This post is written in conjunction with my new podcast, Licence to Spiel, featuring my good friend Thad Hait and I talking about Bond and Bond-tangential films.
After nearly 60 years and 25 films, the James Bond Theme is instantly recognizable to pretty much anyone, even if they haven’t seen a single entry in the series.
And the James Bond sound, primarily shaped by John Barry, has, up until recently at least*, provided a consistent vibe across many Bond actors, directors, writers, and indeed film styles.
Aside from the Bond Theme, very little of that is present in DR. NO.
Monty Norman was a curious choice to score the first James Bond film. Primarily known as a songwriter working in theatre, Norman was recruited by Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli, who had previously invested in one of Norman’s shows (the short-lived Belle), and only agreed to join the project when Broccoli’s producing partner, Harry Saltzman, offered him a trip to Jamaica.
[I thought]…sea, sun, and sand…and a little bit of work. Great!Monty Norman
Norman’s initial focus was to write “diegetic” music (music that is being played in the world of the film). He was soon introduced to a local bandleader in Jamaica by the name of Byron Lee who along with his group, the Dragonaires had been enjoying considerable popularity. Working quickly—one week into shooting, music would be needed for the nightclub sequence—Norman wrote three different songs: “Jump Up”, “Kingston Calypso”, and “Under the Mango Tree.”
“Jump Up” would be the song used for the nightclub sequence, and it adds considerable local flair to the scene:
“Kingston Calypso” was ultimately used by Maurice Binder in the opening title sequence and is probably better known to fans of the film as the “Three Blind Mice” song:
But if you ask someone which song they most recall from DR. NO, it would most likely be “Under the Mango Tree.” The song appears multiple times throughout the film in various guises. The primary version is performed by Diana Coupland (who is also Monty Norman’s wife) and is heard multiple times often as source music.
However, the first time the song appears as source music as Bond talks to Quarrel in the bar, it’s sung by Monty Norman himself (who had enjoyed a successful singing career before turning to writing). The song is even sung by not one, but two characters: Honey Rider and by James Bond himself (to date the only time the character sings). It would also appear in an an instrumental form. In other words, the song appears a lot in DR. NO.
Personally, I think the song is…Fine. It doesn’t make me cringe in any way, though it does become tiresome upon hearing it for the umpteenth time when watching the movie. If anything, it’s notable for inventing the slang term “boolooloop,” which if Urban Dictionary is to be believed, has never been used in anything before or since.
Of course there’s more to film music than just the songs, and Norman did write instrumental score as well. For various reasons, the score is, frankly, a mess. Editor Peter Hunt has been quoted that members of the production were unhappy with Norman’s music (although whether he is only speaking for himself has been a matter of debate).
Hunt’s solution to this “problem” was to use excerpts of the James Bond Theme (which created additional angst…more on this below) throughout the movie. Sometimes it works—imagine the iconic introduction of Bond at the casino table without the theme played underneath. Other times it feels unnecessary—like a scene of Bond going to his hotel room.
Significant portions of Norman’s score do appear in the film though. Unfortunately for people like me who write blogs about film music, or for fans of film music in general or Bond films specifically, almost none of the score is available on the DR. NO soundtrack album. Inexplicably, the producers of the album opted instead to include 17 tracks recorded in Jamaica along with the James Bond Theme. This is a shame, because as far as I know (and please correct me or point me to better sources), the only place to hear any of Norman’s score is on the “Bond Back in Action” CD from Silva Screen Records.
Just like “Under the Mango Tree,” I would describe Monty Norman’s score as…Fine. It never ruins the scene (I like the most divisive moment that I will come to momentarily), but it certainly cannot compare to the subsequent scores by Barry and others. He writes a motif for the character of Dr. No that, again is Fine if not terribly memorable. It’s a seven-note ascending line often followed by a descending line in response. In this excerpt, it’s heard in the electric guitar:
The most memorable musical moment in the film is undoubtably the tarantula scene. At Cubby Broccoli’s request, Norman added in five orchestra “hits” to coincide with Bond’s shoe hitting the spider. Director Terrence Young hated this, particularly when he heard the audience laugh at the moment. Personally, I like it. I think it works to diffuse the tension of the sequence. The track up to that point works well too, with a crawling motif in strings, flutes, and low clarinets that perfectly matches the slow walk of the spider against…well…the sheet of glass placed between it and Sean Connery.
One other cue plays over the climax of the film where, after causing Dr. No to fall into a pool of boiling water, Bond frantically searches for Honey as the facility they are in threatens to explode. Perhaps less memorable for its use in the film than it is for its strange use at the end of the next film, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, it includes a motif similar to that played during the tarantula scene and also features one of the appearances of the Bond theme in a version other than the Barry-arranged version used so frequently in the score.
The Bond Theme
DR. NO could have had no other music aside from the James Bond Theme and been memorable. Yet this ubiquitous theme is also one of the more controversial in film history.
Monty Norman struggled to come up with a main title theme. At one point, Saltzman suggested using “Under the Mango Tree” but Broccoli (thankfully) disagreed. Digging through a trove of previously written but unused music, Norman ultimately settled on a piece called “Bad Sign, Good Sign,” that had a melody line that was soon adapted to the familiar guitar line in the Bond Theme.
At this point, things get complicated, as there have been many varied accounts. One area of consistency though is that it was felt that the new theme needed to be made more exciting. Enter bandleader and arranger-producer, John Barry.
Barry had already made a name for himself with his jazz-rock group the John Barry Seven as well as being an arranger and producer. He was paid £200 to arrange Norman’s theme, which he did for his group, including guitarist Vic Flick, who is responsible for the famous guitar line that runs through the piece.
And that should have been the end of it, but there remained two different controversies:
First, I mentioned above that editor Peter Hunt decided to use the Bond Theme throughout the film. Yet Barry had been paid with the understanding that the theme was only to be used as the main title. This understandably raised the ire of Barry, who was assured that his contribution was not going to be overlooked by Broccoli and Saltzman (who of course would hire him for eleven films in the series).
At the same time, John Barry began claiming that he was the true composer of the Bond Theme. Yes, the guitar line came from Norman, but in his telling, the middle bridge and the rest of the theme was his own creation.
While a lawsuit that was finally settled in 2001 decided that the Bond Theme was indeed the creation of Monty Norman, I can see Barry’s point to a degree. When you compare the feel of the rest of the score to DR. NO to the later Barry scores and the Bond Theme (which, yes, was at least arranged by Barry), I really do feel that the truth is somewhere in the middle.
However, I will close out this post with a quote (and boy is it a quote) from Barry, speaking to another Bond film composer, David Arnold:
If I didn’t do it, why the hell did they not continue to employ Mr. Norman for the following 14 Bond movies?John Barry