DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER is the theme song for the James Bond film of the same name from 1971. It is the second Bond theme song performed by Shirley Bassey. While it failed to replicate the success of 1964’s “Goldfinger“, it still became a notable success and as a Bond song has a firm place in popular and film music history.
Award-winning film music composer John Barry, who had worked on all previous six James Bond films before Diamonds Are Forever, was again commissioned to compose the score for this film. Don Black, with whom John Barry had collaborated before on several projects, wrote the lyrics for the theme song. Because of the strong sexual innuendo in the lyrics, Barry, Black and film producer Albert R. Broccoli found themselves in an argument with the other producer, Harry Saltzman. He found the lyrics distasteful and dirty. Especially the lines “hold one up and then caress it / touch it, stroke it and undress it” (quoted in Burlingame 2012: 94) contributed to the impression of vulgarity – which was absolutely what Barry and Black had been aiming for. Barry said in interviews that he advised Black to “write it as though she’s thinking about a penis” (ibid.) although Black later denied having any knowledge of this. In the end, Broccoli approved the song despite Saltzman’s rejection.
The first recording session of the song took place on July 31 in 1971 at CTS Studios in Bayswater, London. Originally the song was meant to include another verse with the lyrics “diamonds are forever / I can taste the satisfaction / flawless physical attraction / bitter cold, icy fresh, till they rest on the flesh they crave for.” However, it had to be cut due to time restrictions. Barry continued working on and changing his arrangement during the recording sessions. The recording of the song was finished in September 1971 and the whole score in October of the same year. The single DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER was first published in November 1971, a month before the film opened on December 17 1971. The single included the B-side “Pieces of Dreams”, composed by Michel LeGrand, Marilyn Bergman and Alan Bergman. The song was also released as part of the soundtrack album in January 1972. For the film’s release in Italy, Shirley Bassey recorded the song with Italian lyrics and title, “Vivo Di Diamanti”.
The title sequences of James Bond films have an iconic place in the history of not just Bond films, but arguably film in general. This is a result of their particular aesthetic. They are famous for their glamorous, sensual and artistic approach to introducing themes and motives of the main film. Imagery usually works closely together with the lyrics of the theme songs. Even though in previous Bond films the opening sequences were not always accompanied by the theme song (e.g., From Russia with Love and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), what they all have in common is the depiction of women’s bodies which conform to conventional beauty standards. Their appearances are sometimes more, sometimes less distorted, and are often simply shown as silhouettes. Diamonds Are Forever‘s title sequence is no different. Next to the women it shows artfully edited images of diamonds and cats. The latter in reference to the villain of the film, Blofeld, who famously is often shown stroking a cat in his scenes, which has become an iconic and often referenced image in popular culture.
Providing the soundtrack for the opening credits is not the only traditional function of a James Bond theme song. In a time before advertisements for a film in magazines or on TV were very profitable, if a Bond song that usually had the same name as the film was successful and frequently played on the radio, it meant essentially a possibility to promote the film for free. Therefore, it was always important that the character of a song somewhat reflected the atmosphere of the film, in terms of musical content as well as lyrics. The investment of film studios into music publishing companies goes back as far as 1915 (see McDermott 2011: 102). Although, the first successful release of a film’s original soundtrack wasn’t before 1938. As recording technology developed, the possibilities for producing soundtrack albums became more efficient. Still, before the James Bond era a popular soundtrack that also included a successful single was rare. John Barry’s compositions played an important part in popularising both.
The title of Ian Fleming’s book Diamonds Are Forever, on the plot of which the film is loosely based, is likely a reference to the very influential mining company De Beers’ advertising tag line “A diamond is forever.” They introduced this slogan in 1947 and it later became their official motto. In an incredibly successful advertising campaign that began in the 1930s as the response to a drop in diamond prices and lasted many years, they convinced large parts of the American population that a diamond equated love and was a symbol for commitment. The campaign resulted in a big increase of diamond prices as well as diamond engagement rings.
This song relies heavily on functional harmony. The chord progression I – IV – V – I is therefore the harmonic foundation around which the piece is put together. One way in which harmonic interest is created, is by the use of substitutions.
After a short intro, DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER is structured in an AABABA’ form. The intro starts with a pattern of eight notes in the tonic B minor, played on an electronic organ that belonged to CTS Studios. It has a very particular, sparkling sound that can be seen as a musical representation of a diamond. While there is an added C♯ in the B minor chord of the string accompaniment of the intro, it also occurs in the organ part on the third and fourth beat. This C♯ is a recurring harmonic aspect of the song. It often appears over the tonic chord – implying B9 and creating a glamorous and sparkling dissonance from the first bar.
The first verse begins with a fairly straightforward harmonic structure however, the harmony quickly becomes diluted with substitute chords and false relations. It opens in the tonic, progresses through the subdominant Em7, A7 and back to Em7 from where the bass leads into Cmaj7, a Neapolitan chord. The flattened second degree is reaffirmed insistently in the bass for more than two bars, before the brass relieves the tension with an A major chord. Here A major functions as a substitute for the minor dominant, F♯ minor.
From A major the song returns to B minor for the second verse, after which the vocal line finally leads into the long-awaited F♯m7 for the refrain, in second inversion with the C♯ in the bass. The effect of this poignant harmony is augmented by the lyrics. The line Shirley Bassey sings here is “I don’t need love”; the fact that the bass does not play the root urges the song forward, as if it was asking for this particular line to be either qualified or elaborated. The lyrics and harmony follow this demand, with the line “for what good will love do me / diamonds never lie to me” during which the harmony progresses through Bm and Em7 to C major, similar to the verses. This time the Neapolitan prepares the actual dominant F♯ major instead of a substitution. The diminished A♯ chord at the end of the refrain functions as chord V without the root and leads back to the tonic. The lyrics here (“for when love’s gone / they’ll lustre on”) are enhanced not just by the harmony, but also by the melody. It moves in triplets during the first line, possibly indicating love’s unsteadiness. In contrast, the melody moves upwards for “they’ll lustre on” and ends on a long and steady C♯ – this powerful gesture could be a representation of a diamond’s strength and longevity.
The song ends with a Coda which is a variation of section A. Harmonically and lyrically it begins like the verses. However, this time, the lyric “forever” is repeated, almost obsessively, often as an echo, thus giving a sense of infatuation and reinforcing the theme of longevity.
The ♭ II (Cmaj7) chord in the closing bars resolves to the tonic, omitting chord V. The reference to the second degree of the scale is reaffirmed with a suspension of C resolving to the tonic in the vocal part in the closing bars of the song.
Shirley Bassey’s first entry of the vocal line is slightly early, and because of the lack of rhythmic instruments at the beginning of the song and the way Bassey’s declamatory vocals treat rhythm rather freely in general, there is not much sense of direction. This changes with the entry of the bass with the fourth line of the lyrics – interestingly on the word “leave”, thus in opposition to the words. The dotted rhythms in the bass resemble heartbeats, which is fitting as the protagonist sings about the advantages of diamonds over love, e.g. never risking getting her heart broken. The way Bassey clips certain words – “are” turns into an “ah”-sound for example – is erotic and adds to the sensuality of the song. Sensuality is also achieved through the orchestration: through the placements of flutes, the subtle use of a wah-wah pedal in the guitar and the not overpowering low brass. Furthermore, Bassey softens her voice during the controversial and ambiguous lines “hold one up and then caress it / touch it, stroke it and undress it” which adds to the effect. As much as the orchestration and the singing style focus on the eroticism, in terms of content – the protagonist preferring diamonds to love because they last and love does not – the song is cynical. In fact, Matt R. McDermott places it as the first in a long list of Bond songs themed “Death and Cynicism” (ibid.: 110).
Even though the film Diamonds Are Forever was a big financial success, probably in parts thanks to the return of Sean Connery in the title role, the music sold not quite as well. Although Shirley Bassey’s single made it to position 57 in the US charts and 38 in the UK, the soundtrack album only made it to 74 in the US and did not enter the charts in the UK. While this is still counted as a success, it in no way managed to repeat the phenomenal triumph of “Goldfinger” as the producers had attempted. United Artists campaigned to try to get an Oscar nomination for the song, but DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER shared the fate of all previous Bond theme songs: It was not included in the list of nominees. Critics were so used to John Barry’s Bond music by the time of this film’s release that they seemed to have run out of substantial comments to make (see Burlingame 2012: 100).
Just by merit of being a James Bond theme song, DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER is featured on countless compilations and “Best of” CDs. Since its first release, many artists have covered the entire song or sampled elements from it. As proof of its ongoing popularity and influence in popular culture, the most famous cover in recent times was “Diamonds Are Forever” by the Arctic Monkeys in 2008. Furthermore, Kanye West sampled elements on his song “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” (2005), as did many others.
Vocals: Shirley Bassey
Music/Arrangement/Conducting: John Barry
Lyrics: Don Black
Recording engineer: John Richards
Label: United Artists Records
Length: 2:42 (single)
2.53 (soundtrack album, 2003 reissue)
- Shirley Bassey. “Diamonds Are Forever”. On: Diamonds Are Forever, 1971, United Artists Records, UP 35293, UK (Vinyl/Single).
- Shirley Bassey. “Vivo Di Diamanti”. On: Una Cascata Di Diamanti (Tema Dal Film), 1971, United Artists Records, UA 35293, Italy (Vinyl/Single).
- Shirley Bassey. “Diamonds Are Forever”. On: Diamonds Are Forever (Original Motion Picture Sountrack), 1971, United Artists Records, UAS-5220, US (Vinyl/Album).
- Shirley Bassey. “Diamonds Are Forever”. On: Diamonds Are Forever (Original Motion Picture Sountrack), 1971, United Artists Records, UAS 29 216, UK (Vinyl/Album).
- Shirley Bassey. “Diamonds Are Forever”. On: Diamonds Are Forever (Original Motion Picture Sountrack), 2003, EMI/Capital Records, 72435-41420-2-4, US (CD/Album remastered).
Arctic Monkeys. “Diamonds Are Forever”. On: All the Rage, 2008, Domino, WIGCD214, UK & Europe (CD/Compilation).
Kanye West. “Diamonds from Sierra Leone”. On: Diamonds from Sierra Leone, 2005, Roc-A-Fella Records, 0602498839874, Europe (CD/Single).
- Burlingame, Jon: The Music of James Bond. New York: Oxford University Press 2012.
- Goldschein, Eric: “The Incredible Story of How De Beers Created and Lost the Most Powerful Monopoly Ever”. In: Business Insider. URL: http://www.businessinsider.com/history-of-de-beers-2011-12 [31.03.2015].
- Hubai, Gergely: Recapturing the Midas Touch: A Critical Reading of the Bond Songs’ Chart Positions. In: James Bond in World and Popular Culture: The Films Are Not Enough. Ed. by Robert G. Weiner, B. Lynn Whitfield and Jack Becker. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing 22011, 129-141.
- McDermott, Mark R.: “He Strikes Like Thun-n-n-nder-r-r-r-BALL-L-L-L-L-L!”: The Place of the James Bond Theme Song. In: James Bond in World and Popular Culture: The Films Are Not Enough. Ed. by Robert G. Weiner, B. Lynn Whitfield and Jack Becker. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing 22011, 102-117.
- Database: http://www.discogs.com/Shirley-Bassey-Diamonds-Are-Forever/release/1434517 [31.03.2015].
- Shirley Bassey IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0060259/ [31.03.2015].
- John Barry IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000290/ [31.03.2015].
About the Author
All contributions by Isabella Bieber
Isabella Bieber: “Diamonds Are Forever (Shirley Bassey)”. In: Songlexikon. Encyclopedia of Songs. Ed. by Michael Fischer, Fernand Hörner and Christofer Jost, http://www.songlexikon.de/songs/diamondsareforever, 06/2017.Print