Of Bondage: The Theme Songs

Skyfall, the 23rd (official) installment of the James Bond franchise, looms but five months from multiplexes.  It will be lion-of-manhood Daniel Craig’s third appearance as Bond, this time opposite villain Javier Bardem, directed by Sam Mendes, the British talent whom, it appears, has finally decided to make a movie about his native England, as opposed to shallow eviscerating polemics about America.  One way or another, 007 obsessive Tyler has decided to take a look at varying aspects of the James Bond franchise, which leads to FR’s latest series, Of Bondage.  In this first installment, a listen to and observation of each (again, official) Bond theme song.

Damn. I like the way you die, girl.

“James Bond Theme”Dr. No

The authorship of this indisputable tune has long been in dispute, with the general and accepted knowledge being that John Barry (composer of more 007 scores than any other) is most responsible for the music, but that Monty Norman reaped sole credit (and unimaginable royalties) due to a legal dispute.  Either way, it’s everything you would expect from a piece titled “James Bond Theme”; its rhythms and notes are as much a part of the franchise as “Bond, James Bond,” “Shaken, not stirred,” Aston Martins, product placement and any other iconic element you could extract.

Radio not pictured.

“From Russia With Love,” John Barry & his Orchestra/Matt MonroFrom Russia With Love

The authoritative and elaborate title sequences had yet to firm their footing by the time of this second entry in the series (not unlike an unnamed Q showing up, demure, for a brief scene of gadget introduction), and a florid, instrumental amalgam of the Bond theme and “From Russia With Love” unfolds over the belly-dancing opening credits of one of the best Bond films there is.  The work itself is far from unlike that of Henry Mancini, then making a name for himself via The Pink Panther and Breakfast At Tiffany’s, but, compared with the anthems to come, this particular “theme” lacks luster.  Crooner Matt Monro’s rendition of the actual title song, which can be heard early in the film (via radio, as “James” seduces a conquest on the beach) as well as over the end credits, is amiable, but little more.

“Goldfinger,” Shirley Bassey – Goldfinger

Ah, the first truly legendary Bond Theme Song.  Even if it isn’t now the kind of thing you blast on a car stereo–unlike other themes to come–it remains a transcendent composition that whisks the listener back not only to the movie, but to that early-’60s era just before rock and The British Invasion changed popular music.  (Connery’s Bond, within the film, to yet another ill-fated paramour: “My dear girl, there are some things that just aren’t done–such as drinking Dom Perignon ’53 above a temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit; that’s as bad as listening to The Beatles without earmuffs.”)  It’s one hell of a profundo performance, too, and the absolute reason singer Bassey was brought back so late as fifteen years distant to perform her third Bond theme.

………

“Thunderball,” Tom Jones – Thunderball

Lore has it that sex bomb Jones fainted straightaway after hitting the extended note that ends “Thunderball.”  Whether this is true or the opposite, the theme itself is solid (if a clear attempt to ape “Goldfinger”) and its bombastic character fits the nature of the movie well.  Thunderball is a hell of an action flick, but it’s definitely a bit…much.

“You Only Live Twice,” Nancy Sinatra – You Only Live Twice

Notorious now to modern viewers as the concluding accompaniment to Mad Men‘s tortured fifth season, this sultry torch ballad transcends most of the movie it precedes; You Only Live Twice, though likable as any Connery Bond, is rather ridiculous.  (It ain’t Diamonds Are Forever, but we’ll get there in a minute.)  Its theme, on the other hand, is a hidden classic, bridging the gap between old-fashioned predecessors and FM-friendly anthems to come.  Sinatra purrs where Bassey belted, her delivery an accompaniment both to swirling, hypnotic strings and a squirrelly electric guitar.  It’s the first–one of few, really–Bond theme songs to qualify as real post-modernism, and it’s also a damn fine tune.

“We Have All The Time In The World,” Louis Armstrong – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Absolutely contrary to everything excellent about “You Only Live Twice” (aside from a shared element of vague calypso), “We Have All The Time In The World” is a stunning classic that not only uses dialogue-based inspiration better than any other Bond theme to date, but transcends its throwback status thanks to pure, utter romanticism.  On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the most underappreciated film in the franchise, and its theme held against its siblings merits the same description.  (Quick note: the title sequence of Service, much like that of From Russia With Love, is scored by an underwhelming uber-007 instrumental.  The delay of “World” until over the closing credits, however, is an dynamic choice of style.  Check out the movie, and you’ll understand why.)

“Diamonds Are Forever,” Shirley Bassey – Diamonds Are Forever

Shirley Bassey. The nexus of the known universe.

Every bit and note an attempt to recall “Goldfinger”/Goldfinger, “Diamonds Are Forever” brings back Shirley Bassey just as Diamonds Are Forever brings back Sean Connery (replaced in OHMSS by Australian model George Lazenby).  A fine song, later sampled by Kanye West for his quasi-protest-rap “Diamonds From Sierra Leone,” “Diamonds” is everything it seeks to be: a classicist reminder of screen glories past.  It’s catchy as hell, rewards repeat exposure, but…yet…isn’t quite “Goldfinger.”  Much like Diamonds the film itself.

“Live And Let Die,” Paul McCartney & Wings – Live And Let Die

Thus does the Bond franchise catapult full-frontal into the modern-rock era, and with a Beatle at the microphone to boot.  McCartney was solicited by producers to craft “Live And Let Die,” but balked when asked to offer his composition to a female interpreter.  His resistance led to only the second 007 theme to be sung by a man, as well as one of the series’ most timeless.  You can say a lot about Bond movies, you can say a lot about McCartney, and plenty would say a hell of a lot about Wings.  “Live And Let Die,” though, remains an all-time great.  Really, it’s one of the more willfully cynical songs Paul would ever record, unabashed.  What does it matter to ya?  When ya got a job to do, ya gotta do it well; you gotta give the other fella–

“The Man With The Golden Gun,” Lulu – The Man With The Golden Gun

A dispiriting, unoriginal retreat to the ballroom-friendly style of Bond themes past, “The Man With The Golden Gun” is about as noteworthy as the movie it accompanies.  Which is to say, not very.

Damn straight.

“Nobody Does It Better,” Carly Simon – The Spy Who Loved Me

The flipside of the two eternal ’70s themes (the other being “Live And Let Die”), “Nobody Does It Better” achieved a deserved, passionate fanbase extending far beyond “Oh, that latest Bond theme song is pretty good.”  It’s an absolute classic, a sexy romantic ballad from the great voice best known otherwise for “You’re So Vain,” and it somehow manages to include the lyric “The spy who loved me” without derailing the phenomenal pop song that lyric surrounds.  Carly, Carly–you’re the best.

“Moonraker,” Shirley Bassey – Moonraker

Once again, ladies and gentlemen: Shirley Bassey!  Moonraker is an absurd-yet-entertaining film, brought to life around the Star Wars/sci-fi fury of the late 1970s.  Its theme song is fine.  The movie is fine.  Moving on.

Movie: good. This: not.

“For Your Eyes Only,” Sheena Easton – For Your Eyes Only

With “For Your Eyes Only,” the composition and selection of Bond themes shifted with pointedness into a period-specific era of awareness.  There is nothing about “Only” that does not pinpoint it directly within the milieu of the early-’80s, along with the hideous, synth-saturated score of Bill Conti.  Conti is best known for his iconic work scoring the Rocky franchise, but his work on Only is a thorough embarrassment.  Easton’s title tune fares a bit better, and leads to the odd distinction of its singer as the only theme-crooner who features in the title sequence of the actual film.  That said, it’s still a pretty cheesy ballad; that said, For Your Eyes Only is beyond debate the best Bond film Roger Moore ever made.  It’s tough and lean, the opposite of the “music” that accompanies it.

“All-Time High,” Rita Coolidge – Octopussy

The best element of the existence of “All-Time High” is the obvious impossibility of finagling “Octopussy” into any conceivable lyric.  The worst element is the song itself.  It’s really not very good at all, even by Roger Moore Bond flick standards.

“A View To A Kill,” Duran Duran – A View To A Kill

It makes absolutely no sense.  Roger Moore’s final appearance as 007, in which he flirts with a geriatric Moneypenny (God love ya, Lois Maxwell) and looks for the most part in need of a serious nap, is soundtracked by the franchise’s most “modern” theme to date (as well as the first which hit number one on the charts!).  As said modern Bond themes would go, “A View To A Kill” is hardly terrible; as go about any other realm of musical judgements, it’s pretty lousy.  It’s barely Bond, its sole identification with the series’ history a scattered collection of Barry-esque (in theory) orchestral stabs.

This is some seriously silly-ass shit.

“The Living Daylights,” a-Ha – The Living Daylights

As unremarkable as is “A View To A Kill,” “The Living Daylights” is even more forgettable.  Timothy Dalton was a damn good 007, and Daylights is a damn good flick; this tune does neither any justice.

“Licence To Kill,” Gladys Knight- Licence To Kill

A sort of proto-”GoldenEye,” Knight’s theme transcends the ugliness of the three tunes that preceded it–in no small part due to the singer’s solid chops–but its (say it with me now…again) ’80s-tastic style sinks its better elements.  It’s fine.  That’s about it.

“GoldenEye,” Tina Turner – GoldenEye

Here we go.  A return to form after more than a decade of execrable musical lethargy (not to mention six years between installments, as the franchise endured legal entanglements), “GoldenEye” is the best Bond theme since “Nobody Does It Better,” pretty much completely thanks to Tina Turner.  Bono and The Edge wrote the tune, and it’s become somewhat known in the years since due to GoldenEye‘s status as Pierce Brosnan’s best Bond film (by far).  But the nonsensical lyrics (really, even by the standards of these movies) are given intense-ass gravitas by Turner, who grabs the song by the balls and doesn’t let it go.  She manages the grace of a Bassey, but sassier.  You wouldn’t think it by the instrumentation–and Eric Serra’s GoldenEye‘s score ranks among the worst of the bunch, along with Conti’s–but “GoldenEye” is top-ten 007-tune material.

“This is clearly a color shot from the photographic session that provided the cover to my self-titled album, which is vastly superior to the song in question. Also, Tyler to this day thinks I look dead sexy.”

“Tomorrow Never Dies,” Sheryl Crow – Tomorrow Never Dies

Poor Sheryl.  Hustled in at the eleventh hour due to producers’ dissatisfaction with k.d. lang’s “Surrender” (which was relegated to the closing credits), her fame fresh after the success of Tuesday Night Music Club, she does her damnedest with a decent song, one obviously intended to hit the high notes of Bond ballads past, but…well, she just can’t hit the high notes.  Crow is an authoritative rock singer-songwriter, one of this writer’s all-time favorites (highs?), but her vocals simply do not suit this kind of delivery.  All told, it ain’t bad, the orchestration is absolutely killer (especially that intro), and it’s much more interesting than the cinematic snoozefest it introduces.

“The World Is Not Enough,” Garbage – The World Is Not Enough

One of the worst Bond flicks ever gave us one of the franchise’s finest themes in decades.  Shirley Manson’s outstanding range serves as transport to a harder, Bassey-an era, even with the tune’s stomping electro-’90s syncopation and transparent callbacks to the early days.  It doesn’t sound like Garbage–solid band though they were (are?)–it actually sounds almost like Sinatra; Nancy, that is.  If you’re going to have a woman sing a title song in this series, this is how to do it.

Stab me in the face. With something more lethal than an epee.

“Die Another Day,” Madonna – Die Another Day

If you’re going to have a woman sing a title song in this series, this is not how to do it.  If you’re going to have a woman sing a title song in this series, it is not advised to allow her a horrific trendo-lesbianic phallocentric cameo as a fencing instructor.  If you’re going to have a woman sing a title song in this series, you shouldn’t make the worst film in the series, or, really, one of the worst films ever.  If you’re going to have a woman sing a title song in this series, or make another Bond movie, take everything about Die Another Day, and do the opposite.  Seriously, this is some wack shit.

“You Know My Name,” Chris Cornell – Casino Royale

I mean, it’s fine.  Chris Cornell fronted the thoroughly average ’90s grunge outfit Soundgarden, who gifted us with the overrated “Black Hole Sun” and the underrated (really!) “Blow Up The Outside World.”  The franchise was being rebooted with Royale, and one might think a more stylish choice than THIS guy and his gruffery might have been a desirable option.  As it is, “Name” is, again, fine.  It doesn’t matter, because Casino Royale is one of the absolute best Bond films ever, among the best action films in forever, and its pure excellence makes a forgettable theme even moreso.  What was the name of the song again…?  Who cares.

“Another Way To Die,” Jack White & Alicia Keys – Quantum Of Solace

Much ado was made about who might croon the intro to Solace, with plenty of focus on then-tortured tabloid maven Amy Winehouse.  Winehouse was commissioned for a performance, but proved unable to harness her demons in time to create a tune; enter White, who’d forged a bond with Keys at an awards show sometime previous, and whose cleavage to older styles leads to a quirky, stuttering theme that, while perfectly in place with public-radio standards of the time, remains a strange outlier in the traditionalist world of James Bond music.  It’s really quite a cool performance, anchored by chilly piano staccato, but it doesn’t feel much like anything 007.  It’d play well at a party.  Ushering us into the exploits of the best Bond since Connery?  Less than.

CAN’T WAIT.

5 thoughts on “Of Bondage: The Theme Songs

  1. Tyler.

    Soundgarden, thoroughly average? I guess I just listened to songs not titled Black Hole Sun, but Superunknown was every bit as ubiquitous for me as any of the other big 3 Seattle records of the early 90s. (Along with Nevermind and Ten) Cornell has an amazing rock voice. Largely failed experiment or not, he wasn’t chosen as the lead singer of Audioslave by accident. Burden in my Hand is an awesome song, and I personally feel that of the bands that came out of Seattle at that time, Soundgarden is best received as the most classic “rock and roll” band. I don’t know. They were great, and without them Temple of the Dog never happens and maybe Pearl Jam never happens. Which would be a terrible world to live in. Claim otherwise at your peril sir.

  2. Jerod Vance wins!

    Soundgarden, just by releasing Superunknown, is immediately put into the annals of great rock bands. Badmotorfinger is pretty good, too. Suck it, Tyler.

  3. You know my name is the best Bond song. Too bad Tyler has a really bad taste. And Chris Cornell has the best voice in rock.

  4. Wow! You have absolutely NO taste in nor knowledge of music! Take your negativity someplace else: in you head! Your opinions DO NOT matter! YOU MUST BE A LADY GAGA FAN! Haha!
    TOODLES BITCH!

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