For Your Ears Only: Ranking the James Bond Songs (by Dan Schmidt)

(ei: I know Dan through twitter, where he has been a fascinating foil to DTM writings and transcriptions. Check out his recent Henry Threadgill analysis: part one, part two, part three.

Bond. James Bond. Or do we mean: Critic. Movie critic. 

For my part, I know the Ian Fleming books much better than any of the movies, but that hasn’t stopped me from weighing in when martinis are in hand. Indeed, the following guest post happened after my pal Vince Keenan linked to a Timothy Dalton interview and a boldly offered his top five Bonds: From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, On His Majesty’s Secret Service, Casino Royale (the Craig reboot), and The Living Daylights.

I don’t hold Vince to that list. And, no, I don’t have one myself, and probably will never get around to actually watching every Bond movie. But I always like listening to Bond music, it’s a wonderful genre, and without researching further, I think Dan has this list in tip-top shape. Take it away, Dan!)

One of the more entertaining categories of popular music of the last 50 years is the James Bond movie theme.

Having recently watched all of the canonical EON/Broccoli Bond movies, I can assert that sometimes the four minutes of opening credits is the high point of the entire film. As with any art form, my first instinct when encountering these specimens was to rank them.

Despite the wide variety of style to be found in these songs, there’s a lot of commonality too. Usually there’s a sense of danger, demonstrated by minor keys, chromaticism, or menacing orchestration. There’s often a pinch of swagger as well, though, communicating how Bond can confidently overcome any crisis no matter how dire. Of course the music also often projects sexuality; at its best this coexists with the dangerous vibe, though there is a sub-tradition of straight-up ballads. Often the main Bond theme is quoted, a tradition I found charming at first though it quickly wore on me.

My ranking is of course informed by my own prejudices about what makes a good song and what makes a good Bond song in particular. As I listened to them over and over when making this list, I developed a bit of Stockholm syndrome; even the songs I disliked the most started to take up residence in my head. But the bottom one stubbornly refused to get any better:

23. Die Another Day
Performer: Madonna
Composer: Madonna / Mirwais Ahamdzai

Of all the embarrassing attempts to make a contemporary-sounding Bond theme, this is the worst. I have the feeling it already sounded dated the day it came out. The gating effects, pitch-correction, robotic quantization and techno trappings are all the exact opposite of what a Bond theme should be. In addition, the entire song takes place in a single scale (C aeolian), without even a hint of the interesting harmonies that are usually a hallmark of these themes.

22. Licence to Kill
Performer: Gladys Knight
Composer: Narada Michael Walden / Jeffrey Cohen / Walter Afanasieff

Even if this were a good song, those 80’s keyboards and drum machines would sink it, but it isn’t. The “Goldfinger” references in the intro are promising, but pretty quickly we find ourselves plodding along through generic soft-rock sludge. The major seventh chords in the chorus are particularly uninviting. The whole thing sounds like Todd Rundgren on a bad day. The one saving grace is the hilarity of the the truck driver’s gear change (aka “musical wedgie”) going into the final chorus that is so completely unmotivated (it literally goes straight from B7 to F) that it honestly feels like someone just flipped on a pitch-shifter.

21. All Time High (theme to Octopussy)
Performer: Rita Coolidge
Composer: John Barry / Tim Rice / Stephen Short

Generic bland soft rock of the sort that was on the Top 40 a lot at the time; when it ends, I half expect to hear Casey Kasem saying “And that was Rita Coolidge, with ‘All Time High’, coming in at number 3 on this week’s countdown.” I can’t even bring myself to find anything interesting to complain about; it just goes in one ear and out the other. It does get a point for putting the chorus in a different key from the verse.  After the second chorus, the sax player starts to take a soft-rock solo before the producer mercifully makes a frantic “wrap this up” motion and all the studio musicians high-tail it out of there.

20. GoldenEye
Performer: Tina Turner
Composer: Bono / The Edge

The fact that this song starts with 50 seconds of vamping to get to the verse is not a good sign. That said, the sense of menace is pretty effective for a while, but it fails to go anywhere. A long transition passage wears out its welcome pretty quickly, but finally at the 2-minute mark we’re ready for a big chorus to justify the slow buildup — and it never comes! Apparently that transition passage was the chorus. Even the dramatic vocals you’d expect from Tina Turner don’t save it from terminal malaise.

19. Another Way to Die (theme to Quantum of Solace)
Performer: Jack White / Alicia Keys
Composer: Jack White

Every time I listen to this, it moves down another spot in the rankings. It’s all surface, and the surface is not very interesting. I do like the White Stripes but this isn’t even a good White Stripes song.  It does have some nice subtle references (intentional?)  to the original theme: the opening guitar riff has similar pitches as the original theme’s guitar riff, and if the verse chords are a callback to the chorus of the previous theme, “You Know My Name”, then that’s a reference twice removed. But Jack White’s trademark sparse big guitar sound falls flat in this context, and the hollering bridge after second chorus is just embarrassing. A Bond theme needs more harmonic interest than this.

18. The Living Daylights
Performer: a-ha
Composer: John Barry / Pål Waaktaar

After the success of “A View to a Kill”, I get the impression that the producers were looking for a song that was Duran Duran-lite. As usual, a straight-ahead beat is a bad sign. There’s some interesting harmonic motion but it takes far too long to play out, though the transition into the chorus is pretty interesting. The chorus itself mostly consists of an “Ay-ay-ay-oh” invitation to sing along, an invitation that I will decline.

17. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Performer; The John Barry Orchestra
Composer: John Barry / Hal David

By this time, the tradition of the Bond theme song was well established, so it’s extremely surprising not to have a real song this late in the series. (Wikipedia suggests that it was too hard to fit the movie’s title into lyrics.)  This actually has a pretty good riff that is incorporated quite well into the actual soundtrack of the movie, but that’s really all it is, a one-note overture that just functions as a leitmotif preview. I’m not sure where to put it so I’m just listing it after all the songs that I’d rather replace by silence.

16. From Russia with Love
Performer: John Barry
Composer: John Barry / Lionel Bart / Monty Norman

At this point, the Bond series hadn’t settled into a tradition of actually sung theme songs yet (that would come in the next installment with “Goldfinger”), so here we have an inoffensive spy-ish theme burbling along for a while. It touches the usual bases effectively but it really needs a singer to give it some heft. There is a sung version that does help, but inexplicably it’s not played in the opening sequence.

15. For Your Eyes Only
Performer: Sheena Easton
Composer: Bill Conti / Michael Leeson

A perfectly acceptable rock ballad which I’m probably overrating because I heard a lot of music like this on the radio as a kid so I don’t automatically dismiss the style. It does have some nice moments; the four-note drop of a fifth of the first line is instantly recognizable, and the reverse appoggiatura of “only” in the chorus is a nice touch (if those two pitches were switched, the chorus would be deadly dull). It has zero menace or swagger so it’s not a particularly great choice for a Bond theme, but at least at three minutes it doesn’t overstay its welcome.

14. The Man with the Golden Gun
Performer: Lulu
Composer: John Barry / Don Black

The last theme for a while to have that Bond swagger, this has some good ideas, but manages to add up to less than the sum of its parts. The refrain has potential, but the fact that the vocals mirror the bass line give it a harmonic thinness it can’t overcome, and Lulu’s incessant mugging makes the whole thing sound desperate.  It does get bonus points for the swing, especially in comparison to some of the super-straight themes that came later.

13. Thunderball
Performer: Tom Jones
Composer: John Barry / Don Black

I had no idea encountering this song for the first time whether it was sung by a tenor or a contralto, and was hoping for the latter.  It does have a lot of things going for it — the menace, the sexuality, the chromaticism (the Dm in the key of Bbm in the third line is a nice touch) — but it’s too slow, turning the tune into a portentous slog. Just when you think it might be time to finally move on, we get a half cadence, indicating that we’re about to have to suffer through the whole thing again before we resolve on the tonic.  When you have a song with tempo this deliberate, you can’t afford to have every line have the same melodic and harmonic rhythm; it just sucks the life out of it completely. I tap my fingers impatiently just waiting for Jones to finish singing the title word.

12. Skyfall
Performer: Adele
Composer: Adele / Paul Epworth

Another clear callback to the original theme, making three in a row; I’m kind of ready for things to start going in a new direction. Interestingly this time the third chord that really makes things chromatic is held back for a while, but once it arrives there’s not really much going on other than that Cm-Ab-F sequence being hammered home over and over. It takes more than that for a Bond theme to occupy a high spot in my book.

11. Tomorrow Never Dies
Performer: Sheryl Crow
Composer: Sheryl Crow / Mitchell Froom

Interesting metrical fakeout in the intro – is this in 4/4? 3/4?  Oh, it’s 6/8! I appreciate a verse that takes a while to deliver, but this one is pretty by-the-numbers and has trouble getting off the ground. Similarly, the weird-meter section doesn’t feel motivated when it returns after the chorus, and the instrumental break just feels like it’s filling time, making the ascension to the final chorus dig itself out of a pretty big lull.  However, the chorus is pretty great (the Bb vs B natural tension is really nice), and the arrangement is well done. This is one that grew on me.

10. The World Is Not Enough
Performer: Garbage
Composer: David Arnold / Don Black

This certainly starts out with the right attitude with a big dramatic intro, sultry vocals, and the requisite surprising chord in the verse (the Neapolitan Gb in the key of F minor). The chorus is slightly generic, and interestingly has a similar vocal contour to the previous theme, “Tomorrow Never Dies”. A perfectly solid effort, though, with a nicely overwrought orchestral arrangement.

9. Moonraker
Performer: Shirley Bassey
Composer: John Barry / Hal David

Shirley Bassey returns for the third time, and she’s welcome to sing as many of these as she likes. The mood is nice and sultry throughout. My first reaction was that the chorus loses momentum, but on further listening, I appreciate the way that the melody just keeps on spinning out in an almost Wagnerian way.  In retrospect, this established that the typical James Bond song for a while was a ballad (the previous theme, “Nobody Does It Better”, could have been an outlier), which is a large burden to bear; things didn’t really pick up again until “A View to a Kill” in 1985.

8. A View to a Kill
Performer: Duran Duran
Composer: John Barry / Duran Duran

Perhaps a controversial ranking, since I know a lot of people consider this to be one of the best Bond songs. I actually like Duran Duran a lot (being poseurs and writing great pop songs are not mutually exclusive!) but I think this is just a B+ Duran Duran song, weighed down by a relatively boring chorus. Everything up to that is pretty good; the beat has a nice menacing feel to it despite being very straight, the orchestra stabs are somehow charming rather than cheesy, and as usual Duran Duran delivers on the chord changes, swerving into a different-key chorus. But that chorus just isn’t enough for me to elevate this to top-tier status.

7. You Know My Name (theme to Casino Royale)
Performer: Chris Cornell
Composer: David Arnold / Chris Cornell

The hard-rock arrangement is slightly unfortunate (I wince when those click-track-steady drums come in halfway through the verse), but overall this is a winner, with a nice sense of drama and the chromaticism that is necessary for any good Bond song; in particular, the Bm – Gm7 – D progression that begins the verse is very Bondian.  Especially nice is the just-subtle-enough reference to the original Bond theme created by the 5 – 6 natural – 6 sharp melodic shape in the chorus, in retrospect foreshadowed by the opening riff.

6. You Only Live Twice
Performer: Nancy Sinatra
Composer: Leslie Bricusse / John Barry

A nice tune that manages to combine cool sexuality and a hint of menace. The vocals slide by so smoothly that it’s easy not to notice the interesting mixed-mode harmonies giving it a tense undercurrent. It takes a lot of control to take a song this slow and not have it bog down (see “Thunderball”).  Minus one point for the unnecessary Chinoiserie at the start (symptomatic of the movie itself).

5. Diamonds Are Forever
Performer: Shirley Bassey
Composer: John Barry / Don Black

Every song with Shirley Bassey automatically moves up two spots on this list. This one gets off to a bit of a slow start, but by the time the bass gets things moving in it’s clear we’re in good hands. The moment that she swoops up to a C#, the orchestra stabs away, we’re suspended in midair for a second, and the bass firmly tiptoes back in to bring in the funk, is one of of my favorite Bond theme moments in the whole series. Slightly diminished by Bassey having to performing her own fake echo vocals at the end.

4. Live and Let Die
Performer: Paul McCartney & Wings
Composer: Paul and Linda McCartney

What a glorious mess. Starts with a canonical Paul McCartney piano ballad (those gratuitous “You know you did” backing vocals are the most McCartney moment of all time), throws in some super-heavy chromatic chords, then jumps into hyperactive orchestra riffage before doing a quick cut to some half-time ska. (At this point we are not even halfway through the song.) It’s so completely nonapologetic for all of this, and each part is so catchy, that you just have to accept it. Minus one point for “this ever-changing world in which we live in.” Note to cover bands: the “Live and let die” before the big chords ends on 4, not on 1.

3. Nobody Does It Better (theme to The Spy Who Loved Me)
Performer: Carly Simon
Composer: Marvin Hamlisch / Carole Bayer Sager

It kicked off the ballad tradition that bogged down the Bond themes for a nearly a decade, and it may be a little gloopy, but goddamn is this song well executed. Great melody, tasty changes, a vocal performance that makes my heart swell, a perfectly over-the-top arrangement, and an outstanding repeat-and-fade-into-the-sunset coda that is inexplicably omitted from the movie title sequence.  I couldn’t get it out of my head for a week after watching the movie. Minus one point for the line “Nobody does it half as good as you.”

2. Goldfinger
Performer; Shirley Bassey
Composer: Leslie Bricusse / Anthony Newley / John Barry

This is it, the canonical James Bond theme song. Just in the intro, we have that amazing swaggering brass shriek, squawking out a G# over a C chord. Then Shirley Bassey sweeps the orchestra out of the way, jumping in with an even more brassy tone of her own, snarling millimeters from the mic. And those changes! The A-Eb transition (in the key of E) under “Midas touch” is a thing of wonder. I also love the fake modulation every time we come out of the bridge back into the chorus, so it sounds like we keep moving up a half-step. 10/10 in every category.

1. James Bond Theme (theme to Dr. No)
Performer: John Barry and Orchestra
Composer: Monty Norman

But I can’t keep the original James Bond theme out of the top spot. Over fifty years later, it still amazes. It hits all the buttons: sexuality, menace, swagger. You immediately know that Bond is a bad-ass, that he’s going to put his life on the line, and that he’ll wink at the camera afterwards. The brass stabbing up a major seventh then tumbling down, the surf guitar skittering on its lowest string before making the same stab, the sinuous chromatic strings creating a constant element of unease, it’s all here. It’s no coincidence that this is one of the most famous movie themes of all time.

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