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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Best of Bond Themes

Here we are hurtling towards Christmas and that can only mean one thing. There should be a lot of Bond on television soon. In fact, COMCAST is running 21 Bond films on its OnDemand service, although you have to pay for some of them. Before this type of service we had to clear our schedules for some much needed Bonding. I remember in college, we only had 13 days of Bond, I think now the count is up to, something like, 15. I can distinctly remember sitting in my friend’s dorm room watching You Only Live Twice, while studying for finals. It was the first time I had ever seen the movie. It was the second time I had watched a movie with Connery as Bond. The first time was the not so canonical offering of Never Say Never Again. You know the one where Connery steps in as Bond in between Roger Moore takes and plays holographic video games with Klaus Brandauer, technically it's a remake of Thunderball, but it wasn't a production of EON, so it really doesn't count like Casino Royale does.

Now, it doesn't matter who you think is the best Bond, although a lot of kids born during the 70’s will most likely point towards Roger Moore as their favorite. After all, it’s not like we had much chance to see Connery in action and let’s face it, Dalton was arguably a good Bond in two bad movies. Personally, I think the order of Bonds puts Lazenby at the bottom, just because he wasn’t really Bond to me, followed by Dalton, Moore, Craig, who is closely coming to surpass Brosnan, and finally Connery at the top. I mean really, Connery was the original and still the best. So, while watching those 15 straight days of misogynistic, vodka soaked, scantily clad Bond girls get bedded by British’s Best, I am reminded of my earlier youth when I used to watch the movies on television and be intrigued by the opening sequences that dotted the edge of puberty of a child born before The Spy Who Loved Me.

Ah yes, the silhouetted naked women, the guns firing, the trampoline action all sent my hormones to the breaking point. Now that was cinema. With the 22nd film bowing at the box office with the most unrelated to the source material title, Quantum of Solace offers a second go around for Daniel Craig as Bond and another chance for a music artist to make their mark on opening sequence history. NPR recently ran a story on All Things Considered letting
Total Music Geek‘s Drew Kerr rank the Bond Theme songs. While, I will agree with him that Madonna’s "Die Another Day" is perhaps the worst of the lot, I can’t help but disagree with most of his ranking of the other songs, although we both placed "The World Is Not Enough" and "Tomorrow Never Dies" at nearly the same spot. You can see his list by following the link right above to Total Music Geek. For Mongo's ranking, see further down.

First off let’s look at what makes a good Bond Theme. Marty Norman and John Barry laid the ground work for success. There has to be horns and lyrics that relate to the film itself. Now, while some theme songs don’t include the title of the film, that’s not as important as capturing the essence of Bond and the film itself in that opening three to four minutes. The format for authorship is (performer/writer/writer/etc.)

23: "Die Another Day" (Madonna) Die Another Day
No argument here. Either Madonna should have been allowed to do the theme or been in the movie, but not both. The techno house rhythm just kills it, not to mention the film was near crap and it paid tribute to every Bond film before it, so there's a missed opportunity for Brosnan to go out Onatopp.

22: "Another Way to Die" (Jack White and Alicia Keys) from Quantum of Solace (2008)
I will give them credit, they managed to work the Norman/Barry theme into a couple of notes, teasing you, before switching to another which is exactly what this song is, so close yet so far away. It’s another way to kill a Bond song. At least it cracked the Top 10 in European countries while it only peaked at 81 on the Billboard Hot 100. Not a good second outing for Craig's Bond when Chris Cornell turned in such a great song for Casino Royale.

21: "The Man With the Golden Gun" (Lulu/John Barry/Don Black) from The Man With the Golden Gun (1974)
This was definitely a stark change to the traditional Bond themes. More funk and rock than horns and strings. Though it is a true Bond song, meaning it deals with the title of the movie and villain, it is a mess of a tune and Barry himself hated it the most. I've never heard the Alice Cooper version, but I'm sure it's much better.

20: "The Living Daylights" (a-ha/Paul Waaktaar-Savoy/John Barry) from The Living Daylights (1987)
A new Bond on screen and another attempt to synthesize Barry's theme and still sound as good as "View To a Kill." A lot of in-fighting between Barry and a-ha makes for a general understanding of the songs feeling of being all over the place. It gets points for trying to stick to Bond territory but it totally misses the mark unless Bond becomes a pencil sketch character and dukes it out with wrench wielding racers.

19: "Moonraker" (Shirley Bassey/John Barry) from Moonraker (1979)
Even though the novel was written before the sci-fi blockbuster film genre became a staple at the box office, the producers waited until the success of such films as Star Wars and 2001 to launch Bond into space. It seems as if a lot of things were kept on hold until the last minute as Bassey was asked to sing the title song just weeks before release. Bassey, herself was not pleased with the final cut and didn't get the chance to promote it first. The song has a Star Wars feel to it, albeit the version sung by Nick the Lounge Singer from SNL. Spacey and really celestial, Barry orchestrates "Moonraker" with very little established Bond themes save for some string pieces. William Shatner would feel at home singing this alongside "Mr. Tambourine Man."

18: "License To Kill" (Gladys Knight/Michael Kamen) from License To Kill (1989)
It's a full blown R&B Bond theme here on the Quiet Storm (cue soft sound of thunder.) Gladys Knight is spot on in voice but, other than the title, there are very few ties to the original theme other than the horn riffs that reach back to Shirley Bassey's "Goldfinger", and they paid royalties to use it. In all fairness, I believe if you dropped Gladys' soulful singing and made the song a little more up tempo, it would be a different song, a better song. This version, however, belongs a K-Tel soulful sounds of the 80's collection album.

17: "The World Is Not Enough" (Garbage/David Arnold/Don Black) from The World Is Not Enough (1999)
"TWINE" is not exactly Garbage, but it's a recycled mishmash of "Tomorrow Never Dies." Shirley Manson must not have heard Sheryl Crow's vocals as she pretty much imitates them with the same drawn out syllables. The worst part about "TWINE" and "TND" is that the songs are great, it's the singing that drags them down from Everything to Nothing.


16: "Tomorrow Never Dies" (Sheryl Crow/Mitchell Froom) from Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
Sheryl Crow's offering goes down the checklist of all the essential elements of a Bond theme and hits each one, brass, heavy strings, jazzed up drum riffs, retro electric guitar, lyrical references to Bond's props and nods to the original theme. What it lacks is general enthusiasm on the part of Crow. It's soulless, not sultry. It's a vodka soaked, late night rendezvous of shame in a back alley after last call.

15: "All Time High" (Rita Coolidge/John Barry/Tim Rice) from Octopussy (1983)
By now, Bond has been totally emasculated by lite rock and soft ballads. Saxophones and high strings have replaced electric guitar and brass instruments. While, I can't see composing a song with the title Octopussy, you'd at least think there would be some allusions or references to the plot or to Bond himself. Yet, there is none. Thankfully, 1985, would see a return to a more rocking, albeit 80's pop, theme song.


14: "For Your Eyes Only" (Sheena Easton/Bill Conti/Michael Leeson) from For Your Eyes Only (1981)
The move to neuter Bond with a progressively Lite Rock format at 007 FM hits its full stride. I must say, I actually like this song and it lends itself to the style of sexual imagery present during the Moore years. It has a dreamy and soporific feel that became part of Moore's appeal as Bond, not abrasive and manly like Connery, but smooth and sensitive. The opening also marked the first and only time the singer has appeared in the credit sequence.

13: "From Russia With Love" (Matt Monro/Lionel Bart) from From Russia With Love (1963)
The second Bond theme song seems more of a Sinatraesque Italian crooner song than the portrait of a Cold War Russian postcard. This is something I expect to hear in the background at The Olive Garden. However, I do get the image of a matryoshka doll, listening to the well placed strings. The Producers wouldn't hit their stride until number 3 when Barry would get full creative control.

12: "GoldenEye" (Tina Turner/Bono/The Edge) from GoldenEye (1995)
With every new Bond on screen there's a reason to revisit the template for a great Bond song. Tina Turner has that Bassey quality in her voice and the song manages to be current for its time and still capture the feel of Norman and Barry's themes with just a bit of Cold War Russia. Actually, for a Bond song, it stands on its own as a great song, which it did on Tuner's album Wildest Dreams. Bono and The Edge helped to produce one of the highest charting hits of Turner's career. 

11: "Skyfall" (Adele/Paul Epworth) from Skyfall (2012)

I don't like to praise Top 40 singers taking on the Bond Theme, but I have to give it to Adele for nailing this one.  She gave the franchise its first Golden Globe win out of six tries for Best Original Song, beating out Taylor Swift and Les Miserables.  That's pretty impressive.  So are Adele's pipes in this song.  It's not the normal fare we've come to expect from the Craig era.  Chris Cornell and the combo of Jack White and Alicia Keys ratcheted the rock in bringing the new Bond into the 21st century with their gritty ditties, but Adele returns to what served her Majesty best with the Shirley Bassey like smoke and soul.  The lyrics fit the plot well, once you've seen the film.  This song is more about a relationship of fate or destiny, not sex. 

10: "Diamonds Are Forever" (Shirler Bassey/John Barry) from Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
To think that Shirley Bassey was singing about diamonds as if they were a phallus is a humorous innuendo. The song is soft yet still powerful shifting to a funky beat midway through. Perhaps that is what happens to a "diamond" when it's held and caressed and undressed. "Oh James!"

9: "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (John Barry/The John Barry Orchestra) from On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)
A break from the norm ushered in Lazenby's one off as James Bond. The theme was the first since Dr. No to have no lyrics. It was also to feature a Moog synthesizer, used in its baseline. Without having actually seen the entire film, except for the tragic ending, I already had a sense for the landscape of the film. The theme evokes imagery of a Bavarian or Swiss backdrop and there is anger laced in the film with the short staccato blasts of the horns. Barry's work on the film is a worthy addition to the collection of Bond songs.

8: "You Only Live Twice" (Nancy Sinatra/John Barry/Leslie Briscusse) from You Only Live Twice (1967)
Connery's last turn as Bond in an official EON produced film has him storming volcano lairs and pretending to be Japanese with some clever makeup. The thin veil over the suspension of disbelief was enough to make me laugh out loud but Nancy Sinatra's title song made me a little warm and fuzzy. Her voice calls out to you like Bali Hai and the Asian influenced Xylophone riffs feel more in place than the more traditional Barry/Norman horn blasts. Describing the strings I could only help think of a later produced song called "Main Street" by Bob Seger. The last turn for Connery and soon the last turn for a strong and commanding theme song as we delve briefly into Lazenby territory and head into the lite rock realm of Moore.

7: "A View to a Kill" (Duran Duran/John Barry) from A View to a Kill (1985)
Duran Duran provides a guilty pleasure to those who missed the short brass jabs of the original theme, in no small part to John Barry's help. While, they're electronic and poppy, they're still there and Le Bon's voice hits some familiar highs but can't reach the stature of Bassey or Jones. This is the only Bond song to date to have reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100.

6: "You Know My Name" (Chris Cornell/David Arnold) from Casino Royale (2006)
Daniel Craig taking on the role of James Bond was a huge risk for the franchise. His take on 007 proved profitable, though. Younger, tougher, more akin to Connery in purpose while reckless and immature. The same can be said for Cornell's theme song. It hits you immediately like a freight train and barely lets up save for the bridge. Then it's back into the fray. Brass punches, electric guitar, and orchestral strings hit all the Barry thematic elements. Though, it's another song that isn't titled the same as the film, the lyrics play on all sorts of gambling and card game references as well as other themes like loyalty and dispassion which feature prominently throughout the film. It didn't get the credit it deserved despite being nominated for a Grammy Award.

5: "Live and Let Die" (Wings/Paul and Linda McCartney/George Martin) from Live and Let Die (1973)
Perhaps one of the most successful songs at the time for Wings and for the Bond series. It marked a real departure from the standard Norman/Barry format. It also marked Moore's first turn as Bond. Perhaps those ideas went hand in hand. There's really not much to do in terms of Bond styling as the lyrics are rather nonsensical yet the tune is really a great song and measures up to the rest of the Bond themes. The worst thing about this song is that Guns and Roses remade it 20 years later.

4: "Nobody Does It Better" (Carly Simon/Marvin Hamlisch/Carole Bayer Sager) from The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
When Roger Moore took over for Connery, Bond went from misogynistic and manly to genial and gentlemanly. The switch in Bonds plays over into themes as the decade changes from the 60's to the 70's. Gone are the brassy themes of Norman's original theme and ushered in are the lite rock ballads which would dominate Moore's run as 007. This marks the first time a Bond theme was not titled the same as the movie. However, the lyrics include allusions to Bond and the title of the film, all which work well when you stack it up against the opening credit sequence full of silhouetted female forms and the sexual imagery and trampolines and gymnastics. Bond goes from irresistible caveman to suave quiche eating Casanova.

3: "Thunderball" (Tom Jones/John Barry/Don Black) from Thunderball (1965)
Building off of Goldfinger's intro, which utilizes Norman's original theme, Tom Jones oozes sensuality and sinistry with his booming voice. He almost becomes Bond himself. The elements are all there and that end note that Jones holds for nearly 10 seconds is amazing. Is it any wonder he fainted while belting it out. The man had some friggin' pipes on him!

2: "Goldfinger" (Shirley Bassey/John Barry/Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley) from Goldfinger (1964)
Wow. This is truly a classic to which all others are compared. There are parts where it sort of sounds like Tony Hatch's Downtown. However, it's quintessential 60's Bond in nature. The lyrics are a perfect meeting of Grim Reaper and King Midas with the subconscious imagery of an evil proctologist.

1: "James Bond Theme" (The John Barry Orchestra/Monty Norman) from
Dr. Noleft
Here's the blueprint. The original and still the best. The muted trumpets and punchy brass section, the electric guitar picking away, the jazzed up percussion section, and of course ending on that sustained note all spell 007. All great Bond themes build off of these elements.

If you would like to take a listen for yourself, head on over to
James Bond Multimedia and check out each theme.


Mongo said...


I recently revisited this playlist while I was working and decided that I needed to make an adjustment. Previously, I had GoldenEye at 10 and Diamonds Are Forever at 11.

After listening to both songs again, I realized that, while I like Tina Turner's song very much, it just didn't beat out Shirly Bassey's song for DAF. Sorry, Tina, I still love the song but it has be where it's at on my list.

Mongo said...


Finally got around to editing the list to include the song from Bond's 23rd outing. It was rough to go back and slide Skyfall in somewhere appropriate. I couldn't put it higher than Diamonds Are Forever but I felt it was a better song than Goldeneye. So, 11 it is for now. Perhaps after Bond is finished saving the world, I can revisit and shuffle based on how well all the songs hold up over time.

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