The James Bond film franchise has not only left an indelible mark on pop culture, it’s swayed a wide range of silly things – from cocktails (shaken martinis are a terrible idea, kids) to gambling debts. Here, though, we focus on 13 of the series incredible songs.
Composed by John Barry, sung by Shirley Bassey, this is the number that started it all. The first to be a pop song, its combination of heavy brass orchestration, suggestive lyrics, and sensual vocals set the tone for all subsequent efforts. It is for ‘Goldfinger’ that Barry was first given full creative control over the score, and he succeeds in adapting (and altering) the theme for every scene with no uncertain talent. Goldfinger also happens to be one of the best Bond movies, which certainly makes the music that much more enjoyable.
If the theme to Thunderball (1965) was perhaps a little overdone (Tom Jones reportedly fainted while recording it), ‘You Only Live Twice’ is replete with mystery. The melody (lifted from Alexander Tcherepnin’s First Piano Concerto), the lush orchestration, the romantic harmonies, all combine to make what is arguably the best Bond song (one of three vying for that title, as you’ll see). While the rest of the soundtrack remains somewhat underwhelming, the strength of this theme alone makes it one of the most enduring.
The movie itself may be rather remarkable – both for being the only time George Lazenby played James Bond, and for its dark tone (Bond falls in love with and marries Diana Rigg, only to see her killed at the end) – but it is indeed the music which sets it apart, confirming its now cult status. Quite simply considered the finest overall soundtrack to ever grace a Bond film, it is a bit of an odd one itself: Its pop song, the magnificent ‘We Have all the Time in the World’ sung by Louis Armstrong (!), is heard solely during romantic scenes, while the theme proper is the dark, formidable unsung number above. Add to these a sprinkle of magnificent standalone pieces (like this one, and this one), and you get yourself one of the most influential film scores of all time.
‘Diamonds Are Forever’ presented something of a back-to-basics for the Bond franchise: Sean Connery returned as 007, and Shirley Bassey found herself singing suggestive lyrics over a dramatic Barry composition. The previous effort’s darkness was conserved, however, and the resulting theme is strong, despite being supported by a below-average movie and a largely forgettable score.
Exit Sean Connery, enter Roger Moore; a momentous change accompanied by none other than Paul and Linda McCartney’s fantastic effort. And sure, the two were offered so much money that the producers couldn’t afford a composer for the rest of the score, but never mind that! this song is arguably the franchise’s greatest, and paved the way for what is now commonplace: pop stars writing Bond themes. For better or for worse, that is.
Certainly one of Roger Moore’s finest, this movie also happens to hold the third contender for greatest Bond theme song. With John Barry unavailable (for tax reasons, apparently), producers Saltzman and Broccoli hired Marvin Hamlisch to do the soundtrack instead. A judicious choice, no doubt, for though his was by-and-large a classic score, it managed to impress in two important parts: the pop anthem above, and Bond 77 – the first disco treatment heard in the franchise, and a major influence over what came next.
Oh, ‘Moonraker’… until recently derided as a poor 007 version of ‘Star Wars,’ the film has since come to be re-appraised as one of Bond’s more pleasurable efforts. In direct opposition with its more fantastical departures, the soundtrack saw the John Barry/Shirley Bassey combination returned for a third and final time, and so to haunting effect: Building on the previous collaboration’s dainty melancholy, and with the added gravitas of a particularly dramatic orchestration, it successfully brought together all the best elements of space opera.
The new decade, embraced: not only is this famous song about as 1980s as humanly possible, but the film’s entire score somehow followed it towards this brave new glitzy world. Substitute composer (John Barry being out for tax purposes, again) Bill Conti is, after all, also known as the man who penned the ‘Rocky’ soundtrack, so it can’t be that surprising to find the original Bond theme turned into poppy disco. Needless to say, the decision proved (and still proves) to be divisive, but it’s undeniable that this new direction was – on its own, at least – a success.
Armed with the greatest name in the history of cinema, ‘Octopussy’ didn’t quite live up to expectations (then again, how could it?). It did, however, see John Barry return as something of a changed man: Gone is the drama, overbearing melancholy, and other vestiges of older Bonds, and in comes saxophones, glitzy pop and the ’80s. A turning point, too, as you’ll soon see, and the franchise has never quite been the same since.
With Duran Duran writing the theme to A View to a Kill (1985) and yielding all the horrors you’d expect, choosing Norwegian pop band A-ha to pen the next one was never going to inspire confidence. Thankfully, their solid song, dramatized by John Barry’s orchestration, proved to be a rather adequate accompaniment to Timothy Dalton’s first outing. The end of the Cold War nonetheless coinciding with the franchise’s general loss of steam, the movie itself is still somewhat underrated – despite its gritty realism and fairly innovative score… Barry’s last.
007’s triumphant comeback, in the guise of one suave Pierce Brosnan, also heralded the return of a crucial component of Bond music: allure. And what can we say? Tina Turner’s effort – on a song written by U2 – certainly brought sexy back, and managed to redeem composer Éric Serra’s pathetic excuse for a score… somewhat.
Cold, beautiful, elegant. This theme song was tailor-made for the franchise’s most dangerous Bond girl – Sophie Marceau’s Elektra King – and should be commended for allowing us to forget Sheryl Crow’s perplexing cooing around ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ (1997). Supported as it was by David Arnold’s varied and surprising score, it emphasized what we should by now all have realized: that ‘The World Is Not Enough’ was an excellent movie. Except perhaps for one crucial detail… nuclear scientist Denise Richards.
Garbage may have sung their last theme in 1999, but you are forced to admit that the band’s moniker influenced subsequent soundtracks to a rather distressing extent. Until Adele and Paul Epworth’s simple (yet effective) return to the roots, the previous songs effected such an emotional dissonance with what the name James Bond entails, that the franchise could’ve easily been mistaken for just another loose grouping of action movies. Drama, romance, and a certain detachment, those are the actual qualities of a successful Bond film… and a successful Bond score.