Sam Smith's Spectre song could be a return to classic Bond themes

Sam Smith

As if four Grammy awards, two Brits and a debut album that has stayed in the Top 10 for 67 weeks weren’t enough, Sam Smith on Tuesday confirmed that he has recorded the theme song to the next James Bond film, Spectre.

Despite previously denying that he was in the running, Smith will be the first British solo male vocalist to sing over the opening credits since Tom Jones in 1965. “This is one of the highlights of my career. I am so excited to be a part of this iconic British legacy,” he said.

Though there were rumours that director Sam Mendes had considered going for a wild-card and giving the job to Radiohead – resulting in betting being suspended when a punter tried to place a £15,000 bet on the indie band at William Hill – the honour was always likely to go to someone like Smith.

The 23-year-old, whose album, In the Lonely Hour, has sold 8.5m copies worldwide, is a big-voiced balladeer who can be trusted to blaze away with maximum melodrama but not go rogue.

As several acts have discovered to their cost, the Bond theme is not a vehicle for left-field experimentation: the last time it was attempted, by Jack White and Alicia Keys with the abrasive Another Way to Die (from Quantum of Solace), the song became the lowest-selling Bond theme this century. The Guardian pronounced it “jagged [and] awkward”.

While there’s no guarantee that Smith’s tune, Writing’s on the Wall, will be a hit, the decks are stacked in its favour. The last Bond theme was sung by Adele, who reached number one in 16 countries with her dramatic, 60s-influenced Skyfall.

Smith has the same impassioned, very English sensibility, which chimes with the “iconic British legacy” that Bond represents. Unless something goes wrong, he can expect to add another few noughts to his bank account – and if he really did write the song in 20 minutes, as he told Radio 1’s Nick Grimshaw, that would work out at thousands of pounds per minute.

But will Writing’s on the Wall be classic Bond? That’s a different thing entirely. For both artists and public, the theme is still an event. Like the John Lewis Christmas ad, which has become must-watch TV by featuring wispy versions of incongruous songs (such as Lily Allen’s cover of Keane’s Somewhere Only We Know for the 2013 campaign, which became one of her biggest hits), Bond themes reel in audiences who don’t follow the charts and couldn’t care less about which fashionable DJ is at number one.

But many of the recent songs have been forgettable. The list of all 24, from 1962’s Dr No onward, shows the preponderance of true classics was in the 60s and 70s.

The practice of using a well-known singer started with the second film, From Russia with Love, when debonair Matt Monro made short work of the title tune. For the next 15 years, nearly every Bond theme struck gold. But this was followed by a long dry spell: who can hum Rita Coolidge’s All Time High from Octopussy, or Madonna’s Die Another Day?

There have been highlights along the way, such as Duran Duran’s massive 1985 hit, A View to a Kill, and Garbage’s eerie spaghetti-western take on 1999’s The World is Not Enough, but few truly memorable tunes until Adele’s Skyfall.

It’s worth noting that Skyfall was also a very retro-sounding Bond theme. While most Bond songs share certain characteristics, including lavish strings and minor keys, Skyfall was the first in years to sound as if it had come from the pen of John Barry, who co-wrote almost every theme up to and including A-Ha’s The Living Daylights in 1987 (forgotten that one?). Barry’s brilliant, foreboding orchestral arrangements became the James Bond “sound”, and attempts to deviate from it, as White and Keys did, tend not to find favour with the public.

Skyfall betokened a return to lush Barry-style production values, and perhaps even a rebranding of the Bond franchise as very British. Even as debate raged over the possibility of a black 007, Skyfall made one thing clear: Bond would always be as British as the London gin in his martini.

Certainly, the song was the most Brit theme in years, after a long stretch of Americans at the helm, including Sheryl Crow and, improbably, Chris Cornell of grunge-rockers Soundgarden.

Whether it will have the longevity of the big 60s and 70s themes, it’s still too early to say. Shirley Bassey’s Goldfinger is the one to beat: it made the singer a major star, and its menacing two-note opening is recognised worldwide. “The moment [Barry] played the music to me, I got goose pimples,” Bassey has said.

For all Skyfall’s merits, it lacks the primal chill of Goldfinger – and while Adele belts and croons at the right moments, there’s no “money note” in the vein of Goldfinger’s climax, when Bassey half-screams: “He loves goo-oold!”

The other Bond songs that have lasted have done so partly on the strength of the song itself and partly because the singer managed to – as Simon Cowell would say – own it. Bassey did it again with Diamonds are Forever, while Nancy Sinatra’s You Only Live Twice was a shade less hysterical, but still laden with spylike mystery.

Paul McCartney and Wings’ Live and Let Die was exactly the kind of thing you’d expect from McCartney: an enormously catchy tune complemented by slapstick caper. Carly Simon’s lovely Nobody Does it Better (from The Spy Who Loved Me) was simply a good song, and possibly the most subtle of all the Bond themes. This is the company that, if Writing’s on the Wall is up to the job, Sam Smith will be joining.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Caroline Sullivan, for The Guardian on Tuesday 8th September 2015 19.48 Europe/London

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