To say the James Bond franchise is unique is a major understatement. It has so many cool things attached to it. The world’s most famous English civil servant was the brainchild of novelist Ian Fleming, who himself has so much story attached to him. There’s a good 2014 BBC miniseries that offers a somewhat fictionalized account of his clandestine activities during World War 2. Through these experiences he devised the Bond character and made him a part of the “00” section – a section comprised of operatives in Her Majesty’s Secret Service trusted enough to be allowed to kill opponents at their own discretion. The books Fleming wrote – starting with 1953’s “Casino Royale” – were initially seen as sensational pulp paperbacks but soon earned a certain cachet in the public consciousness. Fleming eventually wrote 12 Bond novels and they are a wonderful part of popular culture in and of themselves. In 1962, the phenomenon reached sensational heights with the first James Bond feature film, “Dr. No”, with Scotsman Sean Connery chosen to play Bond. The films really created the template of all things ‘Bond’: exotic locales, beautiful women, fine dining, cocktails, fast cars, dangerous adventure and music. One of the coolest things about the ‘world of Bond’ is that it has it’s very own soundtrack.
“Dr. No” features the song that has come to be known as “James Bond Theme” over the opening credits and variations of it are used throughout the film. There has been a lot of debate throughout the years over the actual origin of “James Bond Theme”. Suffice it to say that it has been credited as having been written by Monty Norman. The producers of the first film hired Norman to do the score but were apparently unhappy with the arrangement of the main theme and had John Barry come in to provide a fresh take on it. Barry – born November 3rd, like me – had some success in the late ’50’s with his own group, the John Barry Seven, and then got into film scoring, eventually being called upon to work on the Bond theme as heard in “Dr. No”. Barry has also claimed authourship of the song and twice it has gone to court with the ruling going in Norman’s favour and Norman – still with us at 89 – has been receiving royalties for the song for 60 years. Historically, we have to look at it this way: Monty Norman wrote “James Bond Theme” and that is significant. John Barry arranged it to make it sound like the song we all hear in our heads and that, too, is significant. One thing is for certain; the song is fantastic in and of itself, even apart from the Bond mystique. I love what David Arnold, another Bond film composer, says about the theme: “(it had a) bebop-swing vibe coupled with that vicious, dark, distorted electric guitar, definitely an instrument of rock ‘n’ roll … it represented everything about the character you would want: It was cocky, swaggering, confident, dark, dangerous, suggestive, sexy, unstoppable. And he did it in two minutes”. Norman, it should be noted, went on to do nothing. Barry subsequently scored 11 Bond films and many other movies including “Born Free”, “Midnight Cowboy”, “King Kong (1976)”, “Body Heat”, “The Cotton Club”, “Out of Africa”, “Dances With Wolves” and “Chaplin”. Barry won five Academy Awards and four Grammys for his film work.
The second film in the series was “From Russia, With Love”. While this film doubled the gross of “Dr. No” and people really began to take notice of the franchise, the music from the films had not yet cemented itself into popular culture. Subsequently, the theme from “From Russia, With Love” by English singer Matt Monro (Sir George Martin said Monro was the best singer he ever worked with) was an excellent if somewhat generic and low-key song. And while it was not featured over the opening credits, as became the norm, it was nominated for a Golden Globe. Where things really began to take off for the franchise was the third film, 1964’s “Goldfinger”. This marked the first time John Barry wrote the title song and scored the film as well. This was also the first time the theme was performed over the opening credits. Welsh singer Shirley Bassey had a Top Ten hit in the States with the title song. There are singers that sing to the back rows and then there is Shirley Bassey. She sings past the back rows and out the door. The guy drying his clothes in the laundromat across the street feels the breeze from her belting. The soundtrack album went to #1 Stateside and now the music had become a major element of the mystique. Speaking of Welsh belters, Tom Jones lent his formidable talents to “Thunderball” a year later. Two notable recordings from consecutive films with odd titles for songs. I’ve always thought the lyricists had a tough time writing these songs: “so, he strikes like Thunderball”? 1967 was a big year for Nancy Sinatra so the producers brought her in to sing the theme for “You Only Live Twice”. Nancy became the first American to interpret a Bond theme.
Starting around the time of the success of “Goldfinger” in 1964, “spy jazz” became a sub-genre. The strength and popularity of the Bond themes and the scores of John Barry gave rise to a host of imitators. Other spy movies and television shows emerged and it was essential to have attached to them a soundtrack full of noisy brass and sinister guitar riffs. United Artists, the studio that produced the Bond films, released the soundtracks to the Bond films on their record label and also commissioned like-sounding records that would feed the public’s appetite for ‘Bond-y’ sounds. They released two volumes of “Music to Read James Bond By”, consisting of artists on their roster performing some music from and inspired by the films. I’ve been fortunate enough to have found the first one on vinyl. The soundtracks and themes from “Our Man Flint”, “Charade”, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E” and others also became part of the genre. Many instrumental albums by artists performing what today we would call lounge music also appeared, referencing Barry’s incidental music and coming up with their own contributions. Even surf music got into the act with the Menn releasing “Ian Fleming Theme”. Legendary band leader Count Basie put out the very brassy and jazzy “Basie Meets Bond” in 1966 which featured the themes from the movies and also songs from the scores. In 1967, a “non-canon” Bond spoof was released called “Casino Royale” which featured the hit title track which was performed by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. Music mogul Alpert showed up years later for the soundtrack of the other non-canon film, “Never Say Never Again”. Herb produced his wife, Lani Hall, singing the theme. An alternate theme was written for the film “Thunderball” and was performed by Dionne Warwick. At the time, an Italian journalist had dubbed Bond “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and a song was written for and recorded by Miss. Warwick with this title but not used. The iconic “James Bond Theme” as been covered countless times, notably by prolific purveyor of spy jazz Leroy Holmes, Glen Campbell, Brian Setzer, the Ventures, the Art of Noise and Moby.
A new era of Bond started in 1973 with Roger Moore taking over the role for “Live and Let Die”. Here we have what is loosely referred to as the worst film and the best theme. Paul McCartney got the call to write the title track which he co-wrote with his wife, Linda. His old buddy, Beatles producer George Martin, scored the film. Oddly, once the song had been written, the producers hired obscure singer B.J. Arnau to sing the theme over the titles. Martin, having already recorded Paul’s version, was surprised, having assumed that the Paul McCartney and Wings recording would be used. In the end, Paul insisted, stating he would withdraw his composition if his band’s recording was not utilized. Thankfully, the producers acquiesced. This became the first rock song to be used as a theme for a Bond film and the recording is stellar. Martin’s freight-train orchestration is absolutely exhilarating. The interplay of the guitar and the brass is striking while the pianist’s left hand is riveting and ominous. At the time, it was the most successful Bond theme, reaching #2 in the US. The song was nominated for an Oscar but lost to “The Way We Were” (C’mon!!). Years later, it was covered by Guns ‘n’ Roses who wisely did not tinker with the song and kept Martin’s orchestral assault basically intact. Sidebar: the mysterious B.J. Arnau sings a watered-down version in a night club scene in the film. In 1977, “The Spy Who Loved Me” was released with a score by the popular composer Marvin Hamlisch. The soundtrack is sadly dated and generally reviled because of it’s obvious disco leanings. This film marks the first time that the main theme song bore a different title than the film. It’s probably for the best they didn’t try to write a song called “The Spy Who Loved Me”. The song used over the opening titles was “Nobody Does it Better” and was recorded by Carly Simon. It is an excellent song featuring wonderful piano and was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Song but lost to “You Light Up My Life” (C’mon!!). It was a Top Ten hit all over the world. Still, hearing the line “like heaven above me, the spy who loved me…” always brings a chuckle. The excellent Bond film “For Your Eyes Only” premiered in 1981 and Scotland’s Sheena Easton sang another Academy Award-nominated theme. Easton sang this song – another huge international hit – on screen during the opening titles, the only time this has happened in a Bond film. The soundtrack was done by American Bill Conti, who had given us “Gonna Fly Now”, the stirring theme from 1977’s “Rocky”. 1985’s “A View to a Kill” was 57-year-old Roger Moore’s last go-’round as the MI6 agent and this film’s theme gave Bond his biggest chart success. In the early ’80’s, England’s Duran Duran were hugely popular. The band’s bassist, John Taylor, approached Bond producer ‘Cubby’ Broccoli at a party and drunkenly asked when ‘Cubby’ was going to “get a decent band to do a theme”. This unlikely beginning led to Duran Duran being paired with John Barry and the result was the title track. The song was nominated for a Golden Globe and went to #1 in the US and many other countries. Bond went through a transition period after Moore left the role. Timothy Dalton starred in two films in the late 1980’s and the highlight of his tenure is undoubtedly the theme to his second outing, “Licence to Kill”. Sung by the greatest female voice in soul and R&B, Gladys Knight, the song borrows the horn line from “Goldfinger” and Gladys – a rare American Bond theme vocalist – puts her indelible stamp on the tune that was a Top Ten hit in the UK. It is the longest Bond theme song – of course, a song this good is never long enough.
Super-handsome Irishman Pierce Brosnan successfully ushered James Bond into the modern era of film making with the excellent “GoldenEye”. For this film, the producers scored the services of U2’s Bono and the Edge who wrote the title song for Tina Turner – giving us the rarity of back-to-back African American female theme singers. The film was partially advertised as being the “new era” of Bond, which indeed it was. Interesting to note that this new generation of Bond theme composers utilized the lyric “you’ll never know how I watched you from the shadows as a child”, as if Bono and the Edge are recalling watching Bond in a darkened theater in their youth. I love Pierce Brosnan. Unfortunately, the direction the franchise took during his tenure was a poor one. The films became overly sensational and needed a reset; similar to the one that took place with “For Your Eyes Only” after the space exploits seen in “Moonraker”. The themes of the Brosnan films also suffered a downward spiral after “GoldenEye”. Perhaps it was their decision to go with American artists. History has shown that the themes seem to go over better in the hands of artists from the UK. All of the Brosnan themes are performed by American women save for “The World is Not Enough”, which was sung by the Scottish female lead singer of the American band Garbage. Their name says it all.
The franchise was reset once again with Daniel Craig’s introduction in 2006’s “Casino Royale”. During this era, film music composer David Arnold cemented himself as the new ‘John Barry’ of the franchise. “Casino Royale” was Arnold’s fourth Bond film. The grittiness of Craig’s ‘blunt instrument’ take on the character was mirrored in Chris Cornell’s pounding theme, “You Know My Name”. Cornell became the first American male to perform a Bond theme and, to date, his theme is the only one performed solo by an American male. Another American male, Jack White, teamed with Alicia Keys to perform the theme to the next Bond film, “Quantum of Solace”, “Another Way to Die”. The first duet in Bond film history, this great tune features White’s trademark grinding fuzz. Just when you thought the Yankees were taking over Bond themes – and the themes were going to have different titles than the films – in comes England’s Adele with the theme to “Skyfall”. Adele’s excellent theme continued the trend of hearkening back to dramatic Bond themes of old in part by utilizing a 77-piece orchestra. “Skyfall” became perhaps the most successful Bond theme to date as it won a Golden Globe, a Grammy and – the most coveted prize – the Academy Award. This pattern was continued with the theme from the next film, “Spectre”. English singer Sam Smith wrote and recorded “Writing’s on the Wall”. Smith utilizes his falsetto which makes this track the audio opposite of the virile style of Tom Jones. On first listen, the song seems very understated and inaccessible. But it tends to grow on you and it’s ominous chords in the true John Barry style put one in mind of “From Russia, With Love”, which makes it at once nostalgic while still being contemporary. While it was not the hit single that “Skyfall” had been, it garnered the Golden Globe and became the second consecutive Bond theme to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song.
As of this writing, the themes to James Bond films seem to be in good hands. A return to artists from the UK and the compositions utilizing orchestras and striving for a cutting edge yet timeless, and even nostalgic aura make for some quality recordings. Rumour has it, though, that Beyonce has been tapped to perform the next theme. Hopefully, that won’t undo some of the progress of the last few films. In the final tally, we’ve had 13 artists from the UK and 10 Americans (“The Living Daylights” was performed by Norway’s A-ha). Also, we’ve had 14 female theme artists and 7 male. One was a duet and two were instrumentals. So, after all this jabbering, what are the Top Ten James Bond Theme Songs? Glad you asked….
10. “A View to a Kill” – Duran Duran (1985) — Written by Duran Duran and John Barry. Only Bond theme to reach #1 in the US. Nominated for Golden Globe. Excellent tune. Catchy and upbeat.
9. “Another Way to Die” (from “Quantum of Solace”) – Jack White and Alicia Keys (2008) — Only Bond theme done as a duet. Nominated for a Grammy. Despite receiving generally negative criticism, this tune and the previous film’s theme both are indicative of the new era of Bond films and fit well with Daniel Craig’s grim, blunt, violent take on the role.
8. “Goldfinger” – Shirley Bassey (1964) — Top Ten in the US. #53 on AFI’s list of the Top 100 movie songs. Despite my dislike of Bassey’s voice and singing style, the song must rank high here if only for it’s iconic status in the Bond Music canon. In many ways, it is the Bond theme that started it all.
7. “For Your Eyes Only” – Sheena Easton (1981) — Co-written by Bill Conti. Top Ten in US and UK. Nominated for Oscar. Just a nice, classy ballad. It sounds like 1981 but not really in a bad way. I like Sheena Easton. She was Sonny Crockett’s wife on “Miami Vice”.
6. “Nobody Does It Better” (from “The Spy Who Loved Me”) – Carly Simon (1977) — First Bond theme to be titled differently from the film since “Dr. No”. Top Ten in US and UK. Nominated for Oscar, Golden Globe and Grammy. #67 on AFI’s Top 100 movie songs list. I love the sound of a piano and this one has some great piano playing, particularly to open the tune. The coda of the song is an example of excellent orchestrating and arranging. Carly singing “sweet baby you’re the best” over the wonderful scoring of the strings and horns is a treat for the ears.
5. “GoldenEye” – Tina Turner (1995) — Top Ten throughout Europe and the UK. Bond enjoyed his first successful ‘reset’ since 1973 and this charismatic theme was a part of that. Written by Bono and the Edge, it was the perfect first theme for the new era. Fantastic, dramatic song. Ominous and dark in the best John Barry tradition.
4. “Licence to Kill” – Gladys Knight (1989) — Interesting how I’ve talked about how artists from the UK seem better suited to perform Bond themes and yet four of my top ten are by Americans. Top Ten in the UK. Most of the appeal here is the sublime voice of Gladys Knight. The song could actually function as simply a ‘song’, apart from the world of Bond. I love the key change near the end as it adds emotion.
3. “Skyfall” – Adele (2012) — Most successful Bond theme to date. First theme to win the Oscar and also copped the Golden Globe and a Grammy. #1 on the charts in several countries around the world. Co-written by Adele, the song definitely benefits from her extraordinary voice. She could sing the phone book and it would be enchanting. But the very best thing about this theme is it’s acknowledgment of past themes. It maintains a modern sound but also contains ‘Bond-esque’ musical cues and simply sounds to the listener like a ‘Bond theme’. The accompaniment of a full orchestra certainly helps this cause, something that Sam Smith will emulate with the next Bond theme.
2. “Live and Let Die” – Paul McCartney and Wings (1973) — Absolutely stunning. The introduction of Roger Moore as Bond was accompanied by the first rock song to be used as a theme. At the time, it became the most successful Bond theme ever, reaching number 2 on the American charts and #9 in the UK. The first Bond theme to be nominated for an Academy Award. The thing that makes this song so great is the same thing that makes the Beatles so listenable. Sir Paul McCartney is such a song craftsman and when he marries that ability to the orchestral genius of Sir George Martin, magic appears. McCartney’s song is hip, cool and contemporary and then the orchestral score that Martin provided for his ensemble – the driving orchestra break – sends this over the top. It is a high-speed thrill ride. Martin adds rock guitar to these timeless classical instruments and comes up with a sinister sonic force. Exhilarating.
1. “James Bond Theme” (from “Dr. No”) – John Barry and Orchestra (1962) — Some find it hard to consider this a “James Bond theme” but it was the theme to the first film, “Dr. No”, and then became the character’s theme; which makes it even cooler. I can’t say anymore about this iconic piece of music than I – or rather David Arnold – have said above. Suffice it to say that it is one of the most recognizable pieces of music in history. Some may say that with the Daniel Craig films the “James Bond Theme” is no longer used or it has been replaced with other pieces of music but consider this: the arc of the Craig films is the origin of Bond as a “00” agent so really he hasn’t ‘earned’ his theme yet. However, you can hear snippets of it in Craig’s “Casino Royale” during action scenes or when Bond is doing something particularly ‘Bond-y’. You’ll also hear it during the closing credits of these films. You’ll notice at the end of “Skyfall” that the franchise has officially been reset with M and Moneypenny in place and Bond ready to function as the agent that we all grew up with. Then, once we’re ready to ‘start fresh’ at the beginning of “Spectre”, that film starts ‘where we came in’; Bond in the gun barrel with his “James Bond Theme” playing.