The best and worst Bond themes

 

I don’t approve of lists.  Indeed, lists were the reason why I gave up reading Q and Empire magazines in the late 1990s, because they seemed to have run out of ideas for interesting features and instead were devoting too many pages to lazy ‘best of’ and ‘worst of’ inventories – the 100 best rock stars, the 50 worst albums, the 20 greatest crime movies, the 100 evilest cinematic villains and so on.

 

However, Skyfall – the song sung by Adele (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7HKoqNJtMTQ) that accompanies the titles of the upcoming James Bond film of the same name – has recently topped the iTunes chart.  And as regular readers of this blog will know, I’m a serious James Bond buff.  So I’ll take this opportunity to indulge in some lazy listing of my own.  Here are my nominations for the ten best Bond-movie theme songs and the five worst ones.  To make it a little more interesting, I’ll talk wherever possible about notable cover versions of those songs too.

 

Without further ado, I give you, in reverse order, what I think are the ten best.

 

10. Nobody does it better, sung by Carly Simon.

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PNA7DcVppEs)

 

Performed by Simon but composed by Marvin Hamlisch, who unfortunately died in August this year, Nobody Does It Better appears at the beginning of The Spy Who Loved Me, the best of Roger Moore’s 007 films (though to be honest the competition isn’t great).  It started a trend for Bond themes to veer off into power-ballad territory, but unlike what came later, this at least has a recognisable tune.  On the 1997 collection Shaken and Stirred: the David Arnold James Bond Project, David Arnold (who in the 1990s took over from John Barry as the Bond movies’ composer-in-chief) persuaded various pop and rock artists of the 1980s and 1990s to cover some of the themes from the series’ earlier films – and Aimee Mann was assigned the job of singing Nobody Does It Better (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=finaXhHQw_I).  The result, though, was a bit ordinary.

 

(c) East West

 

For a weirder version – weird in the way that Thom Yorke singing any Bond song would sound weird – try the one that Radiohead occasionally like to trot out at their concerts: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=efXbcfxiDnM.  Also, I like the deliberately bad version that turns up in Sophie Coppola’s Japan-set movie Lost in Translation, sung by Anna Faris’s gormless Hollywood actress in a Tokyo hotel-bar.

 

9. Thunderball, sung by Tom Jones.

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sT0x7QiJI1g)

 

Duh-nuh-nuh-nuh…  Nuuur-nuuur!  By the time of Thunderball, fourth in the series, the Bond movies were getting a tad overwrought – the plots were starting to strain while the filmmakers tried to squeeze in more and more car chases, speedboat chases, frogman battles, killer sharks and scenes with vertical take-off devices.  Tom Jones, the musical personification of overwrought-ness, was therefore an appropriate choice to sing this theme-song, though at least he did it before he tipped over completely into Las Vegas-style bluster.  For the version on Shaken and Stirred, David Arnold had the smart idea of employing Martin Fry – Fry had been the guy wearing the gold-lame suit in 1980s pop band ABC and was thus as (knowingly) ridiculous as Jones was in his heyday.  However, I find the Fry version a little underwhelming: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vimRnv9wMKk.

 

Here’s my one, tiny claim to Bond-related fame.  I was in the same high-school class as the daughter of the late Greek-Cypriot actor Paul Stassino, who in Thunderball plays the henchman helping SPECTRE to steal the plane with the nuclear warheads on board.  You really needed to know that, didn’t you?

 

8. The Living Daylights, performed by A-ha.

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y9p0FJnk2vM)

 

Never, ever did I imagine that I would one day compile a top ten of anything that contained the warbling 1980s teenybop sensation A-ha.  However, having spent decades thinking that this, the theme for Timothy Dalton’s first outing as Bond, was rubbish, I listened to it again the other week and realised that it was actually quite good.  It has a wistfulness, even a bleakness that sounds almost Nordic – appropriately enough, considering that Morton Harket and company came from Oslo.  The film attempted to give Bond a more human edge and featured a relationship between Dalton and heroine Maryam D’Abo that was monogamous and a little more sincere-seeming than the norm.  As such, The Living Daylights was a more likeable Bond movie than usual (especially after its predecessor, A View to a Kill, which had seen Roger Moore dragging his paunch around in lecherous pursuit of Tanya Roberts, Grace Jones and Fiona Fullerton).  D’Abo was a more likeable heroine than usual too, and this plaintive, stripped-down pop song fitted the bill rather nicely.

 

7. You Only Live Twice, sung by Nancy Sinatra.

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6aufH98vkyg)

 

This lovely, languid ballad would figure higher up my list, if it weren’t for two things.  (1) It doesn’t match the tone of the accompanying movie, an over-the-top tale wherein Donald Pleasance tries to start World War III by stealing American and Soviet spacecraft from earth’s orbit and stowing them in his giant base, which is a converted Japanese volcano; and (2) part of the song was sampled by a certain ex-member of Take That in the late 1990s and inserted into a hugely irritating song called Millennium, which ruins my memories of You Only Live Twice now.

 

If you must, here’s footage of Idiot Boy singing Millennium on Top of the Pops: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QQOQpt9Ermg.  You’ll note that he’s wearing a gold-sequinned dress, in a whacky and obvious tribute to Shirley Bassey.  The song was sung by Nancy Sinatra, you stupid c***.

 

Now for a digression.  When I lived in Japan in the 1990s, I had an American friend called Bill Conway, who prior to moving to Japan had played drums in an indie-garage rock band in Wisconsin called the Weeds.  Among the songs on their 1992 album King Crow was one that I really liked called Nancy Sinatra.  Thanks to the technological marvel that is the worldwide web, I can now listen to Nancy Sinatra by the Weeds again – here is a link to it: https://www.box.com/shared/c7b2yz9gps.  I recall Bill telling me that the album was released by Boat Records, a Madison-based label whose founders included a musician, studio-producer and mate of his called Butch Vig.  After producing Nevermind for Nirvana, Vig founded the internationally-successful electro pop / rock band Garbage.  Which brings me nicely to…

 

6. The World is not Enough, performed by Garbage.

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8C5NLfYdZaE)

 

Most Bond themes of the last two decades – like Chris Cornell’s You Know My Name in Casino Royale (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nfc9GLxlhEw) and Jack White and Alicia Keys’ Another Way to Die in Quantum of Solace (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUHD0cdQmko&feature=related) – haven’t been that bad.  Their problem is that they’ve just been forgettable.  Garbage’s song for the third of Pearce Brosnan’s Bond appearances, The World is not Enough, is definitely the best of the latter-day themes.  The link I’ve inserted is not for the movie’s title sequence but for the song’s official video, which is surprisingly bleak – a nihilistic miniature sci-fi thriller that makes good use of the disconcerting, doll-like prettiness of the band’s singer, flame-haired Scot Shirley Manson (who in the 1980s was a member of the great Edinburgh Goth band Goodbye Mr Mackenzie).

 

5. We have all the time in the world, sung by Louis Armstrong.

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pJsPoI2w6-A)

 

Jazz trumpeter and gravelly singer Louis Armstrong sang this schmaltzy but lovely ballad as an accompaniment for the scenes where George Lazenby romances Diana Rigg in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – the song has an added poignancy if you already know how the film is going to end.  Other singers have flocked to the song ever since to perform covers of it, including Iggy Pop on Shaken and Stirred (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJNwZxY3h2Q) and the Fun Lovin’ Criminals (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lypG-5Bpzuw).  For my money, though, the spookiest rendition by far comes courtesy of the mighty Irish shoegazers My Bloody Valentine: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1fajvqa50Jc.

 

4. Goldfinger, sung by Shirley Bassey.

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fy_PJODH3p0)

 

Duhhh-nuhhh!  Goooo-old…fin-gaaaaah!  Yes, you probably know this one, which established Ms Bassey as the Bond singer par excellence.  Such was the song’s influence that 25 years later the theme-song for Timothy Dalton’s second Bond film, Licenced to Kill, which was sung by Gladys Knight, borrowed its brassy, crashing chords (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ju_by-sC79c).  I like Gladys Knight, and I quite like her Bond theme, but there is something very frustrating about it.  Hearing those chords, you keep expecting Licensed to Kill to soar off into Goldfinger, which it doesn’t do.  So you’re constantly being reminded that you’re listening to a different (and inevitably lesser) song.

 

Incidentally – another digression – the best Bond-type song ever recorded that didn’t actually appear in a Bond film is, in my opinion, the gloriously slinky 1996 song 6 Underground by the Sneaker Pimps.  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2eBZqmL8ehg)  This uses a sample from the movie Goldfinger, though not from Bassey’s epic title song.  The sample, a simple but haunting harp sequence, appears on the John Barry-written tune Golden Girl, which plays during the scene where Sean Connery discovers Shirley Eaton’s body covered in gold paint (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lOfW9xw6yJ0).

 

(c) Columbia

 

3. Diamonds are Forever, sung by Shirley Bassey.

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qPeSPB68i2c&feature=g-vrec)

 

And here we have Shirley Bassey’s second go at a Bond theme – a song whose greatness is such that it seems wasted on the accompanying film, a baggy and rather tacky 1970s epic, packed with opulence, vulgarity and political incorrectness (see Jill St John playing Tiffany Case, the most airheaded Bond heroine of all time, and camp, hand-holding assassins Mr Kidd and Mr Wint).  At the risk of committing heresy, I have to admit that I almost prefer the version of the song that is sung by the eerie-voiced David McAlmont, appears on Shaken and Stirred and can be listened to here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h0TbM8ER4pg.

 

2. Live and Let Die, performed by Wings.

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sn8alMYSu44)

 

I was never much of a Beatles fan, although the Beatles’ musical output is vastly better than what Paul McCartney produced subsequently, either with Wings, by himself or in collaboration with the likes of Stevie Wonder or Michael Jackson.  (Think of McCartney epics such as Mull of Kintyre, The Frog Chorus, Press to Play, Ebony and Ivory, The Girl is Mine…  Are you screaming, “Stop!  Stop!  Make it stop!” yet?)  But this barnstormer, which in 1974 ushered in Roger Moore’s lengthy tenure as Bond, is for me the best thing the ex-Beatle has ever done.  Even those customary bits of goofiness that McCartney seems so fond of in his song-writing (“You used to say, live and let live…  You know you did, you know you did, you know you did!”) work here, somehow.

 

The cover on Shaken and Stirred (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t98bsf9kRW4) by Chrissie Hynde, whose band the Pretenders had already contributed a song to The Living Daylights soundtrack, is rather average, I’m afraid.  The best version of Live and Let Die, of course, is the one performed by Guns n’ Roses on their 1991 album Use Your Illusion I.  Obviously, Slash, Axel Rose and the gang murder the song, but at least they murder it beautifully (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6D9vAItORgE).

 

1. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, composed and conducted by John Barry.

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=z0OQAxT1LR4&feature=endscreen)

 

Because it featured a miscast George Lazenby in his one and only appearance as 007, the film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was for many years neglected by aficionados and critics.  Nowadays, however, despite Lazenby’s presence, many regard it as one of the best in the series, if not the best.  The masterful music accompanying the opening titles is instrumental only – which is fitting, as for once we aren’t distracted by whatever big-band diva or chart-topping rock or pop group is doing the singing or performing duties, and we get to listen to the undiluted genius of the 007 music-maestro himself, John Barry.  For Shaken and Stirred, David Arnold got the Propellerheads to do a jived up, electronica version of the OHMSS theme (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rFjQXkEfz2c), which is fair enough.  But to be honest, nothing compares with the soaring trumpets and breathless tempo of Barry’s original.

 

(c) Liberty

 

Of course, the best piece of Bond music of all time (as opposed to a song or tune gracing one particular film) is the James Bond theme, written by Monty Norman and arranged by James Barry.  Many artists have covered it, and over the years famous studio boffins like Moby (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMDTgaEIi-Q), L.T.J. Bukem (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P3lKB7qQk8o) and David Holmes (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SQuD-v6N4JU&feature=related) have enjoyed remixing, deconstructing and generally mucking around with it; but the original theme is still the best (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ii1tc493bZM).  During any film, as soon as it strikes up, the hairs automatically rise on the backs of the audience’s necks, even if what is happening on the screen at the time isn’t particularly sensible.  (Roger Moore attempts to escape from some villains in a pedal-boat, which he cunningly transforms into a nuclear-powered miniature submarine at the press of a button – that sort of thing.)

 

(c) Mute Records UK 

 

However, having explored the peaks of James Bond music heaven, it is now time for us to descend through the levels of James Bond music hell.  Here are my nominees for the five worst Bond themes of all time – songs that have done nothing but sully the musical reputation of the franchise.

 

5. The Man with the Golden Gun, sung by Lulu.

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dK75xQR19jE)

 

He has a powerful weaaa-ponnn!  He charges a million a shhh-ot!  An assassin that’s second to none – the man with the golden guuu-huuun!”  Yes, it’s feisty Glaswegian singer Lulu – who else could it be?  To be fair, I don’t mind Lulu, but her trademark cheesy histrionics and lack of Bassey-style gravity made her the wrong person to sing a Bond theme.  Some might argue that the song is actually fitting, as The Man with the Golden Gun the movie is almost entirely a 1970s cheese-fest anyway – what with Roger Moore, Roger Moore’s wardrobe, Britt Ekland, Herve Villechaize from Fantasy Island, Clifton James’s comedy redneck police officer, the flying car, etc.  (Only Christopher Lee’s performance as the villain, Scaramanga, gives the film some dignity.)  But I don’t agree.  This song is just annoying.

 

4. For Your Eyes Only, sung by Sheena Easton.

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NGrptJTswNg)

 

Her work with Prince has boosted her credibility somewhat in the intervening years, but back at the start of the 1980s, Bellshill-born Sheena Easton was seen as merely another starlet of dubious talent who’d managed to make it into the charts by virtue of appearing in a reality TV show.  The 1980 documentary programme The Big Time followed her around while, as an unknown, she tried to find success in the pop world.  (Of course, just by the exposure she got on the show, she was able to find a market for her first two singles Modern Girl and 9 to 5 and they rose high in the UK charts.)  By the following year, she’d been lined up to sing the theme for Roger Moore’s fifth Bond film, For Your Eyes Only.  It’s a limp, dreary affair – rather like Easton’s aforementioned singles – and is notable only because it’s the one Bond song to date where the singer appears amid the opening titles.

 

On the evidence of Easton’s For Your Eyes Only and Lulu’s The Man with the Golden Gun, diminutive Scottish songstresses should be kept well away from James Bond themes.  (Unless, of course, if the name is Mansshhon…  Sshhirley Mansshhon.)

 

3. All Time High, sung by Rita Coolidge.

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Md8uNCYX_Nc)

 

Has anyone ever been able to identify a tune in this interminable, meandering and flavourless 1980s power ballad that opened 1982’s Octopussy?  (At least it was paired with a movie that was as wretched as it was.)  On its release as a single, it became the lowest-charting Bond theme ever in the British charts – it managed number 75 – which suggests the British record-buying public have more sense than we sometimes give them credit for.  On Shaken and Stirred, Britpop legends Pulp had a go at covering the thing, but even the witty Jarvis Cocker couldn’t do much with it (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=maeELHysFPE).

 

2. Die Another Day, sung by Madonna.

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3JBzxKLs-dY)

 

A ghastly song and, unfortunately, a ghastly movie too.  Coming forty years after the release of the first Bond film, Dr No, 2002’s Die Another Day was supposed to be a glorious celebration of the franchise, stuffed with everything that made the movies great.  Unfortunately, it ended up as an over-indulgent, self-congratulatory mess.  The one-liners were crass and schoolboy-ish, there were moments of ridiculousness that even Roger Moore might have baulked at (the invisible car, the virtual reality device that allows Miss Moneypenny to have her evil way with 007 at last) and, least forgivably, its action sequences made heavy and visible use of computer-generated-imagery – a betrayal of the earlier films, which had always been famed for the quality of their stuntwork.

 

In fact, there’s something smugly Tony Blair and Cool-Britannia-esque about Die Another Day, which is probably why Madonna was invited on board, both as an actress and as the singer of the theme song – at the time, she was going through her Mrs Guy Ritchie / honorary Brit / aristocratic lady-of-the-manor phase, which seemed to flatter UK egos.  The title song whines and burps along – “Bloop…  die…  bloop…  another…  bloop…  day!” – while accompanied by images of Pierce Brosnan being tortured by his North Korean captors.  But it was almost as much torture for cinema audiences sitting through (and listening to) the bloody thing.

 

1. A View to a Kill, performed by Duran Duran.

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fp4CR2HcHLQ)

 

In 1985, the Bond producers decided it was finally time to drag the 1970s-esque Roger Moore into the 1980s by putting him in a movie, A View to a Kill, whose theme-song was performed by a (then) young, fashionable and ultra-popular band.  So they hired the New Romantic group that all old punks love to hate, Duran Duran.  (Needless to say, the lame funk-guitar licks, the dinky-sounding drums and the hollow studio-production sound, as well as the New Romantic hairdos, clothes and make-up that appear in the A View to a Kill video, make the song seem every bit as dated now as what Lulu was belting out ten years earlier.)  And even by Duran Duran’s standards, this is pretty poor – it has a clunking tune, the lyrics still induce a migraine (“Dance into the fire!  A fatal kiss is all we need!”) and Simon Le Bon struggles with his vocal duties.  “Bellowing like a wounded elk,” was how Q magazine cruelly but accurately described his singing here.

 

(c) Liberty

 

As for what I thought of the song Skyfall…  Well, I’m not a big fan of Adele, but I liked it in its traditional, lush-and-grandiose Bond-sounding way.  I just hope the old-fashioned style of the song, and certain crowd-pleasing elements that appear in the film itself (such as the return of Q*) don’t mean the filmmakers have lost their nerve, abandoned the grittier approach of the last two movies with Daniel Craig, and steered this one back to the opulent silliness of past decades.

 

* I’m no longer talking about Q the music magazine.  I’m talking Q who’s Bond’s quartermaster.

 

3 thoughts on “The best and worst Bond themes

  1. Just saw Skyfall. I think that Bond’s Scottish childhood is a tribute to his best (and brainiest) fan. Do you agree, Mr Bond-ologist?

    • Hi, Clara, thank you for your comment. Flattering though it is to imagine that Bond’s Scottish childhood is a tribute to my good self, it actually comes from the novel You Only Live Twice, which was the last one completed before Ian Fleming died and was also written after Sean Connery — an Edinburgh man — had starred in the first James Bond film, Dr No. The novel concludes with British Intelligence believing that Bond has been killed and his boss, ‘M’, publishing an obituary for him in the Times. M’s obituary makes reference to Bond’s Scottish background for the first time – more precisely, his father was Scottish and his mother was Swiss. It’s believed that Fleming added this detail to Bond’s back-story because he’d been so impressed by Connery’s portrayal of him.

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