From Sean Connery’s rugged portrayal of Bond to Mads Mikkelsen angular, even androgynous, performance as Le Chiffre, there’s no lack of identifiable men in the world of 007. But what about the archetypal woman?
Joanna Harwood penned the first screenplay, Judi Dench became the most recognisable person to play M, and Barbara Brocolli took over her father’s role as the franchise custodian in 1995 — and she still holds the title today. Yet for my money, Shirley Bassey should walk away with the title, considering her imprint on the series.
It’s hard to imagine Goldfinger without that startling title track, harder to stomach Moonraker without that shimmering ballad to make it more palatable, and frankly, her vocal contributions to Diamonds Are Forever are some of the film’s few saving graces (fittingly, Jill St.John is one of the others.)
She sang on three films, of which Goldfinger was the most successful. “It was the first, and the biggest, hit I ever had,” she recalled. Appearing in The Bond Sound: The Music of James Bond, Bassey remembers how difficult it was to hit that final note. To the embarrassment (or, enjoyment) of her bandmates, she found herself undressing in a last-minute attempt to hit those falsetto notes. Composer John Barry thought she was a natural fit for the song, although he did push her to an almost impossible high note, one of which she recalls nearly passing out in the clip below.
Bassey recorded ‘Mr. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang’ for Thunderball, although it wound up being unused. Instead, her fellow countryman Tom Jones tackled the title track, in another thunderous, overblown spectacle. Strangely, ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ was a more sedate affair, but Bassey acquitted herself nicely to the tune. “I love diamonds,” she beams. Who doesn’t? Of course, it has often been rumoured that the song is less about the diamonds, and more about the jewels that lie beneath a man’s trousers. Gentlemanly to the last, the composers refuse to comment about that avenue.
By the time Roger Moore had committed his fourth entry to film, he had proven himself to be much more than a stand-in for Connery. It was 1979, and with the rise of disco, the soundtrack followed a funkier path. Bassey delivered a lovelorn vocal that was backed by one of the more immersive silhouettes in the series history. Changes in tastes and fashions precluded Bassey from contributing in the 1980s and ’80s, although it was rumoured that she recorded a theme for Quantum of Solace in 2008.
Fansite Mi6 later clarified that ‘No Good About Goodbye’ was never intended for the film, although the music was written by Bond mainstay David Arnold does hold some instrumental flourishes that sound distinctly Bondesque. Personally, I see them as Bassey-esque, when you consider how much her voice continues to shape the Bond series.
In 2012, Adele released Skyfall, another eerie, braggadocious anthem that was high on tempo and rich with instrumentation. Naturally, people proclaimed her as the next Bassey. However, she isn’t Shirley Bassey, for no one else can be Shirley Bassey. Indeed, to quote Mr. Connery in one of his more celebrated post-Bond roles, “There can be only one”.