The Bond Sound

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The music of James Bond has always been one of the highlights of the entire franchise. From the likes of Sheryl Crow, Tina Turner, Carly Simon, Tom Jones, Gladys Knight, and even Jack White and Alicia Keys, the Bond music has become its own form of iconography within the canon. But, really, how similar are they and do they really deserve such praise? Granted, from song to song, the opinion has changed and varied, as it should. But everyone talks about a certain song, even if it’s not even related to the Bond series, as having certain Bond-esque qualities, or a song that would seemingly fit the series for one of the films. If anything, the music should embody the film and the character, the themes and the style of the movie, and the music will always, realistically speaking, reflect something of the times. With the big brass of Shirley Bassey’s voice on the title track to Goldfinger to the electronically manipulated sound of Madonna’s take on Die Another Day, each song has its unique place in Bond history. I’ve been enamored of the Bond films since I was 6 and I first heard the strumming sounds of the James Bond theme from, not Dr. No, but the video games 007: Agent Under Fire. It did not, nor ever will, compare to the one featured in Bond’s first adventure from 1962. There will always be something compelling about that music, something very interesting, even if it’s not very Bond-ian. It’s a trademark of the series, which often fits together with some intoxicatingly beautiful images of nude women in each film’s stunning main title sequence. I will be looking at each of the film’s theme songs and see how they compare as truly Bond-esque. The yardstick I will measure the songs against will be none other than John Barry and Monty Norman’s “James Bond Theme”, first featured in the film Dr. No.

1. “The James Bond Theme” from Dr. No (1962), performed by Monty Norman

The theme that started it all. Creeping up on the audience right from the get go, as Bond shoots his gun at the audience and through the gun barrel, thus revealing a gorgeously minimalistic title sequence from title creator Maurice Binder, the Bond theme will always be incredibly iconic with all film goers. The strumming guitar riffs, which were held to a microphone and then manipulated in the studio adding a kind of echo, were originally intended for a musical Norman had been writing. After that had been scrapped, Dr. No composer John Barry requested to use it for a new spy/espionage/action movie. And then history was made. The theme plays in all suspenseful moments, being utilized for, what else, mood music. It makes the most indelible impression, and makes cinematic history, with a simple, “Bond. James Bond.” The heavy brass of the chorus is what it’s all about. The strumming riffs are like the stealthy entrance from the super spy and the big brass is Bond kicking ass. The theme is so smooth, so suave, and so cool that no one could possibly think of another theme being better suited for such a cold, calculated character as James Bond. Despite it being Bond’s first time on the screen, Sean Connery and the music burst onto the silver screen with as more confidence one could have thought. They know exactly what they’re doing here. It’s become a part of popular culture, and has inspired countless rip off and pastiches. But, really, nobody does it better. – A+

2. “James Bond is Back” (John Barry) and “From Russia with Love” (Matt Monro) from From Russia with Love (1963)

Maybe trying to chase the high that was the first James Bond theme, John Barry opted to use another instrumental for the titles of Bond’s second outing, From Russia with Love. Combining the title song (written by Barry, performed by crooner Matt Monro) and the James Bond theme, it feels very much like one of those “A new adventure, but still the same spy” kind of track. The exciting brass will always be iconic within the Bond music. The brass represents that thrill of the Bond films, an element that would disappear later in the themes. The song itself is an interesting piece. It doesn’t quite fit the character, but it somehow fits the film. Bond has never been an actual romantic. As Judi Dench’s M tells him in 1995’s GoldenEye, he’s a “misogynist dinosaur”. Thus, it’s kind of odd to encounter such gorgeous refrains worthy of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin in a James Bond film. Bond sleeps with women and then disposes of them, and even though it was the second film, audiences already knew this. How many women did he go through in Dr. No? Three. The lyrics are cute, with the bridge pleading, “I’ve seen face, places, and smiles for a moment; but oh, you haunted me so”. The film’s Bond girl, Tatiana, is hardly the love of Bond’s life and would barely leave an impression on him. That being said, although the lyrics most definitely do not fit the film itself, the general composition and tone of the song certainly does. Full of lush strings, and gypsy-sounding tambourines, the tonal quality fits the locale and feel of the film. It’s a personal favorite of mine to listen to, yet it remains fairly underrated and obscure. – A-/B+

3. “Goldfinger” from Goldfinger (1964), performed by Shirley Bassey

The brass is back and louder than ever. Strong with the strings and ominous tone, “Goldfinger” is one of the most memorable tracks Bond has ever produced. With Shirley Bassey at the front, this began a grand tradition of hiring famous people to sing the Bond themes. The lyrics here are probably a lot weaker than people are willing to admit. It’s not the lyrics that make the song (“Such a cold finger; beckons you to enter his web of sin; but don’t go in”), it’s Bassey’s great voice. Resounding with thunder, Bassey makes the track so good; you kind of forget the lyrics are kind of terrible. Who else can hold a note like that end note? This most definitely fits the Bond type of music, and with good reason. – A

4. “Thunderball” from Thunderball (1965), performed by Tom Jones

With big brass remaining a hallmark of the Bond themes, we also have music whose lyrics talk about the film’s villain, rather than Bond himself. I don’t know if I quite agree with that, but it would work for the next forty or so years. Tom Jones powerful voice thunders during the track, which uses big brass much better than “Goldfinger”. With a title like “Thunderball”, it’s a good thing they took it to heart and made it as jazzy, classy, and loud as possible. It a strange way, although the lyrics are relatively simple, it manages to explore certain themes within the villainous canon of Bond bad guys than any other song in the series. Yet another winner in my book. – A-

5. “You Only Live Twice” from You Only Live Twice (1967), performed by Nancy Sinatra

Her boots are made for walking, she was shot down, and apparently, she only lives twice. Yes, Bond managed to snag Old Blue Eyes’ daughter for a Bond theme. But, the trend of songs only very vaguely related to the villains, themes, characters, etc. can be once again found here. Although Ian Fleming opened his original novel with a haiku (“You only live twice/ Once when you are born/ and once when you look death in the face.”), the song itself speaks vaguely of love and danger and being a stranger. It’s muddled and lacks enough of the Japanese influence to really suit the movie. It’s also kind of boring. – C

6. “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Theme” (John Barry) and “We Have All the Time in the World” (Louis Armstrong), from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

Was it because “You Only Live Twice” kind of sucked or did John Barry just have an itch to have an instrumental “reminiscent” of the original Bond theme start the film? Either way, it was unsuccessful. Using a strange, maybe electronic technique for the bass guitar, the music does not truly allude to the style of Bond, even with the use of the brass. I suppose I can give them kudos for making it sound like you’re going down a mountain, sort of. But, OHMSS was the introduction of the first new actor to play James Bond, Australian actor George Lazenby. So, I guess a new theme was in order for a new Bond? The title sequence uses images and scenes from past Bond films and passes them through an hour glass. And then we have the great Louis Armstrong, Satchmo, on his last recording ever with the sweet, melancholy “We Have All the Time in the World”. This wonderfully romantic tune does make sense here, as James Bond marries Tracy Vicenzo (Dianna Rigg). However, I’m not a big fan of his voice, so it isn’t something I would listen to. – C/B-

7. “Diamonds Are Forever” from Diamonds Are Forever (1971), performed by Shirley Bassey

Once again, Shirley Bassey returns to make mediocre lyrics look splendid in a very chilling theme. Also, Sean Connery makes his final return as James Bond, after Lazenby had stepped out after only one film. The main problem of many of the Bond songs is you have no idea who’s narrating the song. But here, again, it doesn’t really matter. I suppose one could assume that it’s Blofeld, because he’s the villain, but then she begins talking about men, so maybe Jill St. John’s diamond smuggler Tiffany Case. The song combines the chilling tone, the brass we know and love, and carefully chosen strains of disco-esque tones. It creates something pretty perfect, and that’s mostly thanks to Bassey’s helluva voice. – A

8. “Live and Let Die” from Live and Let Die (1973), performed by Paul McCartney and Wings

If you can’t have the Beatles, I guess you might as well have McCartney and Wings. The lyrics have nothing to do with the movie or anything. It’s only vaguely, and I mean vaguely related to the title. McCartney and his wife apparently could barely muster enough wit to explore the actual philosophy that Fleming satirizes in his title. If anything, it’s an exercise in self-indulgence and excess. Yes, the loud parts of the song are action pack and thrilling, but it means nothing and fails to leave any real mark emotionally on the viewer other than “oh that is so cool”. Even though it is, in my opinion, one of the series’ weakest songs, and honestly, most pointless, it has enduring strength. It’s like a half-assed version of “Band on the Run” in the way that it transitions (without reason) from style to style, but here it’s back and forth and not nearly as well composed. Despite the movie taking cues from Blaxploitation movies like Shaq and the films of Pam Grier, there’s no obvious influence of that music style in the theme. This was also Roger Moore’s first Bond, one out of seven. I guess they wanted to market him as exciting. Instead of honestly marketing him as kind of pithy and corny. – D

9. “The Man with the Golden Gun” from The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), performed by Lulu

Again, we find ourselves going back to our roots and vaguely talking about the villain in question, one Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee). Where “Live and Let Die” failed to marry Bond’s jazzy roots with newer, cooler rock and roll, “The Man with the Golden Gun” does so much more successfully. It feels like a crossover of jazz to rock, probably more the latter than the former. The electric guitar slashes through the song, and Lulu’s pop-esque voice works well for the song. While not nearly as skilled or convincing as Bassey, Lulu still manages to some extent disguise the fact that the words are poorly written and lackluster. – B+

10. “Nobody Does it Better” from The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), performed by Carly Simon

This song is definitely about you, Mr. Bond, and it is one of the first to have the lyrics explicitly address James Bond himself. I’m not sure why everyone loves this song, and I’m not sure why I even love it. It’s sweet, tender, and honest; qualities that do not match the Bond series in any way. Marvin Hamlisch’s disco inspired song manages to work, somehow. From the beginning piano riff, it’s totally romantic and somehow totally works. Carly Simon’s beautiful voice, so pop inspired and so recognizable from her song about that other singer, just fills the speakers with sweetness. I don’t know how, because it shouldn’t work. It doesn’t fit the rest of the music, where even “You Only Live Twice” hypothetically makes more tonal sense than this song. But it just does. – A

11. “Moonraker” from Moonraker (1978), performed by Shirley Bassey

Not even Bassey’s flawless voice can save the lyrics of this song. Not only is the title track to one of the worst Bond movies asinine, it is painful to listen to. It does not make any sense from anyone’s perspective. Not Bond’s, not the villain’s, not even the Bond girl’s. This is a new low for Bond.  – D-

12. “For Your Eyes Only” from For Your Eyes Only (1981), performed by Sheena Easton

Yet another song that is only vaguely related to the title and so totally does not make sense to the series or the film. If “Nobody Does It Better” was suited to The Spy Who Loved Me somewhat in tone, this one again fails to make any sense. This track is probably most explicitly related to disco/pop and thus most explicitly nonsensical and annoying. Sheena Easton’s voice is good though, but it would be much more suited for a romantic comedy of some sort than a James Bond film, of all things. – C+

13. “All Time High” from Octopussy (1983), performed by Rita Coolidge

The song that is fun to listen to but has no relation to even the title. It’s like the lyricists are getting really lazy here. Granted, the song itself is pleasant, with its soft rock inflections and pleasant performance, just not right for Bond. – C

14. “A View to a Kill” from A View to a Kill (1985), performed by Duran Duran

By track fourteen, you begin to question why the Bond songs are iconic at all. Besides Shirley Bassey, Carly Simon, and the Bond Theme itself, most of the songs have been incredibly lack luster. Here, with the number one band of the 1980’s, Duran Duran, we do have a little hope., The lyrics are still fairly terrible, but there is some kind of marriage of Bond’s themes and characters with that of very contemporary music. “Dance into the fire” is very action packed sounding, and that’s the best you can hope for this far into the game. (It may be sad that I only knew who Duran Duran was because of this song whenever people would bring them up.) – B

15. “The Living Daylights” from The Living Daylights (1987), performed by a-Ha

By now, Bond’s brassy sound of action had been pretty much thrown away In favor of sounding as contemporary as possible, and thus barely acknowledging the roots of Bond’s style or theme. It’s that theme that made Bond so iconic. Yes, it was all those other factors, but that theme left an impression so indelible on music history, that it’s something exclusive to that brand and to that character. Any spy can drive a cool car, play poker, and have gadgets and girls, but only one man has that theme. I’m not really sure what to make of a-Ha’s Bond theme for The Living Daylights. I’m not sure what the music means. It sounds somewhat orchestral, somewhat electronic, and somewhat like rock. It’s like an amalgam of those genres that is not messy exactly, but it’s far from perfectly executed. The falsetto singing throws one off a little. It’s not a terrible song, but it doesn’t really make sense. – B-

16. “Licence to Kill” from Licence to Kill (1989), performed by Gladys Knight

Much like “Moonraker” and “Live and Let Die”, “License to Kill” is the kind of song I will skip over if it comes up on my iPod. And since I happen to have the album The Best of Bond…James Bond on my iPod, it happens every so often. Continuing the trend of irrelevant lyrics and contemporary style over any relation to roots or the film’s themes, it has a very R&B feel to it. You would think that a film dealing with a Colombian drug lord would have a little spice to it. But, no, instead we get a plodding pseudo-ballad about heartbreak and the singer belting, “I got a license to kill, and you know I’m aiming straight for your heart”. So trite and annoying.  – D

17. “GoldenEye” from GoldenEye (1995), performed by Tina Turner

Is it wrong for me to just expect Tina Turner doing a Bond theme to be damn good? I hope not. The song is a nice return after a series of stupid, trite, and irrelevant tracks, a nice return to quality and mystery, much like the film itself. Pierce Brosnan’s first adventure as James Bond will always be one of my favorites, because, in a nut shell, it’s just a damn good movie. The song was penned by U2’s Bono and the Edge, so that definitely adds to the “hell yes” factor. Paying homage vocally to Shirley Bassey, Turner handles the song with integrity, adding throaty and gritty vocals to every note. The lyrics make sense too! Sung from the perspective of Alec Trevelyan, Agent 006, Janus, and the man who betrayed Bond, the song is actually a deep and interesting look at jealousy and greed. A Bond song that not only makes sense to the film but is also actually good? You’re kidding! I am not. “GoldenEye” begins with string plucks and walks the line of contemporary pop music and sweet, mysterious jazz, and does so beautifully. And Tina Turner is always, shall we say, Onatopp of things. – A

18. “Tomorrow Never Dies” from Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), performed by Sheryl Crow

With an entirely new Bond of the 1990’s we get an entirely new kind of song for each film. “Tomorrow Never Dies”, while not the masterpiece I think “GoldenEye” is, is nonetheless an interesting examination of Bond’s cold heart. The best guess as to whose point of view the song is supposed to be would be Paris Carver (Teri Hatcher), Bond’s former lover and current wife to villain. Or maybe it’s the cynical view of Wai Linn (Michelle Yeoh), who is, essentially, Bond’s match (one of the first legitimate matches, from what I remember). Sheryl Crow’s soaring vocals are always a treat, and the orchestral nature of the music is a lovely acknowledgement of Bond’s orchestral days. The song, though, is a bit enigmatic, but it at least makes some sense to an extent. – B+

19. “The World is Not Enough” from The World is Not Enough (1999), performed by Garbage

Another one of my personal favorites, and what I can say is a nice psychoanalysis of the film’s villain Elektra King, Garbage’s take on a Bond theme involves lush strings and passionate guitar. A proper homage to the Bond films of yore, with lyrics that correspond to dialogue in both TWINE and OHMSS. It is one of the most perfect examples of a rock crossover to whatever genre also makes up this fantastic song. Shirley Manson, the band’s lead vocalist, hits some pretty great notes in the song, and she looks fabulous doing it in the track’s music video. This span of great Bond tracks is short lived though. *sigh* – A

20. “Die Another Day” from Die Another Day (2002), performed by Madonna

I imagine that when it was announced that Madonna would sing the title track to Brosnan’s last Bond film, some people were thinking, “Wait, why didn’t they ask her in the ‘80’s, or even ‘90’s?” The lady who is still releasing singles to this day brought us a weird electro pop song that is so much less than what it aspires to be. Instead, it feels like the lackluster songs of the Moore films, the ones that basically made no connection between the lyrics of the song and the film itself, as opposed to the title. Maybe I’m being a little harsh, as one could make the connection that it relates to the movie’s bad guy, Gustav Graves. (On the electro pop note, it should be noted that here, more than ever, composer David Arnold employed a lot of electronic manipulation to the music.) But that’s stretching it. They probably should have asked her more than a decade ago to do it. – C

21. “You Know My Name” (Chris Cornell) and “The James Bond Theme” (David Arnold) from Casino Royale (2006)

Apparently, an origin story calls for a whole new theme, so rocking and rollicking that it’ll blow your mind. We’ve had songs that talk vaguely about the title, or about the villain, or talk vaguely about James Bond himself, and the occasional one that talks explicitly, and well, about Bond. But we’ve never had a James Bond theme that’s from the point of view of the Master Spy himself. Woo, we get an existential self-evaluation about what it’s like to be a cold killing machine. And, because it’s addressed to someone, we can then assume he’s talking to Vesper Lynd, the gorgeous beauty. What do I love about this song? Besides everything, the lyrics are powerful and relevant, the music pulsates, and, as an origin song, it totally makes sense. Is there any homage to the Bond theme itself? Not really, and with good reason. Yes there’s a little bras, but this is Bond for a new generation, one that is starting from scratch. So, the musical motif throughout the film is not the James Bond theme, but actually refrains from “You Know My Name”. But that isn’t to say Bond’s theme has disappeared completely. On the contrary, just as Bond finally discovers that he is the man with the license to kill, and we hear his “first” utterance of “Bond. James Bond.”, David Arnold serves us up with a retro, neo-classical update of the Bond theme. It honors the original but has its own kind of cool tone. I would say “You Know My Name” is my all-time favorite Bond theme, for it is song writing and storytelling at its best. – A+/A

22. “Another Way to Die” from Quantum of Solace (2008), performed by Jack White and Alicia Keys

I will forever resent Jack White and Alicia Keys for even stepping foot in the studio to do this song. The opening riff sounds like it was literally ripped from “You Know My Name”’s opening riffs and just put in bass form. The lyrics seem strangely more suited to something like, I don’t know, a hybrid of rap, pop, and R&B. The overall sound is a confusing mess, trying to do what Casino Royale did, but failing completely. That’s how I feel about Quantum of Solace in general; Casino Royale was so good that they wanted to recreate that feeling. The voices aren’t suited to the song and here we have a song that, perhaps like “All Time High”, seems to have nothing to do with the movie. A huge letdown, like the film itself. – C-

Conclusion:

The Bond music will always be memorable, but the only reason that is because of a select few songs that are deservingly iconic. There are a couple that are underrated, but for the most part, that “Bond sound” only exists in about six or seven of the over twenty-two themes produced in the entire franchise. The longest lasting franchise has inexplicably created the longest lasting impression of a certain kind of sound. Yet that “sound” is inconsistent, and nearly disappears for an entire set of the songs, which means almost a decade. Let’s hope that with the new song for the upcoming Bond film Skyfall, it’ll be a song with integrity and with good lyrics. We need that music to let us know that one man is on the screen, Bond. James Bond.

Top 5

1. James Bond Theme – Dr. No


2. You Know My Name – Casino Royale


3. GoldenEye – GoldenEye


4. Goldfinger – Goldfinger


5. Thunderball – Thunderball 

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