Saturday, March 24, 2007

James Bond Theme Songs

"The coldest blood runs through my veins.
You know my name."
(Chris Cornell and David Arnold, "You Know My Name," the theme to 2006's Casino Royale)

With Casino Royale having recently come out on DVD, I thought it might be a good idea to discuss the various theme songs that have been featured in the James Bond movies over the years. Curiously, even though it is today unthinkable that a 007 movie would come out without a theme song, they weren't part of the franchise from the beginning. Dr. No featured no theme song, only the classic instrumental "James Bond Theme," credited to Monty Norman, although claims had been made for John Barry. On Her Majesty's Secret Service also featured no theme song, only the instrumental "On Her Majesty Secret Service" written by John Barry ("We Have All the Time in the World," sung by Louis Armstrong, appears in the film, not over the opening or closing credits).

The first theme song to appear in a Bond movie was "From Russia with Love" from the movie of the same name, released in 1963. The song was a ballad sung by English crooner Matt Monro. It must be pointed out, however, that the song does not appear during the opening credits. It only appears within the film itself and later during the closing credits. As to the first 007 theme song that would be played over the opening credits, that honour would go to "Goldfinger," sung by Dame Shirley Bassey, from the movie of the same name. Written by Leslie Bricusse, Anthony Newley, and John Barry, the song itself was produced by Sir George Martin (most famous as the producer of The Beatles). Anthony Newley initially recorded a version of the song, although it was ultimately decided that Shirley Bassey should perform the theme. In some respects, it could be argued that Goldfinger set the pace for all Bond movies to come. While From Russia With Love featured an opening title sequence designed by Robert Brownjohn in which footage was photographed against the bodies of models, it did not feature an opening theme song. Goldfinger was the first to do both.

Indeed, the song "Goldfinger" would set the pace for many Bond themes to come. It was literally epic in its orchestration. "Thunderball," sung by Welsh performer Tom Jones, was similarly epic in proportions, with Jones hitting the highest notes of his career. Curiously, "Thunderball" as sung by Tom Jones was not the first choice for the movie's theme. Initially a song entitled "Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (a nickname given Bond by an Italian journalist)" was considered for the film and it was even recorded by both Shirley Bassey and Dionne Warwick. Producers s Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were concerned about how well a theme song which not only did not share the film's title, but did not even feature the title in its lyrics, would work out. Folk legend Johnny Cash also submitted a theme for Thunderball, but it was not accepted. The theme song to You Only Live Twice would follow in the footsteps of both "Goldfinger" and "Thunderball," albeit with a greater emphasis on the string section. It was historic in one respect, however, as it was the first time the theme song was sung by an American, in this case Nancy Sinatra. While I generally like the song, I must admit Sinatra always seemed an odd choice to sing a Bond theme to me.

Perhaps because On Her Majesty's Secret Service had no theme song, Shirley Bassey (who has sung more Bond themes than anyone--a record three) returned to the Bond films with the theme to Diamonds Are Forever. Written by Don Black and John Barry (the same team who wrote the song "Thunderball"), the song is reminiscent of "Goldfinger" in more than just the fact that both were sung by Bassey.

The Bond films would shift dramatically away from songs that sometimes seemed derivative of "Goldfinger" with the next Bond film, which would also be the first to feature Roger Moore as 007. "Live and Let Die" was written and performed by "Sir Paul McCartney and produced by Sir George Martin. "Live and Let Die" is historic as the first outright rock song to be used as a Bond theme. And it seems to me that it could also be the most popular Bond theme song of all time, even more so than "Goldfinger." George Martin apparently realised that he had a winner with the song, as he incorporated elements of its instrumental in the movie's score at nearly every opportunity.

Unfortunately, the theme to The Man With the Golden Gun would be a far cry from "Let Live and Die." Another theme written by Don Black and John Barry, it is one of the weakest Bond theme songs ever. And while I love Lulu, I don't think she was a good choice for the song. Strangely enough, Alice Cooper also submitted his own song "The Man With the Golden Gun" for the producers' consideration. They rejected the song, but it appeared on Alice's album Muscle of Love. Personally, I think it would have been a much better choice as a theme song than the theme that was used.

Fortunately, they would be back on track with the theme song to The Spy Who Loved Me, "Nobody Does It Better" written by Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager, and performed by Carly Simon. It is historic as the first 007 theme song that does not share its title with the movie, although it does mention the title in its lyrics. Along with "Goldfinger" and "Live and Let Die," it may be one of the most popular Bond themes of all time. "Nobody does it better" was used as a tagline in some movie posters for Octopussy and in some trailers for 2006's Casino Royale. The song also played over the montage of clips that served as a memorial for the late, great Desmond Lewellyn in the VHS and DVD releases of The World is Not Enough. I have to say, it is among my favourite Bond themes.

Sadly, I cannot say the same thing about the theme to Moonraker. Written by Hal David and John Barry and sung by Shirley Bassey, it is one of the weakest Bond theme songs of all time. Fitting perhaps, as the movie is one of the worst 007 movies of all time, but I would have still hoped for something better.

Unfortunately, the theme song to For Your Eyes Only was not much of an improvement. Written by Bill Conti and Michael Leeson and sung by Sheena Easton at the height of her success, it seems a bit too schmaltzy for a Bond theme to me. The sad thing is that they could have chosen another song for the theme. Written by Deborah Harry and Chris Stein, and performed by their band Blondie, "For Your Eyes Only was a far superior song that was rejected by the producers. It appeared on Blondie's album The Hunter. Sadly, the next theme song for a Bond movie, "All Time High" from Octopussy, could well be the most forgettable Bond theme song of all time. Written by Tim Rice and John Barry and performed by Rita Coolidge, I have a hard time even remembering what it sounds like.

Fortunately, the next two Bond movies would see a step in the right direction with regards to theme songs, using more contemporary artists and songs that were pretty much rock. "A View to a Kill" was written by Duran Duran and John Barry, and performed by Duran Duran. It was the last track the original members of Duran Duran recorded together, and the only Bond theme song to reach #1 on the Billboard chart. It is still one of my favourite Bond themes, from a movie that was otherwise pretty bad. "The Living Daylights" is perhaps historic as the only Bond theme song performed by what would otherwise be a two hit wonder. Norwegian band a-ha performed the theme song, written by Paul Waaktaar-Savoy of a-ha and John Barry. While a-ha is sometimes thought of as something of a joke these days, "The Living Daylights" actually numbers among the best Bond themes in my opinion.

While the theme songs to A View to a Kill and The Living Daylights were steps in the right direction, the next two Bond movies would see serious missteps where the theme songs are concerned. As much as I love Gladys Knight, "Licence to Kill" is as old fashioned as "A View to a Kill" and "The Living Daylights" were up to date. Ultimately, it seemed to me a rather smarmy, overwrought ballad. Getting Bono and The Edge of U2 to write the theme to GoldenEye was wise. It is too bad that it was decided that Tina Turner would perform the song. I cannot help but think it would have been a good song if only U2 had performed it.

Luckily, Tomorrow Never Dies featured a far better theme song. Sung by Sheryl Crow, and written by Sheryl Crow and Mitchell Froom, "Tomorrow Never Dies" is a modern day torch song. Curiously, several other songs were submitted as the theme song to Tomorrow Never Dies, among them songs by Pulp ("Tomorrow Never Lies") and Saint Etienne (which shared the same title as the movie). Regardless, Crow's "Tomorrow Never Dies" is perhaps better than the theme song to The World Is Not Enough. I think Garbage was a wise choice to perform the song, but I can't help but think that it would have been better had they written rather than the composer of the film's score, David Arnold. While I like the song, it does not exactly hold up to repeat listening.

Of course, "The World is Not Enough" sounded like "Live and Let Die" when compared to "Die Another Day," performed by Madonna and written by her with Mirwais Ahmadzaï. It is perhaps the worst Bond theme song of all time. While it is the second most successful Bond theme after "A View to a Kill (it went to #3 on the Billboard chart). Despite the song's success, however, it was widely derided and was even nominated for the Golden Raspberry for "Worst Original Song." It is probably my least favourite Bond theme song and, quite frankly, I think the low point of Madonna's career (which is really saying something).

Fortunately, Casino Royale (2006) would see a vast improvement, not only in the quality of the films themselves, but in the theme songs. "You Know My Name" was written by Chris Cornell and David Arnold, and performed by Chris Cornell (founding member and lead vocalist of Soundgarden). It was the first Bond theme song performed by an male American (Michael Munro and Duran Duran are English, Tom Jones is Welsh, Paul McCartney is Liverpool Irish, and a-ha are Norwegian), as well as the first Bond theme song that did not share the film's title since Octopussy. Indeed, the song does not even use the movie's title in its lyrics, although it uses a good deal of casino imagery. It also stands out as one of the few Bond themes which seem to be sung from Bond's point of view. It is also my favourite Bond theme song of all time, beating out even "Live and Let Die."

Right now I am hoping that the producers of the Bond franchise stay with the course they seem to have taken in having Chris Cornell write and perform the theme to Casino Royale. Historically, it seems to me that one of the problems with many of the Bond theme songs is that they were hopelessly behind the times. In some cases, it seems to me that they were either content to imitate "Goldfinger" or that they were hopelessly stuck in the Sixties. If the Bond franchise is to continue to be up to date, it seems to me that the Bond themes should be as well. Indeed, my own thought is that as the Bond movies originated in the same milieu as the British Invasion, perhaps the next movie should feature a song by one of the newer, British power pop groups (whose influence from the British invasion bands is pretty obvious). At any rate, they should stick with current artists (as much as I like Aretha Franklin, I don't want to see her perform a Bond theme) and avoid Madonna at all costs (I like a lot of her music, but "Die Another Day" was just too awful)...

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