How Radiohead Wrote the Perfect James Bond Theme Song

Over the past 59 years, the duty of per­form­ing a James Bond movie theme has fall­en to the likes of Tom Jones, Paul McCart­ney, Car­ly Simon, Bono, Madon­na — and most recent­ly, for the lat­est install­ment, No Time to Die, Bil­lie Eil­ish. But one of the great­est Bond themes ever writ­ten has nev­er been heard in any of the movies. This, in any case, is the con­tention of the video essay above, “How Radio­head Wrote the Per­fect Bond Theme.” Com­mis­sioned for 2015’s Spec­tre, the sec­ond-most recent film in the series, Thom Yorke and com­pa­ny came up with a song that moves Lis­ten­ing In cre­ator Barn­a­by Mar­tin to declare, “This is Bond, but it’s also unmis­tak­ably Radio­head.”

Like many Bond title themes, Radio­head­’s “Spec­tre” is in a minor key with “added blues notes,” work­ing off the dis­tinc­tive chord pro­gres­sion com­pos­er John Bar­ry employed in the series’ orig­i­nal instru­men­tal theme. And while, like most Bond title-theme per­form­ers, Radio­head are pop­u­lar musi­cians, their actu­al work has always refused to align per­fect­ly with straight­for­ward pop-music expec­ta­tions.

“Spec­tre” embod­ies both the band’s “love of rhyth­mi­cal ambi­gu­i­ty” and their “trade­mark har­mon­ic ambi­gu­i­ty.” The “beau­ty and sim­plic­i­ty of the music con­trast painful­ly with the words,” reflect­ing “per­fect­ly that dichoto­my in con­tem­po­rary Bond: a man strug­gling to rec­on­cile love and duty.”

As if that weren’t enough, Radio­head­’s song also includes unex­pect­ed but con­sum­mate­ly Bond-esque com­po­si­tion­al and instru­men­tal moves. “It’s jazzy but dis­cor­dant,” says Mar­tin. “It’s a mod­ern re-imag­in­ing of John Bar­ry’s big-band orches­tra­tions.” In every sec­tion the piece exquis­ite­ly main­tains the ten­sion between Radio­head and Bond, cre­at­ing “an instant­ly com­pelling and dark musi­cal world. Alas, it was ulti­mate­ly replaced, osten­si­bly because the mood of the music and lyrics did­n’t fit prop­er­ly with that of the film: “We had this beau­ti­ful song,” lament­ed direc­tor Sam Mendes, “and we weren’t able to use it.” But that has­n’t stopped Bond afi­ciona­dos from imag­in­ing what could have been, and you can get a sense of it in a fan video, pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture, that reunites “Spec­tre” with Spec­tre.

via Kot­tke

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Radiohead’s “Spec­tre” Played Against the Title Sequence of the 2015 James Bond Film, Spec­tre

Intro­duc­ing The Radio­head Pub­lic Library: Radio­head Makes Their Full Cat­a­logue Avail­able via a Free Online Web Site

James Bond: 50 Years in Film (and a Big Blu-Ray Release)

Radiohead’s Thom Yorke Per­forms Songs from His New Sound­track for the Hor­ror Film, Sus­piria

The Secret Rhythm Behind Radiohead’s “Video­tape” Now Final­ly Revealed

Inti­mate Live Per­for­mances of Radio­head, Son­ic Youth, the White Stripes, PJ Har­vey & More: No Host, No Audi­ence, Just Pure Live Music

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Shedzy says:

    Not only that, but it’s not their only Bond song — Man of War was also writ­ten as a Bond song, only twen­ty years before they were invit­ed to record one.

    And their live ver­sion of ‘Nobody does it Bet­ter’ is ample proof that, when it comes to Bond songs, nobody does it half as well as they do ‑theyre the best.

  • Christopher prior says:

    God nobody does it bet­ter is awe­some play it all the time gives me goose­bumps!!😀👍

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