David Arnold: The Man Behind the Modern Sound of Bond…

David Arnold: the maestro of Bond.

Nobody does it better…

Upon reading that, one might think I’m referring to Bond…James Bond, and in a way, I am. But I’m referring more specifically to the man behind the music that has accompanied Bond on his last five cinematic entries: composer David Arnold.

Arnold became an official part of the Bond canon in 1997 with the release of Tomorrow Never Dies, the second installment of the Brosnan-era Bond movies. But before he became an official part of the Bond canon, Arnold had been a huge fan of the films and the accompanying rousing, lush, majestic musical scores composed by John Barry for most of the entries in the saga. In fact, Arnold was such a fan that he made a public proclamation of his love upon releasing the album, “Shaken and Stirred: The David Arnold James Bond Project”, which consisted of updated versions of some of Bond’s most famous themes and title songs. Singers like Chrissie Hynde, Jarvis Cocker, Iggy Pop, and Aimee Mann all helped Arnold “reinvent” Bond songs such as “Thunderball”, “From Russia With Love”, “Live and Let Die”, and “Diamonds Are Forever”, just to name a few.

Cover of "Shaken and Stirred: The David Arnold James Bond Project".

Being a Bond fan myself, naturally I scooped this album up when I discovered it at a bookstore. While it was a delight to hear so many of the famous theme songs given new “life” and modern tweaks…I was enchanted the most by the track titled, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, in which Arnold revisited both the theme from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the ”Spacewalk” theme from You Only Live Twice. In his treatment, he flawlessly and beautifully combined the Barry themes with his own orchestrations and modern drum loops. The result was an amazing musical amalgamation one could’ve easily titled “Barry Meets the 90’s”. I played the track repeatedly the first time I listened to the album: I’d immediately fallen in love with this new “sound”.

Goldeneye: Pierce Brosnan steps into the role he was born to play.

Flashback to 1995: moviegoers saw the long-awaited return of filmdom’s greatest superspy, James Bond 007, in Goldeneye. The film, both a critical and financial success, was hailed for bringing Bond up-to-date while retaining the familiar elements of the character and series. It seemed the only major complaint among fans and critics was the avant-garde score written by French composer, Eric Serra. The music made extensive use of abstract electronics but little use of Monty Norman’s signature Bond theme or the established “classic Bond sound” created by composer extraordinaire, John Barry. Given the nature of the film and the desire of the filmmakers to bring Bond into the new era of the 90’s, it’s understandable why Serra went in the electronics-heavy direction he did. After all…a new Bond (Pierce Brosnan), M (Dame Judi Dench), mood, setting, and atmosphere surely required a new “sound”. But, many felt that Serra went too far; the classic Bond theme appears only once in the film, during the thrilling tank chase in Moscow, and while this accompaniment music delighted mainstream and hardcore Bond fans, it simply wasn’t enough.

John Barry: the man who created the original "sound" of Bond.

Like it or not, as with most film franchises and their respective central characters, most audience members have certain preconceptions and expectations regarding the Bond series. Most people want to see Bond: appear in a tux, be suave and cool, be a hero…and they usually want to hear the classic Bond theme and “Bond-style music” accompany any and all of these images. The composer can update the theme if they like, they can change the orchestration, slightly alter it musically here and there…but these musical elements are expected to be prevalent in some form or another. So, upon listening to the complaints of the fans and critics alike, the producers of the Bond series realized they had to find someone else to score the next film and abide by these unwritten rules. The hunt was on for someone who could do for the music of Bond what the previous film did for the character itself; modernize it while maintaining the classic Bond elements (“sound” and themes).

Tomorrow Never Dies: David Arnold's first official Bond assignment

Enter David Arnold. Supposedly, John Barry himself recommended Arnold for the project after hearing a copy of “Shaken And Stirred”. In fact, many people felt the aforementioned album was a sort of “public audition” for the job of scoring the newest Bond film. If this was indeed the case, then the plan worked like a charm. Reportedly, the producers loved the effort and chose Arnold without hesitation. Like the previously mentioned track from “Shaken and Stirred”, the score for Tomorrow Never Dies effortlessly combines the signature Bond theme and “classic Bond sound” with Arnold’s own themes, rhythmic tendencies, and modern orchestrations. Equally impressive is how obvious a fan and student Arnold is of the melodic and orchestral styles of his beloved predecessor, John Barry; there are moments in the score where one could swear that no one but John Barry could’ve composed some of the sweeping melodies.

The final result of the merging of Arnold’s modern efforts with the purist, established sounds of the franchise is arguably one of the best Bond scores ever composed; lush and romantic when it needs to be, over-the-top in all the right moments, and always sounding like classic Bond. Arnold’s peers in the industry, critics, and Bond fans worldwide embraced the score, and the positive response, along with the awards won by the score itself, helped cement Arnold’s music as the new sound of Bond for the modern era.

"The World Is Not Enough": a darker, moodier Bond called for a slightly different musical approach.

The next Bond assignment for Arnold came in the form of The World Is Not Enough, which attempted to give audiences a darker presentation of not only the world of Bond, but also Brosnan’s interpretation of the title character. Both the star and his director Michael Apted wished to inject a bit more drama into the proceedings and as a result, Bond is more moody, gloomy, and blunt than he was in his previous incarnation. Arnold’s score musically reflected the tone of the film and character perfectly, as he toned down the overt usage of Monty Norman’s theme while creating motifs whose structure could clearly be traced back to it.

Arnold also continued to use his own unique style of rhythms and orchestrations while retaining the Barry-esque sound, and three scenes in particular clearly demonstrate this point. During the chase on the river Thames, Barry-style orchestrations are heard accompanying the opening vista of the body of water. During the start of the skiing scene, the melody heard during the proceeding can easily be described as “vintage John Barry” in regards to its melodic/interval structure. Finally, the music that plays during the Caviar Factory action scene is, like the music in the rental car and motorcycle chase scenes from Tomorrow Never Dies, the perfect example of Arnold meshing his style with Barry’s in a perfect way. The motif for the helicopters is clearly inspired by Barry, while the techno rhythms, percussion, and rhythmic structures themselves are all Arnold’s own. At times better than the film it was composed for, Arnold’s score only further reinforced the notion that David Arnold was the perfect man for scoring Bond’s adventures.

Die Another Day: Bond's 40th anniversary feature- perhaps his most outlandish yet -necessitated a "big" score.

2002’s Die Another Day was the third Bond film to be scored by Arnold. The movie was intended as both a new Bond adventure in a modern setting and also as a tribute to all the films that preceded it: after all, the film was the 20th entry in the series and was released on the 40th anniversary of the original Bond film, Dr. No. Without missing a beat, Arnold provided the perfect score for this Bond entry by again melding his own style with Barry’s while taking it one step further in his tribute: the score is peppered with musical salutes to the themes and motifs that came before it. Snippets of Arnold’s own work for Tomorrow Never Dies and The World Is Not Enough make musical appearances alongside direct nods to and quotes from some of Barry’s famous melodies: for example, the sweeping string line and harmonic structure of the first 30 seconds of the final cue, “Going Down Together” is clearly a tip of the hat to the title song, You Only Live Twice. Beyond that, the score as a whole is a precise match to the visuals; it is bombastic, fantastic, sometimes sentimental, and always “Bond”. No matter what one’s opinion of the film may be, the score can only be considered another triumph on the part of Arnold.

A new challenge presented itself to Arnold and the entire production when plans for the saga’s next installment were set in motion. Due partially to mixed critical and fan reactions to Die Another Day, the producers decided to once again take the Bond series in an entirely new direction as well as find a new actor to portray the legendary titular character. After many months and an exhaustive search, the world was finally introduced to a new Bond at a spectacular press conference held alongside the River Thames: enter blonde-haired Daniel Craig as Bond…in Casino Royale.

Daniel Craig slips into the tux, and Arnold reinvents his approach again.

Meant as a reintroduction to the character in the same vein as Goldeneye, Craig’s cinematic launch would differ from Brosnan’s induction in that the film was not supposed to simply be another sequel. Instead, the film would serve as a sort of “reboot” of Bond. Audiences would accompany Bond on his journey from mere spy to super spy and watch as he became a “00” Agent, ascertained his trademark cool, and discovered his trademark love for martinis, girls, and guns. The film would delve into his psyche and show moviegoers just what made Bond…well, Bond. In other words, viewers would be treated to the true evolution of the character of Bond.

Martin Campbell, the director who successfully brought Bond into the 90’s with Goldeneye, was asked to return to helm the new film, and David Arnold was brought back as well. As always, Arnold was up to the task and showed profound musical intuition in his compositional choices. Many “hardcore” Bond fans complained that this latest score, unlike the one for Die Another Day, just didn’t feature enough of the immortal Monty Norman theme.

Casino Royale: the evolution of Bond...and his signature musical theme.

This grievance had to sound ironically familiar to Arnold, whose hiring was essentially a reaction to the same complaint so many years before. But those who voice this particular displeasure aren’t listening closely enough. True, the unforgettable Bond theme does not appear in its original, complete version until the final scene in the film: the full theme itself isn’t heard in its entirety until the closing seconds of the picture (snippets and musical statements of the theme can be heard during the fight in the collapsing Venice building). But, Arnold knew that to use the iconic Bond theme before that point in the picture would be to betray the narrative of the film. Instead, he chose to create a score that evolves in a way that mirrors the progression of the title character. Up until the finale, permutations of the Bond theme can be heard in just about every possible musical form as Arnold allows the classic Bond theme to develop in the score itself along the journey. The melody of the theme song, “You Know My Name”, is obviously built using the first three intervals of Monty Norman’s theme, while the harmonic progression of the song is also based upon those of the Norman theme. And as with previous efforts, Arnold uses the title song as the melodic and harmonic basis for most of the score. So, to say that there wasn’t enough of Bond’s theme music in the film is not only unfair; it’s also incorrect when the score is thoroughly analyzed.

Eva Green as the beautiful and tragic Vesper Lynd.

Again, one can concede that the “true” and obvious statement of the Bond theme appears only briefly. But it could be argued that Arnold’s score for the film counters this fact with music that is steeped in classic Bond and John Barry styles and elements. The chord/harmonic progressions of Vesper Lynd’s theme, the track titled “Vesper”, are pure Barry…as is the flowing string orchestration (namely the cellos and basses) within. The tracks titled “Solange” and “I’m The Money” and even “Miami International”’s sections 6:50 to 7:14 and 12:13 to 12:30 would again make one believe Baarry himself penned those musical examples. The Bond theme doesn’t appear in its traditional form in those citations, but they are full of the “classic Bond sound”. And by crafting a score that utilized this sound throughout while paralleling the emotional and psychological progress of the film’s hero, Arnold not only helped make Casino Royale arguably one of the best Bond films to date, he also proved himself as a master cinematic storyteller from a musical standpoint.

Quantum of Solace: Bond and Arnold partnered again.

Having recently seen the series’ next installment, Quantum of Solace, again, the same thoughts came to mind that did upon first viewing the film. It seemed like Arnold’s composition was slightly hampered by the lack of a distinguishable/memorable melody in the title track, “Another Way To Die”: there’s little for Arnold to build from and work with from that standpoint (although, honestly…the same could be said of his work for Die Another Day; Madonna’s song featured a very limited melodic structure. Some of Arnold’s best work in the Bond series stems from his ability to weave the title or end credit songs in and out of the scores to the films (note: Tomorrow Never Dies features a score steeped in the song, “Surrender”, by KD Lang, which was co-written by Arnold and originally slated to be the title track for the film but instead ended up as the musical accompaniment for the end titles). “Another Way To Die” simply lacks the melodic “meat” that Arnold often uses as a basis of origin for his scores. But…rather than allowing this to be a limitation, Arnold takes a different tack by instead employing different elements from the title track as the “groundwork” for the film’s score. Specifically, he uses the parts of the bassline, a few three note motifs, and other musical ideas…the work of a true master, in my opinion.

Yes, despite what some composers might consider a perceived “setback”, Arnold again created a score that was once again immersed in hauntingly classic Bond and John Barry musical styles. One moment in the film particularly affected me and wholly captured Arnold’s uncanny ability to fuse Barry’s style with his own. During the scene in which Bond tracks his enemies to an opera house in Austria, the accompanying music sounded SO much like vintage Bond/Barry that I turned to my companion in the theater and whispered, “This couldn’t sound more like Barry’s Bond if it wanted to. It’s absolutely beautiful.” The track, titled “Night At The Opera”, is virtually mesmerizing to me. Every time I hear it, I’m enraptured by the compositional beauty and brilliance of the piece; the sweeping string lines, the layered background, the increasingly complex rhythmic textures, the punctuating percussion motif, the somber French horn line, the electronic atmosphere. This track symbolized in its essence, structure, and atmosphere EVERYTHING I’ve come to expect and love from a David Arnold James Bond score. This is Bond at its best: adapted for the new millennium while still preserving the wonderful musical soul and core that made it such an engrained part of our musical and pop culture collective consciousness so many years ago.

The memory of Vesper lingers over the events of "Quantum of Solace".

Also, with Quantum, I was overjoyed and actually moved to tears by the return of Vesper’s theme. Arnold employs the leitmotif smartly in just the right moments of the score and the result is both pained, and beautiful: the memory of Vesper haunts not only the character of Bond, but also his motivations and the film’s proceedings.

Arnold’s supremely entertaining and extremely well written Bond scores are what I can only call musically sublime. Many of the themes are original compositions by Arnold…but their intervals, melodic structures, and even harmonic progressions are easily viewed as a musical nod to the man who basically invented the “sound of Bond”; John Barry. The scores reflect Arnold’s own compositional sensibilities and techniques with their complex rhythmic structures and orchestrations and the electronic/techno percussion layerings. But the music is always grounded in the classic Bond sound that fans have come to love and expect. Yes, there is a modern essence to the music, but make no mistake, underneath the synthesizers, percussion, and electronic loops is a score written and orchestrated in the classic Barry style. The sumptuous strings, elegant flutes, grandiose French-horn statements, vibraphone layering, powerful trumpet accents, Romantic textures…they are ALL unmistakably “Bond”.

Skyfall: Bond's latest hits theaters in November, 2012.

This fall, a new Bond epic, Skyfall, will hit screens around the world, and due both to director Sam Mendes’s preference and Arnold’s work on the 2012 Olympics, a new composer will take the musical hot seat. Thomas Newman, longtime collaborator with Mendes, will step in and offer his take on the legendary super spy. Whether Newman will rise to the occasion and compose a score that will evoke the same kind of feelings and response in me as Arnold’s previous Bond scores remains to be seen.

For now, though…in regard to David Arnold, it can truly be said: nobody does it better.

David Arnold: the maestro of Bond.


About Lito

Lito is an LA-based aspiring actor, writer, producer, and musician who studied at both Juilliard and the Indiana University School of Music. Lito had a featured role in David Mamet's film RED BELT, and also served as one of the producers of critically-acclaimed and award-winning documentaries such as NEVER SLEEP AGAIN: THE ELM STREET LEGACY, MORE BRAINS! A RETURN TO THE LIVING DEAD, and SCREAM: THE INSIDE STORY, which have been featured on A&E networks and in Entertainment Weekly. He lives in the Los Angeles area with his beautiful wife and is just trying to live the dream…all the while staying one step ahead of the supposed impending zombie apocalypse.

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