Fans of the James Bond films look forward to the theme songs as much as anything else. There’s a thrill to hearing a new 007 theme over the movie’s creative, sexy title sequences. The theme songs have set the tone for Bond in 19 of the 22 films in the series.
We’ve seen 007 theme songs that range from the low-key (Nancy Sinatra’s “You Only Live Twice” in 1967) to the heavy-hitting (Chris Cornell’s “You Know My Name” in 2006) to the truly bizarre (I’m looking at you, Jack White & Alicia Keys). No matter how good or bad the song, a Bond theme is an integral part of the experience.
In honor of the 50th anniversary of the James Bond franchise, I present to you the five best theme songs of the series, followed by the five worst. A couple of years ago I shared my own personal favorites on my website, but with this list I’m looking at the songs with critical and historical eyes.
5. Louis Armstrong, “We Have All the Time in the World,” from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service stands as a bit of an anomaly among Bond movies. The film marked George Lazenby’s only appearance as 007, and the plot centered around eternal bachelor Bond getting married and becoming a widower. It’s also one of only three entries in the series not to have a song over the opening credits — the other ones were Dr. No and From Russia With Love. Instead, the beautiful “We Have All the Time in the World” plays during a romantic sequence later on in the film.
Composer John Barry chose Louis Armstrong to perform the ballad, and Barry later picked it as one of his two favorite Bond theme songs, both for the beauty of the music and the pleasure of working with the jazz legend.
“We Have All the Time in the World” has endured as a favorite, especially among the Brits. Artists as diverse as Iggy Pop, the Puppini Sisters, and Michael Ball have covered the song, and respondents to a 2005 poll ranked it as the third most popular wedding song in the United Kingdom. I even read a few years back where some British churches used the song in worship services. The song might not spring to mind as a classic Bond theme, but Armstrong still provided a rare moment of grace.
4. Tom Jones, “Thunderball,” from Thunderball (1965)
The second song to appear over the title sequence of a Bond film has an interesting history. Initially, Barry and lyricist Leslie Bricusse penned a song titled “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” named for an Italian journalist’s nickname for 007. United Artists balked, insisting that the song have the same title as the movie. Barry teamed up with Don Black to rush out a new title song.
Johnny Cash also submitted a song but the studio rejected it. Check it out here.
Tom Jones gave one of his bravura performances on “Thunderball” but not without paying a price. Jones passed out after belting the climactic high note. Years later he said:
I closed my eyes and I held the note for so long when I opened my eyes the room was spinning.
“Thunderball” continued a new tradition: dramatic title songs that set the tone for the whole film.
3. Carly Simon, “Nobody Does It Better,” from The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
“Nobody Does It Better” marked another first in the 007 series: composer Marvin Hamlisch (who seemed to have composed pretty much every film score in the ‘70s) became the first American to score a Bond film. He and lyricist Carole Bayer Sager teamed up with Carly Simon to produce a power ballad that earned an Oscar nomination and three weeks at #2 on the Hot 100.
The song deviated from the Bond template as the first opening credits theme song to have a title different from the film — though the phrase “the spy who loved me” made it into the lyrics — and it was the first song whose lyrics actually focused on Bond. In The Billboard Book Of Number Two Singles, Hamlisch joked:
It was time that Bond be pretentious and vain enough to have a song written about him.
Simon’s song has had staying power over the years. Stars like Aimee Mann and Thom Yorke tried their hand at covers. Yorke even called it “the sexiest song that was ever written.” He may be right.
2. Paul McCartney & Wings, “Live and Let Die,” from Live And Let Die (1973)
Paul and Linda McCartney banged out a unique title tune for 1973’s Live and Let Die. While previous 007 themes fell into more of an easy listening vein, “Live and Let Die” blends bracing rock and intense orchestration by Beatles producer George Martin, who scored the film.
According to The Billboard Book of Number Two Singles, Wings almost missed out on the chance to record it, and subsequently the producers almost missed out on the song itself. Martin recalled that when he played the Wings track for producers Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli, they complimented Martin on the song and asked who should record it.
The producers suggested future disco diva Thelma Houston, and otherwise insisted that a black woman perform the song because of the film’s New Orleans setting. Martin and McCartney held firm that there would be no song if Wings couldn’t perform it. Looking back nearly 40 years later, it’s hard to imagine anyone but McCartney belting those immortal words, “Live and Let Die.”
1. Shirley Bassey, “Goldfinger,” from Goldfinger (1964)
While Dr. No debuted Monty Norman’s now famous “James Bond Theme,” and Matt Monro sang the title tune over the closing credits of From Russia With Love, the third film in the Bond series — if you’ll pardon the pun — set the gold standard for theme songs.
Barry teamed up with lyricists Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley to compose a song about the title character. They aimed for a gritty style, akin to songs like “Mack the Knife.” Though Newley initially recorded the song, the lyrics sound tailor made for the big, brassy voice of Welsh singer Shirley Bassey, who recorded the final version for the movie. The “Goldfinger” recording session also brought current and future rock royalty together, as Martin produced the record and Jimmy Page played guitar.
“Goldfinger” defined the template for the Bond themes. In fact, Bassey peformed so well on the song that the producers brought her back twice to sing the themes to Diamonds Are Forever in 1971 and Moonraker in 1979. To borrow from another classic, nobody does it better than Shirley Bassey.
5. Lulu, “The Man With the Golden Gun,” from The Man With the Golden Gun (1974)
Scottish blue-eyed-soul singer Lulu lent her considerable voice to one iconic movie song, “To Sir, With Love,” in 1967, so it stood to reason that she’d get her shot at 007 eventually. So she got this tune.
Composer John Barry and Oscar-winning lyricist Don Black gave us a song with lyrics so inanely suggestive that it’s a wonder Lulu could get through the song with a straight face. Barry later admitted that the song was one of his weakest compositions, and he said:
It’s the one I hate most…it just never happened for me.
Still, it’s a somewhat catchy tune, and Lulu gives it all she’s got. Oddly enough, Alice Cooper submitted a surprisingly good song titled “The Man With the Golden Gun,” but the producers turned it down. Check it out here.
4. Madonna, “Die Another Day,” from Die Another Day (2002)
Naturally the producers of the James Bond series wanted to make a splash with the first 007 theme of the millennium, so they chose… Madonna? The former Material Girl teamed up with French electronica producer Mirwais Ahmadzai, her collaborator du jour, for a strange theme song that nonetheless became a massive dance hit.
With its cold, electronic bleeps, orchestral swoops, and cryptic lyrics, Madonna managed to create a song that sounded like no other James Bond theme before it, largely because it didn’t sound like a Bond song at all. Critics treated the song rather unkindly. One critic called it a “ teeth grindingly un-Bond Bond theme,” while another referred to it as “pneumatic [and] hook-deficient.” The Golden Raspberry Awards (dis)honored Madonna with a nomination for Worst Song of 2002. David Arnold, the film’s composer, didn’t even use elements from the song in his score.
Nevertheless, Madonna scored a Top Ten hit in the States with “Die Another Day,” and it topped the charts in a dozen countries, so it struck a chord with someone.
3. Rita Coolidge, “All Time High,” from Octopussy (1983)
Rita Coolidge began to carve out a successful career when she recorded “Superstar,” long before The Carpenters and Bette Midler produced their hit versions. She later went on to inhabit a more adult-contemporary style, which eventually led her to this song, destined for elevators and on-hold systems for years to come:
Tim Rice took on the challenge of writing the theme song to Octopussy. Wisely, he stayed away from the film’s title. (Come on, you try to do something acceptable with the word “octopussy.”) Unfortunately, Rice and composer Barry could only come up with this schlock.
“All Time High” only managed to reach number 36 on the Hot 100, and it was Coolidge’s last major chart hit. For many years she would not perform the song in concert, and she didn’t include it on her 1983 album. Maybe she was scared it would lull listeners to sleep.
2. Duran Duran, “A View to a Kill,” from A View to a Kill (1985)
For a while in the ‘80s, the producers of the 007 films aimed for some of the hottest acts of the day. In 1985, no artist dominated the charts quite like Duran Duran. Bassist John Taylor allegedly approached producer Cubby Broccoli at a party and asked him when he was going to get a decent artist to record a Bond theme. Unfortunately, fans didn’t get anything decent from Duran Duran. Instead we were stuck with this:
“A View to a Kill” has everything wrong going for it: idiotic lyrics, thin vocals, and synthesizer overuse — and the video is even dumber than the song. Then again, what more could we expect from a Bond movie which featured Grace Jones as one of the villains?
Enough teenage girls liked the song to push it all the way to the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. It’s the only Bond theme to go to #1 on the chart and a bit of a shame that this song charted higher than some of the more enduring 007 songs.
1. a-ha, “The Living Daylights,” from The Living Daylights (1987)
For the next Bond theme after Duran Duran’s success, the producers chose another trendy band, Norway’s a-ha. Oddly enough, by 1987, the band’s U.S. chart career burned as hot as a Scandinavian winter. Nevertheless, the band teamed with Barry to produce this forgettable slice of generic Europop.
With the song’s weak vocals and barely intelligible lyrics, “The Living Daylights” didn’t fare well in the States, though it smashed the European charts. The song did lead to a row between the band and the composer. Reportedly, Barry and a-ha disagreed so strongly over the production of the single that Barry badmouthed the band to the press.
Curiously, The Pretenders contributed two songs to the soundtrack of The Living Daylights. Why the producers didn’t choose Chrissie Hynde and company to record the film’s title tune is beyond me.
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