The mid-90s represented something of a mid-life crisis for U2. The band had rolled the dice in the early part of the decade and hit the jackpot with the archly ironic krautrock stylings of 1991’s Achtung Baby and the sensory overload Zoo TV tour that accompanied it. 1993’s Zooropa was arguably even more experimental (if a slight dip in overall quality), but that flight of fancy continued to reap significant commercial dividends, the album topping the charts in 11 different countries and picking up the Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album in 1994. When the ZOO TV Tour closed in December of 1993, it had grossed $151 million worldwide, described by Q Magazine as “the most spectacular rock tour staged by any band.”
So, after that level of success, where exactly do you go? What do you do? U2, never backwards in coming forward, effectively decided to continue doing anything and everything, throwing just about every idea in their collective heads at the wall for a few years and hoping some of it - any of it - would stick. Some ideas did work, such as the excellent Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me single from the Batman Forever soundtrack, and some didn’t, most notably the experimental, ambient Brian Eno collaboration Passengers, featuring frontman Bono duetting with Luciano Pavarotti.
But the one thing that has really stood the test of time from this period is a song that the band themselves never actually performed, save from one dodgy demo tape that Bono and guitarist The Edge made together. Amazingly, that demo tape ended up becoming one of the most legendary James Bond themes of them all: Goldeneye.
It could have been so different, of course. Initially, Depeche Mode were offered the chance to write and record the theme for Pierce Brosnan’s first outing in the iconic lead 007 role. Unfortunately for the Essex synth pop legends, the schedules didn’t exactly align; after some phenomenal recent success, their Devotional world tour was still travelling around the globe, vocalist Dave Gahan was at the height of his addictions and the mood in the camp was so low that they were about to lose key member Alan Wilder, coming dangerously close to splitting up entirely.
With Depeche Mode’s future as a band uncertain, Bond producers Eon had to look elsewhere. One of the first artists to throw their hat in the ring were cult Swedish pop band Ace Of Base. Their version of Goldeneye can still be heard in its demo form if you have a quick search online; it was eventually renamed The Juvenile and was released on their 2002 album, Da Capo. The original version, however, was rejected, and the studio decided to set their sights a little higher. Ultimately, they turned to a true musical icon and trailblazer: Tina Turner.
The success of 1993 Turner biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It had brought the singer back into sharp focus in popular culture, earning Angela Bassett a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll and exposing Turner's music to an entirely new generation of fans. Her stock had rarely been higher, and she was up for the task of recording a new Bond theme, saying to MTV at the time: “I think one’s made it when such people invite you to be among this company, good company.” So, the studio had a singer, now they needed a song.
Hearing through the grapevine that Turner, who was not only a big U2 fan but also a neighbour of Bono in her property in the South of France, was in line to front the next Bond theme, U2’s creative core decided to write and record a song for the film with her in mind.
Much like Ace Of Base's first stab at a Bond song, the demo version of Goldeneye that Bono and The Edge recorded is fairly easy to find, and it doesn't make for great listening. Although it is ostensibly the same arrangement of the iconic song that we all know and love, the production is way rougher, an annoyingly plinky piano line dominates the mix and the strings that are so crucial to a Bond theme sound like they have been lifted from a 16-bit console. All that is forgivable in demo form, of course, but it’s Bono’s guide vocal line that’s the real eyebrow-raiser here. Sounding more like a pissed-up David Bowie impersonator and failing to hit any of the higher registered notes, his performance is akin to a particularly bad Trombone Champ effort.
With that in mind, it's perhaps a marvel that Turner actually agreed to take on the song. As she told Graham Norton on his BBC Radio 2 show in 2018, she was straight-up confused by what she'd heard. “Bono sent me the worst demo,” she said. “He kind of threw it together as if he thought I wasn’t going to do it. This song, I didn’t even know what key to practice it in!”
Despite the wonky demo, Bono was determined to make the song work, contacting Turner and telling her that, after he and his wife had stayed at Bond creator Ian Fleming's estate on their honeymoon, he wasn’t going to let anyone else write the song. And so, Turner, still unsure of even the basic melody of the track she was about to sing, went into the studio and worked on it.
“It was unbelievable, what I was sent here,” she told Graham Norton. “But, you know, you have to step into the shoes and learn it. And then I sung it how I would sing it, and even Bono was impressed.”
Turner brought some much-needed diva class to the song, leading Bono to acknowledge that what he had initially sent through was “really, really bad” and that the singer had pretty much saved the song. Her slinky, sultry, smoky-voiced performance, and the classy production from Nellee Hooper, well known for his work with Soul II Soul and fresh from doing an incredible job on Massive Attack’s Protection, created all the swooping bombast, class, decadence and danger needed to make the perfect Bond theme.
Released on November 6 1995, a few weeks prior to the release of the film, Goldeneye was a huge hit across Europe, hitting the top 10 of the UK singles chart, topping the charts in Poland and Hungary and snugly slotting into the top five in eight other countries. Much like the movie of the same name, Goldeneye was seen as a glorious return to form for the franchise and continued Turner's recent hot streak.
It's also a song that Turner credits as being an important learning curve for her, even that deep into her career. “I actually had to come out of myself to make it a song,” she told Graham Norton. “I’d never sung a song like that before, so it really gave me creativity in terms of making something out of something that was really rough, very rough.”
As for U2? By the time Goldeneye came out they were racing against the clock to finish 1997’s divisive Pop album - a record whose failure saw the end of U2 as a more experimental and creative collective. Soon, the outfits were toned down and the wild flights of fancy were far less commonplace. Still, even if all of U2's ideas haven't quite stuck over the years, thanks to Tina Turner, Goldeneye most certainly has.