Song of the Day: Movies in Music (Day Two). “Thunderball, Your Fiery Breath Can Burn the Coldest Man, And Who is Going to Suffer From the Power in Your Hand”.

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.

Song of the Day: The Bible in Music (Day Seven).

“When I bought my first copy of the Bible, the King James version, it was to the Old Testament that I was drawn, with its maniacal, punitive God who dealt out to His long-suffering humanity punishments that had me drop-jawed in disbelief at the very depth of their vengefulness”.

– Nick Cave, Introduction to The Gospel of Mark, 1998.

In a career spanning nearly four decades, Nick Cave has continually pushed the boundaries of the written word in song, literature and screenplay.  One of the many striking things about Cave’s literary skills is the ever-present Biblical and Christian influence.  In terms of his music output, this has been a mainstay of his work since his days in pre-Bad Seeds outfit The Birthday Party.

In Cave’s 1985 single, Tupelo, from the album The Firstborn Is Dead, he uses Biblical imagery in order to describe the birth of Elvis Presley during a heavy storm in Tupelo, Mississippi.  The title of the album simultaneously refer to both Elvis, whose identical twin brother, Jesse Gardon Presley was delivered stillborn 35 minutes prior to the birth of Elvis, and to Exodus in the Old Testament:

“Moses said, “Thus says the Lord, ‘About midnight I am going out into the midst of Egypt, and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of the Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; all the firstborn of the cattle as well.  Moreover, there shall be a great cry in all the land of Egypt, such as there has not been before and such as shall never be again …”

– Exodus 11: 4-6

Cave’s next album, Kicking Against the Pricks (1986), takes its title from a passage in the King James Version of the Bible, which reads “I am Jesus whom thou persecutes:  it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks” (Acts 9:5).  The phrase refers to the pointlessness of an ox kicking at the sharpened wooden rod, known as a prick, when the driver is tilling soil.  One of Cave’s heroes, Johnny Cash also used the phrase to great effect on his song The Man Comes Around from the album American IV: The Man Comes Around in 2002, a song also packed with Biblical imagery.  Cash had covered Nick Cave’s song The Mercy Seat on his previous album American III: Solitary Man in 2000.

The Mercy Seat, from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ 1988 album Tender Prey, as is the case with a majority of the writer’s work is laden with double meaning and Biblical imagery.  The Mercy Seat is a vivid first person narrative of a man on death row about to executed by the electric chair.  The term “Mercy Seat” refers to both the electric chair and the throne of God which the song’s protagonist knows he will soon be visiting.  In the Old Testament, the mercy seat is the symbol of the throne of God over the Ark of the Covenant.

“And thou shalt make an ark-cover of pure gold:  two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof and a cubit and a half the breath thereof.”

– Exodus 25:17

In the chorus of The Mercy Seat, Cave sings:

“And the mercy seat is waiting

And I think my head is burning

And in a way I’m yearning

To be done with all this measuring of truth.

An eye for an eye

And a tooth for a tooth

And anyway I told the truth

And I’m not afraid to die.”

This refrain, repeated fifteen times over the course of the song with a number of variations on the lyrics was inspired by Leviticus 24: 17-12, which states:

“Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death.  Whoever takes an animal’s life shall make it good, life for life.  If anyone injures his neighbour, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him.  Whoever kills an animal shall make it good and whoever kills a person shall be put to death.  You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the Lord, your God.”

At the start of The Mercy Seat, we see the convict suffering from apophenia, an unmotivated seeing of connections accompanied by an abnormal meaningfulness, seeing “a ragged cup, a twisted mop” but also “the face of Jesus in my soup”, the only image of forgiveness for the convict’s actions in the song, whilst the convict remains adamant that he is “nearly wholly innocent, you know”.   The image of “Those sinister dinner deals …” is suggestive of the convict’s last meal, a special meal provided for those on death row shortly before execution but in relation to the Biblical imagery within the song, also makes a connection to The Last Supper in the Bible.  The image of “a blackened tooth” in Verse 3 of the song suggests isolation but also martyrdom as if the convict is the tooth chosen to be blackened.  In Verse 4, Cave sings:

“I hear stories from the chamber

How Christ was born into a manger

And like some ragged stranger

Died upon the cross

And might I say it seems so fitting in its way

He was a carpenter by trade

Or at least that’s what I’m told.”

Religion is a subject that is frequently encouraged in prisons and this verse tells of how the prisoner hears Biblical stories from his cell.  This verse sees the prisoner finding it ironic that Jesus was a carpenter but was crucified on a wooden cross.  Here, we see another link with Johnny Cash, who was imprisoned on a number of occasions, and recorded the song Jesus Was A Carpenter on his 1973 album, The Gospel Road.  Jesus’s trade is said to be that of carpenter in the book of The Gospel of Mark in which Jesus is rejected in Nazareth, just as the prisoner in The Mercy Seat is by society:

““Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon?  And not His sisters here with us?  And they took offence at him”.

– Mark 6:3

As the song continues, the convict becomes more anxious about his impending death and reckoning.  In the lines “And like the moth that tries To enter the bright light”, we see the narrator drawn towards the light of God as he approaches death.  This not only diminishes the importance of the song’s character but also shows his spiritual longings to be a compulsion.  We are given various suggestions of guilt before his final admission in the song’s closing line, “And anyway I told the truth but I’m afraid I told a lie”.

The Good Son, the album that followed Tender Prey in 1990, continued the use of Biblical imagery in Cave’s work, most notably in it’s title which was coined from The Parable of the Good Son (Luke 15: 11-32).  The sheer amount of inspiration that Cave has taken from the Bible continues to this day, across a wide spectrum of musical styles, most recently on albums such as Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (2008).    Speaking about the Biblical influences on his music, he said:

“I’m not religious, and I’m not a Christian, but I do reserve the right to believe in the possibility of a God.  It’s kind of defending against the indefensible, though; I’m critical of what religions are becoming, the more destructive they’re becoming.  But I think as an artist, particularly, it’s a necessary part of what I do, that there is some sort of divine element going on within my songs”.

– Interview with Nick Cave, Los Angeles Times, 2010.