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Bond Songs, From Best to Worst

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Is Billie Eilish’s new Bond song, “No Time to Die,” the worst Bond song ever? Close. But sadly, there is a lot of competition for that title. Here is my ranking, from best to worst.

Note: Not every Bond theme is a Bond song. Doctor No and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service have instrumental themes. Beyond that, many Bond movies contain non-theme songs that are, nevertheless, strongly associated with the films. I will discuss two of them here. 

1. “Goldfinger”

Goldfinger is the archetypal Bond film — the first film where all the elements fell together into the successful formula that has been repeated umpteen times since — so it makes sense that the title song, sung by Shirley Bassey, should set the standard of what a Bond song should be. Musically, it needs to be grand, brassy, melodic, voluptuous, and slightly decadent. The lyrics need to be dark, because Bond is dark, his enemies are dark, and they spur each other to dark deeds. Everything about this song — words, lyrics, performance — is exquisite. Try to imagine how utterly weird this song must have seemed to theater audiences in 1964, yet in retrospect, it seems absolutely necessary and right.

2. “Live and Let Die”

Live and Let Die is one of my least favorite Bond films, but Paul McCartney and Wings’ theme song is one of the best: grand, melodic, and very dark. It is a song about the moral and spiritual destructiveness of bitterness. Most people cringe at the redundancy of “the ever-changing world in which we live in.” Years later, McCartney was asked about it, and simply said that it had not occurred to him. He should have pled artistic license. Try singing it without the redundancy.

3. “Thunderball”

Thunderball followed the formula established by Goldfinger, including the theme song sung by Tom Jones. Some people don’t care for this song, but it has everything I want from a Bond song: a big, brassy, bombastic melody, a vivid lyric, and a powerful singer who knows how sell the words.

4. “Diamonds are Forever”

After Thunderball, Bond songs took a turn toward ballads. “Diamonds Are Forever” is one of the best, a mid-tempo number with a lovely melody, suitably cynical lyrics, and Shirley Bassey’s powerful but always subtle singing.

5. “The Look of Love” (Casino Royale, 1967)

Yes, I know the 1967 Casino Royale is a farce. I know it was not made by Eon Productions. But it is based on a Fleming novel and stars James Bond. Several of them, actually. So it is a Bond film, and it just so happens to contain one of the most beautiful love songs of the 1960s, written by Burt Bacharach and sung by Dusty Springfield.

6. “You Know My Name” (Casino Royale, 2006)

This will probably be a controversial choice, but I love this song from 2006’s Casino Royale, Daniel Craig’s first outing as Bond. Casino Royale is one of the very best Bond films. Craig is astonishing in his combination of emotional subtlety and sheer virility, and the theme song sung by Chris Cornell (Soundgarden, Audioslave) has the same combination of traits. The lyric is a suitably dark portrait of Bond himself. (“The coldest blood runs through my veins.”) This is the closest to hard rock of any Bond song, and it risked putting off the audience. It was a surprising choice, redeemed by talent and taste.

7. “Skyfall”

Skyfall is my very favorite Bond film, and the theme song is suitably epic, beautifully sung by Adele. A lot of people groaned about this song, because they were a bit over-exposed to Adele. Since I don’t follow contemporary pop, this was the first I had heard of her, thus my ears were not prejudiced.

8. “Writing’s On the Wall” (Spectre)

Spectre is a big comedown after Skyfall, but the title sequence and song, sung by Sam Smith, are magnificent. The song has darkness and grandeur, and Smith delivers the lyrics with a reedy, aching sensitivity. As with Adele, I had never heard of Sam Smith before this song, and I understand that your mileage may vary. 

9. “License to Kill”

License to Kill is Timothy Dalton’s second and last outing as Bond. I love everything about this film, including the theme song, menacingly sung by Gladys Knight, which is a successful return to the “Goldfinger” archetype. Some things about this theme could be better. Knight’s ebonic-inflected articulation is a bit messy, and the keyboards and background vocals are super cheesy. There’s nothing wrong with this song, however, that couldn’t have been fixed by Shirley Bassey.

10. “The World Is Not Enough”

A band called Garbage is giving a hostage to critics, but this is a brilliant song, despite the fact that the band doesn’t really mesh with the orchestration and drags singer Shirley Manson down to earth when she should have been allowed to soar. (They should have sidelined the rhythm section entirely.) As for the lyrics, they are a beautiful portrait of a predatory sociopath, which pretty much describes Bond as well as his opponents.

11. “Goldeneye”

With music by Bono and the Edge and Tina Turner’s charismatic, feline performance, this should have been a better song. The main problem is that the lyrics are pretty much an evocative word-salad.

12. “From Russia With Love”

Although it lacks grandeur and darkness, this is a beautiful song, exquisitely sung by Matt Monro. As you will see, this will become a pattern with Bond songs.

13. “Nobody Does it Better” (The Spy Who Loved Me)

Although it lacks grandeur and darkness, this is a beautiful song, exquisitely sung by Carly Simon.

14. “For Your Eyes Only”

Although it lacks grandeur and darkness, this is a beautiful song, exquisitely sung by Sheena Easton.

15. “You Only Live Twice”

Although it lacks grandeur and darkness, this is a beautiful song, exquisitely sung by Nancy Sinatra.

16. “All-Time High” (Octopussy)

Although it lacks grandeur and darkness, this is a pretty good song, well-sung by Rita Coolidge.

17. “A View to a Kill”

Duran Duran could have done a great Bond song. But they didn’t. I’m not angry, just disappointed.

18. “The Living Daylights”

I am a huge A-ha fan. Songs like “The Sun Always Shines on TV” show that they are capable of the epic grandeur of a great Bond song. But this isn’t it. Apparently, they had a falling out with composer John Barry, who likened them to the Hitler Youth, a clear anti-Nordic canard. (Interestingly, two out of three A-ha members named Knut Hamsun as their favorite author, to which I said “A-ha!”)

Pet Shop Boys and the Pretenders were considered before A-ha, and a Pretenders song is incorporated into the background score. I would have loved hearing Bond songs from both. Chrissie Hynde had a magnificent voice for a James Bond theme.

I’m not angry with A-ha, just very, very disappointed.

 

Here’s a taste of what could have been:

19. “Moonraker”

Lacks grandeur and darkness, etc. Not even Shirley Bassey can redeem this snoozer. What were they thinking?

20. “We Have All the Time in the World” (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service)

Objectively, this isn’t a bad song. But Louis Armstrong and this music are just wrong for the world of James Bond. What were they thinking?

21. “The Man with the Golden Gun”

Lulu has a powerful and pleasing voice, but it is wasted on this dumb, forgettable song.

22. “Never Say Never Again”

1983’s Never Say Never Again is a remake of Thunderball with Sean Connery as Bond. Some Bond fans dismiss it because it was not produced by Eon Productions. But it starred Sean Connery. So there. The forgettable theme song, sung by Lani Hall, was composed by the highly talented Michel Legrand, who came up dry with this film.

23. “No Time to Die”

I agree with Scott Weisswald. This is a snoozefest. Lacks darkness and grandeur. Billie Eilish lacks the maturity to sell this song. Should not be under the opening credits. Maybe they can work it into the background score. They need to get a new theme song. Lady Gaga should sing it. She is one of the few singers today who can deliver a Bond song on the level of Bassey’s best.

24. “Another Way to Die” (Quantum of Bollocks)

Words fail me.

25. “Tomorrow Never Dies”

The reedy, wobbly, weak-voiced, uncharismatic Sheryl Crow is the most un-Bondian singer on this list. The song is totally forgettable, and as soon as Crow opens her mouth, it is the musical equivalent of watching someone being swallowed by quicksand. But she was “hot” at the time, especially among future cat ladies, so she probably seemed safe. The stupidity of this decision is brought home by the song under the closing credits, which is magnificently sung by K. D. Lang. I will never forgive this lapse of taste. I am linking Crowe for completeness, but I am putting Lang above her.

26. “Die Another Day”

Madonna is a tremendous talent, but I can’t think of a worse Madonna song. It lacks melody, grandeur, darkness . . . singing. I can’t fathom the perfect storm of cynicism and bad taste that produced this song. Madonna certainly has done good movie songs, such as “Live to Tell” and “Beautiful Stranger.” Imagine what she could have done if she had teamed up to write a Bond theme with William Orbit, who collaborated with her on Ray of Light, her best album.

 

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31 Comments

  1. D.M.
    Posted February 28, 2020 at 5:29 am | Permalink

    What a fun read–and fun listen! I’d like to have a CD with all these on it. In 2002 I bought a CD titled “Themes from the Westerns” at Checkpoint Charlie. All songs are performed by a British orchestra that did a great job. But I think you’d need the original recordings to make a good Bond Songs CD. I mean, who could replace Tom Jones? or Paul McCartney and Wings?

  2. Davidoff recorderlig
    Posted February 28, 2020 at 5:42 am | Permalink

    Esoteric James Bond criticism.

  3. TZ
    Posted February 28, 2020 at 6:06 am | Permalink

    I agree with your taste in music, but not in filmography.

    Surprised you would have a modern Bond flick as your favorite, people generally agree they have lost that touch, the mystique, the sophistication. Too much action and special effects. Daniel Craig is a stocky, pleby incarnation of Tintin and as for Skyfall, goodness gracious that marks the social justice makeover of the franchise… Moneypenny is now black and Q is gay (the actor anyway, which is hint. Cleese should have been brought back). But it doesn’t stop there, the empowered black Moneypenny (supposedly a secretary) now doubles as a sniper (not ridiculous at all) and shoots the SWM protagonist (alas we learn at the end of the film that it was actually HIS fault).

    Most of Connery’s and Moore’s films are memorable as they are light-hearted, entertaining, a bit slower paced and less PC. I think Live and Let Die is great… so many memorable characters: Solitaire, Baron Samedi, Kananga, Teehee, Whisper, Sheriff JW Pepper. And many memorably scenes: the funeral in New Orleans, the voodoo orgy, the tarot readings, the crocodile farm escape (this stunt scene was the last REAL Bond stunt). A bit of crass slapstick and blacksploitation is par for the course. Was the plot of corrupt banana republic engaging in drug smuggling too stereotypical?

    P.S. The Louis Armstrong song was only a secondary musical theme for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The main theme is an instrumental and is peak Bond.

  4. Alex
    Posted February 28, 2020 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    If I’m not mistaken For Your Eyes Only was Sheena Easton. I agree with almost all of the ranking but I think View To A Kill could be a little higher, sure it’s not their best work but I prefer it to a song like Reflex. Couldn’t agree more about Shirley Bassey, one of the few singers who can use her voice as a fine tuned instrument.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted February 28, 2020 at 6:43 am | Permalink

      Yes, fixed that.

  5. Bernie
    Posted February 28, 2020 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    “14. “For Your Eyes Only”
    Although it lacks grandeur and darkness, this is a beautiful song, exquisitely sung by Carly Simon.”

    I believe you meant Sheena Easton.

    And I also believe this should be much higher on your otherwise very good list.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted February 28, 2020 at 6:41 am | Permalink

      Oooof. Corrected. I should give it another spin.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted February 28, 2020 at 6:42 am | Permalink

      Ooof. Fixed it. Thanks. Will give the song another spin.

  6. Orcish
    Posted February 28, 2020 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    This was great!! I’ve worn out my James Bond theme song CD over the years. It’s something like basil polidorus’s Conan the barbarian score, which I’ll pop in if I can’t decide what I want to listen to on any particular occasion.

    Although I have different rankings; I like moonraker and you only live twice, actually. These fall into the “slow grandeur”, old Hollywood style of bond song. Also, I like man with the golden gun for its lyrics, and even dance into the fire and living daylights, although the lyrics of the last two have nothing to do with James Bond and are about Fischer and Nash respectively, no detectable exoteric meaning.

    Actually, the entire cd is microcosm of the decay of popular music from the 60s to the 2000s.

    • Nikandros
      Posted February 28, 2020 at 10:04 am | Permalink

      Basil’s awesome. “Anvil of Crom” and “Klendathu Drop” always get me pumped up.

  7. Nikandros
    Posted February 28, 2020 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    “The Living Daylight” is my favorite; I love the pre-chorus. It’s a shame the A-ha is mostly known for “Take on Me” in the U.S. because “The Sun Always Shines on TV” is one of the greatest pop songs ever written, imo.

  8. Esoteric Du30ist
    Posted February 28, 2020 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    The best James Bond theme song is “Heavens Divide,” the ending theme of “Metal Gear Solid: Peacewalker,” sung by Donna Burke.

    • Pretty Good
      Posted February 28, 2020 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

      Funny that you would go for that song in particular, though a good choice, when the entry in that series closest to the Bond formula features the eponymous, almost satirical, “Snake Eater.”

  9. margot metroland
    Posted February 28, 2020 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    You take my own two favorites, the themes from From Russia with Love and You Only Live Twice, and give them identical brush-offs:

    “Although it lacks grandeur and darkness, this is a beautiful song, exquisitely sung by … ”
    The first is sung by Matt Monro (note spelling), the second by Nancy Sinatra. And they are two of the best recordings either artist ever made.

    I suspect you are really rating your esteem for the films themselves. None of the Bond films are that good, actually, except as instances of a franchise or genre, where you get to see Lois Maxwell gradually age and then disappear, while Desmond Llewellyn sticks around and goes, “Please pay attention, double-o seven.”

    Goldfinger is foremost because it’s the first Bond film most people really noticed or heard about, it has that ripping theme song that was on the charts for 12 weeks, and as the last of the original trio, it’s the first one with a touch of parodic self-awareness. And it has Oddjob, which the kiddies all liked (certainly more than Gert Frobe).

    When it was still playing as a first-run hit in 1965, the distributors repackaged the first two films and sent them out as a double feature, with a newspaper display ad of two Sean Connerys back-to-back. I’m sure people were disappointed to find that these two earlier ones weren’t nearly as tawdry or entertaining as Goldfinger.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted February 28, 2020 at 10:27 am | Permalink

      I think they are both lovely songs. But somewhat remote from the “Goldfinger” archetype.

    • Orcish
      Posted February 28, 2020 at 11:00 am | Permalink

      It’s a slow, separate type of grandeur. I like You Only Live Twice too, second only to Goldfinger itself, probably. I think Don’t Cry for Me Argentina owes something to this song. They always say how Weber steals from here there and everywhere, and I’m beginning to see it.

      Also, don’t miss Kanye Wests mix of diamonds are forever from late registration lp! I didn’t just say that

    • Bobby
      Posted February 29, 2020 at 5:41 am | Permalink

      I so agree with you about the song You Only Live Twice. Every time I hear this song, I get a certain feeling that is indescribable. The whole orchestration of this song is to my mind at least, a brilliant kind of “essence of the Orient, specifically Japan, kind of experience. It’s surreal…

  10. Ian Smith
    Posted February 28, 2020 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    I know this is a list of intro rather than outro songs, but I really like If There Was a Man by Chrissy Hynde from the underrated Living Daylights.

  11. James J OMeara
    Posted February 28, 2020 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    If you are going to include parodies (Casino Royale) and other non-Eon (Never Say) films, you need to take account of Operation Kid Brother aka Operation Double 007 aka OK Connery. Apart from Connery’s brother, Neil, it even has Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell (first time seen in the field firing a rifle), Adolfo Celi, Anthony Dawson, and several Bond Girls, so it’s more canonical than any non-Connery film.

    The theme is by Ennio Morricone, no less, and in the Italian fashion it’s not so much a parody as the essential Bond theme blown up to 11. As Crow T. Robot says, “He can’t possibly live up to the song the wrote about him.”

    https://youtu.be/zfXEL6bVFQI

  12. cecil1
    Posted February 28, 2020 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    To each his own.

    But I’ve always thought ‘For Your Eyes Only’ and ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ were far and away the best Bond songs.

    The Power of Bond was always in his subtlety and power in elusiveness, and those songs captured it.

    Bond always slips out of you fingers, no matter who you are. – villain or lover.

  13. Franz
    Posted February 28, 2020 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    “Bond music” as we know it now started with the boomaly-boom bombast of Shirley Bassey’s Goldfinger and Tom Jones’ Thunderball. And John Barry’s old James Bond Theme still sounds great on a Fender Stratocaster — the right instrument from the right era for JB.

    They set the stride. After that, it was keeping the brand in tune with the zeitgeist.

    For some of us who read the books that meant trouble. James Bond belongs to the world of Harold MacMillan and the Profumo scandal. Maybe the Cuban Missile thing. Maybe as far as the mid-60s when China got nukes. After?

    We are stiffing writers now for a guy who, face it, saw everything in WWII colors and who died before anything really changed from the immediate Postwar Era and the strangeness that came with it. Ian Fleming’s gone but there are some fine writers living now.

    As a period piece, Bond is interesting. As an agent for anything unto the hundredth generation, he’s turning into another Batman. Good as that might be sometimes, his context has been gone for over a half-century. We have a different context now. Bond really isn’t reflecting it.

    • James J OMeara
      Posted February 28, 2020 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

      “For some of us who read the books that meant trouble. James Bond belongs to the world of Harold MacMillan and the Profumo scandal. Maybe the Cuban Missile thing. Maybe as far as the mid-60s when China got nukes. After?”

      “That’s like listening to the Beatles without earmuffs!” — Goldfinger (movie)

    • Madden
      Posted February 29, 2020 at 6:50 am | Permalink

      I very much agree with your last paragraph. Bond movies were once exciting and I am not sorry they were made. Their time, however, has passed. They’re just another wokeness trap now.

      As for these songs, I don’t really care for any of them and never really did, even as one-time Bond fan. As a kid, I liked the eerie quality of a “View To A Kill”s chorus (“Dance into the fire..”), but that’s about it.

  14. Petronius
    Posted February 28, 2020 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    “For Your Eyes Only” hands down the best!! Follow up: “Goldfinger”…

  15. James J OMeara
    Posted February 28, 2020 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Not entirely off topic: why hasn’t there been a Bond opera? Not some boring Philip Glass sort of thing (which would only be “ironic” and postmodern anyway) but a full-blown Puccini sort of thing.
    The whole “Bond film” genre is the kind of total-art-work operas have been striving for: music, songs, exotic locales, murder and intrigue, romance. And it’s not because of all the special effects: Broadway and the Met can do chariot races, steamboats, cat/people, chandeliers, the lake at the bottom of the Paris Opera, etc. Is there only so much Lloyd-Weber can do (thank God)?

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted February 28, 2020 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

      This is a brilliant idea.

  16. Posted February 28, 2020 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    I am a restaurant musician, and I play and sing From Russia with Love. Matt Monro was groomed as the English Sinatra, and my father used to drink in a pub called The Favourite in north London where Monro was the barman, singing as he worked. The chord structure – mostly minor 7ths and an alternating G minor and minor 7, is so simple, and the lyric so bitter-sweet, it will always be my favourite. Monro also sang another beauty as the theme to The Italian Job, called On Days Like These. Worthwhile feature for something that has become an institution. Nice work.

  17. Ed in Salt Lake
    Posted March 1, 2020 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    Songs that are good stand on their own, however exactly when and where a song occurs in a film is just as important, so for that I will vote for “For Your Eyes Only’ and ‘All Time High’ as my Bond favorites!

  18. Tony
    Posted March 1, 2020 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    Eh. To each his own. I guess there’s no disputing tastes…. within reason.

    I always loved Gladys Knight and thought she was criminally underrated. Maybe because of her association with backup singers inexplicably called The Pips.
    Her pipes and power were second to none and better than most.

    Her rendition of License To Kill does have some cringingly cheesy elements…the breathy background singers, synthesized percussion and artificial 80’s-style keyboards to name a few. But these are derived from that era and the producers who worked during that era. Lots of otherwise good music was contaminated with this stuff.

    But the vocal itself? Damn. Get back, son. It is spot on. Passionate, deep, lush, vaguely menacing, with the Bond theme lurking in the background. I don’t hear Ebonics. I hear Gladys knocking it out of the fucking park. With a voice far richer and more expressive than Shirley Bassey’s reedy and overwrought rendition of Goldfinger.

    The worst? Chris Cornell shrieking his way through You Know My Name like his balls were caught in a paper shredder. When I saw it in the theater people were laughing at how awful and incongruous it was. Nothing about that song says “Martini. Shaken, not stirred.” It instead says “Morphine. For my third degree burns”.

  19. James J OMeara
    Posted March 3, 2020 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

    Bacharach/Herb Alpert Casino Royale title theme with lyrics (sung by Mike Conway over the end titles)

    https://youtu.be/GWHbC6w2vBY

  20. Matt
    Posted March 4, 2020 at 6:00 am | Permalink

    I rate View to a Kill higher, but then I like the band and the 80s in general.

    I’m surprised you were so dismissive of Golden Gun. It is bold and brassy and sung well by Lulu. Forgettable? It’s one of the most memorable of all Bond themes.

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