This is the end, but James Bond always returns.
Bond movie theme songs are the cinematic equivalents of paperback book-series covers — they suggest familiarity and course with the promise of a compelling new adventure for Western culture’s most unkillable pop icon. Welcome back to the second and final part of our countdown ranking of the 30 greatest Bond themes, numbers 007 fifteen to one. First part here
15. Skyfall (Adele, 2012)
Haunting, enigmatic and absolutely perfect for the movie, if it weren’t for the fact that Adele has become as ubiquitously mediocre as Nando’s, the dark and dramatic Skyfall would be a near perfect James Bond song. The subtle symphonic start, that goosebump inspiring brass line and the sweeping chords of the chorus that give a knowing nod to John Barry.
With its palpable air of mystery, this lush piano ballad certainly has all the makings of a Bond classic, and is the only theme of the Daniel Craig era that doesn’t deviate too far from the franchise’s original Sixties template, just with less bombast. Although there is an argument that that’s just playing it safe and the contemporary 007 movies are better suited to an edgier sound. The intelligent sounding choir is a nice touch, bringing a heightened sense of foreboding and making Skyfall unique in boasting the best backing vocals in a Bond song, ‘cos they don’t happen too often.
The only thing for me is the lyrics to Skyfall feel a little lacklustre. They foreshadow the climactic final scenes at 007’s ancestral home but somehow they come across as perfunctory. And I always think she’s going to say apple crumble (“Skyfole, Crumbole…”) Still, Adele’s a got a good set of pipes (when she’s not in over-singing mode), and the big bellowing notes suit her gutsy chav chops to a tee.
A few years ago, she told an audience in Sydney a little about the background of the song. This isn’t it.
“I got to read the script and I thought it was amazing. I was heavily pregnant and very emotional by the time I was recording it. And a side effect or symptom was my voice got a lot lower. So, my larynx dropped. That’s why the verse is so very low. And these days I do struggle to get down there.”
With admirable metrosexual tendencies, Craig admitted he was quite emotional hearing Skyfall for the first time. “I cried. From the opening bars I knew immediately, then the voice kicked in and it was exactly what I’d wanted from the beginning.” It’s not a wonder that the theme for the 50th anniversary film (the first billion dollar Bond in fact) was the very first 007 tune to win an Oscar, but after Sam Smith and Billie Elish repeated the trick in 2016 and 2019 something tells me that in the bigger better box office of Bondland the Academy Award will return.
14. Thunderball (Tom Jones, 1965)
From Skyfall to Thunderball. Hey, that sounds like a book about the weather.
Like the story it’s attached to, the 1965 theme song for Sean Connery’s fourth film had a troubled, litigious gestation. Believing Thunderball was too generic, too vague a title, John Barry and lyricist Don Black conjured up a camp-as-knickers song called Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which is what Italian audiences had been calling 007 (or Japanese fans or the press depending on the account one reads). He recorded the song with both Dionne Warwick (smoky) and Shirley Bassey (shrill), but two weeks before opening, the film studio United Artists insisted on a song titled after the movie, which, admittedly, had worked so well for Goldfinger. So Barry and Black hurriedly wrote a new song with a new giant voiced vocalist, Tom Jones, who is extremely Welsh just like Bassey.
With its cavernous wall of sound, this is vintage bombastic Bond: Big, brash, dramatic, full of angular brass riffs, and Jones delivers his belting vocal performance with huge aplomb. If it sounds like Goldfinger on steroids that’s probably because it was meant to, even if Barry conceded the lyrics were hokum, telling NPR, “I don’t think anybody really analysed what the hell he was singing about. And I still don’t know what the song is about to this day. But we were given that problem, and we had to live with it.”
The legal dispute which followed – Miss Bassey played the difficult diva (a role for life, some would say) and moved to sue Eon for breach of contract over the decision to use Warwick’s recording at the end of the film – led to both versions of Bang Bang being canned and left locked in the Danjaq vault until a James Bond 30th anniversary album in 1992.
Thunderball was the first of several 007 movies legendary lyricist Don Black contributed to. The wordsmith explained to The Independent in 2009 how he writes a Bond theme: “The first thing I did was look it up in the dictionary. So I scratched my head and used it as a code word, you know, ‘He strikes like thunderball’. The thing I remember most is Tom Jones’ recording of the song in which he fainted on the last note. He got a head rush or something. The Bond songs I describe as the lure of the forbidden. It should have the whiff of a boudoir about it.”
If there’s one dirty secret that unites all Bond themes from the Nineties, it’s that the songs ache to have been performed by Björk. That said, Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson is a perfectly decent substitute for the Icelandic swanstress, and the silky cognac of a song she had to work with is a strong fit for her tone.
The World Is Not Enough is another Bond theme that, like The Living Daylights, finds a way to wed diverse rock, orchestral and electronic elements. Composer David Arnold brought Don Black back to fine effect, with the intention of creating a classic theme that could be incorporated in varying variations throughout the movie, a process pioneered by John Barry that had virtually died out in the ‘80s, though it almost happened with Tomorrow Never Dies. More on that later.
The last 007 tune before the turn of the millennium roared with more drama than anything in the film to which it was attached. The trademark Barry chromaticism, lush strings, and brass is all there — but so, too, are filtered house drums and keyboard loops of Garbage’s signature postmodern sound.
The song is well-crafted enough to survive the musical baubles that slightly clutter its production. The verses are a little wishy-washy, but the chorus is a killer earworm, with Shirley Manson’s elastic vocals characterfully languid and darkly dramatic, almost pulling the rest of her body into each note by sheer force of will. Interestingly, The World Is Not Enough marks the last time a Bond main title song was sung by someone not involved in its writing.
12. If There Was A Man (The Pretenders, 1987)
If you don’t know this one you must have sneaked a ride on that rocket in Moonraker and never returned. Befitting of its title, If There Was A Man is elegant, romantic, with a lilting, jazzy piano and lavish orchestration by John Barry. Evocative and perfectly nuanced, no one but Chrissie Hynde could’ve pulled off the vocals in such a beautiful yet commanding way.
After the increasingly cheesy and creaky Roger Moore had been pensioned off, The Living Daylights was an enjoyable spy espionage affair presenting a more realistic Bond with less one-liners and no silly super-weapons, though sadly with a charisma-free zone in the shape of Timothy Dalton as 007. He looked like a bank manager.
Dalton’s debut takes place partially in Austria, so it was quicksmart of Hynde and Barry to give the song a modified waltz underpinning, since that’s where waltzes are said to have originated. The Pretenders were originally considered for the title song but, following the huge success of Duran Duran’s A View To A Kill, it was decided to go with a “trendier” group i.e. a-ha. Still, Hynde and her boys received a double consolation prize; an unprecedented two song contribution, with the rockier Where Has Everybody Gone? heard during the film proper and said to be a favourite of Walkman-wearing milkmen everywhere. You only sing twice, Mr Bond.
Played over the end titles, If There Was A Man marks the very last John Barry composition heard in a Bond film. Literally going out on a high note, you’ll even see the veteran composer in a little on-screen cameo, conducting an orchestra in the final scene. An apt swan song for the man who put the Bond movies on the musical map.
11. GoldenEye (Tina Turner, 1995)
Timothy Dalton was a bit of an unloved Bond to many. He wasn’t even Eon’s first choice to play the suave super spy in The Living Daylights, Pierce Brosnan was. Though due to contractual issues with NBC on the TV show Remington Steele, the Irishman was forced to relinquish the role before he’d filmed a single scene. Still, look on the bright side — would he have hung around for the six year hiatus between Licence To Kill and this or hang up his holster like his predecessor, having completed just two trifling Bonds?
After the derided, self-serious Dalton era, 007 needed to come back in a big way for the franchise’s first film of the 1990s and the end of the Cold War. Daniel Kleinman, briefly a member of Adam & The Ants turned director of Gladys Knight’s Licence To Kill video, took over the reins of title designer from Maurice Binder.
And musically, the Broccolis found some ready made heavy hitters for GoldenEye’s theme tune—U2’s Bono and The Edge wrote the piece, Nellee Hooper was on production duties, and one of the biggest, brassiest voices in music, the legendary Tina Turner, belted it out. And how.
You can’t fault Tina’s vocal performance. Well, you can if you’re a bitchy diva like Shirley Bassey (there is that note, thank you, sweetie).
The girl from Nutbush injects so much personality into it that in a strange way she makes the song seem better than it actually is (if you want proof, listen to Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger’s reedy, budget Bond edition for Activision’s GoldenEye 007 video game).
Still, it could have been worse: Bono could have sung the thing himself. Oh, hang on, he did. The demo recording Turner received at her home in Switzerland was “bad,” according to the singer. “Bono sent me the worst demo. He kind of threw it together as if he thought I wasn’t going to do it,” she laughed.
But Tina, who always wanted to be a Bond girl, somehow clicked with the song: “To me sometimes soundtracks don’t go with the movie. It just sounds like a good song. This one sounds like it fits the movie.”
10. You Only Live Twice (Nancy Sinatra, 1967)
Again teaming the best known 007 songwriting team of John Barry and Leslie Bricusse, the rising whirl of strings that kicks off this formative Bond theme might just be Barry’s finest moment (even if it was lifted from an Alexander Tcherepnin concerto, the decision to use and tweak it here is still a stroke of genius).
You Only Live Twice is located somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle between James Bond and South Pacific. Playing off of the film’s Japanese setting — yes, this is the one where 007 fakes his death and comes back to life in yellow face — Barry augments a breezily majestic melody with the exotic plink of bamboo xylophones, and Nancy Sinatra’s voice trembles around them in style. Though she was far from being first choice.
For such a velvety anthemic song, Barry had the queen of soul Aretha Franklin in mind, but Cubby Broccoli was aiming for his friend, the Chairman of the Board himself Frank Sinatra. Cranky Frankie shot down that idea but delegated the job to his daughter Nancy, who’d just had her first hit with the kitchy These Boots Are Made For Walkin’.
The relatively inexperienced Nancy caused a wee problem in the London studios when she came in for a day-long session, admitting “I was panic-stricken from the very beginning of the whole procedure. I would rather have root canal surgery than go through that again.” So Barry recorded the 60-piece orchestra first before tackling the singer by herself. To her credit, Sinatra was willing to step away and let someone like Bassey sing the song because she had a better range than her own octave and a half.
But Broccoli wanted a Sinatra, who gives the song a bewitching, mysterious feel. Over the day, they did 30 vocal. takes. After she left, he painstakingly took the best from 25 takes. Nancy revealed, “There were bad notes, they just edited it together. They didn’t want to embarrass me. I tried my best – I was 26 years old and really scared.” Nevertheless, You Only Live Twice numbers among the most iconic Bond themes, with those memorable strings one of the most covered and sampled in the canon, used by everyone from Soft Cell to Coldplay to Björk to Robbie Williams’ Millennium.
More recently, the season five finale of Mad Men confirmed what audiences of the time knew right away: a copper bottomed classic.
9. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (John Barry Orchestra, 1969)
And now for something completely different. Simply put, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service couldn’t not be in the top ten. Firstly, it’s from 1969, the year I was born, but as whole John Barry’s score is so comfortable in its own stave that they didn’t even bother to bring in a vocalist for the opening credits, though it would be the last Bond film to do so. Instead, the film is front loaded in exhilarating style, layering a safe but deliciously brassy melody over with a caffeinated shot of pure Barry; all contrapuntal chaos, overlapping percussion and punchy French horns. But amid all that there’s something new: a synthesizer.
The first entry after Sean Connery relinquished the role, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was also the first Bond film since From Russia With Love to use an instrumental opening theme. With a Moog bass line that was a few years ahead of its time, John Barry’s reassuring composition helped 007 make the daunting leap from successful series to a bona fide franchise that could exist independent of a single star. Still, it’s hard not to wonder what might have happened if the composer had been granted the permission he sought to write the operatic Gilbert and Sullivan-style jam.
A dynamic, underrated piece of music for an underrated movie then, although time has been kind to OHMSS. Although like Dalton, I find the actor playing Bond one of the least interesting things about the film. Marking his first and last appearance as our favourite secret agent, I find the inexperienced George Lazenby a little too stiff and not good-looking enough to be a truly acceptable James Bond.
If you love this piece of music then check out David Arnold’s imaginative bass-heavy reworking with the Propellerheads. Whatever happened to Propellerheads? It’s a propulsive multi-movement epic that elongates and extends Barry’s masterpiece to over nine minutes (the video above is the single edit), even paying homage to the opening titles of From Russia With Love in its intro. Keeping things in the Bond family, Arnold tapped Propellerheads because they were also collaborating with “Miss” Shirley Bassey on the marvellous big beat jazz fusion History Repeating, and a prescient tune if ever there was one.
8. Live And Let Die (Paul McCartney & Wings, 1973)
Despite Bond having derided his band in Goldfinger (“This is just as bad as listening to The Beatles without earmuffs,” Connery says in the film, creakily), Paul McCartney opted not to hold a grudge match, penning the title song for Roger Moore’s debut in the tuxedo, and getting the “fifth Beatle” George Martin to produce it.
Ignoring the temptation to bring in some Haitian voodoo influence, Live And Let Die is a master class in dynamics, kicking off unpretentiously with just Paul at the piano but switching into nihilistic Bond mode once that mighty guitar chord comes in. A huge explosive moment that’s always accompanied in his concerts by a dazzling display of Spinal Tap-like pyrotechnics that are so unbelievably loud (not to mention warm) I literally jumped out of my seat when I witnessed my first time seeing him live in the US a while back. Notice how he prefaces it with a couple of sly but obscure little references to his old skiing chum David Bowie too.
Despite the fourth act slipping in a sliver of reggae (the “what does it matter to ya” section was rustled up by wife Linda), Macca and his on-off ‘70s group Wings essentially stuck to what he knew best. That said, it’s undoubtedly his most dramatic “solo” number, with the same smash-grab juxtaposition of musical sections that worked for the epic Band On The Run a few months later. Honestly, this atmospheric slice of symphonic rock still sounds great all these years later, probably because he it knew just exactly how ridiculous and overblown it had to be.
Though it could have sounded a lot different. George Martin personally delivered the newly completed song to the Bond brigade on the set of Live And Let Die in Jamaica. The film would be released on 27 June 1973, the day after my fourth birthday but slightly more notably, Live And Let Die and its follow up, 1974’s The Man With The Golden Gun would be the last pair of 007 films released in consecutive years.
In an exchange that showed just how hilariously out of touch the Bond producers were with rock ’n’ roll, Harry Saltzman assumed the recording was a mere demo and asked who would sing the real track, maybe Shirley Bassey (again, groan) or perhaps Thelma Houston? Martin’s response:
“You’ve just heard one of the biggest selling artists in the world.”
Martin made it clear in no uncertain terms that McCartney, had already done the job, and that he’d stipulated that Wings would be the first band to be credited with performing an 007 title theme. Phew. And while writing a pre-titled song to order was a weird one for the Fab One, he was more than up to the task, even though I should point out there’s not actually many lyrics, and of the ones that do feature there’s a non-grammatical line has been the subject of much gnashing of teeth over the years:
“But if this ever changing world in which we live in.”
In a 2009 interview with the Washington Post, Paul indicates that he’s unsure of the actual wording himself, saying he waivers between whether the phrase is “in which we live in we’re living” or “we live in.” He concedes, “It’s kind of ambivalent, isn’t it?” and ultimately thinks the phrase is “we’re living”, though he regards “live in” as “wronger but cuter.” Incidentally, when Chrissie Hynde cut her version for David Arnold’s Shaken And Stirred she opted for a condensed “in which we live.”
Live And Let Die became the first Bond theme song to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song, but ultimately lost to Barbra Streisand’s The Way We Were. The track plays well on the big screen, and even had a second lease of life when Guns N’ Roses took the song to No.4 in the British charts, five places higher than the original. The forceful cover even got its own cinematic showcase in the movie Grosse Point Blank, demonstrating that the Liverpool lad had the last laugh over 007.
You know he did, you know he did, you know he did.
7. A View To A Kill (Duran Duran, 1985)
It took another dozen years before another band was invited to join the elite Bond theme club. None-more-‘80s pop tarts Duran Duran famously landed the gig after their impossibly chiseled bassist John Taylor sidled up to Cubby Broccoli at a party and drunkenly asked the six million dollar question:
“When are you going to get someone decent to do one of your theme songs?”
Coming after the MOR slush of Shirley Bassey (again!), Sheena Easton and Rita Coolidge, you can sympathise, can’t you?
I think Broccoli got the point, because the Birmingham five piece were in, though this was way after David Bowie had withdrawn from the role of main villain Max Zorin in late 1984 (to be replaced by the similarly Aryan blond Christopher Walken), as the Thin White Dame had suggested during a question and answer session in 2003 that Eon had also offered him the theme in a twofer tie-in deal similar to Madonna’s monstrosity for Die Another Day.
“I was asked to do both, but to be honest I haven’t watched a James Bond film since Sean Connery was in them*. I don’t really like them.”
Though why no one thought to give the job to disco diva Grace Jones, who played Zorin’s sidekick Mayday, is a truly baffling question. No matter, because Duran more than live up to their brashness.
To illustrate that, you could be forgiven for thinking that someone like Pete Burns would have given the band the sharp end of his famous tongue rather than the time of day, but the lippy Dead Or Alive frontman actually admired Duran Duran because “they always go for the jugular.”
And in this song they really are in for the kill. Literally.
A View To A Kill is the most successful example of melding a zeitgeisty band of the moment with Barry and Bond (hi a-ha!), turning out one of the more purely danceable, enjoyably sleazy numbers in the 007 canon. Later, singer Simon Le Bon said of the veteran composer:
“He didn’t really come up with any of the basic musical ideas. He heard what we came up with and he put them into an order. And that’s why it happened so quickly because he was able to separate the good ideas from the bad ones, and he arranged them. He has a great way of working brilliant chord arrangements. He was working with us as virtually a sixth member of the group, but not really getting on our backs at all.”
Mind you, grizzled old buffoon Pat Boone, America’s evangelist answer to Cliff Richard, was certainly on the band’s backs, reviling them as satanists for the line “Dance! Into The Fire.” I bet the silly old fool was spitting feathers when the track rose all the way up the charts to No.1 in his homeland then. The resulting publicity from calling it “the work of the devil” probably aided sales too.
In fact, in America A View To A Kill arguably stands as the most successful song in the franchise —it might not have the Oscars afforded to Adele and Sam bloody Smith but Duran’s is the only Bond theme to top the Billboard Hot 100. So far.
Just don’t mention the moment at Live Aid when poor Simon’s voiced cracked on the high note. It’s not like I’ve helpfully cued it up in exactly the right spot or anything.
Personally, the only very very slight negative doesn’t regard the song as such, but I know its hilariously fun promotional video so well that whenever I hear the song shorn of the visuals I still have Roger Moore’s corny old groan straight after the second verse line “Between the shades assassination standing still,” running through my head, just as he’s being garrotted up the Eiffel Tower by a demonic Grace Jones.
In a brilliantly tangled thicket of half-sketched storylines directed by Godley & Creme, the fantastically tongue-in-cheek romp cast the Brummie boys as a quintet of gorgeous, glamorous (Well, except the soon to depart Andy Taylor) spies who swarm and scamper all over the Paris landmark trying to kill each other as Le Bon wanders about, using a portable cassette player to set off a series of explosions elsewhere in the world. These shots are intercut with scenes from the movie, so that it appears the actors and the band are participating in the same storyline.
Conceptually, it’s a goldmine. It even ends with a parody of Bond with the Duran frontman smarmily introducing himself as “Bon. Simon Le Bon”, which I thought was really amusing. Very modern of him to have taken his wife’s name. The execution, however, would have been better if it wasn’t afflicted by clips of the superannuated leading man hamming his way though the piece, looking looks like he prefers his Horlicks stirred, not shaken. You could almost hear his bones creak throughout the movie.
Soon after, 58-year old Moore—more olden spy than GoldenEye—would announce his retirement as 007 at least two films too late. At my local cinema in Bletchley, the Duran video was played prior to the film proper, and quite honestly, maybe the song was actually the best thing about A View To A Kill. Hearing John Taylor’s crackling basslines and Roger Taylor’s solid Chic-like drumming pop in surround sound was worth the cost of admission alone.
Duran Duran will return. And sooner than you think.
6. Surrender (k.d. lang, 1997)
Talking of screenings, Tomorrow Never Dies is the only Bond film to date that I saw on the opening night, in this case the world premiere at London’s Odeon Cinema in Leicester Square. I guess the occasion and atmosphere — which was electric — certainly add to the enjoyment because I came away thinking it was even better than GoldenEye, despite Pierce Brosnan’s unwelcome (for my eyes only, at least) makeover from floppy-fringed pretty boy to bulked up gym rat with Elvis-style swept back and sides.
Though I soon revised my opinion of the movie, one thing has remained a constant: what the hell were they thinking demoting k.d. lang’s stunning song to the end titles? Oh yes, money and popularity. Sheryl Crow is way more mediocre mainstream, and, well, let’s not beat around the bush: Hollywood was still unquestionably homophobic back in the 1990s, and so the first openly gay singer of a Bond main title didn’t happen in 1997 as the film’s composer David Arnold had envisaged, and we had to wait another 18 years, until the bland bedwetter (yup, you guessed it) Sam bloody Smith.
So, despite its status as the greatest secondary theme of all time, the relegated and retitled Surrender is, conversely, the great lost Bond song, one that, inexplicably, isn’t even available to stream or download.
007? OMG more like?!
Catch that heroic last note on the last word, “dies”. It starts just before 3:00, its straight tone seamlessly modulating into falsetto to the close. When you see lang sing you notice that she glides into that tremolo without moving her mouth; the mark of a truly great singer.
Apropos of everything and nothing, get me, because I’ve met Macca, Madge and Tina, but the only artist on this exhaustive list I’ve interviewed on a professional tape-recorders-at-the-ready basis is k.d. lang, for Mojo magazine in 2000.
To my eternal chagrin, not only did I completely forget to ask her about the Surrender shenanigans, but I point blank failed to fire questions at her about her music at all. Gulp. Not my finest hour, but Surrender sure is hers. This may come as a surprise, particularly as we’re only up to sixth position but there is only one vocal on a Bond theme that gets any better than this. Ah, but who’s the diva? Could it be this lady? She did three, and almost a fourth, after all.
5. Diamonds Are Forever (Shirley Bassey, 1971)
Perhaps better known to the youth of today than even Goldfinger, thanks to some sampling by Kanye West (on 2005’s Diamonds From Sierra Leone, which apparently displeased the diva no end), the iridescent Diamonds Are Forever doesn’t quite top the (g)older song as Shirley Bassey’s finest entry in the franchise, but it comes damn close. Bond creator Ian Fleming took the title for his 1956 book from the slogan “A diamond is forever,” which had been a successful marketing campaign by the De Beers mining company to equate the coveted gem stones with love and romance.
Six years after that messy falling out with the producers on Thunderball, the tigress from Tiger Bay returned with another John Barry/Don Black-penned number, an innuendo-laced love letter to utterly rampant materialism. With a chorus as big as Bassey’s vocals, and even one of the best bridges of the series, it’s only kept from being higher by being so much in the Goldfinger mould. Nevertheless, Black regards Diamonds Are Forever as his favourite Bond set of lyrics.
“I’ve always thought a Bond song should be provocative and sensual. There’s something about the song that seduces you into it.”
Tight, warmly layered, and sharper than Sean Connery’s physique in the film, the track’s big time sensuality and playful double entendre almost had it shelved when he and Barry presented it to Eon. Arch fuddy duddy Harry Saltzman considered the song to be objectionably sexual, presumably blushing at how the line that diamonds can “Stimulate and tease me” suggested that women were capable of feeling any pleasure that wasn’t provided by a man. The other man Cubby Broccoli had to talk him into approving it, but then Italians nearly always do it better.
In the studio, Barry encouraged Bassey to imagine she was singing about a man’s trouser weapon, which explains why she could deliver such lines as “Diamonds are forever, hold one up and then caress it. Touch it, stroke it and undress it…” with the desired effect. Black told The Sunday Times in 2008 “But he never said that to me when I was writing it. I was writing about a diamond!”
Whatever the metaphor, with a surprising flash of feminism our Shirl rails against the impermanence of a good lover, as even those with stamina for miles can’t last as long as a good rock on your finger. “Men are mere mortals who aren’t worth going to your grave for,” she belts. Let that be a lesson for all of us the world over.
Like the proverbial bad penny, Bassey would return for a third title song with 1979’s Moonraker, which followed this next beauty.
4. Nobody Does It Better (Carly Simon, 1977)
Nobody Does It Better? Well, that’s why we’re here, right? Now 76, back in ‘77 Carly Simon performed the elegiac theme from The Spy Who Loved Me, which was composed, as with the score, by Pulitzer Prize–winner Marvin Hamlisch (it’s one of the few non-Barry scored movies before the 1990s). The lyrics were not by Simon, a celebrated singer-songwriter in her own right, but the future Mrs. Burt Bacharach, Carole Bayer Sager, who was romantically involved with Hamlisch at the time.
That intimate element seeped into the song, though the gentle piano of the opening bars (based on an unspecified Mozart riff, according to Hamlisch) is a tad misleading, disguising a lust-drunk power anthem about a mythic lover that deceptively builds with an orchestral climax that is essentially about sex. Or as the appropriately named Roger Moore said at the end of the film, “Keeping the British end up.”
Nobody Does it Better is the favourite of many 007 aficionados, but, great song that it is, it doesn’t actually sound much like a Bond theme. Though unlike Goldfinger, at least this one is actually about our hero — he’s so vain he probably thinks this song is about him — and he’s right: no other 007 tune captures the spirit of the character himself, while still managing to pull off a certain universality. It’s the song that, if he were real, would be played at Bond’s funeral while all his friends and discarded lovers got teary-eyed together. In fact, he probably would have insisted on it, and then jumped out of the coffin, and skied down an exploding mountain. Just for kicks.
The first Bond opening theme after Dr. No to avoid eponymous titling, though it’s a matter of intrigue that as they managed to shoehorn “But like heaven above me/The spy who loved me” into the lyrics anyway, why just name it after the movie anyway? After all, David Bowie’s Space Oddity and Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody did just fine without their titles being mentioned at all.
At that time, it was also the only song in the series that was about James Bond. In 2004, the song was honoured by the American Film Institute as the 67th greatest song as part of their 100 Years Series.
No matter. Nobody Does It Better was so successful that its title has become a significant part of James Bond universe phraseology. A huge worldwide hit, the song charted for a whopping six months on the Billboard Hot 100, even longer than Carly Simon’s legendary You’re So Vain. The song’s been much covered too — everyone from Radiohead to Julie Andrews to Bobby Brown — and has appeared in everything from Lost In Translation and Bridget Jones: The Edge Of Reason to bridal showers across the world — and it might be a hotel lobby staple if not for the smuttiness of its lyrics. “There’s some kind of magic inside you/That keeps me from runnin’/But just keep it comin.” Hair metal bands who could learn a few things from this.
Of all the odes to Bond’s legendary sexual prowess (and there were a lot of them), Simon’s is the most satisfying, because nobody, and I mean nobody, plugs it better.
3. Licence To Kill (Gladys Knight, 1989)
You could perhaps read this classic-style belter for Licence To Kill as a response to the slightly muted reaction to The Living Daylights, but the reality is rather more prosaic: John Barry was undergoing surgery, and producers had to look elsewhere for both the film’s soundtrack (scored eventually by Michael Kamen) and the title song.
At one point, Eric Clapton had the theme in his man bag (he got as far as laying down an axe duelling instrumental with original 007 guitarist Vic Flick), but in the end, American soul songwriters Narada Michael Walden, Jeffrey Cohen and Walter Afanasieff (Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston) fashioned a track around the huge horn part from Goldfinger, perhaps helping to explain why at the time this felt more Bondian than anything since the Connery era.
The production’s decidedly ’80s-inclined, to the extent that some of the backing vocals might sound slightly cheesy, but the Motown legend and former frontwoman of The Pips nails the vocals and somehow unites the idea that this is a sort of power ballad version of something Shirley Bassey could have done. Talking of which, the Goldfinger influence didn’t escape its authors, who sued for a share of the royalties, making Licence To Kill the only Bond theme forced to credit the songwriters of another.
Fortunately, a little Knight music goes a long way, and she’s given free reign to flex her powerhouse vibrato with the same indifference to song structure as 007 has to the architecture of the buildings he blows up. And bonus points for some of the most homicidally covetous lyrics of any Bond tune: “I’ve got a licence to kill/and you know I’m going straight for your heart/I’ve got a licence to kill/anyone who tries to tear us apart.” Given Bond’s track record, she’s going to have her hands full.
It was reported during film’s release in 1989 that as a christian, Knight had reservations singing a song with the word “kill” in it. Though the story that she actually sings the words “licence to kilt” to get around such a problem is an urban myth, and one which stems from how the majority of the times she sings “licence to kill” its immediately followed by a “to kill” backing vocal. There are times when that doesn’t happen though.
Indeed, if Gladys’s dazzling appearance on Aussie TV’s The Project earlier this year was anything to go by, she admitted she wasn’t keen on being seen to be glamorising guns, which is why she’s not seen on the single sleeve, or in the video holding a weapon. Check it out here.
Licence To Kill would be the first Bond movie not to take its title from a Fleming story, though due to it being changed from Licence Revoked quite late in the day, Maurice Binder’s title credits were done in hurry, which resulted in Gladys being the only main theme performer without an on-screen credit. It’s a strong and dark addition to the canon, but without a lot of the trademark James Bond features and flamboyance, it came across as a Spy Hard version of Bruce Willis’ Die Hard but without a buff hunk in the leading role.
Timothy Dalton was clearly intent upon bringing the Bond series back to its roots, portraying the sort of dangerous, international agent of espionage that we had become familiar with in Fleming’s novels. and many fans — myself included — applauded him for it. Whether or not the general audience was ready for this new, grittier take on the character of James Bond, is a question that remains open to this day.
As I’ve alluded to, I think the main problem was Dalton himself: an unsexy charisma-free zone. Modern Bonds essentially have to have the brutal musclebound sexiness of Connery and Craig or the sophisticated suaveness of Moore and Brosnan. Like Lazenby, poor old Tim had neither, and it’s all the more disappointing seeing as Dalton’s father was a spy during the Second World War.
Connery was sexy. Lazenby was OK. Moore was handsome (well, until Moonraker). Brosnan was beautiful. Dalton was just meh and kinda nondescript, caught between a rock and hard place, but, conversely, with an air of authoritative theatricality better suited to the Shakespearean type roles he’d made his name with. That’s why he was so perfect as a patrician establishment figure Time Lord in Doctor Who a few years back.
So it must come as a bit of a blow to discover that when you study the inflation-adjusted figures his two turns are the least commercially successful outings in 007’s history. It’s a shame because they’re not bad movies at all, but for all its plus points Licence To Kill just didn’t feel like a Bond film. Which is something you could never accuse Goldfinger of.
2. Goldfinger (Shirley Bassey, 1964)
You were expecting someone else?
As lovely as From Russia With Love is, Goldfinger was arguably the first true James Bond theme as we know it today, and remains the archetypal one. Where do I begin with a song that almost every culturally literate person in the Western world has etched into their minds like the lines on their hands? The brassy call and response that triggers the track seems as natural a place to start as any, that two-note phrase blasting the song into our spinal cords even before Shirley Bassey can solder the wound shut. By the time her voice kicks in, instantly becoming as integral to the franchise as the Walther PPK or Sean Connery’s hedge maze of chest hair, John Barry has already gilded the 007 movies with a frivolous sense of danger; silly in the extreme but definitely worth taking seriously.
Written by Barry, Leslie Bricusse and Joan Collins’ new hubby Anthony Newley, the song was penned without the lyricists having read the script or seen any footage, but still does a pretty great job at capturing the devilishness of the film’s titular villain (Gert Fröbe has never seemed so sexy, probably because he wasn’t). And though the song’s a cracker, and invented the signature Bond theme sound in large part, so much of that is down to Bassey’s delivery. Formerly romantically entangled with Barry, she brings an enormously sultry, yet almost regretful, feel to the track: someone who was swept off their feet entirely by Goldfinger, just got out with her life, but isn’t entirely sure she won’t get back. Perhaps even more than our number one entry, it’s the standard to which all subsequent themes were held to.
A little observation about that voice though. It may sound blasphemous but technically, Shirley Bassey isn’t the greatest female vocalist to sing a Bond theme. That gong, unquestionably, goes to the powerhouse that is Gladys Knight, who’s maintained her incredible vocal prowess and soulful timbre over such a long period of time, and whose range and ability is so immense she may as well have called her band Gladys Knight & Her Pipes and be done with it.
There’s no doubt that Shirley is a tremendous performer, full of chutzpah and great fun in concert (the only artist I’ve ever witnessed happy to pose for pictures while she’s singing!). And yes, she has a powerful weapon: Bassey the belter has such a remarkable depth, resonance and strength to her voice it can reduce buildings to rubble. Don’t get me wrong, as she proved on her excellent 2009 album The Performance, produced by (of course) David Arnold, she can accomplish gentle ballads as well, but despite the characterful and dramatic way she inhabits songs, her voice has never moved me in an emotional way a Knight or a Turner or a lang can.
That’s probably because her range is not as great as you’d imagine. She’s a combo alto/mezzo pitched vocalist with a thick vibrato going into an earthy bottom, said the actress to the bishop (actually one of Shirl’s favourite phrases, believe it or not). Her singing also has a slight doppler effect, increasing and decreasing in volume mid-song for no apparent reason, sometimes sounding like an ambulance siren repeatedly passing you by. Bassey’s big or small airhorn technique hardly ever employs a middle resister to speak of. Consequently, a lot of musical subtlety is lost, and she often comes across as something of a “ham singer,” and a bit, dare I say it, lowbrow.
Lest we forget, the early Bond films were made on limited budgets, and home grown Bassey and singing bus conductor Monro were cheaper to hire than the big spending required to bag the American dream singers coveted by 007 producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. They were a pair of middle of the road-loving jazz fans who really wanted Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland. Essentially, Bassey is the kitsch, cheesy chicken in a basket version of Judy. An aural KFC for the K-Tel generation. The Joan Collins of the Bond dynasty, not the Elizabeth Taylor.
If that sounds bitchy then remember who we’re talking about here. The diva to end all divas. Difficult to many and as temperamental as hell. Does the phrase “She doesn’t have the range” mean anything?
In the context of music criticism, “the range” is, at its most basic and obvious meaning, vocal range: one of the fundamental skills for a vocalist which can be measured by the number of octaves that one can sing in.
Now something of a huge internet meme that went viral in 2016, the most infamous and ironic use of the one-liner can be found in a spoof sketch from the BBC’s early 2000s comedy show Rock Profile; a forerunner to Little Britain, where parallel universe versions of Shirl and Tom Jones (played by Matt Lucas and David Walliams) are depicted being interviewed by television presenter Jamie Theakston, about Bond themes mainly.
Shirl is portrayed as impossibly grand and imperious, repeatedly uttering “She doesn’t have the range” to cattily dismiss a variety of her fellow iconic Bond singers during the course of the interview.
“What do you think of the more recent efforts?, says Theakston. “Goldeneye?,” asks the shady lady.
“I love Tina, but she doesn’t have the range. I’m sorry, Tina. I love you. You know I adore you. But you don’t have the range!”
Jamie enquires meekly about more Bond themes, as he was particularly fond of Garbage’s The World Is Not Enough. But does Bassey?
“She doesn’t have the range!”
“She doesn’t have the range!”
“She doesn’t have the range!”
“She doesn’t have the range.”
And so on and so forth. Saucer of milk for Miss Bassey, please.
So let me get right to the point. Where I’m going with this is that the parody was actually based on a real life scene in Divas Are Forever, the BBC’s documentary from 1998 that Lucas and Walliams had watched, and one where the stinging star of the show Dame Shirley Bassey (ooh, almost royalty now) allowed herself to be filmed at a champagne fuelled dinner party in Monte Carlo talking about attending the GoldenEye premiere in London (“James Bond invited me himself”)… then going in for the kill, lambasting Tina Turner for that one note near the end of the song.
“It was so awful, that note when she does GoldenAiii! She didn’t have the range for it!”
There really ain’t nothing like a Dame eh?
While everyone remembers the career-defining Bassey songs, their performance in the UK charts were surprisingly less than 24 karat: Goldfinger peaked at No.21, Diamonds Are Forever at No.38, and Moonraker did not even make the top 75.
But it’s Bassey who deserves the last word — and given her asbestos lung capacity, she deserves the plaudits. The Welsh windbag couldn’t have known the extent to which her performance would resonate in pop culture, but with admirable tenacity she holds that committed final note for so long that she virtually collapsed in the studio, though it sealed her career and will reverberate with us forever.
Altogether now. He loves… go-oooold! GO-OOOLD!
1. James Bond Theme (John Barry Orchestra, 1962)
Is it controversial not to have Goldfinger in the top slot? Perhaps, but over the playlist’s Friday night Martini-and-baccarat soirée, there was little doubt that we’d end up going for this, because not only is it the original Bond theme but it’s the most famous, instantly recognisable film theme of all time… ever. So much so that it’s near-impossible to disassociate the essence of the films and character (danger, class, intrigue) from this piece. And it doesn’t even contain a single word.
Opening with its distinctive opening fanfare, the main title theme for Bond’s first big screen adventure, 1962’s Dr. No, was penned by English composer Monty Norman, though its Indian-style folk inspired riff was no accident.
Band leader John Barry built up an orchestral arrangement around Norman’s riff (which does not automatically gain the arranger a co-writer credit, and which was subject to legal action decades later), which, trivia fans, was played by session guitarist Vic Flick on a 1939 English Clifford Essex Paragon Deluxe guitar plugged into a Fender Vibrolux amplifier. The recording also featured five saxophones, nine brass instruments and a rhythm section and was recorded in London on the summer solstice 21 June 1962.
Undoubtedly immensely iconic, the James Bond Theme even reached No. 13 on the UK singles charts, and has featured in almost all of the films since. It had no precedent to follow, and therefore no need for the bombastic title treatments that would come to define the franchise. John Barry was just perfect for the Bond films, and is music is characterised by two vastly different things: luscious, gorgeous sweep vs energetic, aggressive, dynamic action music.
Barry went on to score many of the soundtracks and work directly on a number of the individual lead theme songs (almost everything from Goldfinger to The Living Daylights). It opens the first ever Bond film and is heard over the end titles of several that followed. One thing is for certain, the James Bond Theme will return.