For almost 60 years on the silver screen, James Bond 007, the rakish often brutal British secret agent, has been jetting from one exotic port of call to another, bedding women and besting bad guys in the name of queen and country. A hero to many, an anachronism to others, but as the song said, nobody but nobody does it better.
Music has been an integral part of this most enduring of film franchises. Whether you love or hate the remarkably varying quality of the films in the series, it’s hard to deny that a James Bond theme tune is a bit of an institution in its own right, attracting fevered speculation and even betting on who will be the next artist added to the fold.
With that uncannily ability to command public attention Bond themes have attracted an enviable hit list of big names as writers and performers. And while there is a sound formula to much of the catalogue — rousing strings, sharp trumpets and that iconic signature guitar riff, many of the memorable additions have brought their own rules to the table, such as Duran Duran, Chris Cornell and Madonna to name but a few.
The Bond franchise is unique for the way it mingles a specific, idiomatic orchestral aesthetic with singers whose styles span the musical spectrum. In certain cases, the everlasting appeal of Bond themes can even outstrip the mass popularity of the movies they’re attached to. Tiffany case in point: I guess Diamonds’ll Die Another Day, hey.
So revered is the Bond musical legacy that it has become an honour — and a challenge — to be asked to sing a Bond song. Consequently, few people have point blank turned down the chance: Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Kate Bush, David Bowie, Eurythmics and The Rolling Stones were the biggest box office to say Oh Oh No, but well, their careers didn’t exactly suffer.
A hell of a lot more great artists have had their potential themes rejected. The standard practice of Eon, the owners of the 007 film series, is to invite submissions competition style from a wide range of artists and then narrow it down to the winning entry not long before the general release. That obviously creates quite a list of rejected themes and bruised egos, most recently Ed Sheeran and Radiohead, but the list is infinite: from Johnny Cash to Jamiroquai, Marc Almond to Muse, Pulp to Pet Shop Boys, The Cardigans to Eric Clapton, these are just a few of the not inconsiderable names that were expecting to have the song job in the briefcase.
And bugger, personally it’s still a matter of regret mixed with incredulousness that Blondie missed out on For Your Eyes Only, especially when they were pretty much the biggest band in the world at that point, having scored the biggest selling single of 1980 in the US with Call Me, the theme to American Gigolo. Still, when — shock, horror — even a certain Miss Bassey had one or two tunes knocked back you know that anything is possible in Bondland.
Whenever a new 007 film is on the way, out come the double oh predictable polls with terribly exciting names like The Ultimate Bond Theme and The Nation’s Favourite Bond Theme and so on. The trouble is, aside from the age-old arguments over whether Sheena’s better than Shirley and is Crow worse than Monro, these lists usually overlook that smaller band of lesser known but often superior Bond tunes: the secondary songs that play out over the end titles as half the cinema make for the exit.
My tenacious tot-up counter has identified a total of 30 different compositions across the opening and closing credits sequences of the Bond films, the officially released internationally recognised ones at least. The criteria is simple, the main theme is the one that, starting with Goldfinger, plays as over the opening titles (the ones usually accompanied by lots of shadowy figures and, in the olden days, dancing girls and smoking guns. The end title theme is the one that plays immediately after the story has come to its conclusion.
So, which tunes are classics and which ones need their 00 status revoked? With the title theme to No Time To Die currently sitting atop the British singles charts and the movie’s ever shifting release looming hesitantly on the horizon, let’s look back at seven decades of Bond songs, counting down from worst to best. And no, Beatle boys, Live And Let Die isn’t No.1.
30. The Experience Of Love (Éric Serra, 1995)
After the series’ six and a half year hiatus (still the longest, though Daniel Craig’s era seems intent on coming close), Pierce Brosnan took over the role of the “sexist, misogynist dinosaur” for GoldenEye while looking impossibly pretty and quite the fitty. Go figure. It’s Brosnan’s best Bond by far, but his last words — “what could possibly go wrong?” are kind of ironic seeing as this cure for insomnia plays out over the end titles. French composer Éric Serra scored the film to almost nobody’s taste, with typically Gallic non-charm stating that he didn’t want to be influenced by “the old James Bond”.
Serra also sung this — the closing “love” theme — based on a short cue he’d originally written for Luc Besson‘s Léon one year earlier. It’s more appropriate for a ride on an elevator than a ride on a roller coaster and if you hadn’t already left your seat you’d be asleep by the time the immortal words “James Bond Will Return” roll up on the screen.
29. Writing’s On The Wall (Sam Smith, 2015)
Well, after so many years of trying it was pretty Major Boothroyd that a Bond theme finally made it to No.1 in 007’s homeland and that someone from the LGBT world had finally bagged the title song role. Eon had certainly come a long way from ’69, and some holy unorthodox testing of the briefest of Bonds, Aussie model George Lazenby, to make sure he wasn’t gay, that’s for sure. But why did it have to be Sam Smith? Like almost all of his edgeless aural crimes, Smith’s snoozer for Spectre is grey, damp and as dull as dishwater. It’s wet yet there’s very little Fairy liquid to help colour the proceedings.
Written with Jimmy Napes, Writing’s On The Wall harks back to the classic Bond soundworld and instrumental arsenal of curving, diving strings and angular chord progressions. The melody is elementary, at times floating by on resonant piano notes and the faintest brush stroke of orchestra. Boldly, there is no percussion at all (save for the odd cymbal crescendo), but the flipside of that boldness is just how exposed it leaves Smith’s vocals, with all the focus on his flaccid falsetto, sung at a pitch seldom heard in the franchise except for sex scenes and shark mutilations.
There is, somewhere in this painfully slow song, a mushroom cloud of emotion dying to escape, but the composition doesn’t allow it to emerge. Quite simply, the singer lacks the gravitas to pull off anything remotely epic. The whole thing is so damp it sounds like Sam’s going to wet the bed at any minute. Despite its lifeless ponderosa, it went on to notch both the Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Original Song, but the chances of it joining the pantheon of Bond themes that anyone with even a passing interest in pop music can hum are even slimmer than Smith himself these days. Indeed, the “mixed” reception to the song led to Shirley Bassey trending on Twitter the day it was released, with people assuming she’d died. Talking of deathless…
28. Another Way To Die (Jack White & Alicia Keys, 2008)
On paper, the series’ first two-for-one duet sounded too good to be true: Alicia Keys lacing some stripy swagger over Jack White’s signature fuzzed out guitar — what could go wrong? Less a duet than the sound of two people singing vaguely similar songs (one garage rock, one R&B) at the same time, Another Way To Die may not share a title of the film to which it’s attached (you try finding a good rhyme for Quantum Of Solace), but it was just as disappointing.
These uneasy fusions rarely work. Like Olga Kurylenko and Daniel Craig in this movie, there’s zero chemistry between White and Keys, and their wonkily recorded voices fit together like 007 and celibacy. The track quickly devolves into a screechy high-speed chase of runaway harmonies and crunchy staccato horn blasts. Like the master plans of the franchise’s many nemeses, the idea here was strong — it was in the messy execution where things went up in flames. Still, the not so dynamic duo’s music video was nominated for a Grammy.
27. If You Asked Me To (Patti LaBelle, 1989)
This song’s title refers to dialogue from Licence To Kill and plays out over the film’s end credits. Peaking at number 79 on the US Billboard Hot 100, it wasn’t the ideal way to say goodbye to Bond before the fall of the Berlin Wall, a new decade and a long hiatus, though a gifted vocalist Patti LaBelle certainly is.
Written by Diane Warren, it screams big haired Eighties power ballad, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. Talking of screaming, Patti gives a trademark soaring vocal that only goes into dangerous histrionics in the last minute, anticipating a plethora of tedious oversingers that commandeered the ‘90s. And as if by magic, three years later Celine Dion covered it, taking it to No.4 in the States and the top spot in her native Canada, making it almost as popular as poutine but a lot less tasty.
Incidentally, if you think the promo video features some surprising emotional imagery, it was filmed the day after the funeral of Patti’s younger sister. As such, the context of the song changed dramatically, as a mourning LaBelle, dressed in black, sings the song in a church with candles and mourning lilies, intercut with shots of her in tears.
26. All Time High (Rita Coolidge, 1983)
It’s hard to take this song seriously when the opening sounds of ‘70s sexy saxophone and porn movie-grade bass thumps make listeners snicker. But that’s as climactic as it gets. Coming on the back of huge and slushy hit film themes like Endless Love and Up Where We Belong, this knock-off sports equally deathly dull lyrics by Tim Rice — penned where he thought the chosen vocalist might be Mari Wilson or Laura Brannigan — but, ultimately, the theme song for Roger Moore’s penultimate movie was always going to have one job and one job only: distract viewers from the fact that they’re about to watch a film called Octopussy. By those standards, I suppose you could regard All Time High as something of a success. But shorn of any hint of obvious innuendo the song is limper than a lettuce from 1977, which is when the brilliantly bland Rita Coolidge last hit the charts.
Not so lovely Rita dials it back to almost Karen Carpenter levels of plainness, but John Barry’s smooth jazz arrangement is, unusually, the weakest link: aside from some neat countermelodies to Coolidge’s chorus vocals, one doesn’t get the impression he spent an awfully long time knocking this one together. It sounds less like a Bond song and more like the theme to a Moonlighting spinoff.
I suppose the kindest thing you could say is that this iffy ditty just sort of sits there, knowing full well that it would be a lot more awkward to watch guns ejaculate silhouettes of women in silence. One notable fact is that All Time High was the first Bond theme that came with its own promotional video, which consisted of footage of Coolidge – shot in Vaselined soft focus – singing in an apparent Indian palace but was in fact the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, which presumably made sourcing the Vaseline a little easier.
25. The Man With The Golden Gun (Lulu, 1974)
And if you wanted out and out smut then you’ve come to the right place. The crummy kitsch of The Man With The Golden Gun served as perverse proof that 007 was here to stay — because if this laughable ode to Roger Moore’s penis couldn’t kill the spy series, nothing can.
Chosen over an equally awful offering from Alice Cooper with backing vocals from Liza Minnelli (she’s the daughter of Judy Garland, if you weren’t sure), Lulu is a fine and capable singer (her previous single, The Man Who Sold The World, had been written and produced by David Bowie), but she suffers from the same malaise as the Bond franchise itself in the mid Seventies, namely that it was starting to feel passé, maybe even a bit silly.
As such, the Boom Bang-a-Banger is forced to ham her way through material which, although spirited, is only really an impression of great Bond songs of the previous decade. Her shrill cat lady vocals snake a porno guitar riff through a jagged atonal horn section that’s doing everything in its power to distract from the words. Get up veteran tunesmith Don Black. “His eye may be on you or me/Who will he bang?/We shall see/Oh yeah!” Yes, those lyrics are real. You can even Google them.
“I thought – try and write provocative, sensual lyrics. They were a bit on the nose. It’s a piece of delicious nonsense – cartoon hokum!” – Don Black
“I felt it was really more of a Shirley Bassey song, but I also felt I did a really bad impression of Shirley. She would have probably done it much better than me. But, I was excited. It was an honour.” – Lulu
The soundtrack’s celebrated composer John Barry considered the theme tune – the only Bond film title track not to chart as a single in either the UK or US – to be among the weakest of the series: “It’s the least interesting Bond song. It’s the one I hate the most. It’s the one thing I think was really bad.” Even his successor David Arnold found it hard to get anyone to tackle it for his Shaken And Stirred covers project in 1997, telling an interviewer, “I wanted The Human League to do it, but I think Phil Oakey thought me wanting him to sing “He has a powerful weapon” was taking the piss.”
24. Tomorrow Never Dies (Sheryl Crow, 1997)
Despite the Bondian twangy guitar in the chorus, not even Sheryl Crow’s best Gwen Stefani impression can save this whiny, forgettable cut, which was chosen over offerings from the likes of Saint Etienne and something you’ll read about much later on. In fact, the singer’s contribution to the spy series is notable only for how it underscores the fact that most Bond themes — notably the ones performed by women — are sung from the perspective of a neglected lover, dolled up and desperately waiting by the door for 007 to come home.
The American country-pop queen wrote the song without seeing a rough cut of the movie and it shows. Her first words here are especially pitiable: “Darling/I’m killed/I’m in a puddle on the floor/Waiting for you to return.” And return James Bond always does, but never to the same girl. Crow scored a big hit in Britain, but in the US the tune ended up as one of the unlucky nominees to go up against Celine Dion’s tawdry Titanic theme at both the Grammys and the Golden Globes. Props for getting a Martini into the lyrics though.
23. You Know My Name (Chris Cornell, 2006)
After a four-year hiatus for re-tooling, 007 returned all guns blazing in a big way with Casino Royale, a marvellous “Bond Begins” film that unfortunately popularised the term “reboot.” As part of the new improved Daniel Craig era, the series producers were looking for a strong male vocalist — something gritty, tough, and completely different from past Bonds.
Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell was impressed by the emotional and character-driven content, and he worked with the film’s composer, David Arnold, on an edgy ballad about the character’s uncertainty and inexperience, but he still wanted to capitalise on the legacy. So that’s why you’ve got the combination of grungy guitars and classic Barry-like brass section playing under Cornell’s raw fire and four octave vocal range.
You Know My Name is as muscular and wounded as Daniel Craig’s more human iteration of the legendary spy, but this admirable effort just doesn’t quite evoke the sinister spirit of the solid secret agent, causing it to sound a little too processed and contained. Nevertheless, no one did slow burn like Cornell, and he achieved that here, its grounded earthiness a welcome antidote to preposterous ideas like sending Bond into outer space.
22. Moonraker (Shirley Bassey, 1979)
There are no two ways about it: Shirley Bassey is the voice of the Bond themes, and even her weakest contribution ranks among the series’ most memorable tracks. Stepping in for a frustrated Johnny Mathis mere weeks before the film was due for release, the Cardiff chanteuse reminded the world that she was one of the only Earthlings who could croon a nonsense word like moonraker and make it sound downright glorious, while marking an unprecedented third time singing a Bond theme.
Listen, you try taking a mess of typically distressed MI5 man to the rescue lyrics (“Where are you? When will we meet? Take my unfinished life and make it complete”) and imbuing them with sense of life or death. Not so easy, is it? Still, there’s a fine Stephen Sondheim smiling-through-tears quality and pacing to this, even if it happened to accompany one of the more ridiculous 007 films as the franchise looked to capitalise on Star Wars and the international space race.
Maybe an unfair association for the song, but a Bond-in-space movie? Well, he’s got a rocket and you’re going on it. On its British TV premiere in 1984 it bagged an audience of 20 million. These days, any telly programme would kill for those kind of figures. And from Imperial Shirl to Venereal Girl.
21. Die Another Day (Madonna, 2002)
Analyse this? OK. Compounding the horror of her cardboard cameo in this stinker of a film, there’s really only one way to prepare audiences for a 40th anniversary action movie involving space lasers, invisible cars, and a henchman with diamonds encrusted into his face (but not forever): Robo-Madonna.
Charmless Madge was riding the wave of success with a huge soundtrack hit, Beautiful Stranger from the 007 spoof Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, and declaring that James Bond needed “to get techno,” she and electronica producer Mirwais Ahmadzaï ushered the Bond theme song into the new millennium with a glitchy, awkward, and, like much of her subsequent material, hideously auto-tuned chant that allowed audiences to experience a degree of the torture that Pierce Brosnan endures in the opening scene.
Easily the weirdest Bond theme ever recorded (even before android Madge offers a spoken-word interlude that name checks Freud), the song was symptomatic of a franchise desperately trying to disguise the fact that it had sunk into self-parody. The damage had been done. After the embarrassment of a stinker scene where Madonna herself plays a rug-munching fencing instructor, Brosnan hung up his holster and was last seen belly dancing to ABBA songs on a Greek island.
20. From Russia With Love (John Barry Orchestra/Matt Monro, 1963)
It feels a little unfair to stack the theme sequence from Bond’s second cinematic adventure against all the others, if only because it was sent out into the world before Goldfinger had established that Bond title songs should be kissed with a go-for-broke vocal performance. But although John Barry’s eponymous instrumental was From Russia With Love’s opening title theme, the vocal version, which he co-wrote with Lionel Bart, plays during the film’s climax (as source music on a radio) and over the end titles of what would turn out to be the most faithful big screen adaptation of an Ian Fleming 007 novel.
This was the first lyrics-based song written for the Bond films, and creamy cabaret crooner Matt Monro got the honours, kicking off the longstanding tradition of Bond themes featuring contemporary pop stars. Known as The Man With The Golden Voice, Monro was one of the big easy listening singers of the early ‘60s. And with with his achingly polite British baritone, the song feels handsomely old-fashioned and graceful. A charming time capsule before Beatlemania took hold. Don’t shoot me, but David Arnold’s ‘90s reimagining with cha’abi moderne vocals from Natacha Atlas is even prettier.
19. No Time To Die (Billie Eilish, 2020)
Die, baby, die. The match-heralded new sensation is certainly divisive — both song and artist — but then that seems to go with the territory for the Craig era tunes. A fascinating envelope-pushing choice, hoarse whisperer Sir Billiam Diedol is, at 18, the youngest person to sing for 007, and credit where it’s due, this tense, talented teen has done a decent job when all eyes were upon her with laser beams ready to cut her in half.
Co-written with Billie’s brother Finneas and produced with Stephen Lipson, No Time To Die is slow, subtle and sombre, with Eilish flexing the high quavery register of her voice, which fits the piano-driven song perfectly from the standpoint of its unsettling subdued sentiment and into an evolving secret agent saga of musical theatre of the unexpected. The affecting touch of Bondage comes in the second half when the Hans Zimmer-arranged orchestra swells in the background, gaining intensity before hitting a string-drenched crescendo. The track closes with an all-knowing wink of Johnny Marr’s twangy guitar chord that brilliantly evokes the classic Bond themes of the ’60s.
It’s classy and contemplative, powerful yet intimate, sort of Skyfall but more Skyfallen. And lest we forget, Daniel Craig’s third 007 film featured a much loved character — Judi Dench’s “Mother” M — bumped off at the end. I still reckon there’s every possibility they’re doing the same to Bond to wring every last moment of melodrama out of his story arc before rebooting the series in major style a few years from now. In which case the ominous miserablism of Billie’s Bond is the absolutely perfect way to mark the end of this particular timeline. Bet she bags an Oscar too.
18. We Have All The Time In The World (Louis Armstrong, 1969)
James Bond title songs, as a rule, have the name of the movie in the chorus. That was a bit of a challenge with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, so the 007 team opted to go with a stirring self-titled instrumental in the opening sequence. Hal David was brought on board to write the lyrics to another song for the film — Australian George Lazenby’s only turn as secret agent man — and they brought in legendary jazz great Louis Armstrong to sing it.
An inspired choice on paper and a terrific tune, but 68-year old Satchmo was ailing (the oldest person to sing a Bond theme, he would die less than two years later) and the tempo of this emotional ballad is a little too slow for him to hold a phrase. Satchmo’s gravelly gravitas is also locked into a backbeat that literally allows him no breathing room to flex his pristine musicianship. Every gap — and there are many — is filled by a noodling acoustic guitar that should be smashed, Bluto Blutarsky style, against a wall. Or round Sam Smith’s head.
Iggy Pop’s majestic reworking of the song for David Arnold’s Bond covers project Shaken And Stirred is certainly a thing of gravelly beauty.
17. For Your Eyes Only (Sheena Easton, 1981)
“For your eyes only — only for yøøøøøøøøøøøø!” Welcome to the early Eighties: cheesy synths and two-bit Scottish pop stars singing weird vowels. For shame, Bill Conti.
Like Nobody Does It Better before it, due to its eschewing of the trademark Bond sound, For Your Eyes Only is able to exist as a genuinely decent love song in its own right. As with all adaptable franchises, the films tried to keep the score up to date for the viewers, which meant bringing in acts of the moment for the theme, and nothing screams 1980s more than this electronic power ballad by Sheena Easton, who remains the only singer to actually appear in a Bond movie’s iconic opening titles.
Before newcomer Easton was selected on day release from her 9 to 5, Dusty Springfield and Donna Summer were also considered for the not so odd job (yes, I know), though Debbie Harry and Blondie came closest, only withdrawing when they were told the theme song couldn’t be self-penned because the films composer had a similar contract stipulation to John Barry, ie he provides the tune or else. Dang.
16. The Living Daylights (a-ha, 1987)
I know I may sound slightly biased, having only caught them in concert here in Sydney just yesterday, but a-ha’s first five 45s are up there with Kate Bush and Roxy Music as one of the greatest, most audacious singular starts to a music career by anyone. Period. Coming a year later, their theme for The Living Daylights isn’t quite as assured, but it’s still at least 1987 times better than Sam bloody Smith. Sure, they pilfered the horns from their immediate predecessors, Duran Duran’s A View To A Kill, but there’s an irresistible cold-blooded swagger about this song, sung kind of like a good guy/bad guy duel by the swoonsome Morten Harket and officially a co-write with legendary composer John Barry (the truth is that Barry had it written into his contract with Eon that whatever Bond score he worked on, he received a writer’s credit on at least one of its title themes, no matter the extent of his contribution).
Though the team up wasn’t without tensions. When Barry added the strings, he slightly altered the band’s synth hook line, so they responded by changing it back. The gruff Yorkshireman likened the experience to “playing ping-pong with four balls” and compared the Nordic poster boys to the Hitler Youth. Keyboardist Magne Furuholmen later said: “It was great. We were working with John Barry. He just wasn’t working with us.” Indeed, Paul Waaktaar-Savoy, the band’s guitarist and chief songwriter, recently revealed that “there were certain things that rubbed him up the wrong way. We had different working methods and we came across as a little too efficient.”
“And we felt there was a wrong note in the string arrangements, so we fixed it, but he didn’t like that. But do I think he did a great job. It was a fantastic string score. We just had one chord in the middle that was important to us that was changed and hey, stuff like that happens. It was an easy song to write because it had a great title. The fans love it when we play it live”.
But actually, it all worked out in the end. The Living Daylights is a suitably unlikely marriage of organic and digital, combining tense, atmospheric verses with a storming pop chorus, Barry’s orchestral stabs, a woodwind breakdown, and even a terribly ‘80s sax solo – just the thing to puncture that brooding Timothy Dalton era seriousness.
After the contentious creative battle of Barry versus band, a-ha released a radically revised version of the theme on their third album Stay On These Roads. But shorn of the veteran songsmith’s symphonist flourishes it’s the poorer for it too. Released four days before I officially stepped into adulthood, The Living Daylights would be the tasty triumvirate’s penultimate Top Five hit, the only 007 title song not performed by a British or American act, and the 11th and final Bond film scored by Barry.
Join us tomorrow-ish for the final film song countdown, 007 numbers 15 to one. We will return.
BONUS: Like the Norwegian poster boys, synth pop duo the Pet Shop Boys had a pretty solid start to their musical career as well, and were sitting petty at the top of the UK charts with It’s A Sin the same week The Living Daylights peaked in fifth place.
Coincidentally, earlier this month Ver Boys’ vocalist Neil Tennant revealed on the HMV My Inspiration podcast that “John Barry wanted to co-write with us,” the inference being that the dynamic duo were probably his preferred act for The Living Daylights, with a-ha very likely the choice of the Broccoli family. “That would have been interesting to do because he was an amazing writer, particularly of the James Bond stuff.” Team PSB did get as far as demoing a couple of instrumentals when they thought the Bond soundtrack was theirs. The main track eventually became the epic This Must Be The Place I Waited Years To Leave on their 1990 album Behaviour, and featuring one Johnny Marr on guitar, just thirty years ahead of schedule.