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Composer David Arnold’s ‘insane’ mission scoring James Bond films

Famed composer David Arnold, the man behind many of your favourite film soundtracks – among them five James Bond movies – is soon to be in Cambridge, where he’ll perform some of his best-known songs in a more intimate, ‘stripped-down’ format.

David Arnold
David Arnold

Over the course of his impressive career, David, a Grammy, Ivor Novello, and BAFTA award-winner, has worked with a wide variety of top pop acts, appeared in and scored TV sketch show Little Britain, composed for theatre, as well as TV and film, and was the musical director for the London 2012 Olympics closing ceremony.

“I’ve done the film music concerts before with a full orchestra,” he explains as we discuss via a Zoom call his new tour, which is called ‘David Arnold The Songs: Live’. “There’s something about a film orchestra which suggests a level of politeness and distance.

“I suppose when you go to an orchestral concert, people start whispering – when you go to a stand-up rock ’n’ roll show, people start shouting. There’s an essential reverence that happens with an orchestra.

“And one of the things I always tried to do was to try and break that part, because it’s not classical music, it’s film music, TV music, so it’s not meant to be revered – it’s meant to be enjoyed to a greater extent.

“So I always try to break those things down, largely just by telling stories, so that by the end of the concert, hopefully people feel that they’re in their front rooms rather than at the Albert Hall, or Festival Hall, or something a bit more ‘posh’.

“And the thing about songs is that songs, a lot of the time when they appear in a movie, they’re a record first, and the sound of a record is really different to the sound of a film score – and there’s a certain amount of aggression that happens with rock ‘n’ roll music; certainly some of the songs that I’ve done, for instance Play Dead [performed by Björk] or You Know My Name, from Casino Royale, allow that they’re aggressive songs.

“And quite rightly so because they’re about aggression, to a certain extent, and when you put that alongside an orchestra, there’s a level of politeness that creeps into it – and you’ve got 75 people playing it, rather than four or five people playing it.

“And I thought it’d be nice to try and get to the essence of it, without the bells and whistles, violins and trumpets, I suppose, and to present them from the author’s perspective, it’s like ‘This is the story of this song, this is why this song happened and how it happened’.

David notes that his upcoming show, which is taking place at The Junction (Cambridge is the last stop on the tour) is about “how these songs were conceived, this is what they were about, and this is how they sounded when they left me before they got to Björk or Chris Cornell, or Garbage or KD Lang or Shirley Bassey… This is how they were and this is what got those people interested in them”.

The experienced musician will be singing the songs on stage because “that’s how I present them to artists and to studios”. He adds: “Some people hire people in to sing them, but there’s something about the author…

“If you were a playwright and you were reading a speech, even though you’re not a great actor, there’s something about what you know about a piece – you can’t really write that down, it’s just a knowing.

“And I think for me, singing the song, hopefully, gets the essential elements of what I think it’s about at least captured to a certain extent, and then whoever might go on to sing it will make their own version of it.

“But somewhere in there, the kernel of it, the material and the heart of it has been, to a certain extent, defined. Like a playwright who’s written a fantastic play, he’s never there when people give a standing ovation to the actors.

“The actors are reading these lines and having that exchange with an audience – it’s not about getting a standing ovation, but it’s about the experience and exchanging the material.”

The five James Bond films that David worked on are Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), The World Is Not Enough (1999), Die Another Day (2002), Casino Royale (2006) and Quantum of Solace (2008).

As well as Bond, he has written music for widely acclaimed films such as Independence Day (1996), Made in Dagenham (2010) and The Inbetweeners Movie (2011) and TV series such as Good Omens and Sherlock. Along with Björk and Chris Cornell, David has also collaborated with artists such as Massive Attack and Pulp.

Along with more familiar material from the last 30 years, the composer and his six-piece band will be treating audiences to previously unheard tunes, including a Bond song that was never used, and a new piece which will feature in Mog, an upcoming cartoon version of the cat created by author Judith Kerr, on Christmas Eve on Channel 4 (David previously worked on a TV movie of Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea).

“There is a song in the middle of that [Mog] which Sophie Ellis-Bextor has sung,” reveals David, “so we’re going to have a little ‘kid’s corner’ section where we’re going to do the song from The Tiger Who Came to Tea, which was sung by Robbie Williams, and this song from Mog as well – so it really is an all-encompassing 30 years of stuff, from the first ever thing I ever did to a song we’ll be doing before it’s even broadcast.”

David adds: “It’s a little bit of everything – I’m hoping that there’ll be, at least every three songs, something that you’d know, and if you don’t know it hopefully you’d like it anyway!”

Moving on to the subject of 007, David, who was recommended for the job by the great Bond composer John Barry, says that he normally writes Bond music to the film and to the actor playing the part (“to a certain extent we are familiar with Pierce Brosnan’s style, we’re familiar with the way that he walks, the way that he runs and the way that he talks”), but when it came to writing the score for Casino Royale, he didn’t know who was going to be playing the lead role.

“Before they cast Daniel Craig, they’d written a script for Casino Royale,” recalls David, “and reading that not knowing who was going to be James Bond meant that the song, in a way, was unanchored by history.

“You didn’t have to worry about how it would sit with a particular actor because there wasn’t one – we just had the character on the page, which I suppose is as pure as the James Bond character’s going to be.

“So that song [You Know My Name] was conceived of before Daniel Craig was cast. It was about the story.”

David reveals that he was actually introduced to the great John Barry by Beatles producer George Martin – “which is a double name-drop, I realise”.

He continues: “I was in the studio and George Martin had always been very lovely to me, and he knew I liked John and John was working in the same studio.

“He said, ‘Would you like to meet him?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I very much would, thank you very much’ and so he took me in and introduced me, and then he told John that I’d been working on that Shaken and Stirred record [1997’s Shaken and Stirred: The David Arnold James Bond Project] which was largely John Barry’s songs, but not exclusively, and he said, ‘Why don’t you play them to John?’

“So I played him On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Diamonds Are Forever, Moonraker and You Only Live Twice, and he liked them, thank God!

“So anyway, I thought that was that... In the meantime, Independence Day came out and did a ton of business all over the world, and I won a Grammy for Best Score.

“Then Shaken and Stirred came out, which did well, Barbara [Broccoli] and Michael [G Wilson – Bond producers] had a copy of that, and I think the combination of a British composer who is totally in love with the music of James Bond – a big fan of the series since childhood, as many of us are – could provably handle a big movie and had given us basically 11 or 12 songs that said ‘this is where this could go’, in terms of how we make this stuff feel new and fresh again, with one foot very definitely in the 60s and one then in the 90s.

“It felt like modern stuff but it was very aware of where we’d been before... So bringing the history of it with you but making it different, so I think the decision may have been made easier by those things all happening. But certainly John Barry saying, ‘It’s not a bad idea’ isn’t going to hurt!”

David Arnold at the Royal Albert Hall
David Arnold at the Royal Albert Hall

Commenting on the huge responsibility of scoring a film in cinema’s most popular and long-lasting franchise, David says: “It’s insane – it’s best not thought about.”

Does David have a favourite John Barry Bond soundtrack, a favourite of his own perhaps? “I’m tied into what is my favourite versus what I think is the best,” he replies. “I think my favourite is You Only Live Twice because it was the first one I saw, and it was that kind of cascading string line at the start that made me really want to get into film music.

“I think I was seven when I heard it; it was a children’s Christmas party and someone had hired a 16mm projector with a copy of You Only Live Twice, and they showed that as the film for these kids, which is not the best choice considering James Bond gets machine-gunned in the first two minutes, and you’ve got that terrifying sequence at the beginning where the big spaceship eats the small spaceship and the astronaut gets his pipe cut and floats off into oblivion…

“You get those songs, you get the gun barrel, you get the Bond theme, you get the John Barry score, then you get You Only Live Twice which Nancy Sinatra sang, but those beautiful strings…

“It’s like I’m there, I’m sold, I’ll buy it a million times, I’m here for this movie – so purely for that reason I would choose You Only Live Twice, even though On Her Majesty’s Secret Service I think might be the best.

“Of my own, I like the energy of Tomorrow Never Dies – it felt like someone who’s waited his whole life to do it, and it was. It felt like there’s such a lot of energy in it because of that.

“But in terms of maturity, I think possibly bits of Quantum of Solace are actually quite good. I like bits of all of them, but as an overall sense of ‘finally actually got to do one’, Tomorrow Never Dies is full of that first-time-out bravado and energy and need to do it, hopefully well.”

On the future of the franchise which was left somewhat up in the air after, spoiler alert, Daniel Craig’s Bond died at the end of 2021’s No Time to Die, David says: “I know that Barbara and Michael take this extraordinarily seriously, and it’s a big responsibility.

“I mean they’re having to figure out what the next 10 years of James Bond is going to be, and I trust their judgement implicitly, as I always have done, and I’ve also learned that unless there is an official announcement by [production company] Eon themselves, that everything else is speculative.

“But what astonishes me is that we’re nearly 62 years into James Bond movies and we’re still excited about what the next one’s going to be.

“It’s the most unique and extraordinary thing, but you have to keep reinventing so it’s going to have to be something that hasn’t been done before.”

[Read more: Bond’s ‘Little Nellie’ autogyro flies into Wallis & Sons’ showroom in Cambridgeshire]

See David Arnold perform songs from his incredible career at Cambridge Junction (J2) on Sunday, November 26. Tickets, priced £29, are available at junction.co.uk.

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