AS HEARD ON NPR'S "ALL THINGS CONSIDERED"
With "Quantum of Solace" opening this weekend, this is a timely opportunity to evaluate all the James Bond theme songs from best to worst.
Performing the title song to a James Bond movie used to be a musician's badge of honor, and many of them became hits. However, starting with the film "License to Kill" in 1989, not only did the hits dry up, the songs almost uniformly stunk. Yes, the opening credit visuals that accompanied them were still stunning and the movies they went with were almost always excellent. But that musical badge of honor didn't mean anything if they didn't deliver the goods.
The James Bond franchise is very special, but certainly one of the main contributing elements has been the music. Never has there ever been such a long series of films so closely aligned with the style and output of one composer, the brilliant John Barry. The producers lucked out with the English jazz trumpeter and orchestrator, who had such an individual style, emphasizing big brass stabs, swinging jazzy chops, and a penchant for blending major and minor chords for stark effect over three decades.
Most of Barry's theme songs (which he co-wrote with different lyricists) were either big sassy numbers like "Goldfinger" and "Thunderball" that became stylistically dated as the 70's rolled on, or straight-ahead pop ballads like "You Only Live Twice" and "We Have All The Time In The World." He collaborated with rock artists on two theme songs, imparting his signature brass hits on "A View To A Kill" and "The Living Daylights," although the Pretenders did two very cool numbers on the latter soundtrack, which flew under everybody's radar. Three of Barry's theme songs were sung by histrionic Welsh belter Shirley Bassey: "Goldfinger," "Diamonds Are Forever" and "Moonraker." Most Bond title songs have never "rocked."
Barry pioneered the use of signature themes in all his Bond scores, long before John Williams did the same for all the Star Wars and Indiana Jones flicks. The surf guitar of "The James Bond Theme" is as instantly recognizable as the Coke logo. That minor chord pattern in the same theme was dipped into a number of his future scores and songs, and ripped off blatantly for the guitar lick in Johnny Rivers' "Secret Agent Man."
Three times during the Sean Connery/Roger Moore/Timothy Dalton era, the Bond assignment went to different composers and two of those title songs were smashes too. Famous producer George Martin scored "Live and Let Die" so it was inevitable that Paul McCartney did those opening honors, while Bill Conti (best known for the "Rocky" theme) did "For Your Eyes Only." When they hired 80's hitmakers Narada Michael Walden, Jeffrey Cohen and Walter Afanasieff for the "License To Kill" theme song, it understandably bombed along with its pedestrian Michael Kamen score, beginning a still-standing dearth of title song hits.
What makes a good James Bond song, as opposed to just any other song? It has to be seductive, with the sort of "spy"-type arrangements and chords that acid jazz musicians have appreciated for years. Some bombast falling just short of annoying. Lyrically containing those existential "live" and "die" themes that preoccupy the movie titles themselves. Honoring the John Barry tradition of jazzy horn stabs would be admirable.
I've heard the Alicia Keys/Jack White duet "Another Way To Die" from the new film. It has a few of the Bond song trademarks -- darting horns, deep mysterious piano notes, and the word "die" in the title. However, there's a lot of semi-rapping and shouting, not much melody at all, and it takes over 40 seconds to get started. I'll take a pass on this one, unfortunately.
People are always arguing over and listing their favorite James Bond movie, actors, villains and stunts. But I don't recall a ranking of those nearly two dozen theme songs, so here's my totally opinionated evaluation, from worst to best, with links to each title sequence.
20. "Die Another Day" performed by Madonna: A plum assignment handed to the globally famous musical chameleon and she blew it big time. Released the year before her inferior "American Life" album, Madonna foresakes the memorable dance beats of her "Ray of Light" hit for jagged samples and a forgotten thrown together mess. So much for banking on what the producers were hoping would be a sure thing. Totally ridiculous S&M inquisition video too.
19. "License To Kill" performed by Gladys Knight: Sampling the horn hook from "Goldfinger" (and paying the original composers the royalties too), the songwriting team behind 80's Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Aretha Franklin and Starship hits forces poor Motown great Glady Knight to grumble in a low register and spend a lot of time groaning "Uh-huh" and "license to kill!"
18. "The Man With The Golden Gun" performed by Lulu: The corniest title song ever composed by John Barry matched this equally silly film. Sample awful lyric: "His eye may be on you or me/Who will he bang?/We shall see!" Somebody dragged obscure English 60's pop sonstress Lulu out of the mothballs in 1974 to sing this one. Not worthy of John Barry stature by any means. The Alice Cooper song of the same name was far better.
17. "The World Is Not Enough" performed by Garbage: Current Bond score composer David Arnold has yet to create a good title song to this day. Trying to turn Garbage lead singer Shirley Manson into a chantreuse was a huge mistake and this sounds nothing like the crunchy grungy rock of Garbage. This is a very ordinary song, far from the standards of what a Bond title tune should be.
16. "Tomorrow Never Dies" performed by Sheryl Crow: One would have hoped this could have been a rocking Bond theme song with Crow in place, much like what I anticipated from Garbage. Instead, Crow rolls out an unmelodic swaying ballad which just comes and goes with no notice, much like "The World Is Not Enough."
15. "Moonraker" performed by Shirley Bassey: Coming on the heels of Carly Simon's enormous 70's contemporary pop hit of "Nobody Does It Better," pulling Bassey out for one last glitzy over the top rendition felt like the franchise took one step backwards. While the song was bonafide John Barry, with those delicately placed strings and his trademark major-minor chord transitions, it was not one of his best and too Las Vegas-y to make it up the charts.
14. "You Know My Name" performed by Chris Cornell: Finally getting close to the mark, new Bond score composer David Arnold joined forces with great rock baritone Cornell for something that sounds, well, James Bond-ish. Charging distorted guitars, rising strings, a pounding sense of desperation, and a real rock song melody. Appropriate that it appears in the film series' recent return to old school form.
13. "For Your Eyes Only" performed by Sheena Easton: Notable for being the only Bond title song where the artist actually appeared in the opening credits, "For Your Eyes Only" was a nice smooth pop ballad with a good hook and a babe on the vocals. Very synthetic and perfect production values.
12. "Goldeneye" performed by Tina Turner: Many surprises here. Turner was made for singing a Bond title song and it's a revelation that it took until 17 movies for somebody to come up with that idea. Give all the credit to writers U2's Bono and The Edge, along with urban producer Nellee Hooper, who created all the earmarks of danger and mystery: finger snaps, a bursting brass riff, a choppy rimshot-driven drum loop, and low pizaccato strings evolving to the romantic undertones that had been missing for so long.
11. "All Time High" performed by Rita Coolidge: Thankfully not using the title "Octopussy" anywhere in it, Barry swung for the adult contemporary radio format fences and got himself a huge hit. You know it's Barry by the giveaway string arrangements. This was Coolidge's last chart-topper, as it came at the end of a run of successful soft rock covers ("We're All Alone" and "Higher and Higher").
10. "Diamonds Are Forever" performed by Shirley Bassey: For Sean Connery's last Bond venture, Barry put a little more swing into Bassey's bellowing ("Diamonds are forever, forever, forever"), some blatant sexual innuendo ("Hold one up and then caress it/Touch it, stroke it and undress it"), a dose of guitar wah wah, and plenty of seductiveness.
9. "Live and Let Die" performed by Paul McCartney & Wings: A truly bizarre song for the Bond genre, employing McCartney's tried-and-true "three songs in one" gimmick (see: "Band On The Run," "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey"). The lyrics are utter nonsense, and there's much ado going on with big orchestra runs with chase scene riffs, with that dramatic unexpected minor chord ending.
8. "Nobody Does It Better" performed by Carly Simon: A perfect 70's hitmaking machine behind this huge pop hit -- composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Carole Bayer Sager, cranking out a fluffy concoction that transcended the Bond movie into a popular catch phrase of the era.
7. "From Russia With Love" performed by Matt Munro: There's something truly Rat Pack-ish about this song, as you can almost picture Sinatra belting this one out in a nightclub. With Lionel Bart's dashing playboy lyrics ("From Russia with love/I fly to you/Much wiser since my goodbye to you/I've travelled the world to learn/I must return/From Russia with love") and the Slavic tack piano effects, this was the series' "Strangers In The Night."
6. "A View To A Kill" performed by Duran Duran: This is the first Bond song that actually "rocked" and did it very successfully. The New Wave stars collaborated with Barry on a horn-hit filled 80's-styled danceable rock tune with those immortal words: "Dance into the fire/The fatal kiss is all we need!" Crunching heavily-compressed power guitar chords and funky little Strat licks, those immortal Bond minor chords simmering underneath, Duran Duran and Barry's joint venture still sounds well today, especially to 80's nostalgia fiends.
5. "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" performed by The John Barry Orchestra: The title theme of a movie full of "only's" -- the only film to star George Lazenby as James Bond, the only film directed by renowned editor Peter Hunt, and the only film to have an instrumental title sequence. If you thought the James Bond theme itself was wicked, this came in a very close second. Oozing cool, Barry's composition sounds like the best action chase music from the late 60's, building horns, changing keys, and a fuzzy harpsicord-sounding Moog synthesizer running down the twisting baseline.
4. "Thunderball" performed by Tom Jones: The Welsh singing god of the 60's rips his shirt open once more in this bombastic ode to the man who "runs while others walk." Surrounded by a maximum horn riff as beguiling as the one Barry created for "Goldfinger," I can always picture the silhouetted female scuba divers from this film's credit sequence. You've got to hand it to Mr. Jones when he used every ounce of air in his lungs when he explodes with that last "Thun-der-bal-l-l-l!"
3. "The Living Daylights" performed by a-ha: I have great love for this song which went nowhere in the US but of course was a huge European hit. The Norweigian synth pop group collaborated with Barry, like Duran Duran, and produced the sleeper of the whole bunch. As I wrote back on this blog in December 2007: "a truly compelling title song, with tricky key changes, wide open production, a veritable mix of dark Europop and John Barry snazz... Heavily treated electric guitars, hard acoustic guitar strums at emphatic parts, galloping drums with suddenly building snares, twinkling synths, a distorted sax solo, and the falsettos and harmonies of the group itself. John Barry comes in loud and clear with his trademark brassy blasts during the intro and the chorus. Listen for the in-time horseshoes when the song settles in about halfway through before that dirty sax solo."
2. "Goldfinger" performed by Shirley Bassey: The flagship Bond song -- huge, pompous, and mysterious. The blueprint for all future lyricists assigned to focus on a villian as their subject. Parodied and worshipped, Barry's masterwork came in the third Bond film, where he was allowed to step out for the score from beginning to end. Where did he come up those chords for the words "Goldfinger" -- an F major leading to a D flat? Hats off to lyricists Anthony Newley and Lesley Bricusse for coming up with the phrase that he had such a "cold finger." My God.
1. "You Only Live Twice" performed by Nancy Sinatra: This movie and song had a profound effect on me in 1967, as it was the first Bond film I saw in a theater, in this case, the Green Acres Theater in Valley Stream, Long Island. The combination of Sean Connery machine gunning around in that flying Little Nellie, bodies flying through the air from explosions inside the empty volcano crater, exotic Japanese women, and spaceships eating other spaceships was mesmerizing. But that song -- Nancy Sinatra's sexy voice mysteriously floating through the classic Barry melody, with those endless major/minor chord switches, the downward cascading strings, and the Asian influenced xylophone notes, accompanying the literal explosions of chrysanthemum color of the Maurice Binder-designed credits. I never get tired of this song and I knew I was justified when I heard Coldplay perform it live on the b-side of a CD single I bought in the UK several years ago.
Although these songs were not the "title" theme songs, they were prominently featured on the soundtracks and I consider them very worthy and prime additions to the Bond genre.
- "We Have All The Time In The World" performed by Louis Armstrong: The very last performance from the great jazz trumpeter, the song has great simplicity and poignancy that reflects the ironic jarring ending of "On Her Majesty's Secret Service." Armstrong enunciates every syllable delicately while Barry's swirling strings hit you right in the gut.
- "Where Has Everybody Gone?" and "If There Was A Man" performed by The Pretenders: These are two treats on soundtrack of "The Living Daylights," true collaborations between Chrissy Hynde and John Barry. The former is a snarling Bond-ish rocker with mocking open trumpets and switchblade guitar work, while the latter is one of the most beautiful ballads ever to appear in a 007 movie.