The problem with reviewing cover albums is that it is awfully easy to resort to simple comparisons with the original songs. The problem with the covers themselves is that, all too often, the artists are simply attempting recreate the original songs. Awfully. As such, it is nigh on impossible to avoid such comparisons when the cover is doing little more than attempting to sound exactly like the original. To that end, perhaps the best covers are found in those that shake up the original song, so that it harkens back to the initial piece, but does something new with it; it has to both embrace the song, whilst simultaneously giving it a different spin. After all, what is the point of creating something new when the end result is only endeavouring to clone what’s old? It is a very fine balance to strike, and for many, a cover will elicit a “love it or hate it” response, seldom falling between those two extremes.
The James Bond title songs are some of the most recognisable themes in movie history. Whether it’s Shirley Bassey’s powerful vocals on Goldfinger, Duran Duran’s catchy percussion from A View To A Kill, or merely Monty Norman’s infamous James Bond Theme, the original recordings of the classic Bond themes are arguably – and probably rightly – irreplaceable, at least so far as their initial arrangement. Albums such as Shaken and Stirred: The David Arnold James Bond Project, created by Arnold prior to his work on Tomorrow Never Dies, successfully put new spins on many of the earlier Bond themes, both instrumentally and vocally. Perhaps the album’s two extremes, The Propellerheads’ popular nine-minute rendition of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service featured some of the driving drum and bass elements that makes their work so unique, whilst Shara Nelson’s cover of Moonraker sounded thematically similar to Shirley Bassey’s original, only with the addition of some subtle electronics. Arnold’s compilation almost flawlessly (LTJ Bukem’s track is, perhaps, the only weak link on the CD) updates a number of classic Bond tunes.
Starkly contrasting here, then, is Metro Doubles new Totally… James Bond: The Essential 007 Themes compilation, a 2CD set featuring vocal and instrumental covers of the James Bond songs that endeavour to mirror their original counterparts quite closely. Produced by Ian Summers, the collection features the music of the Ian Rich Orchestra, a roughly 25-piece outfit. There are ten different vocalists who perform anything from one to four songs each. Is the effort a success? Read on to find out.
“Attracting top rank performers from Matt Monro to Madonna, the Bond theme pieces are perennially one of the most persuasive tools in the arsenal of this unique franchise.”
Jon Winter, ‘Totally… James Bond’ liner notes
The set comes packaged in the standard 2CD jewel case, inside a rather quality cardboard slipcase. With no intention to be nitpicky, one cannot help but notice that the back of the CD claims the “first Ian Fleming film was committed to celluloid in 1967”, something that is promptly contradicted in the next sentence, when it is noted that the set “brings together the complete collection from over 40 years of Bond magic”. Curiously, the first CD, featuring the vocal renditions of the themes, uses the exact same track order as the Best of Bond… James Bond CD sets, with Die Another Day tacked on as the twenty-first track. The second disc, containing the instrumentals, places the songs in order, contrary to the seemingly random tracklisting for the second CD on the back of the case.
Within the set itself is a single page of liner notes from Jon Winter, who gives a brief discussion on the appeal of James Bond, with a focus on the music. Also listed are the credits for both discs, whilst the artwork inside features various non-descript Bond-esque silhouettes, including a jet, a helicopter, a radio set and skier. Intriguingly, the image of Bond on the front of the CD is a silhouette of an image of Pierce Brosnan from an official photoshoot for GoldenEye. The disc artwork features a black and a red gunbarrel motif for the two CDs.
CD 1 – Main Themes
01. The Ian Rich Orchestra – James Bond Theme (2:36): The well-known theme song is played here in typical over-the-top fashion. It’s a rather crisp rendition of the theme, with perhaps more of a jazz flavour than usual. The track is actually one of the few in this set to deviate from the original versions of the songs; a brief drum solo occurs about halfway through the song, and it ends on a huge, brassy note, as opposed to the cool guitar twang of the John Barry arrangement. The deep guitar riff is very close to that featured in the original 1962 recording.
02. Joanne Farrell – Goldfinger (3:04): Farrell delivers a quite sexy performance that is marred only by a rather tinny instrumental, no doubt due to the small size of the orchestra. It’s quite noticeable towards with the opening beats as well as at the end of the song; whilst Farrell holds that final note well, the instrumental doesn’t quite match up. A very jazzy trumpet features prominently, as does a Bondian sounding guitar. One minor fairly insignificant thing that has stood out to me on repeat listenings is Farrell’s articulation on a handful words (“beware of his heart arf gold”), but it isn’t a major detraction.
03. Marina Berry – Nobody Does It Better (3:29): Berry’s voice is a particularly sweet and gentle one that suits this song down to a tee. She’s accompanied by a similarly gentle piano, and unlike several of the other songs on the CD, the percussion enhances the song’s pace, rather than cheapening the affair. An adlib guitar plays softly throughout the song, gradually growing louder, whilst a backing of female vocalists is utilised at the song’s climax, as well as during several key moments earlier in the song (such as over “I tried to hide from your love life” and “there’s some kind of magic inside you”). Minimal experimenting takes place, but the song is an enjoyable one.
04. Nik Page – A View To A Kill (3:37): I’m yet to hear a cover of Duran Duran’s hugely successful title song that I like, and that is very much unchanged after listening to this track. In what is almost certainly the worst song on the CD, Nik Page delivers vocals that are clearly trying to imitate those of Simon LeBon. The electronics throughout the song vary from fairly decent to pretty poor, and it sounds like the brass throughout the song has been distorted, resulting in a cheap-sounding synthetic effect. Even the guitar work throughout the song is fairly dull. Unfortunately, one of the best Bond songs is left sounding like little more than a tacky knock-off, to the point where it almost makes Gob’s frenetic 1997 cover sound bearable. Almost.
05. Zoe Tyler – For Your Eyes Only (3:04): Here, Tyler performs a powerful rendition of Sheena Easton’s 1981 theme song. It is perhaps a touch too powerful in parts, especially the chorus. It’s not a bad listen overall, and the instrumental is virtually flawless. If anything, it’s an interesting ‘what if?’ as to what the song would have been like if performed by someone with a more authoritative voice, such as Dame Bassey.
06. Bob Saker – We Have All The Time In The World (3:15): Like A View To A Kill before it, Bob Saker’s cover tends to drifts – from time to time – into little more than an impersonation of the original, instead of standing alone in its own right. Louis Armstrong’s voice is instantly recognisable, so it is painfully obvious when Saker foregoes his own talent to try to imitate Armstrong’s unique gravely voice. The instrumental, however, is totally enjoyable, with a heavy-ish percussion leading the track, which features the Spanish guitar a dash more prominently than the original. This could’ve been a pleasant cover if it weren’t for the Louis Armstrong imitations, which Saker coasts in and out of, as if he can’t make up his mind whether to use his normal voice or not.
07. Nik Page – Live And Let Die (3:11): In what is possibly the most covered Bond song of them all, Nik Page returns for a more restrained imitation than his earlier track. The beauty of the original version was it was heavily driven by the instrumental, and this is no exception here. Page’s McCartney impersonation is decent (even if one asks oneself why they just don’t simply listen to McCartney and be done with it), accompanied by female back-up singers. A very nice touch during the chaotic instrumental a minute into the song is the addition of a harp. A small extra, but it works (as does the piano roll towards the song’s end). Surprisingly, the portion of the song that could have easily been ruined (“what does it matter to you, when you’ve got a job to do” etc.) is particularly enjoyable; Page effectively “gives the other fella Hell!” Rather ordinary, but passable.
08. Zoe Tyler – All Time High (3:02): Tyler is more gentle here than she was in For Your Eyes Only, and it works. Only during the chorus does she take charge a bit too much. It sounds like a guitar can also be heard faintly during the chorus, and the use of a harp again works perfectly. Like For Your Eyes Only, it more or less copies the original verbatim, but with a more powerful voice. In spite of Tyler’s powerful voice, it’s a decent listen.
09. Nik Page – The Living Daylights (4:17): The “The” in “The living daylights” part of the chorus is gone (it’s also omitted from the “(the) living’s in the way we die” lyric). Thought I’d get that off my chest, because it sticks out like a sore thumb. On that topic, the “let it never fade away” line in a-ha’s original version has now become “never let it fade away”. Minor niggle. As for the song itself, it falls under the same category as Page’s Live And Let Die cover, only this one is trying to be the original more, much to its detriment. The instrumental itself isn’t too bad, featuring some punchy brass and some catchy percussion. However, there’s nothing particularly pleasing here.
10. Alexus Ruth – Licence To Kill (5:09): This is perhaps the best song on the first disc (and the instrumental on the second disc is better still). Foregoing the slight electronics that appeared in Gladys Knight’s original, this is a more traditional rendition of the theme, in which Ruth – who has a terrific voice – tweaks the vocals on the original ever so slightly, but it works. The “til their dying day” portion at the end of the bridge is performed very nicely. And in one of the rare occasions on the CD, the size of the orchestra sounds perfect. The only part where it’s tarnished is during the final chorus, where the instrumental seems to go off-key for just a moment, but it isn’t too obvious.
11. Bob Saker – From Russia With Love (2:35): Accompanying a top instrumental here, is another performance from Saker that leans towards a Matt Monro sound-alike than standing alone in its own right. However, unlike Louis Armstrong, Matt Monro’s voice is nowhere near as distinctive, and as such, Saker’s vocals here tend not to jar as they did with We Have All The Time In The World. A faint snare drum aids the pace of this song, as does the use of the mandolin, which leads the instrumental on the second disc. A very lush sounding rendition of the original theme.
12. Nik Page – Thunderball (3:00): In his final performance in this compilation, Nik Page supplies a rather ghastly Tom Jones impersonation, which taints the enjoyable instrumental. It shouldn’t be too bad, but it is as one can’t help but think how much better Tom Jones does Tom Jones, than Nik Page doing Tom Jones. But again, the orchestra’s work on the song is very good.
13. Zoe Tyler – You Only Live Twice (2:51): I find it unusual that they selected someone with a voice as strong as that of Zoe Tyler to perform the more beautiful Bond themes. That said, for the most part, the vocals are enjoyable here. The instrumental is typically gentle, too. Its tender approach is more reminiscent of the original song than the crisp instrumental David Arnold utilised for his covers of the song with Björk and Natacha Atlas. It’s just a shame that the Ian Rich Orchestra did not hold onto that top note at the very start of the song; instead of holding the crescendo as in the original, the build-up and the swirling strings back down sort of meld together awkwardly.
14. Joanne Farrell – Moonraker (3:13): Covering perhaps the most underrated song in the whole Bond canon, Joanne Farrell does an ample job of carrying this soothing tune. From time to time, Farrell deviates slightly from the original’s vocals, resulting in a more imaginative rendition of the theme. The instrumental uses heavier percussion than the original did, to its benefit. It goes without saying, but these songs work far better when the vocalist is not simply attempting to reproduce the original singer.
15. The Ian Rich Orchestra – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (2:35): John Barry’s terrific instrumental theme to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is not quite done justice here. After the impressive opening brass punches, a different-sounding synthesiser kicks in, which works quite well. However, the driving brass created by Alpine horns in the original John Barry version is drowned out here by some pulsating strings, which gives the song a jerky sound.
16. Diane O’Sullivan – The Man With The Golden Gun (2:34): In the shortest song on the CD, O’Sullivan gives a powerful performance that only really harkens back to Lulu’s version during the slow portion of the theme. The electric guitar that figured into the original quite heavily takes a backseat until later in the song, while the brass again takes on a jazzier feel. The percussion – particularly the bass – has a tendency to cheapen the song, too.
17. Joanne Farrell – Diamonds Are Forever (2:43): With a dark and moody opening that is a smidgen evocative of David Arnold and David McAlmont’s Diamonds Are Forever (You Expect Me To Do What, Mr. Goldfinger? Mix), Farrell goes on to deliver an enthusiastic vocal that is perhaps the most varied in this collection. The instrumental uses similar disco-style sound effects that were found in the original recording and some heavy percussion (this time reminiscent of the original version of the Arnold/McAlmont collaboration) that carries the song. This is quite an enjoyable cover.
18. Nicola Hughes – GoldenEye (3:29): The addition of a harp and chimes adds an extra air of mystery to this above-average cover of the radio edit of Tina Turner’s 1995 tune. Hughes’ vocals aren’t as powerful of those of Turner, even if, at times, it sounds as if she’s imitating the original. Only towards the end does she falter with the final lyrics. The strings during this track are more than adequate, but this time, the brass is lacking.
19. Diane O’Sullivan – Tomorrow Never Dies (4:46): Again, O’Sullivan delivers a different take on a Bond theme, and one that suits her strong voice. The instrumental is a touch weak, particularly during the screeching strings opening of the song (and the several instances in which they reappear later on). That said, the percussion is nice and strong, which works well for the piece, even if again, the bass sounds pretty tacky.
20. Lois Laxton – The World Is Not Enough (3:55): The electronics used throughout this cover quite nicely mirror the sounds heard throughout Garbage’s 1999 Bond theme, and Laxton delivers a rather Bassey-esque rendition of Shirley Manson’s original vocals. However, the size of the Ian Rich Orchestra – case in point here, the strings section – is detrimental the instrumental, particularly in such a strings-driven song as this is. The strings are more than ample during the verses, but during the chorus, it’s painfully obvious. It’s a pity, since everything else – the vocals, the percussion and the brass, in particular – is more than adequate. Another minor lyrics glitch occurs when Laxton sings, “I know how to hurt, I know how to kill”.
21. Sarah May – Die Another Day (3:29): Rivalling Nik Page’s A View To A Kill cover for worst track on the album is this dud. For those who thought we couldn’t have gotten a worse title track to Die Another Day, have a listen to this. It’s not a particularly coverable song to begin with (covered here is the radio edit), but May’s cheaply distorted vocals vary from sounding like a deep-voiced male, to a chipmunk on helium. It’s not a good effect. Ironically, though, we can only assume that the orchestra actually performed the strings in this piece, when they were synthetic in the original version. Notably, there is no instrumental for this track on the second disc. Probably for the best.
CD 2 – Instrumental Bond
01. The Ian Rich Orchestra – James Bond Theme (2:36): The instrumentals on this second disc are identical to those on the first CD, only the vocalists have been replaced with a further instrumental or two. What results is a surprisingly different sound on this second disc, and one that is arguably more successful than the initial batch of covers. This first track, however, is identical to that on disc one.
02. The Ian Rich Orchestra – From Russia With Love (2:34): For the most part of this track, the mandolin takes a front seat, resulting in a delightfully Russian-sounding track, unlike any version of this song I’ve heard before. Interjecting from time to time to replace the mandolin is a lounge-y lone trumpet that sounds terrific. The closing bars of the song, in which the mandolin is used in place of the lyrics, is perfect.
03. The Ian Rich Orchestra – Goldfinger (3:03): In lieu of the vocals here is a Bond-esque sounding guitar that is reminiscent of the terrific instrumental track from the Goldfinger, which was only used in the film’s advertising campaign, and a saxophone, which alternate throughout the song. The result is a highly enjoyable instrumental that has a great lounge feel to it, without losing its Bondian roots.
04. The Ian Rich Orchestra – Thunderball (3:00): Without the wannabe Tom Jones crooning along, this is quite a good piece, as shown in this instrumental. The same guitar that was used for parts of the previous song leads the way here, and it’s rather subtle, rightfully allowing the brass to take charge. When the guitar isn’t replacing the vocals, it’s a smooth trumpet. Just as with the Goldfinger track, this is an excellent instrumental cover.
05. The Ian Rich Orchestra – You Only Live Twice (2:51): Here’s a pretty limp instrumental of the Nancy Sinatra theme. Replacing the vocals this time out is what sounds like a clarinet or an oboe (odd, since neither of those are credited in the liner notes) and a flute, but the former seems like an unusual choice. Both instruments give heartfelt performances, but they probably aren’t right for a song like this, particularly with the Asian rhythms throughout the song. It should please some people, but I don’t find it too outstanding.
06. The Ian Rich Orchestra – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (2:35): This is the same track as on the first CD.
07. The Ian Rich Orchestra – We Have All The Time In The World (3:16): This is perhaps the first in what becomes a line of songs that inappropriately uses the saxophone in place of the vocals. It just doesn’t feel right for a song like this. As a result, the trumpet is predictably underused, which is a shame, since the song works so well when it’s performing.
08. The Ian Rich Orchestra – Diamonds Are Forever (2:42): A terrific – and again, lounge-y – instrumental, with a mysterious-sounding flute leading in place of the early vocals, before it’s overtaken by a silky trumpet, which is in turn, overtaken by a playful (and appropriately used saxophone). All this occurs in the first minute-and-a-half or so, making for a nice build-up to the track’s punchy climax. Actually, this one wouldn’t sound out-of-place in John Barry’s lush Diamonds Are Forever score.
09. The Ian Rich Orchestra – Live And Let Die (3:11): A Spanish-sounding guitar replaces the vocals during the slower parts of this song, whilst an electric guitar commands the up-beat portions. It’s an abnormal combination, but it works. The guitar isn’t as heavy as the ones featured in the highly successful Guns ‘n’ Roses cover, and it only features occasionally. Perhaps the oddest addition is what sounds like a funky-sounding harpsichord (no doubt performed on a keyboard) for the middle part of the song. Again, odd, but it works.
10. The Ian Rich Orchestra – The Man With The Golden Gun (2:34): The cheap percussion here still drags the song down, whilst the saxophone returns appropriately, in a style that harkens back to Barry’s cues from Scaramanga’s Funhouse. The end product is an uplifting, jazzy piece that only takes a break for a heartfelt and soothing bridge. Quite pleasing!
11. The Ian Rich Orchestra – Nobody Does It Better (3:30): The use of an electric guitar here is even more of an oddity; but in some ways, it’s reminiscent of Marvin Hamlisch’s Anya cue. It’s certainly a unique take on the theme, a concept that is sorely lacking in this album. The direction they’ve taken this particular cue could please some, whilst others will no doubt find it a disgrace. Personally, I really like it. It’s different, but it maintains the song’s original feel. The female back-up singers remain, whilst the guitar is used throughout the entire song. This is well worth a listen.
12. The Ian Rich Orchestra – Moonraker (3:14): A warm flute carries this piece from the start quite well, resulting in a soothing and romantic tune, that also has a nice beat to it. There’s ten seconds of original music at the end of the first chorus, before what sounds like a xylophone leads for a brief while and then the saxophone kicks in. It isn’t too bad here, but I’d have sooner listened to the beautiful flute, which was carrying the song very well on its own.
13. The Ian Rich Orchestra – For Your Eyes Only (3:04): Here’s an instrumental that mirrors the original quite well. A soft guitar replaces the vocals amiably for the introduction, before it’s joined again by a saxophone. Sans the saxophone, this’d be a very enjoyable track, but it tends to be more of a hindrance than carrying the song. The portions without it wouldn’t sound out-of-place during Bill Conti’s score from the film.
14. The Ian Rich Orchestra – All Time High (3:01): Again, the soft guitar opens this song in place of the vocals, and it works beautifully. And again, a saxophone takes over, only it meshes quite nicely with the rest of the song, here. A trumpet oddly takes over from the saxophone halfway through the chorus, which is a touch jarring. A nice instrumental, nonetheless.
15. The Ian Rich Orchestra – A View To A Kill (3:37): Whilst it’s markedly better sans Nik Page’s vocals, the cheap electronic effects still work against the orchestration. The saxophone is again used, only it sounds quite awful here, almost like a theme song to one of those tacky 1980s cop shows. The trumpet assumes the mantle for the second verse, which sounds much better, but it disappears all too soon.
16. The Ian Rich Orchestra – The Living Daylights (4:17): This is quite a decent orchestration of the theme, where a saxophone is used quite appropriately (it works particularly well during the portions before the choruses kick in). However, given the instrument has been used during the past four songs straight, the ears have grown tired of it blaring out the Bond themes. On the whole, there’s nothing great here.
17. The Ian Rich Orchestra – Licence To Kill (5:09): Like Alexus Ruth’s cover of it on the first CD, this is a real highlight here. An adlib saxophone works perfectly (for a change) during the more powerful parts of the song, whilst a low-key flute is utilised for the song’s verses. The percussion remains bang-on from the previous version. Overall, it’s terrific.
18. The Ian Rich Orchestra – GoldenEye (3:29): A quirky-sounding guitar originally replaces the lyrics here (it fits quite well), whilst the now-obligatory saxophone (in Pink Panther theme mode) kicks in a bit later. And just before the first chorus, what is no doubt a keyboard, programmed as what sounds like an organ, commences (again, odd, but it works). The same cycle is repeated for the chorus and remaining verses. Above average.
19. The Ian Rich Orchestra – Tomorrow Never Dies (4:46): The same style guitar as featured in tracks 13 and 14 reappears, as does the mandolin from From Russia With Love and, wait for it, the saxophone for the chorus. It doesn’t work overly well here, either, particularly following the inventive use of the mandolin, and preceding the keyboard-organ.
20. The Ian Rich Orchestra – The World Is Not Enough (3:54): Mercifully, for the last track on the CD, the saxophone is nowhere to be found. A lone electric guitar plays during the two verses, a very Garbage-esque vocal replacement, which works in a unique way. Some heavy strings are used during the chorus (accompanied by a Middle-Eastern-sounding wind instrument, that I can’t place), whilst a trumpet plays very subtlety during the bridge. All three instruments regroup for the song’s climax. The initial size of the orchestra (again, highlighted by the strings section) does detract from a song like this, but on the whole, it’s quite enjoyable.
Expecting the worst upon purchase of the CD, I was actually surprised that it wasn’t half bad. Unfortunately, some of the songs miss the mark, by and large due to the fact they were attempting imitation, rather than a re-imagining. The other vocals were, for the most part, enjoyable, if a little bland. In actual fact, if any word is conjured up whilst listening to this CD, it’s “bland”. Not a bad thing, per se, but a little bit of experimentation could have gone a long way. As it happens, the instrumentals on the second CD feature more varied takes on the Bond theme songs than the first. The second disc, enjoyable as it is, is marred by an over-reliance on the saxophone in place of the vocals, often in songs were it simply doesn’t fit. The general ambience generated by this disc, however, is a jazzy, upbeat one, certainly not out of place playing in the background over dinner (or just a martini or two). Having written this review over the period of a week, I am finding the CD to be a “grower” (in fact, I’m guilty of having played the dire Die Another Day track from disc one several times in the car on the way home from work the other night), and for its price (I picked up my copy for under AUS$23), Totally… James Bond is money well spent for the 007 music fan. Don’t expect fresh new takes on your favourite themes, and be prepared for the odd imitation or two, and this two-disc set makes for a decent purchase.