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5 October 2020, 15:02
‘Goldfinger’? ‘Diamonds Are Forever’? ‘Nobody Does It Better’? What’s *the* definitive Bond title theme?
The rich and varied history of James Bond title theme songs has given us – like the movies themselves – triumphs, thrills, disasters and surprises.
But behind the wiggly string arrangements and blaring horns, which Bond song is the best from a purely musical point of view? We give our ten cents...
To meddle and play with the established musical conventions is something for which Madonna is proudly notorious, and similar tactics have been used ingeniously in the Bond franchise (see Garbage and Duran Duran for details), but with ‘Die Another Day’ Madonna meddled so much that she forgot to write a chorus.
And while no-one should decry an artist for trying something new, to leave out the chorus of a Bond theme song and replace it with robot noises was perhaps a step too far.
Gracelessly cavorting through the space opened up for them by Duran Duran, the usually impeccable A-ha really plumbed the depths of nothingness with ‘The Living Daylights’.
Their earnest detachment and straight-faced delivery work beautifully on their non-Bond pop epics, but here sound completely characterless. It’s perhaps no wonder that longtime Bond theme overlord John Barry found working with the band to be a bore: tensions and muted arguments meant that his contributions to the song (there are… some… strings… somewhere…?) are the only recognisably ‘Bond’-sounding remnants of what should probably have been an A-ha B-side.
This is definitely the most deeply odd Bond theme ever written and, in a weird way, that also makes it quite admirable, despite the quite vociferous critical reception it was given on release.
Jack White’s songwriting style is governed by the deep rumble of his overdriven guitar, to the point where the interjections of brass and piano seem tacked on rather than integral. This is a rock song dragged to its breaking point by the need to sound ‘a bit Bond-y’ and, like Madonna’s effort before it, a song without a discernible, singalongable chorus.
Alicia Keys’ vocal talents are colossal, but the material is utterly unsuited to her, the result being a very queasy duet that sounds simultaneously underwritten and over-ornamented (there’s a literally a bit where Keys attempts to mimic guitar feedback by going “meh”). Destined to be a Bond footnote, this definitely needed another edit.
With the elastic vocals and reputation as something of a romantic… err… adventurer… Tom Jones should’ve been the perfect choice for executing an iconic Bond theme. But ‘Thunderball’, the third ‘attached’ theme song to a Bond film is strangely inert, especially when considered directly alongside Shirley Bassey’s ‘Goldfinger’.
Jones is an eloquent and effective deliverer of songs which ooze languid sentiment, but John Barry and Don Black’s effort is the first Bond song to sound formulaic. All the angular brass riffs are there, along with the belting vocals, but it’s a curiously joyless effort.
It’s the Bond theme that won an Oscar, but it is completely mid-table in terms of its musical merits. Following in the footsteps of Adele’s hugely popular ’Skyfall’, ‘Writing’s On The Wall’ harks back to the classic Bond soundworld and instrumental arsenal of curving, diving strings and angular chord progressions.
Boldly, there is no percussion at all (save for the odd cymbal crescendo), but the flipside of that boldness is just how exposed it leaves Smith’s vocals. The melody is elementary, while the ad libs and improvisations are predictable in shape, both of which contribute to a sense of buttoned-up repression. There is, somewhere in this song, a mushroom cloud of emotion dying to escape, but the composition simply doesn’t allow it to emerge.
Atonal horns, a little bit of post-McCartney rock rhythm and a squally guitar break in the first 20 seconds - wahey, we’re getting somewhere! And then: Lulu.
Lulu is a fine and capable singer, we are absolutely clear on this (check her vibrato around the 90-second mark here), but she suffers from the same malaise as the Bond franchise itself in the mid-70s, namely that it was starting to feel passé, maybe even a bit silly. As such, Lulu is forced to ham her way through material which, although spirited, is only really an impression of great Bond songs of the previous decade.
Ah, the eighties. Not traditionally seen as Bond’s heyday, and certainly not celebrated for its Bond theme songs. But ‘All Time High’ from Octopussy is perfectly serviceable: glossy, slick and well executed, and another example of a Bond theme which doesn’t rely on vocal histrionics to make its impact felt.
Being one of the less spectacular songs on the list does mean it’s been rather forgotten, despite its competency. Coolidge dials it back to almost Karen Carpenter levels of plainness, but John Barry’s arrangement is, unusually, the weakest link: aside from some neat countermelodies to Coolidge’s chorus vocals, one doesn’t get the impression he spent an awfully long time knocking this one together. Also notable for being the only Bond song with a Tim Rice lyric sheet.
We have to consider Paul McCartney’s attempt at a classic Bond song a relative success for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it’s the first and arguably only time rock music has been successfully weaved into a Bond theme, brass and bluster intact.
Secondly, it has a killer central hook. But it is, and this is a technical assessment, absolutely all over the place: themes jostle for attention and McCartney’s voice, usually a strength in any of his compositions, is at the bottom of the musical pecking order. McCartney, ever the impish pop composer, even shoves in a weird reggae/blues verse halfway through, the effect of which is actually quite annoying rather than inventive. In the immortal words of Alan Partridge, “Stop getting Bond wrong!”
It had been a long time since an all-out rock artist had attempted a Bond theme, and even then the template of ‘Live And Let Die’ was itself essentially flawed. So when former Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell was chosen to lend his gravelly but precise vibrato to the theme song for Casino Royale (co-written with David Arnold) it was a chance to inject Bond with a bit of grunt.
There is a flaw, though, and it’s a very simple one: the song is too slow and too rigid. For a noisy composition, it sounds strangely relaxed, oddly calm throughout. Cornell was a devastating vocalist with the right material, and there are moments here which allow him to open up and hint at the potential of a rock-led Bond theme. Almost quite good.
We’ve hopefully established by now that there are two types of Bond theme song – loud ones with belting vocals, and quiet ones with sensitively wrought vocals. Sheryl Crow falls between these two extremes, aiming for the pout and simplicity of Nancy Sinatra, but also sticking a monster chorus into the mix as well. And it is a good chorus, certainly: the final iteration, which arrives after a surprisingly tender and well-arranged string interlude, rescues it from mediocrity.
A theory for you: by the time ’Skyfall’ came along, there hadn’t been a classic Bond theme for many, many years (since 1995 to be precise). As a result, the sheer relief of hearing a passable Bond theme led listeners to believe that ‘Skyfall’ was a classic. So, let’s attempt to rationalise the song with its constituent parts. There’s a swirling chord progression which barely moves for the entirety of the song (which is a colossal four minutes and forty-six seconds long), the dynamic level barely goes further than mezzo-forte to forte and back again.
Adele, utterly spellbinding vocal talent that she is, basically whispers the whole song. And the subject – what is it about? Skyfall is… a mansion in the film? Who sings a Bond song about a mansion? Or any kind of abode or dwelling? It’s hard for Adele to connect the song with any relatable human emotion, regardless of her demonstrable skills. Thank you for attending this TED talk on why ‘Skyfall’ sounds a bit like a great Bond theme but isn’t a great Bond theme.
That immediate wash of strings is pure Bond atmosphere, a perfect encapsulation of the aesthetic, soundworld and grippingly cool style with which the spy was synonymous.
And as the first official singer of what colloquially would become known as ‘the Bond song’, Matt Monro’s is pleasingly workmanlike: all the post-Sinatra cool and heightened drama is present in his performance. But in the grand pantheon of Bond themes, it’s basically one of the ones where the singer sings the title of the film and, therefore, absolutely basic Bond theme territory. Balanced against the rest of the list, it’s a solid mid-table affair with some top arranging in the background.
The freshest off the press is Billie Eilish’s contribution to the Bond theme oeuvre, and not a bad contribution it is too.
History-making in that, at 18, Eilish is the youngest musician to write and record a Bond theme – and she performed it at the Brit Awards 2020 with legendary composer Hans Zimmer.
It stands up to the greats in terms of melody (plenty of Bond motifs in there), harmony (fragile and beautiful chord crunches we’ve come to know and love from Eilish and her producer brother, Finneas O’Connell) and orchestration (hello, jangly Bond piano high notes and sweeping chorus strings).
All-in-all it’s lonely rather than lavish, and for us sits pretty much right in the middle of a ranking of all the Bond title themes in history.
The first Bond song NOT to have the same title as the film itself, Hal David and John Barry’s shuffling arrangement seems to have in Louis Armstrong a somewhat incongruous vocal star, but in a similar fashion to Nancy Sinatra before him, it is the plainness of delivery which makes it a success. That arrangement is decidedly more ‘pop’ than previous efforts and perhaps demonstrates Barry’s desire to expand the definition of what a Bond theme song could be, it benefits from its distance from the plot and title of the film. George Lazenby’s underrated James Bond was a more emotional character than audiences had seen before, and the song reflected this quite perfectly.
As a Bond movie, Moonraker itself occupies a strange place in the canon: indebted to the late-70s vogue for science fiction and space movies, but still very definitely a Roger Moore vehicle for ridiculous double entendres and bonkers stunts. As such, the title song has been somewhat brushed aside, some would argue unfairly.
Bringing back Shirley Bassey for the third time is perhaps lazy, but still, if you were to rely on any one singer to deliver your latest Bond theme then you’d pick Shirley. Strange, then, that John Barry’s song is markedly quieter than their previous collaborations. His shimmering strings bubble beneath the surface, and Bassey’s voice is only given limited opportunities to open up, lending the whole piece a charged and difficult air. Confusing, but in a nice way?
‘A View To A Kill’ marks a change not only in the fortunes of Bond theme songs but also the manner in which they were executed. Although John Barry remained deeply involved in the song, it is very much a Duran Duran composition through and through: Barry’s contributions, the signature stabs of brass, are used like ornaments rather than essential functions of the song (the band were in charge of the major songwriting elements, chord progressions etc), which is brazenly effective.
The result redefined what it meant to record a Bond theme: pop artists would now flock to the franchise, seeking to leave their own distinctive mark, rather than the franchise drafting yet another vocalist to interpret the material.
Garbage were renowned for their technical production wizardry when it came to their own material, so it’s perhaps surprising that this collaboration with composer David Arnold and lyricist Don Black sounds slightly dated barely 20 years after it was released. But the jamming together of Garbage’s signature postmodern sound with the more classical Bond musical elements ultimately doesn’t matter: Shirley Manson’s vocals are characterfully languid and coolly dramatic, the song well-crafted enough to survive the musical baubles that clutter its production. We demand a stripped-back strings-and-vocals-only version.
Mixed experiments with getting 80s pop bands to record Bond themes inspired the franchise to take refuge in the safety of its core musical elements: big brass, angular motifs, lush strings and a belting vocalist. Gladys Knight (sans Pips and wearing a tuxedo in the music video) is easily equal to the task, but there was something missing - John Barry was no longer musically involved with Bond, but the very heavy quote of his ‘Goldfinger’ musical motif at the outset here meant that his sound was never far away.
Bill Conti and Mick Leeson were responsible for the first Bond theme song of the 1980s and, like so much of the pop culture in that decade, it’s ripe for reappraisal. Sheena Easton’s voice is plain but striking, and the song’s introduction is an almost direct inversion of Bassey’s two-note ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ motif, a cheeky but necessary acknowledgment of what had come before. There’s also a wonderful chorus fake-out, a rejection of the more anthemic Bond songs of years gone by - specifically that word “only”, and how it sits on a deliciously uncertain chord, is the essence of the song.
Iconic. Bold. Blaring. Also… sensitive? Shirley Bassey’s pipes are at their absolute zenith here, and with only the second proper Bond theme the die was cast. Gert Fröbe played the role of Goldfinger, but ignore that: Bassey is Goldfinger. Or, as she puts it in her endlessly imitable style, ‘Gold-finguh!’
Behind the bluster and brilliance of Bassey’s delivery is Lesley Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s divine extrapolation of the core Bond themes, but it’s Bassey’s show through and through. Give her a handgun and send her to Miami: she’s more Bond than Connery.
Yet more evidence that the best Bond themes come from the most sensitive singers, not just the big-voiced belters. Carly Simon is not known for her Bassey-esque vocal prowess, but the storytelling in ‘Nobody Does It Better’ is nuanced, poised and, coupled with Marvin Hamlisch’s iconic piano tinkling, a surprisingly delicate experience.
Her mellow contralto is perhaps better disposed to a Bond theme because of its natural fullness and its narrative qualities, making this a golden-age Bond classic. Very strong.
Musically, ‘GoldenEye’ is one of the franchise’s high watermarks. Every element is precise, tense, lean and efficient. It’s surprising to note that the songwriters were in fact Bono and The Edge from U2, more traditionally known for their stadium rock bombast, but with this perfect reconstruction of the Bond song template (check out the rising/falling semitone strings in the second verse) they managed to create a foundation for one of the best Bond vocals on record.
Tina Turner is more hushed than Shirley Bassey, but also far wilder in her performance. The vocal slides in the final chorus are so recklessly daring, with such little care for their effect on the song, it’s as if Turner was herself taking lessons from Bond – dangerous methods often get the most entertaining results.
Proving that the key to a successful Bond song is sensitivity over bluster, ‘You Only Live Twice’ is absolutely up there as one of the best. Delicious, winding string melodies are the counterpoint to Nancy Sinatra’s rather un-showy vocal display, marking her out in particular as a unique figure in the series.
Rather than aiming for the powerhouse deliveries of Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey before her, Sinatra uses an unaffected tone to her advantage, a cool and detached new vocal colour in the Bond arsenal which was rarely bettered. The arrangement beneath it too is gentle, graceful and nuanced, with barely a hint of the brassy excess for which the franchise was becoming known.
There is an utterly ingenious restraint to every aspect of John Barry’s song for the movie of the same name, the second to feature the powerhouse pipes of Shirley Bassey, but it’s Bassey herself who pulls off the biggest coup here.
Rarely have two notes and one phrase become more emblematic, more iconic than her delivery of the title, but there’s so much more than that: the restraint she shows in the song’s early section, gradually allowing it to open up when she gets to “I don’t need love…”, it’s a masterclass in sensitivity, proving beyond a doubt that the key to a great Bond theme is knowing when to go big and when to stay quiet. Shirley, John, we salute your restraint.
The latest Bond instalment, No Time to Die, is due to be released on 8 April 2020, with Billie Eilish singing the title theme.