Licence To Kill was the first Bond film for several years that had to cope with the absence of the famous composer John Barry and he's sorely missed here. At the time Barry was undergoing surgery and temporarily unavailable and it's a great shame that in the end he never returned at all to compose any more Bond films. I'm not completely sure sure what the real reason for this was but there is speculation that the Broccoli family (notorious skinflints at times) wouldn't meet his pay demands for GoldenEye in 1995 and so franchise and legendary composer went their own separate ways. I suppose it could just have been a case of Barry feeling like he wanted to do something new instead of scoring endless James Bond films for the rest of his days. The man chosen to replace him for Licence To Kill was the American composer Michael Kamen (who sadly like John Barry is also no longer with us). Kamen first came to prominence in the seventies as an arranger working with Pink Floyd and Queen but by 1989 had established himself as a solid film composer with his work on Die Hard and the Lethal Weapon series. His score for Die Hard worked marvelously but for some reason Licence To Kill didn't really bring out the best in him and it stands as one of the more generic and less memorable James Bond scores. He would go on to do better work than this and struggles to fill the shoes of his illustrious predecessor. This soundtrack has dated much more noticeably than the John Barry scores and is very eighties relic but it does actually start in great style.
"Licence To Kill" was composed by by Narada Michael Walden, Jeffrey Cohen and Walter Afanasieff and performed by Gladys Knight. It's one of the most criminally underrated James Bond title songs and superior to anything in the Brosnan years or the recent films starring that little bloke who looks like Derek Deadman. Whatever his name is. It borrows the opening bars of Goldfinger and so has a stirring horn blaring intro that is pure James Bond. Gladys Knight is a class act too and really gives the song some welly. It's just a big fun Bondian epic with crashing vocals and a rousing chorus. The horns are just a trifle Barry too and give it a classic feel. The lyrics are completely rubbish but it doesn't matter at in the slightest. You don't need a wordsmith to write a good James Bond theme. It's all about the music and vocal. Trivia that you'll never need: Eric Clapton was first choice to write and perform the theme song but bailed out in the end to be replace by Gladys Knight and a brand new song. The music video for this is great. It was directed by Daniel Kleinman, who would of course go on to replace Maurice Binder as the title credits designer.
Wedding Party is next and I'm not sure why this is on the album to be honest. It's the (somewhat irritating) calypso ditty being played at Felix Leiter's sun drenched poolside wedding in the film. I think of it as brief background music in the film really rather than an intrinsic part of the score. It's not really something you would actually sit down and listen to in isolation. The same can be said for Dirty Love, a song performed by someone called Tim Feehan. It's the music that was playing in the barroom brawl scene when Bond meets Pam Bouvier and again more background music rather than anything you'd expect to find on the actual soundtrack. This is pretty horrendous. Some eighties rock pop dirge by someone who probably had a mullet. It sounds like Frank Stallone with a bunged up nose. Next is Pam, which is much better and seems to be practically the first dose of pure Michael Kamen here. This is rife with Latin undertones and weaves in some chords of the James Bond theme. It's quite atmospheric and at least strives towards a Bondian atmosphere. It's playful, romantic and tense at the same time and at least awakens the listener. John Barry did this stuff much better but this is still pretty good on its own terms. Kamen definitely has a distinctive sound and sometimes it meshes well with Bond and sometimes it sounds a trifle weedy.
Next is If You Asked Me by Patti LaBelle - the song played over the end credits in the film after a tuxedoed Timothy Dalton has jumped in that swimming pool. This is rather cheesy but I really like it. It's a big power ballad I suppose and sung very prettily by Patti LaBelle (who I'm really not familiar with at all outside of this film). It's like the perfect song to play over the end credits of a old Bond film. James & Felix On Their Way To Church is the music played in the PTS as Bond and Felix Leiter stage an aerial kidnapping of villain Sanchez and then parachute back to the church. The closing image of the PTS is very sweet. Michael Kamen's signature always seems to be Latin strains and Spanish guitars - which actually works relatively well for James Bond because of the retro feel it generates but lacks a timeless classic aura. This piece of music has some strident chords and action beats with some tense interludes and works ok. Again, not up to Barry's stuff but passable enough. His Funny Valentine is again very Flamenco Spanish sounding. The film is mostly set in the fictional Latin American Republic of Isthmus and so the music matches the imagery onscreen (unusually for a James Bond film, Licence To Kill was produced in Mexico rather than Britain). It's ok but the soundtrack does tend to get rather samey in this vein.
Sanchez Is In The Bahamas/Shark Fishing is again music from the PTS. This is more lively and orchestral with action beats and blaring horns with strings fusing the James Bond theme into the mix. Definitely one of the more listenable things here although Kamen's use of the Bond theme feels slightly telegraphed somehow. Ninja is not bad at all. This is tense mood music with little stattaco chimes and looping waves. It was used in the film when Bond is about to shoot Sanchez with his sniper rifle and accosted by a Ninja. I hate it when that happens. This is the closest thing to old school Bond although lacking that lavish John Barry sprinkle of stardust and elegance. Finally, we have Licence Revoked. This is the big rousing action theme used in the film, most saliently for the climactic tanker chase. It's great. Big drums and horns, Bond theme riffs, a moody piano tinkling away during lulls. Definitely the most exciting piece of music here and great fun. One wishes the album had included more of this. By the way, Licence Revoked was the original title of the film but they changed it because of worries that Americans didn't know what the word "revoked" meant. I'm not sure if that's an apocryphal story but it seems to be fairly well established now.
This soundtrack album is really not one of the best. You would think that there was much more material in the film and so only ten pieces of music feels rather mean, especially as they include puzzling inclusions like Wedding Party and Dirty Love. Still, the title and closing songs are excellent and Kamen's music for the big action scenes is fun. The Licence To Kill soundtrack is a very mixed affair and horribly dated in places but there is just (stress on word just) enough of interest to make it worth a look for curious film soundtrack and Bond fans. Just don't expect anything in the realm of John Barry. At the time of writing you can buy this for a few pounds.