Thursday, November 13, 2008

Nobody Does It Better: The James Bond Theme Songs From Best to Worst


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.


Michael Kubin said...

What a great concept, and brilliantly executed.

Anonymous said...

Completely agree, the geek in me found some of the comments amusing...

A-Ha are a massively under appreciated band, with some groundbreaking work/videos behind them...

Sheena Easton.. Surely the first ever reality TV star/winner? thick glaswegian accent when she first broke into the big time, yet sings like an angel...

My request would be, who should do a Bond film that hasnt done one yet? ... Annie Lennox has the power to sing anything in my view

or, how about the killers?

Keep up the good work music geek guy ;)

Anonymous said...

Even James Bond could do with a little help from Mr. T. I mean, who couldn’t?

James Bond, Fast cars, Hot women, Evil bad guys, Martinis, and Mr. T…

Check this out:

Anonymous said...

What??!? No special mention for "Surrender" by kd Lang? It's superior in everyway to Sheryl Crow's effort at the beginning of the movie. It's rare that an end-credit song beats out the theme; case in point Eric Serra's sorry effort at the end of Goldeneye...

Anonymous said...

I agree. KD Lang's version of 'Tomorrow Never Dies' is right up there with 'Goldfinger'. I was always surprised that the producers put Sheryl Crow's version on the credits and left KD's for the end.

Makes you wonder how many Bond theme songs were recorded but never released.

I heard that "Thunderball" was originally supposed to be "Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" but the producers decided the title was not sufficiently manly. So they renamed it Thunderball and gave Barry an airline flight to the recording studio to come up with the music and lyrics. Tom Jones apparently asked "What the hell do these lyrics mean" and Barry answered "Who cares..."

Phil Marshall said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil Marshall said...

I think you nailed the list although I must admit to not being familiar with the Duran Duran entry. When I think of Bond themes, along with your top five, I'm always drawn to "We Have All the Time in the World" which is such an incredibly beautiful and humble song. Yes, it's juxtaposition at the end of the underrated On Her Majesty's Secret Service adds to its poignancy. Ultimately, though, it's Louis Armstrong's delivering of the lyric and his beautiful trumpet solo that make it soar for me.

Anonymous said...

Why no Dr. No?

Anonymous said...

THANK YOU for placing View To A Kill so high in your list!! As a rock-listener who grew up in the 80s I've always thought it was one of the best, but somehow it's always neglected when people talk about the great Bond songs! I'd put it in the top three or so, but I'll take your ranking.

And yes, you MUST amend the special notes at the bottom to include k.d. lang's "Surrender"

AtticusRex said...

anonymous said... Dr. No's theme was a two parter... first the actual Monty Norman version of the Bond Theme and then a segue into a Jamaican Calypso rendering of Three Blind Mice.

I also concur that the k.d. Lang and the two Pretender songs are great Bond songs. I also wish the producers would do whatever it takes to bring back John Barry for one more go. Even though the new guys working on the Brosnan and Craig movies have used the Bond theme they haven't used the 007 theme at all. I really didn't like the score for Solace but I did like what was done with the score for Royale.

AtticusRex said...

anonymous said... Dr. No's theme was a two parter... first the actual Monty Norman version of the Bond Theme and then a segue into a Jamaican Calypso rendering of Three Blind Mice.

I also concur that the k.d. Lang and the two Pretender songs are great Bond songs. I also wish the producers would do whatever it takes to bring back John Barry for one more go. Even though the new guys working on the Brosnan and Craig movies have used the Bond theme they haven't used the 007 theme at all. I really didn't like the score for Solace but I did like what was done with the score for Royale.

Anonymous said...

If you haven't heard Bjork's version of You Only Live Twice you need to. It's incredible.

Also, Radiohead's version of Nobody Does It Better is fantastic as well.

For some reason I'm sad that James Brown never did a Bond theme. That really would have been something!

Anonymous said...


I almost went off the road when I heard your interview on NPR this evening. I am happy that you are still pursuing you omnivorous interest in music.


Joel Solomon

plezguy said...

Listening to ATC in the car tonight: I pumped my arm and yelled "yessss" when i heard you list "You Only Live Twice" as the best Bond song. It's one of the three Bond themes that I think can stand alone. Your list is thoughtful and fun, and I'm remarkably in agreement with it except that I might knock "Live and Let Die" down a notch or two or swap it with "Goldeneye." Might be my anti-Moore-as-Bond bias showing, though. Good work on this, guy.

Reginald said...

We disagree on the order but I would rate the top ten Bond songs as:

Nobody Does it Better



Live and Let Die

License to Kill

For Your Eyes Only

The World is Not Enough


You Only Live Twice

Diamonds are Forever

Honorable mentions: If You Asked Me to (heard on the closing credits of "License to Kill," sung by Patti Labelle) and Rita Coolidge's "All Time High."

I really loathed A-ha and Duran Duran's contributions to the Bond musical mystigue.

Anonymous said...

I agree with many of the placements on the list, but was disappointed that "The World is Not Enough" was only at 17. I think it's a terrific jaunt with Garbage tapping into the Old Bond song themes with a touch of grunge.
Check out the video on youTube!

Anonymous said...

I find it really interesting that Duran Duran's View to a Kill is the only Bond theme song to rank #1 on the charts.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I just watched the Duran Duran video on MTV Music. It was better than I remembered. Love the killer accordian

Anonymous said...

I always though it was a funny coincidence that Blondie put a song called "For Your Eyes Only" on 'The Hunter' album. I really liked it better than the Sheena Easton song. I recently read that Blondie kind of misunderstood when Debbie Harry was asked to sing the existing song, not WRITE and record a song of their own. They declined.

Anonymous said...

Heard the NPR story on the way home, and from the very first part of the story, I thought to myself, "I'll bet they don't even mention what I think should be considered the best Bond song ever, 'You Only Live Twice.'" Wow, do I feel vindicated! When that song came out on a 45rpm, I went out and bought it and proceeded to wear the grooves out of the record. It was the perfect coming of age song for me. Now I have it on my iPod thankfully without all the pops, hiss, and noise, and it still remains a great song. Great list. From the selections I'm familiar with, I couldn't agree with you more. Thanks!

GJP said...

Heard the story on ATC the other day, that was fun. Listened to the songs a bit over the weekend. Have to say the ones that stick in my head most are Goldfinger, Live and Let Die, Nobody Does It Better, Goldeneye and A View To A Kill. I would have put The LIving Daylights in there too, but I had not heard it in a long time and sadly did not seem as good as I remembered. Taking your ranking and what sticks in my head I probably would put Goldfinger ahead of You Only Live Twice, which doesn't strike me nearly as much.

What I really noticed, though, is that I think I could make a least a little bit of an argument that there's a noticeable change each time a new actor played the role of Bond:

On Her Majesty's Secret Service: you get the cool instrumental. Then they go back to Bassey which has the same qualities as before.

Live and Let Die: I listened to all the songs in order one day, one right after the other. Even moreso when you get to this than the instrumental, you go "Whoa, that's a break from the others." I saw that as a positive. Parts of this song almost "rocked" and although they settled down a bit again after this, it did mark the transition with a bit of a bang.

The Living Daylights: You might want to rather mark the transition with A View To A Kill ;-) which rocked harder. It's a weak argument here, perhaps, what with there already being a huge difference between View To A Kill and All Time High. They sent Roger Moore in with a bang and out with a bang, at least song-wise.

Goldeneye: After License To Kill, yeah, this was a big break for the better. Has more impact if you combine it with the visuals of the credits (thanks for linking all of those, great to watch them) which are more modern with the new designer.

Casino Royale: After playing this again, I would give this song a bit more credit than you did. It's the heaviest one yet, strong and I think coming in order after Madonna's pathetic Die Another Day it represents a change again. It fits very well with the much harder-edged bond that Craig plays vs Brosnan. And man they were thrown a softball pitch with the credit graphics using the playing card theme, and they hit it out of the park. Clearly 40 years ago they couldn't have made an animation like that, so it's a bit unfair to compare, but the opening credits blows them all away, and Quantum of Solace is not as good in this regard either (in addition to the song).

Anonymous said...

Alice Cooper's "The Man With The Golden Gun" was WAAAAY better...

SlipOn said...

Does your cell phone have the best ringtone? Is your ringtones old? Ringtone boring? I will introduce you to the best quality ringtones to install on your mobile phone. Ringtones fun. Ringtones are attractive.
Top 5 ringtone of 2018:
You can refer and install by following Quality ringtones, latest ringtones in 2018. Ringtones are the trend of people around the world. Unique ringtone. Ringtones are attractive. Ringtones you want to change? Ringtones for all cell phones when you visit my homepage to get the best quality ringtones: