Welcome to Bond Week, in celebration of No Time to Die finally being released into theaters this week. Throughout the week, I’ll be posting James Bond themed-articles, mostly because I love that silly, hugely problematic and identity-bereft franchise almost as much as Star Wars. And also because of that sweet SEO-money baby. Don’t expect many deconstructions and insights, they will be mostly scattered, just like the entire franchise. One thing you realize about Bond movies is that you have to love it by the parts, not the whole. Today, perhaps the one part that could make or break a Bond movie: The theme songs.
I don’t want to make this article, as the title says, yet another ranking of Bond theme songs because there’s plenty of those. So let’s get this out of the way and allow me to embed a playlist with my own personal choices, one in Spotify and one in YouTube. Unfortunately, for some dumb reason “The World Is Not Enough” by Garbage isn’t available in Spotify for some territories, so the YouTube one gives you a more complete experience if you have tolerance for ads. I’ve included “Kingston Calypso” and “From Russia With Love” for completion’s sake, even though they don’t really count as they were never used in the intros as we know them, Goldfinger started that trademark. Thus, the ranking starts properly with “For Your Eyes Only”.
A quick breakdown: 4-8, all time lows; 9-11, for completionists only; 12-17, shooken, somewhat stirred; 18-22, the money, every peny of it; 23-26, nobody did it better.
I kept wondering what to do with this article that hasn’t been done before, because this particular topic has been overworn to the point they have their own set of clichés: “James Bond movie theme songs are the cinematic equivalents of paperback book-series covers — they suggest familiarity and course with the promise of a compelling new adventure”; “Music is as important to the James Bond franchise as shaken martinis”; “Bond themes are the secret sauce of the movies: paired with the bombastic credits, they set the tone for the action to come, and speak to the current era of the franchise”; “every famous artist dreams of the chance of writing a Bond song”. You get the point.
Yes, of course Bond theme songs are the heart of the franchise; they literally set up the musical leitmotif of every installment. With 60 years of musical history, they have enough material to build their own language of visual shorthand. Even a more cynical approach gives you an idea of their cultural impact: These songs are cross-platform promotional campaigns, calculated to maximize the visibility of the movie and, in turn, either prop-up an artist career or add a feather in their cap… and yet they are, by now, perhaps the only mainstream blockbusters that actually put an effort in creating memorable tunes, or opening titles.
An important question to ask is whether Bond theme songs really are in tune with their respective movies or eras? or, just like how the franchise has developed in reality, they are more of a scattered bunch, that has never consolidated a proper identity outside some leitmotifs, and yet they have gained a life of their own? From the wording of the second question, you might assume that’s what I think, and you’d be right, except for that last part: “they have gained a life of their own,” because you can notice some patterns beyond the leitmotifs. Bond’s theme songs are more than just a neat background for the franchise.
It dawned on me then what to do with this article, to do what I love the most: Putting things into neat little boxes and classify them arbitrarily, and then see where that takes me.
When you listen to this collection as often as I do, you realize they are developed on two sets of categories, based on their musical style and their subject. When it comes to style, there are four distinct categories: The Classicists, The Proudly Camp, The AM Ballads and The Experimental. When it comes to themes, there are four distinct classes: The “Put-A-Baby-In-Me-James”, The Existentialist Spy, Antagonist Songs and Longing Melancholy Stuff.
As the name hints, Classicist Bond songs are all sons of John Barry’s classic theme and Shirley Basssey’s “Goldfinger” (also, the Ur-example of the Antagonist Song): They sound big, brassy and dark. In more than one way, they’ve come to define what we mean with timeless music. Now, the fact that we pin so much of the notion of timelessness to the mid 20th Century says a lot about our self-imposed limitations. Why do we act as if Culture had peaked in the 60s? Whenever a Bond movie is capped by a song in this style after Connery’s run, there is clearly an attempt to go back to that well of glory. In particular, Craig’s era started with one. Even though “You Know My Name” is one of the few times they have dipped their toes in proper rock, the orchestration arrangements and the way the song is structured, with its Existentialist Spy lyrics, draws a straight line to Connery’s run. Then, after the monumental hit that were Skyfall the movie and “Skyfall” the song, they have tried to capture that magic, first with the absolute dirge of Writing’s on the Wall and then shooting straight to the top with Billie Eilish’s “No Time to Die,” which are all examples of the Longing Melancholy kind, representative of Craig’s more human and emotional take on Bond. Ironically, during Connery’s run, there was only one other song that could properly fit in the classic style, Tom Jones’ “Thunderball,” which is AMAZEBALLS, the Ur-example of the “Put-A-Baby-In-Me-James” and a good alternative if your local burger joint doesn’t have “What’s Up Pussycat.” You will notice that this style’s rate of bop to flop is almost perfect, even a with a minor entry like “License to Kill” (Longing), they have a magic that makes very flawed entries into fondly remembered classics, which is the case with “Skyfall” and, in particular, Garbage’s “The World is Not Enough (Antagonist). They make everything about the movie … bigger. Louis Armstrong’s “We Have all the Time in the World,” which was not used in the intro to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, is almost on a category of its own, very much like the standout masterpiece that was the movie.
The Proudly Camp ones are a result of how the lyrics and the musical style work together. They are not usually the best because they are campy on top of an essentially camp franchise. The musical style usually follows a more classical approach, but the lyrics have the tongue so firmly planted on their cheeks that they ruin any attempt at self-seriousness. And that makes them bulletproof. It’s the case with “Goldeneye” (Antagonist) and “Tomorrow Never Dies” (Longing), which do reflect Pierce Brosnan’s take, a mixture of Connery’s dry brutality and Moore’s weird hijinks. Most would say that the worst example of this group is Lulu’s “The Man With the Golden Gun” (Antagonist, duh), which was composed pretty much as an afterthought. However, the one I really loathe is Alicia Keys and Jack White’s “Another Way to Die” (Existentialist), a pretentious slog which actually doesn’t do justice to Quantum of Solace’s messy bright spots. Should’ve hired Amy Winehouse. The best one of the lot is Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill” (Existentialist), which is an example of a Bond song that is on a whole other level compared to its movie.
The AM Ballads are the only case where the style of Bond’s songs fits squarely within a run and a time period. From The Spy Who Loved Me to Octopussy, four of Roger Moore’s installments were capped with one of these songs, only one of which is properly great, Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does it Better.” The rest (“Moonraker”, “For Your Eyes Only”, “All Time High”) are all devoid of good and cheesy in a way that isn’t endearing. They even made Dame Shirley Bassey put out something subpar. Their biggest flaw is that they are all “Put-a-baby-in-me-James”, in a succession of movies where Roger Moore’s age really became noticeable, as if they were trying to mind-trick us into thinking “yes, that’s the manliest, sexiest man out there”.
And finally, my personal favorites, are the Experimental ones, or as experimental as EON allows you to be with their precious. Somehow, they got away with experimenting with different sounds, textures or, in the case of “Live and Let Die,” different movements. The sad irony is that most of them are associated with mediocre to terrible Bond movies. Save for one, they fall within the Existentialist Spy theme, giving us some of the best lyrics. The “lowest” one in my list is A-Ha’s “The Living Daylights,” the only one featured in a proper great movie, which still slaps and is the closest thing the franchise has come to acknowledging the new wave and the sound of Britain’s 80s. The most beautiful one has to be “You Only Live Twice”. The underrated one, and please don’t curse me for saying this, is Madonna’s “Die Another Day”. The problem with that song is that it doesn’t fit its movie, but that’s because that movie is much more conventional than what it thinks it is. But the song actually makes good use of that late-90s, early-00s techno sound and turns it into something uniquely Madonna. And I don’t like Madonna. And of course, the best one and my favorite is Dame Shirley Bassey’s “Diamonds Are Forever” (Antagonist Song, kinda, it’s mostly from Tiffany Case’s perspective), which is also miles ahead of its corresponding movie. That fucking movie doesn’t deserve something like “Diamonds Are Forever.” Freaking Tiffany’s and De Beers don’t deserve “Diamonds Are Forever.” Diamonds don’t deserve “Diamonds Are Forever”.
To counter my own point in this same article, these are properly timeless songs and sounds, and perhaps EON should take note of the imagery these songs work with, not their associated movies, if they want to do something about the identity of the franchise or try something new. That’s how this collection of tunes gained a life of its own, they are a better roadmap to the franchise’s potential and shortcomings than the text of the films themselves.
Also, please, please, pleeeeeease hire FKA Twigs for the next Bond song.
← Review: Aubrey Plaza and Michael Caine Are a Promising Pairing Who Elevate the Deeply Predictable 'Best Sellers' | 5 Shows After Dark: 'Supergirl' on The CW, 'La Brea' on NBC, 'The Resident' on Fox →
Header Image Source: Getty Images