Why Chris Cornell's under-appreciated James Bond theme for Casino Royale is one of 007's finest
Rock icon Chris Cornell has sadly died aged 52. He’ll be best remembered as the lead singer of grunge pioneers Soundgarden and rock supergroup Audioslave, but he’ll also be missed by the movie world.
In 2012, the Seattle rocker was Golden Globe-nominated for ‘The Keeper’, his contribution to the ‘Machine Gun Preacher’ soundtrack, and he recently released ‘The Promise’, an orchestral number for the Christian Bale film of the same name. However, many movie fans will remember him best for his theme to ‘Casino Royale’, the brooding ‘You Know My Name’. Co-written and performed with David Arnold, it was a marked departure for the franchise in a number of ways, and that’s perhaps what makes it so special.
Cornell was the first American male to sing a Bond theme, and it was first theme since ‘Octopussy’ to not share its name with the film’s title.
With the franchise rebooting and returning to its more gritty, grounded roots, the film’s producers decided they wanted a more masculine approach and went to Cornell directly to write the theme.
“They wanted a voice that fit well with his persona,” Cornell told the New York Post. “They were looking for a singer who was unapologetically male, someone with introspection in his voice but not afraid to be masculine.”
Initially sceptical, Cornell was impressed with the casting of Daniel Craig in the role and tentatively accepted the gig, but it was a visit to the set in Prague that really convinced him to dive right in. His fans saw it as a sign that he had finally sold out, but he brushed it off saying: “As far as I’m concerned, I can do anything musically – the perception outside of that is none of my business.”
Taking his cue from Tom Jones’ crooning, introspective ‘Thunderball’ theme and Paul McCartney’s aggressive ‘Live and Let Die’, Cornell said he wanted to write a song ‘in its own universe. I knew I’d never have it again – a big orchestra – so I wanted to have fun with it’.
“It is difficult, I think, to write lyrics for a character, so really I just kind of wandered around for about a month not thinking about it too much, until I sort of formulated some idea of a way that I could approach it, where I’m kind of relating to what’s in the character in the movie,” Cornell later added. “And because this particular Bond is very edgy, but also has a lot of emotional depth, it’s a lot easier.”
The lyrics reflect an immature Bond, and one facing an existential crisis. The ‘blunt instrument’ we see in ‘Casino Royale’ is untried, untested, but also ruthless, committed to Queen and country, and aware of his own mortality.
Arm yourself because no one else here will save you
The odds will betray you
And I will replace you
You can’t deny the prize, it may never fulfill you
It longs to kill you
Are you willing to die?
It’s a far cry from rhyming ‘Goldfinger’ with ‘cold finger’ and it’s exactly what Bond needed after the themes of Brosnan’s era, ranging from the sublime (Tina Tuner’s ‘GoldenEye’) to the ridiculous (Madonna’s godawful ‘Die Another Day’).
Cornell and Arnold debuted the theme song at the film’s wrap party in 2006, and it was met with critical and commercial acclaim upon release later that year, becoming the singer’s biggest solo hit. It won a Satellite Award and another gong at the World Soundtrack Awards, and earned Cornell a Grammy nomination for Best Song Written For Motion Picture, Television Or Other Visual Media the following year.
Strangely, it was overlooked by the Academy Awards that year, despite initially being shortlisted, and is often listed amongst the biggest Oscars snubs and oversights. But it lives on within certain enclaves of Bond fans across the globe.
“It was the boldest, ballsiest and most masculine Bond title anthem for a while and an instant icon in the 007 music canon,” says Mark O’Connell, Bond expert and writer of ‘Catching Bullets – Memoirs of a Bond Fan’.
“Cornell was totally left of field for the Bond sound at the time, but instantly sounded like he had been a key part of it forever. ‘You Know My Name’ was the vocal launch point to a reinvigorated second golden age of Bond onscreen – and the starting pistol he and David Arnold lent the series is still continuing to this very day and the beginnings of BOND 25.”
RIP Chris Cornell, 1964-2017.
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