Picture yourself as a lyricist with a bit of a reputation. You’ve had some U.K. chart hits, or maybe a big Broadway show, but your writing partner’s in rehab, and the phone’s not ringing. Then your agent calls you about a terrific gig. You’ve just been offered the new James Bond song! Wow, a great tradition, tons of PR, a high-profile singer—the Internet’s telling you Sam Smith. And the producers are pretty much giving you a free hand to decide what the song is about—they’re not going to tell you much about the movie’s plot anyway, and it’s not like they expect you to say anything new about Commander Bond. The only hard-and-fast requirement? You need to use the film’s title in the song. How difficult could that be?
Well let’s recall a few of the titles. Somebody was asked to write a song about a Thunderball, whatever that is. And a Moonraker. Even Paul McCartney had to deal with Live and Let Die. The classic Goldfinger isn’t any easier, when you think about it. Once in a while the producers admit the title’s unworkable: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service? No one’s going to sing that phrase, not even the Savoyards. And do you remember Octopussy? That doesn’t even sound like a film title, unless you’re back in 1973 and it’s on a double bill with Deep Throat Part II. But don’t expect any such luck. After all, Paul Epworth managed with Skyfall, even if he ended up having to rhyme “Let the sky fall” with “Together at Skyfall.” The new Bond film is called SPECTRE, and notwithstanding the British spelling and rightwing Internet-troll capitalization, that’s an actual English word. And it’s a word that should slot right in with all the clichés you’ll be expected to work with: guns, shadows, the “kill,” and so on.
Then you step back a moment you’ll realize the stakes aren’t so high. Song lyrics don’t have to make sense. They’ve never been held to that standard. Most of the time you don’t pay attention to them anyway, and even if you try you probably won’t be able to make them out. A phrase juts out every once in a while, a few words get repeated enough so you can catch them. But that doesn’t mean these phrases and words will mean anything.
Hearing sung, spoken or chanted words doesn’t equal understanding them. Many genres flaunt their tendency toward meaninglessness. They just want to sound good. Meaning comes second. Prayers and sermons are filled with nonsense, whether it’s St. Augustine warning you about fruit theft or that old L.A. televangelist Dr. Gene going on about his horse farm.
Sung words are a more extreme case. Before you can think about what they mean you have the basic issue of whether they’re even intelligible. Opera makes this clear. The audience never hears the words, even if they’re in the local language. Today you have supertitles, which allow you to read along with what’s being sung. Which gives you access to lines like “Roll you, waves, flow to the cradle!,” as if that helps. Pop-song lyrics pick up from there: they can be nothing but rhythmic noise, and it won’t matter—not to sales, not to critical response, not to how well a song survives decades later. Hell, plenty of people thought Kurt Cobain was singing “here we are now, in containers.”
Still, the James Bond songs have always had a special claim to nonsense. Part of this has to do with their titles. When it was the name of a guy, or you could plausibly pretend it was the name of a guy (whoever wrote “Moonraker” decided that it referred to the movie’s villain when it actually referred to a rocket ship; confusion ensues) then you can go the ballad route—“he’s the man, the man with the Midas touch.” But SPECTRE isn’t a person; it’s an organization. You can’t just address the song to “you” and be done with it. That would be like penning an ode to the teamsters or the Topeka chapter of the Rotary Club.
And who would be singing about a SPECTRE? A lot of Bond songs talk from the Bond girl’s perspective (“Nobody Does it Better”), or from the perspective of the villain’s squeeze.
A more recent trend (basically comprising the Brosnan outings) was to write the song from the villain’s perspective. The trailers have been coy about what role Christoph Waltz is playing, but it’s not actually hard to figure out. He’s Ernst Blofeld, who battled Bond in three of the classic novels and seven of the films. He’s got hair now, and no cat, but it’s him. There have also been hints that this Blofeld will be Bond’s brother—which, ugh, but that’s not the point.
So, assuming you’re thinking Sam Smith, that might be the perspective from which to tell this story: the villain has a personal fixation on Bond, and he could use the song to sing about his shadowy organization and the shadowy secret agent who’s looking to take it down. “We’re not so different, you and I,” and all that.
So: Blofeld serenading Bond, the whole thing in the second person. Now to use the word “specter” a ton. But “use” may be overstating it. You have to include the word, but it can be syntactically and semantically separate from everything around it. In “A View to a Kill” Duran Duran sing “Choice for you / is the view to a kill. / Between the shades / assassination’s standing still.” In other words, don’t feel constrained by anything so jejune as “meaning.” The music usually comes first. If it’s Blofeld singing to his long-lost brother James, who he’s also going to murder, you probably want a long, deliberate melody at a ponderous tempo. You know, like “Skyfall,” just with “SPECTRE.”
We’ll start with the verse. If we’re sticking to Bond-song form we’ll want to have a lot of lines either beginning or ending with “specter.” That’s not easy. But we’re about to get “inspired.” Meaning we’re going to half-remember a famous phrase and not realize we did. Specters haunt. And if this is Blofeld talking, that specter is haunting Bond, so “a specter is haunting you”? Nice, a little dash of Marx, your college TA would be proud.
Haunting is good, but Bond songs also have to be about sex. Your song is a villain addressing the hero, and a brother addressing a brother, so unless you want to go full Game of Thrones, you have to tread carefully. But something vaguely romantic, so nobody can tell if the song’s about sex or world-domination. Ambiguity for the win:
Don’t worry, this is a Bond song—it’ll be so slow no one will be able to remember you just rhymed “you” with “you.”
It’s all starting to come together. Now you need to think about a chorus that builds to “specter” as the final word. You’re not going to rhyme “specter” with “Hannibal Lecter.” And you’re not Noël Coward, so “checked her” and “nectar” are out. OK, this is it:
Yes, yes, yes. Or at least a strong maybe, given that one Bond song went to number 4 on the pop charts with this opening verse:
Given such company, you’ll be fine.
Or not. Because you forgot something: the Bond-film producers always butt in at the last moment with a bizarre ultimatum, like when they ruined the song for Thunderball by demanding it be called “Thunderball” and use the word “thunderball.” And guess what: they have a different idea for the title. They think it’ll be cool to call it “Writing’s on the Wall.” And then the title-sequence can show show the credits actually written on a … wall. With shadows and specters and stuff. Clever, kind of like when “The Living Daylights” refers to headlights fading away and you see a headlight fading away.
Yikes: an obvious cliché-phrase that literally means obviousness, destined to be married to visuals that won’t exactly win awards for subtlety. Now what? All you can do is plumb the depths of obviousness:
Except that’s been done. Better make another pot of coffee…
Adrian Daub is Associate Professor of German Studies at Stanford University and author of three books about music and culture. Charles Kronengold is Assistant Professor of Music at Stanford University and author of a forthcoming book on musical genres of the 1970s. They like James Bond, so they’ve written a book about the songs.