In Random Tracks, I’m reviewing a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958. If you like what I’m doing, comment and let me know what random Hot 100 hit song you want me to review.
Tom Jones- “Thunderball”
PEAK: #25 on January 22, 1966
SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence”
When it comes to songwriting, one of the toughest assignments I’ve seen in my research is when you have to write a theme song for a movie. Oftentimes, you’re forced to write a song using the title of the movie as the title of a song which can be creatively limiting. Many times, the movie title doesn’t lend itself well to a story to write a song around which can be more difficult if you haven’t seen the movie beforehand. Sometimes you can get your way but other times you force yourself to fit your song into the restrictive assignment you’re given.
The later situation is what composer John Barry and lyricist Don Black found themselves in when writing the title theme for the fourth Bond movie Thunderball. Barry and lyricist Leslie Bricusse had originally written a theme for Thunderball titled “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” which was what one Italian journalist used to refer to James Bond as they found it difficult to write a song called “Thunderball.” Barry recorded his new song with “Goldfinger” singer Shirley Bassey and later Dionne Warwick but just a couple weeks shy of Thunderball’s opening, the studio rejected Barry’s idea wanting a song named after the film to repeat the success of “Goldfinger.”
So Barry now teaming up with Don Black gave the studio what they wanted by hastily writing a title theme sung by another big-voiced Welch vocalist. Black had to look the word up in a dictionary writing “Thunderball” around it being a code word. Before his death, Barry said he still didn’t know what “Thunderball” was about. Looking at the song, it’s clear to see it as a pure last-minute assignment made to please the studio. What we’re left with is a song that ultimately didn’t do nearly as well as “Goldfinger” and has left so little impact on pop culture that it doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page.
When Tom Jones was picked to sing the theme for Thunderball, it was the cap of a major breakout year in 1965. Jones first hit it big worldwide with the peppy banger “It’s Not Unusual” before following it up with “What’s New Pussycat?,” the title theme to the movie of the same name which gave him bigger success in the US. (“It’s Not Unusual” peaked at #10. It’s a 9. “What’s New Pussycat?” peaked at #3. It’s a 6.) With his loud voice and brassy-driven pop music, picking Tom Jones to sing the new Bond theme seemed like a no-brainer. In a 2011 interview, Jones said he knew John Barry before meeting with him for “Thunderball” because of his band The John Barry Seven. John Barry’s pianist was also Les Reed who had written some of Jones’ hits including “It’s Not Unusual.” Presumably, that connection is what got Jones the gig to sing the theme for Thunderball.
Going by the lyrics, you can tell the songwriters didn’t spend a lot of time on “Thunderball.” Barry and Black talk about a guy who runs while others walk, acts while other men talk, who knows the meaning of success, whose needs are more so he gives less, who gets women and break their hearts without regret, and who fights on even when it seems like a lost cause thinking it’s worth it. Throughout, we’re told that this man strikes like Thunderball. From what I could find, Thunderball is a term the U.S. Military uses to describe the mushroom cloud that forms when testing atomic bombs. (This is the movie where Sean Connery’s James Bond has to find two stolen atomic bombs.) So what Barry is writing is that this guy strikes like the force of an atomic bomb. Even with this context, hearing the title in the way it’s used still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
To give Tom Jones and the players credit, they all do the best with what they’re given. The orchestra players also do some nice tricks including the classic James Bond progression. Jones brings the presence and swagger that he always brings to his songs and like Bassey on “Goldfinger” does a lot of enunciating on every syllable and rises and dips his big voice with the music. He also may not know what the lyrics mean but he does his best to put meaning into them. Also, like Bassey on “Goldfinger,” Jones holds out his last note as the orchestra swells behind him to the end. Jones reportedly held his note out for so long that he fainted in the studio. That’s some real dedication there.
Overall, while everyone involved do their jobs well, “Thunderball” just doesn’t stand out too much for me to put it as a true Bond theme classic in the way “Goldfinger” has. And from the looks of it, it seems like everyone else agrees. Still, for a song written at the last minute by writers who didn’t know what they were writing, it could have been worse.
Despite “Thunderball” the song not reaching the Top 10 heights that “Goldfinger” enjoyed a year earlier, Thunderball the movie was another major hit for the Bond franchise grossing over $63 million in its Christmas 1965 release. On one list, Thunderball is ranked as the #3 grossing movie of 1965 behind only The Sound of Music and Doctor Zhivago. Perhaps people just liked the movie more than the song or maybe that its orchestral heavy production was starting to feel out of place in a pop chart moment when introspective folk-rock and psychedelia was beginning to take over.
Regardless, everyone involved with “Thunderball” continued with their careers. Tom Jones continued landing big cheesy lounge hits into the ‘70s. As for John Barry and Don Black, this wouldn’t be the last Bond theme that the two would have a hand in.
BONUS BEATS: For the 1996 spy comedy movie Spy Hard, “Weird Al” Yankovic performed the title theme which is a parody of “Thunderball” right down to its video. Here’s Yankovic’s video for “Spy Hard” which ends with Yankovic’s head exploding at the last note:
(“Weird Al” Yankovic’s highest-charting single, 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” peaked at #9. It’s a 7.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the pop-punk cover of “Thunderball” that Bowling for Soup singer Jaret Reddick contributed to the 2017 Bond theme tribute album Songs, Bond Songs: The Music of 007
(Bowling for Soup’s highest-charting single, 2004’s “1985,” peaked at #23.)