Thunderball are go: Tom Jones at 80

Codename Thunderball. Hey, that sounds like a book about the weather. In celebration of Tom Jones being given orders as the latest octogenarian in showbiz, a look back at the Welsh windbag’s belting Bond theme.

Like the story it’s attached to, the 1965 theme song for Sean Connery’s fourth film had a troubled, litigious gestation. Believing Thunderball was too generic, too vague a title, John Barry and lyricist Don Black conjured up a song called Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which is what Italian audiences had been calling 007 (or Japanese fans or the press depending on the account one reads). He recorded the song with both Dionne Warwick (smoky) and Shirley Bassey (shrill), but two weeks before opening, the film studio United Artists insisted on a song titled after the movie, which, admittedly, had worked so well for Goldfinger. So Barry and Black hurriedly wrote a new song with a new giant voiced vocalist, Tom Jones, who had started his streak of hits with It’s Not Unusual at the beginning of the year and, of course, like Bassey, hails from Wales.

With its cavernous wall of sound, this is vintage bombastic Bond: Big, brash, dramatic, full of angular brass riffs, and Jones delivers his belting vocal performance with huge aplomb. If it sounds like Goldfinger on steroids that’s probably because it was meant to, even if Barry conceded the lyrics were hokum, telling NPR, “I don’t think anybody really analysed what the hell he was singing about. And I still don’t know what the song is about to this day. But we were given that problem, and we had to live with it.”

The legal dispute which followed – Miss Bassey played the difficult diva (a role for life, some would say) and moved to sue Eon for breach of contract over the decision to use Warwick’s recording at the end of the film – led to both versions of Bang Bang being canned and left locked in the Danjaq vault until a James Bond 30th anniversary album in 1992.

Thunderball was the first of several 007 movies legendary lyricist Don Black contributed to. The wordsmith explained to The Independent in 2009 how he writes a Bond theme: “The first thing I did was look it up in the dictionary. So I scratched my head and used it as a code word, you know, ‘He strikes like thunderball’. The thing I remember most is Tom Jones’ recording of the song in which he fainted on the last note. He got a head rush or something. The Bond songs I describe as the lure of the forbidden. It should have the whiff of a boudoir about it.”

Steve Pafford

BONUS BEATS: For his 1997 Shaken And Stirred covers project, David Arnold bagged ABC’s Martin Fry to tackle Tom’s Thunderball. It’s pretty darn spiffing, actually.

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Steve Pafford
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