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Random Pukebox: Sam Smith’s Writing’s On The Wall

Well, after so many years of trying it was pretty Major Boothroyd that a James Bond theme finally made it to No.1 in Britain — 007’s homeland after all — and that someone from the LGBT world had finally bagged the title song role. Yay, right?

Eon had certainly come a long way from ’69, and some holy unorthodox testing of the briefest of Bonds, Aussie model George Lazenby, to make sure he wasn’t gay, that’s for sure. But why did it have to be the newly thirty-something Sam Smith? Like almost all of his edgeless aural crimes, Smith’s snoozer for Spectre is grey, damp and as dull as dishwater. It’s wet yet there’s very little Fairy liquid to help colour the proceedings.

Written with Jimmy Napes, Writing’s On The Wall harks back to the classic Bond soundworld and instrumental arsenal of curving, diving strings and angular chord progressions. The melody is elementary, at times floating by on resonant piano notes and the faintest brush stroke of orchestra. Boldly, there is no percussion at all (save for the odd cymbal crescendo), but the flipside of that boldness is just how exposed it leaves Smith’s over-emoting stage school vocals, with all the focus on his flaccid falsetto, sung at a pitch seldom heard in the franchise except for sex scenes and shark mutilations.

There is, somewhere in this painfully slow song, a mushroom cloud of onion-in-the-pocket emotion dying to escape, but the composition doesn’t allow it to emerge. Quite simply, the singer lacks the gravitas to pull off anything remotely epic. The whole thing is so damp it sounds like he’s going to wet the bed at any minute. 

Despite its lifeless ponderosa, Writing’s On The Wall went on to notch both the Academy Award and Golden Globe for ‘Best’ Original Song, but the chances of it joining the pantheon of Bond themes that anyone with even a passing interest in pop music can hum are even slimmer than Smith himself these days. Indeed, the “mixed” reception to the song led to Shirley Bassey trending on Twitter the day it was released, with people assuming she’d died.

If you hail from a time when music was engaging, stylish and fun and a bit edgy well, what the hell went wrong?

We certainly live in beige times when the most popular artists in the UK are Brit bores like Sam Bloody Smith, Ed Sheeran and Adele, queen of the chavs, all adding anodyne nothingness to pedestrian dreary unimaginative depression.

Bring back the chutzpah, the glamour and the excess. I want to see people vomiting over each other at The Brits, not flaming pedal loops.

Talking of sick, in a previous post we featured a heartfelt Perfect 10 of Donna Summer songs chosen by author scribe Quentin Harrison on the tenth anniversary of her untimely passing. So if you have any respect for I Feel Love’s place as one of the records that changed the course of popular music you won’t want to listen to Smith’s cringeworthy cover version from 2019. You’ll either laugh, cry or throw up if you do. Me? I’m amazed my computer screen’s still in one piece…

Steve Pafford

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

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