Home > Uncategorized > Auric, Mackie, and Lotte: The Best Tunes

Auric, Mackie, and Lotte: The Best Tunes

On account of my hiatus from blogging, I missed some opportunities to commemorate music-related milestones in 2011. They include two centenaries: the passing of Gustav Mahler (18 May) and the birth of Bernard Herrmann (29 June). Also, a year ago today, film composer John Barry passed away at the age of 77. Perhaps most famously, he established the musical sound world for James Bond’s cinematic romps, even if his authorship of the iconic theme remains a topic of dispute.

Before my rediscovery of classical music in high school, I found the Bond scores compelling. They transported a small rural town kid from Ohio on the globetrotting adventures of the “gentleman” British agent, and made otherwise dull sojourns a bit more exciting. The music may match the films “too well,” a gripe of some critics who generally grouse about romanticism and the film composers who follow such traditions, but I have yet to hear what they would come up with to portray Bond’s sense of alienation in late capitalist society (or rather, have him confront it, rather than avoid it).

Many years later, with a broader range of music listening experience, I began to think about the genres upon which Barry drew to create the Bond film scores. Jazz stands out, but so too do (broadly speaking) classical influences. Some are quite obvious, especially what I take to be a sly nod to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, in the principal theme from the water-logged yarn Thunderball. Regardless of whether you believe that John Barry or Monty Norman was the original creator of the Bond theme itself, it does share some apparent affinities with the opening of Jean Sibelius’ Cassazione.

Beyond direct quotations, I believe that Barry’s usage of elements from various genres made his scores for Bond’s adventures unique… that is, until others caught on. Of course, spy film parodies have played such conventions to the hilt. Broadly speaking, of most interest to me is the theme from Goldfinger (1964). As Bond fans know, it remains one of the best films in the series, or at least the one that set the standard for various pale imitators. This description applies to less-than-stellar efforts within the series, as well as the phony proletarians that tried supplanting Bond in the 1980s and 1990s. The latter Reagan Era Commie and Eurotrash busters seem more and more dated, especially as they try to relive their former glories, while Daniel Craig effectively refreshes the Bond tradition.

At any rate, I wish to relate the theme from Goldfinger to the blog’s central theme of transcending genre. Barry himself self-deprecatingly called it “million-dollar Mickey Mouse music,” which I suppose shares some affinities with Richard Strauss’ self-assessment as a “first-rate second-rate composer.” From NPR’s commemoration of Barry, which includes excerpts from a 1999 interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, he discusses the source of his inspiration for the Goldfinger theme:

“They said, ‘Go away and write it.’ So I never discussed it with the director or the producers. I discussed it with myself, and I thought, ‘Well, what is this about? It’s a song about a villain.’ And then I started to reflect historically — there’s no songs about villains. People don’t sit down and write songs about villains. They write love songs. They write sad songs. They write torch songs.

“But songs about villains are very rare. And then I thought of Kurt Weill’s ‘Mack the Knife,’ which is the definitive song about a villain. So then I got my head on right, and I thought that’s the definitive song. He managed to bring off the most extraordinary song about a villain.

Indeed, the affinities between the Goldfinger theme and Mack the Knife from Weill’s 1928 work Die Dreigroschenoper (Threepenny Opera) are easy to discern. Of course, Bertolt Brecht attached a more overt political agenda to his libretto for the work, while the one in Goldfinger is tucked away beneath the action. [I am shocked, yes, shocked, to hear that capitalists would make deals with a Communist nation!] Still, whether one sees Macheath as a villain or antihero who underscores the similarities between those who establish and rob banks (and even Goldfinger presumptively refers to Fort Knox as “his” bank at one point), the lyrics of both songs describe aspects of their respective titular villains’ traits. The Street Singer enumerates Macheath’s crimes, while Shirley Bassey remains more cryptic about Goldfinger. Nonetheless, the underlying message of both songs and the metaphors they employ are quite clear: Macheath and Goldfinger are criminal masterminds of whom you need to beware. With Macheath:

And the shark, it has teeth,
And it wears them in its face.
And Macheath, he has a knife,
But the knife one doesn’t see.

… and Goldfinger:

He’s the man, the man with the Midas touch
A spider’s touch
Such a cold finger
Beckons you to enter his web of sin
But don’t go in

Beyond the lyrics, both have irregular rhythms that hint at their subjects’ scheming. Furthermore, whatever one may think about them, a number of interpretations of both songs have emerged from musicians associated with various genres. Mack the Knife has been tackled by Louis Armstrong, Eartha Kitt, Bobby Darin, Frank Sinatra, and Marianne Faithfull. Other Weill songs have been reinterpreted in diverse genres, including The Doors’ version of Alabama Song from The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahaggony, as well as Threepenny’s “Pirate Jenny” by Nina Simone (And doesn’t that bring to mind Fiona Apple’s Get Him Back?). As for Goldfinger, musicians have reinterpreted it with poppy renderings, symphonic performances (including a rather lethargic arrangement), and “punkish” covers (such as this well-crafted 1978 version by the post-punk band Magazine).

Of course, none of this would be complete without mentioning Lotte Lenya. The spouse of Weill, she portrayed the villain Colonel Klebb in From Russia with Love, the Bond film that preceded Goldfinger (with yet another memorable opening credits sequence and score by Barry). One can only imagine how she would have sung the Goldfinger theme as well; it would have been an interesting touch, given that Goldfinger established the cinematic Bond’s cheekiness. Maybe a record of Lenya singing Mackie could give us a clue…

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