Writing’s on the Wall

For the last twelve years or so, I’ve thirsted for good music, or at least what I think is good music.  I’m looking for something propulsive and exciting, that makes me want to get up and do something.

Earlier this year, I joined a gym to work off my middle-aged spread.  One of the things that keeps me coming back is their music mix.  I don’t like all the songs, but the music keeps me moving.  Once in a while, they play something that I’ve never heard before that I really like.  I then look it up to find that it came out perhaps ten years ago.  Nevertheless, it’s a discovery.

This year, I was looking forward to two events: the new Duran Duran album, Paper Gods, which came out last month, and the theme from the new James Bond movie, Spectre.

Paper Gods was a disappointment, but that will be a discussion for another day.

‘Writing’s on the Wall,’ the theme from Spectre, is music with the power and sweep of a proper James Bond theme.  On that level, it succeeds.

But the voice!  If it had been performed by a woman, it would work perfectly.  It might still work if performed in a lower register by a man.  But the song was performed by Sam Smith in a warbly countertenor that just doesn’t fit for a James Bond movie.

Let me explain: most of the Bond themes are sung by women.  When a man sings a James Bond theme, the music is necessarily very strongly associated with the character: one can (or should be able to) readily imagine Commander Bond taking the microphone at Karaoke Night in the MI6 Lounge (in the third sub-basement) and singing it himself.

‘From Russia with Love’ passes this test, although as the second Bond film, there was still room for experimentation. ‘Thunderball,’  ‘Live and Let Die,’ and ‘You Know My Name’ pass the test with flying colors.  ‘View to a Kill’ and ‘The Living Daylights’ pass as well, although they’re more difficult to sing.  But ‘Writing’s on the Wall’ flunks spectacularly.  How could such an insecure wimp be a master spy?

But perhaps it’s consistent with the mood of the ‘rebooted’ Bond movies.

We all have our inner demons.  We conquer them, coexist with them, or find a way to make them work for us.  And we talk about them, if at all, only to our closest friends and family, or possibly to trained professional help if they’re really troublesome.  We do not share our demons in our working lives.  (At least, that’s the way I was brought up.)

The pre-Daniel Craig movies present James Bond as a man at work.  He may have his fears and insecurities, but he sets them aside and presses on with the mission.  We don’t see them in the movies because the mission is not the time or the place to contemplate them.

In contrast, we’re aware of the ‘rebooted’ Bond’s personal problems.  He isn’t the stainless hero that we imagined.  Perhaps the producers imagined they were making him more human, and more interesting, but it took away the cool factor.

So perhaps our new Bond could take the microphone and sing:

A million shards of glass
That haunt me from my past
As the stars begin to gather
And the light begins to fade
When all hope begins to shatter
Know that I won’t be afraid

But it just isn’t the same.

The writing is, indeed, on the wall.

7 thoughts on “Writing’s on the Wall”

  1. I love Duran Duran but am tired of them catering to the lowest common folk so to speak. I loved the last album All You Need Is Now because it sounded alternative and they weren’t trying to impress. However, Red Carpet Massacre, ugh. They were trying to be hip hop which doesn’t work for them. I haven’t heard Paper Gods yet (no money to buy it yet)but what people are saying on the message boards is that it’s once again them trying to be pop and relevant. What they fail to grasp is they will never be mainstream pop again and the only reason they were to begin with was because of the videos. Musically their style isn’t mainstream and that’s okay. To them they are seeking fans they will never get. I don’t get it at all because bands that would be considered their peers don’t seek it out as much. Sure some of those bands are still selling out stadiums (okay mostly U2) or have broken up but others like the Cure or Depeche Mode aren’t trying to achieve a pop album. I mean Lindsay Lohan, really? I don’t know if you post on the message boards but people generally didn’t like RCM because it was desperate.

    As for James Bond themes, I liked Skyfall a lot but like Adele. She reminds me of 60’s singers like Shirley Bassey (who recorded Goldfinger)or Dusty Springfield. I liked the one by Garbage and of course A View To A Kill and Live and Let Die. Nobody Does It Better and For Eyes Only were not bad and both were hits. I liked A View especially because it showed the world that Duran Duran was a rock band and could play heavier rock if given the chance.

  2. I’ll refrain from commenting on Paper Gods until you’ve had the opportunity to listen to it, other than to concur with what you’ve read on the message boards. All You Need Is Now was Duran Duran being themselves: sometimes energetic, sometimes contemplative, sometimes a little sad. That was what made it so cool. ‘Too Bad You’re So Beautiful’ was my favorite song: the music conveys energetic achievement, and it fit perfectly with what I was doing at work at the time.

    I realize that my post wasn’t so much about the music as what has happened to James Bond: before Daniel Craig, we never thought of him as a troubled soul. That the newer Bond films take this approach is a sign of our times, and not (to my view) a good one.

    1. I found it online and you are right. I think the track What Are The Chances with John Frusciante reminded me a lot of a Duran Duran album. Most of the other tracks sounded way too dance pop. What a lot do realize is that Duran Duran at their best are rock orientated and many of their songs are really punk rock. This album isn’t one of those cases. They can’t pull off the hip hop/R&B sound because they aren’t that particular demographic. If I want to hear hip hop or R&B I go towards acts that play it, not DD. They are also not pop, at least what is considered pop. I loved AYNIN because it sounded alternative, like I expect from them. When they do alternative it works successfully (like the Wedding Album). When it doesn’t work it sounds desperate (Red Carpet Massacre).

  3. A problem of a rebooted or extended series is that it will tend to reflect the views of the present, though period pieces are still possible. I believe that most of the James Bond novels were written in the 1950s and 1960s. Military and intelligence organizations are among those that hew closely to certain traditions and manners of behavior, which is one of the reasons that the franchise held up as long as it did. Violate those norms, and things fall apart pretty quickly. By the standards used for U.S. intelligence personnel, Commander Bond should be denied a clearance due to his drinking and sent to rehab.

    Stephen King said that writing is telepathy. The example that he gave was to tell the reader to picture a table. My table might not be the same table as you would picture, but we cannot avoid projecting a certain amount depending on our tastes and preferences, and this goes for characters and situations. One of the funnier examples of this that I have encountered of this is John Oliver’s “Not My Christian” bit on his show, which concerns the casting of the male lead in “Fifty Shades of Grey”.

    People who like movies often take pleasure in discussing who they would have cast in a given role, but this opinion is also derived from other roles that we have seen the actor or actress play. Had you seen “Winter’s Bone” before any of the Hunger Games movies, you would probably find the casting of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen credible, but possibly not had you seen “Silver Linings Playbook” first.

  4. You’re almost right about rebooted series reflecting the present. It’s not so much the present-day agency, but the present-day culture that gets reflected in the reboot.

    In the pre-Daniel Craig films, we never saw Bond go on a bender, and he always put on his best game face. Even at play, he was never less than the consummate professional. Perhaps he had a drinking problem, perhaps he didn’t: we didn’t know or care.

    Now we see Bond getting drunk, and otherwise under the influence of his demons, to the extent where, if the fictive MI6 were real, he would indeed be sent out for rehab.

    Art is a selective representation of reality (yes, Ayn Rand said that: she’right); one of the artist’s most powerful means of expression lies in selecting those facets of reality to be represented. It says something very different, not only about Bond, but about the world in general, to present Bond as a lush who barely holds himself together, instead of a cool, unflappable hero.

    And it says something very different to have a James Bond theme with lyrics freighted with self-doubt, delivered in an almost whiny countertenor.

    (And now I have to listen to ‘You Know My Name’ to clear that awful sound out of my head.)

  5. I gave up on the Bond series of movies after Pierce Brosnan was cast and on the books after John Gardner (“License Renewed”) was assigned to extend the series, much as V.C. Andrews of “Flowers in the Attic” fame now has well over a dozen books ghostwritten under her name, though she has been dead for about 20 years, though John Gardner did get writing credit. These events happened about a decade apart.

    What changes over time is what can be discussed. We are in an age of “oversharing” that is not to my taste. Will the pendulum swing back? Probably, but I can’t tell you when or where the rebound will occur.

  6. I had some time to kill yesterday, so I watched an early showing of SPECTRE. I didn’t enjoy the song, but the movie wasn’t bad. As always, I have to quibble over technical errors. For instance, the father of the woman who eventually because Bond’s girlfriend claimed to have been poisoned with thallium. Though he could have been wearing a wig, thallium poisoning causes hair loss. If he had only a few weeks to live, as he claimed, he should have been in a hospital . He would have been far too weak to be as active as he was.

    I enjoyed the focus on gadgets and stunts. The building that was supposed to be CNS headquarters must have had their data collecting capabilities off site, because the building was not suitable for that purpose. I cannot rule out the possibility of significant underground construction beneath the building, but given the utilities infrastructure in London, would not expect to be able to change it much.

    I had been waiting for the children of old Bond villains to come after him, given that the Bond franchise is about 50 years old. I was not disappointed.

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