Editor’s Note: This feature originally ran in November 2015 and is being re-published today in honor of Roger Moore’s passing.
Bond. James Bond. This week, Consequence of Sound is celebrating the legendary secret agent with five days of unique features leading up to the release of Sam Mendes’ highly anticipated Skyfall follow-up, Spectre. Today, we kick off the action by updating our rankings of the franchise’s theme songs following the release of Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall”. Tomorrow? You’ll have to return and find out for yourself.
Spectre is here, the 24th official James Bond production from Eon, or as we like to think of it: the 23rd time James Bond has returned. With a rumored $300 million (!!!) budget, this is perhaps the wildest Bond film yet. So that means bigger stunts, bigger gadgets, and a bigger ego on blonde Bond Daniel Craig. And of course, a new Bond film means a new Bond theme.
This time, Sam Smith is the voice behind the opening credits, and we had to ask ourselves, “Where does his Bond theme land in the full filmography and playlist?” As such, Justin Gerber and I decided to take a moment to update our power ranking of Bond themes from 2014 and let you know how Sam Smith stacks up against Shirley Bassey, A-Ha, and all the rest of Bond’s themesters. Again here are our rules:
– Dr. No has no specific theme song. It introduces “The James Bond Theme” and some weird version of “Three Blind Mice”. We didn’t include it, but we fully acknowledge “The James Bond Theme” reigns supreme.
– On Her Majesty’s Secret Service features an excellent original composition by John Barry in the opening credits, but we chose Louie Armstrong’s song to represent the movie.
Agree? Disagree? Agree to disagree? Chime in below, but please keep your Walther PPKs holstered.
Senior Staff Writer
23. Lulu – “The Man with the Golden Gun” (1974)
Best Lyrics: “An assassin that’s second to none/ The man with the golden gun”
Listening to Lulu’s “The Man with the Golden Gun” is like listening to a homeless woman screeching and clawing her way to a karaoke machine off the street. From the jagged and startling horn noises to the unwieldy guitars and Lulu’s cat lady vocals, the whole song just stinks. It’s not just difficult listening or kitsch mania; it’s pretty much just the crummiest song in the Bond theme catalog.
Rumor has it that Alice Cooper also had a version of this song in contention for Man with the Golden Gun, but it was dropped in favor of Lulu’s version. Now, one has to wonder what Mr. No-More-Mister-Nice-Guy singing a Bond song might have been like. Call it a hunch, but it probably would have been better than Lulu’s three-minute record scratch. –Blake Goble
22. Madonna – “Die Another Day” (2002)
Best Lyrics: “Sigmund Freud/ Analyze this”
Whoever coined the phrase “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” could never have predicted the existence of Madonna’s “Die Another Day”. With Auto-Tune brought to new depths of hell and beats previously reserved for the waning hours of 2 a.m. discos in Chernobyl, Madonna arrives about a decade too late to help celebrated Bond #20. It’s appropriate that the second-to-worst song soundtracks what is arguably the worst movie of the franchise. Sometimes song and film are inextricably entwined, and this is one of those moments. Kiss of death for Brosnan’s reign as Bond, or was it the absurd CGI? –Justin Gerber
21. Sheryl Crow – “Tomorrow Never Dies” (1997)
Best Lyrics: “I see it in your eyes/ Tomorrow never dies”
If you’re recruiting James Bond theme singers, you might think to yourself, “Hey, what if we do something completely different and get someone with a shrill, scratchy voice to do vocals? It seemed like a good idea with Lulu that one time!” At least, that’s the imagined and only possible logic for how Sheryl Crow got the honors of singing for 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies, aka Bond fights Fox News and Media Machine. Crow’s “Tomorrow Never Dies” is a whiny song. And it’s a Golden Globe-nominated song as well, so, gross.
Somehow Crow’s work was chosen over another song that was going to be used for the film by K.D. Lang. Lang’s “Surrender”, which was played over the end credits, was originally called “Tomorrow Never Dies”, and it sounds way more like a Bond theme, horns and brass and large vocals and everything. –Blake Goble
20. A-ha – “The Living Daylights” (1987)
Best Lyrics: “Set your hopes up way too high/ The living’s in the way we die”
A-ha’s “Take on Me” is one of the greatest songs of all time; I don’t care who you are. “The Living Daylights” is not. Having to follow up Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill” wasn’t going to be easy, and A-ha were clearly not up for the challenge. Sure, they borrowed the horns from the song that emerged from Roger Moore’s last appearance, but Timothy Dalton deserved more for his first outing. If only they’d gone with Pet Shop Boys or Chrissie Hynde (who does contribute two other songs to the movie). The greatest offense of “The Living Daylights” is that it’s utterly forgettable. –Justin Gerber
19. Gladys Knight – “License to Kill” (1989)
Best Lyrics: “Got a licence to kill (to kill)/ And you know I’m going straight for your heart”
I’ve seen License to Kill roughly 100 times thanks to frequent airings on TBS before the network was allegedly “Very Funny.” Despite this, I couldn’t recall a single lyric from this, the first Bond song to rip off “Goldfinger”. It took repeated listens to assign it an appropriate position on this here list. Oh, well. Gladys Knight sans her Pips gives a fine vocal performance, but not even she can make listening to this track from Dalton’s last Bond worthwhile. Side note: Patti LaBelle’s “If You Asked Me To”, which plays during the closing credits, was a huge hit for Celine Dion a few years later. This song is also bad. –Justin Gerber
18. Jack White & Alicia Keys – “Another Way to Die” from Quantum of Solace (2008)
Best Lyrics: “Or someone that you think that you can trust/ It’s just another way to die”
Who wasn’t excited for this? Jack White, a god in some circles here at CoS, teaming up with the booming vocals of Alicia Keys for a James Bond theme? But, alas, the dream never lived up to the reality. As the first duet in Bond song history, “Another Way to Die” doesn’t know if it’s a rock song or an R&B song. The clean horns and garage rock sound strange together. White’s vocals are more affected than Keys’. These fusions don’t work. I can appreciate White trying to shake it up, but we’re left stirred and not shaken. That was meant to come off as more negative than it does. –Justin Gerber
17. Rita Coolidge – “All Time High” from Octopussy (1983)
Best Lyrics: “So hold on tight, let the flight begin/ We’re an all time high”
It’s hard to take this song seriously when the opening sounds of sexy saxophone and porn movie-grade bass thumps make listeners snicker. Or maybe this was hot stuff in 1983; you tell me.
Rita Coolidge’s “All Time High” is not a very good song, what with its bland singing and shy music. It’s like a watering down of that signature Bond swank audiences had come to enjoy in Bond themes. All this song does is serve to remind us how dire Octopussy was. Seriously, such a dirty title, Broccoli…
In the song’s defense, it was put to good use for a joke in Seth MacFarlane’s Ted, where Mark Wahlberg sings Coolidge’s song at a concert. The joke being that he sings a bad song in front of a lot of people and embarrasses himself a lot. So there’s that. –Blake Goble
16. Garbage – “The World Is Not Enough” (1999)
Best Lyrics: “The world is not enough/ But it is such a perfect place to start/ My love”
Bond producers were actually sued for copyright infringement by two writers who claimed it strongly resembled a song they submitted to another Pierce Brosnan project: The Thomas Crown Affair (a court rejected the claim). As for the song itself, it has a dark guitar line that recalls Bond fare from the early ‘60s, blending well with the Garbage we’d all come to know and love. While it’s one of the better songs from the Brosnan era, the bar was set awfully low for Shirley Manson and the gang. “The World Is Not Enough” was not enough of a good track to move it up the ranks of this here list. (I’ll be here all night, folks!) –Justin Gerber
15. Sam Smith – “Writing’s on the Wall” from Spectre (2015)
Best Lyrics: “For you I have to risk it all/ Cause the writing’s on the wall”
Lyrically speaking, “Writing’s on the Wall”, the crooning tune for Spectre, is pretty rote, leaden even. Storms and blood and facing the inevitable challenges that lie ahead: this is all very basic stuff, thematically. But two things, two sensational qualities shoot down Sam Smith and Jimmy Napes’ lyrical heavy-handedness (and expedient writing – apparently this was drafted in 20 minutes). One, Smith has the voice of an angel, deeply soulful, rich in loss and lament, totally fitting for the grief-stricken Daniel Craig Bond era. Two, this song has some of the most insanely gorgeous and rich string arrangements imaginable. It’s a slow burn of a song, one that burrows patiently, rather than loudly declaring its arrival, and it has the makings to be recognized and remembered as a masterpiece Bond theme. If the writing’s already on the wall, Smith’s words and voice may actually stick. –-Blake Goble
14. Shirley Bassey – “Moonraker” (1979)
Best Lyrics: “Just like the Moonraker knows/ His dreams will come true someday”
Moonraker was a desperately over-expensive bid at science fiction after Star Wars took the world by storm in 1977. It has a great opening skydive action scene, but the laser beams, forced re-appearance of henchman Jaws, and one of the series’ most cringe-worthy euphemisms (“It looks like he’s attempting re-entry!”) grounded Moonraker. Apparently, the theme song went through a great deal of trouble before making it to the screen. Paul Williams wrote lyrics initially, which were rejected, so Hal David wound up writing the song. Frank Sinatra was considered for singing, but then Johnny Mathis was approached. Mathis was unhappy and bailed. Kate Bush then walked as well, leaving John Barry in a scramble just weeks before release. The result was a song that Shirley Bassey’s regarded as “not her own.” –Blake Goble
13. Tina Turner – “GoldenEye” (1995)
Best Lyrics: “Goldeneye I found his weakness/ Goldeneye he’ll do what I please/ Goldeneye no time for sweetness/ But a bitter kiss will bring him to his knees”
With a team consisting of The Private Dancer on vocals, Bono and The Edge writing lyrics, and Nellee Hooper producing, how could this lose?! Easily. This sounded very much like a ’90s remix of past Bond tunes (remember that U2 Mission: Impossible remix from 1996 you’d always hear at pep rallies? That.). It was like listening to Shirley Bassey with a drum machine providing claps and synthetic strings. Turner’s vocals were greatly bombastic, but the beat was second-rate, like a karaoke version of past songs. Ugh, those cheap-sounding, repetitive horn bursts just sounded lousy. Watching the opening credits with the falling sickles (timely post-Cold War stuff right there!) and the golden imagery hoping to remind audiences of past Gold glories, well, it felt more like an ad for Christian Dior perfume. –Blake Goble
12. Chris Cornell – “You Know My Name” from Casino Royale (2006)
Best Lyrics: “The coldest blood runs through my veins/ You now my name”
After a four-year hiatus for re-tooling, Eon productions came back in a big way with Casino Royale, a great entry that unfortunately popularized the term “reboot.” As part of the new era of Craig Bonds, the producers were looking for a strong male vocalist — something gritty, tough, and different from past Bonds. Of course, Chris Cornell was confused by the offer to make a song. He thought it was a job for British guys only. Cornell saw a rough cut, was impressed by emotional and character-driven content, and he worked with the film’s composer, David Arnold, on a ballad about the character’s uncertainty, but he still wanted to capitalize on the legacy. So, that’s why you got the grungy guitars and orchestra playing together. –Blake Goble
11. Sheena Easton – “For Your Eyes Only” (1981)
Best Lyrics: “For your eyes only/ The nights are never cold/ You really knew me/ That’s all I need to know”
We almost had a Blondie/Bond song. Debbie Harry and company angled for the title track, releasing a completely different version of “For Your Eyes Only”, only to be rejected in favor of Rocky’s composer, Bill Conti. Conti’s score is as big as the Rocky sequels, bringing Bond kicking and screaming into the ‘80s. However, the title track is actually discreet and seductive. Sheena Easton became the first musician to appear in the opening credits, and while “she’s got the look” of a Bond girl, it’s her vocals that propel this track to the upper half of the Bond song canon. The kick in after not-Blofeld’s “Mr. Bonnnnnnnddddd” is perfect. –Justin Gerber
10. Matt Monro – “From Russia with Love” (1963)
Best Lyrics: “I’ve travelled the world to learn/ I must return from Russia with love”
This was the first lyrics-based song written for the James Bond films, and soft singer Matt Monro got the honors. Although it didn’t play in the opening credits (credits projected over a dancer’s body, with John Barry’s overblown, swinging ‘60s score of organs and strings, rawr), Monro’s song showed up in the end credits and playing over the radio for From Russia With Love. Here, we heard Monro simply croon about Russia, love, and other relevant subject matter for Bond’s big bout with the likes of Rosa Klebb, ‘Red’ Grant, and other SPECTRE criminals. The song feels handsomely old-fashioned and graceful, and it has held up. –Blake Goble
9. Tom Jones – “Thunderball” (1965)
Best Lyrics: “He looks at this world/ And wants it all/ So he strikes/ Like Thunderball”
Wild stories behind this one. Shirley Bassey sang what was originally going to be the song that played during the opening credits (“Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”), but producers said, “No! Where’s the title? People will be confused, despite already buying tickets for and entering a theater with a sign saying Thunderball.” (Quote is not 100% accurate.) Bring in Tom Jones for a rushed-together title track. Jones claims he held that final note so long that he fainted. It’s easy to believe. He doesn’t just sustain “…ball,” he belts it. You can try it at home, but definitely don’t try it behind the wheel of a car. “Thunderball” is a safe but solid entry in the Bond canon, despite the hectic circumstances. –Justin Gerber
8. Adele – “Skyfall” (2012)
Best Lyrics: “Let the sky fall/ When it crumbles/ We stand tall/ Face it together”
From the opening burst of horns and the suddenly alluring tap of piano keys, everyone knew this was going to feel like a classic, old-fashioned Bond number. The Oscar-winning theme song for Sam Mendes’ pseudo-reboot and origin story for Bond was a classy thing and just the right style for Bond’s 50th anniversary romp. English singer Adele and writer Paul Epworth were asked for a “dramatic ballad” by producers, and they delivered something with the goal of recalling past numbers in the Bond song canon. “Skyfall” deliberately references the Monty Norman theme after the first chorus, and it’s a jazzy, almost funereal song since it would immediately follow the accidental shooting of Bond in the first reel. –Blake Goble
7. Nancy Sinatra – “You Only Live Twice” (1967)
Best Lyrics: “This dream is for you, so pay the price/ Make one dream come true, you only live twice”
Here’s when the franchise was starting to lampoon itself a little, what with the evil volcano lair, the Asian makeup on Sean Connery (oof), and the first appearance of Ernst Stavro Blofeld in all his camp glory (stroking cats and brandishing eerie scars). But with You Only Live Twice came Nancy Sinatra’s theme song of the same name, and it’s a great one. Sinatra’s sultry voice blended nicely with the French horns, violins, and Oriental vibe. It’s mysterious, a little corny, and a memorable number for this Bond outing.
Although, Roger Sterling’s ass made a pretty strong case for what people think of when they hear this song. –Blake Goble
6. Duran Duran – “A View to a Kill” (1985)
Best Lyrics: “The first crystal tears, fall as snowflakes on your body/ First time in years, to drench your skin with lovers’ rosy stain”
The lovable lads of Birmingham, UK, were at the height of their powers during the time of this recording (see Rio), and their Bond song for Moore’s swan song fits nicely in with their early ‘80s singles. Nicely meshing new-school new wave with old-school John Barry horns makes the title song the best part of A View to a Kill in a landslide. The accompanying music video that inserts Duran Duran into scenes with Grandpa Moore’s stunt double as he races up the Eiffel Tower was a staple on MTV, thrusting Bond’s thrust onto a new generation of film-goers and music fans alike. Still the best Bond song to dance to during ‘80s night at your local club (sorry, Rita Coolidge). –Justin Gerber
5. Shirley Bassey – “Diamonds Are Forever” (1971)
Best Lyrics: “Diamonds are forever/ Hold one up and then caress it/ Touch it, stroke it and undress it”
Our youth will recognize that the melody and just about the entire song were sampled by Kanye West for Late Registration’s “Diamonds from Sierra Leone”, but this is the superior version (sorry, Yeezus). Its eerie opening works in stark contrast to the bombastic theme songs that preceded it, and if you couple that with Shirley Bassey’s subtle, teasing vocals, you have the makings of a surefire winner for Sean Connery to moon buggy out on (it was his last official Bond film). Seriously, though, one can’t say enough about Bassey. People often debate who the definitive Bond Girl is, but it doesn’t matter when you consider the fact that Bassey is the “Bond Woman.” And as for that carry on “I don’t need love”? Stunning. –Justin Gerber
4. Louis Armstrong – “We Have All the Time in the World” from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
Best Lyrics: “We have all the time in the world/ Just for love nothing more nothing less only love”
While not a traditional Bond theme (in the sense that it doesn’t play over the standard, groovy naked-lady silhouette credits), Louis Armstrong’s “We Have All the Time in the World” is a surprisingly elegiac tune. John Barry and Hal David wrote this for Armstrong, and it is the saddest of Bond songs. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service presented one-time Bond George Lazenby getting married to Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg). The heartbreak when she gets offed and the fatalistic reminder of why Bond’s line of work probably favors hookups to long-term relationships becomes sadly clear with Armstrong’s music. In one of the franchise’s most surprising moments, Armstrong’s song is played for a lovely montage, with Armstrong crooning over Bond and di Vicenzo falling in love. Goodness, the heartbreak when you really understand how fleeting their love truly is. –Blake Goble
3. Carly Simon – “Nobody Does It Better” from The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
Best Lyrics: “But like Heaven above me/ The spy who loved me/ Is keeping all my secrets safe tonight”
“This is the sexiest song that was ever written.” Hey, I didn’t say it! That statement came from Radiohead’s Thom Yorke back in the mid-’90s, just before the band launched into a cover of the title track from one of Roger Moore’s best (good) Bond outings. Maybe it isn’t the “sexiest song,” but it definitely doesn’t dilute the mood. With vocals by Carly Simon, lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager, and music by famed composer Marvin Hamlisch, “The Spy Who Loved Me” is a tribute to James Bond himself. Simon takes on the persona of the film’s love interest, Anya, as she can’t help but admit that no one does it quite as good as he does (washes dishes?). Its opening piano melody is instantly recognizable, and the big sweeping finale of “Baby, you’re the best” is gloriously huge, making this one of the most popular Bond songs. However, the less said about the altered, closing-credits version the better. –Justin Gerber
2. Paul McCartney & Wings – “Live and Let Die” (1973)
Best Lyrics: “What does it matter to ya’/ When you got a job to do/ You gotta do it well/
You gotta give the other fellow hell”
While the likes of Tom Jones and Nancy Sinatra were well-known around the time they recorded their respective Bond tracks, Paul McCartney was easily the biggest catch for producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli. He re-teamed with Beatles producer George Martin to provide the song for Live and Let Die, Roger Moore’s first Bond film. Whereas many Bond tracks start and finish with the same groove, McCartney’s epic goes through more changes than the back half of Abbey Road.
It packs in everything — a piano ballad, arena rock, and even a little reggae — before its final explosion, all in a little over three minutes. “Live and Let Die” is a McCartney concert staple: chock-full of lighting effects and even fireworks. It deserves the fanfare, even after 40 years. –Justin Gerber
1. Shirley Bassey – “Goldfinger” (1964)
Best Lyrics: “Goldfinger, he’s the man/ The man with the Midas touch/ A spider’s touch”
A happy 50th anniversary to Goldfinger! This film has ascended into the pop cultural heavens and will likely be adored as an action standard for all time. Never mind the misogyny, the chauvinism, or the spy toy fetishism. This is about big boys with toys, Aston Martins, laser circumcisions, women with first names like “Dink” and “Pussy,” and deftly showcasing one villain’s ability to turn everything he touches into gold. Oooh, that Midas touch! Sing it Shirley Bassey!
Everything about Goldfinger is a jewel, and Bassey’s song is the crown of James Bond theme songs. Bond themes are essential trademarks, calling cards for each venture, and Bassey’s defined the hallmarks of a great Bond theme. This was the first true Bond theme, playing over sexy opening credits, in what would become one of the series’ defining trademarks. With swanky brass and volcanic vocals, Bassey shouts for everyone to hear in the defining ditty for the franchise. He loves only gold, only gold. And this song is gooooold! –Blake Goble