So the official writing is finally on the wall with the announcement that – despite his own previous and carefully chosen protestations to the contrary – British recording sensation Sam Smith is indeed performing the title song to the 24th Bond film, Spectre. Titled "Writing’s on the Wall," the newest 007 anthem is co-written by Smith and his producer, collaborator and pal Jimmy Napes.
There are two types of Bond song performers. For quite a while, the musical mainstay tended to be artists and groups not necessarily in the first flourish of their careers. Tina Turner, Madonna, Garbage, Carly Simon, Chris Cornell, Duran Duran, Gladys Knight, Rita Coolidge, Jack White, Paul McCartney, and Louis Armstrong were tapped as much for their recording CV as their selling power.
The flip of that are unit-shifting recording artists at the peak of their game: Adele, Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, Sheena Easton, Nancy Sinatra, and now Sam Smith. It is not a bad assembly to be a member of. And one that the vintage-minded Spectre, its classic tailoring, London backdrops, and canon-baiting villainy is doing well to emulate. One singer. One song. One impact. Since 2012’s Skyfall nabbed Adele an Oscar, a Grammy, a Golden Globe, and the attention of many a scaffolder overheard whistling the tune, Bond HQ and Sony Pictures have clearly had one eye and ear on Mr. Smith to play his part in the Broccoli‘s ongoing project of renovating Bond onscreen.
The movie title song is itself now a vintage gesture. Aside from Disney, Pixar, and a million dads praying their daughters really "Let It Go" sometime soon, the movie song is less of a staple. However, in the '60s — and surrounded by swinging Beatlemania, a lucrative singles market and movie songs dominating the charts — original Bond producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman clicked early on at the selling power of a hit single. From the second Bond movie onwards (1963’s From Russia With Love), a commissioned vocal has been the vampy, swirling opening gambit to almost each and every Bond movie. It is part of the template. It is the one ingredient the wider, box-office swelling audiences expect from 007. Which other franchise pauses to unfurl a musical and graphical five minute celebration of itself?! Opening gun-barrel motifs and famous support characters may come and go and rile fans and their online forums. But the Bond title tune remains its’ own institution. It is a Thunderball of Fame not everyone gets invited into – especially when they are, like Smith, the first British male solo artist to take the mantle for half a century and the second youngest Bond recording star ever (Sheena Easton was 22 when she recorded 1981’s "For Your Eyes Only").
So what sort of sound can audiences expect when "Writing’s on the Wall" is officially released on September 25? Something deliberately pared down perhaps? Smith’s "By Your Side" is economy personified. As are "Stay With Me," "Lay Me Down," and "I’m Not The Only One." His vocals are all about his knack for surfing vowels, for making his observations and performance larger and more memorable than the track ever was to begin with. But this is Bond. And this is a Bond that follows the biggest of all time, Skyfall. Of course Smith will be putting the bomb in bombast. "Writing’s on the Wall" will also follow one of the most expensive and physically real opening sequences to any film in recent times, let alone a Bond. When that Mexico City overture wraps up and the first note kicks in like a bedroom door slamming in the night, it has to belong to a vocal dignitary like Sam Smith.
He suggests he not only took just 20 minutes to record "Writing’s on the Wall," but also wowed Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson with his demo vocal so much it ultimately didn’t need re-recording and is the final version to be used. “It’s an epic love song is all I’m saying,” Smith told BBC’s Radio 1 upon the news: “I love the song so much.” Broccoli notes: “Sam and Jimmy have written the most inspirational song for Spectre and with Sam’s extraordinary vocal performance, ‘Writing’s on the Wall’ will surely be considered one of the greatest Bond songs of all time.”
An out-and-proud singer, Sam Smith has quite rightly distanced himself from the gay tag. But there is surely some weight in how he is the first out gay singer to sing a 007 tune in the franchise’s 53 years. His 007 casting is not just one of zeitgeist thinking. For whatever commercial and artistic reasons k.d. Lang was famously passed over in 1997 when her [far superior] track "Surrender" was dropped for the opening overture for Tomorrow Never Dies. Flash-forward two decades and a young, out gay singer is performing the opening salvo for a movie series about one of the world’s most famous heterosexuals. That is not to be dismissed. Not when From Russia With Love is hardly the experience of the LGBT community in that country right now. However, with 2012’s Skyfall , its gay screenwriter John Logan (who co-writes Spectre) and its homo-cidal villain Silva (Javier Bardem) cracking onto a Bond who deliciously retorts with “What makes you think this is my first time?” Sam Smith may be putting his vocals on the queerest Bond movie yet. Maybe.
Sam Smith will be performing "Writing’s on the Wall" at next year’s Academy Awards as Best Song contender. Mark my words. And with a name like Sam Smith, there is no way John Travolta will introduce him incorrectly. Maybe.