The James Bond theme song is an enigma unto itself. Always highly anticipated, often endlessly critiqued, and long held as measuring sticks for the trends, tastes, and cultural climate of their time, Bond themes are a recurring advent in the musical calendar. The 24th entry in this long lineage of famous names and anthemic choruses comes in the form of Sam Smith’s new single Writing’s on the Wall, written for upcoming Bond instalment Spectre. In this article, Innocuist takes a look at the hits, misses, and foregone opportunities that have defined the Bond musical legacy.
Monty Norman scored Dr. No (1962), and it was in the iconic opening moments of that film that Norman gave us the iconic James Bond Theme. Yet the first Bond theme as we use the term today - a guest vocalist, an often suggestively-silhouetted opening title sequence - came in the form of Shirley Bassey’s Goldfinger (1964), written by Leslie Bricusse, Anthony Newley, and John Barry for the third film. Barry had put forth the general Bond musical template on the previous year’s From Russia with Love, for which he wrote the entire score and in which the title track appeared first as an instrumental and then as a vocal version featuring Matt Monro. But it wasn’t until Goldfinger that a big name artist was brought in to sing over the iconic opening credits.
Barry had been conductor during Bassey’s national tour of 1963, and the two had been romantically involved. The composer knew Bassey was the perfect choice for the next Bond project, capable as she was of crooning gentle romanticisms before launching into stratospheric, intense crescendoes. In Bassey, Barry had found the perfect vehicle for the dark grandiosity of his songs, pregnant with passionate emotion as they were. Inspired by subtly menacing tunes like Mack the Knife, Barry pushed Bassey to her vocal limits in Goldfinger, as the singer wailed over minor key strings and sharp horn section stabs. “He’s the man, the man with the Midas touch/ A spider’s touch,” sang Bassey atop the suspended intensity of Barry’s masterful arrangement. “Such a cold finger/ Beckons you to enter his web of sin/ But don’t go in.”
Amazingly, film producer Harry Saltzman almost pulled the Goldfinger theme, remarking: “That’s the worst song I’ve ever heard in my life.” Luckily for music fans, time constraints did not allow for the possibility of a replacement Goldfinger theme being written and recorded in time for release. Saltzman would also dislike Bassey’s later Bond theme for 1971's Diamonds Are Forever, leading one to conclude that it is a fortunate thing that Mr. Saltzman was not too closely involved in shaping the musical direction of the Bond franchise.
John Barry would go on to compose every score and co-write every Bond theme for the next decade, guiding the musical direction of the films through their most iconic and consistent era. After Goldfinger, three more of the best theme songs came in the form of Tom Jones’ Thunderball (1965), Nancy Sinatra’s You Only Live Twice (1967), and Bassey’s Diamonds Are Forever. During the later ’70s, a string of less successful songs like Carly Simon’s Nobody Does it Better lowered the general standard. Even Bassey’s Moonraker (1979) theme couldn’t escape the trite, dull balladry all too prevalent at the time. Perhaps tellingly, Moonraker would be Bassey’s last contribution to the franchise, but she remains the only artist to have sung three Bond themes.
As the Sean Connery era faded with the ’60s and the Roger Moore era took hold of the ’70s, the tastes of the time were prevalent not only in the films themselves but in the music we heard. Bad haircuts and even worse suits engendered phoned-in lyrical cliches and out-of-place discoisms. Even Paul McCartney and Lulu couldn’t save the era through the tracks they contributed; these days, both their efforts come off as paint-by-numbers afterthoughts lyrically over-wrought for Bond audiences.
Still, the ’80s didn’t fare any better. Themes like Duran Duran’s A View to a Kill (1985) and A-ha’s The Living Daylights (1987) were terrible reflections of the sort of generic pop that defined the most commercially successful music of the time. The fantastic, characterful themes of the ’60s had perfectly captured the renegade charm of the 007 universe, while reflecting the sort of brilliant songwriting that was common during one of the best eras in popular music. For their part, the ’70s and ‘80s saw a general decline in the quality of popular music in lieu of rising underground movements. After all, it was largely from the worlds of hard rock and punk that much of those decades’ best music emerged, but The Sex Pistols were never going to soundtrack a Bond film.
As it should have been, the most popular acts of the day performed the themes of the ’70s and ’80s, and though John Barry was still occasionally involved in the writing and recording process, audiences had moved on from Bassey and Sinatra, and for better or worse the James Bond franchise had well and truly entered the realm of Austin Powers self-parody and cringeworthy trendiness. Still, songs like 1981’s For Your Eyes Only and 1983’s All Time High (from Octopussy) perfectly reflected the films themselves, and - however facepalm-inducing it all may be now - the style worked at the time.
A six year break preceded GoldenEye, and as Pierce Brosnan took the reigns as Bond, U2’s Bono and The Edge wrote a theme for Tina Turner. The song was a fine return to the Goldfinger pinnacle of Bond music, with Turner’s huge voice building in volume and intensity over suspenseful strings, horns, and a subtle (if unnecessary) drum machine backbeat. Turner was a natural successor to Bassey, and the lads from U2 excelled themselves in reimagining the ’60s Bond template for modern audiences. The Bond franchise was back, with a great film and soundtrack to match.
Less obvious choices appeared in the form of Cheryl Crow and Garbage, who soundtracked Tomorrow Never Dies and The World is Not Enough, respectively. Still, acts like these were fitting examples of the diverse musical landscape of the ’90s, and their themes were promising entries in the Bond canon. Madonna’s abysmal theme from 2002’s Die Another Day can, however, not be excused. Not only was the pop superstar yet another American soundtracking the quintessentially British franchise 17 years since the last Brits had been given the honour, Madonna was simply an awkward fit for the Bond ethos.
Here again was an artist who appeared to simply repurpose the hooks and beat of what would have otherwise been a forgotten B-side, tacking on some vaguely spy-ish lyrical cliches. Not only was it one of Madonna’s worst songs, Die Another Day was spectacularly unsuitable for a franchise with a musical legacy so rich. It appeared that, as the 2000s were just beginning, the decade would see a new generation of popular artists make lame attempts to modernise Bond music. In this writer’s opinion, Die Another Day unquestionably earns the unenviable - if hotly debated - title of worst Bond theme. The film itself was overall a fairly dismal affair, and perhaps it was telling that Brosnan chose to leave the franchise after filming concluded.
Daniel Craig represented a dramatic shift in direction for the Bond films. Those in charge of the franchise's creative direction in the wake of Austin Powers seemed determined to mature the series dramatically with return-to-form landmark film Casino Royale (2006). Chris Cornell’s theme wasn’t what it could have been, but the former Soundgarden and Audioslave grunge rocker lent a gruff air of world-worn intensity to his contribution. Cinematically, 2008’s Quantum of Solace offering fared far worse, and the Jack White/Alicia Keys collaborative theme was ultimately misguided, if well-intentioned.
The true watershed moment for the modern Bond franchise came in the form of 2012’s Skyfall. The film was fantastic, but you already knew that; we’re here to look at the music. Adele’s theme was exemplary, not only an incredible piece of songwriting and a perfect performance from one of today’s most exciting singers, but a truly fitting hat-tip to the often-forgotten legacy of John Barry. “Let the sky fall/ When it crumbles/ We will stand tall/ Face it all together,” roared Adele, her voice ascending to majestic heights. It was a thrill to hear not only a British voice singing these words after 27 years of mostly-questionable American choices, but a thrill because this was what Bond themes should sound like. In Skyfall, we were reminded at once of the artistic achievements that had been left through the magnificent songs of the ’60s, and yet the woman singing that song is a bona fide modern chart-topper; a megastar to rival Madonna, but one actually suited to the world of Bond music. A perfect match.
And so we return to Sam Smith, the latest star to enter the fierce world of these iconic songs. An obvious choice as a British male whose music respectfully parallels Adele’s in many ways, Smith recently released Writing’s on the Wall ahead of Spectre’s October debut. The song itself continues in much the same vein as Skyfall, albeit trading darkly epic bombast for a mellower, more introspective take on the format. Smith’s spectacularly elastic voice is allowed to take centre stage, sliding automatically between haunting low notes and pained falsetto flourishes. There isn't so much a hook as a gradual ebb and flow of intensity; a pregnant pause as Smith's falsetto spirals into the distance and the orchestra meets him there.
Written in 20 minutes in collaboration with the extremely popular electronic duo Disclosure and prolific songwriter Jimmy Napes, Writing’s on the Wall has met with divided critical opinion upon release. Such was the reaction on the day of release that Shirley Bassey - the dame of Bond music - began to trend on Twitter, and Bassey’s former themes re-entered the charts for the first time in many years. Personally, I think Smith’s contribution manages to be respectful of Bond tradition, through combining his inimitable brand of modern pop soul vocalising with the established mournful strings/violent horns Bond template. It may not be the most dramatic of songs, but by all measures Spectre itself seems set to be an unusually dark Bond instalment.
The Bond songs discussed thus far represent something of a microcosmic picture of popular music as it has shifted across the last half century. Here we see the heights of the ’60s, the depths of ’70s/’80s pop, the patchy genre wars of the ’90s, the indecisive commercialism of the ’00s, and the promising upswing of the ’10s. Who knows what will come next, as future Bond films push the theme format further. Could there ever be a hip-hop bond theme? A Daft Punk cut? An Arctic Monkeys rocker? Should there be? It’s rumoured that Craig will leave after Spectre; perhaps the series will see another dramatic shift in direction as a new actor assumes the role.
Looking back, it’s easy for us say who we think should have been given a shot at contributing a theme. The list of artists whose offerings didn’t make the cut during production is staggering - Johnny Cash, Alice Cooper, Blondie, Pulp, Amy Winehouse, Muse - and, looking at those names, one can’t help but make one wonder what might have been. Then there are the artists who were never in contention but who should have been. By any form of logic, Portishead’s All Mine, Goldfrapp’s Human, and Björk’s Bachelorette should have immediately called the attention of the Bond producers. It’s a shame to think that golden opportunities to use songs like those were passed up in lieu of “modernising” the franchise by enlisting acts like Madonna.
It’s not hard to spot a song that would perfectly fit a Bond film. The aforementioned three are just a few of the ones foremost in my mind, but I’m sure we’ve all had those eureka moments when listening to a particular song for the first time: “This would be such a great Bond theme!” And therein lies the greatest testament to the talent of those involved in the production of the series’ finest musical efforts. From Monty Norman’s unforgettable surf rock gunshot-sequence calling card to John Barry’s fruitful partnerships with some of the best musicians of their time, there is a certain style that defines a good Bond song. After all, no other film franchise has such a close affiliation with music; film and sound intertwine in every great James Bond moment. And if you’ve ever liked a song from the past fifty years, there’s sure to be a Bond theme you’ll love.
If you enjoyed this article, please support Innocuist by subscribing to our email newsletter. We are a small independent blog, and we would love to have you as a reader. Our emails are only sent out occasionally when new articles are published, so you'll never miss the latest posts.
Thank you for reading!