Spectre is here.
That’s “Bond 24” to the initiated and the latest entry in the longest running film franchise of all time. The series has changed a lot since Sean Connery first debuted as the titular hero in Dr. No, and with different actors and different generations came an ever-evolving take on the perennial Bond theme song. Shirley Bassey defined the first decade of the MI6 superspy, and once she concluded her brassy reign, the doors were blown wide open. From Matt Munro to Paul McCartney, Duran Duran to Tina Turner, the James Bond franchise has seen an eclectic clan of crooners take a stab at the opening titles. Some succeeded while others sank.
With Sam Smith’s recent “Writing’s On The Wall” leaving something to be desired with many fans, we thought we’d take a look at the 10 Best James Bond Movie Theme Songs.
“You Know My Name” – Chris Cornell, from Casino Royale (2006)
When restarting a beloved film series, there can be no half measures. The opening moments are particularly influential. As the Casino Royale reboot first begins, director Martin Campbell takes us to a world of black and white. We’re in Prague, Czech Republic. We meet James Bond (Daniel Craig) in the shadows as he prepares to earn his 00 status. After firing two shots from his silenced pistol, Chris Cornell’s guitar-heavy theme kicks in.
It’s half-rock, half-class. Set to the shuffling card deck and knife fights in the opening titles sequence, the audio and video mélange makes for an exciting entrance to the era of Craig. Cornell’s smooth voice and pulpy lyrics lay the groundwork for Bond’s identity. We didn’t need help remembering it, but Casino Royale ensures we’ll never forget Bond’s name.
“Goldfinger” (1964) – Shirley Bassey
Dame Shirley Bassey defines the sound of Bond. Her essence captures the smoky casinos that Ian Fleming wrote about, and her sultry sound seems to speak for all of the women that fell head over heels for 007. Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall” has sadness, but it lacks the salty experience laden in Bassey’s tunes.
Goldfinger’s opening throws some haymakers. The gold-painted women grace the screen as John Barry’s theme roars out. The orchestra kills it with its opening power chords. The brass almost competes with Shirley Bassey to be the loudest part of the song, but the meat of the material comes out in the words: “Goldfinger. He’s the man, the man with the Midas touch.”
“Live and Let Die” (1973) – Paul McCartney and Wings
Not only did the Bond producers nab a former Beatle to open the 1973 film Live and Let Die, they picked up their first Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song. It’s a doozy. With three distinct sections in the tune’s short two minutes and thirty-five seconds, Paul McCartney wrote one of his most enduring songs.
“Live and Let Die” eventually develops all the percussiveness and drive you’d expect from a Bond theme, while starting as a Beatles-esque sort of ballad that only McCartney could author. It’s distinctly British in its sound and serves as the perfect capsule for this era of Bond. “Live and Let Die” inspired countless covers, the most famous of which came from Guns N’ Roses.
“Thunderball” (1965) – Tom Jones
Shirley Bassey may have been the Maître D’ for the Connery era, but Tom Jones’ confident usage of an awkward song title puts him in the theme song hall of fame. In fact, Mr. Jones bested Bassey’s efforts for the title song, winning Cubby Broccoli’s final approval.
The music of “Thunderball” is brassy, its rhythm saucy and its lyrics slick. “He always runs while others walk…his needs are more so he gives less. They call him the winner who takes all. And he strikes…like Thunderball.” Granted, no one knows what a “thunderball” actually is, but given the lurid nature of James Bond, it probably has some sort of phallic connotation. Jones’ song became a smash hit, his 3rd Top 40 hit in the states, and a mainstay of his long-lasting stint in Las Vegas.
“Goldeneye” (1995) – Tina Turner
This was director Martin Campbell’s first attempt at a Bond reboot. With Pierce Brosnan still getting used to the Bond Brioni tux, Eon Productions knew they needed a hit after the somewhat lackluster returns from the Timothy Dalton entries. They found it in Goldeneye. The opening moments contain a bungee jump from a Russian dam, the infiltration into an enemy military compound and Bond’s alliance with 006 (Sean Bean).
That would have been enough for the Connery and Moore era. For Brosnan, that would have been pathetic. Recall the deliciously ludicrous scene where 007 rides a motorcycle off a cliff, skydives sans chute into an unpiloted plane, and flies it over a mountain by the skin of his teeth. The shot of Bond flying over the now exploded Russian compound cues Tina Turner’s eponymous theme. This one has both strings and brass. The cellos chum before the horns chime in, providing the perfect prelude for Miss Turner to take the controls. With opening titles that stare down the gun barrel and an orchestration that uses some of the same sounds you’ll find in the N64 game, Goldeneye hearkens back to the very elements that made Goldfinger so successful. It’s a smashing entry into the Bond canon.
“We Have All The Time In The World” – Louis Armstrong, from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
The sound and message of Bond themes speak for the actor playing the title role. That’s probably why Sam Smith’s uber-sensitive entry doesn’t match the masculinity of Daniel Craig. They might as well have called in Idina Menzel.
For George Lazenby, however, a soft ditty was exactly what the doctor ordered. Just look at the way he threatens that lamppost. In all seriousness, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service contains one of the most emotional moments in any Bond film, and Louis Armstrong’s song is an incredible accompaniment. For a film about a perpetual paramour, Armstrong’s lyrics are actually about love and how it’s the main ingredient in a content life: “nothing more, nothing less, only love.”
The message is potent, and considering the circumstances in which Bond says, “We have all the time in the world” to his recently assassinated wife, it is heartbreaking. Armstrong sings John Barry’s tune with irony and grace, and as the last song he ever recorded, it provides a fitting end to his legacy.
“Diamonds Are Forever” (1971)- Shirley Bassey
With her sophomore entrance in the world of Bond, Bassey returns with “Diamonds are Forever,” a pleading hymn to the longstanding grievances between men and women. The song opens with xylophonic chimes in a minor key, indicating that this opener is less of a celebration and more of a warning. Bassey sings of her love for diamonds, which shine brightly, last forever, and most tellingly, “don’t leave in the night” or desert her. She declares that she “[doesn’t] need love,” asking, “what can love do for me?” She’s over it.
For a movie about James Bond, the opening song is replete with unsubtle damnation. It makes Mr. Bond look less like the hero the films portray him to be and shows how his lothario lifestyle can leave an undesirable mark on his conquests.
“Skyfall” (2012) – Adele
“This is the end. Close your eyes and count to ten.” Set to the images of stag horns and the Scottish manor from when James Bond came, it’s clear Adele is singing about the end (or beginning?) of an era.
If Casino Royale was the reboot, then Skyfall was the prelude to the origin story (that we’ll soon be getting in Spectre). We see the childhood home of James, but as soon as the audience embraces its Scottish charm and gothic moors, Silva (Javier Bardem) arrives with armed guests ready to burn the place down. Adele won an Oscar for her rendition of the David Arnold-penned song. She brought the house down and truly “let the Skyfall,” as the opening titles zoom into Bond’s blue eyes, showing that this tale is as much an internal voyage as it is an external adventure.
“Nobody Does It Better” – Carly Simon, from The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
As the theme for The Spy Who Loved Me, Carly Simon encapsulates Bond in the 1970s. Its slow-dance feel sounds like Bond at prom, which might be the best image for all of Roger Moore’s tomfoolery in the title role. These were the Bond films that went full throttle on seduction.
While none of the six actors were starved for romance, Mr. Moore enjoyed a particularly bacchanalian angle on Bond’s life. He had the most women to choose from and shamelessly enjoyed his role as the ultimate lover. Indeed, as Miss Simon sings, “Nobody does it half as good as you,” its clear that Bond has the golden touch in additional to the golden gun, and however he does it, it’s worth singing about.
“From Russia With Love” (1963) – Matt Munro
In what might be the most minor key of any Bond theme, Matt Munro’s “From Russia With Love” tells a more complex tale of love. The tempo dirge-like and down, Munro’s sultry tone has a bit of Sinatra blended with Broadway. It’s never clear who the song is about, and that sort of enigma is a perfect blend for the film that many consider to be Sean Connery’s best entry in the series.
From Russia With Love is a brisk and iconic Cold War thriller. With Matt Munro kicking things off, the second installment in the Bond franchise is firmly established as a grand and entertaining spectacle. Just listen to the last high-note Munro sings, belted to the rafters as if he’s hailing a new dynasty in the action genre.
There you have it, Mr. Bond! What’s your favorite theme? Let us know in the comments below!