Bond title songs, ranked
Saturday, September 12, 2015
Even as Sam Smith rustles through Tom Petty’s back catalog looking for a melody for his new Bond tune, we take a look back at 50 years of songs from the venerable film series. We’re just going to be honest here that this list is so authoritative and complete that it’s the only one you will ever need.
- Goldfinger (1964) The gold standard1 for themes. Sweeping, sultry and backed by urgent jazz orchestra horns and quotes from the iconic Bond theme. This John Barry song is not just a Bond theme it is the Bond theme. It defines an entire genre. Its close association with the film and Dame Shirley Bassey’s iconic performance has kept it from becoming a standard, but it’s among the great movie songs of all time. It also casts a long enough shadow that attempts to match it have led to a string of dreary copies and retreads.
- Dr. No (1962) It’s borderline cheating to rank this one. In a literal sense this is just the Bond theme everyone knows and has heard dozens of times. Duh duh duh-duh, da da duh - the seven notes that denote Bond told with blaring horns and guitar jangle. Is this song venerable because it’s great or great because it’s venerable? It’s inextricably tangled with the series. Hard to know for sure. One thing is sure, it’s as recognizible as the Star Wars theme and just as perfect. Any Bond fan hearing this can’t help but get excited.
- Nobody Does it Better (1988) The best of the pop-song Bond themes is sung by Carly Simon with just right mix of sexy and smart. The winking innuendo – nobody does what better? – in lesser hands would have been kitsch. But Simon seems almost sensible here. It was penned by Marvin Hamlisch, whose pop songs come across like a poor man’s Burt Bacharach. He tended toward cloying and saccharine tunes, eg. The Way We Were, but this is a perfect soundtrack and AM radio hit for the wide-lapels-and-polyester decadence of the Roger Moore-era Bond.
- From Russia With Love (1963) John Barry’s jazz orchestra Bond scores are among the most iconic film scores of all time. This theme doesn’t manage quite the syncopated urgency of Lalo Schifrin’s 5/4 Mission Impossible theme, but its easy to picture Schifrin trying to match this theme when writing his. There’s something grand in its scope, even as it captured the nervous energy and adventure of the nascent franchise. This was the last of the instrumental themes and it exudes the type of ’60s Bond cool that made the film series so popular.
- All Time High (1983) This is the best “big” non-Bassey sung theme. It’s cut from the same cloth as Nobody Does it Better but the simpler pop arrangement lets Rita Coolidge’s vocals soar. It doesn’t have the juvenile double entendres of the best Bond themes; its lyrics are more like a straight-ahead love song. All the better for radio hitmaking. Coolidge doesn’t have Bassey’s authoritative presence, but she strikes the right tone nonetheless. Unfortunately it opened the dreadful Octopussy, which includes, among other things, an aging James Bond in a clown costume.
- Skyfall (2012) Adelle’s soaring sandpapery vocals are strong enough to credibly front an orchestra, a key to this song’s strength. It sounds properly grandiose. She’s expansive without straining, especially in the coda. Skyfall was the first Bond theme in decades to capture the feel, that intangible je ne sais quoi, that makes a great, timeless Bond theme. However, like the movie itself, Skyfall is actually something fundamentally middling made better with proper production gloss.2 After a dozen listens it becomes somewhat plodding and repetitive, but it never stops being a spot-on Bond tune. Although the lyrics left listeners wondering if Adelle was willing to let the sky fall or not 3.
- Diamonds are Forever (1971) Like Skyfall, this is not a particularly good song. Its PG-13 lyrics about suggestively fingering diamonds and how they “stimulate and tease me” maybe try a little too hard to be seductive. But the great Shirley Bassey, returning for another Bond outing, somehow sells it. She doesn’t soar as on Goldfinger, but she captures the subleties better than Nancy Sinatra on the similar You Only Live Twice.
- Another Way to Die (2008) Jack White is the most potent rock-and-roller in a generation. In Seven Nation Army he turned a single riff into a shack-shaking, blistering rock anthem. Compared with most Bond themes, this straight-ahead rocker is enough to blow audiences hair back. However, the song itself ranks in the bottom half of White’s overall cannon. The horn-heavy arrangement tries to wed the Bond jazz orchestra style with White’s, but it leaves his guitar hanging on a hook in the cloak room. The horn-filled bridge is crying out for some Jack White guitar fire. Still, it’s among the strongest themes, and the Aston Martin car chase leading straight into this title track delivers one of the most bracing one-two punch openings of any Bond movie.
- Thunderball (1965) This theme treads the same territory of orchestral jazz horns and Bond theme quotes as Goldfinger – it’s pastiche, to be honest, but still a good one. Sir Tom Jones’ phrasing and delivery come across almost as if someone autotuned Shirley Bassey down a few registers and gave her a Welsh accent. He ends the song by holding the note for the lyric “thunderBALLLLLLLLL” to epic “he loves GOOOOOOOOOOOOLLLLLLD” length. What the song lacks in originality it makes up in verve. This theme could have gone in a really different direction, though. Johhny Cash wrote and recorded a title song for the film that was scrapped. Seriously.
- Live and Let Die (1973) Part of me wants to really like this song despite misgivings. It’s the first true rock-‘n’-roll Bond theme and opened Roger Moore’s first Bond film. But this is also Paul McCartney giving into his unrestrained silly pop song tendencies. John Lennon must have hated this song. But even McCartney in his Wings-era worst farting out a pop song is still pretty good. The song serves as something of the missing link between sweeping ballads like The Long and Winding Road and cartoonish nonsense like Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey. Macca can pull it off, just. To his credit, it is genuinely unique as Bond themes go. But the lyric “In this ever-changing world in which we’re living”, often misheard as “in which we live in,” grates every time it is sung. It’s among the worst lines in all pop music.4 Unfortunately this song is the theme for an irredeemably racist Bond movie with an uncomfortably rapey seduction by Bond of the female lead.
- For Your Eyes Only (1981) This, along with Nobody Does it Better and All Time High, complete a triumverate of mid-period hit Bond tunes by female pop stars. If anything, Bond producers liked to try to repeat successful formulas. This, however, with its electro-tinged arrangement feels more distant and chilly than the others, and Sheena Easton’s voice has a certain glassy brittleness. The film itself was a spare, simple spy tale, a welcome change from the bloated “James Bond in space” nonsense of Moonraker that preceded it. This overly glossy ’80s pop tune doesn’t really capture that aesthetic, though.
- A View to a Kill (1985) Duran Duran likely seemed a brave choice for a Bond Theme. With its horn blasts and tempo shifts, this song in many ways is a dance pop/New Wave take on McCartney’s disjointed theme. The film’s producers scored a big hit with it. It’s the most memorable part of Roger Moore’s last outing as Bond, a film so bland and inept it couldn’t figure out how to turn Christopher Walken into an interesting villain. There’s even a scene where someone is killed by a butterfly. Really. But this song ends up sounding more like a Duran Duran track than a Bond theme, and for that alone it misses greatness.
- Goldeneye (1995) After two middling Bond movies that nearly killed the franchise, much was riding on Goldeneye to return the series to earlier glories. (Spoiler alert: It did.) The slinky tune by Bono and the Edge from U2 is sung by then-ascendent Tina Turner, who is at turns sultry and sweeping. But Turner is much stronger than her material, and it never really takes advantage of her big voice like it could. It comes off as more restained and tasteful than a Tina Turner-sung Bond theme ever should.
- You Only Live Twice (1967) The chorus has a beguiling melody, to be sure, but the song mostly plods. But the biggest problem is Nancy Sinatra, whose pop star chops find her out of her depth on a torch song lke this.
- You Know My Name (2006) Did someone shoot Chris Cornell with a tranquilizer dart before he recorded this Casino Royale theme? When the movie came out it was the most rock ‘n’ roll of the Bond themes to date, fronted by one of rock’s biggest voices. Such promise. It sets a fresh tone for a rebooted series, but overall the song just never quite takes off. Despite being somewhat clunky, the lyrics nail the film’s Bond aesthetic – “Arm yourself because no-one else here will save you. The odds will betray you.” The line “The coldest blood runs through my veins. You know my name” should be badass rather than limp. This is the opening track to not only my favorite Bond movie, but one of my favorite movies, period. I can’t hear it without thinking of it, so I like it more than it deserves
- Writing’s on the Wall (2015) This song wasn’t yet out when this was originally compiled. Here’s our eerily correct predictive review: “They say never write your lead on the way to the ballpark, but I’m going to pre-predict this one nonetheless. If Smith sticks to his ourve of megahit Stay with Me – overwrought, somewhat juvenile emotionalism set to a plodding tempo – its going to be thin gruel. Frankly, Bond would never, ever, ever plead “stay with me.” Ever. If Smith attempts emotional and stylistic grandiosity, it’s going to be a boy trying to be a man. The film’s producers may score an elusive pop hit as they did with Adelle’s Skyfall, but it won’t be a strong Bond track.”
- All the Time in the World (1969) Louis Armstrong was a wonderful singer, with the right material. But this theme from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a mismatch. He lends some personality to it, but mainly it just drags on and on and on. It never really evokes the tragic irony of Tracey Bond’s death at the hand of Blofeld. (Spoiler alert.) It’s so forgettable that I doubt most Bond fans even remember it exists, like the movie it opens. This kind of thing never happened to the other guy.
- Moonraker (1979) EON Productions went back to the Shirley Bassey well one too many times with this one. This was her fourth and final time up, and it’s the worst. Her big voice and silken purr nail the tone – but the material itself is like a blurred copy of a copy of a copy. The movie was filled with similar creative exhaustion, so it’s not a surprise that the theme song was also.
- The Living Daylights The chart success of quintessential ’80s band Duran Duran’s Bond track no doubt led to the booking of ah-ha – best known for ’80s pop standard Take On Me – for a Bond gig. This likely seemed the surest of sure things. But the tune is as flaccid as the film itself. Unlike Duran Duran, ah-ha’s pop hooks don’t land. The whole thing is overproduced and, to modern ears, outdated without the gauzy retro patina of Duran Duran’s offering.
- Never Say Never Again (1983) This unofficial Bond movie brought back Sean Connery for what was essentially a remake of his own movie Thunderball. The film has a bad rep, but it’s actually far better than any competing Roger Moore-era film. The producers are going for something like Rita Coolidge’s All Time High, but sultry vocals by Lani Hall – wait … Who? Oh, Mrs. Herb Alpert – can’t save this theme from slick, vapid ’80s production and wah-wah guitar mediocrity. The movie deserved better. Notably, someone actually went to the trouble to fix it.
- The Man With the Golden Gun (1974) This is the worst of the pop torch song Bond themes. The backing arrangement sounds like something from a porn film, and forgotten pop star Lulu strains to sound sexy and seductive but doesn’t even reach the level of coquettish. Bond lyrics are typically vaguely sexy, but these lyrics are hyperliteral, conveying the film’s key exposition much in the same way as the Gilligan’s Island theme song. The movie itself isn’t much better.
- Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) Sheryl Crow is all wrong here. This needs soaring vocal acrobatics, but Crow was never a particularly gifted singer. She’s best when a song calls for slightly bored, sardonic detatchment and at her worst when she needs to exude silken sexiness. Like here, for instance. The chorus is so strained it’s almost painful. No amount of production tricks can turn Crow into a torch singer. This is a flat and dull intro for a film that had one of modern Bond movies’ most scenery-chewing bad guys in Jonathan Pryce’s Rupert Murdoch-esque newspaper magnate.
- License to Kill (1989) Betcha didn’t even know Gladys Knight sang a Bond tune. This opener for the second of two dismal Timothy Dalton films places the earthy soulfulness of Knight among generic production and a mediocre reimagining of the iconic Goldfinger theme. The video features a tuxedo-clad Knight superimposed on a special effects background with writhing women. It suffers the same fate of dated silliness. The lyrics are borderline stalker. “I’ve got to hold on to your love … Please don’t bet that you’ll ever escape me/ Once I get my sights on you / I got a licence to kill.” The woman can belt a Bond tune, but she should have just stayed home this time.
- The World is Not Enough (1999) Garbage is best known for a couple late-90s hits that matched sharp, Nine Inch Nails-lite beats with Shirley Manson’s sultry damaged-girl persona. They never seemed a good pick in the first place and continued the dreary streak of Brosnan-era Bond tunes with this forgettable track. This song strips the band’s persona away in lieu of generic crooning of the song’s title over a leaden rhythm track and backing as exciting as overboiled vegetables. It actually is garbage.
Special place in Bond theme hell
- Die Another Day (2002) This film is almost batshit crazy in its awfulness – its the Batman and Robin of Bond films, draped in ridiculous camp and overall silliness (look, it’s an invisible car!) with some of the worst CGI of a modern movie. Like Brosnan and everyone involved here, Madonna5 was past her prime. But she had the cred to recruit French electronica mastermind Mirwas to convey the seductive energy that her own limited, overly mannered vocals can’t. The song is almost bizarre in its wrongness for a Bond movie. But this isn’t Everybody Gets a Trophy Day at the Montessori school, so they get no credit for trying.
So how did we do? Should we have ranked them differently?
If so, let us know what we got wrong by making a website, adding a blog to that site, spending several hours tracking down and listening to all 25 Bond tunes multiple times, spend several more hours writing a blurb about every single song, and spend even more hours editing, rewriting, linking and fact checking each entry.
Then publish your blog entry and send us a link. We might even read it!
- See what I did there?
- Skyfall, shot by master cinematographer and frequent Coen brothers collaborator Roger Deakins, is a very beautiful looking bad movie.
- Yes, she was in favor of the sky falling.
- Everybody knows the lyric “I know that I must do what’s right / As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti” from Toto’s Africa is the worst ever written.
- She also has a cameo in the film as a fencing instructor. She’s so sinewy that she looks like she’s carved out of beef jerky. And to call her performance wooden is to insult trees.