“A Golden Girl Knows”
“A Golden Girl Knows”
The Ballads of James Bond
Abstract and Keywords
John Barry composed what would go on to become the most influential Bond-song of them all, “Goldfinger,” in 1963. “Goldfinger” was the first Bond-song to feature Shirley Bassey, and it put her singing voice at the center of the franchise. The song drew inspiration from an unlikely source: “Mack the Knife,” an anti-capitalist ballad composed by Kurt Weill with lyrics by Bertold Brecht. This unexpected strand never entirely left the Bond-song’s DNA. Nevertheless, this chapter shows, subsequent Bond-songs (especially the two ballads commissioned for Thunderball) struggled mightily to repress their Brechtian ancestry. They insisted they could tell good capitalism from bad, James Bond from his antagonists—but a sense of insecurity about those distinctions endured.
Matt Monro’s “From Russia with Love” is technically the first Bond song, but chances are you’ve never heard it. That’s because, although the movie has one of those mod title sequences we associate with Bond films, the title song doesn’t actually appear in it. Instead it plays over the end credits. There’s an orchestral arrangement of Monro’s tune that plays for part of the opening credits, but like the one in Dr. No this credit sequence transitions into a different song, in this case the iconic Monty Norman theme, midway through.
The placement is instructive, because in many ways Norman’s song reminds us how a theme song is supposed to behave, certainly in a film from 1963, but pretty much continuing until today. The Bond songs became the strange beasts they are by abandoning a lot of these features. Film songs don’t usually stop the movie cold five to five ten minutes after it’s started. Monro’s song far more sensically sneaks into the film’s final scene—the action is over, our hero has emerged victorious, and the (p.48) luxuriant strings and delicate bolero rhythm are just the salve our sore ears need after two hours of action. The brass instruments are kept in check; Monro croons about Russia and love, rather than screeching out increasingly hysterical warnings about some ridiculously named heavy. His voice is pure pop, with no sense of a particular place or any other musical style. The most stylistically specific element is a tack-piano mimicking an Eastern European hammered dulcimer. Nothing stops this title song from being an ordinary pop record.
The song comes on as Bond and his girl, with the uncharacteristically nonridiculous name Tatiana Romanova, are taking a gondola across the canals of Venice (see Fig. 2.1). Gently, drifting in on a cushion of strings and horns, Monro’s tune starts playing in the background. We’ve heard the song once before, wafting briefly from a radio, but this time it doesn’t appear diegetically, meaning the characters don’t hear it being played.
But they do talk over it, a fate that would never again befall a Bond song. After “From Russia with Love,” Bond songs commanded sepulchral silence and religious devotion—the movie comes to a virtual halt in order for the song to start. By contrast, in From Russia with Love the song is introduced very much as a film song: this is how an end-credit song is (p.49) supposed to arrive. The fact that the characters can’t hear it, but that we do, is a first nudge out of the film’s world, as though a hypnotist were releasing us ever so gently from his spell. We hear Monro’s lyrics invoke “From Russia with Love,” and we remember that, huh, funny, that’s the name of the film we’ve been watching.
This gesture is almost too successful, however, for Monro’s song comes close to telling Bond and Tatiana that they’re characters in a movie. No sooner has the song started that Tatiana suddenly interrupts their kisses because “we’re being filmed.” Lucky for the millions of voyeurs who depend on Tatiana’s being filmed, and who may feel like they’ve been caught, it turns out she’s referring to a couple of tourists training a camera on the lovers from a bridge, not to the massive big-budget film crew all around them (see Fig. 2.2).
As if that moment weren’t strange enough, the voyeuristic tourists remind Bond of another important film within the film. Earlier in From Russia with Love, agents of SPECTRE have filmed Bond and Romanova making love, intending to use the film to blackmail Bond. He’s gotten the film back, of course, and now he pulls the film roll from his pocket, throws it overboard, and waves it a mocking goodbye as the words “The End” appear (see Figs. 2.3 and 2.4).(p.50)
That film roll (which, owing to the technology of the time, really does look like a miniature of the reels that commercial films were shot on) and the film From Russia with Love stand in a strange relationship to one another: the big film, the one we’ve been watching, depends on the small one for its plot. In this respect the little film reel is no different from the various launch codes, nukes, submarines, decoders, and so on that James Bond and other cinematic agents hunt in most of their adventures.
(p.51) Alfred Hitchcock famously called this the MacGuffin, because, well, because any name works really. It’s the object everyone in a spy story chases because without it there would be no story. What the object is becomes completely beside the point, as long as different people want it. What’s interesting about the film reel is that it isn’t a pure MacGuffin, however, because it embodies something that we viewers very much desire but cannot have. We may not care about launch codes and wouldn’t know what to do with a decoder should one fall into our possession. But we’d most likely find a use for a reel of Sean Connery making love to Daniela Bianchi.
That is to say: the object that Bond discards right as we’re told that this is “The End” is the thing that brings us to the theater. But it’s also the missing reel that by going missing makes it possible for us to go to the theater and watch From Russia with Love. If the film really did feature a full James Bond sex-tape, we’d probably not go to see it, nor would anyone outside of the seediest portions of Times Square have let us in 1963. We go to the movies to watch attractive famous people prepare to have sex, and we go to the movies to not see them actually do so. Our not actually seeing them do it is just as important as the fiction that film characters have sex.
In a normal spy thriller we audience members have zero investment in the actual MacGuffin. We don’t come to the theater for launch codes. The little tape Bond tosses into the Venetian canal, by contrast, is in some sense our MacGuffin. It’s the thing that will have us coming back for more, it’s what makes cinema a fundamentally serial enterprise. We watch Bond and Tatiana lock lips, and we know we won’t get to the good stuff. But we get to sit down again next year in another darkened theater, and perhaps that time we’ll get lucky!
The jettisoned reel is the opposite of the text declaring this “The End.” What’s on that reel is indeed the end-all of cinematic voyeurism, the always-deferred money shot that draws us in again and again. But precisely because it’s withheld, this isn’t in fact the end. There will be another adventure, another chance at that tape, another chance to be disappointed that it’s missing yet again. (p.52)
And indeed, as the credits start to roll and Monro’s song takes over the soundtrack, the scene’s finality is amended in a way that Bond viewers are most familiar with by now. We read: “Not quite the End. James Bond will return in the next Ian Fleming thriller ‘Goldfinger’ ” (see Fig. 2.5). This was the first time a Bond movie had ended with this promise.
And it was a promise that was scored (and underscored) with a theme song. Even though “From Russia with Love” was not placed where succeeding Bond songs were placed, even though its integration into the movie hewed to established Hollywood models the Bond songs would soon abandon—in this one respect the Bond films established the role of their songs from the very first. Bond songs were about seriality—about the adventure that came before, about the adventure that would come after. Even for those twelve months between October 1963 (when From Russia was released) and September 1964 (when Goldfinger had its premiere at Leicester Square), when there was just one of these songs, the song was about repetition, about tradition, and about the series.
In that, they differed from the James Bond theme, which has been the source of so much musical (and extramusical) continuity for the series. But part of being in a series is that while some things remain the same, (p.53) others develop with time. The uses of the James Bond theme, with very minor exceptions, suggest not so much seriality as identity. And this theme arrives in a way that makes it feel new and natural each time. Whenever a new Bond is brought into the series, it’s this little melody that convinces us that, yes, this man is not an impostor, he is the real James Bond. As atypical as Monro’s tune would turn out to be for the Bond canon, it’s already about the Bond canon. It acknowledges that more films and more songs will come—that they’ll sound a little different, but still be Bond songs. The Monty Norman theme proclaims that there can be only one Bond theme.
But why the move to the beginning of the picture? What happens when the musical acknowledgment of seriality pretty much opens the film, rather than closes it with a winking acknowledgment that, yes, if this thing makes enough cash we’ll probably crank out another? This seems like a trivial question but it goes to the core of how these puzzling songs effect their nontrivial reshaping of cinematic time and form. Because it turns out that by frontloading the moneymaking aspects of the film—the fact that you’re seeing this because it’s a James Bond picture and not one of the many knockoffs, parodies, and also-rans—the films actually tie their rather strange form to their overall theme: the films celebrate capitalism, and they do so by foregrounding the film itself as a capitalist endeavor. Not lofty ideas or liberal values will win against the Russkies: it’ll rather be cool drinks, hot chicks, and awesome songs, and we’ll all sit around and wait for two or three minutes while the Bond song runs up a big tab.
The powers of capitalism are so powerful in the James Bond movies that they can take on the most powerful thing of all: capitalism itself. As a freshman might put it after a bong hit: can capitalism create a stone so heavy capitalism itself can’t move it? The Bond films think it can.
“From Russia with Love” isn’t about that—it’s hard to say what on earth that song is about. Nor does the music provide much help: Monro’s quintessential film-song voice, the unassertive musical arrangement, and the low-profile bolero rhythm all mean that “From Russia” can pass as a typical title song. But the song that picked up where it left off, the one that picked up the reel Bond tossed from the Venice gondola, the one that (p.54) started the decades-long relay race of Bond songs—that song is all about capitalism. Goldfinger, the man with the Midas touch: a song about a figure for capitalism run amok brought to you by a bunch of Marxists. And yet a song and movie about how the only cure for the excesses of capitalism is … more capitalism.
“Goldfinger” as Murder Ballad
Monro’s theme song pioneered the idea that a Bond song had to repeat the title phrase, and repeat it a lot, meaning be damned—a tradition the franchise would cling to with almost fetishistic fealty. It took the thought of asking professionals to write and record a song about an “Octopussy” for the series to (temporarily) shake it.
In almost every respect, it is “Goldfinger” rather than “From Russia with Love” that provided the matrix that Bond songs spent the next fifty years aping. That’s as true for the song’s narrative dimensions as for the music. Musically, “Goldfinger” became identical with James Bond in a way that “From Russia with Love” did not. Monro’s song had been a characterless ballad whose most notable instrumental touch was a modified piano that stood in for a Hungarian cimbalom that (taking liberties from the zither you hear in The Third Man) was supposed to somehow signify Russia. “Goldfinger” brought in the screaming muted brass, which (along with the churning strings) would become the bread and butter for Bond songs going forward—although the screaming brass was of course also a key feature of Monty Norman’s Bond theme, which Goldfinger references far more directly than Monro’s song.
This continuity is undeniable, but it can hide how different “Goldfinger” is from the two dozen songs that would draw on it in the decades between Thunderball and Skyfall. If the music points forward, to decades of more or less derivative Bond songs, the lyrics highlight an ancestry that future Bond songs would pretty much leave behind. More clearly than the later songs, this song’s text presents its audience with a morality tale, although the intention of the teller is left tantalizingly ambiguous. Bassey’s song (p.55) delivers an increasingly urgent warning against allowing the film’s villain to ensnare the audience in his plots: “Goldfinger, the man with the Midas touch / beckons you to enter his web of sin / but don’t go in.”
In fact, while most of the James Bond songs that would follow “Goldfinger” have more or less identifiable addressees (sometimes the audience, often enough Bond himself), “Goldfinger” is alone in interpellating a very particular kind of listener: the singer wants to warn “pretty girls” who may be tempted by Auric Goldfinger’s “golden words.” Insofar as we take the warning seriously, we are addressed as though we were seducible young women; or we’re addressed only if we are seducible young women. That means either the song turns us all into libertines, or it concerns a communication with a small subgroup of listeners to which the rest of us are mere spectators. There’s a lesson being taught here, and we may worry with a gulp whether it might apply to us.
Although the song hides it mostly in the chorus, Goldfinger does tell a rather specific, albeit hypothetical, tale, that of an innocent young woman drawn in by Goldfinger’s seductive allure against her better judgment, but lost before she realizes what has happened.
- Golden words he will pour in your ear,
- but his lies can’t disguise what you fear.
- For a golden girl knows when he’s kissed her.
- It’s the kiss of death from Mr.
It is worth pointing out the strange kind of knowledge imputed to this girl. She steps into Goldfinger’s trap with eyes wide open (after all “his lies can’t disguise” what she already fears), but her knowledge does little to mitigate her fate. And fate may well be the operative word here. In the universe of “Goldfinger,” death is not so much the punishment for being seduced into the villain’s world, one that could have been avoided with a bit more gumption or virtue; there is something altogether inescapable about the destiny laid out in the chorus. Why are we, or the “golden girls,” being taught a lesson, if there’s really nothing to be done about Goldfinger’s trap? “Goldfinger” pretends to contain a warning, (p.56) but really it luxuriates in the very seduction about which it would warn us. The injunction is simply an elaborate ruse to hide the pleasure of transgression.
For us who overhear this faux warning, the pleasure is embodied in Bassey’s voice. She’s the seducer, the one pouring “golden words” in our collective ear. It doesn’t matter if we try to turn away, as the song’s amped-up coda makes abundantly clear. In his typical fashion Barry writes it all out, creates intensity through musical arrangement, and doesn’t give his singer the opportunity to improvise. Instead he forces her into a series of repetitions: for the song’s final thirty seconds, Bassey seemingly belts out nothing but “only gold” and “gold” as Barry’s favorite Bond-theme motif brings the musical accompaniment to a boil. The whole thing achieves an almost overbearing affect. It’s likely that when Monty Python spoofed the Bond-song format with the opening song to Life of Brian (1979), the ridiculous repetition of the name Brian is directly inspired by the over-the-top coda to Bassey’s “Goldfinger.”
But though the ending of “Goldfinger” is indeed faintly ludicrous, its intensity has a point. How are we to understand its collision of controlled pop-song aesthetics and dial-911 urgency? “Goldfinger” is otherwise a paragon of lyrical and compositional economy; singing “gold” again and again tells us there’s something more, something looming just outside the frame. What is this intense repetition driving at? Are we to infer that the singer, whatever her relationship to Goldfinger, knows only too well that “he loves only gold,” that she found out the hard way? While there’s nothing to suggest outright that whoever is speaking in this song, whoever is addressing the “golden girls” tempted by Goldfinger’s advances, has herself received the “kiss of death from Mr. Goldfinger,” such a reading gives sense to the song’s overflow of sound, meaning, and affect.
The singer’s performance in “Goldfinger” should just be about Bassey getting paid to do x in service of y. That’s exactly what Barry praised Tom Jones’s performance of “Thunderball” for: Jones doesn’t think too much, Barry suggested, he just belts out the song, and that’s a good thing. But in “Goldfinger” there’s something that exceeds the provision of work for hire. The exaggerated intensity ignites the film’s central tensions (p.57) between gender, labor, money, violence, and lived experience. It’s easy to hear the song as rather brutally collapsing the distance between Bassey and the song’s persona. In late-capitalist exchange, you don’t just sell your affective labor, you’re supposed to serve up your memories and experiences too.
It is clear, in any event, that the singer is not (or at least is no longer) one of the “pretty girls.” In this respect, too, “Goldfinger” defined the Bond songs for at least twenty years: she is a seasoned veteran, a pro, certainly not an ingénue, though once upon a time she may have been one. Bassey’s throaty alto telegraphs a kind of femininity altogether different than that of most women who cross Bond’s path in the actual film. This is a configuration that remains intact in the Bond films well into the twenty-first century: in many Bond songs the female singer does not adopt the role of a Bond girl or of a woman that Bond and the villain might struggle over; but rather the role of a more mature woman dispensing advice or background knowledge to either the Bond girl or Bond himself. Over the decades these roles could vary: sometimes the singer was a deep-voiced femme fatale, sometimes a traumatized victim, frequently a mixture of the two. What the Bond girls lacked in experience, the Bond singers more than made up for.
This runs from Shirley Bassey, who dispenses wisdom to the Pussy Galores of the world, right down to Madonna, who not only sings the title song to Die Another Day but also appears in the movie as a downright maternal figure—a fencing instructor named Verity who tries to talk sense into Bond as his yearning for revenge threatens to get the better of his judgment.
Even if the intimations that the warning about “the man with the Midas touch” might well come from one who learned this lesson the hard way are just that, intimations, “Goldfinger” nevertheless clearly introduces a configuration that would come to structure the relationship between song and film in many Bonds to come (though certainly not all). The grizzled veteran who sings the opening song stands in clear contrast to the young, naïve, and less-than-competent sexpots that populate the Bond adventures from Goldfinger to License to Kill (1989).
(p.58) “Goldfinger” in many respects set the scene for both the way the songs sounded in future Bond films and the way the songs managed to arrange James Bond’s world. The demimondaine blowsiness of the vocals, the barely concealed admiration for whatever baddie our singer happens to be serenading—all of this the Bond songs were keen to preserve for decades to come. But if they sounded like they were of the same genre, later Bond songs, at least after “Thunderball,” in fact departed significantly from the generic DNA of their key progenitor. In important respects “Goldfinger” is an altogether atypical Bond song.
A specific tale of a named criminal who preys on women. A tale presented as a word of caution to impressionable young women, but which seems to take a little too much pleasure in describing their seduction. A villain who operates almost as a stand-in for the blind forces of fate. Its narrative and mode of address mark “Goldfinger” as a murder ballad. It’s not a bad choice of genre. Like Bond films, ballads are about repetition, about seriality, about a jump from villain to villain. You tell the one about The Death of Parcy Reed, then one of your listeners asks you about the terrible butchery in so-and-so. You chase the next ballad, the next tale of murder most foul, the next thrill the same way audiences chase the film-roll from Bond film to Bond film. Part of the fun in either case is that you know what’s coming—if you’ve heard one ballad, watched one Bond movie, you’ve seen the blueprint for all.
You might not expect a song from a 1963 film to trace its lineage to a genre that was popular at eighteenth-century carnivals, but the murder ballads have never gone out of style. And a particular murder ballad was very much a fixture of the music of the early 60s. One of the most famous of these ballads is the ballad of Macheath, called Mack the Knife. The song “Mack the Knife” was written by the poet Bertolt Brecht and the composer Kurt Weill, husband of Lotte Lenya (who’d played the villain Rosa Klebb in From Russia with Love). Louis Armstrong revived interest in the English-language version around the beginning of 1956; following his hit single there were well over 400 recordings of the song between then and the composition of “Goldfinger.” According to Bond lore, the Broccolis asked John Barry to follow the template of “Mack the Knife” (p.59) in composing “Goldfinger,” and you can hear Barry try in the song as we have it today.
“Mack the Knife” tells the story of a brutal killer who dispenses death with legendary efficiency—which the song has a hard time working up any outrage over. Not only does the song elevate Macheath into a figure of blind fate, it also explains why his native London does not catch up with Mackie and his nefarious deeds. As the famous opening lines have it: “The shark has pretty teeth, dear / and he keeps them pearly white. / just a jackknife has Macheath, babe / but he keeps it out of sight.” Mackie’s horrific deeds pose as nature, as something that just happens, as blind fate. It takes the murder balladeer to point out that what looks like a bizarre chain of accidents and random acts of violence are in truth all Mack’s bloody trail.
Brecht and Weill present Mack the Knife as a kind of supervillain. In his own strange way, he brings order into the chaos of the London demimonde. What appeared to be indiscriminate violence, blind fate, turns out in the song’s telling to have been one man’s doing. Such are the villains of the early Bond songs as well: legendary bad guys whose fame is spread in cautionary ballads by brassy women at once horrified and enthralled by their “sin” and “lies.” They bring death and destruction, sure, but they also bring a perverse sort of order to the world. Whereas the films present their villains as outwardly upstanding, albeit often mysterious, businessmen, the songs, or at least their singers, understand them as folkloric antiheroes. And the way the singer addresses us suggests that her audience is fully acquainted with them and their legend. We can imagine that perhaps the audience has requested the ballad of Goldfinger, the Moonraker, or the Man with the Golden Gun from Shirley Bassey in some seedy club off the Vegas Strip.
And that seems to be the point of these songs: unlike the movies, which require us to go through the motions of meeting yet another heavily accented debonair international businessman who is quite obviously a nefarious master criminal, with our master spy only slowly catching on, the songs function as initiations into an underworld in which a man like (p.60) Goldfinger is already a legend. There is a queasy sense of camaraderie here. The song treats us almost as Goldfinger’s accomplices—after Shirley Bassey is done warning us, we can’t know what we know and not be part of the underworld.
Being part of Bassey’s audience means being a particular kind of person. This is significant, and it shows that however pop it was, “Goldfinger” still had one foot in a far older tradition. Pop songs after all are both more and less portable than traditional sung ballads. They are more portable in that we don’t have to be a specific kind of person in a specific situation to hear and enjoy them. They are less portable in that they often rely on musical elements that don’t travel well, that can’t be transmitted via sheet music. A murder ballad was written down, or memorized, or passed along—and then someone else made the song her own. Or not really her own: no one owns ballads—to repeat ballads is not called covering them, it’s just called singing them.
“Goldfinger” represents a midpoint between the murder ballad and the pop record. What makes the song memorable is not the lyrics or the melody—it’s the piano-wire tension of Bassey’s voice, the metallic shimmer of the recording, the reverberant thrum of the guitar and percussion, the fever pitch of the brass. But at the same time, the song depends on its being written down. Ballads typically have neat rhyme schemes and rhythm to help us remember. “Goldfinger” does not (unless rhyming “Midas touch” and “spider’s touch” strikes you as latter-day Coleridge). Ballads often have a simple melody to guide the instrumentalists through the song—“Goldfinger” does not. What “Goldfinger” does have is an intricate fit between melody, harmony, and murder-ballad text that couldn’t exist if Barry weren’t putting pen to paper. “Goldfinger” maintains equilibrium between its status as a sheet-music ballad and its status as a sonic object.
Anthony Newley, who cowrote the song with Barry and Bricusse, actually recorded a version of the song that sounds a lot more like a traditional ballad. It’s far more intimate, with spare instrumentation. Newley’s voice sounds subdued—he’s speaking to a few cognoscenti, not a roomful of concertgoers. Bassey’s version retained some of that, but the way (p.61) it dials the vocals and the brass to eleven, the way it’s asking us to imagine a nightclub, but one the size of Caesar’s Palace, shows the strain the sheer scale of the Bond aesthetic put on the ballad format. To be sure, “Goldfinger” committed fully to the murder-ballad genre, but it was just as fully committed to a totally different genre, namely the pop song. By the time the opening credits rolled for Thunderball, the murder-ballad connection was an empty husk, a mere gesture—Bond songs had turned into something else.
Even though so quickly discarded, this larval stage is nevertheless significant. Brecht and Weill’s supervillain had a more overtly political function than the villains presented by the Bond movies. Their Macheath was a stand-in for capitalism, an entrepreneur of death who was, the song implies, no more or less worthy of praise than any other kind of entrepreneur. As Brecht famously put it, what’s robbing a bank compared to running one? In a line so chilling the pair decided to leave it out of the English version, the balladeer recounts the story of a teenaged widow who finds herself raped by Mackie, presumably before being killed. “Mackie, what was your price?” the singer inquires—was it money, or the forcible sex? Sex, murder, money, it’s all in a day’s work for Macheath.
The “Mack the Knife” connection makes visible something that frequently gets lost in the Bond films. Almost all the villains over the last twenty-some films have been able to perpetrate their schemes thanks to their obscene wealth. They commingled sex, murder, and money in much the same way Brecht’s Macheath does. Weill and Brecht thought Mackie’s story spoke for itself—you almost couldn’t hear it and miss the point. But somehow all the Bond songs did end up missing this specific point. The Bond films and the Bond songs are all about how capitalism has become a kind of fate, how extreme wealth enables invisible villains. Somehow, miraculously, the Bond movies, and their songs, fail to leverage this insight into a critique of capitalism.
The films can’t really critique capitalist excess because in them Bond deploys the powers of capitalism (essentially sex, murder, and money again) against the excesses of that same system—the excessive wealth of a Blofeld or a Hugo Drax is checked by designer wristwatches and Aston (p.62) Martins. In this respect, the Bond films are utterly faithful to Fleming’s books. In rereading the original novels, it is astonishing to see how many times Bond’s unraveling of the villain’s schemes involves simply winning a game of chance in a casino or a club—for instance, in Casino Royale, Bond must seize Le Chiffre’s assets not by means of legal action or larceny, but rather through a game of bridge at a fancy casino. Money serves as bait for money to catch more money. The universe, once again symbolized by obscene amounts of cash, will right the imbalance obscene amounts of cash have created.
In the songs, things are more complicated. “Goldfinger” is the only song in fifty years that thematizes the villain’s greed. The lyrics tell us that his seductions, his lies, his schemes are all in pursuit of gold. And the music, with the brasses’ obscene metallic glare and Bassey’s voice heightening the text’s emphasis on “gold … gold … gold … only gold!,” brings Auric Goldfinger and his riches into existence with far more presence and charisma than Gert Fröbe, the actor who plays him, ever could. With a singlemindedness that too is rare for the franchise, the whole song makes gold—as word, symbol, and substance—its singular focus, culminating in its protracted money-shot of a coda.
Six years later, Bassey would return to the franchise to serenade diamonds. But that song is about sex, relationships, men and women—everything except diamonds. “Goldfinger” wears its anticapitalist ancestry on its sleeve, but this legacy disappears from the Bond songs with astounding swiftness, and gets replaced by a system of meanings in which any mention of value refers ultimately back to sex or desire. “The Man with the Golden Gun” is pretty obviously about a penis. “Thunderball” talks about Monsieur Largo’s needing more, “so he gives less,” but it seems this has to do with women more than wealth. “GoldenEye” is about a voyeur. After “Goldfinger,” gold was sex. In “Goldfinger,” gold was gold.
This shift has to do with the legacy of Brecht and Lenya. Lenya is perhaps the only entirely unalluring woman to ever feature in the Bond series as either vixen or villain; and the song her husband’s “Mack the Knife” inspired is unique in that it reduces sex to money, rather than the other (p.63) way around. Later Bond songs (at least after “Thunderball”) in some way repressed the Brecht/Lenya connection, and they did so musically. “Mack the Knife” may have wrought his fiendish influence more openly in the song’s text, but there are traces of Brecht’s aesthetics in the song’s music as well.
Weill and Brecht had developed a specific kind of singing to go along with stories like Mack the Knife. Just as the song is so disturbing because it refuses to condemn or even comment on Mackie’s actions, so the singer is supposed to keep affect out of his or her voice, making sure not to give the audience hints about how to feel. Bassey’s reading of “Goldfinger” goes about it in the opposite way. Her every syllable drips with affect: every vowel-sound gets a tweak, whenever a word ends with a consonant it spouts a vapor-trail, each note seems deliberately placed. But the way Bassey’s voice at times seems thick with glee over Goldfinger’s dastardly exploits, while at others it seems likely she’s been at the receiving end of at least some of them, and the way she manages to work herself into a real fury only by the song’s end, do justice to the style in which “Mack the Knife” is meant to be sung.
Consider Bassey’s voice: Shirley Bassey had a beautiful, deep voice, sonorous and rich. But this song never gives it a chance to relax and resonate, and the recording quality gives it an odd metallic buzziness. All the same Bassey turns in a remarkable performance. She maintains a sense of extreme emotional tension without letting us in on the melody’s extreme difficulty. (And truly difficult it is: if you’re in a karaoke bar and you hear the “Goldfinger” intro, run for the exits.) Bassey’s performance is taut, controlled, refined, but it creates an oddly binary structure: there’s “gold,” and there’s everything else. Which means we don’t actually learn anything new about gold. This gives the song a surface texture that is, well, all about surface. The song shimmers, but, like the gold skin that covers Jill Masterson in the film’s most iconic image, it’s deliberately superficial, only skin deep.
It’s for this reason that the opening titles use a technique the Bond films rarely returned to in the following decades: the golden faces and hands become screens on which images of Goldfinger, Pussy Galore, and (p.64) Bond are projected (see Fig. 2.6). Just like Masterson’s gold coating, the song’s surface sheen can seem suffocating. What menace there is in the story of “Goldfinger” comes not just from the fact that the singer seems at times far too pleased with the man she’s supposedly warning us about, it also comes from the fact that the menace doesn’t seem to register in her in ways that feel recognizable.
If the songs that followed “Goldfinger” abandoned describing the villains’ wealth and started talking about seeking wealth as a way of talking about wanting sex, the opposite is true for the opening sequences. The objects of desire that drop out of the song lyrics seem to aggregate on screen as dislocated fetishes: the drifting guns, the floating diamonds. The screen is full of stuff we might want, with the nude silhouetted women jumping off of that stuff becoming almost an afterthought. The system of objects that disappears from the song lyrics themselves remain quite present in the title sequences.
But the opening visuals to which “Goldfinger” is set are entirely free of these disconnected objects. The image-track presents exactly one golden object: a woman’s body, cinematically dismembered and parceled out into individual shots in a nod to censorship, but always identifiable. Desire (p.65) and gold both attain a distinctly Bondian and distinctly capitalist hue in Goldfinger’s title sequence. Later songs tend instead to sing about desire and repress the fact that they’re also singing about gold. The Brechtian DNA of “Goldfinger” doesn’t allow that to happen.
“Goldfinger” was the song every other Bond song would try to sound like. By contrast, Thunderball, the movie that followed Goldfinger only a year later, introduced the visual scheme that every Bond film would try to imitate going forward. It’s the iconic, instantly recognizable look of the Bond film’s title sequence: gone were the rear projections, gone the subtle digs at capitalism. Instead we get female shapes diving through bubbling waters. The Brechtian DNA lives on, though, but the franchise has lost control of it. The ballad form, which had been so potent in helping “Goldfinger” walk a tightrope between an ode to and a warning about capitalism, turned against the franchise in the three different songs the producers commissioned to accompany the sequence.
Who Strikes Like Thunderball? Ballad and Pop Song
The difference between the two opening sequences is as striking as its meaning is murky: The shiny, shimmering surface as a screen for projection of Goldfinger on the one hand (see Fig. 2.7), the all-enveloping, oceanic shapes of Thunderball on the other (see Fig. 2.8). One treats the (golden) female body as a projection screen, the other as negative space—whatever you project onto its blackness, you won’t see it reflected back at you.
More than the opening for Goldfinger, the murky blues and the black silhouettes of Thunderball acknowledge the seriality of the Bond series. For us seasoned Bond viewers this is because every one of these things has substantially looked the same ever since. But it was also true for viewers who didn’t have a half-century of Bond-film canon to pore over. Because the Goldfinger-opener is specific—we get shots of Gert Fröbe, of (p.66) Honor Blackman, of Sean Connery, of a laser. The abstract image of the gold-covered Jill Masterson becomes a reflector for a pretty detailed preview of the narrative that is to follow.
Thunderball’s opener moves in the opposite direction: it works away from the specific image that concludes the opening scene and moves (p.67) toward incredibly abstract elements—water, bubbles, women (not identifiable women, just women as such), guns. There’s something archetypal about what’s being presented here—the movies of the 2000s (Die Another Day and Skyfall above all) made explicit that what these title sequences depict is probably a look into James Bond’s subconscious, but that’s been a pretty likely reading for these sequences all along.
As such, the main titles for Thunderball acknowledge that there is a James Bond adventure independent of the film we’re seeing right now. We can abstract from this adventure toward the Bond adventure in general. There was one before and there will be one after, and they all emerge from this shapeless primordial ooze of limber-bodied silhouettes and bubbling water or magma. We’re watching the franchise give birth to one of its offspring at the beginning of each Bond film—we’re returning to the womb of the Bond franchise.
But all this pop-Freudianism covers up the one salient point about the Bond films’ serialized nature that Goldfinger had dutifully foregrounded: the reason why yet another Bond film clambers from the primal soup is that there’s more money to be made. As we saw in the previous chapter, the Bond movies of the 90s and early 2000s seemed to think of the franchise as a kind of repetition-compulsion—some inner destructive drive forces poor Bond to shoot and bang his way through another exotic locale every two years. But on some basic level that’s just a romanticized or mystified version of what we all know is really the case—Bond does it because it’s his job, and Albert Broccoli makes a movie about it every two years because it’s made him filthy rich.
The psychological dimensions the opening visuals for Thunderball impute to the repetitiousness of the Bond franchise are a fib. “Goldfinger” had it right: it was all about gold. Thunderball’s opening visuals take its movie’s political points (about capitalism, about the effects of money, about film’s dependence on money) and render them psychological, that is to say natural. We’re no longer to be convinced by Bond that capitalism, in spite of everything, is a pretty shiny thing, we’re supposed to accept it the way we accept a diagnosis from our doctor.
(p.68) Politically this may count as a suggestive “road not taken” scenario (What if the Bond films had maintained the far more ambivalent aesthetic of Goldfinger?), but as it turned out this little bit of dishonesty made the Bond songs much more interesting over the years. The songs still talked about money, diamonds, jobs, and so on, but they invested them with so much weight that some pretty glorious messes resulted. “Goldfinger” is a pretty straightforward song, as is “Mack the Knife.” Starting with the three attempts at finding a song for Thunderball, things got messier—the songs wanted to say one thing but found themselves incapable of saying it, or in the worst case saying quite another.
Of course they sounded very much like “Goldfinger,” but never as much as they wanted to. “Goldfinger” was a ballad, a ballad we, a louche audience of hard-living types ourselves, might hear in an off-the-Strip casino circa 1963. We know all about capitalism, but we also know it’s a sham, that for every Howard Hughes there’s a Goldfinger—or that every Howard Hughes is a Goldfinger. That specific scene breaks down with Thunderball.
“Goldfinger” established the Bond-song format, and it’s amazing how quickly and decisively it did so. The aesthetic established by Bassey’s song became a straitjacket almost instantly. When poor Johnny Cash submitted a song for the next film in the series, 1965’s Thunderball, he assumed, entirely reasonably, that perhaps the next Bond song should crib from an entirely different musical vocabulary—so he wrote a pistolero-ballad with a backup chorus and blistering Western guitars.
The producers wanted none of it, and instead commissioned a song that sounded exactly like “Goldfinger”—from the singer of “Goldfinger.” There’s “don’t mess with success,” and then there’s this. Of course, Bassey’s version of “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” didn’t end up being used in the film, nor did Dionne Warwick’s more canonical rendition of the same song. But that was, if anything, because the song, which was otherwise slavish in sticking to the ground that “Goldfinger” had trod before, departed from it in exactly one way, and that way doomed it: it didn’t mention the word “Thunderball.”
(p.69) So the producers turned to Tom Jones to sing a song that would incorporate the title, and John Barry obligingly wrote another song with another set of lyrics. This one is all about “Thunderball,” a word it repeats again and again, and it’s equally slavish in aping the sound established by “Goldfinger.”
Given that they were both intended as clones of “Goldfinger,” the two songs aren’t that different. But the way they repeatedly tried and failed to recapture the essence of that earlier song—first Bassey took a crack at it, then Warwick, then Jones—signified something about the way that the ground had shifted underneath the Bond song almost immediately after it had made its first grand entrance.
For whatever the songs are trying to do, it isn’t working this time around. That isn’t to say that either of the songs Barry wrote for Thunderball is bad or uninteresting. But the gestures that went down so naturally when Bassey belted her way through “Goldfinger” suddenly seem much harder to replicate—like a tightrope walker who in midair starts thinking about where her feet go, rather than just putting them there.
Take the instrumentation for example: both of the “Thunderball” songs are, if anything, even more orchestral than “Goldfinger.” “Goldfinger” had combined a big-band arrangement with relatively light, darting strings. “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and “Thunderball” sound like they have an entire symphony orchestra backing the singer. The songs are basically extensions of the motion picture score, picking up not just on melodic material, but even on timbres and instrumentation. The songs are trying so hard to be more “Goldfinger” than “Goldfinger.” It gets a bit tiring.
Most importantly, however, both songs remain in the ballad-mode established by “Goldfinger.” They each introduce a “he” and explore “his” exploits—and those of either “Thunderball” or “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” don’t seem to diverge that much from those of “the man with the Midas touch.” Pretty girls, cool stuff, and violence: those are the mainstays of the Bond ballads. But both songs seem to suffer from a serious identity crisis when it comes to their balladry. Remember, a ballad lives off a fairly stable (p.70) set of identifications. They have an implied speaker (the storyteller who relates the story for some reason), an implied audience (people to whom the story is supposed to matter for some reason), and a subject (whose story is supposed to matter to both teller and audience). All of these were quite stable in “Goldfinger”: there’s a story of reception, who we are to hear the song and why we’re hearing it, even though it’s fictional of course.
All the attempts to make a “Goldfinger” clone for Thunderball have trouble with these identifications. The songwriters, producers, and everyone who has written about the film all assure us that “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” is about James Bond. The identity of “Thunderball” is more of an open question, but most commentators agree it’s about his antagonist Emilio Largo. It’s good there’s a consensus on these two songs, because on our own we might not be able to figure out who’s who. Compare the following sets of lyrics:
He’s tall and he’s dark.
He always runs while others walk.
And like a shark, he looks for trouble.
He acts while other men just talk.
That’s why the zero’s double.
He looks at this world, and wants it all.
Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
So he strikes, like Thunderball.
He’s suave and he’s smooth.
He knows the meaning of success.
And he can soothe you like vanilla.
His needs are more, so he gives less.
The gentleman’s a killer.
They call him the winner who takes all.
Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
And he strikes, like Thunderball.
They both seem to be about the same person—a woman-devouring, self-obsessed, murderous sociopath. They both obsessively reference the James Bond theme. And yet one of them is supposed to be about our hero, the other about the villain. If anything, “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” makes Bond sounds a little worse than “Thunderball” does Largo—note that the “shark” line and the gentleman-killer line draw on the vocabulary of “Mack the Knife.” One of them is supposed to be a murder ballad, the other is supposed to be the opposite of that (a hero’s ballad, perhaps)—but they both end up making their subjects sound like Mack the Knife.
(p.71) The songs’ fealty to the themes that audiences had come to associate with Bond also creates problems for the kind of communication these songs want to set up with their audience. Both incorporate the Bond theme compulsively. In one of the songs it’s supposedly as the leitmotif for the character the song is about; in the other it’s to … reference the man who will kill the person being described? Reassure us that Bond is on the case? Tell us we’re encountering the man described in the context of a Bond movie? Why that theme is there, and what it’s supposed to mean to whom, is incredibly hard to decipher.
Both songs retain the ballad mode that “Goldfinger” had used, and if anything their music strengthens the connection to the “Mack the Knife”–style murder ballad. “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” is in 3/4 time, which isn’t an everyday thing on the pop charts—it’s the kind of waltz-parody that Weill and Brecht often served up in their collaborations. The same goes for the singing style, at least in the first recorded version of the song (that is to say, the one by Shirley Bassey): Bassey’s voice is talky, mostly free of vibrato. She declaims more than she sings, a style that hearkens back to Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera, to cabaret-style singing, and of course to “Goldfinger.”
But this makes it all the more awkward that the relatively clear scene of reception imagined by the lyrics and text-setting for “Goldfinger” have all but evaporated in “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and “Thunderball.” “Goldfinger” was a song sung by a demimondaine muse, a seedy woman in a seedy club. She knows Goldfinger, and most likely her listeners do too. Who is sitting in a cabaret listening to the exploits of James Bond? Are these listeners the same people who’d enjoy the thrilling tale of Emilio Largo’s success at womanizing, violence, and world-domination? There are pretty traditional modes of staging lurking behind “Goldfinger”—the same can’t be said for “Thunderball” and “Kiss Kiss”!
These two songs, and the way they can’t settle on what story of themselves to tell, preserve the theatricality of “Goldfinger” but without actually imagining a specific theatrical setting for it. There is something free-floating about these songs, and it cuts to the very heart of the Bond series’ take on capitalism: “Goldfinger” imported a Marxist (p.72) aesthetic because it wanted to talk about capitalists as murderers, only to then offer more capitalism as the cure for the evils of capitalism. The two songs Barry wrote for Thunderball do the opposite: together they assert the fundamental equivalence of the secret agent and his antagonist. Neither is any more violent, misogynistic, or murderous than the other.
Both songs are ballads that lack a clear speaker, a clear addressee, and even a clear subject—the nature of everything they address seems to be in flux. The kind of theatricality on which the Brecht and Weill collaborations rested—in which intellectuals taught working-class audiences about the evils of capitalism—has vanished, even the debased Vegas Strip–version proffered by “Goldfinger.” Maybe that’s because capitalism itself has changed, but more likely it is because capitalism is, during this period, in the process of changing what a song is—and changing how we relate to a song.
Because the pop song doesn’t usually have a kind of scene of reception in mind the way Bassey’s “Goldfinger” does. As a murder ballad, “Mack the Knife” was supposed to tell a certain group of people some definite things. “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and “Thunderball,” while using the same format as “Goldfinger,” can no longer do that. In this they are prototypical pop songs. Pop is portable; you can enjoy it across the globe in a variety of settings, you can misunderstand it and still have fun with it. The two songs for Thunderball—both of which could be serenading either hero or villain, for an audience of either heroes or villains—can work either as a warning or as a celebration.
A mode of address has been lost in that one year from Goldfinger to Thunderball. The very sameness of “Goldfinger” and “Thunderball” places this shift in sharp relief—it reveals the advancing shadow that late capitalism was beginning to cast on the work of making a pop song. Both “Goldfinger” and “Thunderball” end with a long-held high note in the voice: Bassey sings “gold” and Jones sings “-ball.” In Bassey’s case: she does her job, nothing to be said. But Jones’s high note was quickly associated with a story about him holding the note until he fainted in the studio. Late capitalism needs this silly story. A pop singer’s affective (p.73) labor had always been as important as his sound itself, but now you had to be able to sell that affective labor—soon you’d be branding it. From now on the Bond songs would not just test out what capitalism sounded like, they would also test out how capitalism influenced what a pop song sounded like, and how capitalism influenced who we were as a pop song’s listeners. (p.74)