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Adele, 'Skyfall' & 50 years of James Bond theme songs

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adele007.JPGAdele was confirmed only Monday as the latest brassy voice to tackle a James Bond movie theme, and within hours a snippet of the new song -- "Skyfall," corresponding to the new Bond flick, starring Daniel Craig as 007, in U.S. theaters Nov. 9 -- was circulating online.

The 90-second preview features a remarkably tentative Adele dialing back her usual belting and bombast over a verse of simple piano chords and silky tension. Even as drums break into the mix and the 77-piece orchestra swells into the chorus, Adele maintains her composure -- and is all the sultrier for it. Like Shirley Bassey's second Bond theme ("Diamonds Are Forever," after her career-making "Goldfinger" debut in 1964), the expectation of an explosion makes the controlled sizzle even hotter.

"This moment, so overdue," Adele sings -- and if the rest of the song sounds as classy and traditional as the sample, it is indeed overdue. After years of overly ambitious and gimmicky Bond themes, an elegant performance by a powerful singer would be a lovely gift upon the film franchise's 50th anniversary this fall.

The choice of Adele is a catch because, of course, based on the success of her "21" album she remains the most popular singer in the world right now. But just as significant is the changing of the guard behind the scenes. The previous five, largely bloodless scores and themes were helmed by British film composer David Arnold, but "Skyfall" introduces new blood: decorated American composer Thomas Newman tackles the score (thanks to his previous work with "Skyfall's" director, Sam Mendes), while Adele and songwriter Paul Epworth co-wrote the "Skyfall" title track.

"There's a lot of instant spotlight and pressure when it comes to a Bond song," Adele said this week in a statement. "But I fell in love with the script, and Paul had some great ideas for the track, and it ended up being a bit of a no-brainer to do it in the end. It was also a lot of fun writing to a brief, something I've never done, which made it exciting."

The track debuts officially at midnight Thursday via the website adele.tv and is available Friday as a download.

50 years of Bond themes

As Jon Burlingame explains in his new book, The Music of James Bond (due Nov. 1), the particular sound of Bond-specific spy music was a happy accident of composer John Barry, but the rock-jazz hybrid he crafted to deliver Monty Norman's tune has remained a powerful force in the franchise. The editor of the first Bond film, "Dr. No" in 1962, liked that now-signature guitar music so much he used it over and over throughout the picture.

Future films employed a title theme, which Bassey established as a powerful calling card for the franchise when she two years ago belted out "Gooooold-FING-errrrrrrr!!" Barry's blend of rock chutzpah and jazz style, plus Bassey's brassy swings between extremes, became a rigid but successful template that future composers monkeyed with at their peril.

Here are some of the best and worst Bond theme songs from the last 50 years of music, spy music -- and hear all 22 previous Bond themes in our playlist below!

BULLSEYES

Song: "Diamonds Are Forever"
Singer: Shirley Bassey
Film: "Diamonds Are Forever," 1971

Chart peaks: No. 38 (U.K.), No. 57 (U.S.)
After firing like a bullet on the "Goldfinger" theme, Bassey -- the only singer to have a repeat Bond performance, and three of them at that (No. 3 was, alas, "Moonraker") -- largely kept her cool on her second opening-titles outing. The result: possibly the quintessential Bond theme.

Song: "Live and Let Die"
Singer: Paul McCartney & Wings
Film: "Live and Let Die," 1973

Chart peaks: No. 7 (U.K.), No. 2 (U.S.)
How much fun did Macca clearly have writing this audacious anthem? It's a spy theme! It's a Beethoven concerto, and an interlude for string quartet! It's a, wait ... a reggae song?! It's a (pant, pant) hard-rock assault ... with bongos! And that's in just over three minutes. Through it all, the piece neatly evokes the razor's edge of its title.

Song: "A View to a Kill"
Singer: Duran Duran
Film: "A View to a Kill," 1985

Chart peaks: No. 2 (U.K.), No. 1 (U.S.)
The only Bond theme to reach No. 1, Duran Duran's outing manages to sound effortlessly like the band -- which had already affirmed themselves in a cinematic scope nearly as ludicrous as Bond himself -- while also punching the synth-strings and chase-scene sudden-turns endemic to the movies.

Song: "You Only Live Twice"
Singer: Nancy Sinatra
Film: "You Only Live Twice," 1967

Chart peaks: No. 11 (U.K.), No. 44 (U.S.)
Like Bassey, Sinatra softened the tread of her walkin' boots for this even-handed -- and surprisingly beautiful, despite the busy arrangement -- theme song that works on its own as a loungey mediation on "love as a stranger."

Song: "For Your Eyes Only"
Singer: Sheena Easton
Film: "For Your Eyes Only," 1981

Chart peaks: No. 8 (U.K.), No. 4 (U.S.)
This one could be penalized for working too well as a pop song independent of the film, but Easton's atmospheric, melodic turn gives this movie an almost "Diamonds"-like sparkle.


UNDECIDED

Song: "Another Way to Die"
Singer: Jack White and Alicia Keys
Film: "Quantum of Solace," 2008

Chart peaks: No. 9 (U.K.), No. 81 (U.S.)
This Bond theme -- a weird pairing of two disparate artists -- repulsed me upon its overhyped delivery four years ago. But it's grown on me. The audacity of its arrangement, the eventual allure of the two voices together (silk on sandpaper), the rarity of real rock in this oeuvre -- I don't know how well it meshes with the film, but I admire its cajones.


MISFIRES

Song: "Nobody Does It Better"
Singer: Carly Simon
Film: "The Spy Who Loved Me," 1977

Chart peaks: No. 7 (U.K.), No. 2 (U.S.)
I existed a long time on this planet knowing of this song but not knowing it had been a Bond theme. The disconnect stems partly from the fact that no part of this recording resembles any element of film, much less spy, music. A workaday soft-rock ballad driven by Simon's maternal, throaty croon, it makes for the limpest film intro in the franchise.

Song: "The Living Daylights"
Singer: a-ha
Film: "The Living Daylights," 1987

Chart peaks: No. 5 (U.K.), didn't chart in U.S.
Duran Duran's a hard act to follow under most circumstances. This mush-mouthed Norwegian trio turned in another synth-pop effort that would have been considered valiant at the Eurovision Song Contest, but it had about the same impact as Timothy Dalton's (underappreciated, ahem!) turn as Bond.

Song: "Tomorrow Never Dies"
Singer: Sheryl Crow
Film: "Tomorrow Never Dies," 1997

Chart peaks: No. 12 (U.K.), didn't chart in U.S.
Sheryl Crow's breathless concoction with producer Mitchell Froom didn't wait till tomorrow to collapse in a lifeless heap. Despite some wonderfully eerie scraping strings in the arrangement, Crow's forced, sinusy whine scrapes like nails on slate. D.O.A.

Song: "Die Another Day"
Singer: Madonna
Film: "Die Another Day," 2002

Chart peaks: No. 3 (U.K.), No. 8 (U.S.)
Madonna went robo for this heavily electronic, nihilistic jumble of sounds. "I'm gonna break the cycle / I'm gonna shake up the system," she sings, and clearly she means to shatter the Bond-theme template. Her unimaginative stab at postmodernism, however, doesn't live to die another day.

Song: "You Know My Name"
Singer: Chris Cornell
Film: "Casino Royale," 2006

Chart peaks: No. 7 (U.K.), No. 79 (U.S.)
The former Soundgarden singer was a curious choice to blast Daniel Craig's 007 debut onto the scene, and his lunkheaded rock sputters and splats. With a quiver in his verses, as if he's trying to summon a Tom Jones "Thunderball" effect, Cornell relies on his usual bombast and its explodes in his face.




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2 Comments

I'm sorry, but 'Nobody Does It Better' the limpest intro in the franchise? Are you mad? Or are you just young? Rita Coolidge and her "All Time High" tune for Octopussy was much weaker. As a child during the mid-seventies and an adolescent during the 80's - I can recall Carly Simon's vocals for this song and immediately link it to the film and to James Bond. Alas, opinions differ - but i believe this is one of the top 10 Bond films and one that can easily be used for a video montage...after all, nobody does it better than Bond.

On a side note...be sure to listen to KD Lang's 'Surrender' from the "Tomorrow Never Dies" soundtrack...you'll hear that popular doesn't always mean better.

Nobody Does It Better is one of the greatest songs of all time. I can understand your point about it not sounding like a spy song, but it was a nice change to celebrate the Bond legacy from the "Bond Girl's" viewpoint.

Another strange departure was Herb Alpert's Casino Royale, granted I recall the movie itself was as well.

Good to see Adele bring class back with the new Bond theme.

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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.

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