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.
PEAK: #8 on October 20, 2012
SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Maroon 5’s “One More Night”
The first Bond movie I ever saw was Skyfall. I was 13 and at that point, I had become aware of the James Bond series and heard a lot about the new film coming out. I saw Skyfall a few days after its release in November 2012 with my sister on a Monday, the day after Veterans Day, when my school was off for the holiday and a couple of weeks after our area on Long Island was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy when such distractions were greatly needed. From what I remember, the movie was a fun experience. I may not have gotten a lot of what was happening but I knew I was watching a cool movie that was part of a cool movie series.
Skyfall was a movie I remember coming with a lot of hype and acclaim with many already declaring it among the best Bond films. Looking back, it certainly felt like something big and the box office numbers prove it. In America, Skyfall had the biggest opening weekend ever for a Bond film finishing first at the box office that weekend. It was still big four weeks later to go back to #1 for one more weekend in December after the final Twilight film, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn-Part 2, dominated the three weekends in between. Domestically, Skyfall grossed around $304 million enough to finish as the #4 film of 2012. Only The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, and The Hunger Games made more money that year. Worldwide, Skyfall was bigger grossing over a billion dollars, the only Bond film so far to do that with only The Avengers outgrossing it in 2012.
Much of the hype and acclaim surrounding Skyfall came with its title theme sung by superstar Adele in a knowing throwback to past Bond themes and in the process managed to rise above it and hang with the classic Bond themes.
The idea for Adele to perform the theme for Skyfall came from Lia Vollack, Sony Pictures’ President of Music. In an interview with Variety, Vollack said she picked Adele because of her songwriting skills and vocal quality describing it as soulful, haunting, and evocative which was perfect for what Vollack was going for, “Stylistically, it just felt right to bring back that classic Shirley Bassey feel that you associate with those early Bond films.” When Vollack asked the film’s producers to get Adele, this was early 2011 and Adele had just released her second album 21 which would wind up selling in unprecedented numbers turning her into a global superstar. By the time Skyfall came out, there was no artist hotter in the world to perform a Bond theme than Adele was at that moment.
But when Adele was first approached for the theme, she wasn’t sure of this assignment. Being known as a very personal songwriter, Adele felt writing a film theme would be too much out of her wheelhouse. This led Skyfall director Sam Mendes to tell Adele to write “Skyfall” as a personal song much like Carly Simon’s Bond theme “Nobody Does It Better.” Mendes told Adele the film story and gave her a copy of the script. Adele read the script and loved it so much that she agreed to write and sing the theme. Adele partnered on “Skyfall” with Paul Epworth, the man who had produced and co-written a few songs on 21 including the massive #1 hit “Rolling In The Deep.” The two of them spent lots of time on the theme making sure it was good before finally recording it at Abbey Road Studios with a 77-piece orchestra.
The people behind Skyfall wound up heavily impressed by what they heard including Daniel Craig who told Yahoo! that he cried upon first hearing Adele’s theme, “From the opening bars I knew immediately, then the voice kicked in and it was exactly what I’d wanted from the beginning. It just got better and better because it fitted the movie. In fact the more of the movie we made, the more it fitted it.” From listening to the song while watching the movie, you can see what Craig meant. In the movie, “Skyfall” plays in the opening credits after we see Bond accidentally shot by Eve Moneypenny while wrestling on top of a train in Istanbul with an enemy named Patrice. Bond gets thrown into the water with moments of dead silence before the ominous orchestra blast comes in and Bond sinks further into the water which perfectly fits coming off that intro.
Musically, “Skyfall” has everything you’d want in a Bond theme with its minor-key eeriness that starts out quiet before exploding on the chorus all conveying the feeling of the James Bond character and the movie. It’s got that classic grandness and romantic-sounding melody. It even incorporates the riff from John Barry’s “James Bond Theme.” Unusually for a commercial hit, the intro of orchestra warmup and piano lasts for over thirty seconds before Adele starts singing but I don’t mind the wait. I particularly like when the murmurs of bass and guitar come in halfway through the first verse adding to the eeriness and uncertainty before everything opens up on the chorus when the full orchestra comes in. After the last two themes went in a more rock direction to little chart success, you can see why the Bond people wanted to go back to a more traditional-sounding theme.
Like many Bond themes, the lyrics to “Skyfall” touch on the main narrative of the film. Adele sings very bluntly about something ending and taking all of it in, “Hold your breath and count to ten/Feel the Earth move and then.” They’re a thousand miles and poles apart and for Bond, the situation gets hopeless when the days get dark. Sometimes even Bond can’t rely on Adele’s narrator, “You may have my number, you can take my name/But you’ll never have my heart.” From there, “Skyfall” becomes a more general I’ll stand by you type song. Adele assures Bond that when the sky falls and crumbles, they will stand tall and face it all together at Skyfall which is the Scottish estate of Bond’s parents. On the bridge, Adele further confides herself in Bond pledging to go wherever he goes and see whatever he sees, “Put your hand in my hand/And we’ll stand.”
Obviously, what helps make “Skyfall” work is Adele herself. In terms of popular singers in the early ‘10s, it’s hard to imagine anyone better suited for this song than Adele. The song notably has Adele singing in a lower tone than usual which she attributed to being pregnant while recording which temporarily deepened her voice and has made it hard for her to sing the song live. But regardless, I like it as it fits the somber tone of the song. Adele has a calm-like delivery sounding like she’s already accepted this fate. She hits all the big notes while sounding intimate and small never letting the music drown her out. Her singing mixed with the music and the movie creates this powerful quality that goes together perfectly. A lesser singer would not have been able to pull it off. In terms of overall performance, “Skyfall” isn’t Adele’s best but for a Bond theme, she delivers it as well as you could expect her to deliver it.
Much of the Skyfall marketing centered itself around the Bond franchise’s 50th anniversary. Adele’s theme was released on October 5th, the anniversary of the first Bond film Dr. No’s release, after midnight at 12:07 which in the UK is read as 0:07. There wasn’t a whole lot of promotion around “Skyfall.” No official video was made and it wasn’t made available on the film’s soundtrack or any Adele album. But that didn’t matter as “Skyfall” quickly got enough popularity to debut at its peak of #8 presumably thanks to film anticipation and Adele’s imperial popularity in 2012. It even led to a 10 percent increase in sales of 21, an album almost two years old by this point. “Skyfall” became the first Bond theme to hit the Top 10 since Madonna’s “Die Another Day” almost exactly a decade earlier and is the last Bond theme to get that high as of me writing this.
When award season arrived, “Skyfall” swept all the awards it was nominated for including for the first time ever for a Bond theme, the Best Original Song Oscar. At the 85th Oscars held in February 2013, Adele premiered “Skyfall” at a ceremony that featured Shirley Bassey in a well-received performance of “Goldfinger” earlier as part of a tribute to the 50th anniversary of Bond. That’s certainly no easy thing to follow but in introducing Adele, Jennifer Lawrence, herself a Best Actress winner that night for Silver Linings Playbook, said “Skyfall” has “joined the canon of great James Bond movie music with a song as irresistible as 007 himself.” (Jennifer Lawrence’s highest-charting single, “The Hanging Tree,” a song she recorded for 2014’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 1 with composer James Newton Howard, peaked at #12.) Adele’s performance lived up to its high bar getting a rapturous applause at the end.
Not long after, “Skyfall” won Best Original Song beating out among others the show’s host Seth MacFarlane who had co-written “Everybody Needs A Best Friend,” the song Norah Jones sings in his movie Ted. Accepting the award from Richard Gere, Renée Zellweger, Queen Latifah, and Catharine Zeta-Jones, Adele looked and sounded visibly moved by the award while Epworth was more stoic in giving out his thanks.
When “Skyfall” won its Oscar, 21 had already become the best-selling album for two straight years in 2011 and 2012. Adele was already doing great but the success of “Skyfall” gave her a nice little extension of the overwhelming success and acclaim she had been enjoying. After her win, Adele would disappear from the public eye for a long while before making her inevitable return. We’ll eventually catch up with Adele again in The Ones of the ‘10s when she does makes her big return.
“Skyfall” has been the closest thing my generation has come to a classic Bond theme, one that can easily hold its own among the other greats that people bring up when discussing Bond themes like “Goldfinger” and “Live and Let Die.” At my high school’s talent show one year not long after, a student sang “Skyfall” in her audition which tells you the real purpose of the song. Much like “Goldfinger,” “Skyfall” is the type of song made for talent shows when you really want to show off your voice. “Skyfall” isn’t exactly going to be the song that will define Adele’s career the most but thanks to her popularity and the popularity of the film, it will always be a big part of it.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Logic sampling “Skyfall” on his 2013 mixtape track “The End:”
(Logic’s highest-charting single, the 2017 Alessia Cara and Khalid suicide prevention collab “1-800-273-8255,” peaked at #3. It’s a 5.)