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On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
  • Composed by John Barry

Sticking closer to the source Ian Fleming novel than any of the other movies in the series, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is widely considered to be one of the finest James Bond movies. The character has a vulnerability not seen in many of the others, as he genuinely falls in love – gets married! – and then of course things take a darker turn in that relationship. It’s got brilliant action sequences, the requisite stunning locations – it’s got everything really, except for Sean Connery, which is such a great pity. Even though he didn’t want to play the role any more – they could have at least replaced him with an actual actor, someone who could have brought some gravitas and been taken a little more seriously than the hapless George Lazenby.

The music, too, is frequently cited as marking the series’ highpoint – and on that I won’t disagree. John Barry took a “same but different” approach as part of a drive to reassure people that this was still the James Bond they had grown to love from the previous movies – just with a few changes. One of the most striking musical changes was that there was no main title song – instead, Barry crafted an instrumental theme for the opening credits (the third and final Bond movie to have one of those).

John Barry, Louis Armstrong, Hal David

It’s not just any old instrumental theme, either – it’s pure dynamite, full of the spirit of the swinging sixties and all the excitement you’d expect from a James Bond movie. The “…but different” aspect of the composer’s modus operandi on this one is his prominent use of a Moog synthesiser, which he uses so brilliantly to bring additional energy to one of his most memorable melodic creations. From the smack-in-your-face blast that opens the piece, it never lets up: while it’s blaring Goldfinger trumpets that other composers tend to focus on when they try to ape Barry’s Bond sound, for me it is this piece that sums the whole thing up – in a career littered with great work, perhaps these two-and-a-half minutes are the greatest of all.

And while there may not be a main title song – there is a song, and it’s not just any old song either. It too could perfectly reasonably be assessed to be the greatest of all Bond songs – “We Have All The Time in the World” has gone on to become a standard, and is now so familiar it’s easy to forget the devastating way it is used in the film, where it turned out that Bond and Tracy did not in fact have all the time in the world after all. Louis Armstrong’s vocal performance turned out to be his last ever recording, his trademark rasp so perfect for Hal David’s intelligent lyrics and Barry’s endearing, timelessly beautiful ballad.

The score in the movie opens with “This Never Happened to the Other Feller”, five minutes of musical bliss. The gunbarrel sequence (heard for the first time on album when the extended version was released in 2003) starts off in the unexpected way – but then right away the composer turns to the Moog. The rest of the piece focuses on three different themes as it spectacularly underscores the action sequence unfolding – the Bond theme (part of the “same but…” thinking), the OHMSS theme and a great action theme.

Following the main title piece come a couple of lounge tracks – an instrumental of “We Have All the Time in the World” before the brilliant “Try”, which opens with vibes and percussion before silky-smooth strings join in. “Journey to Draco’s Hideaway” flips through various themes, then “Bond and Draco” features some absolutely gorgeous orchestral renditions of the song melody before the truly luxurious vocal version arrives.

Immediately after the song comes a piece of vintage Bond suspense music, “Gumbold’s Safe”, which in the classic Barry style from the 60s Bonds takes a little phrase which gets repeated over and over, building in intensity as grander forces are gradually added to it before the tension reaches fever-pitch – and then gets brilliantly released. After this comes another classic piece, “Journey to Blofeld’s Hideaway”, which opens with a slow fanfare related melodically to the opening bars of the main theme and of the main melody from the song – from this the full orchestra swells so beautifully into such a beautiful passage of music before another great device is introduced for the final section, strings swirling around a trumpet version of the love theme.

There’s a return to suspense in “Bond Settles In”, the synth being used here to give a really unsettling feel before the briefest glance towards the Bond theme leads into a reprise of the previous track’s arrangement of the song, only with more pace this time. A comic little motif (not unlike the one Barry would use more extensively in the series’ next movie) opens “Bond Meets the Girls”, which leaps from there into a bit of nod-nod-wink-wink sultry orchestral jazz. In “Dusk at Piz Gloria”, the composer goes for the emotional jugular with a brilliant mixture of romance and anguish – that oboe solo early in the cue is one for the ages.

The Bond theme’s vamp opens “Sir Hillary’s Night Out” before the comic motif returns but then we head into new thematic territory, and again it’s stunning – a melancholic melody with a hint of tragedy (later recorded as “Who Will Buy My Yesterdays?” by Barry on a compilation) it is another marvellous creation. The unusually dissonant electronics that close the cue are jarring, as intended; then comes “Blofeld’s Plot”, which alternates between suspense and little hits of action – as well as a music box version of a tune which is shortly to be turned into a song (resolutely not one of the Bond series’ best – “Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown?” – I will say no more about that one).

“Escape from Piz Gloria” begins a set of world-class action tracks that play almost without pausing for breath up to the end of the score. It begins with a dark arrangement of the OHMSS theme before it plays out as in the opening title; then “Ski Chase” passes an ominous little figure from horn to trumpet – and then more of that glorious main theme. The last minute or so of the piece features some particularly dramatic string writing – again that sense of tragedy, this film offering Barry so much opportunity for emotional music alongside the usual adventure.

“Over and Out” is a classic, with a sonar-like three-note figure from the Mood repeating endlessly over a slow version of the main theme. That theme then gets a brilliant new arrangement in “Battle at Piz Gloria” with a new action motif variant on it making one of the score’s strongest cues and indeed perhaps my favourite action piece of the 25-film series. For “Bobsled Chase” Barry takes the score full circle by bringing back the action motif from the opening cue, adding an urgent synth pattern on top this time; and then everything ends in a glorious finale, a heartbreaking, swooning version of the love theme leading into a dynamic blast of the Bond theme.

For my money this is the best Bond score: not only does it feature the greatest single cue of the entire series, it’s got perhaps its finest song, some glorious action music and the added flavour of genuine emotion rather than the usual wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am “romance”. The extended album – released almost two decades ago now – was very welcome since it presented so much unreleased music, but sadly is unlistenable in the form it was released with the original album sequence preserved and then everything else added afterwards. I think I’ve written about the cues in more or less the right order to sequence them for a far more satisfying listening experience. Actually, in terms of James Bond scores, an unequalled listening experience – it’s a classic.

Rating: *****

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  1. Geoff (Reply) on Saturday 2 October, 2021 at 19:27

    This is a marvellous review James — I suspect you’ve never written truer words — good work!

  2. ghostof82 (Reply) on Sunday 3 October, 2021 at 18:34

    Best Bond film, best Bond soundtrack. Can’t argue with that, you nailed it.

  3. Gabriel (Reply) on Monday 4 October, 2021 at 18:44

    I’m glad someone finally stated that truth: OHMSS is the best James Bond soundtrack ever. Considering it’s the fifth Bond score composed by Barry for the saga, it feels as something entirely new and refreshing, but staying true to the musical legacy established by Barry himself.
    When the extended edition was released, the whole score got a new and exciting life, adding magnificent new tracks to an already awesome soundtrack.
    Thanks for the review, James. I hope you can do a series with all the Bond scores, particularly the last one, No Time To Die.