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Random Jukebox: Matt Monro’s achingly polite From Russia With Love

As we count down to the end of an era with No Time To Die‘s ever shifting release looming hesitantly on the cinematic horizon, let’s cast our ears back to the easy listening sound of 1963, for the second Sean Connery 007 outing and first proper Bond song title theme, the exquisite From Russia With Love by the so-called “singing bus driver” Matt Monro, The Man with the Golden Voice who was born in London 90 years ago.

What makes a great James Bond theme song?

Traditionally, it has to sound good over silhouettes of women, guns, and other 007-related iconography, but in eras past, composer John Barry’s involvement in writing title tracks would lead to his unforgettable motifs being interpolated into the score too. 

So in a way, it feels a little unfair to stack the theme sequence from Bond’s second cinematic adventure against all the others, if only because it was sent out into the world before Goldfinger had established that Bond title songs should be kissed with a go-for-broke vocal performance, with the ladies leading the way two to one in the featured singer stakes.

Although John Barry’s eponymous instrumental was From Russia With Love’s opening title theme (above), the vocal version doesn’t quite hit the formula, only playing during the film’s climax (as source music on a radio) and over the end titles of what would turn out to be the most faithful big screen adaptation of an Ian Fleming 007 novel.

The film was the first 007 caper to be fully scored by John Barry, and the tune the first lyrics-based composition written for the Bond films; though the song actually ostensibly comes from Oliver! composer Lionel Bart, who gives a certain subtle sense of Russian music and a gently percussive cha-cha-cha rhythm to the track.

As smooth as a perfect Martinir, ceamy cabaret crooner Matt Monro got the vocal honours, kicking off the longstanding tradition of Bond themes featuring contemporary pop stars, though in later releases, the producers would see the value of getting singers perceived as a little more on the cutting edge of popular music in one way or another.

Known as The Man With The Golden Voice, Monro was one of the big easy listening singers of the early ‘60s. And with with his achingly polite British baritone, the song feels handsomely old-fashioned and graceful: a perfect fit to one of the classier outings in the franchise.

A charming time capsule before Beatlemania took hold, it leads to a link of what might have been.

Born on 1 December 1930 (sharing a birthday with my father, who was born a couple of miles from Monro 17 years later), the singer died in 1985, but a recent interview with his son Matt Monro Jr. for sundaypost.com illustrates just how utterly modest the older man was about his achievements.

“Dad’s singing can be heard twice in From Russia With Love, once when Sean Connery is lying on the bank and it plays on the radio, and it’s played in its entirety at the end of the film. Mum was horrified at the premiere, when Dad’s singing wasn’t played at the start of the film, thinking they’d cut it. Dad being Dad, he was more interested in James Bond than the fact his song wasn’t heard!”

Monro also has a firm admirer in the shape of fellow London lad Adam Ant, who revealed to me in my first interview* with the insect warrior for MOJO magazine in 2000 that his favourite Sunday morning record was a splendid choice of easy, seductive and laidback listening:

“Matt Monro singing From Russia With Love. I really like his voice, and he always makes me think of Sundays. Marvin Gaye on a Sunday is good as well – Let’s Get It On. And Sinatra, of course, you can play him anytime – Summer Wind is my favourite.”

Moreover, though Monro regarded Ol’ Blue Eyes as “The Guv’nor”, Sinatra himself — the man with whom he was so often compared — was also a fan of Matt’s warm and effortless tone, and gave this statement after the Brit’s death.

“If I had to choose three of the finest male vocalists in the singing business, Matt would be one of them. His pitch was right on the nose; his word enunciations letter perfect; his understanding of a song thorough.

Perhaps the modest attributes of these time capsules from a bygone age can tend to be overrated for reasons that have to come down to nostalgia playing its part, and a reminder of a simpler world. And here, as the first true pop song written for a Bond film, the Monro track merits credit for loosely establishing a tone that would follow in many of the franchise’s later and more memorable tunes. 

In fact, From Russia With Love sets out the spy as more of an inner romantic than his cavalier cad ways on screen might suggest. But really, it’s nice, inoffensive, pro-forma pop — just the kind of tune that you’d expect to find favour with a snobby secret agent who mocked The Beatles in the following film. 

And don’t shoot me, but David Arnold’s ‘90s reimagining with cha’abi moderne vocals from Natacha Atlas is a darn sight prettier.

Steve Pafford

*The Antmusic man is clearly a bit of a fan of Bondage, if the large framed still of Sean Connery in Goldfinger taking up one whole corner of his Gloucester Road living room is anything to go by. That was our second interview, by the way.

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