As a movie buff, travel-holic, and music lover, the James Bond films hold a special place in my heart. They feature scenery-chewing villains, exotic locales, and memorable opening credit sequences (not to mention cool cars, hair-raising action scenes, and gorgeous female co-stars).
“Spectre,” the 24th Bond film not counting the one-hour TV movie “Casino Royale” from 1954 nor the 1983 “Sean Connery returns” vehicle “Never Say Never Again,” opened last week. I was fortunate to catch it during its Thursday, 11/5 sneak preview. While not the best in the franchise, it is a solid follow-up to 2012’s “Skyfall” and, if the rumors are true, a nice swan song for Daniel Craig’s James Bond. The song that plays over the opening credits, “The Writing’s on the Wall” by Britain’s Sam Smith, is worthy of inclusion among the pantheon of great Bond songs. I don’t know if Smith’s falsetto was the right touch for what is supposed to be a somber tune, but you can decide for yourself here.
Smith’s song, like so many others, opens with a full orchestra. Oscar-winning film composer John Barry scored most 1960’s – 80’s Bond films and wrote many of the title tracks as well. The strings and horns are commonplace in many (though not all) 007 songs, and Smith pays heed to the tradition. But there are better Bond songs out there. Below, with YouTube links to the opening title sequences from each film, are my picks for the Top Ten Bond Theme Songs:
- “Nobody Does it Better” by Carly Simon – from “The Spy who Loved Me:” This Oscar-nominated theme song, from 1977’s “The Spy who Loved Me,” is easily the high water mark for Bond tunes playing over the opening credits. If the soft piano intro sounds like something composed by Marvin Hamlisch, that’s because he did write it, with Carole Bayer Sager penning the lyrics. In the best tradition, the words mirror the unexpected feelings of female KGB agent XXX towards her British counterpart, 007, and as vocalized by Carly Simon, they make for a song so memorable that the American Film Institute named it the 67th Greatest Song (and one that is rife with double entendres). The movie itself: Arguably the best Roger Moore-as-007 movie, it follows the uneasy, aforementioned partnership between 007 and XXX as they match wits with a supervillain bent on destroying the world and creating a new civilization under the sea. The pre-credits, Union Jack ski chase is a hoot! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wy-c8aAntWA
- “Goldfinger” by Shirley Bassey – from “Goldfinger:” The rousing title track for the third Bond film, “Goldfinger” is a rousing theme song that uses a full orchestra, some memorable horns, and the unmistakable voice of Shirley Bassey (who went on to sing two more Bond songs). Although Bassey at first seems to be singing about the film’s villain, gold magnate Auric Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe), true Bond fans know that she is really singing about 007, that love-em-and-leave-em superspy. The movie itself: Between the title song, the ejector seat-boasting Aston Martin, Sean Connery’s cool, Fröbe’s monologue, Oddjob’s bowler hat, gold-painted Shirley Eaton, Pussy Galore, the “shocking” pun that opens the film, some horrifying laser torture, and an Oscar for Best Sound Effects Editing, “Goldfinger” is generally considered the best film in the franchise. High praises but the fact is, the movie holds up better than most Bond films before and since. Shocking, indeed. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fy_PJODH3p0
- “Skyfall” by Adele – from “Skyfall:” Speaking of Oscars, “Skyfall” (2012) won two of them. One was for “Skyfall,” the haunting title track that became a billboard smash and topped the iTunes songlist as well. Like many other Bond songs, “Skyfall” has passionate, female-sung verses backed by a full orchestra. The lyrics revolve around the themes of death and rebirth, so integral to the movie’s plot, and British pop singer Adele, who scored an even bigger smash just one year earlier with “Rolling in the Deep,” sounds like someone born to sing a Bond song. The movie itself: Like the song, “Skyfall” was a critical and financial success. The darkest Bond film since 1989’s “Licence to Kill” (see that song/film elsewhere on this list), it follows 007’s return from what was believed to be his death, as he resurfaces to help boss M (a stalwart Judi Dench) and an ailing MI6. Daniel Craig’s 007 is brooding, lonely, insecure, and more than a little bit stubborn – the best Bond since Sean Connery. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_4gdhsVKTcs
- “You only Live Twice” by Nancy Sinatra – from “You only Live Twice:” “James Bond turns Japanese” was part of the marketing campaign for this stellar 1967 entry in the 007 canon. The theme song echoes this sentiment, with Asian strings bringing an exotic flavor to the song’s opening chords before Nancy Sinatra’s lovely voice joins in. Sinatra took the job after her father, “Ol’ Blue Eyes” himself, passed on the opportunity, and she simply owns the part. The lyrics explore the theme that everyone deserves a second chance, and the time to live for themselves instead of their obligations. The movie itself: A much-copied, oft-parodied Bond film, it introduces us to Ernst Stavro Blofeld in the flesh after mentioning him only by reputation in previous films. SPECTRE’s Blofeld – who would be the inspiration for Mike Myers’s monocled Dr. Evil in the “Austin Powers” movies – appears to be manipulating U.S. and Soviet forces into a state of war, after which point he will emerge from his island volcano lair and rule over the survivors. As Blofeld, Donald Pleasance is the best out of at least four actors to have portrayed the series’ ultimate Big Bad. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hs8uYxTJ530
- “Thunderball” by Tom Jones – from “Thunderball:” You can count on two hands the number of Bond theme songs that were sung by men, and Tom Jones’s mighty rendering of “Thunderball” is surely the best (with apologies to Sir Paul McCartney, although he and his band Wings make this list as well). While researching this song’s origins, I learned that Jones allegedly fainted in the production booth while singing the John Barry and Leslie Bricusse-penned song’s final, mighty vocal note. The movie itself: While enormously successful at the box office, “Thunderball” is, alas, not one of the better Bond films. The plot – something about a SPECTRE underling stealing atomic bombs – seems more complicated than necessary, and the underwater sequences drag on and are poorly edited (although they did contribute towards the film’s Oscar win for Best Visual Effects). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sT0x7QiJI1g&list=RDsT0x7QiJI1g
- “Live and Let Die” by Paul McCartney and Wings – from “Live and Let Die:” With Sir Paul of “Beatles” fame in charge of songwriting duties this time around, he (and wife Linda) penned a jazzy, rock-infused title track that was quite different than anything we’d heard before. Paul’s band Wings performed the number, which became an instant smash and remains one of his best non-Beatles bits of songwriting. The song was also covered by Guns N’ Roses on their “The Spaghetti Incident?” album. The movie itself: The Roger Moore era of 007 is often remembered as being one of high camp. Moore’s first time at bat in 1973 was a mixed bag, with less globetrotting than usual for a Bond film, but with more outlandish stunts and some dated “Blaxploitation” stereotypes instead. (And lest we not forget Clifton James as a redneck southern sheriff who isn’t quite sure what to make of the dapper 007.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sn8alMYSu44&list=RDsT0x7QiJI1g&index=5
- “Moonraker” by Shirley Bassey – from “Moonraker:” This John Barry-penned theme song from 1979 never reached very high on the song charts, but it was sung with gusto by Dame Shirley Bassey, in her third at-bat for the franchise. The film features two versions, including a disco-heavy track that runs over the end credits, but the opening title version is a high note among the five Bond film theme songs released during that decade. The movie itself: A rousing, “Star Wars”-inspired caper that includes an outer space shoot-em-up and a strange subplot in which Jaws, the toothy, evil henchman from “The Spy who Loved Me,” finds love and redemption, “Moonraker” was fun when I watched it as a pre-teen boy, but hopelessly dated when seen 35 years later. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gt3oQN0cAv0
- “Licence to Kill” by Gladys Knight – from “Licence to Kill:” This powerhouse theme song from 1989’s film of the same name is seldom mentioned as a stellar Bond song, but methinks that’s because the movie – a notorious box office flop – is not frequently mentioned by 007 aficionados as “one of the good ones.” The song did crack the top ten in the UK, and is noteworthy as the longest Bond theme song – five minutes and 12 seconds of thoughtful lyricism and passionate singing, the latter courtesy of Gladys Knight. The movie itself: Though a financial disappointment, “Licence to Kill” is an intelligent, action-packed revenge picture about an off-the-rails 007 seeking revenge on the half-Spanish, half-German drug lord that maimed Bond’s CIA buddy, Feliz Leiter. Robert Davi made for a menacing villain – and yes, that was Benicio del Toro as a minion – but poor Timothy Dalton didn’t resonate with viewers in this uncharacteristically dark, mean-spirited Bond film. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DYgfi0qgNPk
- “We Have All the Time in the World” by Louis Armstrong – from “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service:” One of the first Bond tunes with an opening credits song title that did not match the name of the actual movie it was written for. The orchestral composition of John Barry is as obvious as ever, but this time, the crooner is none other than Satchmo, Louis Armstrong. Armstrong’s raspy voice lends itself surprisingly well to this ballad, which plays while an hourglass of images from prior Bond films unfold over the opening credits. The movie itself: It would seem that aside from George Lazenby’s bland portrayal of 007, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” was the best in the entire franchise. The plot follows Blofeld’s nefarious deeds from atop a Swiss allergy clinic, and – prior to 2006’s “Casino Royale” – the one true love story in the series. Also, “OHMSS” is the longest (again, pre-“Casino Royale”) Bond film…albeit a very good one. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-e_2_kVrSuI
- “A View to a Kill” by Duran Duran – from “A View to a Kill:” The only all-out rock song on this list aside from #6, Duran Duran’s chart-topping 1985 title track, “A View to a Kill,” has a killer hook and strong vocals by Simon Le Bon. The song reached #2 on the U.K. charts and #1 in the U.S., and holds up well. The movie itself: Not so much. To be frank, the less said about “A View to a Kill,” the better. This was the seventh Bond movie in Roger Moore’s filmography, and it shows. At age 57, Moore looked creaky. His showdown against Silicon Valley industrialist Max Zorin (Christopher Walken, nearly as bleach blonde as Simon LeBon) atop the Golden Gate Bridge was heavily advertised, but was frankly ridiculous, even by Bond movie standards. Maybe I’m missing the point? All things being said, Grace Jones, whose casting raised a few eyebrows, makes a strong Bond villainess-turned-heroine. Oh, spoiler alert on that front. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MmMIgIygzdA
What is your favorite Bond song? For that matter, what is your favorite Bond movie?