Uniquely, Bond themes represent a music tradition spanning over 40 years with a very special continuity that transcends the vagaries of changing fashions and genres. Squeezed between the need to modernize (and at times innovate), while still remaining firmly within an established tradition, Bond theme singers don’t always have it easy – and are sometimes subjected to abuse when they are felt to have got it wrong (hello Madonna). Conversely, if you get it right, the prize is having one of the biggest seals of approval on your musical CV – that somebody thought you had the range.
However, we don’t all agree on what the best and worst Bond themes are, making them an ideal subject for pub conversations, especially within the British culture that James Bond sprang from. But what is it that we require from a Bond theme? The two keywords here are probably ‘drama’ and ‘panache’, along with musical requisites like ‘brass’, ‘strings’ and ‘having a decent voice’. How these elements are differently articulated over the 24 themes to date (and a couple of handfuls of supplementary Bond songs that have found their way onto the soundtracks) is a fascinating matter, and has inspired a wealth of writing on the subject, from the blogosphere to several books.
As Spectre is released in cinemas and Sam Smith’s name is added into the history books, this, then, isn’t meant to be a definitive guide, but an exhaustive one, covering every Bond theme from the EON series, plus some extras that may be less familiar. Where to begin, but at the beginning…
‘Lyrics occasionally veer into schlock and trashiness (‘enter his web of sin’, anyone?), while the muted striptease trumpets blare out like an overripe fart’
John Barry – 007 Theme (Dr No, 1962)
Partly through its repetition in 24 films over the years, and partly through its own brilliance, this is mostly likely the most famous film theme of all time. Composed by Monty Norman and arranged by John Barry, it alternates Duane Eddy twang with orchestral bombast that leans heavily on the brass section and owes a lot to the dynamics of big band swing. The real genius of the 007 Theme, though, is that it can be dissected into four or five now iconic musical elements, each of which in isolation (and they often are when orchestrated across the many soundtracks) unequivocally scream ‘BOND’.
The other song on the soundtrack, Underneath The Mango Tree, has its own aura wafting around it, having been covered by the likes of Billy Childish and Cibelle over the years. Ersatz Caribbean, musically, there’s an element of cultural tourism about it (not surprising for a series that delights in its own globe-trotting) and is the only Bond song to have ever been sung by Bond himself (in duet with Ursula Andress’ Honey Rider, recently emerged from the sea in her classic white bikini scene).
Matt Monro – From Russia With Love (1963)
The weakest of the 1960s themes, the problem here isn’t so much the orchestration, or even the song, but the rather formulaic ballad crooning, which hasn’t dated very well. You can see why the producers picked a singer like Monro in the early days – the charm, sophistication and effect on women of the classic crooner must have had obvious parallels with Bond himself.
In less supercilious sounding hands, like Sinatra’s perhaps, this might have endured better. Either way (despite Connery’s brief musical moment in Dr No) what we probably don’t need is a pseudo-Bond singing his own theme tune.
‘Thunderball at points attempts to outdo its predecessor’s bombast, with the pant-splitting bravura high note from Jones at the end ludicrous even by his standards’
Shirley Bassey – Goldfinger (1964)
While generally considered the gold standard against which other songs are measured, Goldfinger is nonetheless Bond theme at both its worst and best. A classic song that well deserves its iconic status, it forms the basic blueprint, along with the original 007 theme, for the Bond Theme Formula.
Despite this, it possesses occasionally dubious taste, featuring several elements that it would be necessary to discard in future themes: lyrics occasionally veer into schlock and trashiness (“enter his web of sin”, anyone?), while the muted striptease trumpets blare out like an overripe fart.
Overall, the whole affair feels hurried, with both the song and Bassey’s shrill performance verging on the hysterical. Having said all that, the song’s still a total classic and is probably best viewed as a product of its time.
Tom Jones – Thunderball (1965)
Something of a re-run of Goldfinger, Thunderball at points attempts to outdo its predecessor’s bombast, with the pant-splitting bravura high note from Jones at the end ludicrous even by his standards. That doesn’t stop it from being loads of fun though, and if you can’t enjoy being here at the outer limits of camp, then you should probably take a good, hard stare at yourself in the mirror.
It is also the first of several songs to lionize Bond himself in music, and the lyrics can be read as being either about a hero or villain. This establishes a trend of ambiguity in the lyrical subject matter that would extend into many subsequent themes: are they about Bond or the bad guy? Or is Bond meant to be the bad guy?
The original theme for the film, Dionne Warwick’s Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (scrapped for not containing the film’s title), is a similar ode to Bond’s antihero status. For many, it’s the better song and more than any other of the extra Bond music deserves to be considered in the canon of themes.
Nancy Sinatra – You Only Live Twice (1967)
Proving that you don’t need to be a foghorn to do Bond theme convincingly, Nancy Sinatra’s vocal is perfectly judged on You Only Live Twice. It is restrained enough not to overpower the delicate, oriental-inflected backing, yet still possesses just enough drama to obviously identify it as a Bond theme.
Leslie Bricusse’s lyric is masterful: it’s essentially romantic (your ‘second life’ being the one you live when you find love), but does this with a dreamy existentialism that beckons you on, like the stranger in the song.
‘Again, Barry proves himself the master of orchestration, with his arrangement twinkling like the thousand facets of a diamond caught in the light’
John Barry – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
Now largely usurped by Louis Armstrong’s closing We Have All The Time In The World in the popular subconscious, the actual Bond theme is, in fact, a memorable reminder that in John Barry’s hands, an instrumental can sometimes be better than a full song. To get all musicological about it, its brilliance rests on the clever counterpoint between the descending bass and the more upwardly bound brass melodies (something Lennon and McCartney had been exploiting in their own songwriting throughout the decade).
There also appears to be an influence from funk in here, not so much in the rhythm, but in the way it sounds both heavy and lithe at the same time, qualities which were picked up on in The Propellerheads’ memorable 1997 remake. If the real theme provides the energetic foreplay for the film, then We Have All the Time In The World is definitely its post-coital cigarette. Belatedly a hit in the UK, it proves that Bond can be explored musically in song in other ways than brass and drama, with Barry’s sublime violin motifs keeping it firmly grounded in the Bond soundworld.
The other song on the soundtrack, Nina’s Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown?, is also worth exploring, though for different reasons. A sickly-sweet schlager pastiche, it only makes sense when watched in the context of the film, where it provides ironic contrast to the violence that takes place in and around the Swiss Christmas market in the scene.
Shirley Bassey – Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
By far the best of Bassey’s three Bond themes, and the one with which she herself is most happy. She really gets to stretch out and inhabit the song here, sounding supremely comfortable where in Goldfinger she was tense and shrill.
It also has one of the best, most direct lyrics which rewrites Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend with an added shimmering sensuality that promotes diamonds from best friend to powerful lust object. Again, Barry proves himself the master of orchestration, with his arrangement twinkling like the thousand facets of a diamond caught in the light.
Paul McCartney and Wings – Live And Let Die (1973)
The first song to loosen John Barry’s stranglehold on Bond’s musical world, as a song and arrangement, Live And Let Die is hugely ambitious, forming a kind of musical bridge between The Beatles and Bohemian Rhapsody. It is constantly threatening to plunge into structural disaster and extreme bad taste, from McCartney’s overly cheery vocal to the galloping symphonic rock interludes and cod-reggae breakdown in the middle.
Miraculously, it holds it all together and works, probably as a result of George Martin’s steady over-seeing eye. It’s also possibly one of the least cool of the Bond themes, helped along by the patronage of one Alan Partridge, but its enduring popularity is testament to its resistance to the fickleness of fashion.
Lulu – The Man With The Golden Gun (1974)
This begins encouragingly with a fresh sounding brass riff and some groovy guitar that promises to keep things at least sounding contemporary. It’s all over, though, from the moment that Lulu enters and fruitily croaks “he has a powerful weapon, he charges a million a shot”. Such innuendo and knowingness in James Bond should be reserved for the actors, and kept well away from the singers. Having said that, you can hardly blame Lulu for her performance when presented with her lines, which also include the horrible lyrical couplet “love is required, whenever he’s hired”.
Another lyrical sin is that it sets up completely the wrong character expectations: the ‘man with the golden gun’ is actually the villain in the film, not Bond, who the song is patently about. The first Bond theme not to chart in the UK, something had patently gone very wrong with this one, requiring a radically different approach for the follow-up.
Carly Simon – Nobody Does It Better (The Spy Who Loved Me, 1977)
The first Bond theme since Goldfinger that doesn’t consciously adhere to a formula, or hang off John Barry’s apron strings, Carly Simon’s soft-rock ballad must have represented a big risk. The reason that it succeeded (and still succeeds today) is simply that it’s a great song, attracting later covers from the likes of Radiohead and Celine Dion. Its main message ‘I LOOOOVE YOU JAAAAAMES BOOND’ is delivered refreshingly camp-free, more heart-on-sleeve than tongue-in-check. Genius though John Barry is, this song was proof that in this era, sometimes he and Bond just need to go on a break from each other.
Shirley Bassey – Moonraker (1979)
Sadly forgotten in the ranks of the great Bond themes, and generally relegated to the bottom of polls, Moonraker is the most subtle and lyrical of the Bassey song trilogy. This is also perhaps its downfall and the cause of its failure to chart. What a shame, though, as Barry is at his peak as an orchestrator of cinematic landscapes around this time, having recently completed work on his masterpiece undersea soundtrack for The Deep. Bond In Space might be a slightly ridiculed concept now, but Barry really nailed it musically.
One of the intriguing facts about Moonraker is that one of the singers it was originally offered to was Kate Bush, who turned it down. If you listen to Bush singing Strange Phenomena or Wow (both from 1978, the year the film came out), her wide-eyed space cadet persona around the time might actually have suited this song extremely well, and elevated Moonraker to a far less obscure position in the Bond theme firmament. Not that there’s anything wrong with Bassey’s vocal, although, by her own admission, she has never felt like it was ‘her’ song.
‘Perhaps it’s best to imagine it as from the perspective of one of the Bond girls, whose ‘all time high’ is patently getting the Rogering of her life from Mr Moore’
Sheena Easton – For Your Eyes Only (1981)
Despite her tender years (she was only 21 when she recorded the song), Easton confidently steps up to the role of Bond diva, delivering a vocal which is both limpid and cool, then big when it needs to be. Like Nobody Does It Better, it’s pure love song but, while written specifically for the film, doesn’t reference any of the film’s themes in its lyrics.
These omissions include Bond himself, spying in general, casinos and (shockingly) figure skating. None of this matters too much, though, as writer and producer Bill Conti’s production is cinematic in all the right ways. It conjures a widescreen underwater panorama with echoes of sonar and rafts of bubbles that help it sound quintessentially Bondian, even if the lyrics don’t.
Rita Coolidge – All Time High (Octopussy, 1983)
The wailing sax intro suggests we are about to watch a Californian daytime soap and, unforgivably, things go even further downhill with the entry of Coolidge’s country-cruise-singer-on-steroids vocal. Like its predecessor, the lyrics don’t seem to have any references to either Bond, or the film, and of all the Bond themes, this one is the least Bondesque.
However, if we must interpret the song in these terms, then perhaps it’s best to imagine it from the perspective of one of the Bond girls, whose ‘all time high’ is patently getting the Rogering of her life from Mr Moore. The real sin, though, is that it seems not to have realized that the ’70s are now well and truly over and that Helen Reddy hasn’t been the peak of sophistication for about nine years now.
Duran Duran – A View To A Kill (1985)
Another example of a radical rethink being required after a disastrous misstep (see also Nobody Does It Better), a modernist approach was taken by getting a big pop group in who might haul in the teenage fans, while avoiding the potential flimsiness that teenpop might also bring.
It turns out Duran Duran were a perfect match, with Simon LeBon’s propensity for writing a vaguely dramatic-sound load of old cobblers as lyrics fitting surprisingly well. All anyone needed to remember anyway was the killer “dance into the fire” chorus: John Taylor’s slinky bass provides the perfect soundtrack for the curvy opening title silhouettes to wiggle their hips to.
A View To A Kill also lands just the right side of the line separating mid-1980s production excess from thrilling state-of-the-art technical precision. The music video also collates the most memorable moments (in an otherwise slightly shoddy film) like Grace Jones’ Mayday diving off the Eiffel Tower. Somehow, helped by the great theme song, the music video manages to make the film seem far more iconic in retrospect than it deserves.
a-ha – The Living Daylights (1987)
After Duran Duran’s masterclass in pop modernity, this effort is unforgivably stodgy for a band that were otherwise effortlessly knocking out epic, yet crisp pop hits at the time. You can feel the infamous tension between a-ha and their producer here: everything sounds stiff, awkward and compromised where it should be thrilling and fun.
Also, note to the songwriters: “Oh-oh-oh-oh, The Living Daylights” repeated four times does NOT a proper Bond chorus make. The soundtrack is also notable for the presence of two Bond songs by The Pretenders, one of which (If There Was A Man) is a Bond love theme with a lot of the languorous charm of We Have All The Time In The World and deserves a place on any Bond playlist.
‘By the time the song comes to an end, you want to shove the BA-DAAAA riff right up Bono and The Edge’s collective arse’
Gladys Knight – Licence To Kill (1989)
Licence To Kill isn’t a bad song at all and handles the whole falling in love/being killed metaphor with aplomb. Gladys Knight runs with the sexually aggressive lyric, laying the template for the creepy maneater that Tina Turner would channel six years later.
The problem is that the record feels schizophrenic, with the above-par soul ballad feeling rather tacked on to the end of the recycled Goldfinger brass riff. And speaking of that riff, it points the way forward to an unfortunate phase of further recycling, and constant referencing of previous themes that is sadly at odds with all of the best Bond themes: modern and utterly of their time.
Tina Turner – Goldeneye (1995)
This leads us neatly onto the next theme, forged by the combination of Tina Turner, David Arnold and U2, whose involvement proves to be as frightening as it sounds. Things starts off encouragingly with a sparse, slinky rhythm that provides plenty of room for Turner to craft her phrases and play out her stalkery narrative like a pro.
But then there is that obnoxious riff. BA-DAAAAA, it blasts, over and over again, hammering the formula home far more blatantly than Licence To Kill did. It even has the temerity to BA-DAAAAA while Turner is still singing, proving that U2 have no idea how to treat a lady. By the time the song comes to an end, you want to shove the riff right up Bono and The Edge’s collective arse.
This is also the theme that infamously caused Shirley Bassey to remark that Tina ‘doesn’t have the range’, inspiring the Rock Profiles sketch below. While Bassey probably didn’t mean to be insulting, she actually has a point as, if you listen, Turner is made to strain her voice at the end, letting things down even further.
Sheryl Crow – Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
From a distance, this hits all the right spots. If you squint your ears a bit, the impression is of classic Bond theme. The chorus is truly rousing, and reverent John Barry-disciple Arnold makes sure that the backing is dusted with Russian instrumental exotica in just the right quantities. Yes, it’s a bit retro, but at least it’s more tastefully done than the previous two themes.
What the song is actually meant to be about is anyone’s guess though, and it rivals A View To A Kill for the impenetrability of its lyrics. While that’s not too problematic, the main problem here is Crow, who clearly hasn’t learned the lesson from Rita Coolidge that sunk All Time High, ie. that lugubrious country-style vocals smother Bond in way too much sticky molasses to retain any drama.
For an alternative, listen to kd lang’s rejected theme Surrender, which still made it onto the soundtrack. Just like Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, many listeners prefer the reject which isn’t necessarily a better song, but has a far more suitable vocalist.
‘The chorus is such an absolute masterclass in sinister cat-stroking that it probably should have been investigated by the RSPCA’
Garbage – The World Is Not Enough (1999)
More satisfyingly of its time than the previous two Brosnan themes, the strength of Garbage’s attempt is that it manages to connect with the slightly cybergothy technoculture of the 1990s. It’s also easily the best song since Duran Duran’s.
The chorus is such an absolute masterclass in sinister cat-stroking that it probably should have been investigated by the RSPCA. The World is Not Enough ultimately fails, though, because of an increasingly familiar criticism, and one that would inspire the most quotable of all Rock Profiles clips: weak vocals.
Almost anyone else in contention at the time probably would have killed it with this song, such is its strength, particularly the chorus. Unfortunately though, the sad truth was that this Shirley really didn’t have the range.
Madonna – Die Another Day (2003)
The most maligned of all Bond themes by several furlongs, Madonna earned this ire by ripping apart the formula, and piecing it back together in a glitchy, modernist jigsaw that is simply too fragmented for people to take it to their hearts. She probably shouldn’t have also insisted on her laughably self-conscious cameo role in the film as a horse trainer but, y’know, her funeral.
However, Die Another Day’s bad reputation obscures the fact that the lyric is probably the most intelligent meditation on a title since You Only Live Twice. Yes, delaying pleasure, closing the body and destroying the ego is all a bit Madonna-in-yogavangelist mode, but it works really well for the stoicism of the tough action hero really well too. The sad thing here is that any of the musical elements on display here (cut-up-technique lyrics, choppy strings, glitch) might have been built upon as a route away from the redundancy of recycling past glories. It seems they pushed ‘innovation’ and ‘electronic’ way further than the Bond audience were willing to go here, though.
Perhaps the record’s electo-dilettantism is also still suffering from its connection to the film’s shaky use of digital technologies, from the much derided CGI surfing scene to the unconvincing gadgetry of the invisible car.
Chris Cornell – You Know My Name (Casino Royale, 2006)
You Know My Name has a job to do and, by Connery, it’s going to do it in a manly fashion with LOTS OF GUITARS and GRUFFNESS. No thoughts of Dame Shirley are allowed anywhere near this theme, not to mention electronic beats or…gasp…technology.
Bond was being repositioned as a totally camp-free action hero who could compete in the box office with a new breed of serious, gruff action heroes like Christian Bale’s Batman. Even the title sequence forgoes silhouetted ladies twirling their arms in favour of guns, cards, knives, violence and yet more guns.
Mission was most certainly accomplished and there is a thrilling rush to be enjoyed here, that can on other listenings irritate with its self-conscious ruggedness.
Musically incoherent, Another Way To Die is a messy patchwork of clashing riffs, unnecessary modulation and spurious wailing, with a total lack of vocal chemistry between its duettists.
For whatever reasons, writer Jack White abandoned his considerable talent for paring music down to the bone, and for his Bond theme opts for a rococo confection that seems to be competing with Live And Let Die’s similarly grandiose and complex approach. While you can accept that it might just about have looked like a good idea on paper, the final execution was so confused that it’s a miracle it didn’t get binned in favour of another song.
It leaves you wondering whether simply finding a rhyme for Quantum Of Solace (um…Boris?) and getting Dame Shirley in to save the day might not have been a better idea after all.
‘If Chris Cornell’s entry was off-putting in its cartoonish machismo, this swings the pendulum too far the other way, suggesting erectile dysfunction more than vital action hero’
Adele – Skyfall (2012)
Again, another dreadful theme required another reset, although with Adele, the producers went more for ‘solid’ than inspired. With a big voice, big reputation and undoubted songwriting talent, choosing Adele was putting Skyfall into safe hands and, for most listeners, clearly hits the right notes. Yet, while it possesses enough drama, it isn’t the most thrilling theme, and isn’t going to send shivers of tense delight down many spines.
Also, when she sings “let it cwumble”, surely we’re not alone in thinking of English Sunday afternoon desserts.
Sam Smith – The Writing’s On The Wall (Spectre, 2015)
And so to the current entry and the unfortunate musical concept of SadBond. Smith is simply the wrong man for the job and, by his rather defensive comments about how his involvement brings a ‘vulnerable’ side to Bond, he seems to know it too.
The truth is that The Writing’s On The Wall is a bit of a tease, offering bouquets of icy strings that promise exquisite drama, but then following them up with Smith’s trademark blubbing. If Chris Cornell’s entry was off-putting in its cartoonish machismo, this swings the pendulum too far the other way, suggesting erectile dysfunction more than vital action hero. Whatever you think about James Bond, and Daniel Craig’s observations last week that he is a misogynist are pretty spot on, the last thing you want him to be is mawkish.
As the current biggest male singer on the market, the choice of Sam Smith might have created the maximum publicity for the film, but it’s yet another indelible black mark on the history of the Bond theme. A sad irony that the only Bond theme to ever hit Number 1 should turn out to be so ineffectual.
To conclude, let’s talk about Bond 25: a huge milestone for the series and a very important anniversary – probably the biggest one it will ever have. We can expect Bond theme 25 to be equally momentous, and the singer picked more carefully than a Windsor bride. So to whom should this precious gift be handed (which could turn out to be a white elephant, given that no risk-taking is likely to be allowed)?
One more spin on the carousel for Shirley Bassey would be a popular choice for Bond fans, though it won’t of course happen now because of her age. Adele might also be allowed back to consolidate her position of the Shirley Bassey of her time – that one’s a bit more likely. Other frequently cited contenders like Muse, Lana Del Rey and Lorde are possible, but probably would have been chosen by now if they were felt to be right. We’re probably heading back to America for the next theme, and Lady Gaga’s new credibility as a classic vocalist marks her out as a frontrunner if this is the case.
Of course, the next film will most likely be at least four years away, if Daniel Craig leaves the series as he is implying, and no amount of crystal balling will tell us whose careers will be ripe for selection by that point. But as a final gambit, consider Norwegian Susanne Sundfør, whose electro-emotional car crashes from this year’s Ten Love Songs album saw her graduating into exactly the kind of witchy diva that we might be looking for to big up Bond in 2019/20. Ok, she might need to get a few hits first, but on the basis of this year’s work, nobody’s going to accuse her of not having the range.
Spectre is on general release in cinemas now. Sam Smith’s theme song is also out now.