Bond themes are, in the end, a curious proposition. They are also pretty much unique in both cinema and music. On the one hand they need to function as part of the film they are attached to – providing an atmospheric accompaniment to whatever silhouette-and-suggestive title sequence has been dreamed up this time. On the other hand they also need need to stand on their own two feet as a song, they are expected to do well in the singles chart, and help to absolutely define the movie they appear in.Lots of movies have memorable songs attached to them but no other movie sequence has that kind of music/film crossover, and no other type of song quite has the same burden placed on it. Get it right – “Goldfinger”, “Live And Let Die”, “Skyfall” – and immortality awaits and you become an essential part of cinema lore. Get it wrong – “Tomorrow Never Dies”, “The Writing’s On The Wall”, “Die Another Day” – and infamy and mockery will follow you forever. It’s a fine balancing act to get right, and not an easy calculation.
Fortunately, Nancy Sinatra more or less lands on the right side of the equation. While you would be hard-pressed to claim that this was the best Bond theme of all time – that’s “Goldfinger”, obviously – it’s certainly top tier. Indeed, at time of writing there have been twenty-six Bond themes (if you include “Never Say Never Again”’s unutterably dreadful title track, the very worst Bond theme of all time) and “You Only Live Twice” comfortably cracks the Bond Top Ten and indeed should be pretty far up it – no lurking outside the top here. Rankings, especially when it comes to Bond themes, tend to be pretty arbitrary but they usually divide quite neatly into the obvious classics, a fair selection of mid-tier number (hey, Duran Duran, this is your big moment!) and beyond that the dross at the bottom of the pile (hello, Sheryl Crow!). One can argue about the individual placings of a song within those bands – is “Skyfall” better than “Thunderball?”, is “We Have All The Time In The World” better than “Nobody Does It Better”? – but the tiers themselves are pretty well established and there’s no doubt that this belongs in the upper echelons.
The song itself – co-written by the legendary John Barry, with lyrics from “Goldfinger” scribe Leslie Bricusse – is usually described as “lush” and that’s a hard adjective to argue with. Those woozy, dreamy strings that lure you in luxuriate in having the space to snare your attention and waft it into the song proper. They’re rich and sumptuous, just like the voice that’s singing this time out. Where the likes of Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey are brash and confrontational in their Bond themes, belting them out like their life depended on it, here we have a different approach and the gentle, seductive voice of Nancy Sinatra guides us playfully through the song. As she sings, “you drift through the years”, drifting is exactly what the listener is doing, carried on an etherial journey through the ins and outs of the lyric. Her big hit prior to this song was “These Boots Are Made For For Walking” – indeed that’s one of the reasons she got given the gig – but great though that song is, there’s little about it that suggests this kind of dreamy, other-worldly vocal performance might be something she had in her. Yet her voice is an absolute perfect match for the material, both in terms of that luxuriant string arrangement and the actual words themselves.
And that lyric itself is not untypical of a Bond song – suggestive of the movie it’s attached to, but beyond including the title it’s not really directly referencing it or an excuse to recite the plot in sung form. Lines like, “don’t think of the danger” or “so pay the price” of course imply Bond throughout, as does “or the stranger is gone” but only in the most generic way possible. If you were feeling really creative you could probably twist that round into… I dunno, the poor Japanese woman who Bond “marries” and who dies in his stead during the night while Sean Connery is covered in slanty-eye make-up of the absolute worst variety? (There’s a lot wrong with You Only Live Twiceas a movie, but trying to make arguably the most Scottish actor of all time look Japanese is a reliably good place to start). We should also, in passing, draw attention to the fact that despite the fact that most of You Only Live Twice is set in Japan, we are mercifully spared anything in either the music or the lyric that might be interpreted as “Eastern” or – God help us – “oriental”, which given that this is 1967 is absolutely not a given. So points to John Barry there for avoiding obvious musical shorthands and cliches, and for the lyric not steering into it. In any case it’s a fairly slight lyric at best, more useful as an evocative sense than it is any kind of specificity. But in this case that’s exactly what the song needs, so there’s very little to complain about.
And “very little to complain” about is a fair summation of “You Only Live Twice”. In some ways its chart position is a little unfair. Despite being one of the very best Bond themes – and well up to the standard of other 60’s Bond themes – number eleven can’t help but feel a little low. Mind you, “Thunderball”, the Bond song prior to this one, got Tom Jones to just number thirty-five, and “Goldfinger” only scraped to twenty-one (quite surprisingly, that). So maybe eleven isn’t so bad after all. The idea that a Bond theme simply has to rocket to the top of the charts isn’t a modern one, but it’s certainly not something which was standard operating procedure in the 60’s. The song was there to enhance the movie it was attached to, and give a nice boost to whoever got to belt it out (or dreamily drift it out, in this case). The idea of a Bond song being an event, in and of itself, remains off in the somewhat distant future. So if the release of “You Only Live Twice” isn’t an event as we would understand it now, it certainly provided Nancy Sinatra with one of her most memorable and career-defining moments, and is a consensus pick for one of the very best Bond themes of all. The strings, the voice, the whole ambiance of the song is incredibly beguiling and has left its mark on both cinema and music. And there’s really nothing wrong with that at all.
Oh, and as always, fuck “Millennium”.
What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?
The Monkees are up there with the really rather excellent “Pleasant Valley Sunday”, which got to Number Eleven towards the end of the year and was certainly a contender. They might not be the most radical group ever, but the Monkees are definitely a great American singles band and deserve considerable respect for just knocking out one great song after another. The year’s very first Number Eleven was Cream’s “I Feel Free” but – just between us – it’s a bit dreary, really. Indefatigable Scottish pop princess – and fellow Bond theme luminary – Lulu got to eleven with “Let’s Pretend”, while Ken Dodd makes yet another attempt to get our attention with “Let Me Cry On Your Shoulder”. Oh, and cardigan-botherer Val Doonican makes it to our spot with “Memories Are Made Of This.” I would like to remind everyone that this is the year both Sgt Pepper and The Velvet Underground And Nico were released.
What Else Was Hovering About In The Charts?
The week that “You Only Live Twice” ascended to eleven you’ll never guess what band are at Number One? That’s right, pass out from shock when you discover it’s The Beatles, this time with “All You Need Is Love”, not exactly their finest work. The unbearably dreary and awful “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” by Procul Harem has vacated peak position and is beginning its fall out of the charts, while Pink Floyd are nestling just inside the Top Ten at number eight with “See Emily Play”. There’s not one but two covers of “With A Little Help From My Friends” in the Top 40 – by Joe Brown and, at number ten, Young Idea – and both Gladys Knight and Aretha Franklyn are in the Top Twenty, with “Take Me In Your Arms And Love Me” and the indelible “Respect”, er, respectively. And one of the worst songs ever recorded in the entirety of popular music, Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair)” pollutes the number five spot. Yuk.
Next Time On We’re Number Eleven…
A matriarchal approach to the Great American Songbook
- Otis Redding, “My Girl”
- Nancy Sinatra, “You Only Live Twice”