Songs and soundtracks


© Paramount Pictures / Touchstone Pictures


Looking at the Internet just now, it seems that everybody and their granny are writing feverishly – and ‘feverishly’ is an appropriate adverb – about the coronavirus, or to give it its more accurate and more Cronenberg-esque title, Covid-19.  Now that I’m facing a period of self-isolation / social distancing (not because I have the dreaded virus but because I live in Colombo and the Sri Lankan authorities have just declared a three-day public holiday, one where everybody is urged to stay indoors and which I suspect will last for longer than three days), I’ve decided to write a few things on this blog not about the coronavirus, but about all the stuff I’m really interested in.  So here, just for a change, is something about films… and music.


A pet hate of mine is a film whose soundtrack consists of some lazily selected popular songs.  I’m thinking of films where the filmmakers have just looked at the charts and grabbed a few songs to stick on the soundtrack to make their product seem hip; or, when the film is pitched at a more mature demographic, they’ve pilfered the charts of yesteryear for a few old songs that’ll give their audience a nostalgic glow while they watch the screen.  In both cases, this means they can also bung the songs onto a tie-in soundtrack album that will hopefully generate a few extra bucks after the film’s release.  However, no thought or effort has been taken to choose songs that actually enhance what’s happening onscreen, that create a musical / cinematic frisson whereby the song augments the film’s plot and visual imagery and vice versa.


I can think of some particularly painful instances.  For example, there’s Paul Feig’s generally pretty good comedy Bridesmaids (2011) which, after nearly two hours of raunchy, sometimes acerbic comedy about the ordeals that women have to put themselves through in order to achieve the ideal of a ‘perfect’ wedding, suddenly turns into a cringeworthy schmaltz-fest when the 1990 Wilson Phillips song Hold On starts caterwauling during the climactic wedding.  (To add insult to injury, the filmmakers actually wheel on Wilson Phillips to sing the song ‘live’ at the wedding reception, as if the bride, who’s already suffered a near-breakdown about the wedding’s expensiveness, could afford to hire Wilson Phillips for the evening.)  And this applies even to songs I really like.  I mean, I love the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage, but I found it irritatingly distracting when it turned up in the rebooted Star Trek movies (2009-16).


Happily, things sometimes work the other way.  I still remember the rush I got when, at the end of The Matrix (1999), Keanu Reeves, now fully cognisant of his powers, steps out of a telephone box and shoots Superman-like up into the sky whilst Rage Against The Machine’s Wake Up thunders in the background.  Or the bit early on in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) where Harvey Keitel’s pensive, sharp-suited Charlie watches the trilby-hatted, devil-may-care Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) swagger towards him across a bar, arms draped over the shoulders of two ‘broads’, to the strains of the Rolling Stones’ Jumpin’ Jack Flash. You know immediately that Johnny Boy is bad news and, indeed, the scene serves as a mission statement for all the bad-news characters that De Niro would play later in his career.


Anyway, here are a few items that always spring to mind when I think of popular songs and film soundtracks – films that don’t just have one song smartly placed to enrich one scene, but that are choc-a-block with songs making a number of scenes extra-memorable.


I suppose I have to start with a film whose soundtrack may qualify for the title of my all-time favourite.  I’m talking about Oliver Stone’s 1994 bloodbath about lovers / serial killers on the run, Natural Born Killers.  For this, Stone hired Trent Reznor, the mastermind behind the mighty industrial / electronica / metal band Nine Inch Nails, to assemble a collage of music to complement the film’s often demented collage of visual styles.  You might have expected Reznor’s choices to form a continuous assault of brutal electronic noise, but what you actually get in Natural Born Killers is an eclectic delight.


© Warner Bros / Regency Enterprises


It’s brilliant from the start, when we see Woody Harrelson’s Mickey and Juliet Lewis’s Mallory sitting in an oppressive out-in-the-sticks diner populated by leering, gun-toting rednecks while on the jukebox Leonard Cohen forebodingly croons Waiting for the Miracle.  Then Cohen’s Miracle abruptly gives way to L7’s Shitlist and Mickey and Mallory slaughter the rednecks in a nightmarish burst of violence.


Other moments of wonder include the Cowboy Junkies’ version of Sweet Jane playing while Mickey and Mallory declare their love for one another (“The whole world’s coming to an end, Mal…” “I see angels, Mickey.  They’re coming down for us from heaven…”); Duane Eddy’s twangy The Trembler accompanying the approach of a tornado, which handily allows Mickey to escape from a prison hard-labour gang; Jane’s Addiction’s Sex is Violent segueing into Diamanda Galas singing I Put a Spell on You during a disturbing scene where Mallory seduces and murders a hapless gas-stand attendant (“Holy shit!  You’re Mallory Knox!”); and another thrilling deployment of Rage Against the Machine, this time their song Bombtrack, when Mickey grabs a shotgun and blasts his way free during a live TV interview he’s doing whilst incarcerated in Tommy Lee Jones’s high security jail.  And you get Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, Patsy Cline, Peter Gabriel and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Dr Dre, the Specials and, inevitably, Nine Inch Nails as well.


The accompanying soundtrack album doesn’t quite marshal together all the songs from the film – Rage Against the Machine and the Specials are conspicuous by their absence – but most of them are present, spliced together with memorable excerpts from the film’s dialogue.  It was definitely one of the best record releases of 1994.


I’ve already mentioned Martin Scorsese, with whose films a decent soundtrack is usually guaranteed.  I sometimes find them a little too retro, though – the characters depicted may start off in the 1960s, but they age during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, yet it’s often still 1960s music playing in the background.  For example, Ray Liotta’s character in Goodfellas (1990) has become a cocaine fiend by the early 1980s, though it’s the Rolling Stones’ 1969 epic Gimme Shelter we hear accompanying his binges.


This isn’t an issue with my favourite Scorsese soundtrack, which belongs to one of his less acclaimed films, 1999’s  Bringing Out the Dead.  This is the tale of a burnt-out paramedic played by Nicholas Cage patrolling the nocturnal streets of a particularly infernal version of New York.  He’s accompanied on different nights by different colleagues, played by Ving Rhames, John Goodman and an unhinged Tom Sizemore.


Bringing Out the Dead features a variety of songs that perfectly reflect its changing moods: Van Morrison’s wistful T.B. Sheets, REM’s jaunty What’s the Frequency, Kenneth? and the Clash’s hectic Janie Jones.  That last song accompanies a scene were the pill-popping Cage and Sizemore are fried out of their brains at the wheel of their ambulance – if you were lying ill on a sidewalk, you seriously wouldn’t want the pair of them showing up to administer first aid on you.  Elsewhere, the soundtrack includes the Who, Johnny Thunders and Martha and the Vandellas.  Even the one song that I normally consider a pudding, UB40’s version of Neil Diamond’s Red, Red Wine, sounds spooky when it plays over a sequence where Cage ventures into the bloodstained aftermath of a gangland shooting.


© Pandora Cinema / Newmarket Films / Flower Films


From its opening sequence I knew I was going to love Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko (2001).  It begins with an eerie quietude as Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) lies prone in the middle of a mountainside road and thunder crackles faintly but menacingly in the distance.  Then Donnie smiles, hops onto his bike and rides down to his wholesome 1980s American suburb accompanied by Echo and the Bunnymen’s Killing Moon.  As well as being an exhilarating mixture of visuals and music, this sequence provides some tongue-in-cheek foreshadowing.  Things will soon turn weird and Donnie will soon be troubled by visions of a big, literal bunny-man called Frank.


The rest of the soundtrack is a mixture of bona-fide classics like Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart and The Church’s Under the Milky Way and cheese like Duran Duran’s Notorious.  But even Notorious becomes memorable when it’s used as the theme tune for Sparkle Motion, the ghastly school dance troupe of which Donnie’s little sister is a member.  And at the finale of course, when Gary Jules and Michael Andrews perform a melancholy, stripped-down version of it, the film does wonders for Tears for Fears’ Mad World.  This was previously a song I’d never given the time of day.


However, beware of the director’s cut of Donnie Darko, because in it Richard Kelly replaces Killing Moon as the opening song with INXS’s Never Tear Us Apart.  The bastard.


Inevitably, I’ve got to mention Lost in Translation (2003), Sophia Coppola’s intergenerational romance and fish-out-of-water cultural comedy, wherein a jaded, middle-aged Bill Murray and a radiant, young Scarlett Johansson are stuck at the same time in a luxurious Tokyo hotel.   Put together by Coppola’s frequent collaborator Brian Reitzell, the soundtrack features four songs by Kevin Shields and another, Sometimes, by Shields’s acclaimed experimental / shoegazer band My Bloody Valentine.  Neatly bookended by Death in Vegas’s Girls at the beginning and the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Just Like Honey at the end, these evoke the surreal, discombobulating vibe that Tokyo often gives foreigners seeing it for the first time.  At least, that was the vibe it gave me when I first arrived there in 1989.


© American Zoetrope / Focus Features


Meanwhile, the karaoke box sequence in the middle of the film is lovely.  A Japanese lad tackles the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen, Johansson warbles Brass in Pocket by the Pretenders, and Murray gives an impassioned rendition of Nick Lowe’s (What’s so Funny about) Peace, Love and Understanding and then a lovably wobbly one of Roxy Music’s More Than This.  The scene shows there are no cultural boundaries when it comes to enjoying decent music.


Lastly, I couldn’t finish without mentioning Edgar Wright, a movie director whose soundtracks are always furnished with the right songs.  His 2017 film Baby Driver won special praise for this, but I’d nominate an earlier Wright effort as my favourite – 2013’s comedy / sci-fi / horror film The World’s End.  This has a group of male friends in their early middle-age returning to their hometown in a new attempt to complete an epic pub crawl that they originally attempted but failed to complete when they were teenagers in 1990.  First, they’re dismayed to find that their old town has become a homogenised, identikit conglomeration of chain stores, fast-food franchises and bland Wetherspoon’s-type pubs that make it indistinguishable from every other town in Britain.  Then they’re horrified to find that it’s also been taken over by aliens who’ve replaced nearly everyone with blue-blooded robot replicants.


Predictably, Wright enjoys populating The World’s End’s soundtrack with stuff that his central characters would have listened to as youths in the late 1980s and early 1990s, namely indie, goth, the ‘Madchester’ rock-dance sound and the first Britpop offerings.  Thus, as the pub crawl / battle against aliens continues, you get to hear Saint Etienne, the Sundays, the Stone Roses, the Happy Mondays, Teenage Fanclub, Suede, Blur and Pulp.  You even hear the Inspiral Carpets and the Soup Dragons, so let it not be said that Wright leaves any stones unturned.


One song seems wildly out of synch with the characters’ timeframe, which is the Doors’ Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar) from 1967.  But it’s appropriate for the film’s boozy premise and it does accompany an amusing sequence just after the heroes have realised that something severely strange is going on.  And the climax of The World’s End provides a rare thing indeed – not one but two songs, Primal Scream’s Loaded and the Sisters of Mercy’s This Corrosion, which aren’t just there for show but actually contribute something to the plot itself.


© Working Title Films / StudioCanal


When songs and films collide


There are many reasons why I hate those Richard Curtis / Working Title romantic-comedy movies that over the past two decades have blighted British culture.  Four Weddings and a Funeral?  Bleeeuuurgh!  Notting Hill?  Double-bleeeuuurgh!  Love Actually?  Multi-bleeeuuurgh!  But one of my main reasons for hating them is their musical soundtracks.  More precisely, the calculating, predictable and sterile nature of their soundtracks – music that’s not been chosen with any artistic desire to complement the varying moods of the scenes onscreen, but chosen because it can also go on a lucrative aimed-at-the-lowest-common-denominator soundtrack / compilation album to tie in with the movie’s release.


For example, I can imagine Curtis and fellow writers Helen Fielding and Andrew Davies, director Sharon Maguire, producers Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Jonathan Cavendish, etc., sitting around discussing the music that they were going to bung onto the soundtrack of Bridget Jones’s Diary back in 2002.  “Okay, so this is about a woman called Bridget Jones.  Jones…  Miss Jones…  Hey, wait a minute!  Why don’t we use that old Frank Sinatra number Have You Met Miss Jones?  But hold on.  Frank Sinatra.  He’s a bit old… and dead.  He’d never appeal to the kids.  So let’s get someone young and cool and vital whom the kids really dig to record a new version of the song.  Someone cutting-edge.  Like…  Yes, Robbie Williams!”


And then: “So Bridget Jones is desperate to get hitched but she can’t find Mr Right.  She must wish it was raining men…  Hey, wait a minute!  Why don’t we use that old Weather Girls number It’s Raining Men?  But hold on.  The Weather Girls.  They’re a bit fat… and black.  They’d never appeal to the kids.  So let’s get someone young and cool and vital whom the kids really dig to do a new version of the song.  Someone cutting-edge.  Like…  Yes, Geri Halliwell!”


Cue £-signs pinging up inside Richard Curtis and company’s eyeballs.


On the other hand, and as somebody who loves both music and films, it’s a pleasure when I watch a movie and suddenly hear a song on the soundtrack that I didn’t expect.  The song isn’t there because it slotted neatly into a money-spinning soundtrack album to be released on the back of the film.  It’s there because someone involved in the film thought that it enhanced – however weirdly – what was happening in the film itself.  The result is a memorable musical / cinematic frisson.  (It helps if the song and the film are good, but occasionally I’ve heard a song I didn’t like turn up in the middle of a film I didn’t like either – and somehow the resulting juxtaposition has been hard to forget too.)


Here, then, are seven of my favourite instances when songs and films have collided unexpectedly and strangely – in a manner that’s simply beyond the range of Richard Curtis’s thought processes.



(c) Colombia Pictures 


Duran Duran / The Layer Cake (2004)

“Ten years!” screams George Harris’s Morty character during the infamous café scene in the British gangster movie The Layer Cake.  Meanwhile, the strains of Duran Duran’s 1993 opus Ordinary World waft from a radio behind the café-counter.


Harris – who’s better known for playing Kingsley Shacklebolt in the Harry Potter movies – is not, as you might think, screaming about the fact that Duran Duran ushered in the New Romantic movement and ruined popular music in Britain for about ten years, i.e. the 1980s.  No, he’s screaming at sleazebag Freddie (Ivan Kaye) who’s just appeared and highlighted the fact that, thanks to him, Morty spent ten years in prison.  Morty proceeds to kick Freddie to a pulp on the café floor before emptying an industrial-sized pot of scalding tea over his head; while, all the time, Simon Le Bon warbles in the background about how he won’t cry for yesterday, about how he has to try to make his way to the ordinary wooo-ooo-ooorld.


No wonder the unnamed character played by Daniel Craig can only stand and watch from the side-lines, stunned.


Just as Stealer Wheel’s Stuck in the Middle with You has never sounded the same since Quentin Tarantino used it to accompany the ear-slicing scene in Reservoir Dogs in 1993, so the soppy, dreamy vibe of Duran Duran’s last big hit will be ruined forever if you watch The Layer Cake.  Instead of seeming soppy and dreamy, Ordinary World will become synonymous in your mind with excruciating violence, pain and rage.  Here’s the scene on Youtube, but be warned.  It might put you off your food – and your tea.


(c) Probe Plus

(c) Blueprint Pictures / Film4 / BFI


Half Man Half Biscuit / Seven Psychopaths (2012)

Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths is a black comedy set in and around Los Angeles.  It’s a phantasmagorical affair, populated by aspiring Hollywood scriptwriters, dog-kidnappers, gangsters, henchmen, molls and, yes, psychopaths.  It takes place against a backdrop of blue skies, wide boulevards, palm trees, swimming pools and – when the action moves out to the Joshua Tree National Park – looming rock formations and vast scrubby plains.


So it’s a surprise, in the midst of these sun-drenched Californian cityscapes and landscapes, to hear the chords of 1985’s Trumpton Riots – the first single off the debut album Back in the DHSS by Half Man Half Biscuit, the durable indie band from Birkenhead.  Since the 1980s the Biscuits have sung relentlessly surreal and sarcastic songs about the crapness of British popular culture and the crapness of British life generally.


Trumpton Riots tells a tale of violent insurrection in Trumpton, the cosy English village depicted in the much-loved 1967 BBC animated kids’ programme of the same name: “Someone get a message through to Captain Snort / That they’d better start assembling the boys from the Fort / And keep Mrs Honeyman out of sight / ‘Cos there’s going to be a riot down in Trumpton tonight.”  Which is as far away from LA swimming pools and the Joshua Tree National Park as you can get.



(c) Warner Brothers


Cannibal Corpse / Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994)

Adam Sandler may be the modern bête noir when it comes to irritating screen presences.  But even Sandler at his worst is small beer compared to the wincing painfulness that was Jim Carrey in his early movie career – he was immensely annoying in supposed comedies like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask and Dumber and Dumber (all 1994).  Mind you, he did get better later on, in the likes of The Truman Show (1998) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).


The grimly unfunny (and transphobic) Ace Ventura would have left my consciousness a nanosecond after it’d entered my consciousness if it wasn’t for one curious scene where Carrey / Ventura blunders into a live concert – and the band onstage is none other than the legendary American death metal band Cannibal Corpse, who’re performing a song with the memorable title Hammer Smashed Face.  Carrey, wearing a multi-coloured shirt that’s louder than anything coming from the speakers, goofs around and behaves like a dick for a minute.  Then he gets flung off the premises.  Good.



(c) United Artists


Sisters of Mercy / Showgirls (1995)

Directed by Paul Verhoeven, written by Joe Eszterhas and regarded as one of the worst films of the 1990s, the tits-crazy Showgirls is, actually, a fitting movie for the city in which most of its action takes place, Las Vegas.  Like Vegas, it’s flashy, shallow, dumb, vulgar, materialistic and soulless.


I’m sure that Andrew Eldritch, who depending on your point of view is either the creative genius or the arrogant git in charge of the seminal, operatic and grandiose 1980s / 1990s goth band the Sisters of Mercy, would not care to have the adjectives flashy, shallow, dumb, vulgar, materialistic or soulless applied to his music.  So I often wonder if Andrew ever strolled into his local multiplex in 1995 and settled down in the front row with a bucket of popcorn to watch Showgirls.  And, if he did, how he felt when he discovered that his record company had given United Artists permission to use the 1990 Sisters of Mercy song Vision Thing during Showgirls’ opening scenes, when heroine Elizabeth Berkley is shown hitchhiking to Las Vegas.


I’ll bet he wasn’t chuffed.


(c) Acid Jazz

(c) DNA Films


Matt Berry / Dredd (2012)

The Pete Travis-directed, Alex Garland-scripted Dredd, based on the Judge Dredd strip in the British comic 2000AD, is not a movie you’d take your granny to – unless your granny has a penchant for hyper-violent, grimy, monosyllabic, sleazebag-populated, fascistic, dystopian-future bloodbaths where civilians are blasted apart with cannons and villains burst messily after being dropped off a very high skyscraper.  But what should pop up in the middle of Dredd’s mayhem but the theme song for the short-lived BBC comedy series Snuff Box, sung by the congenial folk / progressive / pop-rock singer (and comic actor) Matt Berry?


A jaunty little number, with synthesisers chugging pleasantly in the background, the Snuff Box theme is what big-bad-villainess Lena Headey’s techie henchman (played by Domhnall Gleason) is listening to in her HQ at the top of the skyscraper.  This contrast between the musically winsome and the cinematically brutal is jarring – it’s like having The Clangers make an appearance in the middle of Alien (1979).  But it’s also rather sweet.



(c) BFI / Film4


Deacon Blue / Under the Skin (2014)

It may not be fashionable to say so now, but once upon a time I liked the poppy Glaswegian soul band Deacon Blue.  At least, I liked their debut album, 1986’s Raintown.  Unfortunately, it was a song off their less-good second album in 1989, one called Real Gone Kid, that became the template for their sound – i.e. clodhopping keyboards and vocalist Lorraine McIntosh going “Whooh-whooh-whooh!” like a stuttering factory whistle.  That Boots-the-Chemist has used Real Gone Kid as the jingle for its ubiquitous TV adverts over the past year or so hasn’t helped Deacon Blue’s reputation, either.


And last year, Real Gone Kid was heard on the soundtrack of the dark, unsettling, Scottish-set science fiction thriller Under the Skin, starring Scarlet Johansson.  This is especially weird considering that the rest of the film’s soundtrack consists of the flesh-crawling work of Mica Levi, with violin-strings squirming and seething like a pit full of snakes and scorpions.


Even more weirdly, the film suggests that exposure to Real Gone Kid helps Johansson’s character – a murderous alien who’s beginning to rebel against her programming – become a little more human.  When she hears the song on a radio, it kindles homo-sapiens emotions in her and she starts tapping her fingers in time to it in a homo-sapiens way.  To be honest, that part of Under the Skin seemed less like science fiction and more like fantasy.



(c) Studiocanal / Film4 / Rook Pictures


Frankie Goes to Hollywood / Sightseers (2012)

After dominating the British charts in 1984 with Relax – spending five weeks at number one after the BBC refused to give it airplay – and Two Tribes – a whopping nine weeks at number one – Frankie Goes to Hollywood blew everything by releasing saccharine ballad The Power of Love at Christmas-time.  It reached number one again, briefly, but it wrecked the band’s credibility.  Particularly problematic was the accompanying video, which consisted of Nativity scenes.  These scenes had zero to do with the lyrics and was obviously designed to sell it as a ‘festive’ song.


Having always regarded The Power of Love as crass and clunking, then, I was surprised when it turned up at the end of Ben Wheatley’s 2012 black comedy Sightseers – an eccentric and beguiling film that’s best described as a cross between Alan Bennett and Natural Born Killers (1994).  Shorn of the nonsensical Christmas-y imagery and transposed into a very different context, The Power of Love is actually affecting.  It even inspires a lump in the throat while it plays out over the fate of the film’s hero and heroine, played by Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, two north-of-England oddballs in love with caravanning, hillwalking, dog-walking, wearing woolly hats, visiting National Trust properties and serial killing.


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 ( 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.



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 (  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:  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.



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:


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.



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.



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:  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:  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.



Most Bond themes of the last two decades – like Chris Cornell’s You Know My Name in Casino Royale ( and Jack White and Alicia Keys’ Another Way to Die in Quantum of Solace ( – 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.



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 ( and the Fun Lovin’ Criminals (  For my money, though, the spookiest rendition by far comes courtesy of the mighty Irish shoegazers My Bloody Valentine:


4. Goldfinger, sung by Shirley Bassey.



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 (  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.  (  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 (


(c) Columbia


3. Diamonds are Forever, sung by Shirley Bassey.



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:


2. Live and Let Die, performed by Wings.



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 ( 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 (


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



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 (, 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 (, L.T.J. Bukem ( and David Holmes ( have enjoyed remixing, deconstructing and generally mucking around with it; but the original theme is still the best (  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.



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.



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.



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 (


2. Die Another Day, sung by Madonna.



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.



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.