Over the past 59 years, the duty of performing a James Bond movie theme has fallen to the likes of Tom Jones, Paul McCartney, Carly Simon, Bono, Madonna — and most recently, for the latest installment, No Time to Die, Billie Eilish. But one of the greatest Bond themes ever written has never been heard in any of the movies. This, in any case, is the contention of the video essay above, “How Radiohead Wrote the Perfect Bond Theme.” Commissioned for 2015’s Spectre, the second-most recent film in the series, Thom Yorke and company came up with a song that moves Listening In creator Barnaby Martin to declare, “This is Bond, but it’s also unmistakably Radiohead.”
Like many Bond title themes, Radiohead’s “Spectre” is in a minor key with “added blues notes,” working off the distinctive chord progression composer John Barry employed in the series’ original instrumental theme. And while, like most Bond title-theme performers, Radiohead are popular musicians, their actual work has always refused to align perfectly with straightforward pop-music expectations.
“Spectre” embodies both the band’s “love of rhythmical ambiguity” and their “trademark harmonic ambiguity.” The “beauty and simplicity of the music contrast painfully with the words,” reflecting “perfectly that dichotomy in contemporary Bond: a man struggling to reconcile love and duty.”
As if that weren’t enough, Radiohead’s song also includes unexpected but consummately Bond-esque compositional and instrumental moves. “It’s jazzy but discordant,” says Martin. “It’s a modern re-imagining of John Barry’s big-band orchestrations.” In every section the piece exquisitely maintains the tension between Radiohead and Bond, creating “an instantly compelling and dark musical world. Alas, it was ultimately replaced, ostensibly because the mood of the music and lyrics didn’t fit properly with that of the film: “We had this beautiful song,” lamented director Sam Mendes, “and we weren’t able to use it.” But that hasn’t stopped Bond aficionados from imagining what could have been, and you can get a sense of it in a fan video, previously featured here on Open Culture, that reunites “Spectre” with Spectre.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.