Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Anticipating Spectre: The best James Bond Theme songs

I sat down to revisit the Brosnan films as a warm-up for this week’s release of Spectre. In doing so, I was reminded painfully of one of the worst periods in Bond theme music. In my teenaged years, I carried with me a cassette of 13 original James Bond themes and cherished listening to them all – the good and the bad. It is hard to fathom first of all that there have been ten more films since I owned that cassette. Harder to fathom is the mere idea that I could even stomach listening to such a compilation today. Let’s face it, a few of the more recent entries in the canon have missed the mark, but fewer still have achieved the lasting legacy that many of those of the bygone Moore/Connery era hold. So I figured, why not rank them all, worst to first, with category rankings to group them. And I'll let you know where I rank the latest some time after Friday. ;)

The Duds

22) Tomorrow Never Dies, Sheryl Crow

The brutal, ear-rending screech that delivers the chorus is enough to sink this tune, where Crow tries to croon over orchestral swells in this otherwise quite nondescript and unremarkable theme. But when you finish the film and hear kd lang’s stunningly rendered alternative, you have to wonder what the producers were thinking. Was Crow’s starpower strong enough to put a terrible song at the start of an otherwise good film?

21) Die Another Day, Madonna

At one end of the spectrum are the big band blunders like the above, and at the other are the futile attempts to remain current. The vocoder is in full effect on this house/techno attempt to latch on to the sound of the moment, a moment which had already passed by the time this film had been released. Fortunately the film isn’t sunk by the song – its sunk by a terrible plot full of holes you could drive an Aston Martin through, one of the worst Bond villains regardless of gene therapy, and Halle Berry’s inability to convincingly wield either a weapon or a witty comeback.

20) Another Way to Die, Jack White & Alicia Keys

I wonder if Alicia Keys had to endure Jack’s voice in the studio or if they just recorded independently so she didn’t have to hide her cringing at his total lack of talent. This just sounds like a bad Jack White song. Which would be most of them. Alicia can’t rescue it. And nothing could rescue the movie, Quantum of Solace, which was without question the worst in the franchise.

19) Goldeneye, Tina Turner

Let’s forget for a moment that Tina hadn’t been relevant since chasing the Raggedy Man out of Bartertown, this song inserts the film’s title into its lyrics as if it is some kind of reference to anatomy, despite the fact it was really the name of Ian Fleming’s tropical vacation home. While past film’s made use of their title rather, um… creatively, this one doesn’t work.

18) License to Kill, Gladys Knight

No Pips? Fail. But really, the lyrics of the chorus are sappy and overwrought and give Gladys’s superb pipes little to work with. The remarkable similarity to Goldfinger seems all too intentional though, as if to invoke memories of a much better song… and movie. The official video, however, is a treat for the senses.

The Forgettable

17) You Know My Name, Chris Cornell

It would have been impossible to make a decent song with the title 'Casino Royale', so going with a song that ignores it was the right move. And given both the change in lead actors and overall tone of the series, Cornell was a great choice and the song title speaks to what we might expect. But it is utterly unmemorable. There is a nice chord progression under the chorus, but that’s about it.

16) The World is Not Enough, Garbage

I have to admit, I forgot completely who sang this song, though I could hum the chorus in my head without prompting. That is because despite the wishes of some in the 90s press, Garbage were better forgotten as a band. Even still, how is this a ‘band’ song? I hear drum machines, overproduced keys, a lot of orchestra, and Shirley Manson. I don’t hear a band.

15) You Only Live Twice, Nancy Sinatra
While Nancy’s voice and the instrumentation aren’t bad in any way, with the subtle Asian influences not coming across as too cloying, but there isn’t anything here to write home about.

14) Moonraker, Shirley Bassey

Like Tina Turner’s Goldeneye, Bassey awkwardly slips the film’s title into a song that is otherwise rather lovely and delivered splendidly by Bassey’s powerful voice. But once the song ends, we’re not clamoring to hear it again. And besides, there are better Bassey tunes we’d reach for first.

I give her credit, Lulu didn’t try to duck the difficulty of using the title in the song, she just went right after it, choosing to follow the exposition of the film, no double entendres necessary (though apparently a wah pedal was in the early 70s). And while she delivers it with conviction, that leaves little emotional content to latch on to. It’s just kind of boring until the final chorus, which I have to admit she knocks out of the park.

The Hits

12) From Russia, With Love, Matt Monro

This song is right on the border for me. I can’t tell if it is the fact I owned that cassette and saw this movie a couple dozen times that make me think it is more memorable than it really is. Though it is hardly anything special, it certainly isn’t forgettable.

11) Skyfall, Adele

I know a lot of people would give me guff for this not being in the top category, but for some reason, it just didn’t work for me. Adele has a great voice, but the chorus is just kind of weak, especially the backing vocals, and the use of the James Bond chord progression makes the song sound a bit more generic.

Taking a step back from the fact that the band was a few years removed from their only US hit, A-Ha were a logical choice given the fact the last Bond theme by a post new wave pop band was a #1 hit. And listening to it, it’s remarkably a pretty good song. Though this category is ‘The Hits’ I just mean the ones that didn’t completely miss the mark, as this song failed to even chart.

9) Diamonds Are Forever, Shirley Bassey

If there were a film’s title made for Bassey’s voice, this is it. And it is a good one, no question. I like how it starts out quietly and plays off the idea that men (and by implication James Bond) aren’t reliable and honest, and diamonds last a heck of a lot longer.

8) Thunderball, Tom Jones

You kind of wish they had given Tom Jones another shot at the prize, because though he absolutely owns this song, it is kind of terrible lyrically. It would be two more movies, before the producers would take a chance on using a theme that didn’t include the film’s title, but this film would have been the prime opportunity.

7) All Time High, Rita Coolidge

And let’s face it, while Tom Jones singing a song titled Octopussy would have been brilliant, ditching the film's title was the smart move. Coolidge delivers a nice jazzy tune that fit perfectly in the early 80s AOR radio format. And honestly, it is overall just a really nice lyric as well. Is it dated, oh hell yeah. But so is nearly everything else about this film, which unfortunately chose to embrace the camp a bit too much.

6) For Your Eyes Only, Sheena Easton

Sheena has the distinction of being the only performer to appear in the title sequence, and despite the very 80s sound of this song, it is one of the better ones. Had they dialed down the chorus and used more of the synth sounds of the verse, it may have been a bit more timeless and pushed it over into the next category (which is where I had it mentally, but then listened again and had to move it).

The Undeniable Classics

5) Nobody Does It Better, Carly Simon
It is the simplicity of this song that makes it so good. Just the piano and Carly kick it off, but the subsequent orchestration is subdued and allows her voice to soar over the music. The lyrics are totally irrelevant to the movie or James Bond at all, until they slip that title in there just to let you know they didn’t forget what they were trying to sell us.

4) Live And Let Die, Paul McCartney & Wings

For once, the title actually really works in the lyric of the song. And so does all of the orchestration. And the bridge with a reggae feel to tie in to the movie’s location. And a classic is born. Too bad the film doesn’t quite live up to its theme song, abandoning global domination themes to capitalize on blaxploitation filmmaking.

3) A View To A Kill, Duran Duran

There’s a good reason this was a #1 song – it kicks ass. That drum beat, the driving bass under the chorus, and a vocal delivery that gives the song the edge it needs. This is also the first song that, despite having John Barry’s help in composing, has no orchestration at all to detract from the energy of the tune. Maybe I’m just a child of the 80s, but this is great stuff. Also probably my favorite title sequence.

2) Goldfinger, Shirley Bassey

For decades, this was the definitive Bond title track. Those opening chords would be alluded to in later themes because they just scream James Bond, and the integration of the actual James Bond theme only makes it better. And while Goldfinger seems like a word that would be nearly impossible to work into a song, if you just make the song about the guy… well, there you go. Bassey delivers every lines, every syllable with authority and the legend was born.

There is so much to love about On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as a film, and the theme – the only one to not be used in the opening credits – is absolute perfection. As a whole, this is regarded as the movie in the series with the best soundtrack for good reason, and the choice to have an instrumental credits sequence allowed Maurice Binder to allow audiences at the time to focus visually while he reminded us that though they had a new Bond for the first time, not much was going to change. Despite the attempts of the Craig films to deliver an emotionally vulnerable Bond over three films, Lazenby did it perfectly in one, and this song communicates both the sweetness and the sadness that its title has in relation to the film's plot. Satchmo’s tender warble (on the last song he would ever record) is just what the song needs to ensure it isn’t too cloying or sentimental. It is nothing more, nothing less - only love.

Note: I chose not to include any selections from Dr. No. I really didn't feel it qualified since, as the first entry in the series, it didn't have a theme song per se.

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