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Friday, November 16, 2012

Odyssey Of The Heart: Remembering Lillian Lopez

This post is overdue, but I only recently heard about the passing of a singer who deserves to be recognised as one of the true great soul voices. Lillian Lopez was the lead singer of the soul funk group Odyssey who had a string of hits in the late 1970's and early 1980's. You might not remember them, but you would remember their songs and undoubtedly you'll recall the magical combination of warmth and power of Lillian's unique vocals. Here is my tribute to Lillian and the songs that are forever part of my personal jukebox.

Native New Yorker (1977, US #21, UK #5)

Odyssey was the brainchild of the Lopez sisters, Lillian, Louise and Carmen, but it took perseverance and many line-up changes before the band achieved success. The one constant and their unique selling point was Lillian's voice. Their breakthrough hit was this hook-laden ode to the Big Apple. Like all the best songs about New York it effortlessly evokes the energy and cool of the city and the resilience of its natives. It tells the tale of someone who came to the city with big dreams only to see them fall away. Rather than a pity party though, the song is an anthem about how you pick yourself up, dust yourself down and get on with living. Lillian's gorgeous vocal is able to suggest the underlying heartbreak while also embracing the energy of a New York night. I fell instantly in love with that voice and the sparkle in Lillian's eyes.

Use It Up And Wear It Out (1980, UK #1)

For some unknown reason Odyssey had their greatest commercial success in the UK, but then the British have always had great taste in music. Their chart success peaked with this number one UK hit from 1980. I doubt anyone who's been to a club in the last thirty years has got away without dancing to this one, but then I haven't been to a club since 1997, so who knows what the kids dance to these days (shudder). While not the most lyrically challenging song, the chorus is just insistent and once heard it is never forgotten. Lillian sang it with great swagger, effortlessly dancing through the verses before punching the energy in the chorus. The "do it all night" bridge is a particular delight, providing an almost literal climax to the song.

If You're Looking For A Way Out (1980, UK #6)

Now I'm a sentimental soul and it has been known for me to shed a tear or two at a sad song. The champion tearjerker in my book is this unbelievable song, which has one of the all-time great vocals by any singer, ever. We all know unrequited love is the most painful, but rarely has it been so perfectly imagined in song than with this harrowing lyric combined with a delivery where you can feel every ounce of hurt. When Lillian sings "oh come on stop pretending, tell me what's in your heart" it's all I can do to avoid breaking down in sobs. And when she sings "don't you know I'll always love you" at the end of the song all my resolve is gone. Bittersweet brilliance.

It Will Be Alright (1981, UK #43)

Where If You're Looking For A Way Out is desperate, this gem is its hopeful counterbalance. It's all about giving love that all-important second chance. Lillian's vocal is again spectacular, this is a voice of a woman who understands the power of a pop song and the critical role music plays in our lives. She knows she's not singing about herself, but for all the lovers who will use this song to pluck up the courage to give love one more chance. Lillian is able to channel genuine emotion into every nuanced line, her voice seems to wrap itself around your ears, holding you until you believe her; it will be alright.

Inside Out (1982, UK #3)

Odyssey's last sizeable hit was perhaps their most sophisticated pop moment. It feels like a culmination of their strengths, the funky power of their dance music mixed with the raw emotion of their ballads. It is basically about being stalked, but Lillian makes it sound rather an attractive proposition. She is the other woman promising her man that they will ultimately be together. How this will be achieved is probably best left to the imagination, but Lillian again delivers a truly incredible vocal, less intensely emotional than usual, but full of tension and meaning, perfectly matching the tone of the lyric. That was why I loved Lillian's voice so much, she always knew how to perfectly pitch a song, which feelings to surrender, what buttons she needed to press. It was an immediately recognisable voice that to me sounded like a trusted and close friend, full of wisdom, experience and love.

Sadly, as is often the case, Odyssey were dropped by their label when the hits dried up, but Lillian kept performing until her retirement in 2000. Lillian lost her battle with cancer in September. She may not be a household name, but her magical voice will remain part of the fabric of our lives and her performances will undoubtedly continue to soundtrack the love affairs of new listeners for as long as there are ears to listen and hearts that break.

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Friday, November 2, 2012

Divas Are Forever! The Other Bond Girls

Last weekend Skyfall had the best opening weekend ever for a James Bond movie, frustratingly here in the US we have another week to wait before we can once more wallow in the glamour, action and excitement that is synonymous with Bond. Similarly intertwined with this longest running of all film franchises is the music that has become as much a symbol of Bond as martinis, gadgets and girls. My love affair with Bond goes back to childhood and it has as much to do with the songs as it does with the movies. Like many impressionable young gays, something was shaken, if not stirred when I first head Shirley Bassey utter the immortal word "Goldfinger".

Like the movies themselves, the music of Bond has had its ups and downs, with some themes becoming iconic while others have been, well, moronic. Although boys are sometimes allowed to sing for Bond, it is only when the divas are unleashed that true magic is made (with honourable mentions for Simon Le Bon and Morten Harket). In this 50th anniversary year and with Adele returning the Bond theme to glory it seems right to celebrate the many female artists that have performed for Queen and country: here then is my countdown of the best and worst of the Bond divas.

21 - Under The Mango Tree: Diana Coupland (Dr. No, 1962)

Think you know who the first woman to sing a Bond theme was? Then think again. It was in fact Sid James' TV wife from the 70's British sitcom Bless This House, the lovely Diana Coupland. She happened to be married to Monty Norman, the composer who created the iconic James Bond Theme and oversaw the score for the first Bond movie, Dr. No. Ms Coupland had a sideline going of dubbing the singing voices for actresses who were vocally challenged and so it is her, not Ursula Andress who is trilling this lovely little number on the beach. Uncredited at the time, I am happy to rectify this and let Diana take her place in posterity.

20 - Another Way To Die: Jack Black & Alicia Keys (Quantum Of Solace, 2008)

Admittedly this is only half diva, but for completeness' sake I have to include it. It is understandable that with a lot to prove the first two Bond movies with Daniel Craig were serious affairs, but I'm glad that the warmth and humour that are intrinsic to Bond make a reappearance in Skyfall. Sadly this serious air carried over to the themes for Casino Royale and Quantum Of Solace. This was meant to be Amy Winehouse's Bond theme, but in a sign of the tragedy to come she just couldn't get it together in time. In light of that it is hard not to feel shortchanged by this rather weak effort. This is the first Bond theme to be rapped rather than sung. For me, this just doesn't work. Every time I hear it, it feels like the first time - it's that forgettable. It's truly tedious and charisma free. Maybe in twenty years time Alicia will get a proper go at a big Bond ballad, once she's no longer so worried about being hip (do the kids still use that word?).

19 - If There Was A Man/Where Has Everybody Gone?: The Pretenders (The Living Daylights, 1987)

Although they lost out to a-ha for the title theme, Chrissie and co did get to contribute two songs for Timothy Dalton's debut as Bond. If There Was A Man is a simple ballad, that marked the first time a different theme was used for the end credits. It never quite gets going, though Chrissie sings it with feeling. This contrasts with the wacky Where Has Everybody Gone? which features briefly in the movie. It sounds like Chrissie was having a mental breakdown and someone left the tape recorder running. It has a certain quirky charm, but overall these efforts are a bit of disappointment; Chrissie has the chops to be a major Bond diva, but not with material like this.

18 Tomorrow Never Dies: Sheryl Crow (Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997)

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Where to begin? It is hard to believe that new Bond music producer David Arnold held a competitive process for the honour of providing the main theme for Pierce Brosnan's second outing as MI6's finest. Were the efforts by Saint Etienne, Pulp, Marc Almond and others worse than this? We know there was one song that was perfect for the job (of which more later), but nonetheless this monstrosity won the day. Sheryl Crow is a fine artist, I'm partial to a great deal of her music, but on this evidence she is not a great vocalist. This is hardly the most rigorous Bond theme to sing, yet Sheryl barely staggers through the high notes; it is painful. The song is also really boring, even Dame Shirley would have struggled to breathe life into this one. For shame.

17 Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown?: Nina (On Her Majesty's Secret Service, 1969)

Poor George Lazenby, he wasn't all that bad. Oh, and Dame Diana Rigg as a Bond girl (swoon). This festive number is a slightly bizarre entry in the Bond canon, but charming in its own way. A collaboration of Bond maestro John Barry, the man responsible for making music central to the Bond movies, and the legendary lyricist Hal David. You will know their other collaboration from the movie, We Have All The Time In The World, made famous of course by the great Louis Armstrong in his final recording. European folk singer Nina is joined by a chorus of children (don't run screaming just yet) and at first listen it can feel a tad cloying, but once you allow yourself to embrace it as high camp, what's not to love? It also has a great lyric that captures the essence of a good sing-a-long Christmas anthem. Oddest Bond song for sure.

16 Moonraker: Shirley Bassey (Moonraker, 1979)

Without question John Barry is responsible for creating a whole genre of music with his soundtracks for Bond, but in the public imagination there is one singer who both defines and is defined by her Bond themes; Dame Shirley Bassey. However this effort, her fourth (yes fourth, you'll see) and final to date is far from her best, but that is hardly her fault. Legend has it that this was offered first to Kate Bush who turned it down because she was "too busy". In reality she probably fell asleep while listening to the demo and was too embarrassed to admit it, so passed. Then Johnny Mathis landed the job and recording commenced, only for him to drop out unexpectedly before completion. The trouper she is. Shirley stepped in just weeks before the movie was set to premiere, no doubt as a favour to Barry. La Bassey never held much affection for the track, feeling it didn't really belong to her. Not a bad song, but not a classic and a waste of a good Shirl.

15 All Time High: Rita Coolidge (Octopussy, 1983)

In a fever dream I once imagined a song called Octopussy sung by a sequined Donna Summer. It had the appropriate amounts of brass, belting and bravissimo and Donna was straddling a disco ball while Bond girls danced beneath her. Sadly it was but a dream and instead we have this slab of MOR. It's perfectly pleasant and beautifully sung by Rita Coolidge, but it is not a Bond theme in my book. There is no drama, no tension. Oh well. At least we have the 80s-tastic single sleeve to bring a smile to our lips.

14 Die Another Day: Madonna (Die Another Day, 2002)

I have a love/hate relationship with this one. There are bits that are magic, cool and edgy and Bondish, but there is also much that is lazy and unintentionally hilarious ("Sigmund Freud... analyze this", for example, and those peculiar grunts). It does feel like Madge knocked it off on her tea break, she was probably more focused on doing some proper acting in her rather forced cameo appearance in the movie. Imagine my excitement when I heard Madonna was doing the Bond theme, then picture my face when I heard it. Undoubtedly the biggest letdown in Madonna's career and yes, I'm including Swept Away.

13 For Your Eyes Only: Sheena Easton (For Your Eyes Only, 1981)

Having originally offered Blondie the chance to write the theme song, the producers eventually went with this song by the film's composer, Bill Conti. It is a little bland for my liking, though Sheena Easton sings it like her life depended on it. She also has the honour of being the only artist to perform her song in the title credits. There are some nice musical flourishes here and there, but the song never quite achieves lift off. Still Sheena doesn't grunt in it, so it slips ahead of Madonna in this countdown.

12 If You Asked Me To: Patti LaBelle (Licence To Kill, 1989)

I have a soft spot for Timothy Dalton's Bond, I know he's not many people's favourite, but I thought he nailed the part. This gem is from the end credits of his second and sadly final outing, Licence To Kill. First it is written by the divine Diane Warren, who seems to channel her inner Bond girl in the plaintive lyric, vainly hoping for a future with Mr Bond. Second, it is sung to perfection by the uniquely gifted Patti LaBelle, who showcases her singular charms throughout. It is a travesty that this did not become a huge international hit for Patti, although you can't blame Celine Dion for stealing it a few years later. For me though this will forever be Patti's song. This was the great Michael Kamen's only Bond soundtrack and with this and the title song he ensured it became one of the most memorable.

11 Mr. Kiss Bang Bang: Shirley Bassey/Dionne Warwick (Thunderball, 1965)

After the enormous success of Goldfinger it was inevitable that Bond's producers would want to repeat that formula for their next outing and that included trying to mirror the iconic title track. The original theme for Thunderball was the amusingly titled Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which was a phrase coined by an Italian journalist when describing the character of Bond. John Barry pretty much copied the template of Goldfinger, from the brassy intro to the dramatic crescendos, but this time the song lauds the hero rather than the villain. The song was originally recorded by Shirley Bassey, who gives a highly stylised performance, lacking the finesse of her prior turn. Barry was clearly unhappy with the results and so asked Dionne Warwick to take a turn. Dionne sings it straighter, giving it a more pop feel, the arrangement is also more sophisticated on this version. All of this effort was in vain though, as United Artists asked for the song to be replaced, as they felt the theme really should include the film title. Barry was not impressed, he'd deliberately avoided writing a song called Thunderball, thinking the term too vague for a successful lyric. All of which explains why Tom Jones' ultimate theme for the movie seems a little weak, as it was both written and recorded in a rush. Such a shame that this vintage piece of Bond music never made it to the final cut, though the melody recurs throughout the score. It is also regretful that both Shirley and Dionne's recordings did not see the light of day for nearly three decades. However, we have them now and so we can wallow in the wonderfully cheesy lyrics and dream of what might have been.

10 The World Is Not Enough: Garbage (The World Is Not Enough, 1999)

Bond's other Shirley, the delightful Miss Manson and her band Garbage gave a perfectly chilling performance on this slice of classic Bond. This could not be anything but a James Bond theme, the lyrics are erudite, the melody is suspenseful and the production is flawless. After the misfire with Tomorrow Never Dies David Arnold, who after John Barry is Bond's most natural composer, redeemed himself with this effort. This also has to be the best music video made to accompany a Bond theme, with Shirley being replaced by a deadly android, it is like a mini-movie in its own right.

9 The Man With The Golden Gun: Lulu (The Man With The Golden Gun, 1974)

While Bond themes are synonymous with sophistication and suspense they are also, at their best, ever so slightly camp. That is apart from this cracker from Lulu, which is top-to-bottom camp. In fact it's hard to believe this is from a real Bond movie and not some spoof, as the lyrical innuendos have rarely been this upfront. From the opening "He's got a powerful weapon" to the incredible bridge "his eye may be on you or me, who will he bang? We will see..." Lulu delivers it with gusto, proving she has one of the most powerful voices ever to come out of a white woman. It probably ties Goldfinger for establishing the idea of Bond themes as high camp and it is a cheeky little minx, much like its singer.

8 Surrender: k.d. lang (Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997)

Imagine a world where this was the title theme for Tomorrow Never Dies, that world would have no war, endless summer and donuts would be calorie free. Sadly we live in this world and Sheryl Crow's travesty was picked over this gem. k.d. is one of the finest vocalists that has ever lived and on this she proves that she was born to sing Bond. If you left the cinema when the end credits started and you've never heard this luxurious, fabulous song in all its glory then you are missing one of the true delights of the Bond canon.

7 GoldenEye: Tina Turner (GoldenEye, 1995)

You might find it hard to believe this is effectively a U2 song, composed by Bono and The Edge. It is a perfect pastiche of a Bond theme and I mean that affectionately, as it is clearly written with a great deal of love and affection for Bond music. Launching a new actor as Bond is always a tense affair and it is important that the producers give them every chance to succeed. I believe this loving recreation of a classic Bond theme was the perfect scene-setter for my personal favourite Bond, the delicious Pierce Brosnan, who was the first since Connery to successfully encapsulate all aspects of Bond's persona. It also has one of the greatest vocals of any Bond theme, Tina is triumphant, especially at the crescendo where her voice does something quite remarkable with the word "GoldenEye".

6 You Only Live Twice: Nancy Sinatra (You Only Live Twice, 1967)

With the movie's Japanese setting, John Barry sought to include eastern motifs in the themes for this outing, creating a unique sound for this memorable Bond classic. An initial theme to be sung by Julie Rogers was abandoned and the very trendy Nancy Sinatra was co-opted instead to sing a new song. While many Bond themes become timeless, this one for me will always summon up images of the sixties; a decade that was cool, swirly and wore kinky boots. With the most gorgeous refrain of any Bond song, it has been sampled a number of times,including most memorably on Robbie Williams' Millennium. Nancy does a commendable job of singing within herself, despite her reported nerves and twenty-five takes. She also recorded a pop version of the song, which reached number 11 in the UK charts and made the Billboard top fifty.

5 Skyfall: Adele (Skyfall, 2012)

I was beginning to worry about the future of the Bond theme after the last few troubling attempts at making them "cool". Thank Fleming that the producers have finally seen sense and gone back to basics for the latest movie: a strong song with all the required elements sung by a great singer. They don't come much greater right now than Adele, with her sterling performance on this track she has shown that there are even more layers to her majestic voice than we had yet heard. Adele and her songwriting partner Paul Epworth must have been channelling John Barry when they wrote it, the track could be from any of the last five decades, it is timeless and an instant classic. I almost wept in gratitude when I heard it: there is hope for the future of Bond music.

4 Goldfinger: Shirley Bassey (Goldfinger, 1964)

In many ways Bond began in 1964 when both the movie and the song Goldfinger solidified many of the elements that became icons of Bond. The third movie to be made, this time all the ingredients combined to create true magic and every Bond film since has been forced to live in its shadow. Written by John Barry with lyrics by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, Newley recorded the song himself initially and his version was considered for the movie. Enter Shirley Bassey. the red hot pop diva at the time, who basically eats the song alive. The brassy elements were to tie in with the gold themes of the film, but they have become synonymous with Bond themes (well the good ones) ever since. Who can fail to be thrilled at that opening blast of brass, then seduced by the gentle echo? Shirley gave us shades of vamp, victim and victor in her defining performance. What more is there to say? Perfection.

3 Licence To Kill: Gladys Knight (Licence To Kill, 1989)

It's getting tough to separate them at this stage, each of the these songs have been my favourite Bond theme at some point, but few have I gone quite so mental over than this one. It unashamedly borrows the theme from Goldfinger, but in a way that makes it feel like it was written for this song. It is also the longest Bond theme, clocking in at 5 mins 15 secs, owing to the seemingly endless crescendos, each more spectacular than the last. Gladys nearly out-Basseys Shirl on this one, I can't think of when she gave a stronger vocal, proving she has the power to go along with one of the greatest emotional voices of all time. This may be a bit OTT for some tastes, but it never strays over the line into parody, it is how a Bond theme from the 1980s should sound. Superb.

2 Nobody Does It Better: Carly Simon (The Spy Who Loved Me, 1977)

From the tinkling piano intro to the full-blown orchestral fade this song is three and a half minutes of sheer perfection. Composed by the late, great Marvin Hamlisch and with lyrics by the supremely talented Carole Bayer Sager, few Bond songs have such a formidable pedigree. The first not to be named after the film (though the title appears in the lyrics), this song is also one of the few that have arguably outgrown their role as a Bond theme. It has gone on to be used on the soundtrack to numerous other movies and has been covered and performed endlessly. A large part of the credit must go to Carly Simon, who was a brave choice by the producers to sing such a big song. Carly was the seventies cool chick, but she was known as a singer-songwriter and had not yet proven herself as a formidable interpreter of song. She has never sounded sweeter than on the opening measures and when she unleashes on the first verse and roars towards the song's climax it is a marvel to behold.

1 Diamonds Are Forever: Shirley Bassey (Diamonds Are Forever, 1971)

Though Goldfinger may get most of the attention, most Bond fanatics agree that this second outing by Miss Bassey is the greater achievement. Sophisticated, witty, breathtaking - words that are synonymous with Bond perfectly describe this amazing theme. Shirley's vocal is indescribably great on this, the song gives her the chance to unleash all the weaponry in her arsenal, from gentle purrs to earth shattering highs. The lyrics are a masterclass of metaphor, it is the bitter cynical sister to Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend. It has my favourite line in any Bond song "men are mere mortals who are not worth going to your grave for" - delivered with an appropriate snarl by Shirley. Allegedly Barry urged Shirley to imagine she was singing about a penis, armed with that knowledge you can never quite listen to the song in the same way again. This is the pinnacle of Bond themes and it is hard to see how it could be bettered, but who knows what Adele's second Bond theme may provide...

I hope you've enjoyed this trip through the wonders of the lady Bond themes and maybe you have made a few new discoveries or at least been reacquainted with some old friends. One thing is certain, James Bond will return.

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