With the release of “Skyfall”, I believe the Bond franchise has finally revived the legacy of great songwriting and vocal performances that was a staple of the franchise in the Connery/Lazenby/Moore Bond era. While I don’t have “Skyfall” on my top ten list, it comes close, and it is a welcome effort in my book. It inspired me to create my own top ten Bond theme list.
#10 Surrender (from “Tomorrow Never Dies”)
Written by David Arnold
Performed by k.d. lang
This song actually played during the end titles of the movie, not the opening credits. It was a contender to be the opening song but lost out to “Tomorrow Never Dies” performed by Sheryl Crow. That is not a bad song, but I tend to agree with the critics that Crow just isn’t up to the task of singing the chorus. I like Sheryl Crow, but not for that song.
This is the only post-Roger Moore Bond theme that I have on my list. Since the last Moore outing, the Bond songs have just not been as memorable to me. I went back and listened to all of them, and this is the one that stuck in my mind afterwards. The verse is somewhat generic, but the chorus is quite catchy. k.d. Lang’s vocals are superb, sort of like a modern-day Shirley Bassey.
#9 For Your Eyes Only
Written by Bill Conti and Mike Leeson
Performed by Sheen Easton
The Conti/Leeson song became a worldwide hit and was one of Sheena Easton’s most memorable performances.
The band, Blondie, actually recorded a song called “For Your Eyes Only” in the hopes that it would become the Bond theme song. Ultimately the producers chose the Bill Conti song over it. Although I like the Blondie song, I think the producers made the right decision.
#8 A View To A Kill
Written by Duran Duran and John Barry
Performed by Duran Duran
Originally, Duran Duran seemed an unlikely choice to perform a Bond theme song, which was dominated by female singers (with the notable exceptions of Tom Jones for “Thunderball” and Paul McCartney for “Live and Let Die”). But, they silenced the naysayers with this respectable effort, the only Bond song to reach #1 on the U.S. charts. Here’s a bit of interesting trivia on how it happened according to a Wikipedia article:
“Duran Duran was chosen to do the song after bassist John Taylor (a lifelong Bond fan) approached producer Cubby Broccoli at a party, and somewhat drunkenly asked “When are you going to get someone decent to do one of your theme songs?”
#7 We Have All the Time in the World (from “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”
Written by John Barry, Lyrics by Hal David
Performed by Louis Armstrong
My next choice is not a title theme, but a song featured in an unusual musical interlude in the middle of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”. I admit – the first time I heard “We Have All the Time in the World”, I didn’t like it. Louis Armstrong recorded it when he was quite old, and his voice is noticeably frail. But, it grew on me as I recognized the charm and fragile beauty of the piece. It is a truly romantic song, and I think would have been a wedding classic were it not for the fact that (SPOILER ALERT) the heroine of the film is killed at the end. In spite of this, it is the third most popular love song at weddings in the UK. It is also one of John Barry’s personal favorite Bond compositions (the other being “Goldfinger”).
#6 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Written by John Barry
This is an unorthodox choice because it is an instrumental Bond theme, and also for the prominent use of the Moog synthesizer at the beginning and throughout the song. But, it is a great action theme that fits will with the spectacular ski scenes in the movie. I’d say it’s one of the best action themes in the whole Bond franchise, and deserves to be re-used in other Bond movies like the “007” theme has been.
Here’s a cover by the Propellerheads.
#5 All Time High (from “Octopussy”)
Written By John Barry and Tim Rice
Performed by Rita Coolidge
This is a controversial choice. Many dislike the adult-contemporary almost Kenny-G sound of this piece. Some think this the worst Bond theme of all time. But, I find the songwriting by composer John Barry really amazing, and the performance by Rita Coolidge sultry. The chorus, in a completely different key than the verse, really soars along with the lyrics – “we’re an all time high”.
The song only reached number 36 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, and was the lowest charting Bond theme in the UK at 75. But, it hit number on the U.S. adult contemporary charts. Like I said, this is a controversial choice, but I really like this song.
#4 You Only Live Twice
Written By John Barry and Leslie Bricusse
Performed by Nancy Sinatra
“You Only Live Twice” conveys the exotic Asian theme of the movie in a beautiful and not at all condescending way. The Asian pentatonic scales are there, but somehow it’s not unacceptably cliche’. I don’t think this choice is too controversial, as it appears in many top ten Bond theme lists. Here is an instrumental version performed by the John Barry Orchestra.
This piece has such a great orchestral riff that Robbie Williams used it for his pseudo Bond theme, “Millennium“, which is also a great song. In my opinion, it could have been used as a Bond title theme in its own right with a few tweaks.
By the way, I’ve been recently turned on to the recordings of Nancy Sinatra and they are really delightful. I suggest “Something Stupid”, a charming duet between Nancy and her father, Frank Sinatra.
#3 Live and Let Die
Written By Wings
Performed by Paul McCartney
I don’t think I’ll get much argument from anyone for having “Live and Let Die” in my top ten list (perhaps only that it’s not high enough). I contend that this masterpiece is Paul McCartney’s best work since leaving the Beatles.
There is something else that is unique about this Bond theme. Most of them fall into two categories – either ballad or action. This one contains elements of both. The middle section with the violin is one of the most beautiful parts of the song, a lonely oasis amidst the mad chaos of its surroundings.
#2 Nobody Does It Better (from “The Spy Who Loved Me”)
Music By Marvin Hamlisch, Lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager
Performed by Carly Simon
You either love or hate this song. Some have criticized this song as sounding “a little bit country”. But I think it captures the romance of the Roger Moore era at its peak. This song was also Carly Simon’s longest-charting hit, and was nominated for an Academy Award. (“The Spy Who Loved Me” is the only Bond soundtrack to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Score.) The songwriting, lyrics, and vocals are all impeccable. It’s a classic Bond theme in my book.
Check out this cover by Radiohead.
#1 From Russian With Love (Instrumental Version)
Written By John Barry
My pick for the best James Bond theme is the instrumental version of From Russia with Love, which is played during the opening credits. This pick is unorthodox and does not appear on a lot of top ten lists. It is also by far the most difficult James Bond theme song to find. You can’t find the soundtrack version on Amazon. (I had to record my copy directly from the DVD). There is a version with vocals, which is more widely available that I do not like as much either. I feel the instrumental version captures the mystery and intrigue of international espionage, at least in the context of the Ian Fleming universe. It’s also just a beautiful theme. As a bonus, it incorporates the classic James Bond theme so I am also indirectly voting for that great piece of music as well.
But perhaps it’s not so unorthodox a choice. The producers of the Bond anniversary DVD box set used an updated version of this instrumental as the theme for the DVD menu page, when they could have chosen any of the Bond themes. Someone agrees with me!
In my opinion, the film From Russia With Love was one of the best of the series, and it was Sean Connery’s personal favorite. It is often mentioned as the best Bond film of all time.
“What? Where is ‘Goldfinger'”, you ask? As you can see, I am a huge John Barry fan, but “Goldfinger” just doesn’t do it for me. I just don’t think the song is as good as a lot of Barry’s other works. I know there are many who disagree.
I’ll mention one other problem I have with “Goldfinger”, namely that it sounds dated. I’m not just referring to the production – I’m talking about the song itself. While “Goldfinger” is classic Bond theme, I just don’t think it has aged well, whereas the themes from “From Russia with Love” or “You Only Live Twice” could work on a movie soundtrack today.
“Thunderball” also has this problem. This song takes itself too seriously and is ripe for Austin Powers-style skewering. The lyrics are blatantly sexist to the point of sounding completely ridiculous now.
You might also wonder why most of my picks are from the Roger Moore era or before. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that many of the Bond songs since the Roger Moore era just haven’t been up to snuff, despite big-name performers. Look at any Bond top ten music list and you’ll find them overwhelmingly populated by the older Bond themes. The Billboard chart positions reinforce this.
It turns out that all of my Bond theme picks were composed or co-composed by film composers (not rock bands or pop stars) with the exception of “Live and Let Die”. I think the songwriting craft that a professional composer brings to the table makes a big difference in a movie soundtrack or song.
Take “Skyfall” by Madonna for instance. The songwriting just doesn’t cut it in my opinion. Critical reviews of this song are very mixed, so I don’t think I’m out on a limb here. Nothing against Madonna. Actually, I really like the songs she did for the Austin Powers movies. “Beautiful Stranger” is a great song, and perhaps could have even been a Bond theme if it was slowed down and had a little tweaking to get rid of the blatant 60’s styling (that worked so well for the Austin Powers movie).
Well, hope you liked my list! I’d love to hear your opinions below! – Brian