How to Surrender a Bond theme: k.d. lang at 60

As we mark the end of an era with No Time To Die with a tissue or two, it seems fitting to cast our ears back to 1997 and (yet) another 007 adventure with “die” in its title. You know the one, the second Pierce Brosnan outing with the thinly-veiled anti-Rupert Murdoch’s fake news storyline. Some things never change — even if its theme song did. Not choosing a title track co-written by a gay man (David McAlmont) and performed by an out and proud lesbian was one of the biggest missed opportunities in Bond history. This is the story of Tomorrow Never Dies and Surrender by the trailblazing troubadour that is k.d. lang, who has turned 60.

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. In later years, as the producers have courted big chart stars, the songs have often been separated from the scores, leading to a process of tendering such as the one that started with 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies.

The oner we like to acronym to TND is the only Bond film to date that I saw on the opening night; in this case the world premiere at London’s Odeon Cinema in Leicester Square one cold December evening. I guess the occasion and atmosphere — which was understandably electric — certainly adds to the enjoyment because I came away thinking it was even better than GoldenEye, despite Pierce Brosnan’s unwelcome (for my eyes only, at least) makeover from floppy-fringed pretty boy to bulked up gym rat with Elvis-style swept back and sides.

Though I soon revised my opinion of the movie, one thing has remained a constant: what the hell were they thinking demoting k.d. lang’s stunning song to the end titles?

Oh yes, money and popularity. Sheryl Crow is way more mediocre mainstream, and, well, let’s not beat around the bush: Hollywood was still unquestionably homophobic back in the 1990s, and so the first openly gay singer of a Bond main title didn’t happen in 1997 as the film’s composer David Arnold had envisaged, and we had to wait another 18 years, until the bland bedwetter (yup, you guessed it) Sam bloody Smith.

Artists have always submitted their own prospective Bond songs to producers, and unused tracks over the years include Johnny Cash’s Thunderball, Blondie’s For Your Eyes Only, and (most recently) Radiohead’s Spectre in 2015. Following the chart success of GoldenEye’s title track (written by U2‘s Bono and the Edge and performed by Tina Turner) owners of the film franchise EON Production‘s Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson decided to put out an informal call for title songs. As a result of the tendering process, Tomorrow Never Dies has more potential themes than any other entry in the long-running series.

With song submissions from an array of British and European artists — among them: Pulp, The Cardigans, Marc Almond, Chris Rea, Saint Etienne, Swan Lee and even those brash Brummies Duran Duran going in for the kill with a second attempt twelve years after AVTAK — attention was suddenly directed across the pond, the producers selected Missouri‘s Sheryl Crow for the coveted gig, though it still makes me oh-oh angry the barmy Broccolis didn’t go with the original choice of our favourite Canadian chanteuse.

If you’re wondering why there‘s a slight deviation of name in the Pulp entry, it’s worth mentioning that the title of the 18th James Bond film actually started out as Tomorrow Never Lies, which would have been the slogan of the evil media empire that runs up against Brosnan’s Bond. To all round bemusement, a typo gave the producers the alternative but predictable option of Tomorrow Never Dies, which they eventually took, even though it makes as much sense with the film as Quantum Of Solace does for a film where “Quantum” is the name of an off-brand SPECTRE.

Meanwhile, with GoldenEye having been marred by a curiously MOR soundtrack (aside of course from Tina‘s masterful title track), composer David Arnold picking up the conductor’s baton on the film’s score was an inspired choice, having just won a Grammy for his work on Independence Day and also impressing Broccoli and Wilson with Shaken And Stirred, his excellent album of Bond theme reworks by contemporary artists of the day. Though some might say the Luton lad and obvious heir-apparent to John Barry had effectively auditioned for the job four years earlier with Play Dead, the Björk-sung theme for the movie Young Americans, which was a Bond song in all but name.

Arnold co-wrote Surrender while scoring the film and followed Barry’s lead by embedding its motif throughout his music. With its brassy hooks and killer melody line Surrender comes comes a lot closer to the swaggering smokiness achieved in the rest of Arnold’s score (his first in the franchise and certainly his finest). Perhaps unsurprisingly, as he, David McAlmont and Don Black authored the song formerly known as Tomorrow Never Dies with a cast iron certainty that it, rather than Crow’s petulant alternative, was being commissioned as the film’s title song.

So, despite its status as the greatest secondary theme of all time, the relegated and retitled Surrender is, conversely, the great lost Bond song, one that, inexplicably, isn’t even available to stream or download.

007? OMG more like?!

Surrender is a queer masterpiece that encapsulates, and even elevates, the themes of the film, both in a dramatic and musical sense. Like many Bond songs, it‘s a sexualised power fantasy, most likely from a villain’s point of view:

I’ll tease and tantalize with every line

Till you are mine

Yet the villain in this case is the sexless murderous Murdoch-aping Elliot Carver, played by Jonathan Pryce. Intriguing.

Evoking fond memories of all the big lunged belters of the past, there’s no question that k.d. lang absolutely nails the track –– and we can equally agree that it’s vintage Bond: explosive, dynamic, and the brashest most brilliantly bombastic 007 tune since Thunderball – although it’s far, far better than that. Opening with a cacophonous blast of drums and sexy, sleazy trumpet, it slides effortlessly into a slinky, purring verse delivered with perfectly cool authority.

And let’s just talk about lang’s incredibly commanding vocal performance for a minute. It’s commendably threatening in its intensity. Like a magnificent bird of prey zooming in for the kill, she swoops dramatically through a note to get where she needs to be, backing you in a corner until you are powerless to resist.

When the song shifts gear for the most epic chorus 007 has ever seen, I honestly don’t think she’s ever sounded better – commanding, sexy and at the top of her game.

Catch that heroic last note on the last word, “dies”. It starts just before 3:00, its straight tone seamlessly modulating into falsetto to the close. When you see lang sing you notice that she glides into that tremolo without moving her mouth; the mark of a truly great singer.

Apropos of everything and nothing, get me, because I’ve met Macca, Madge and Tina, but the only artist on this exhaustive list I’ve interviewed on a professional tape-recorders-at-the-ready basis is k.d. lang, for Mojo magazine in 2000.

To my eternal chagrin, not only did I completely forget to ask her about the Surrender shenanigans, but I point blank failed to fire questions at her about her music at all. Gulp. Not my finest hour, but the Bond theme sure is one of hers.

Happy birthday dude.

Steve Pafford

With thanks to licencetoqueer.com

Adapted from For your ears only: all 30 Bond themes ranked from worst to best here

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