Every songwriter dreams of that one hit that catches on with audiences of every size and shape. If you're lucky, you might write a few that just never leave the popular consciousness. But even just one that's big enough can really make magic - and it's quite easy to argue they don't get much bigger than the one well-known theme by Monty Norman, the British composer who died Monday at the age of 94.
When you hear it - slinky chords, bold brass hits and a razor-sharp guitar lick - it won't leave your head any time soon. It works with an orchestra, a rock band, electronic acts and countless other ensembles for 60 years and counting - outside of Casablanca chestnut "As Time Goes By," used for a while as a tag for Warner Bros.' shield logo, there's nothing with quite that longevity and pliability in not only the film music songbook, but maybe pop music itself. We're talking, of course, about Norman's indelible theme for the James Bond film series.
The simply titled "James Bond Theme" has survived six men playing Ian Fleming's literary British secret agent in 25 films, with nine score composers and countless stunts, explosions, gunshots, fast cars, attractive women and vodka martinis (shaken, not stirred) between them. In an age of cinematic universes with sprawling continuities, it's Norman's theme that binds the idea and its mood together. Ordinary men who so much as put on a nice suit can't help but hear that tune coursing through their synapses.
It was quite a task for Norman, a modest descendant of Latvian Jewish immigrants who'd made a living as a singer in the Royal Air Force and big bands before composing in earnest. His CV outside of Bond included not film scores, but West End hit musicals like Expresso Bongo, an English-language translation of Irma La Douce and the Tony-nominated Songbook. Indeed, Bond's theme took root in a song from a never-produced musical based on the acclaimed novel A House for Mr. Biswas, with intended Eastern instrumentation and melodic structures.
Perhaps its the worldliness that lends the theme its malleability, a trait present from the beginning. Indeed, the Bond theme as we know it gets a curious bit of dual credit that sometimes threatens to unbalance itself. Bond producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman felt the theme needed a more enticing arrangement, and John Barry, who'd score most of the series from 1963 to 1987, gave it its classy jazz trappings. As Norman never returned for subsequent films, and Barry's own recording became a Top 10 hit in England, history would occasionally fog to give Barry sole credit - a notion which Norman sued over twice and won.
Though the Bond theme is but one part of the musical gumbo of the series' first film Dr. No - even after the iconic gunbarrel sequence which became a franchise staple, the theme competed in that sequence with garish sound effects and calypso arrangements - it became an incredible bit of shorthand for entertainment that continues to enrapture and define parts of cinematic culture. (A documentary slated to stream on AppleTV+ later this year will dive into Bond music in full.) Everyone's got their favorite themes in the series, but it's Norman's immortal original that still leaves us shaken and stirred.
Joe Mac Pherson says
In 1964, I was 10 when I saw my first James Bond films: Dr. No and Goldfinger; a double feature. I remember that extraordinary symphonic/percussive/electric guitar introduction to Dr. No. Much to my surprise and great joy, this theme was repeated for Goldfinger. This was the first time I heard an encore of a composed movie theme, used for a sequel.
I saw these films at the Palace Theater in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Also, I sat there spellbound, alone among the crowded audience. Another first for me; seeing films at a cinema without anyone to accompany me. I went alone because none of my friends' parents allowed them to see the Bond films. My friends told me, their parents thought James Bond was too racy, too adult for children. One of my friends also told me exactly what his parents thought of my mother and father, for allowing me to see such fare.
From that day on I was a Bond fan for the rest of my life. From age 10 to my 67th year, James Bond is part of my cinema history.
Even now, when I go to a cinema for a Bond film, as the lights go down and the timeless theme begins, everything I ever felt before in the world of Bond comes back. My heart races, the adrenaline rush is on and my eyes go through a change. Nostalgia, recognition and wonderment can do that to me.
Thank You, Mike Duquette, for introducing me to Monty Norman- the man who created a movie theme that's indelible to my life.
Charles Olver says
Lovely tribute, Mike.
Here's a hilarious clip from the British quiz show QI concerning the original version of what became the James Bond Theme:
You know about the "original" version by Guy Mitchell, right (Ninety Nine Years)? Listen to it and be blown away.