I’m not the first to criticize Sam Smith’s theme song for SPECTRE, known more properly as “Writing’s on the Wall.” A thin tune that sounds heartbroken — Bond was only heartbroken once, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service — it also borrows from Sheryl Crow’s “Tomorrow Never Dies,” another Bond song destined to be barely remembered. See? You’d already forgotten it.
A Bond song needs to be brassy. That doesn’t mean the instrumentation has to be, but the singer at least does. The first Bond theme to really accomplish that was “Goldfinger,” sung by Shirley Bassey, who would come back to sing “Diamonds Are Forever” and “Moonraker” as well.
Hear that voice? Bassey has brass, as did Nancy Sinatra when she sang “You Only Live Twice.” Ironically, trumpeter Louis Armstrong played it much quieter for “We Have All the Time in the World” from the aforementioned On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but we can allow that exception because that whole film is an exception in the Bond franchise, yet still great. And it was the last thing Armstrong ever recorded, so it packs the emotional wallop that “Writing’s on the Wall” wants to have, but just doesn’t fit.
But back to that brass. You know who else has brass? Tom Jones, who followed Bassey’s “Goldfinger” with “Thunderball.” Though actually, Jones is more of a saxophone, it still works. What a duet they would have made.
Compared to Jones, Sam Smith is a piccolo.
It’s not as if Smith is the only top-selling popstar chosen to sing a Bond theme because of being a top-selling popstar. A-Ha made perfect sense for The Living Daylights, and Duran Duran for A View to a Kill, though they’re not theme songs that stick in your head. Paul McCartney and Wings must have been a major coup for Live and Let Die, though honestly, as much as I love it, it’s not that hummable a song and thanks to it being Paul McCartney (and decades later, Guns N Roses), it’s also got a life way outside of being a Bond song. Then there’s the previous Bond theme song, “Skyfall” by Adele.
Oh, wait. Adele’s got brass.
Let’s also give it up for Chris Cornell’s “You Know My Name,” from Casino Royale.
There’s power there. No writing on the wall, just thrust and danger.
Speaking of… another exception that sticks because it’s just so damned sexy (and not wimpy, Sam Smith)… Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better” from The Spy Who Loved Me.
Finally, it comes back to brass. And it’s never better than the original theme, which gets played in every Bond film. Short and oh, so, sweet.
Agree? Disagree? Let me know. I’m not ranking them, because I know that would be foolish, and some days I like some themes better than others. I’m just not sold on “Writing’s on the Wall.” In fact, for that song, the writing’s… well, you know.