The release of the 24th James Bond epic SPECTRE is just around the corner, and the theme song “Writing’s On The Wall” by Sam Smith has just been released. It’s put me in the mood for all things Bond, and with the new theme song still echoing in my head, now is a good time to rank and discuss my favorite and not-so-favorite 007 theme songs.
Among the points I’ve considered are how the lyrics relate to plot or character, how the title is worked into the song (or not), how readily the melody lends itself to the instrumental score and how firmly the 007 title tune stands on its own. To be fair, I haven’t ranked the new song from SPECTRE because I haven’t seen the movie, or witnessed how the new title song relates to the plot, or heard how composer Thomas Newman interpolates its melody into the instrumental score.
From its opening notes, “Live And Let Die” sounds like no previous 007 theme song, both musically and lyrically. Our first impression is a lilting piano (the first time we’ve heard this instrument on a Bond tune) and the intro teases us into a false sense of security with the first softly sung verse, “When you were young and your heart was an open book, You used to say live and let live.” Then there’s a teasing counterpoint: “You know you did, you know you did, you know you did.” At the end of the opening stanza, the orchestra collides with the full fury of a scorching electric guitar, blaring horns and skull-thumping percussion, and the song explodes with a bombast never before heard in a James Bond movie. This is definitely not your father’s 007. I was too young to remember seeing Live and Let Die in theaters, but I imagine the wall of rock and roll that kicks in at the chorus knocked audiences through the back wall of the theater.
Characteristic lyric: “What does it matter to ya? When you’ve got a job to do, you gotta do it well; you gotta give the other fella hell!”
Maybe these words are spoken by McCartney to encourage the new Bond, Roger Moore, who would inevitably be compared to retired Sean Connery; maybe the words are spoken by Bond himself. Either way, it’s an arresting tune that perfectly sets the tone for a hip new 1970s take on James Bond.
#2) A View To A Kill” by Duran Duran, 1985
This fun song sets us up for one of the more unapologetically entertaining 007 escapades, and the tune is a funky new wave kicker, highlighting the collective strengths that make Duran Duran one of the signature bands of the 1980s: wild synthesizer, head-shaking percussion, fiery guitar, dagger-sharp vocals. The song kicks ass, and it was the first 007 theme song to reach the coveted #1 spot on the radio charts.
Characteristic lyric: “But can we dance into the fire? That fatal kiss is all we need; Dance into the fire, when all we see is a view to a kill.”
Divorced from the actual plot of the movie, perhaps it’s a song from Bond to his latest nemesis, or maybe this is the song 007’s nemesis might sing for him. Additionally, no other Bond theme lyrics contain so many potential Fleming-esque titles for future Bond movies: consider “Dance into the Fire,” “That Fatal Kiss,” and “A Chance to Die.”
#3) “Goldfinger” by Shirley Bassey, 1964
Embracing the campier aspects of the movie’s title, the song “Goldfinger” celebrates its gold-obsessed antagonist and features a brassy vocal by Miss Shirley Bassey in full-throated gusto, backed up by the jazzy sounds of John Barry’s Orchestra. All future Bond songs would invariably be held to this gold standard.
Characteristic lyric: “Pretty girl, beware of his heart of gold; This heart is cold, He loves only gold, only gold, he loves gold, he loves only gold, only gold, he loves gooooooooooooooooold!”
Shirley Bassey’s powerful end note on that final “gold” is six seconds of breathless glory—often imitated, sometimes expanded upon, but rarely equaled.
#4 “Skyfall” by Adele, 2012
This one finally scored an Oscar for 007 for Best Original Song. It’s a haunting and poignant ballad which, in the context of the plot, is a valentine between M and Bond, between surrogate mother and rebellious son.
Characteristic lyric: “Let the sky fall, when it crumbles, we will stand tall and face it all together at Skyfall. We will stand tall at Skyfall.”
The lyrics are connected spiritually to the film in ways no 007 theme song has managed since “The World Is Not Enough,” and what lends the lyrics such poetic power is the realization that the words could be spoken by either Bond or M, perhaps even both alternately.
#5) “Surrender” by k.d. lang (from Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997)
Technically, this one is an end-credits song, but I’m ranking it here because it was originally intended to be the main title track—the producers went to Sheryl Crow at the eleventh hour, and though Crow’s tune takes the name of the film as its title, it isn’t one tenth as memorable as lang’s effort. Seek out a fan-made video of the main titles sequence with lang’s song dubbed in and you’ll see just what a perfect marriage of song and imagery “Surrender” truly is.
Characteristic lyric: “Your life is a story I’ve already written, the truth is that I am in control. I have the power to make you surrender, not only your body but your soul.”
The villain is a twisted media magnate intent on fabricating World War III to boost his ratings, thus these words relate to the plot more directly than any phrase in the substitute Sheryl Crow song. Plus, David Arnold’s wah-wah horns recall the best themes of John Barry, and lang bests both Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones with a staggering 15-second end-note to end all end-notes. The song was tucked away at the tail end of the movie, but it certainly deserves its high raking within the top five best Bond songs of all time.
#6) “Diamonds Are Forever” by Shirley Bassey, 1971
Characteristic lyric: “Diamonds are forever, hold one up and then caress it; Touch it, stroke it and undress it; I can see every part, nothing hides in the heart to hurt me.”
The lyrics are playful, naughty, and just a bit ridiculous—but who cares, they got Sean Connery to come back for one final legit Bond movie and all is right with the world. (1983’s Never Say Never Again doesn’t really count since it’s not part of the EON-produced canon.)
#7) “You Only Live Twice” by Nancy Sinatra, 1967
This is the first Bond theme tune since they started writing them that doesn’t quote an instantly recognizable part of the “James Bond Theme” in the melody. Nancy Sinatra—she of “These Boot Are Made For Walking” fame and daughter of the Chairman of the Board Frank Sinatra—lends her smooth voice to a lovely melody, one that works nicely as the backbone of John Barry’s instrumental score…but lyrically the song is as detached from the plot as the screenplay diverges from Ian Fleming’s original novel.
Characteristic lyric: “You only live twice, or so it seems; One life for yourself, and one for your dreams.”
#8) “Nobody Does It Better” by Carly Simon (from The Spy Who Loved Me, 1977)
This is the first Bond movie to play a song over the opening credits that doesn’t share the name of the film.
Characteristic lyric: “Nobody does it better, makes me feel sad for the rest; Nobody does it half as good as you; Baby, you’re the best.”
Though Roger Moore’s lighter take on 007 didn’t really catch on with the public until this movie (his third), the lyrics clearly relate to him and the character of Bond alike. Bond and a rival female Soviet agent go head-to-head, and the words herein make perfect sense. The title worked into the lyrics is a bonus—“I wasn’t looking, but somehow you found me; I tried to hide from your love; But like heaven above me, the spy who loved me is keeping all my secrets safe tonight.” The recent Bond trend of playing an alternate version of the title song over the end credits continues here, with a bouncy gay mens’ Vaudeville chorus rendition of the first verse that punctuates 007’s final verbal bon mot—it’s a momentary lapse of lunacy that closes the movie on a giddy high note.
#9) “We Have All The Time In The World” by Louis Armstrong (from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1969)
Thematically married to the plot (007 falls in love with a vivacious bad girl gone good, gets hitched, and becomes a widower before the end credits), there’s no mistaking the lyrics are a poignant love song from James Bond to his doomed bride. One-time 007 George Lazenby utters the key phrase to his wife, both before and after a tragic turn ruins their honeymoon.
Characteristic lyric: “Every step of the way will find us with the cares of the world far behind us. We have all the time in the world, just for love. Nothing more, nothing less, only love.”
Pass the Kleenex.
#10) “The World Is Not Enough” by Garbage, 1999
Fans are divided over this Bond entry (Pierce Brosnan’s third), but the title tune is one of the best since the days of composer John Barry.
Characteristic lyric: “Deeper I go, know how to survive; There’s no point in living, if you can’t feel alive. We know when to kiss, and we know when to kill; If we can’t have it all, then nobody will.”
The words are downright nihilistic, which suits the maniacal and ultimately suicidal bad guy, along with the greedy world-domineering cunning of the movie’s femme fatale. Lead singer Shirley Manson is a stylish vixen who looks just a little bit dangerous, and thus she fits in quite comfortably within the glamorous and deadly world of 007. Her haunting vocals combined with the swirling orchestra and twangy guitar riff capture the mysterious sound of Bond more successfully than any main title Bond tune in over a decade.
#11) “For Your Eyes Only” by Sheena Easton, 1981
This one was a big hit on the adult contemporary and pop charts in 1981 (though it didn’t manage to crack the top spot) and it was the first 007 theme tune to feature the singer in the opening titles sequence. It was also Oscar nominated, but lost the statue to the largely forgotten theme song for the movie Arthur. The titles sequence served as one of the earliest examples of a music video, made a year before the launch of MTV.
Characteristic lyric: “For your eyes only, only for you; You’ll see what no one else can see, and now I’m breaking free.”
It’s another in a string of Bond theme tunes that are sung by the Bond Girl who pines for 007.
#12) “GoldenEye” by Tina Turner, 1995
After a six year hiatus, James Bond was back with a bang—and Pierce Brosnan finally got his shot at 007. Tina Turner sings the theme song, written by U2’s Bono and The Edge.
Characteristic lyric: “You’ll never know how I watched you from the shadows as a child; You’ll never know how it feels to get so close and be denied.”
As with Licence to Kill before it, the theme song for “GoldenEye” is a stand-alone tune written in a vacuum, having nothing to do with the film and its melody is never heard again during the instrumental score. Yet while the words don’t apply to the plot, the lyrics seem to speak directly to Brosnan, who has told tales of growing up in Ireland watching Bond in the cinemas, and who was this close to landing the gig for The Living Daylights eight years and one Bond actor earlier.
#13) “Thunderball” by Tom Jones, 1965
A song titled “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was originally written for the movie (sung by Dianne Warwick) but the producers went instead with a song that uses the name of the film as its title. This wouldn’t be the only time a Bond theme song was substituted at the eleventh hour, nor would it be the last time a 007 theme song would be stuck with an absolutely nonsensical title. The word “Thunderball” is a MacGuffin, the mere code name for 007’s investigation into SPECTRE’s atom bomb ransom scheme—the lyrics have little connection to plot specifics, but roughly the words relate to both 007 and the main villain.
Characteristic lyric: “Any woman he wants, he gets; He will break any heart without regret.”
According to Bond lore, singer Tom Jones feinted after wailing the powerful nine-second end-note.
#14) “The Man With The Golden Gun” by Lulu, 1974
One of the more freakish 007 adventures contains one of the goofiest title tracks. In the spirit of “Goldfinger” and “Thunderball,” this song is a celebration of the chief villain Scaramanga, and the words are spoken to an unlucky beauty who gets involved and indebted to him, or perhaps spoken by the doomed dame directly to 007.
Characteristic lyric: “His eye may be on you or me. Who will he bang? We shall see. Oh, yeah!”
Silly sexual innuendo aside, the melody serves the score nicely as both a romantic theme and thrilling action music. This film marks the first time in the Bond series where we hear an alternate version of the title tune over the end credits, and the slower striptease style version at the close highlights the va-va-va-voom factor of composer John Barry’s brassy orchestrations.
#15) “You Know My Name” by Chris Cornell (from Casino Royale, 2006)
The title is evident: James Bond is singing this song. Playing off the classic catch-phrase, “The name is Bond—James Bond,” Chris Cornell’s hard-driving rock-and-roll anthem is arresting, though it lacks a memorable melody. It’s made all the more ironic because our new James Bond Daniel Craig doesn’t utter the signature line until the very last shot of the film (007 spends the whole movie earning this moment). Composer David Arnold manages to weave a brief motif from the chorus into the instrumental soundtrack, a throwback to the days when John Barry would sprinkle the entire score with variations of the title tune.
Characteristic lyric: “Arm yourself because no one else here will save you.”
#16) “The Living Daylights” by a-ha, 1987
Composer John Barry worked with Nordic pop group a-ha, and the result is a middling ’80s ditty that is saddled with the most generic title of the series to date—used reluctantly and only because it was on the ever-dwindling shortlist of novel and short story titles conjured by author Ian Fleming but not yet appropriated for a movie.
Characteristic lyric: “Set your hopes up way to high, the living’s in the way we die.”
None of the words make a lick of sense in light of the film, but Barry not only utilizes the melody of the title track as action music, he further interpolates the themes of two subsidiary songs performed by The Pretenders—“Where Has Everybody Gone?” and “If There Was A Man”—as a terrific suspense cue and a romantic lullaby, respectively.
#17) “Tomorrow Never Dies” by Sheryl Crow, 1997
Though k.d. lang’s song “Surrender” has lyrics that directly relate to the new Bond villain’s scheme and features an arresting brass accompaniment, her song was ditched at the eleventh hour in favor of this smoky plucked-strings torch song by Sheryl Crow.
Characteristic lyric: “Darling I’m killed, I’m on a puddle on the floor, waiting for you to return.”
If the lyrics of Crow’s tune can be ascribed to anything within the plot of the movie, they’re sung by a doomed Bond Girl longing and waiting for former flame 007 to steal her away. Throughout the film, lang’s melody is quoted on David Arnold’s instrumental soundtrack, while Crow’s one-off effort seems completely out of sync and is never referenced again in the score.
#18) “Another Way To Die” by Alicia Keys and Jack White (from Quantum of Solace, 2008)
This is the first time we hear a duet for a 007 title track, and the pairing of Alicia Keys and White Stripes front man Jack White results in a jumble of piano, horns and guitar that relies too heavily on a motif lifted from Chris Cornell’s Casino Royale theme song “You Know My Name.” Composer David Arnold wedges a few notes of the song into the score on one occasion; otherwise this tune is as far removed from the body and themes of the film as it could possibly get. Apparently the producers approached Shirley Bassey for a Quantum song, and though her track “No Good About Goodbye” was ultimately rejected, it’s light years more “Bondian” than the Keys/White duet, and its melody is prominently heard within the score proper.
Characteristic lyric: “Someone that you think that you can trust is just another way to die.”
The male/female dynamic of the song suggests Bond and Bond Girl Camille are singing to each other, but none of the words relate to the movie. At all.
#19) “Licence To Kill” by Gladys Knight
After the success of Flashdance, Footloose and Beverly Hills Cop, it was no longer sufficient for a soundtrack album to boast a singular radio hit—the new normal was a score featuring multiple singles, which is why both Gladys Knight and Patti LaBelle are on hand here, providing alternate ballads that are heard over the opening and closing credits, respectively. With usual series composer John Barry unavailable, the musical duties went to Die Hard’s Michael Kamen, and though his orchestral symphony serves the film well, he had nothing to do with either song, and neither song is ever heard within the body of Kamen’s score. Thanks to Celine Dion’s cover, Labelle’s end-credit ballad “If You Asked Me To” has taken on a life of its own, but few non-Bond fans recall the title tune by Gladys Knight (minus the Pips).
Characteristic lyric: “Got a license to kill and you know I’m going straight for your heart; Got a license to kill anyone who tries to tear us apart.”
Not only are the lyrics incongruent, but the distinctly adult contemporary R&B vibe is a quiet storm completely at odds with the grittier and bloodier aspects of the movie.
#20) “All Time High” by Rita Coolidge (from Octopussy, 1983)
John Barry and Tim Rice team up with vocalist Rita Coolidge, and the result is a lilting piano ballad with a jazzy saxophone riff and a misplaced electric guitar, with Coolidge’s soft pussycat voice agreeable but making for one of the blander title tunes of the series—even allowing considerable leeway for not name-checking the eyebrow-raising title. The words “all time high” obviously relate to the tendency of the 007 producers to outdo their previous stunts/sets/gadgets/explosions –
Characteristic lyric: “So hold on tight, let the flight begin, we’re an all-time high”
But sometimes I wish the Bond team had demonstrated the balls to just say, “Fuck it, they’re actually letting us call the picture Octopussy, let’s just go there all the way and use it as the name for the song, too. Quick—what rhymes with ‘pussy?’ Somebody call Tim Rice.” The words roughly correlate to the mysterious title character as if she’s singing to 007 about how they’re two of a kind and blah, blah, blah. At least composer John Barry uses motifs inspired by the main theme as romantic muzak throughout the film, a 20-year Bond tradition that would fall by the wayside before the 1980s concluded.
#21) “Moonraker” by Shirley Bassey, 1979
Desperate to repeat the same popular success of the previous film’s title track (“Nobody Does It Better” from The Spy who Loved Me) the producers were perhaps resigned to the notion that they’d never equal it, so they played it safe by recruiting Shirley Bassey to record her unprecedented third 007 theme song. The result is a maudlin ballad that has absolutely nothing to do with the actual movie, with the irrelevant lyrics shoehorning the title of the film into the song in a way that, bizarrely, suggests the villain is called the Moonraker (the title is actually the name of the villain’s space shuttle).
Characteristic lyric: “Just like the Moonraker knows his dream will come true someday, I know that you are only a kiss a way.”
The words are spoken by the Bond Girl du jour, as she’s pining for 007 while—it bears repeating—erroneously calling the bad guy the Moonraker. Despite the insipid lyrics, the ballad is elevated by a lovely melody and the glorious vocal prowess of Miss Bassey—she’s in fine form, even if the softer aspects of this song don’t scale the same brassy vocal heights as her immortal tracks “Goldfinger” and “Diamonds Are Forever.” The end-credits scroll is accompanied by a disco remix of the title track that, though utterly preposterous and hopelessly dated, is at least livelier than the version heard over the main titles.
#22) “From Russia With Love” by Matt Monro, 1963
When you watch the movie, the opening credits play only an instrumental version of this song that snakes into a muscular rendition of the “James Bond Theme.” The song with vocals is heard during the film on a passerby’s radio, and then again as a reprise over the end credits. The tune is serviceable if dated, and it would take the next movie (Goldfinger) and the brassy pipes of Miss Shirley Bassey for the Bond magic makers to finally strike gold with an indelible theme song that stands on its own.
Characteristic lyric: “My running around it through, I fly to you from Russia with love.”
Since the James Bond we’ve gotten to know thus far doesn’t seem to be the sort of guy who would give up his ways for Bond Girl Tatiana, I can only surmise this is the song Miss Moneypenny dreams James Bond is singing specifically to her.
#23) “Die Another Day” by Madonna, 2002
As a stand-alone dance track, this tune is merely medium-grade techno-era Madonna. As a Bond theme, it’s an utter abomination, lacking a memorable theme, layered with nonsensical lyrics and full of electronic bleeps and jarring drop-outs that sound similar to a skipping CD. The song jerks along in fits and starts, and though we hear a gorgeous symphonic accompaniment towards the end, this faintest hint of a melody is betrayed by all the digital noise. The synthetic style of the song suits the much derided speed-ramp editorial transitions within the film, but otherwise the tune represents the most egregious example of a Bond song written in a vacuum—totally divorced from any tangential relationship to the plot, and we never hear any motifs from the song within David Arnold’s instrumental score. A remix version of the song is heard during the ice castle sequence in Iceland and then again over the end credits—it’s a bit more palatable than the main titles version, but Bond fans are nearly unanimous in their hatred of this theme song.
Characteristic lyric: “I’m gonna wake up, yes and no.”
So, recapping, there is no theme song for the first Bond movie Dr. No, and I’ve listed two for Tomorrow Never Dies. That makes the new song for the upcoming Bond 24 SPECTRE the 24rd 007 theme tune.
Performed in falsetto by British crooner Sam Smith, the title tune “Writing’s On The Wall” is a haunting ballad in the spirit of Adele’s “Skyfall” with gorgeous strings and hearty horns. Though I won’t be sure until I see the new movie in November, it seems the lyrics (“For you I’d risk it all”) hint at a strong romantic relationship between 007 and his latest Bond Girl. The new tune has an air of tragedy about it that has me convinced SPECTRE will not only be an update of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but will be closer in tone to Skyfall and not nearly as fun as 007 flicks like Goldfinger, The Spy Who Loved Me or Octopussy.
Even so, I’ll be there opening day November 6, mid-row center.