Alternative Version, Gone but not forgotten, Hard-to-find

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Whatever happened to Bond themes? Save the fairly recent Adele effort, Skyfall (which at least attempted to recreate the 60’s heyday of lush orchestration, big vocals and bigger hair), pretty much every Bond theme since A-Ha’s The Living Daylights has been as sexy as yesterday’s Daily Mail.

Radiohead’s recent statement that the Bond franchise people had preferred Sam Smith’s idea of the Spectre theme to their own kinda sums it all up. It’s now lowest common denominator, appeal to the masses stuff, rather than edgy and out there. Perhaps this is a reflection, a metaphor for Bond himself. Once edgy and out there, he’s now lowest common denominator action hero, appealing to the masses with his suits, gadgets and beautiful women, just like yer Farrells, Damons and the rest of them.

radiohead rainbow

Radiohead‘s theme is fantastic. Released for free on Christmas day without fanfare or prior warning, as is the Radiohead way, it’s edgy and paranoid, Thom Yorke’s falsetto surfing over the top of a heavily orchestrated backing track. “I’m lost, I’m a ghost. Dispossesed, taken host,” he wails, right eye no doubt twitching uncontrollably on the off beat.

RadioheadSpectre

It fades in on a sweep of Bond-ish strings, not quite but almost playing that well-ingrained Barry motif. A piano holds the rhythm as a set of jazz drums straight outta the John Barry 7 skitter around the background. There’s the dramatic part in the middle when the strings soar and stab and jar until its brought back to earth with Yorke’s vocals about ‘bullet holes‘ and ‘mortal souls‘ and so on. Then, just as you’re getting the measure of it, it’s gone in a sudden brass stab and some wind tunnel effects. “The only truth that I can see is when you put your lips to these.” It’s by far the most Bondish of Bond themes in recent years and it was rejected.

Radiohead weren’t the only ones to fall foul of the rejection slip. Tom Jones’ brassy hip-swingin’ theme to Thunderball was chosen over a clip-clopping Johnny Cash effort. Considering the era, the producers got this spot on. Bond. Brass. Swinging London. Or the Man In Black singing roll ’em, roll ’em, roll ’em rockabilly country?

Blondie felt the sting of rejection when they submitted their theme for For Your Eyes Only. Sheena Easton’s at times out of tune and none-more-80s syrupy wallow got the nod ahead of the Noo Yoikers’ twangingly pedestrian (and frankly forgettable) mid-paced clunker. You can find it if you wish on late-era Blondie LP ‘The Hunter‘. Again, you have to say the producers got this spot on. You’re probably singing Sheena Easton’s version to yourself right now. And that’s something I never thought I’d be typing on Plain Or Pan.

By the mid 90s, anyone popular in music seemed to be draped in the Union Jack and aligned to some establishment-friendly updated idea of Swinging London. All manner of bands were discovering trumpets and strings and enhancing their weedy indie with overblown orchestration. I’m fond of some of it – Blur’s To The End, for example, and the opening track to Mansun’s debut album, but much of it was totally irrelevant.

jarvis

Masters of the era were Pulp and Saint Etienne, both acts steeped in pop culture and history, with subtle nods to the unfashionable corners of the 70s, eyebrows permanently arched. Both submitted tracks for consideration as the theme to Tomorrow Never Dies. Both were rejected. Pulp’s was retitled Tomorrow Never Lies and found its way onto the b-side of the Help The Aged single. It’s not a bad tune, but alongside the stellar catalogue of existing Bond themes, it’s weedy and thin and very mid 90s indie by comparison.

PulpTomorrow Never Lies

Incidentally, Help The Aged‘s parent album This Is Hardcore featured the track Seductive Barry. Either it was a song in celebration of the great arranger’s soundtracking or it was about a brown ‘n beige bri-nylon clad 2 up/2 down boy about town. With Jarvis you never know.

saint etienne

Saint Etienne‘s effort is more in keeping with the idea of a Bond theme; sweeeping orchestration, some wah-wah, breathy vocals, tinkling keyboards. Unfortunately it also suffers from sounding very of its time. A Bond theme should be timeless, peerless and ageless. Saint Etienne’s track most certainly isn’t. In fact, it sounds like something Dubstar might’ve rejected on the grounds of being too flimsy and wishy washy. The track has made just the most fleeting of appearances, being included only on 1999 fan club compilation Built On Sand.

Saint EtienneTomorrow Never Dies

The band claim that Bond du jour Pierce Brosnan owns the master tape of the track, saying it’s “seven times better than Sheryl Crow“, who’s song went on to lead the film. Really?!? Pinch of salt, surely. I’d have thought the Bond people could’ve found someone better than Sheryl Crow at the time. David McCalmont perhaps, who certainly knew a thing or two about a Bassey-inflected vocal range.

amy-winehouse

The one that really did get away though was Amy Winehouse. She was in the middle of lurching from one personal crisis to another and was passed over in favour of Jack White & Alicia Keys, who were chosen to duet the lead for the Quantum Of Solace film. Had Amy got herself together, she’d have been perfect for such a job. Composer David Arnold had worked out a contemporary orchestrated sixties-influenced piece for her and Mark Ronson sat patiently in the producer’s chair, golden touch unused. Amy’s ongoing problems meant that track was never completed.

They should’ve used Amy’s Love Is A Losing Game instead. Richly orchestrated, full of clipped guitar and bathed in pathos and heartbreak, it was the Bond theme wot got away. Amy’s voice is superb throughout.

Amy WinehouseLove Is  A Losing Game

Imagine it playing as those famous images of the silhouetted naked girls float and swim across the silver screen, then ‘see’ the camera pan downwards at the final string flourish to reveal Bond in some far-off desert or window ledge or hotel bedroom, licensed to kill and licensed to thrill. The best of the Bond themes that never were.

Cover Versions, Get This!, Hard-to-find

Bad Cover Version/Good Cover Version

There’s a strange bit of serendipity to this post. I’d spent a night last week putting some stuff together for my weekly article and then on his Sunday Service show on 6 Music, Jarvis Cocker played the very track I was planning to write about. In itself, that’s a happy coincidence. But the fact that I’d planned to introduce the record (which has nothing to do with Jarvis) by writing a wee bit about Pulp beforehand was a bit weirder. So, as you read this, imagine the Twilight Zone theme playing away ad infinitum in the background.

If you drew a trajectory charting the popularity of Pulp LPs, there’d be a massive, Everest-sized spike where Different Class appeared and sadly, not much else. Pulp were a proper, fully-formed album band, but save for their brief flirtation with mainstream success, not many (common) people would really know. Indeed, many folk probably consider them a bit of a one-hit wonder. Their last album, 2001’s We Love Life is one of Pulp’s very best. Crashing in at number 6 on the album chart, before crashing straight back out and never to be seen again a mere 3 weeks later, it was a real blink and you’ll miss it album. If you’ve never had the pleasure, you should make some time to acquaint yourself with it.

One track, Bad Cover Version, is a terrifically thought-out ballad that draws parallels between a failing relationship (“a bad cover version of love is not the real thing“) and the 2nd rate dopplegangers we often accept in place of the real deal – Top of the Pops compilation LPs (“the bikini-clad girl on the front who invited you in”), the Stones since the 80s, later episodes of Tom & Jerry when they could talk, the last episodes of Dallas, the TV series of Planet of the Apes, and so on. Amongst the things Jarvis lists is “the second side of ‘Till The Band Comes In’“.

Till The Band Comes In was the much-maligned and undersold 5th LP by Scott Walker (his 6th, if you count his Sings Songs From His TV Series LP). Much like We Love Life, the critics had the artist pegged as ‘past his best’, it too was a bit of a flop and never really got the attention it deserved. The line about the second side of Till The Band Comes In was a joke at Walker’s expense, given that it was he who produced We Love Life for Pulp. Are you still hearing The Twilight Zone music in the background? It’s a circle of life, as one piano player once remarked.

scott walker 70

Scott Phwoar

Back in the day before he was producing other people’s flop records and long before felt the need to create an approximation of melody from bashing hanging lumps of meat, Scott Walker reveled in making orchestral-rich pop songs. Like a baritone-rich Serge Gainsbourg he sang of syphillis, sailors and suicide and was nothing at all like yer average teen heart throb. On Till The Band Comes In, you’ll find Little Things (That Keep Us Together). Almost a companion piece to his own version of Jackie, though with less gallop and more gasp, Little Things finds Scott clinging to the coat tails of a melody as jabbing strings and tumbling toms race one another to the finish line. It’s great.

And as if that’s not thrilling enough, here come the Trashcan Sinatras, back in the days when they were The Trash Can Sinatras, faithfully gatecrashing Walker’s tune with all the ramshackle beauty of a wooden-legged man hurtling haphazardly down a hill and into the neighbour’s hedge while being chased by an angry slevvery dug. Which, metaphorically at least, the Trash Cans were round about then. They fairly clatter into Little Things; the old Roland Jazz Chorus set to maximum wobble in a thrilling rush of knee-trembling, reverb-soaked, John McGeogh-esque post-punk while a breathless Frank hangs on to the vocals for dear life.

My first recollection of the Trash Cans doing this was for a Billy Sloan session on Radio Clyde around ’91 or ’92. Like most of the Trash Can’s unofficial output from those days, I have it on a hissy, taped-off-the-radio C90 somewhere, but the version above is taken from the b-side of 1993’s How Can I Apply single. A lost nugget of a record from an era when every Trash Can’s release was packed-full of top quality songs from an apparently never-ending production line that put every other band to shame. But you knew that already.

tcs 93TCS, Shabby Road, 1993

*Trashcans fact!

Long before John started wearing the famous stripey t-shirt, he was awfy fond of a t-shirt bearing the cover of Scott 1. No pictures exist. Believe me, I’ve looked…