond 18The first Bond theme for a long time that actually sounded like it was doing something different, this effort from 2008’s Quantum Of Solace sounds like a bad idea. Professional enigma and vintage enthusiast Jack White sharing vocals with Alicia Keys – the product of a performing arts education? This doesn’t bode well. Instead, it’s a delightful slice of alternative rock with Bondian overtones. Jack White is welcome back in the house of Bond anytime.

6. From Russia With Love – Matt Munro (1963)

Bond 19Those were the days, when a spy thriller at the movies just had to a have a syrupy love song on the soundtrack; something for the ladies to enjoy while the men pondered over the plot details and wondered if there was ever a chance for the popcorn trick (made famous in the 1982 film Diner) to actually work. From Russia With Love, by “England’s Sinatra”, Matt Munro, gets a free pass in my book. It’s the first Bond theme proper, and therefore has nothing to compete with. It could have been slush, but it’s magical.

5. Goldfinger – Shirley Bassey (1964)

Bond 20Waaap – waaaaaaap –waaap! If this isn’t the brassiest song in the world, I’m not sure what is. Everything about this song screams Bond, and it’s difficult to imagine the song being performed by anybody else other than Shirley Bassey. One of the inspirations was Mack The Knife, so it could have been a Sinatra-type crooner belting out something smoother than Bassey’s abrasive rasp. Jimmy Page played on the session, which gives the song an extra bit of credibility, and although it feels like everybody loves the song, the film’s co-producer Harry Saltzman tried to remove it from the film, saying ‘”That’s the worst f**king song I’ve ever heard in my f**king life”. Not a fan then.

4. A View To A Kill – Duran Duran (1985)

Bond 21Growing up in the 1980s, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Bond themes were the mainstay of middle of the road songstresses – all breathy vocals and atmospheric production. Then 1985 came along, and we suddenly got the most exciting Bond theme since Live And Let Die. Roger Moore might be close to claiming his pension in A View To A Kill, but the theme song more than makes up for it. It could have been far, far worse – let’s all feel thankful that Grace Jones didn’t sing the title song. Just don’t ask Simon Le Bon to sing A View To A Kill in front of a billion people – at Live Aid, he sounded almost prepubescent as he reached for a high note in the chorus (at 2:54 here).

3. Nobody Does It Better – Carly Simon (from The Spy Who Loved Me, 1977)

Bond 22Perhaps the quintessential Bond film of the 1970s – it was to that decade what Goldfinger was to the 1960s – Nobody Does It Better marks the first time that the name of the film wasn’t the name of the theme (although ‘The spy who loved me’ is crowbarred into the lyrics at one point). This is a beautiful song, with a lovely piano introduction by composer Marvin Hamlisch – and what a great way to segue into the credits sequence: Bond, looking like a plastic banana, skis off the end of a mountain and deploys a Union flag parachute. And then, as Alan Partridge would say, “Glang…glangalangalangalangalangalang…glangalang…”

2. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – John Barry (1969)

Bond 23Propose a Bond theme without a vocal these days, and I’d run a mile, but John Barry gets away with this purely because it’s such an awesome melody. This is the epitome of cool – George Lazenby skiing down a mountain in 1969, to this ominous instrumental. It even sounds a bit futuristic, with a Moog synth part laying down the driving bass line. The only reason this theme doesn’t top the list is that the first few seconds of synth do sound a bit like the beginning to The Teddy Bear’s Picnic. This is thankfully not as obvious in the Propellerheads’ balls-out awesome 1997 cover.

1. Live And Let Die – Paul McCartney & Wings (1973)

Bond 24When I saw Paul McCartney play Glastonbury in 2004, I momentarily forgot about the existence of the Live And Let Die theme song – a travesty, considering what a huge Bond fan I am, but excusable for the fact that I was in full Beatles mode, watching a Beatle performing Beatles songs. Then, mid-set, he launched into the piano intro to Live And Let Die and I nearly vomited from my ears in excitement. McCartney’s song tops the list because it has everything – it’s a ballad, it’s a rocker, it even has a reggae section to reflect the film’s West Indian setting. Produced by George Martin, it also has the added value of being linked to that Beatles universe that had only just come to an end a couple of years earlier. It’s a common phenomenon for musos to distance themselves from McCartney’s post-Beatles output, but no matter what you think of Ebony And Ivory or The Pipes Of Peace, you can’t take Live And Let Die from him – the best Bond theme there ever was.

Honourable Mentions

I always wonder if the would-be suitors of Honor Blackman got mixed messages when her father told them to do the honourable thing. Bad jokes aside, there are plenty of musical honourable mentions in the Bond universe. In one of the series’ rare references to pop culture, Bond even mentions the Beatles at one point, just before he’s attacked by Oddjob in Jill Masterson’s hotel room in 1964’s Goldfinger. So, in no particular order (and in no way an exhaustive list):

The James Bond Theme – Monty Norman (1962)

Bond 25The series wouldn’t be what it is without this short piece of twangy guitar, written by Monty Norman and performed by session guitarist Vic Flick. It’s John Barry’s arrangement that makes it though – while Norman wrote the melody of the main guitar riff, it was Barry who supplied the countermelodies from the orchestra that really make it all work. To make an analogy, Norman’s Bond theme melody might be a fine pair of shoes, but Barry tailored the rest of the suit. Many years of court cases have contested who the true composer is – legally, it’s Monty Norman – but I see it as a collaboration in which John Barry’s contributions have been sorely overlooked.

Kingston Calypso – Eric Rodgers (1962)

Bond 26I wrote earlier that Dr. No doesn’t really have a theme tune – except the Bond theme itself – but that’s actually not entirely true. Halfway through the opening credits, we get a blast of Kingston Calypso by Eric Rodgers – a calypso version of Three Blind Mice, in reference to the murder we’ve just seen on screen. History has covered this up – but what a great quiz question: which nursery rhyme is used on the opening credits to the first James Bond film?

– Maurice Binder (1925-1991)

Bond 27The on-screen visuals are a major component to the opening credits of the James Bond films and serve as a fantastic accompaniment to the music. Maurice Binder designed these title sequences from the very start, with Dr. No in 1962, to Licence To Kill in 1989 (missing only From Russia With Love and Goldfinger, which were designed by Robert Brownjohn). Binder also designed the famous gun barrel sequence – probably the single-most iconic visual of the Bond series, and one of the most identifiable images in film history. To young boys eager for a glimpse of side-boob or the silhouetted nipple of a girl cart-wheeling off a gun barrel, Maurice Binder was the man. Legend.

007 – John Barry (1963)

Bond 28John Barry might have missed out on the credit for The James Bond Theme, but 007 (sometimes known as The 007 Theme) is undoubtedly his own composition. Written for the gypsy camp scene in From Russia With Love, the song has soundtracked many sequences in the Bond series – an underwater fight in Thunderball, the ‘Little Nellie’ helicopter chase in You Only Live Twice, the destruction of Blofeld’s oil-rig in Diamonds Are Forever, and the Amazon river chase in Moonraker.

Bond 29Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang BangShirley Bassey / Dionne Warwick (1965)

Originally the main title theme to Thunderball, the extremely Bondian Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was recorded first by Shirley Bassey, then Dionne Warwick, before the producers demanded a theme song with the film’s name in the title. John Barry and Don Black then rushed another composition under a tight deadline, hence the existence of the Tom Jones song. Johnny Cash also composed a song intended to be used as the film’s main theme, but let’s all be glad the Bond producers had better ideas.

Bond 30The Look Of Love – Dusty Springfield (1967)

The unwatchable Casino Royale from 1967 has the honour of two themes – Herb Alpert’s titular instrumental, and also this easy-listening gem from the piano of Burt Bacharach. Dusty’s voice is so stark, it sounds like it’s going to shatter at any second. It’s sometimes hard to believe that a film project that produced such a terrible piece of celluloid also resulted in such a strong soundtrack, with this as its centrepiece – a terrific single from the summer of love.

– We Have All The Time In The World – Louis Armstrong (1969)

Bond 31For On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the Bond producers, Cubby Broccoli and Albert Saltzman, decided to borrow an idea from the ‘unofficial’ Casino Royale, released two years earlier – both films have an instrumental main title theme, and then a syrupy ballad as a secondary main theme. Reportedly the last studio recording by Armstrong before his death in 1971 (he was too sick to play his noticeably absent trumpet), this is undoubtedly one of the loveliest songs in the Bond canon.

– Adam & Joe’s Song Wars

Bond 32Adam Buxton and Joe Cornish are broadcasters in the UK, famous for their very funny, esoteric TV show for Channel Four, and later their radio show for the BBC. Cornish has gone on to bigger things in recent years, co-writing the script for Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn, and directing his debut feature, Attack The Block (both in 2011). Before that though, one of the highlights of their radio show was the Song Wars segment. Every fortnight, they would set themselves a task whereby they would pick a theme, then compose and record a song related to that theme by the following week’s show. Their two alternative theme songs for Quantum Of Solace – both Adam’s version and Joe’s version – are essential listening for any Bond fan with a sense of humour.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – Propellerheads & David Arnold (1997)

Bond 33Everything about this homage to John Barry is freakin’ awesome – from the rotating motif that opens the song, lifted off the From Russia With Love soundtrack, to the space march interlude from You Only Live Twice – and everything between. This couldn’t be any more ‘90s big-beat / break-beat if it tried, but it still sounds fresh. That bass line gets me every time – and the counterpoint this goes to in the second section of the main orchestral riff just takes the song somewhere else.

If there’s one thing that the Propellerheads’ cover proves, it’s that the musical future of the Bond franchise (I hate that word) is safe and well. We might get the occasional dodgy theme song – the series wouldn’t be the same without them – but there’ll always be artists who love the Bond films, ready and willing to take that ascending three note structure into uncharted territory.

To finish off, here’s a photograph that took me a very, very long time to put together. I have been collecting the Bond soundtracks on vinyl every since I started collecting vinyl in the late 1990s, and decided earlier this year to ramp up my search to find them all. These are all the Bond soundtracks that have been commercially released on vinyl – there’s a gap of six films, the four Brosnan films and the first two Craig films which didn’t see a vinyl release. The treasure of this collection is the soundtrack to 1983’s Never Say Never Again – only pressed on vinyl in Japan for some strange reason, and a welcome delivery from the Hyōgo Prefecture.
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