As a prelude to next week’s epic Greatest Bond Movie post, I’ve been listening to the Bond themes again. I love them, I really do. There’s something about the power ballad linked with the action movie that gives me chills. And of course, the producers of the Bond franchise – the Broccoli family – have often had a knack of getting artists at crucial points in their careers and coaxing the very best performance possible out of them.
The key word there, is ‘often’.
It isn’t a perfect system.
Like the Broccolis, I will make some errors here. But I’ve come up with a totally unbiased, empirical system that covers more ground than Roger Moore’s girdle.
- How good is it? You know, like, do I like it and that?
That’s it. That’s the system.
The James Bond Theme
Dr No, 1962
I can’t rank the theme. It’s beyond iconic. It has spawned a sub-genre of other iconic songs (see the list below). IT has transcended rank. But because it’s SO GOOD…
I should also add, as we get into it, that there are really only 3 nominees for the #1 slot and if you don’t know them, I can’t help you.
#23 – Die Another Day
This one is open and shut – by far the worst Bond song ever and, to nobody’s surprise, it accompanies one of the worst Bond films. Poor Pierce Brosnan just got worse and worse scripts the longer he stayed in the role. But Madonna’s electro-hack offense against music adds to the horror.
Don’t sleep on how bad the film clip is either – a writhing, thrusting Madonna, strapped down (because she is of course a very dangerous secret agent) is interspersed with clips of her fencing against herself. Thrust! Parry! Kick yourself through a window!
#22 – License To Kill
Gladys Knight, 1989
This one is an absolute horror. It sounds like someone put ‘generic Bond music’ on a backing track in a karaoke lounge, then got way too serious while her friends got embarrassed and pretended they weren’t with her. My favourite part is when Gladys just repeat sings the phrase ‘License to Kill’ again and again, as if to prove a point.
I do feel like all the 80’s songs start at a competitive disadvantage though. The 80’s could be rough, musically speaking.
#21 – All Time High from Octopussy
Rita Coolidge, 1983
Ugh. This snooze-fest has almost nothing going for it. I’m genuinely impressed if you stayed awake through the whole thing. Rita Coolidge was at the tail-end of her country and western career at this stage and, continuing the trend of American singers doing a fairly average job in Bond soundtracks, manages to bring a lazy nonchalance to Bond. Quite the opposite of what you’d expect.
By the way, you’re going to notice a trend through this: the best Bond themes are generally named after the movie (Die Another Day is the exception that proves the rule).
#20 – For Your Eyes Only
Sheena Easton, 1981
For your eyes only is another fairly tame song (and a fairly tame movie) that just offers up the equivalent of a weak second serve in tennis. The 80’s were not a strong era for Bond, in film or music. Let’s at least credit Sheena Easton for going for it with hair and fashion here though.
#19 – Another Way To Die from Quantum Of Solace
Alicia Keys and Jack White, 2008
The case for Another Way To Die:
When you think about it…I mean, it’s really…with the guitars and the, the…harmonising, I guess? I mean, yeah, there’s Jack White looking awful pasty in what I guess is the Bolivian desert, but also there’s a grand piano there because they don’t call her Alicia Keys for nothing and if you don’t understand art like that THEN THERE IS NO BEAUTY IN YOU.
Let’s just move on. Sorry Alicia and Jack. Rest assured we all like you guys separately.
Legit – this is my secret shame. I really want to like this song. I think if either of these guys does it alone, it’s three times as good.
#18 – Tomorrow Never Dies
Sheryl Crow, 1997
I feel like this song should be higher, but I just don’t have it in me to care. Sheryl Crow is okay I guess, but most of the song feels like it’s sung by someone who would rather be somewhere else. Then we start the clip with that woeful Bond rip-off – congratulations to the art director there – and I just shrug and move on.
#17 – Nobody Does It Better (from The Spy Who Loved Me)
Carly Simon, 1977
Stolen/mutilated for the David Jones theme in the 90’s, Carly Simon’s Nobody Does It Better is from one of my personal favourites, The Spy Who Loved Me. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. I guess they liked slow songs with cheesy lyrics in the late 70’s. Nice orchestral tone, but still reminds me too much of the Golden Girls soundtrack.
#16 – The Living Daylights
You may be surprised to see A-Ha this high, but honestly, this isn’t terrible. Its major crime is being a worse version of Duran Duran’s A View To A Kill from only 1985.
No wait, the video clip is its major crime. But still.
This song is what Bowie would write on a day Bowie wasn’t feeling really into his job and just wanted to go wear silver sparkly facepaint and chill out.
#15 – The Writing’s On The Wall from Spectre
Sam Smith, 2015
Sam Smith has a voice like a chocolate fondue set, so despite the fact that The Writing’s On The Wall never really goes anywhere as a song, he gets by here. Unfortunately – much like Spectre itself – this is a fairly forgettable song. It relies purely on vocals which is not quite enough when surrounded by some other fairly august company. BUT – it doesn’t go into the Lazenby category; so he can be grateful for that.
#14 – You Only Live Twice
Nancy Sinatra, 1967
The best thing is that nobody listening to this sighs and says, “wish it was Frank.” Good job by you Nancy! And good merging of Eastern tones with the Bond theme. Love it.
#13 – We Have All The Time In The World from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Louis Armstrong, 1969
This gets bonus points for nailing the scene at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service when Bond’s wife – yes, wife – gets murdered. Plus it’s Louis Armstrong. Apart from that, it’s really a fairly big miss as a Bond theme. Technically the classic ‘Dr No‘ Bond theme is the theme to this film, but this is the one that gets remembered.
#12 – Moonraker
Shirley Bassey, 1979
This is a really tough one to place. The first of Dame Shirley’s 3 entries, it serves as a day spa of soothing goodness compared to the 44 Magnum power that comes with her other entries. Moonraker is a slightly ridiculous movie…a very ridiculous movie, but it’s also awesomely fun, so it’s kind of interesting that this particularly track isn’t.
#11 – From Russia With Love
Matt Monro, 1963
It’s slow and sultry but it’s so wonderfully old-world. Not retro, not inauthentic – just a beautiful, old worldy song from maybe the most old-world of the Bonds. Cold War, spies and crazy Rosa Klebb is a good fit for the wonderful From Russia With Love. It’s Tom Jones-y…but let’s not kid ourselves, it ain’t Tom Jones.
#10 – The World Is Not Enough
I reckon this is the song that is furthest away from its movie. The World Is Not Enough was some shallow, awful Brosnan-fare that seems to fit having ‘Garbage’ as the band. But Shirley Manson and co. croon a soulful, powerful ballad that tries its best to bring something powerful out of a dud film. Our regards to nuclear physicist Denise Richards.
And yes, they tried way too hard in the film clip. But at least they tried, right? Never mind.
#9 – The Man With The Golden Gun
The case for The Man With The Golden Gun.
- When you ask Lulu to sing, you get Lulu to sing
- It’s upbeat, sassy and angry-good.
- She gives you the plot of the film in the lyrics. Convenient.
- It’s got Tattoo from Fantasy Island as the main henchman. I mean…come on. Herve Villechaize!
#8 – Live and Let Die
Paul McCartney and Wings, 1973
I take it back – maybe THIS is the song that is furthest away from its movie. Live and Let Die is a very average movie with a booming, sensational theme. McCartney lets rip with an epic, but very Wings-ish, song. You just know that was one of the songs where he sat back after he wrote it and smugly said, “your move, Lennon.” Sensational stuff.
#7 – You Know My Name from Casino Royale
Chris Cornell, 2006
I have to continue to remind myself just how much this helped set the scene for the Daniel Craig reboot. The Brosnan films had really tanked the value of Bond. But Chris Cornell’s shredding vocals and medium-heavy guitar provide the right amount of grit to the orchestral Bond backing track. It holds up well.
#6 – Diamonds Are Forever
Shirley Bassey, 1971
The second from Dame Shirley and if you haven’t worked out by now that I have an insatiable crush on her, it’s only getting worse from here. The woman who creates the DAME-level of musical excellence provides a powerful, stunning theme that leaves you quivering. Then Kanye took it, claimed it, and wrote a pretty sick song of his own.
Seriously though: if Dame Shirley walked into my home right now in 2015, at age 78, I’d probably still need to drink a glass of cold water to calm me down. What a stunner. Living proof that confidence is sexy.
#5 – A View To A Kill
Duran Duran, 1985
Every rule has its exception, and 80’s uber-poppers Duran Duran SLAYED the theme song to A View To A Kill, the last of Roger Moore’s efforts. It was true to them as a band, true to the era, true to Bond and hits a big last note. And the film clip…I mean, it’s so deliciously 80’s. Flying video cameras, fake spaceship interiors and badly cut-in Bond clips just adds the icing to the cake. This is also maybe the catchiest of the Bond songs. Prepare to have it stuck in your head for days.
#4 – Goldeneye
Tina Turner, 1995
Tina hits DAME-level with Goldeneye. Starts sultry, ends spectacular. We have ALL just been into the Thunderdome.
Only 3 songs earn the elite, Connery-level ranking.
#3 – Goldfinger
Shirley Bassey, 1964
Certainly the most iconic Bond song, the one that perfectly pairs with its film – neither the film nor the song makes sense apart from the other. Dame Shirley can basically unhinge her mouth and in EVERY performance, whether from 1974 or 2012, she is HAWT. The woman knows she has it all. In the above performance she is messing around the whole time and still, STILL, absolutely slays it.
Listen, if you’ve read this far you probably don’t need convincing, but Dame Shirley = BOSS.
#2 – Skyfall
I cannot get enough of this song. Adele is a DAME. An old-school, big-voiced soul mumma who might just be the natural inheritor of Dame Shirley’s mantle. I am all in on the idea of her doing another Bond theme. And the song construction – just the hints of the Bond theme underneath the verses is exactly what a Bond theme needs to have.
#1 – Thunderball
Tom Jones, 1965
No, this isn’t the official Bond video for Thunderball – it’s much better than that. It’s Tom Jones vamping around in greyscale, terrorising the screen with sheer manhood and 60’s filming.
Even Dame Shirley and Dame Adele can’t get close to Sir Tom. Thunderball is not only a good movie and a good song, but it features one of the all-time great crooners at his peak. Apocryphally, Tom passed out as soon as he’d hit the high note the first time they recorded it. When you hear Thunderball, you can believe it. It captures peak Connery, peak Jones and peak Bond all together. It features the slow ballad you want, but the true power of an elite performer. To me, this is the greatest.
The below clip is Sir Tom in 2012, almost fifty years after he first sings Thunderball, absolutely crushing it. Go to the 2:40 mark to hear him hit that fabled last note and then tell me, I dare you, that he isn’t the king.