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Coolest thing about James Bond? That theme music, first created for ‘Dr. No’ and a story of intrigue all its own

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 10/8/2021 Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

Forget the license to kill. James Bond fanatics carry a license to argue about everything. Who’s the best Bond? Well, Connery. Obviously.

But Daniel Craig’s a close second, many believe. And the other screen Bonds have their admirers, despite the lesser movies’ unevenness or facetious gadgetry.

Pierce Brosnan better than Roger Moore? Perhaps, but, oh, right, Timothy Dalton! Any takers? How about one-time wonder George Lazenby? Imagine if Connery or Craig had done “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”! That would’ve been something.

The arguments regarding “No Time to Die,” opening this week and closing out Craig’s tenure, have barely begun and already the film has provoked a wildly divided response coming off preview screenings. (Me, I liked it.)

Through all the debates, one glorious feature of the Bond franchise has served as something on which millions of fans worldwide actually agree: the eternal coolness of the James Bond theme. It’s credited to composer Monty Norman, with an uncredited but otherwise fully acknowledged arrangement — though there’s a complicated legal and artistic story behind who did what to what — by John Barry.

Go to YouTube and type in “James Bond theme tune” to hear what I’m talking about. That theme, the one with the dum-dee-dee-DUM-dum surf guitar line and the walloping orchestral charts dripping with danger, helped make Connery’s first Bond picture, “Dr. No” (1962), what it was.

How that theme came into the world involves some speculation, several lawsuits and one cruelly underpaid guitarist by the name of Vic Flick. That dum-dee-dee-DUM-dum guitar line in the original June 21, 1962, recording? Know what Flick got for it? Fifteen bucks, American.

Having secured the film rights for Fleming’s creation, producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli developed “Dr. No” as a medium-budget ($1 million) project. It made 60 times that, and that’s how Matt Helm and Austin Powers were born.

For the film’s score, Broccoli contacted Norman, already a successful West End songwriter who co-wrote the musicals “Irma La Douce” and “Expresso Bongo,” among others.

Broccoli invited Norman along with some of the “Dr. No” crew, including Connery and Ursula Andress, for a trip to Jamaica. Bring the family, he said. Norman did. They soaked up some of the sights and sounds, the sun and sea and surf. Norman accepted the assignment, which included whipping up a signature theme to be used in “Dr. No” and, with luck, in a follow-up or two. (Or two dozen.)

Norman’s efforts, according to many who were there, needed punching-up. Broccoli brought in Barry to arrange Norman’s musical sketches, which were heavy on Jamaican flavor but light on the secret agent angle. Barry went to work, and his arrangement clicked. Everybody loved it.

Thirty-five years later, the question (never legally proven) about the extent of Barry’s contributions came to a head. A 1997 Sunday Times story alleged that Barry, not Norman, was the primary composer of the Bond theme. Norman sued.

That surf guitar riff? There’s no doubt it came from one of Norman’s own “trunk” songs (i.e., unused) written for an unproduced stage musical “A House for Mr. Biswas,” based on a V.S. Naipaul novel set in an Indian Trinidad community. Played on a sitar, taken at half-speed tempo and set to lyrics that have nothing to do with 007, the key melody line of Norman’s unused composition eventually made its way into what we now know as the Bond theme.

The rest of it? Barry’s lawyers contended that Norman’s sketchy “Dr. No” efforts needed all the help they could get, and what Barry provided deserved at least co-authorship recognition and royalties.

Producer Broccoli, according to Barry, wanted something more like the sound (and the Vic Flick guitar) Barry brought to the 1960 film “Beat Girl.” A lot of Barry’s pre-Bond material, performed by the John Barry Seven, offers tantalizing hints of the Bond sound, including the 1960 UK hit “Poor Me,” in which the four-note backing theme (recognizable from the opening bars of the Bond theme) makes an earlier appearance.

The jury in the Sunday Times libel case ruled in Norman’s favor; he prevailed in an earlier court challenge as well. “Dr. No” ended up Norman’s sole Bond score. Barry? He wrote 11.

It’s a fascinating musicological debate, this question of who came up with what in any collaboration. So much in art, music and life comes straight or crooked from something or someone else. That four-note “danger” vamp at the start of the Bond theme? Listen to Artie Shaw’s “Nightmare” sometime. Close to the “Dr. No” timeline, Henry Mancini’s fantastic “Peter Gunn” theme got there first, if you’re talking about an electric guitar riff underpinning big-band blasts of swagger.

Norman’s Bond theme is one of the most singular and recognizable pieces of music in popular culture. Norman, who is still alive, acknowledges the impact of Barry’s perfect arrangement, even if the origin of the notes being arranged remains a matter of armchair speculation. There’s no debate, however, about the results. “Bond’s sexiness, his mystery, his ruthlessness — it’s all there, in a few notes,” Norman marveled in a British TV interview.

As for Vic Flick: Thirty five years after the fact, he started collecting modest royalties for his “Dr. No” guitar line, the one he performed on a 1939 English Clifford Essex Paragon Deluxe by way of a Fender Vibrolux amplifer. He sold the guitar at auction in 2015, for $23,040. It came with “a certificate of authenticity signed by Flick and John Barry, composer of the theme songs.” Wait, what? Well. Barry took varying degrees of credit over the years for his hand in the Bond theme, though Norman prevailed in the eyes of the law.

This much lies outside legalities: What Norman, Barry, Flick and others touched turned to gold, and they gave the world, particularly the fantasy world of impressionable men and boys, the sonic quintessence of male aplomb — ridiculous but deadly.

David Mamet, Chicago native, once put it this way. “I was raised on James Bond and Hugh Hefner’s Playboy philosophy. Bond went through life impressing people with his gun, and Hefner went through life in a bathrobe; and the capper was that, of the two of them, Hefner was the one who actually existed.”

“No Time to Die” opens in theaters Oct. 7.

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

Twitter @phillipstribune

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