The James Bond theme has become fabled territory for all musicians and it would appear that Eric Clapton’s effort fulfils both senses of the word. From Linda and Paul McCartney combining for ‘Live and Let Die’ to Billie Eilish’s latest effort ‘No Time to Die’, the list of rousing tracks is ever-growing, but it would seem that Eric Clapton fatefully escaped the list much like the eponymous enigmatic escape artist himself, Bond, James Bond.
The 16th instalment of the franchise in 1989 saw Timothy Dalton infiltrate a nefarious drug gang who were inexplicably keen on pet Iguanas for the John Glen-directed all-action classic License to Kill. With Bond going rogue in a vengeance-seeking mission of his own design, it made sense to have a swaggering rock effort as the theme on this occasion. Thus, they turned towards Clapton and his arsenal of sauntering riffs to craft something befitting of Bond on the loose.
However, as keen Bond fans will have already noted, it was Gladys Knight who ultimately got the nod for the theme. As it happens, Knight’s last-minute replacement resides as one of the better Bond themes. Penned by Narada Michael Walden, Jeffrey Cohen and Walter Afanasieff, the title of the song as well as of the film, probably originated from Bob Dylan’s 1983 song of the same name. Whilst the song might riff on Dylan’s effort, it proves starkly contrasting with the satire removed in favour of Knights full bludgeon of soul.
Gladys Knights ‘License to Kill’ proved successful both as a stand-alone single and as a suitable theme song, but why was Eric Clapton’s effort replaced in the first place? As it happens, long term Bond composer John Barry was forced to take medical leave shortly before the film was released with Michael Kamen coming in to replace him. Kamen enlisted the help of Vic Flick who had been a session musician on Barry’s original ‘James Bond Theme’ to help complement Clapton’s blues-rock style with something a bit more cinematically swinging.
As Flick told Permission to Kill back in 2009: “It was a call out of the blue. Michael Kamen wanted a dark guitar sound to compliment the melody and extemporization Eric Clapton was going to do on their composition. So, knowing of my penchant for low-string guitar playing, he called me for the sessions.”
Surprisingly, the collaboration went very well. As Flick continues: “It was good to see Eric again after many years, and it was wonderful to work with those two gifted musicians. Eric played some amazing guitar on the track, and Michael worked out a fine arrangement. I did my thing with a counter theme in the low register.”
Flick asserts confidently that the effort they crafted was very good. Why then wasn’t it used? “The following day we went to a loft in the wharf area of London to shoot the video,” Flick continues. “What little I saw of the video was great. The video was then submitted to the Bond producers who had commissioned the project. I waited, Michael waited, and Eric was off doing his thing somewhere in the world. After two weeks came the news that the Bond producers wanted a song as a theme and commissioned Gladys Knight and the Pips, and blew out the track that Michael, Eric and I submitted.”
Naturally, the next question is what happened to the theme and the video that Clapton and co crafted before producers opted for something a little bit more commercial and why has this story remained buried in the doldrums of Bond for so long. Firstly, part of the reason that the song remains obfuscated is that all parties were paid up amicably.
Secondly, the mystery theme is akin to a 007 mission in of itself. “That video is now the Holy Grail of Bond aficionados and he who finds it will see the golden light!” Flick remarks. “No one knows where the video is. The one person who I thought knew, Michael Kamen, has since passed away – so the secret has passed with him.”
With Bond, however, one final twist is always possible. Lingering in the depths of YouTube is a Clapton instrumental piece with a strong Bond feel to it. Adding a touch of credence to the case that it might be similar to the effort that the trio crafted is that Clapton later collaborated with Kamen for the soundtrack song ‘Edge of Darkness’ which has a similar structure to the mysterious recording. We’ve reached out to those who might know better, but whether anyone can remember it well enough to confirm that the video below is a demo for the theme all these years later is hard to know.
It is certainly an alluring piece of music regardless. Check it out below.