A new Bond film – Spectre – is imminent, set to be released on the 6th of November 2015. To say that I’m looking forward to it is a major understatement. Hopefully it can restore my faith in the series, after the let-down of the appalling Skyfall – a Bond film for non-Bond film fans.
To celebrate the 400th Rocks In The Attic blog post, here are the twenty four* previous Bond themes, ranked from worst to best.
(*Prior to Spectre, there are actually twenty three Bond films in the official series, but Dr. No doesn’t really have a theme song, other than Monty Norman’s original James Bond Theme, and that tune really belongs to all of the films. I’ve also included the themes to the two unofficial Bond films – the spoof Casino Royale from 1967, and 1983’s Never Say Never Again – because they’re well worth considering).
Die Another Day is not only hands-down the worst Bond film, it also has the honour of having the worst theme song. If there’s one person who needs to stay away from films, it’s Madonna. The producers even gave her a part in the film! Her filmography reads like a criminal record. Body Of Evidence? Who’s That Girl? Swept Away? If you haven’t seen these films, keep it that way. Die Another Day was released in the midst of her attempt to reinvent herself as a British person, all flat caps and tweed jackets. Ugh. Pass the sick bucket.
Carly Simon’s theme to The Spy Who Loved Me was such a hit in 1977 that the producers spent the early 1980s trying to replicate its success. This and the theme to the next film in the series, Octopussy, are some of the weakest Bond themes – all synths and dated atmospherics, about as far away as you can get from what a Bond theme should be. For Your Eyes loses more points for repurposing the title of the film into a cheesy double-entendre.
I guess when you’re faced with a title like Octopussy, you’re going to need to change the name of the song. Nobody wants to hear somebody crowbar the words ‘hussy’ and ‘fussy’ just so that they can rhyme them with ‘Octopussy’. Or do they…? I’m not too sure what that song would be about, perhaps something along the lines of Bond not being particularly choosy about his women: With girls, he was never fussy / He’d take them all, any hussy / But the one that really took his eye / No word of a lie / Was Octopussy.
Just as the early-‘80s was a fallow period for good Bond themes, so was the late-‘90s. There’s nothing particularly offensive about Tomorrow Never Dies or The World Is Not Enough, but there’s nothing great about them either. They both sound like they’ve been written by a computer program designed to write Bond themes: Start. Open file. Insert menacing three-note ascending motif. Run.
David Arnold might have hit his stride now, but back in the ‘90s he was really struggling. John Barry left a big pair of shoes to fill (size 007s probably), and subsequently Arnold’s first few soundtracks seem to crumble under the pressure. His choice of theme-tune artist is a little strange for this one too. Garbage were indie darlings back in 1995, but by 1999 they were an afterthought. A less than exciting second album didn’t help, and their Bond song was released long after the honeymoon was over.
Herb Alpert & The Marijuana Brass, more like. If you’ve never seen 1967’s Casino Royale, don’t bother. It’s a big, sloppy mess of a film. The music, however, is much better. Aside from Burt Bacharach’s The Look Of Love, performed by Dusty Springfield, you get this short, sharp slap of catchy ‘60s trumpet jazz. Although it’s one of the few highlights of the film, I’ve only rated it low down because it’s so far out of step with the rest of the theme songs.
Getting the singer from Soundgarden to do a Bond song – for 2006’s Casino Royale – sounds like a fantastic move. Just listen to a song like Jesus Christ Pose from 1991’s Badmotorfinger – the guy can wail. So on paper, it sounds great. But the more memorable Bond themes have something – a certain je ne sais quoi, usually in the form of a hook or a riff, or a catchy chorus. This has nothing of the sort. In fact, it’s so forgettable it’s almost a black hole (sun) in my knowledge of Bond themes.
Bono and the Edge wrote a fantastic film theme in 1995, just not for a Bond film. Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me was released as the theme to Joel Schumacher’s otherwise woeful Batman Forever. It’s everything a Bond theme should be – majestic, sweeping, cutting edge and quite simply, cool as fuck. Their other effort, for Goldeneye, performed by Tina Turner – no stranger to a film theme, herself – is the exact opposite. It’s cold, uninviting and the worst thing about a great film in the series.
John Barry’s final entry in the Bond soundtrack canon is one of his weakest. Buoyed by the success of working with a successful pop band – Duran Duran on A View To A Kill – he tried a second time with A-Ha, the Norwegian darlings of the moment. The song sounds very over-produced, and this is evident when listening to A-Ha’s preferred ‘cut back’ version, found on their album Stay On These Roads. This actually sounds like the A-Ha of Take On Me and The Sun Always Shines On T.V. and is a far better fit for a Bond film.
If you think Lulu’s Bond theme is bad you should listen to Alice Cooper’s rejected song for the film. A different song entirely, it’s an oddity that thankfully never saw the silver screen (it would beat Lulu’s version by appearing on Alice’s 1973 album, Muscle Of Love). I actually like the Lulu song – it’s high camp entirely fitting for a Roger Moore film. There’s one famous detractor though – its composer John Barry would later go on record to say that the song, and the score for the film, was the weakest of his many contributions to the series. “It’s the one I hate most… it just never happened for me.”
The most incestuous Bond theme (the producers of the song were sued over its familiarity to the Goldfinger theme), Licence To Kill is probably the last of the traditional Bond themes. From this point on, the themes went further down the pop route, shepherded by David Arnold. The baby boomers passing the baton to generation X, if you will. The studio where they recorded the theme to Licence To Kill was filled with bowls of seedless oranges – as the producers were confused by Gladys Knight’s ultimatum that she would only record the song without the pips.
Legend has it that Jones fainted at the end of the recording of this song, due to the long sustained note. Truth or myth, who knows? It is a beast of a note he holds, so it isn’t out of the realms of believability. In Thunderball, we have the very first example of the Bond theme trying to repeat a tried and tested formula. A year earlier, Shirley Bassey’s Goldfinger – also with a long sustained note at the climax of the song – had pointed to the way forward. From now on, brass was key (a brass key?) in the sound of Bond themes. With Thunderball, John Barry tried to repeat what he had achieved with Goldfinger – it just isn’t as good a song, with a confused approach to the film’s title (Don Black’s lyric personifies Thunderball, and presents it as a character in the film – a la Goldfinger – when in the film, it was just a codename for Bond’s mission – ‘Operation Thunderball’).
Shirley Bassey’s third and final Bond theme may be her weakest, but it’s still a lovely slice of film music. It does lose points for sounding a bit like something you would expect to hear on The Love Boat – strange considering that this film is the series’ only departure into science-fiction. You’d think that they might have tried to do something a bit harder with the theme song, but maybe it was just the strings of John Williams’ Star Wars score they liked.
At the time of writing, the artist for the theme to Spectre has not been announced, but it’s rumoured that Adele may be reprising her duties from Skyfall to sing her second theme. I couldn’t be happier about this. If there’s anybody who deserves a repeat performance, it’s Adele; she could be the Shirley Bassey of our times. She’s definitely got the lungs for it, and the classy, ballgown-wearing credentials.
That ominous orchestral sweep that opens this theme is one of the most threatening sounds committed to vinyl. It also sounds like the orchestra are walking backwards, into the main motif. It reminds the listener that despite the lush swings, this is still a Bond theme – even though when we hear this for the first time in the film, Bond has just been assassinated. OR HAS HE??? The theme is notable for being the first to be performed by a non-British artist, Nancy ‘daughter of Frank’ Sinatra. It’s also the little known fourth theme to be sung by Shirley Bassey, covered for her 2007 retrospective album, Get The Party Started (a full album of Bassey covering Bond themes had been earlier withdrawn from sale in the late ‘80s and again in the early ‘90s).
Probably the most overlooked Bond theme, Lani Hall’s contribution to the ‘unofficial Bond film’ of 1983 will never be included on Bond theme compilations, or used in any of EON’s promotional materials. What a shame, because it’s pretty good. If they shot a porn parody of Bond – and I’m sure that one, if not many, must exist already – it would probably sound like this. The thing about porn parodies of Bond films is that you wouldn’t need to change the titles too much – Goldfinger speaks for itself, as does Thunderball and The Man With The Golden Gun. More specific, niche tastes would be covered by Moonraker, Dr. No and, ahem, Goldeneye.
The theme to Diamonds Are Forever needed to be something special. It marked the first time a Bond singer had returned for a repeat performance – something nobody else has managed to do, except Bassey herself for a third and final time in 1979. Bassey’s second effort is everything a Bond theme should be – sexy, dangerous and with a universal appeal. Diamonds Are Forever also holds the title for being the funkiest Bond song, with a slinky bass line that Bootsy Collins would be proud of.
The first Bond theme for a long time that actually sounded like it was doing something different, this effort from 2008’s Quantum Of Solace sounds like a bad idea. Professional enigma and vintage enthusiast Jack White sharing vocals with Alicia Keys – the product of a performing arts education? This doesn’t bode well. Instead, it’s a delightful slice of alternative rock with Bondian overtones. Jack White is welcome back in the house of Bond anytime.
Those were the days, when a spy thriller at the movies just had to a have a syrupy love song on the soundtrack; something for the ladies to enjoy while the men pondered over the plot details and wondered if there was ever a chance for the popcorn trick (made famous in the 1982 film Diner) to actually work. From Russia With Love, by “England’s Sinatra”, Matt Munro, gets a free pass in my book. It’s the first Bond theme proper, and therefore has nothing to compete with. It could have been slush, but it’s magical.
Waaap – waaaaaaap –waaap! If this isn’t the brassiest song in the world, I’m not sure what is. Everything about this song screams Bond, and it’s difficult to imagine the song being performed by anybody else other than Shirley Bassey. One of the inspirations was Mack The Knife, so it could have been a Sinatra-type crooner belting out something smoother than Bassey’s abrasive rasp. Jimmy Page played on the session, which gives the song an extra bit of credibility, and although it feels like everybody loves the song, the film’s co-producer Harry Saltzman tried to remove it from the film, saying ‘”That’s the worst f**king song I’ve ever heard in my f**king life”. Not a fan then.
Growing up in the 1980s, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Bond themes were the mainstay of middle of the road songstresses – all breathy vocals and atmospheric production. Then 1985 came along, and we suddenly got the most exciting Bond theme since Live And Let Die. Roger Moore might be close to claiming his pension in A View To A Kill, but the theme song more than makes up for it. It could have been far, far worse – let’s all feel thankful that Grace Jones didn’t sing the title song. Just don’t ask Simon Le Bon to sing A View To A Kill in front of a billion people – at Live Aid, he sounded almost prepubescent as he reached for a high note in the chorus (at 2:54 here).
Perhaps the quintessential Bond film of the 1970s – it was to that decade what Goldfinger was to the 1960s – Nobody Does It Better marks the first time that the name of the film wasn’t the name of the theme (although ‘The spy who loved me’ is crowbarred into the lyrics at one point). This is a beautiful song, with a lovely piano introduction by composer Marvin Hamlisch – and what a great way to segue into the credits sequence: Bond, looking like a plastic banana, skis off the end of a mountain and deploys a Union flag parachute. And then, as Alan Partridge would say, “Glang…glangalangalangalangalangalang…glangalang…”
Propose a Bond theme without a vocal these days, and I’d run a mile, but John Barry gets away with this purely because it’s such an awesome melody. This is the epitome of cool – George Lazenby skiing down a mountain in 1969, to this ominous instrumental. It even sounds a bit futuristic, with a Moog synth part laying down the driving bass line. The only reason this theme doesn’t top the list is that the first few seconds of synth do sound a bit like the beginning to The Teddy Bear’s Picnic. This is thankfully not as obvious in the Propellerheads’ balls-out awesome 1997 cover.
When I saw Paul McCartney play Glastonbury in 2004, I momentarily forgot about the existence of the Live And Let Die theme song – a travesty, considering what a huge Bond fan I am, but excusable for the fact that I was in full Beatles mode, watching a Beatle performing Beatles songs. Then, mid-set, he launched into the piano intro to Live And Let Die and I nearly vomited from my ears in excitement. McCartney’s song tops the list because it has everything – it’s a ballad, it’s a rocker, it even has a reggae section to reflect the film’s West Indian setting. Produced by George Martin, it also has the added value of being linked to that Beatles universe that had only just come to an end a couple of years earlier. It’s a common phenomenon for musos to distance themselves from McCartney’s post-Beatles output, but no matter what you think of Ebony And Ivory or The Pipes Of Peace, you can’t take Live And Let Die from him – the best Bond theme there ever was.
I always wonder if the would-be suitors of Honor Blackman got mixed messages when her father told them to do the honourable thing. Bad jokes aside, there are plenty of musical honourable mentions in the Bond universe. In one of the series’ rare references to pop culture, Bond even mentions the Beatles at one point, just before he’s attacked by Oddjob in Jill Masterson’s hotel room in 1964’s Goldfinger. So, in no particular order (and in no way an exhaustive list):
The series wouldn’t be what it is without this short piece of twangy guitar, written by Monty Norman and performed by session guitarist Vic Flick. It’s John Barry’s arrangement that makes it though – while Norman wrote the melody of the main guitar riff, it was Barry who supplied the countermelodies from the orchestra that really make it all work. To make an analogy, Norman’s Bond theme melody might be a fine pair of shoes, but Barry tailored the rest of the suit. Many years of court cases have contested who the true composer is – legally, it’s Monty Norman – but I see it as a collaboration in which John Barry’s contributions have been sorely overlooked.
I wrote earlier that Dr. No doesn’t really have a theme tune – except the Bond theme itself – but that’s actually not entirely true. Halfway through the opening credits, we get a blast of Kingston Calypso by Eric Rodgers – a calypso version of Three Blind Mice, in reference to the murder we’ve just seen on screen. History has covered this up – but what a great quiz question: which nursery rhyme is used on the opening credits to the first James Bond film?
– Maurice Binder (1925-1991)
The on-screen visuals are a major component to the opening credits of the James Bond films and serve as a fantastic accompaniment to the music. Maurice Binder designed these title sequences from the very start, with Dr. No in 1962, to Licence To Kill in 1989 (missing only From Russia With Love and Goldfinger, which were designed by Robert Brownjohn). Binder also designed the famous gun barrel sequence – probably the single-most iconic visual of the Bond series, and one of the most identifiable images in film history. To young boys eager for a glimpse of side-boob or the silhouetted nipple of a girl cart-wheeling off a gun barrel, Maurice Binder was the man. Legend.
John Barry might have missed out on the credit for The James Bond Theme, but 007 (sometimes known as The 007 Theme) is undoubtedly his own composition. Written for the gypsy camp scene in From Russia With Love, the song has soundtracked many sequences in the Bond series – an underwater fight in Thunderball, the ‘Little Nellie’ helicopter chase in You Only Live Twice, the destruction of Blofeld’s oil-rig in Diamonds Are Forever, and the Amazon river chase in Moonraker.
Originally the main title theme to Thunderball, the extremely Bondian Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was recorded first by Shirley Bassey, then Dionne Warwick, before the producers demanded a theme song with the film’s name in the title. John Barry and Don Black then rushed another composition under a tight deadline, hence the existence of the Tom Jones song. Johnny Cash also composed a song intended to be used as the film’s main theme, but let’s all be glad the Bond producers had better ideas.
The unwatchable Casino Royale from 1967 has the honour of two themes – Herb Alpert’s titular instrumental, and also this easy-listening gem from the piano of Burt Bacharach. Dusty’s voice is so stark, it sounds like it’s going to shatter at any second. It’s sometimes hard to believe that a film project that produced such a terrible piece of celluloid also resulted in such a strong soundtrack, with this as its centrepiece – a terrific single from the summer of love.
For On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the Bond producers, Cubby Broccoli and Albert Saltzman, decided to borrow an idea from the ‘unofficial’ Casino Royale, released two years earlier – both films have an instrumental main title theme, and then a syrupy ballad as a secondary main theme. Reportedly the last studio recording by Armstrong before his death in 1971 (he was too sick to play his noticeably absent trumpet), this is undoubtedly one of the loveliest songs in the Bond canon.
– Adam & Joe’s Song Wars
Adam Buxton and Joe Cornish are broadcasters in the UK, famous for their very funny, esoteric TV show for Channel Four, and later their radio show for the BBC. Cornish has gone on to bigger things in recent years, co-writing the script for Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn, and directing his debut feature, Attack The Block (both in 2011). Before that though, one of the highlights of their radio show was the Song Wars segment. Every fortnight, they would set themselves a task whereby they would pick a theme, then compose and record a song related to that theme by the following week’s show. Their two alternative theme songs for Quantum Of Solace – both Adam’s version and Joe’s version – are essential listening for any Bond fan with a sense of humour.
Everything about this homage to John Barry is freakin’ awesome – from the rotating motif that opens the song, lifted off the From Russia With Love soundtrack, to the space march interlude from You Only Live Twice – and everything between. This couldn’t be any more ‘90s big-beat / break-beat if it tried, but it still sounds fresh. That bass line gets me every time – and the counterpoint this goes to in the second section of the main orchestral riff just takes the song somewhere else.
If there’s one thing that the Propellerheads’ cover proves, it’s that the musical future of the Bond franchise (I hate that word) is safe and well. We might get the occasional dodgy theme song – the series wouldn’t be the same without them – but there’ll always be artists who love the Bond films, ready and willing to take that ascending three note structure into uncharted territory.
To finish off, here’s a photograph that took me a very, very long time to put together. I have been collecting the Bond soundtracks on vinyl every since I started collecting vinyl in the late 1990s, and decided earlier this year to ramp up my search to find them all. These are all the Bond soundtracks that have been commercially released on vinyl – there’s a gap of six films, the four Brosnan films and the first two Craig films which didn’t see a vinyl release. The treasure of this collection is the soundtrack to 1983’s Never Say Never Again – only pressed on vinyl in Japan for some strange reason, and a welcome delivery from the Hyōgo Prefecture.