“Close your eyes and count to ten…”
SPOILER WARNING. I think.
From those mid Sixties strings firing like very familiar harpoon guns into a John Barry-savvy ocean, Sam Smith’s Writing’s On The Wall is clearly ripped from the very genome of 007’s DNA. And it has certainly “divided fans” as media outlets love to say. But maybe middle-aged, blokey Bond fans aren’t quite the Sam Smith demographic. Aside from a trailer or two and a few Range Rover vanity vlogs, this is all the movie-going public can ‘own’ right now of SPECTRE. The bar is always high.
I’m prepared for this,
I never shoot to miss
Did I love Adele’s Skyfall when I first heard it about 30 seconds before going on air to talk about it? Did I instantly warm to Gladys Knight’s Licence To Kill when I heard some 2am snippet on local radio? And did I like or even understand the lyrics of The Living Daylights when I first heard a weirdly mixed b-side version? No to all of them. Bond songs are curious beasts. The best ones charted badly, the disliked ones sold well, they have always been a canny marketing tool dressed in a sequinned ball-gown, unlike champagne they age better than they first taste and they always play differently onscreen than through a phone.
It is seemingly not just the writing that is nowadays on the wall, but everyone and his Twitter bestie’s opinion of what a good Bond and a good song is. Nothing divides reaction more than music (well, maybe Jeremy Corbyn does a little bit). But nothing divides musical reaction more than a Bond song – not when the writing can be fired in 140 characters or less at every media wall going. Because the 53 year old cultural legacy of Bond is so rich, it becomes personal – strapped to all film fans nostalgias and musical tastes. And Bond song opinions are like favourite Bonds – everyone has one, so to speak. But like new 007 actors, Bond songs need time to bed in. Not every dollar-paying punter knows all these songs inside out.
It is a stranger sound for Bond. It is a different sound for Bond. But it is not wrong. It maybe needed a stronger climax, but it needs to be seen alongside Daniel Kleinman’s forthcoming title sequence for the actual SPECTRE film rather than snatched hearings on Spotify. There is a camp tragedy to it all – in part fuelled by Smith’s oeuvre of really martrying those vocals into submission. He certainly gets the drama of the gig. It is definitely a 1am torch song lament (like a lot of the best 007 numbers are). It is worth remembering too that – like Adele’s Skyfall, Madonna’s Die Another Day and Chris Cornell’s You Know My Name – there is now a story context to these songs. They are not just dropped in as a fade-to-titles Bond scrambles in some yacht for his condoms and champagne. In the Craig era these songs are now a narrative and tonal stepping stone for the film themselves. SPECTRE launches with a visceral, ambitious and aggressively mounted action sequence in Mexico City. The quieter melancholy of this track could be an apt and intended breather. There is definitely a context to this song based on what the audiences would have just experienced and the drama at stake. Remember – Sam Smith was asked to read the script. The writing is on the wall in the song, the film, its family of colleagues and all of Whitehall.
Co-written and co-produced by Jimmy Napes, Writing’s On The Wall is certainly a well-produced track. As Adele’s creative partner Paul Epworth proved in 2012, the Bond song project now has its eyes on producers and the ability to put on a production as much as the headlining singers. Whilst the sibling-production duo Disclosure (who co-produced the track) are more about the garage synths and electronica than anything evident in this tune, theirs is very much a crisp effort. The track could have very easily derailed itself with Smith’s octave-spinning vocals and penchant for piling vowel upon vowels (or Mariah-ing as artists less skilled than Smith tend to be guilty of).
If I risk it all, could you break my fall?
It’s certainly different – a [gay] male vocalist “risking it all” with a pained love song that retracts the traditional and bombastic momentum of a Bond song with a quiet falsetto or three (Communard Bond anyone?!). This writer would have loved to hear Smith step aside from the successes of Adele’s Skyfall, really go with that falsetto motif and create that hi-energy disco Bond song Sylvester never recorded. But maybe with Writing’s On The Wall we now have the first Bond song that sees a male soloist take the stance of the trapped bird, the love that cannot say no to our man James. That aching, first-person narrative is very Sam Smith and very Bond.
I’ve spent a lifetime running and I always get away
But for you I’m feeling something that makes me want to stay.
As it seems every self-pronounced diva on Eurovision seems to be channelling a faux John Barry Does Bond vibe (Conchita Wurst and her chuffin’ Vauxhall feathers anyone?!) what Disclosure, Napes and Smith have done here is definitely not faux. It is a very vintage Bond sound – no doubt in tune with that mid Sixties Thunderball template the fourth Craig film has its eye on. This film is called SPECTRE after all. In the wake of Austin Powers’ imitations and pastiches, that old-school, cat stroking villainy needs a classical sound to pin the film to that John Barry heyday when audiences last saw that mob of piranha-owning stalwarts in their prime. But is more David Arnold channelling John Barry than not and maybe indicative of the fact these ain’t your father’s Bond songs anymore. Sam Smith and his colleagues on this one were toddlers when Brosnan stepped into the role.
So as some initial reactions are seemingly giving this fledgling Bond song another kick in the wall, it might be worth noting what Smith himself noted to BBC Radio 1 upon its debut – “it’s a grower this one”. He may well be right.
Sam Smith’s Writing’s On The Wall is available now on iTunes.
SPECTRE is released in the UK on October 26th.
I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold, and very well made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad.”
Casino Royale by Ian Fleming, 1954
“We are delighted to announce that when it comes to his martini, Mr Bond Knows The Difference” says Charles Gibb, President of Belvedere Vodka.
First created in 1993 when the taboos and trade boundaries of Cold War Russian vodka were lifting (and 007 was of course about to enter into an officially sanctioned marriage with Smirnoff – his and the Bond image’s on/off vodka of choice since 1962’s Dr. No), Belvedere Vodka has hit the ground running in its two decades tenure. Generating a new standard and thinking around vodka and its side industries and variants, Belvedere has quickly established itself as a bespoke vodka striving for excellence and distinctive character. Made in Poland from Dankowskie Rye and blended with water, Belvedere’s taste profile is a must for premium restaurants, eateries, bars, hotels and clubs. And now Bond fan gatherings, birthday lists and – yes, I asked – bachelor party libations.
In total, James Bond orders 19 vodka martinis and 16 gin martinis in Fleming’s work.
But as much as this is a cracking marketing angle for both Bond and Belvedere, there is more to this new relationship than sheer profile. Belvedere’s chief of mixology Claire Smith is ‘the first lady of vodka’. At a private demonstration of Belvedere and vodka martinis in an equally private Armed Forces private members club in London (and one with its own Ian Fleming links, of course), Smith proves not only her passion for vodka – and of course Belvedere’s new relationship with 007 – but that she wants the revival of the vodka martini to continue. According to Smith there is a momentum of interest in vodka martinis (no doubt revived by 2006’s Casino Royale and its presentation of the Vesper cocktail). People are wanting to know more from their barman, they are wanting to get that martini and their drinks right just for them. Like our evolving food tastes and knowledge, we are all wanting to know what is in our drinks. We are also moving away from that 1970s and 1980s menu of cocktails and spirits (there was no Babycham at the bar of this particular club).
This new promotional pairing between SPECTRE and Belvedere is also about democratising the vodka martini – forever a perceived requisite of out-of-reach high-end establishments or disappointingly bad office party Bond nights with some bloke in a corner mixing drinks like Tom Cruise in Cocktail . Treated by bar consultancy and drinks wizard Joe Stokoe to three stunningly realised standards – a Dry Martini (stirred, not shaken), a Wet Martini and a Reverse Vesper – I was instantly able to discern the differences created by preparation and experience. My preference would be the Reverse Vesper (1 part Vermouth, 1 part Tanqueray and 3 part Belvedere vodka). A twist on the iconic Vesper (which is not necessarily the onscreen vodka martini Bond has always had), this Belvedere imbued cocktail was a saucy strapless dress of a glass – attention grabbing but refined with a whisper of Lillet and lemon rind.
“One medium dry vodka martini mixed like you said sir, but not stirred”
Dr. No, 1962
Claire Smith’s engaging and easy passion for mixing, presenting and augmenting vodka is all about creating “a dialogue” between the consumer and bartender. Smith spends time opening up the consumer’s confidence. She wants us to build relationships with our barman. How many of us have wanted to be James Bond and take our place at the bar with that just arrived poise only to fall at the first hurdle – confidence. One of the mainstays of Belvedere and tenets of Smith’s approach is to arm the consumer with the realisation that there are no rules. Bond’s own iconic shaken, not stirred vodka martini is itself an alleged faux-pas of ingredient-bashing excess. Some gin and martini scholars would have you believe stirring and not shaking is the end goal – that shaking can excessively aerate the core components. But Smith and Stokoe are quick to encourage “there are no rules”. What is one person’s martini foible at the end of the working day is another’s starting pistol or refreshing interlude before dinner. Know Your Martini is a recent mantra of Belvedere Vodka and one that equally applies to its marriage with Eon Productions and James Bond. The renowned vodka house wants more than just a fiscally beneficial union. “Vodka is so often overlooked as being neutral, anonymous. And vodka is so much more dynamic than that.” notes Smith. “The future of bar-tending lies in trying to find elegance and beauty and simplicity and making that compelling for the consumer to really get involved with. That’s really what I’m interested in.” Belvedere teaming up with Bond is more than commercialism. It makes bespoke, aesthetic sense.
Of course the panic-peddlers and naysayers will all have their headlines primed about 007 selling out and movie producers taking product placement too far. The Heineken usage in 2012’s Skyfall was scorned by easy headline makers, but when a secret agent is in a backpackers beach bar in Turkey I am kind of assuming ordering a “vodka martini, shaken not stirred” is not quite going to cut it as much as a cold beer. It is worth noting too that Ian Fleming himself would drop in names and products – because they were part of his world and hence 007’s, but also because there is an immediacy and westernised reality about labels. Our homes and daily technology are bound by labels and familiar monikers. Why should 007 the character be exempt from that? And why should 007 the film franchise not seek out and align itself with the finer leanings of a house like Belvedere? Belvedere join a rich array of Bond beverage “co-stars” including Bollinger, Absolut Vodka, Smirnoff, Macallan and Finlandia.
Head of Belvedere Charles Gibb is a quietly proud man right now. “It’s the size and scale of everything that is James Bond” – he notes – “This union is unique because an integral part of our brand and Bond’s character meet in this wonderful intersection called the Martini. The fact that Ian Fleming and Bond are credited with re-energising the building of what is today the modern-day Martini – and the vodka martini – I think that’s a very unique partnership, you don’t often find something with such a unique crossroads.”
And there is no fear of this business fit not finding the same enthusiasm and knowledge within the Bond family camp. “They certainly know their history of vodka“, remarks Gibb. “They certainly know their history of the martini. And they certainly know their way around a vodka bottle”.
Gibbs continues – “the thing for me is we’re going to create our own advertising around it. What that looks like, how that looks is at the moment probably subject to another discussion“. Of course Gibbs, EON and Belvedere are being tight-lipped about just how their vodka will be incorporated into SPECTRE and maybe beyond (I tried to ask of the long term relationship, but ex-Army officer Gibbs is not going to spill this particular bottle of insight and, to be fair, 007 and Belvedere are merely at hand-holding first base right now).
Belvedere will produce two custom-made, limited edition bottles to celebrate Bond’s shaken, not stirred vodka martini and this new partnership with SPECTRE. A 007 twist has been added to Belvedere’s quite beautiful Silver Sabre bottles (they have their own light switch and vague hints of snow-globe flakes inside – I know, right!). The famous Belvedere Palace blue bottles and emblem will be replaced by that of MI6’s Vauxhall headquarters and in February 2015 a marketing campaign will launch with a focus on “on-premise establishments and retail stores” across the globe. Dwight Caines, Theatrical Marketing for Sony Pictures says, “James Bond’s cool attitude and stylish sophistication have always gone hand in hand with his choice of vodka martini. Belvedere is a perfect match“.
To officially launch Bond’s new bond with Belvedere, a “smart and chic” party was held at Covent Garden’s Bond In Motion exhibition in December 2014. With Charles Gibbs, the CEO of Moët Hennessy Christophe Navarre in attendance (Belvedere is part of the LVMH group – Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy), representatives from EON Productions and more in attendance the night was a slick and charming way of toasting 007’s newest marriage to the Polish house of vodka. The music decks were manned by one Tinie Tempah and the likes of Douglas Booth, Pixie Geldof, Kim Hersov, Lily Cole and this Bond fan lent some star appeal to proceedings (I didn’t lend star appeal at all, despite sporting a suit in DB5 silver).
Joe Stokoe was also on hand again to keep an eye on three martini bars spread amidst Bond’s car heritage, and various plinth-proud bottles of Bond vodka stood tall. Each bar had a theme – Wet/Dry, Shaken/Stirred and Reverse Vesper. Glimpsed was a new SPECTRE edition of Belvedere as well as the rarest of the rare – edition number ‘007’ of Belvedere’s Palace bottle. In true Elliot Carver launch style, Gibbs and Christophe Navarre unveiled the bespoke bottle just as Tempah filled the room with Kanye West’s Diamonds Are Forever (Diamonds From Sierra Leone).
Though one SPECTRE vehicle was sadly absent from Bond In Motion on the night. Resigned to the cloakroom for probable safety where it was surrounded by coats and satchels, SPECTRE and Blofeld’s Bath-o-Sub from Diamonds Are Forever was kept out of harm’s way and sadly didn’t get to see just how the new SPECTRE agents conduct themselves. Quite right too.
For more photos of the launch night and more go to Catching Bullets on Facebook.
With special thanks to Belvedere Vodka, Charles Gibb, Claire Smith, Remmert Van Braam, Joe Stokoe, EON Productions, Sony Pictures Entertainment and the Mission team.