Confession: I love the James Bond film series. I’ve grown up with this series, as I’m sure countless others have, and it never gets old. When one thinks of this particular series, they may think of the theme songs, the actors portraying our favorite MI6 agent, his cool cars and gadgets, or the babes he manages to score. Regardless of the reasons, the fans have kept the Bond film missions going for 53 years now.
I personally love the theme songs, because they set the mood for what you’re about to watch on the screen. 23 of them exist, but they were not all created equally. To me, only a handful stand out as good to great themes and can even manage to stand alone as an individual song.
So, in the spirit of 007 himself, let’s discuss my top seven Bond themes.
First, let’s get acquainted, or reacquainted, with his personal theme song:
“The James Bond Theme” by John Berry – from the film Dr. No
Now, on with the show.
#7 “GoldenEye” as performed by Tina Turner – from the film GoldenEye
I will admit to something right here and now. I have a bias towards the theme songs of the new Bonds, and GoldenEye is no exception.
Quick fact: you can thank Bono and The Edge (both of U2) for this Bond song. Instrumentally, it’s not anything I’d ever picture them writing for the band, but for a Bond theme, the instrumentation doesn’t get too edgy or too sweeping and orchestral, and maintains enough “past and present” feel to usher in a Bond for the 90s.
The vital component to getting the most out of a Bond theme is the vocalist, and Ms. Turner delivers a performance that is not necessarily perfect, but it fits in well with the orchestration around her and the lyrical content of the song. She delivers a convincing “Bond is my target and I will not fail to hit him this time” sentiment here and, to me, doesn’t try too hard to be needlessly sultry either. Give this one a listen and I think it’ll grow on you, or at least invoke pleasant memories of when you’d fire up GoldenEye on the Nintendo 64 back in 1996.
#6 “Live & Let Die” as performed by Paul McCartney & Wings – from the film Live & Let Die
Not everything associated with the Roger Moore era sucks as much as we want to believe it does. That being said, just because a Beatle writes something doesn’t mean we can’t critique it. Thus, we arrive to “Live & Let Die” and the theme song that kicked off the aforementioned Moore era.
Musically speaking, it’s got a certain drive and punch to it that makes for a pretty cool opening sequence. I mean, you get this driving rock tune, plus the weird voodoo sequence over it, and you’re prepared for some supernatural Bond fun. Sounds awesome! What could go wrong? Well, what you get after the title sequence is a movie in which the Bond girl is a Caribbean oracle who loses her powers once she… er… bonds with 007. Ok, so definitely an odd start for Moore.
This is the one Bond song that gets radio play to this very day. Some feel that detracts from it, because it ceases to be unique to the film and, in a sense, becomes more mainstream. I can appreciate that line of thinking, to a degree, but am of the thinking that it’s still a Bond song and deserves it’s place in conversations like these.
#5 “The World is Not Enough” as performed by Garbage – from the film The World is Not Enough
What Bono and The Edge attempted to do with “GoldenEye” by incorporating some modern electronic musical elements, Dave Arnold and Don Black achieve here by getting a fuller orchestral sound to merge with electronica influences. As is with most Bond themes, the plot is heavily alluded to throughout in the lyrics, but with a subtle message about how each of us approaches getting what we want in life, not just the evil bad guys plotting world domination or a super heist.
When you see the band is named Garbage, you may not instantly think “Bond theme!” I love what Shirley Manson brings to this vocally, though. Her lower register is a touch ethereal and subdued, but when she gets to the chorus, singing of the world being not enough for her, but it still being a good place to start her conquest… just wow. This one is a personal favorite, but I feel it’s place is in the middle of the pack of seven.
#4 “You Only Live Twice” as performed by Nancy Sinatra – from the film You Only Live Twice
You see, kids, before this YOLO phase we’re all apparently stuck in at the moment, there was Sean Connery and his Bond philosophy of YOLT: you only live twice.
We get post “These Boots are Made for Walkin'” Nancy Sinatra vocalizing atop a lush, harmonic score that is simply gorgeous from beginning to end. Sinatra almost serves as Bond‘s siren, calling to him to push on and to pursue the one thing that has evaded him in his entire life – love. I love it because it sets up this call for Bond to keep pursuing love; yet, as we see consistently in the series, he rarely commits to anything significant, lest his lady love get maimed, blown up, strangled, or whatever else could befall them.
Tie #2 “You Know My Name” as performed by Chris Cornell – from the film Casino Royale
I have this tied with the next song, as they almost go hand-in-hand together. Here, we get the beginnings of a new, edgier, more emotional James Bond, courtesy of Daniel Craig. This is the hardest a James Bond theme song has gone since the previously mentioned “Live & Let Die” and it’s honestly a nice change of pace from whatever Sheryl Crow and Madonna had to offer before.
I love that it sticks to the premise of the theme telling the story, but doesn’t give away too much, and still leaves some to the imagination. As Bond uses his spy trickery to assume other identities, those around him are also playing their own games with him and he has to figure out who to really trust at the end of the day, as do we in the audience. It also portends of the “player” in this game having to be prepared to sacrifice anything and everything to win, which as we see is him losing his heart to Vesper Lind. All told, I feel it just does a great job setting us up for what’s to come and I applaud Chris Cornell for pulling off an amazing Bond theme.
Tie #2 “Skyfall” as performed by Adele – from the film Skyfall
One reason I am glad to be along for the Daniel Craig era is because the Bond theme song is still a big deal, and I was just as anxious to hear the details of this one as I was the previous two. Adele delivered a haunting, soulful song about standing firm with those who haven’t left you when you’re at your lowest and darkest point, and that’s exactly what the film needed it’s theme to communicate.
I also appreciate that, lyrically, “Skyfall” isn’t what we think it is at all, and it simply leaves the listener with a funereal feeling of loss and finality. Rare is the Bond theme that leaves you with this much of an emotional gut punch. Once you figure out what Skyfall actually is, though, the lyrics then assume their direct meaning as they relate to the plot, along with the deeper emotional meaning inferred by referencing the sky falling.
#1 “Goldfinger” as performed by Shirley Bassey – from the film Goldfinger
Rarely does a Bond theme song mention the bad guy directly, but “Goldfinger” is a brassy, jazzed up warning to beware Auric Goldfinger‘s wiles and refrain from falling into his traps. This one is tops, simply because it’s fun to listen to and the horn line wailing in your ears never gets old.
Shirley Bassey is unique in that she’s recorded the most Bond themes in the history of the franchise, with three. This is easily her best one, and it’s not close. Luckily for us, Harry Saltzman, producer of Goldfinger in 1964, did not get his wish to have a new theme written. Apparently, he was quoted as saying that it was, “the worst damned song I’ve heard in my life.” Well, Harry didn’t live to hear anything by Nickelback, so that statement of his may seem a bit hyperbolic. We’ll take Shirley any day of the week, thank you very much.
So there we have it, seven Bond themes and seven reasons to keep discussing the Bond franchise and its music. Disagree with any of these? Want to reorder what’s here? Did I leave one out? Let’s discuss!
Sarah Powers is a Contributor at The Scoop. Follow her on Twitter at @SPow26.