Not yet… I’m not sure about this – can we go again?
There are many fine Bond themes – Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice, Diamonds are Forever, Live and Let Die, We Have all the Time in the World, Nobody Does it Better – and a few shockers (All Time High, Die Another Day, Another Way to Die, Licence to Kill, For Your Eyes Only, The World is Not Enough). My favourite is seldom heard unless the film to which it was attached is rebroadcast: Matt Monro’s From Russia with Love.
Monro made his name with the BBC show band, before which he’d driven a bus, meaning he’d for ever be saddled with the nickname ‘The Singing Bus Driver’, but he was a quick study and a natural talent, soaking up all he could from his time at the BBC and his stint as vocalist for Winifred Atwell, who gave him his stage name. But his initial burst of fame didn’t last and, by the late fifties, he was working as a song plugger in relative obscurity.
His second big break came from an unlikely source: Peter Sellers. He was making a comedy record with George Martin, and Martin wanted a singer to record a Sinatra pastiche that Sellers could study and copy, with a view to making his own version. Monro, with his Sinatra-like voice, was hired. But Sellers liked Monro’s version so much that he decided to use it to open his record, billing him as Fred Flange. Dispirited by this lack of recognition at the time, Monro wasn’t aware yet of how lucky he was: he’d impressed the man who would soon be the most powerful record producer in the country. They’d hit it off personally too, so soon the two of them were working together on a new run of Matt Monro singles. Portrait of my Love was a big hit and he came second in the 1964 Eurovision, but the key moment in their partnership had come the previous year, when they’d recorded the title song for the second Bond film, From Russia with Love.
From Russia with Love (the song) was written by Lionel Bart, arranged and played by John Barry and his Orchestra and produced by George Martin (one hears echoes of the work he was doing with the Beatles at the same time: wide stereo separation, rejecting the idea of the stereo field as a representation of musicians on a stage, for example: the drums are wholly in the right channel), so the record had some heavy duty talent on it, and it was these guys who were doing the job of defining what we think of when we think of Bond songs. Dr No hadn’t had a theme song, and as the second movie in the series, From Russia with Love laid a lot of groundwork unwittingly.
Most of it’s here: a sense of arrangement and harmony more classic-cool than contemporary, inventive arrangements, big orchestrations, a charismatic lead vocal, and most importantly, a sense of foreboding. The sped-up piano* in the left channel (another quintessential Martin touch), recurring throughout the song, hangs over the record like a question mark, and for a song about returning to a lover, when Monro sings ‘I fly to you from Russia with love’ at the song’s climax, it sounds ominously like a threat. All that’s missing is the thunderous brass, which would become inextricably associated with the Bond franchise after Goldfinger, but which was, presumably, not composed with that in mind.
Monro’s performance is a classic. This man had the publicly acknowledged respect of Frank Sinatra (‘his pitch was right on the nose: his word enunciations letter perfect: his understanding of a song thorough,’ said the master on Monro’s death), and it’s easy to hear why. Obviously indebted to Frank but not a slavish imitator, Monro was blessed with a voice that was both an authoritative light baritone and a classy tenor, but Sinatra had it right when he remarked that Monro understood the songs he was singing. His performances are thoughtful. You sense that he (and Bart, and Barry and Martin) knew this song had slightly sinister undertones (they’re there in the score as well as the words), and, alive to both text and subtext, he hints at all possible meanings without coming down too firmly one way or the other. A lesser singer and the song might have devolved into winking camp or sung through it, oblivious; Monro was too rigorous and disciplined to allow that.
Matt Monro – so much more than a singing bus driver
* Recording geeks may be interested to listen to the left channel, containing the sped-up piano, at 1.04. Hear a chipmunk voice? That’s someone (possibly Barry) saying, ‘Not yet… I’m not sure about this – can we go again.’ Back in the analogue days, a lot of things made it to the master that would be simple to clean up nowadays. This is a prime example.