Tom Jones’s Thunderball is one of the many James Bond themes to have become synonymous with the spy thriller series. However, back in 1965, Jones wasn’t the only one who had his eye on the much coveted prize of having a song featured in one of the highly successful Bond films. How different Thunderball, and the whole James Bond series, could have been if a song by an American country artist had been used. Yes, it really could have happened because during the film’s production, the Man in Black himself, Johnny Cash wrote and submitted his vision of a theme song for Thunderball. Imagine if you will, Bond’s wardrobe consisting of cowboy hats and spurred boots as opposed to the very finest tailored suits that money can buy and you are just about there.
The writing of the Thunderball soundtrack was arduous to say the least. Upon hearing what the new Bond film would be called, John Barry pondered for ages on how best to write a song with a title as vague as Thunderball before at one point, deciding that it could not be done. Therefore, he titled the original title theme to Thunderball, Mr Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. This title was taken from an Italian journalist who, when Dr No was released in 1962, had dubbed Bond “Mr Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang”.
The resulting song Mr Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang was recorded by Shirley Bassey. However, there were concerns about Bassey’s singing on the track and it was given to Dionne Warwick. At the same time, John Barry created a longer introduction for the song so that the lyrics would not be heard until after the Thunderball title had appeared in Maurice Binder’s title design. The song was eventually removed from the credits altogether after United Artists threw a spanner in the already complex works by suggesting that the theme song should have the film’s title in its lyrics. To add to the confusion of finding a suitable theme song for Thunderball, when it was decided that Warwick’s version of Mr Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang would be used instead of Bassey’s version, Bassey sued the film’s producers. As a result, neither version of Mr Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang appears on the resulting soundtrack album. However, parts of Barry’s musical score for the song were later interpolated into the soundtrack. On the soundtrack album, the remaining parts of Mr Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang can be heard in the track Cafe Martinique played by full orchestra and jazz rhythm quartet and later as a bongo drum heavy cha-cha in the track Death of Fiona. Interestingly, the death of Fiona scene takes places at Club Kiss Kiss.
In a last ditch attempt to write a theme song which would be deemed suitable by United Artists, Barry teamed up with lyricist Don Black and created the Thunderball song we all know and love in something of a rush. During the recording of their new theme song, Tom Jones famously fainted in the studio after singing the song’s final high note. In various interviews, Jones has said: “I closed my eyes and I held the note for so long when I opened my eyes the room was spinning”.
Around this time, Johnny Cash’s self-written idea for the Thunderball theme song was making waves at production studio Eon Productions. Cash’s Thunderball describes the film’s story with lyrics such as, “Money hungry minds need a thread to launch a scheme, But those, who hold the Thunderball, could rule the world, it seems, Cannot the peaceful world find the clue to where she’s gone. The silent sea won’t answer now but terror lingers on”, whilst the chorus of “Thunderball, your fiery breath can burn the coldest man, And who is going to suffer from the power in your hand” could only have been written by Johnny Cash. The lyrical content of Cash’s Thunderball is put to a musical backdrop which, although as beautifully presented as always, would have been more at home in a Spaghetti Western than in a British film about a suave secret agent. Musically, Cash’s Thunderball is similar to sections of Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack to A Fistful of Dollars (1964).
And herein lays the problem: Particularly in the early days of the James Bond films, Bond themes, always co-written by John Barry, presented a very particular brand of lyrical wordplay and lushly orchestrated and wholly British sounding musical content which Cash’s Thunderball didn’t have. Perhaps if Cash had presented his idea for a Bond theme later in his life when the film studio was more accepting of different takes on how Bond should be presented in music, he could have easily had a Bond theme.
Cash’s poetic telling of the story in his Thunderball vision is a grand effort from the country star but musically would have fitted uncomfortably in the Bond theme canon. Let’s just say, you can take the Man in Black out of the country but you can’t take the country out of the Man in Black.