Countdown to Skyfall, Day 1...
It’s one of the most prestigious honors a musician can receive: the opportunity to perform the song that plays over the main titles for a James Bond movie. Okay, so maybe not the most prestigious, but you can't deny that there’s something about the opportunity to contribute to the Bond mystique - it’s a tradition, an establishment. An invitation to one of the most exclusive clubs around. Bond themes also serve as a nice time capsule for the era in which they’re released (or a showcase for how behind the times some installments were). It’s to the credit of the series that so many quality songs have been composed over half a century of Bond pictures (indeed, compiling the “Worst of” list was a lot harder than I originally thought it would be).
So, without further ado, I present to you my Five Best (and Worst) theme songs of the James Bond series…
5: “James Bond Theme” by Monty Norman, Dr. No
4: “Nobody Does it Better” by Carly Simon, The Spy Who Loved Me
After the hugeness of “Goldfinger,” it became commonplace to go for a certain type of bombastic, brassy sound for the Bond pictures - all the more reason “Nobody Does it Better” stands out from the pack. A soulful, somber tune (the exact opposite of the film it sits in front of) sung beautifully by Carly Simon.
3: “You Only Live Twice” by Nancy Sinatra, You Only Live Twice
A criminally-underrated song amongst the Bond pantheon, “You Only Live Twice” is hypnotizing in its simplicity. From the opening strings to Nancy Sinatra’s golden voice, the song casts a spell on the listener - one that’s very easy to get lost in.
2: “Live and Let Die” by Paul McCartney and Wings, Live and Let Die
Leave it to Paul McCartney to completely change the format. Before “Live and Let Die,” the Bond themes all went for the crooning, lounge singer feel. McCartney shattered all of that, composing a catchy rock ballad which still had that larger-than-life feel you need in a Bond theme - and paving the way for future songwriters like Duran Duran and Jack White to come in and rock the 007 format. It’s to McCartney’s credit that he produced a song that feels at home equally as part of a rock concert and the main titles for a Bond movie.
1: “Goldfinger” by Shirley Bassey, Goldfinger
The gold standard for all that followed, Shirley Bassey’s rendition of “Goldfinger” forevermore set the stage for all the acts to follow. From the opening horns, we know we’re in Bond territory, and the huge sound of the song meant that adjectives like “bombastic” were always going to be an integral part of the Bond sound. The first of three songs sung by Shirley Bassey throughout the series, and still unquestionably the best.
5: “All Time High” by Rita Coolidge, Octopussy
Not a terrible song by any stretch of the imagination, but its blandness makes it less than memorable. This is the type of song that would come on the local soft rock station your parents would play in the car while carting you around on their daily errands. Not exactly the best of memories, and really not befitting of a Bond movie - even one as terrible as Octopussy. We should honestly be grateful they didn’t try to work “Octopussy” into the lyrics.
4: “The Living Daylights” by A-ha, The Living Daylights
Duran Duran knocked it out of the park with their theme to A View to a Kill, so it made sense to go after another pop-rock band to belt out another ballad for naked ladies to writhe to. But A-ha’s title theme for The Living Daylights just sort of sits there, no life or spark to it at all. Bond themes are supposed to be swelling and big - not forgettable rock numbers from one-hit wonder bands.
3: “Thunderball” by Tom Jones, Thunderball
Look, Tom Jones has one of the best voices around, and although he gives it his all on this one (rumor has it he passed out in the studio after belting out the last note), not even he could save lyrics like “So he strikes like Thunderball.” This was a last minute replacement for the opening titles (the original song was “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”), so it’s a little understandable that the song’s not up to par. Johnny Cash also wrote a submission - an otherwise fine song, but it would have been completely out of place in a Bond movie.
2: “The Man with the Golden Gun,” by Lulu, The Man with the Golden Gun
The first outright terrible Bond theme, a soulless endeavor trying to blend a little rock and roll into the classic Bond sound. It just didn’t work - a fact made all the more painful when you consider Broccoli and Saltzman passed over Alice Cooper’s rather excellent submission (which would have been the perfect follow-up to McCartney’s ‘Live and Let Die”).
1: “Die Another Day” by Madonna, Die Another Day
It’s not the worst idea imaginable. It actually makes a certain kind of sense, when you think about it. The only problem is that the Bond producers waited until 2002 to assign Madonna the title track for a Bond picture - well past the artist’s sell-by date, and when pop music was at its most vapid. So we’re left with this over-produced, over-synthesized garbage - not so much a song as it is the dying gasps of the Pierce Brosnan era. An awful, awful song; wrong in every way for a Bond theme. I’ll leave you with this timeless lyric, which Madonna randomly blurts out between her auto-tuned vocals:
“Sigmund Freud… Analyze this”