To celebrate the release of Skyfall onto home video, I shall do one more, shall we call it a bonus, rendition of my Bond 50 blog series, even though it’s technically Bond 51. Whatever. For this, the bonus entry, I will focus on the music that has captivated Bond fans for over five decades.
Worst Bond Theme Songs
For anyone with either a passing interest and/or a short memory, Bond films have not always had incredible title songs, and I’m not talking about the instrumental openings of the first, second, and sixth films either (all of which are really good by the way). The worst title songs are:
1. Lulu – “The Man with the Golden Gun”: the song is pretty horrific in terms of its lyrics, and the accompanying music is not that much better, sounding like a bad attempt at a pop hit. It’s not the singer’s fault either; her voice is actually pretty good. The only upside to this song is that John Barry managed to turn the bad music and provide beautiful orchestrations, for the most part, that permeate the film; making the music, and Christopher Lee, the only two things about the film that are undeniably decent.
2. Sheryl Crow – “Tomorrow Never Dies”: the song is slow, the delivery is pretty bad, and the fact that the other track on the film, k.d. lang’s “Surrender” is better does not help. It sounds like Sheryl Crow was tired and just wanted to be done for the day, and that was the take they used. I also don’t like that it sounds like it’s aching for radio play; the best songs work on their own, not just for radio.
3. Alicia Keys and Jack White – “Another Way to Die”: the theme from Quantum of Solace was the first sign the film would not fully fulfill expectations, which is bad thing; while my harsh opinion of the film itself has mellowed somewhat, the song, which again aches for radio play, just doesn’t work. I know that they were trying to put something nice we hadn’t seen before, and I commend their ambition, but it still doesn’t work.
Honorable mention: Duran Duran – “A View to a Kill”: the first time music video for a Bond film title song came from this track, which musically is okay, but the vocals are just lacking; they sound overstretched, like the singer is trying to get the song in before his voice goes.
Starting at the beginning with Dr. No, the Bond films’ scores have always been a step above; even their worst scoring efforts are not horrific, something which is really impressive over the span of films they’ve made. Granted some scores (Live and Let Die, For Your Eyes Only, Goldeneye at some parts) are not as great as others, but I’d hesitate before calling any of them bad.
Each score is representative of the film it accompanies, whether in terms of location (You Only Live Twice and Man With the Golden Gun had oriental motifs befitting their settings), epic size or simplicity (Dr. No and For Your Eyes Only are simple films, with simple scores, whereas Moonraker and Octupussy, grander in scale, had grander scores), or matching the film’s tone (Goldfinger and Thunderball).
However, some scores rise above the rest. Here they are:
1. John Barry – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Accompanied by an instrumental theme song and a love song (“We Have all the time in the world” by Louis Armstrong (his final recording before his passing two years later)), and aided by the epic and grand setting of the Alps, the score flies higher than any Bond score prior or since. Slow development of the love story is aided by Barry’s score, which is one reason why OHMSS ranks near, or at, the top of list of Bond films.
2. John Barry – Goldfinger. A score that nearly perfectly matches what you see on the screen, Barry hit a home run with this one. He manages to emphasize the tension, make the jokes funnier, and give a sense of foreboding at precisely the right moment. When the film transitions to Kentucky, he uses a bluegrass feel initially to make you feel right there, before transitioning back to remind us that Bond is not on holiday. The epic swing feel that introduces us to Miami at the start of the film is one of Barry’s best Bond tracks.
3. David Arnold – The World is Not Enough. David Arnold took a page from John Barry and incorporated the title song into his orchestrations, and the result is a brilliant piece of music that not only incorporates the title song, but provides a thrilling score that matches what we see on screen. Arnold, who had previously done a tribute album to John Barry’s scores and songs, came in with the hearty endorsement of Barry, and has been an asset to the franchise ever since. Arnold notably incorporated k.d. lang’s “Surrender” into his score, as opposed to the title song, given his preference for Lang’s song, which works better in the end.
Honorable mention: John Barry – You Only Live Twice. Successfully incorporating Asian musical motifs into a Bond score is difficult, but Barry succeeds, not only putting them in the score itself, but the title song, sung by Nancy Sinatra.
Notable Secondary Songs
In the Bond ethos, several songs have entered the consciousness of Bond fans even though they were not seen over one of the brilliant title sequences. There have been a string of songs over the years, such as The Pretenders who provided a pair of them for The Living Daylights, Patti Labelle who provided one for Licence to Kill, Eric Serra for Goldeneye, the list goes on.
The first major one was “Underneath the Mango Tree,” which was a recurring motif in Dr. No. The second major one was the vocal version of “From Russia With Love,” sung by Matt Monro, which plays in the film and over the credits (I differ from other Bond fans in that I view the instrumental one as the primary version.) Thunderball had “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” which had been intended to play over the title sequence until it was decided at the eleventh hour to write “Thunderball.” Consequently, the themes in Thunderball are primarily derived from “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” and Barry incorporated the brass elements from other parts of the score into “Thunderball” to sync up as much as they could.
However, the secondary song that takes the cake is “We Have All the Time in the World,” sung by Louis Armstrong for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. A devoted love song which became the thematic element for the Bond-Tracy romance, it is truly moving, and although not as touchy-feely, lovey-dovey as other love songs, it is perfectly fit for the character of James Bond; Barry’s string arrangement of the song featured later on is truly beautiful as well. OHMSS also has one of the more unusual secondary songs, Nina’s “Do you know how Christmas trees are grown?” which is used in the film perfectly, echoing the Christmas setting the film takes place in.
The other secondary song that I absolutely love is k.d. lang’s “Surrender,” out of Tomorrow Never Dies, which I mentioned above. The song, with its strong brass introduction, powerful vocal performance, and brilliant bass line (something which most people aren’t keen to notice), make the song a thriller unto itself. Although it is superior to Sheryl Crow’s title song, and would have made a better title song, its placement at the end credits works magnificently, since we’ve heard the themes, including the brass motif, for the whole film, and to have it some at us in full Dolby surround sound is just an awesome experience.
Most actual secondary songs, which are not licensed music, get worked into the films in one way or another. However, the last few films have not had too many secondary tracks, and I wonder if it is a good idea to bring them back or not.
Best Theme Songs
What makes a good Bond theme song? To be completely honest, I cannot qualify it; there is an “it” factor each song has, and some songs work out better than others, as we’ve seen above. However, what sounds good to one ear is not necessarily the same as what sounds good to another’s, so remember that this is an opinion.
1. Shirley Bassey – “Moonraker.”
A haunting melody that fits in with the space-themed film it opens, “Moonraker” is a romantic song. Shirley Bassey’s last outing, it is her best, even though she doesn’t view as “her” song as much as the other two she had done previously. The song, which matches her vocals with brilliant orchestrations from John Barry, is also timed properly, with the tempo being slightly faster than the other love songs that open Bond movies.
2. Tina Turner – “Goldeneye.”
After a rocking pre-credits sequence, any doubt that Bond was back after his six-year holiday was put to rest with “Goldeneye,” which Tina Turner delivered with incredible execution. Written by Bono and the Edge (from U2), the song is, in my opinion, a brilliant tribute to the Shirley Bassey songs from the sixties and seventies. Of course, Tina Turner’s vocals make it far more than a tribute; it is a brilliant song in its own right.
3. Shirley Bassey – “Goldfinger.”
Big. Bold. Brassy. The first non-instrumental title song in a Bond film, “Goldfinger” is everything you would want in a pop single, and fits with the film it opens very well. Just as the film promises greatness with its opening sequence, the title song only adds to it, adding a brilliant segue to the main action that is to follow.
Sheena Easton – “For Your Eyes Only”
A very eighties Bond theme, “For Your Eyes Only” is a softer song to open a Bond film, but nevertheless an incredible one. Its best merit is pulling us back into the Bond world after a pre-credits sequence which is a little unusual than we had gotten used to.
Adele – “Skyfall”
I would have listed this higher if not for the fact that it so recent. “Skyfall”, as a song, did something important: after subpar outings on “Quantum of Solace,” a par for the course (barely) on “Casino Royale,” and a bad song by Madonna for “Die Another Die,” we finally had a great Bond theme after over ten years of waiting.
Well, that’s it for me. I hope you enjoyed it, and feel free to give any opinions you may have. Thanks for reading!