You Only Live Thrice: Three from Nancy Sinatra at 80

As a confessional about ageing, Frank Sinatra’s It Was A Very Good Year was, in a way, almost redundant. Because in the Swinging Sixties, nothing made Ol’ Blue Eyes seem more like a middle-aged emblem of another era than the ascendance of his daughter Nancy and her defiant, risqué rock ‘n’ roll.

As she celebrates her ascendence as showbiz’s latest octogenarian, three top tunes from Frank’s eldest, and for those Tarantino, U2 and Morrissey aficionados, a tasty triumvirate of bonus tracks that helped refashion Nancy in the Noughties.

These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ (1965)

By the time of her first big hit, Nancy Sinatra wasn’t a sweet, demure teenager; she was a 25-year-old divorcée who’d had a bit of a makeover with Brigitte Bardot-inspired big blond hair and snaky black eyeliner, hot pants, miniskirts, and go-go boots. 

Fittingly, her transatlantic chart debut (she’d had a hit in far-flung places such as Italy, Japan and The Netherlands with 1962’s Spectorish girl-group at the opera adaption Like I Do) wasn’t some saucer-eyed song of devotion, but a dirty/sweet kiss-off taunting the unfortunate knobhead who didn’t treat her right.

At the time that Nancy Sinatra recorded These Boots Are Made For Walkin’, she had just ended a five-year marriage to teen idol Tommy Sands and was in keen need of a refreshed, modernised image. She found the ideal foil in Lee Hazlewood, a gritty Texan with a basin-deep baritone, who had drawn notice writing and producing for rockabilly guitarist Duane Eddy. The pair seemed to come from different worlds, but together they offered a pairing of extreme gender archetypes: he, the hard-bitten rambler; she, the dewy-eyed siren. (Their 1967 duet Some Velvet Morning even fluctuates between time signatures depending on who’s singing.)

On the Hazlewood-penned Boots, however, Sinatra is left to inhabit both roles by herself. By wedding her girlish purr to Hazlewood’s terse, tough-guy phrasing, she both confirms and subverts conventional expectations of femininity, turning the track into a cross between a come-on and a threat. (Hazlewood’s legendary note to Sinatra, to sing it “like a 16-year-old girl who fucks truck drivers,” strikes at a similar muddling of innocence and experience, sensuality and filth.) Likewise, even the fact that Sinatra was singing about boots — rugged men’s footwear co-opted as ultra-trendy women’s fashion, both covering legs and emphasising their form — felt hip and transgressive.

Any hint of danger in the record, however, is mostly defused by its kitschy sense of humour, from the childlike vernacular (“truthin’,” “samin’”), to the flamboyantly upbeat horns, to Chuck Berghofer’s heat-warped double bass slide, at once foreboding and absurd. Even Sinatra’s warning that “one of these days, these boots are gonna walk all over you” is delivered with a wink, or perhaps even a wink-upon-a-wink.

Is this playfulness meant to assure listeners that her forwardness is just role-playing, that they don’t have to take her seriously? Or is the song tripling back on itself, smuggling in a feminist message in the guise of just kidding? (Sinatra’s wry delivery does suggest she’s telling a joke to someone who’s not getting it and relishing the thought of how hard the punchline will land once he does.

Nancy Sinatra’s self-assured sexiness and tart, plainspoken vocals epitomised the increasing directness of the latter half of the decade, and made her America’s first tough-talking female pop star. The most sadomasochistic pop hit ever to make No.1, These Boots Were Made For Walkin’ topped the US and UK charts in February 1966, toppling, with delicious irony, the Overlanders’ version of The Beatles’ Michelle. 

In an era where traditional gender roles were being questioned, Boots muddied the waters between what’s intended to be ironic and what’s just camp. That in itself, more than their lyrical theme or vocal style, marks the song as thoroughly modern, splitting the difference between the repression and naïveté of the past and the radical changes just around the bend.

Somethin’ Stupid (1967)

When Frank Sinatra founded Reprise Records in 1960, one of the benefits of being Chairman of the Board was complete artistic freedom. Between his more standard offerings, he seized the opportunity to work with other high-profile talents he admired, cutting albums with Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and bossa nova luminary Antônio Carlos Jobim.

Nevertheless, Sinatra’s most famous collaboration of the ’60s wasn’t with an orchestra leader or a songwriter, but his daughter Nancy. After sessions wrapped for the 1967 album Francis Albert Sinatra & Antônio Carlos Jobim, Sinatra swapped out the brilliant Brazilian musician for pop’s newest starlet, and bossa nova for pedestrian MOR.

On the docket was a novelty duet called Somethin’ Stupid, which would allow the Sinatras to share their love of singing with each other and perhaps sell twice as many records as they would separately. Lee Hazelwood manned the production boards alongside Jimmy Bowen, who had recorded Strangers In The Night, Frank’s first Billboard Hot 100 chart-topper in over a decade.

Somethin’ Stupid had first appeared the year before as a duet between the song’s writer, C. Carson Parks and his wife, Gaile “Big” Foote. It’s a simple song about a man and a woman platonically enjoying each other’s company until one of them decides to “spoil it all by saying something stupid like ‘I love you.’” The twist is that, because both are singing the same words simultaneously, it isn’t clear which was the one to awkwardly blurt out their romantic feelings. Parks and Foote’s winsome recording is mildly appealing, but it was much too slight to be an obvious candidate for a huge international hit.

Frank Snr. and Nancy’s version retains the basic arrangement of the original, including the hushed unison, non-harmonising vocals and a flourish of Spanish guitar. The one addition is a string section so heavy-handed that the song’s fragile charms are in danger of buckling beneath its weight. Similarly, while Parks and Foote’s vocal styles were well matched, the Sinatras, despite their consanguinity, somehow seem less of a natural fit.

In fact, Somethin’ Stupid barely even qualifies as a duet — that would imply some sort of equal footing between the two partners. Even in half-assed Strangers In The Night mode, Frank dominates the recording, relegating Nancy to little more than an anonymous background singer. True, Ol’ Blue Eyes was the legendary superstar with the once-in-a-generation voice, but by 1967 Nancy was at least as popular as her old man and had an appealing vocal style of her own, though you wouldn’t know it listening to this.

Jokers have long snickered at the spatial oddity of a father and daughter singing a love song to each other, but any incestuous overtones would only threaten to make Somethin’ Stupid more interesting than it actually is. Instead, the dully non-committal vocal performances overcorrect for any possible hint of romance, contributing to the record’s airless feel. The Sinatras don’t even sound like acquaintances, much less lovers, much less relatives.

More bothersome, though, is the record’s paternalistic bent. The inequality between the two singers comes off as Frank indulging Nancy in play-acting at his career, all the while ensuring that she (and rock ‘n’ roll and youth culture in general) knows her proper place. Father and daughter may record a song together, but it will be one that befits his sound and image, not hers, and one where he’s given the lead role. He’s not ceding co-billing to some flash in the pan, even if she happens to be his daughter. As in almost everything he did, Frank Sinatra made sure he was always the star of the show.

Despite Nancy’s minimal role and the song’s questionable themes, Somethin’ Stupid united the Sinatras’ fan bases, topping both the US, UK and easy listening charts, and all over again in 2001 in a version by Robbie Williams and Nicole Kidman. But while the Sinatra team-up became one of the biggest hits of 1967, it was also somewhat of a dead end in their homeland. Frank would never again have a Top 20 single on the Billboard Hot 100; unlike in Britain, even signature tunes like 1969’s My Way and 1980’s Theme From New York, New York were only middling chart successes there. Nancy would have better luck, however briefly, before making her last-ever trips into the US and UK Top 40 with the Hazlewood duets Some Velvet Morning (US, 1968) and Did You Ever (UK, 1971).

You Only Live Twice (1967)

But what about her Bond theme, I hear you cry?

Despite its ubiquity, not exactly a huge hit on either side of the Atlantic, he says, incredulously.

You Only Live Twice is located somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle between James Bond and South Pacific. Playing off of the film’s Japanese setting — yes, this is the one where 007 fakes his death and comes back to life in yellow face.

Teaming the best known 007 songwriting team of composer John Barry and lyricist Leslie Bricusse (Goldfinger, Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), the rising whirl of strings that kicks off this formative 007 theme song might just be Barry’s finest moment (even if it was lifted from an Alexander Tcherepnin concerto, the decision to use and tweak it here is still a stroke of genius). Barry augments a breezily majestic melody with the exotic plink of bamboo xylophones, and Nancy Sinatra’s voice trembles around them in style. Though she was far from being first choice.

For such a velvety anthemic song, Barry had the queen of soul Aretha Franklin in mind, but producer Cubby Broccoli was aiming for his friend, the Chairman of the Board himself Frank Sinatra. Cranky Frankie bang bang shot down that idea but delegated the job to his daughter Nancy, making her the first non-British vocalist to sing a theme song for the James Bond film series. John Barry: 

“Cubby Broccoli was a friend of Frank Sinatra’s. So he phoned him up and said we’d love you to sing the song in the movie. But Frank said no, he didn’t want to do it, but my daughter is really good! Have Nancy do it.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cI6v858LeTU&t=115s

Compared to your Shirley Basseys and Matt Monros, the relatively inexperienced Sinatra caused a wee problem in the London studios when she came in for a day-long session, admitting “I was panic-stricken from the very beginning of the whole procedure. I would rather have root canal surgery than go through that again.” So Barry recorded the 60-piece orchestra first before tackling the singer by herself.

To her credit, Nancy was willing to step away and let someone like Bassey sing the song because she had a better range than her own octave and a half. But Broccoli wanted a Sinatra, who gives the song a bewitching, mysterious feel. Over the day, they did 30 vocal. takes. After she left, he painstakingly took the best from 25 takes. Nancy revealed, “There were bad notes, they just edited it together. They didn’t want to embarrass me. I tried my best – I was 26 years old and really scared.” 

Nevertheless, You Only Live Twice numbers among the most iconic Bond themes. It offers something of a poignant and longing message for some; and perhaps a bit of life nostalgia – of memories gone by – for others. The suggestion of two lives in the song, of course, raises all kinds of interesting possibilities, though here the premise seems to be the struggle between a real world and a dream world – “one life for yourself, and one for your dreams.”

Here’s Robbie playing Mr Bond. He’s never going to get the main gig (too tubby, for a start) but the Millennium clip is an ironic evocative homage to those glamorous films of the ’60s. And it would be nothing without Nancy…

Those striking opening bars, featuring a simple 2-bar theme in the high octaves of the violins and lush harmonies from French horns have made the track one of the most covered and sampled in the canon, interpreted by everyone from Soft Cell to Coldplay to Björk to the aforementioned Robbie Williams’ Millennium. More recently, the season five finale of Mad Men confirmed what audiences of the time knew right away: a copper bottomed classic, as Marc Almond concurs:

“Nancy Sinatra was the epitome of that swinging Sixties hipness, with her boots, her mini skirts, and her blonde hair. She was American as well, which I think was important because that gave the feeling that Bond was international. But there was also a sophistication to her as well.”

Steve Pafford

BONUS BEATS:

Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) (1966)

Where Cher’s Sonny Bono-penned original was string-laden tweeness, Nancy’s atmospheric cover for her 1966 album How Does That Grab You?, featured heavy reverbed Spaghetti Western-esque tremolo guitar, while her vocal style alternates between intimate and burlesque. 

The track had a resurgence in popularity when it was used in the pre-credit sequence of the 2003 Quentin Tarantino film Kill Bill Volume 1, with devastating effect. Tarantino creates a literal, bloody interpretation of the song’s chorus and the third verse, about a wedding day. 

“To have a brilliant director say he built the opening of his film around my song, I thought, Wow. I was so grateful because I’ve always felt I get no respect. Younger generations have made me feel like I matter. A few weeks ago the girl from the Raveonettes came over to me and said, ‘You’ve been such an influence on me.’ And I’m like, ‘How did she even hear of the stuff? Her grandma?’ Little kids are dancing to Boots for school, and their moms write my website: ‘Can you tell me where I can get a pair of white go-go boots?’ I should have gone into the boot business.”

Sinatra’s version also was the theme for the BBC’s coverage of the 2005 Wimbledon tennis championships, which coincided with her vocals being sampled on the Audio Bullys’ Shot You Down, a No.3 UK hit that summer.

Let Me Kiss You (2004)

After so many years out of the recording limelight, Nancy had a tough time getting a record deal, until former Smiths mainman Morrissey threw her a lifeline, and a rough demo of a new song that he’d record on his comeback album You Are The Quarry, also released in 2004 on his label imprint Attack.

By no means the mish-mash that generally results when an icon is dragged out of mothballs by well-meaning famous fans, the self-titled Nancy Sinatra actually stands up with the best of her earlier work. Most of the collaborations fit like exquisite kid gloves. Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley’s two songs are clearly the work of admirers who haven’t just played the records a thousand times, they live inside them. 

And in truth, even the more workmanlike contributions like the Blondie-ish romp through Steven Van Zandt’s Baby Please Don’t Go are so well-appointed that they act as retrospective confirmation that Nancy was the pre-punk Kim Gordon. And as is evidenced by the lead single Let Me Kiss You, there’s more wit, atmosphere and incontestable (if elegantly understated) star power in this sleek, chic, foxy record than in anything else released that entire year.

Two Shots Of Happy, One Shot Of Sad (2004)

This jazzy saloon song, with a stunning string arrangement by Craig Armstrong, was written by Bono and The Edge for Frank Sinatra’s televised 80th birthday concert in 1995, which, fittingly, was his last public performance. The lyrics showed Frank looking back on his life, but Ol’ Blue Eyes declined to record the song himself as the lyrics were “too close to the bone.” Two years later, it came out as a B-side to U2’s single If God Will Send His Angels.

After her father’s death, Nancy covered it on the same eponymous album from 2004, and altered the pronouns from first-person perspective to a third-person POV, presumably to refer to her father.

“Though Bono’s song was written for my dad, he sent it to me to include in this collection,” said Nancy. “I get a little emotional when I sing it, for obvious reasons. It’s hard for me to get through the lyrics sometimes.”

Although they did not appear on the original recording, U2’s Larry Mullen, Jr. and Adam Clayton play drums and bass on the track. And there’s more pathos and heartbreak in this four minutes than the rest of the Irish quartet’s catalogue put together. Happy birthday Nancy!

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