In 1995’s GoldenEye, Dame Judy Dench’s M stings James Bond with a fitting description: “A sexist, misogynistic dinosaur and a relic of the cold war.” Of course, she was right.
Author Ian Fleming published Casino Royale, the first novel that described Agent 007’s exciting exploits in espionage, in 1953, right at the beginning of a period of tension between the USA and Britain and the Soviet Union, while the release of Dr. No in 1962 was mere days before the Cuban Missile Crisis threatened the world. And while Bond’s aesthetic has changed with the times, the question has always been about whether he can really change as a man, or even if he should.
The same consideration applies to the music of the Bond franchise. Of course, there’s the James Bond theme itself, Monty Norman and John Barry’s swaggering and muscular blunt instrument that accompanies his incredible feats. Barry also established a stylistic template for the scores, and even after 50-plus years of Bond, that brass-driven pomp is what fans have come to expect from whoever is chosen to compose the latest soundtrack.
The bigger debate, however, is whether that’s a realistic expectation or a healthy one. Music may provide an unspoken emotional undercurrent, but it’s also a critical element in drawing the audience into the world of the film and keeping them there, especially if that world is unfamiliar. Imagine seeing the majesty of the lunar space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey without the intoxicatingly dreamy waltz of Johann Strauss’ “The Blue Danube,” or the lush green of the Shire sans Howard Shore’s earthy melodies in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
The difference with Bond is that he’s only been to space once, and never takes the odd hike to Mordor. He’s in the same world we live in every day, where we are constantly surrounded by an enormously vast palette of musical sounds, so it makes sense that some of that would influence his music. Some of it has had an effect over the years. But the reception to those changes is key to understanding exactly what the audience wants from the music of 007, for better or worse.
Interestingly, one of the biggest reimaginings of Bond’s sound came from John Barry himself, who was given free rein for 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and added to the mix an instrument that had just been launched into the collective consciousness. In 1968, electronic music pioneer Wendy Carlos — who would go on to design the score to Tron — recreated the sacred music of baroque luminary Johann Sebastian Bach with a Moog synthesizer, resulting in the smash-hit record Switched-On Bach. So Barry followed suit and added this futuristic sound to his already dynamite soundscape. From the opening gun barrel where the synth replaced the usual guitar, this was a fresh new approach for Bond music, and to this day it’s regarded as one of the best scores in the series.
Then Bond went disco. 1977 saw John Barry unable to work in the UK due to tax issues, so in came Marvin Hamlisch for The Spy Who Loved Me. Hamlisch had won three Oscars in 1974 for the Scott Joplin adaptation score to The Sting and the dramatic score and title song to The Way We Were. On the whole, his score was fairly traditional, but for the pre-title sequence Hamlisch looked to the charts in 1976.
“I stole a little bit from the Bee Gees,” Hamlisch said in Jon Burlingame’s 2012 superlative tome The Music of James Bond, and indeed his new arrangement “Bond 77” overlaid the driving rhythm from “You Should Be Dancing” with pulsating synths. At the time, Variety said the score “does nothing for the film”, but a similar synth-orchestral hybrid approach was used by Bill Conti for 1981’s For Your Eyes Only, which The Hollywood Reporter said was “appropriately versatile” but is still divisive amongst fans. However, this was nothing compared to the controversy that erupted in 1995, when audiences were introduced to a new Bond that had a soundtrack with a very European sensibility, indeed too much for some.
Directed by Martin Campbell, GoldenEye was the first outing for Pierce Brosnan, who Bond honcho Albert “Cubby Broccoli” had coveted since the late 1980s. John Barry was not available, so the composing job went to Eric Serra, who had provided music for Luc Besson since 1983’s Le Dernier Combat, but had attained prominence through the then-recent success of Besson’s 1994 film Léon: The Professional, which GoldenEye was temp-tracked with. But from the first strains of his gun barrel music, it was clear that Bond’s faithful audience was in for a culture shock.
Unfortunately for Serra, he was someone content with doing his own thing and not looking back, and stylistically his aggressive and quirky modernistic sound was as far away from John Barry as you can get. Some of his music undoubtedly didn’t fit Bond or the film, such as the jangly metallic idiosyncratic score for the mountaintop race between Bond and Famke Janssen’s Xenia Onatopp, or the frankly weird electro-jazz noodling that was the original cue for the St. Petersburg tank chase. (The version that’s in the film that was arranged by John Altman feels, while being full-on traditional Barry Bond, somewhat incongruous given the rest of the score.) Despite its reputation, Serra’s music has some excellent moments, including some truly stirring melodic material for Bond’s scenes with love interest Natalya (Izabella Scorupco), and some thrilling pieces that feel like a prelude to today’s world of Hans Zimmer-influenced moody action scores (more on him shortly).
Variety called Serra’s score “disappointing” and director Campbell agreed, telling IGN in 2020 that he was “disappointed in the music. Our budget was not that much, and it was limited to what we could do.” The score has become divisive amongst fans, although it does have one unlikely fan in David Arnold, who in the 2006 TV special James Bond’s Greatest Hits called it “quite bold, so unlike anything that had gone before … but it was one of those scores that I think perhaps the world wasn’t really ready for.” Coincidentally, it was Arnold who was chosen as the next composer for James Bond, seen as the rightful heir by none other than John Barry, who suggested him for the job after being approached himself.
Arnold would become 007’s in-house composer for five pictures, including the first two of Daniel Craig’s tenure — Casino Royale (2006) and Quantum of Solace (2008) — and in doing so introduced a more contemporary sound, at least for that era. Dance music was becoming increasingly popular in the 1990s, with the rise of drum and bass and techno happening in the UK not long before Arnold scored his first Bond movie, 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies. Arnold freely integrated electronics into his score like Serra, but the difference lay in his overall approach to the musical heritage of 007.
“I knew how I wanted it to sound,” said Arnold in The Music of James Bond. “I wanted to do it with one foot in the ’60s and one foot in the ’90s. There are 35 years of musical heritage attached to this film, and audiences need to hear it. Without that music, you’ve got an action movie, you haven’t got a Bond movie.” This is something Serra didn’t consider, and perhaps Thomas Newman didn’t either for his two scores for Skyfall and Spectre. But Arnold carried it through and subsequently used electronic elements a lot more forcefully in The World is Not Enough and Die Another Day , to the point where he is still the name people mention first when rumors about a new Bond film arises.
Arnold’s formula of looking back while looking forward makes perfect sense, especially considering the rich legacy of John Barry’s music. But can you go too far the other way? Hans Zimmer’s score to No Time To Die is almost a celebration of Bond, with the composer stating to Variety that frequent collaborator Johnny Marr “wanted to bring guitar back into the score.” and that they were “just embracing our inner John Barry.” The score includes quotations of several previous themes from Barry and Arnold that are very much driven by the story, but it just so happens that they stand out much more than his original music for the film. What’s left once you take those parts away is a standard unmemorable action score.
So the inevitable question is, what happens next? With film music becoming more and more esoteric and open to new avenues of experimentation, will James Bond fans live and let live when a composer wants to explore brave new musical worlds or will they be shouting for David Arnold until the sky falls? For some, it seems, the world is never enough.