James Bond: The Theme Songs – Part 1
Hey, did you know that there’s a new James Bond film coming out this year? Yup! After a four year hiatus, thanks in large part to MGM’s troubled financials, Bond will be back on the big screen in the 23rd canonical James Bond film titled Skyfall, directed by Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes.
The film features the return of Daniel Craig to the role for his third time, joined by Oscar-winner Dame Judi Dench as “M,” Oscar-nominee Javier Bardem as the villain, Naomi Harris and Bérénice Marlohe as the Bond girls, Oscar-nominee Ralph Fiennes as a government agent, Ben Whishaw reviving the role of Q, and Albert Finney in an undisclosed role but lends even more credentials to the cast and crew with his five Oscar nominations. That’s a lot of Oscars, and a lot of expectations to live up to!
Of course, with every new Bond film, there comes a new Bond theme song, which carries its own set of high expectations. The themes of the Bond films have themselves become an institution, and, with music proving to be far more divisive in my own experiences than films, the title song for Skyfall, which would traditionally come at the beginning of the film, will arguably influence how audiences connect with the film to follow. The best thing that the filmmakers can do is look back on the previous films’ themes and see what worked and what didn’t.
Now, I’m not at all knowledgeable about music (In fact, music appreciation, which is a lot harder than it sounds, was one of the small number of Cs that I received while in college, so the following article is far more casual and amateur than my more film-centered articles. Please, if you have any experience in musical composition, performance, etc., feel free to tear me apart for saying something stupid.), but, as they say, I do know what I like, and I do have some strong feelings about some of the previous themes. While we look forward to a new Bond film this year, I thought this would be a great opportunity to look back on Bond themes past and give my assessment, first chronologically and then, of course, in rank.
WARNING: Heavy Flash video use ahead!
“James Bond Theme ” by Monty Norman and arranged by John Barry, from Dr. No (1962)
Using a surf-rock guitar and a beat perfectly fitting of the series’ emphasis on espionage, the classic theme song may not have had a big name performer to go with it, but it was the one that kicked off the entire franchise (oddly enough, paired with a musical version of the nursery rhyme “Three Blind Mice”). As the first, it also became the franchise theme by default, and rightfully so. It’s one of the most iconic film themes out there, easily matching Star Wars in recognizability. It was important enough that director Martin Campbell decided to leave it unheard in series reboot Casino Royale until Daniel Craig’s final moment in the film, when he rightfully predicted that audiences would have come to embrace the new actor in the lead role.
“From Russia With Love” performed by Matt Monro, From Russia With Love (1963)
The first Bond theme with lyrics, Matt Monro’s “From Russia With Love” is a lilting, crooning ballad that fits the more romantic aspects of the Bond series. Coming after the wordless original theme, I’d say that it fits the bill pretty well in pairing up with it as representative of Bond’s softer side where the original song fit the action. “From Russia With Love” is the type of sigh-worthy music you’d expect from the film’s era, and Monro’s singing is pleasant enough. As a Bond theme, it lacks the bombast of the series stereotypes and didn’t even play over the title credits like the others, but it’s far above many of the other softer songs (“All Time High,” for example. Gag.) Not a favorite of my own, but a good theme all the same.
“Goldfinger” performed by Shirley Bassey, Goldfinger (1964)
Shirley Bassey’s first of three performances for the franchise pretty much set the standard by which the subsequent films’ themes adhered to. Her slinking, vibrato-laced vocals became so iconic that when you see a Bond parody, you can be pretty much expect that the song is emulating Bassey’s performances. As a Bond theme, it’s brilliantly cheesy and fitting of the series’ more over-the-top set pieces. Its musical references to the series’ theme is nice, too. As a song on its own, though, it’s too hammy for my tastes, and the decision to have the lyrics explain the reasons why we should fear the film’s villain, Auric Goldfinger, are just a wee bit goofy. It being the 60s and all, however, I guess this was possibly the intention.
“Thunderball” performed by Tom Jones, Thunderball (1965)
Following up Shirley Bassey’s lounge act is her male contemporary, Tom Jones, who basically combines the crooning vocal style of Matt Monro’s “From Russia With Love” and Bassey’s lounge cheese. It makes sense, since Bassey was the original choice before she was dropped in favor of Jones. While it would have kept the series themes a bit more consistent, I prefer Tom Jones’ performance over hers (though you have to understand that the linked video features a horrible arrangement that Bassey herself hated).
The song itself was a last minute replacement to the film’s original theme, “Mr. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” (I must agaom emphasize that this was the 60s; camp was in, grittiness was out), and was also chosen over Johnny Cash’s own submission to the producers.
Jones actually passed out after delivering the song’s extended final note, so you know he was giving his all. “Thunderball” and its straightforward lyrics don’t amount to a masterpiece by any means, but Jones is to be commended for his emphatic delivery, which was notably parodied years later when he recorded the similar theme song for the Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century TV series.
“You Only Live Twice” performed by Nancy Sinatra, You Only Live Twice (1967)
Shirley Bassey may be the classic, but Nancy Sinatra, daughter of Frank, brought back the romance to the Bond themes with a vengeance. “You Only Live Twice” is a lush, beautiful track with some gorgeous strings and a very lovely performance by Nancy, whose softer voice is a welcome respite from the fantastic but forceful vocals of Bassey and Jones. The orchestra is nicely offset by a light electric guitar in the background, too. According to Wikipedia, this is the most covered by other artists of all the Bond songs, so its beauty hasn’t gone unnoticed, even if it isn’t one of the more popular choices amongst casual fans of the series.
“On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” performed by The John Barry Orchestra, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
The instrumental theme song returned with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, mostly because of the fact that the title was impossible to fit into a pop song’s lyrics. Incidentally, it also served as a sort of baptismal for the first change of command, with George Lazenby stepping into Connery’s immortal shoes for one go around the block as 007. John Barry crafted this funky theme song for the sixth Bond film as a sort of secondary theme for the agent. Like with Lazenby himself, touches of the original remain, but with several key differences.
The new song has a bit more swagger, a faster tempo, and fewer surf rock influences. Most notably, the song uses a synthesizer, driving the song forward with its droning bassline. Not nearly as iconic as the main theme or any of the other themes, but, like the film it was attached to, it was just fine as an alternative and largely did its job in filling in a gap admirably. An underappreciated instrumental track.
“We Have All the Time In the World” performed by Louis Armstrong, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
If Lazenby is the odd Bond, OMHSS is the odd film, featuring not one but two theme songs. Featuring vocals by Louis Armstrong, it was to become his final recorded performance before his death two years later. The song plays over a montage of James Bond and his future wife (!) Tracy falling in love. The song has a sweet longing to I that is sad in retrospect in light of the film’s events and also for the fact that Armstrong himself would not go on to record another song, having been too ill to even play his trumpet for the track. Certainly one of the better themes of the Bond series, and also one of songwriter John Barry’s favorites, too.
“Diamonds Are Forever” performed by Shirley Bassey, Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
With the return of Sean Connery, so to does Shirley Bassey, and with her comes that signature Bond sound that she made famous. Though the lyrics are once again fairly straightforward, Bassey’s performance is far more impressive here to me than in “Goldfinger,” showcasing her broad vocal range and ability to hit some impressive notes. The song is, however, not nearly as memorable as her previous song, likely as a result of the cheese factor being reeled in. I know I’m contradicting myself with that, but at least the last one was memorable where this one is a disappointing sequel. A good theme, though kind of dull, and I’m not so sure it has aged as well as many fans would claim.
“Live and Let Die” performed by Paul McCartney & Wings, Live and Let Die (1973)
Okay, I’m going to admit to some bias here. I’m a huge Beatles fan and always have been, so when, as a child, I heard that Paul McCartney had created a theme song for a James Bond film, it had instantly gone to the top of my list of favorite movie themes ever at the time, even before I had actually heard it.
And you know what? The song still absolutely freaking rocks!
Produced by George Martin and written by Paul and Linda McCartney, the song was the first Oscar-nominated Bond theme, but lost to Barbara Streisand – because it was the 70s and Streisand had just made The Way We Were, which was also really popular. It also signals a general break from the Shirley Bassey-influenced themes stylistically, being the first theme in the series to fall in the rock genre.
Paul breaks the song into distinct parts that make up a whole, as he did with “A Day in the Life” and “Band on the Run.” The song features soft and slow segments which are interrupted by loud and sudden shifts into musical mania, with blaring horns, pounding drums, and a hurried orchestra rushing in before shifting back to slow, and then ending one final time with even more action. If you’ve somehow never heard this track before, then it must sound quite hectic in my description, but in execution, McCartney pulls it off brilliantly. It’s not just a good Bond theme, it’s an awesome rock song, too.
“The Man With the Golden Gun” performed by Lulu, The Man With the Golden Gun (1974)
Ugh. What happened!? After the brilliant “Live and Let Die,” they decided to go back into cheese mode, only with a hefty dollop of funk and a guitar that’s pretty much doing its own thing in the background, as if the guitarist got bored and decided to do something vaguely more entertaining. Perhaps Shirley Bassey could have sold me on this exploitation flick reject track, but Lulu’s performance of this awful song is just grating to the eardrums, and sounds like Jessica Simpson trying to do a Bassey impression. The song’s adherence to the straightforward lyrics results in some of the most explicit Bond lyrics, too. Somehow, even in a series that’s notorious for its sex, it just comes off as crass. Awful, awful theme.
“Nobody Does it Better” performed by Carly Simon, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
And, like that, we’re back in top form! After regressing with Lulu’s laughable theme, the Bond producers returned to rock and roll and came out with this, their second Oscar-nominated song and the first to not share its name with the film, though the title was worked into the lyrics. The ballad works largely thanks to the song’s adept ability to take us into Bond’s world form the girl’s perspective. Unlike with “Golden Gun,” this is still artful enough to be subtle in its sexuality. Carly Simon’s distinctly husky voice is rich and smooth and grounds the song, keeping it from falling into the trap of becoming cloying. The strings still keep it light and romantic. Aside from its mention of “the spy who loved me,” you’d easily forget that this is a movie theme and not just a very good love song.
“Moonraker” performed by Shirley Bassey, Moonraker (1979)
Shirley Bassey returns one last time for the Bond filmmakers’ reaction to the Star Wars phenomena with this romantic ballad that somehow works the name of the film into its lyrics and title and makes it work in a bizarre kind of way. (What is a Moonraker and what’s it doing in a love song? I kept getting images of a sad alien creature longing for love while raking his yard of moon rocks. I’m not crazy – just listen to the lyrics!). Though the film was not very warmly received, the title song feels itself like a warm blanket. Bassey, as ever, is a talented singer and shows off her ability to hold some tough notes, but, like Diamonds Are Forever, this song is not worthy of the talent she possesses. Pleasant sounding, but a bit too sweet and with stupid lyrics.
“For Your Eyes Only” performed by Sheena Easton, For Your Eyes Only (1981)
Ah, the 80s. Some of the best and worst entertainment was created during this era, and for Bond’s first film of the new decade, they hired Scottish pop singer Sheena Easton, who had begun her rise to fame by featuring in The Big Time, a sort of documentary-style proto-American Idol series produced by the BBC. (So there’s some precedent that the next film will feature any number of the contestants on that show that happen to gain the public’s favor. Hooray.)
Easton was chosen above more established artists like Donna Summer and Dusty Springfield and even Blondie. The song Easton performed, written by Bill Conti and Mike Leeson, is also the third Bond song to be nominated for an Oscar, though, unlike McCartney and Simon, I really don’t know why. With boring lyrics with dull rhymes, “For Your Eyes Only” is that cloying romantic Bond Girl-perspective song that “Nobody Does It Better” managed to avoid becoming, and Easton’s performance is flat, which doesn’t help things. Still, the song was quite popular, and they liked Easton’s looks enough to make her the only singer to feature in the film’s title sequence. Counts for something, eh?
“All Time High” performed by Rita Coolidge, Octopussy (1983)
With lyrics by Tim Rice, the man who brought us songs from Evita, The Lion King, and Aladdin, and performed by adult contemporary artist Rita Coolidge, who had already peaked by 1983, this is about what you would expect from the given combination of elements (though I’m not knocking on Rice himself, mind you, just said combination of elements). Soft sax, light strings, easy going lyrics, and notes that karaoke goers can reach easily without straining themselves, “All Time High” might not be the worst Bond theme, but it is easily one of the most uninteresting. It sounds like what your mom would sing if she sang songs about passionate one night stands. Bleh!