Random Tracks: Chris Cornell’s “You Know My Name”

In Random Tracks, I review 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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Chris Cornell- “You Know My Name”

PEAK: #79 on December 9, 2006

SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Akon’s “I Wanna Love You” (feat. Snoop Dogg)

For much of the Bond franchise’s history, the themes have usually been named after the movies they’re soundtracking presumably to make them easier to recognize. But in some cases, a movie’s title doesn’t lend itself well to write a song around. In a case like Tom Jones’ “Thunderball,” you can sometimes work through that difficulty even if you still don’t understand the song you’ve written. But in other cases like Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better” for The Spy Who Loved Me or Rita Coolidge’s “All Time High” for Octopussy, it’s just too difficult to write a song around those titles so you just come up with a different title. 

To Chris Cornell, that was a big missed opportunity. In interviews, the alt-rock star said that he would have absolutely written a song called “Octopussy,” “Nobody wrote a song called ‘Octopussy’ but I think that was a mistake! They had a great opportunity and they squandered it.” But when Cornell had to write his own theme to the 2006 Bond film Casino Royale, he didn’t name it “Casino Royale” because as he said at the time to the BBC, “I couldn’t imagine it fitting into a song lyric that would come out of my mouth.” Regardless, the theme that resulted, “You Know My Name,” wound up becoming in America Cornell’s only charting song as a solo artist.

By the time “You Know My Name” came out, many people would have known Chris Cornell’s name. Christopher John Boyle had grown up in Seattle as the third of six children in a troubled family. (On the day that Boyle was born, the #1 song in America was the Four Seasons’ “Rag Doll.”) His parents divorced when he was 14 leading Boyle to adopt Cornell as his last name which was his mother’s maiden name. As a teenager, Cornell suffered from depression which led to heavy drug use while constantly getting kicked out of school before dropping out to work various jobs.

As with the lives of many artists coming from troubled childhoods, Cornell found his solace in music listening to the Beatles and learning various instruments. Cornell got his first musical experience playing drums in a local cover band called the Shemps. When that group ended, Cornell along with bassist Hiro Yamamoto teamed up with other friends to form their own band Soundgarden in 1984 with Cornell moving up to frontman and guitarist. Pretty soon, Soundgarden found themselves becoming an underground favorite in Seattle in a new scene and genre that would become known as grunge.

Their local reputation got Soundgarden record deals with local independent labels Sub Pop and SST and it was on SST where they released their first album 1988’s Ultramega OK. The album was not a huge seller but it got strong reviews within rock circles and led the band on a tour of both America and Europe. Not long after, Soundgarden went the next level by signing to major label A&M Records, the first grunge act to do so in what had been a fiercely independent scene. Their first album for A&M, 1989’s Louder Than Love, broke Soundgarden onto the album chart peaking at #108, a monumental feat for an act like them up to that point.

It was 1991’s Badmotorfinger that started to break Soundgarden into the mainstream largely thanks to pure luck of timing. Badmotorfinger was released on September 24, 1991 which happened to be the same day that Nirvana’s Nevermind came out, the album that helped grunge to explode in popularity. Now that the rest of America had gotten into this once underground Seattle-based style, Soundgarden were in a great position to benefit from this newfound attention. Badmotorfinger peaked at #39 in early 1992 going double platinum. Cornell was also having success with Temple of the Dog, a grunge supergroup he fronted with the members of Pearl Jam, whose self-titled album, originally released in early 1991 to little success, was reissued by A&M in 1992 after Nevermind’s success and peaked at #5.

Compared to their grunge contemporaries, Soundgarden weren’t as hugely famous as Nirvana or even Pearl Jam were but they were still high up there among the popular Seattle bands. They opened for Guns N’ Roses and Skid Row, played Lollapalooza with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and continued to get acclaim from critics and artists with Chris Cornell’s four-octave singing style garnering particular praise. This new spotlight helped a lot with Soundgarden’s next release Superunkown which debuted at #1 upon its March 1994 release going five times platinum and quickly becoming an alternative staple containing the band’s best-known songs including the psychedelic influenced grunge classic “Black Hole Sun.”

But for all the success Soundgarden enjoyed, they weren’t getting any traction on the pop charts. Even a song as classic as “Black Hole Sun” missed the Hot 100 entirely. That sucks but isn’t entirely surprising if you know about the Hot 100 in the ‘90s. Grunge just didn’t make much impact on the pop charts even when it was at its most popular. Plus, labels in the ‘90s often held back releasing a sure-fire hit as a commercial single in the days when you still had to physically purchase music to juice up album sales and per Hot 100 rules at the time that meant a song couldn’t chart. If a song like “Black Hole Sun” was released as a single then there’s a good chance it would have been a decent-sized hit as it did go to #12 in the UK. (Soundgarden would eventually chart once on the Hot 100 with the #96 peaking “Black Rain” and that wasn’t until 2010.)

Superunknown was followed up with 1996’s Down on the Upside but by then grunge had faded and the album, while still big enough to go to #2, was a steep decline managing to go only platinum. With disappointing sales and increasing tensions, Soundgarden split in 1997. Cornell would add another band to his resume in 2002 with the formation of Audioslave. When Zack de la Rocha left as the singer of Rage Against The Machine, the rest of the band recruited Cornell to be their new singer but perform under a new band name. Together, Audioslave released three albums in the ‘00s with their 2002 self-titled debut being the most successful going triple platinum and landed them their highest-charting hit with “Like A Stone” peaking at #31, the highest-charting single of Chris Cornell’s career, solo or otherwise.

Through all this, Cornell was also beginning to establish himself as a solo artist releasing his first album Euphoria Vacation in 1999 not long after Soundgarden broke up. He had just announced his departure from Audioslave in 2006 when he began work on his second solo album Carry On which was when the James Bond series came calling. Cornell got a call one day from Lia Vollack, the then-President of Music at Sony Pictures, who was managing the soundtrack for Casino Royale. Vollack and the studio wanted their theme to reflect the new direction they had for James Bond with Daniel Craig now playing the secret agent and in Cornell’s words wanted a “strong male singer.” 

In one interview, Cornell said he was excited to do the theme noting as a kid he was a fan of the early Bond films with Sean Connery and also liked Daniel Craig’s work. In another interview, Cornell said he was hesitant at first since he didn’t like the last few movies but after going to Prague to see a rough cut of Casino Royale he was hooked in on performing the theme. Cornell teamed up for the song with film composer David Arnold writing the lyrics himself before Arnold wrote the music. Cornell and Arnold produced the song which they recorded in London playing the guitar and bass parts before Arnold dubbed the orchestra later on.

Much of the marketing around Casino Royale was centered on the fact that after people started to tire of the silliness of previous Bond films like the previous film 2002’s Die Another Day, this movie was going to present a version of James Bond that was darker, grittier, and more vulnerable than previously seen and it definitely comes across on “You Know My Name.” Cornell’s narrator is singing what can be described as a stark warning to James Bond about how he even he is not safe from the dangers. No one is gonna save him, the odds will betray him, Cornell’s narrator will replace him, even when Bond wins the game he is still not safe. Cornell even asks Bond if he’s willing to die noting life if gone with the spin of the wheel. It’s all pretty dark.

Cornell said he was inspired by two prior Bond themes for “You Know My Name” which were “Thunderball” for the vocals and Paul McCartney & Wings’ “Live and Let Die” for the music. You can’t really hear those influences in “You Know My Name.” It sounds pretty much like a Chris Cornell song that also happens to be a James Bond theme. That’s not a complaint. Right away, the song deviates from much of the Bond theme formula while still sharing some of its characteristics. It’s a full-on rock song that utilizes an orchestra for a greater effect like a lot of Bond themes but here it doesn’t overpower the song. The film score orchestra should feel out of place with the hard-rocking instrumentation but it manages to go along nicely with it. 

As both a Bond theme and a hard rock song, “You Know My Name” delivers. The intro kicks ass hitting with the subtlety of a sledgehammer letting you know right away that this is not your old James Bond. The hard crunching guitars make the song work well as a classic rock headbanger while the orchestra gives the song its needed emotional sweep to work as a Bond theme. And Chris Cornell turned out to be the right person to deliver this type of song. Cornell doesn’t have the classic Bond theme voice but his low-voiced brooding projects the vulnerable mood intended for the movie while also projecting toughness through the way he raises his voice at certain points like when he sings the title at the end. “You Know My Name” feels like the perfect way to introduce this new James Bond to the world.

“You Know My Name” was initially leaked onto the Internet in September 2006 before it was officially released two months later just in time for Casino Royale’s release in theaters. The movie’s attempt at reinventing James Bond paid off big both critically and commercially where Casino Royale grossed $167 million in America putting it at #9 on 2006’s box-office year-end chart below Ice Age: The Meltdown but above The Pursuit of Happyness. But that success did not extend to its theme which debuted on the Hot 100 at its #79 peak plummeting to #97 the next week before falling off the chart entirely. Perhaps this hard-rocking orchestral film theme was too out of place at a moment when the Hot 100 was dominated by electro R&B/hip-hop, mindless ringtone rap, and angst-driven post-grunge and pop-punk.

Unusually for a Bond theme, “You Know My Name” did not appear on the Casino Royale soundtrack but rather on Carry On which was released months after the movie in May 2007. This was Cornell’s decision as he wanted to take ownership of the song and felt that since he’d written the song during the making of Carry On it belonged more to his album. If this was part of a plan to increase sales of his album, it did work but it was hardly a blockbuster with Carry On debuting and peaking at #17 selling only several hundred thousand copies with its other singles failing to chart.

For the last decade of his life, Chris Cornell kept busy between his solo career which had him working with Timbaland on his third album, reuniting with Soundgarden and Audioslave, recording more songs for soundtracks, and constantly performing. I remember seeing clips of Cornell on CBS This Morning in 2017 talking about new music, a song he’d recorded for the film The Promise, and at the end performed an acoustic version of “Black Hole Sun.” But only a month after that appearance, Chris Cornell would be gone forever. 

After performing with Soundgarden at Detroit’s Fox Theatre on May 17, Cornell was found dead in his hotel room after hanging himself with an exercise band. He was 52. Cornell’s suicide led to shock and sadness in the music community with many artists performing tributes and unfortunately for Linkin Park frontman and close friend Chester Bennington, it most likely led him to take his own life just two months later on July 20th, the day Cornell would have turned 53. Even for pop music, a business often dominated by tragedy, this is particularly tragic and eerie. 

For Chris Cornell, “You Know My Name” isn’t exactly the first thing that people remember him for. No one remembers him just for doing a Bond theme but for his legacy in grunge and alt-rock. It’s pretty much a footnote in his career. Still, not a bad footnote to have.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Once again we go with a cover from the 2017 Bond theme compilation Songs, Bond Songs: The Music of 007 where Phil Ajjarapu covered “You Know My Name:”

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