Random Tracks: Nancy Sinatra’s “You Only Live Twice”

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.

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Nancy Sinatra- “You Only Live Twice”

PEAK: #44 on July 29, 1967

SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Doors’ “Light My Fire

From what I’ve read, the making of the fifth James Bond movie You Only Live Twice was not exactly smooth sailing. Sean Connery was starting to tire of the role he helped make famous with You Only Live Twice announced as his final movie as Bond. (Connery would eventually return to the tole for 1972’s Diamonds Are Forever and 1983’s Never Say Never Again.) The children’s author Roald Dahl was brought on to write the screenplay but didn’t like Ian Fleming’s book the film would adapt for not having much of a plot so he wrote a new script. And for the theme song, composer John Barry and lyricist Leslie Bricusse reunited after writing the hit theme for Goldfinger. But the first version they wrote and recorded was scrapped and the duo had trouble getting another singer for their theme. But when Barry and Bricusse did get their singer, they created another classic Bond theme.

At first, Barry and Bricusse got UK pop singer Julie Rogers to sing “You Only Live Twice” recording with a 50-piece orchestra. But for whatever reason, Barry and Bricusse decided to scrap that version and write another version of “You Only Live Twice” keeping only the title and the line “you’ll pay the price” in the final version. In finding another singer for the theme, many names were floated. Barry had Aretha Franklin, just as she was enjoying her pop breakthrough, in mind which is funny to think about. The film’s producer Cubby Broccoli called up his friend Frank Sinatra, in the middle of his ‘60s comeback era, to see if he could sing the theme. Sinatra declined but in doing so suggested his daughter Nancy sing the theme. 

Alongside her father’s comeback, Nancy Sinatra became a pop chart force of her own hitting #1 in 1966 with the swaggering classic “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’.” Sinatra projected a very hip ‘60s image that the producers liked who also wanted a non-British artist to perform the theme to showcase the Bond franchise’s international appeal. The recording for Sinatra’s version of “You Only Live Twice” was not easy. Sinatra was heavily nervous throughout the recording as the song had her singing out of her usual range and didn’t think she had the big voice of a Shirley Bassey to pull the song off. John Barry, who also produced the song, wound up splicing the final song together from 25 takes to make Sinatra sound as good as possible. 

Coming off of “Goldfinger” and “Thunderball” whose themes were loud and bombastic pieces of music sung by equally loud and bombastic singers, “You Only Live Twice” is comparatively low-key than those two songs. It’s still got a loud and expansive orchestra but it’s smaller and more majestic in its sound feeling like a sweeping romance score than an action one though with some vague oriental touches in the xylophone to remind us of the film’s Japanese setting. Much of the song is built around a central orchestral riff that plays in the beginning and ending that is then repeated throughout on a heavily distorted guitar that feels like a subtle nod to the growing psychedelic sound taking over pop music in 1967. As weird as it may sound, the guitar riff doesn’t distract from the greater feel managing to fit in with the lush production. Altogether, it’s a beautiful sound.

Nancy Sinatra may not have the big booming voice of a Shirley Bassey or a Tom Jones but her smaller and more intimate voice goes well with the soothing orchestra. She holds out her notes but isn’t showy instead gliding along with the instrumentation. In many ways, Sinatra delivers the song exactly how her father might have had he done it. Unlike the prior two themes whose lyrics were about a villain, “You Only Live Twice” is Sinatra crooning about James Bond living two lives with one for himself and one for his dreams. The lyrics amount to what’s basically meaningless deep poetry but Sinatra and the music make it all sound gorgeous. 

Soon after the film version was released, Sinatra put out another version of “You Only Live Twice” recording with her regular producer Lee Hazelwood which shifted the key, double-tracked Sinatra’s vocals, and featured a more prominent guitar lead. But by all accounts, it’s the film version that people still remember.

In between her breakout “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” and “You Only Live Twice,” Nancy Sinatra kept up the hits landing two Top 10 hits on her own, and months before “You Only Live Twice” had its chart peak landed another major #1 hit singing with her father on the ooky duet “Somethin’ Stupid.” But like her father, Nancy Sinatra wouldn’t enjoy much success after and stopped charting on the Hot 100 after 1969. In the ‘70s, Nancy was married and became a mother which led her to be out show business for much of the ‘70s.

Since returning to the public eye, Nancy Sinatra has kept busy. She wrote a memoir on her father, posed for Playboy, and has worked on managing her own and her father’s music and legacy. Sinatra has continued performing and releasing music including a 2004 self-titled album where she worked with an array of collaborators including U2, Morrissey, Sonic Youth, and Stevie Van Zandt. For the daughter of a legendary singer, Nancy Sinatra has had a great run that included some good classics.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Bond-inspired video for Robbie Williams’ 1998 UK #1 “Millennium” which is based around the string riff from “You Only Live Twice” that he re-recorded rather than straight up sampling:

(“Millennium” peaked at #72. Robbie Williams’ highest-charting single, 1997’s “Angels,” peaked at #53.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the live cover of “You Only Live Twice” that one-time #1 artists Coldplay included as the B-side of their 2000 single “Don’t Panic:”

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s CeeLo Green singing over a “You Only Live Twice” sample on his 2011 track “Bright Lights Bigger City:”

(CeeLo Green’s highest-charting single, 2010’s “Fuck You,” peaked at #2. It’s a 10. As a member of Gnarls Barkley, CeeLo Green also peaked at #2 with 2006’s “Crazy.” It’s also a 10.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “You Only Live Twice” soundtracking the 2012 season five ending montage on Mad Men:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from a 2013 Simpsons episode where a parody of “You Only Live Twice” plays over a montage of Homer: 

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