A brief, cranky history of James Bond theme songs

DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (1971): It was all downhill after the theme song.

Creating a successful theme song for a James Bond movie is no easy task. The song should ideally evoke romance, glamour, intrigue and drama within the space of three or four minutes, as well as offer a melody, something you can hum. It should fall within the realm of pop, yet it has to sound nominally “adult,” i.e., it can’t be too conspicuously geared toward teenage ears.

Thus over the last 50 years the Bond themes have had only a fitful relationship at best with rock music, and none at all with rap or hip hop. This wasn’t a problem in the 1960s, when composer John Barry’s tunes confidently linked an older school of pop vocals with swaggering musical scores and even the occasional twangy surf guitar.

Take it from Sir Paul: you gotta give the other fella hell!

Leave it to Paul McCartney to successfully straddle rock music and the demands, or constraints, of a Bond theme. With “Live and Let Die” in 1973 he ushered the Bond themes into a new decade with a song that has become something of a rock standard, with guitars heavy enough to inspire Guns n’ Roses to make the song a staple of their live set almost 20 years later.

But since 1973, the Bond themes have been a mite patchy, to put it kindly. One nadir came with Lulu’s kitschy “The Man with the Golden Gun” (1974), composed by Barry himself. With its comically crass horns and lurid disco-fied guitars, the songs plays like camp today. Later in the decade a couple of the themes became AM radio hits, thanks to the adult-contemporary pap, er, pop of Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better” (from The Spy Who Loved Me, 1977) and Sheena Easton’s “For Your Eyes Only” (1981).

the man with the golden gun shoots blanks!

Is this anyone’s favorite Bond movie?

And those are the successful entries of the Roger Moore era. Duds like Shirley Bassey’s “Moonraker” and Rita Coolidge’s “All Time High” (from Octopussy, 1983; for some reason John Barry and lyricist Tim Rice ducked the challenge of naming the song after the movie) are pure middle-of-the-road oblivion, forgettable even by the standards of an easy listening radio station. I suppose the blandness of the songs suited the jokier, more family-friendly tone of the Moore Bond movies.

Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill” punched things up by marrying John Barry’s horns with the Bernard Edwards/Nile Rodgers–style percussion that was all over the radio in 1985. Two years later Barry adapted his trademark sound to ‘80s Europop with a-Ha’s “The Living Daylights.” This writer still retains a sneaking fondness for the song, even with its cheesy ‘80s sax break, in part because of how clear it is that Norwegian vocalist Morten Harket is singing English as a second language.

After that the Bond themes fall into a deep dark valley. In 1995 Bono and the Edge had much better luck with their enjoyably trashy Batman Forever theme “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me,” which sounded like Marc Bolan updated for the techno era, than they did writing “Goldeneye” for Tina Turner later that year. (If only Bono and the Edge had given up writing for superheroes there.) The song is an inconsequential addition to the oeuvres of everyone involved.

Since then there have been Bond themes by Sheryl Crow, Garbage and Madonna, to little effect. The bubblegum electronica of Madonna’s “Die Another Day” — a passing hit in 2002 — suggested that the Bond themes risked their dignity if they chased after contemporary sounds too blatantly.

It’s admirable that the Bond producers were adventurous enough to go with a left-field choice like Chris Cornell of Soundgarden for “You Know My Name,” the theme song to Casino Royale in 2006. Presumably someone figured that a hard rock singer would help the “harder” reboot of the Bond series appeal to a young male audience. But Cornell’s voice, powerful in a rock context, is an awkward fit for a Bond theme, and the dull roar of guitars and pounding drums that surrounds him in the song does nothing to create atmosphere.

Daniel Craig’s second outing as Bond, 2008’s Quantum of Solace, didn’t fare much better with its theme song. Given the talents involved, “Another Way to Die” by Jack White and Alicia Keys is unaccountably schlocky. The arrangement is relentlessly busy; it’s a song that’s paced like the editing of a music video or commercial.

In contrast, Adele’s “Skyfall” is like a semi-convincing simulation of a classic John Barry-penned Bond theme, in part because Adele and Paul Epworth (her producer and writing partner on 21) wrote a torch song that could stand apart from a film soundtrack, whereas a junky song like “Another Way to Die” can only be for a movie.

One thought on “A brief, cranky history of James Bond theme songs

  1. Are you saving the James Bond theme proper (by Monty Norman) for a separate post? And someone needs to acknowledge the brilliant use of “You Only Live Twice” (Nancy Sinatra’s finest hour) as the signoff for Season Five of “Mad Men” on TV.

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