Before 'Spectre,' Revisiting James Bond's Theme Music to Date

From 'Dr. No' to 'Skyfall,' the themes that have made Bond the hero he is today

Thursday’s big announcement for the 24th James Bond movie — Spectre, to be directed by Skyfall’s Sam Mendes, and once again featuring Daniel Craig as the British super spy — sadly lacked details of the most important element of any Bond movie. No, not the Bond girl. The Bond theme.

From Dr. No on, each Bond movie has had a distinctive theme that attempts to set the stage for what’s to come. At their best, the songs are as dramatic and exciting as the movies themselves, but… well, let’s just say that not every song is at its best and leave it at that. With that in mind, as we start to wonder just who is going to take on the heavy mantle of tackling the Bond theme for Spectre, let’s revisit Bond themes of the past, from worst to best.

For Your Eyes Only — Sheena Easton

For Your Eyes Only (1981)

A mid-tempo song, utterly suffocated in period-appropriate synths and lacking the sheer force of vocal nature delivered by someone like Shirley Bassey or Adele? It’s sadly true: “For Your Eyes Only” is definitely one of the worst Bond themes, but given the movie it was attached to, that doesn’t seem entirely unfair.

Die Another Day — Madonna

Die Another Day (2002)

Okay, so this song may not be that bad when viewed as a generic late-era Madonna attempt to fill a dancefloor, but as a Bond theme — or, really, anything other than a generic late-era Madonna attempt to fill a dancefloor — it falls far short of the mark. The utterly random “Sigmund Freud! Analyze this!” refrain is hilarious, however. Remember when Madge was far more subtle when trying to bait critics?

The Living Daylights — A-ha

The Living Daylights (1987)

The complaint that “It’s no ‘Take On Me’ feels somewhat like a low-blow for this Swedish beat combo of the 1980s, but it’s hard to find anything else to say about “The Living Daylights,” to be honest; it’s anemic pop music at its least interesting or memorable.

You Know My Name — Chris Cornell

Casino Royale (2006)

You can imagine the scene in Bond headquarters when the time came to choose a song to accompany Daniel Craig’s first outing as 007. “Okay, this is a big deal, we’re relaunching the franchise and lots of people are going to be paying attention. What do we have for the theme?” “Well, the lead singer of Soundgarden has a pretty forgetful thing that’s not that bad, but you might forget you’ve heard it even while you’re still listening…” “Perfect! That way it won’t distract from the rest of the movie!”

From Russia With Love — Matt Monro

From Russia With Love (1963)

Sadly, the mellow tones of Mr. Monro didn’t make an appearance in the opening titles for the third Bond outing; he was relegated to the closing credits with an instrumental version of the theme at the start. Clearly, producers were nervous that Matt’s smooth voice would lull viewers into a peaceful slumber right when they should’ve been getting excited about what was to about to unfold.

All Time High — Rita Coolidge

Octopussy (1983)

There was one smart decision made by those responsible for the theme to “Octopussy” — that is, not naming the song after the movie itself, no matter how funny it would have been — but even that isn’t enough to turn “All Time High” into anything other than an ABBA soundalike that went horribly wrong somewhere along the road.

Licence to Kill — Gladys Knight

Licence to Kill (1989)

”Licence to Kill” has a couple of things going for it — the appearance of Ms. Gladys Knight and it being the first of the themes to recognize “Bond Theme” as its own sub-genre of music (Just listen to those horns!) — but, sadly, this is ultimately still very much of its time and hasn’t dated too well despite the best efforts of all involved.

Another Way to Die — Jack White and Alicia Keys

Quantum of Solace (2008)

For a second, “Another Way to Die” almost seems as if it’s going to be great: the opening is a lot of fun, mixing The White Stripes and traditional Bond in a way that sounds pretty exciting, but as White and Keys start singing, it becomes clearer that there’s not really much of a song here — and especially not much of a chorus, which is what a Bond theme really needs in order to work.

Tomorrow Never Dies — Sheryl Crow

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

”Tomorrow Never Dies” has one simple, sad failure: Sheryl Crow just can’t quite manage to pull off the belting-it-out style of singing that the chorus really needs. This song is so, so close to being great, but it need more volume! More projection! More melodrama!

Moonraker — Shirley Bassey

Moonraker (1979)

Dame Shirley Bassey — the queen of all things Bond theme, having performed three during her career — tries her best with the material here, but not even the girl from Tiger Bay can make much out of this this mid-tempo snoozer. Shirley, you deserved much better — and in the other songs on this list, you’ll get it.

The World Is Not Enough — Garbage

The World Is Not Enough (1999)

Listening to this again for the first time in many, many years, it’s impressive how cynical “The World Is Not Enough” sounds; you can almost imagine Shirley Manson, Butch Vig and the rest of the band constructing the song out of Bond theme tropes carefully, thinking “Just add some horns here, as Shirley gets to the big held note…” Sadly, it doesn’t quite come together, but it does come so close…!

Thunderball — Tom Jones

Thunderball (1965)

While this song does gain extra points for basically recycling the well-known Bond theme, and even though Tom Jones does give it his all, the sad truth remains that “Thunderball” is hardly the greatest of songs. A wasted opportunity, given all involved.

A View To A Kill — Duran Duran

A View To A Kill (1985)

Only a couple of years too late for the zeitgeist — really, doesn’t this just sound like something that would have been absolutely perfect in the early 1980s? — there is nonetheless something oddly thrilling about the way Duran Duran manage to update the classic Bond dynamic with “A View To A Kill.” Arguably one of the best Duran songs, although even suggesting that will likely bring a horde of eager “Medazzaland” fans out of the woodwork.

Goldeneye — Tina Turner

Goldeneye (1995)

If nothing else, “Goldeneye” really made it clear how much of a tragedy it is that Ms. Turner didn’t have an entire career made up of wonderfully over-the-top torch songs like this. Sure, she’s definitely channeling Shirley Bassey at times on this track, but when she does it this well, who can complain?

Diamonds Are Forever — Shirley Bassey

Diamonds Are Forever (1971)

And talking of Dame Shirley, here she is with a genuine classic. Really, there’s almost nothing wrong with this song whatsoever.

The Man With The Golden Gun — Lulu

The Man With The Golden Gun (1974)

Severely underrated,and not just because of the amazing amount of sexual innuendo contained in those lyrics (“He’s got a powerful weapon,” indeed), Lulu comes up trumps with this enjoyably brash song that, let’s be honest, is far better than the movie it comes from deserved.

Live and Let Die — Paul McCarney & Wings

Live and Let Die (1973)

Everyone knows this one, and everyone has puzzled over what sounds like some pretty confused syntax (Spoilers: It’s “But in this ever-changing world in which we’re living,” not “in which we live in”), but Paul McCartney hit a post-Beatles highpoint with this theme. For those who find themselves wishing there was a more restrained version with a female singer, I’d like to point your attention to this cover by Duffy

Nobody Does It Better — Carly Simon

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

The combination of Simon and Bond might have seemed like an odd one when it was announced, but the dissonance between their respective styles is what makes “Nobody Does It Better” so good; there’s an unexpected melancholy and longing to the song that should feel out of place in a Bond movie, especially during the Roger Moore era, but despite the odds, it fits. Carly, you’re the best. Well, almost.

Skyfall — Adele

Skyfall (2012)

As if a victory lap after the success of her 21 album, Adele made Bond themes look easy with this song that just feels right. It’s got the nonsensical lyrics, the none-more-dramatic arrangement and a vocal performance that’s appropriately brassy. “Skyfall” really has it all; if producers had any sense, they’d try and lure Adele back for Spectre.

You Only Live Twice — Nancy Sinatra

You Only Live Twice (1967)

I am willing to entertain any argument that suggests that the arrangement of this song is as perfect as any Bond theme — any movie theme at all, in fact — can get. Those strings! That descending guitar! It’s very difficult to imagine anything as wonderful, even in service of a theme that just doesn’t quite get there in terms of melody or lyrics. Nancy Sinatra is almost surplus to requirements, when it comes down to it.

We Have All The Time In The World — Louis Armstrong

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

George Lazenby’s sole Bond movie might not get the love it deserves, but it does have one of the finest theme songs from all of the movies — although this is, officially, the “love theme” from the movie; another piece of music, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” is the official theme of the movie. It’s also pretty great, but put next to this one, there’s no real comparison.

James Bond Theme — John Barry & His Orchestra

Dr. No (1962)

Strange but true: The theme to the first Bond movie was… well, the Bond theme. No additional song, simply Monty Norman’s music as performed by John Barry and his Orchestra. When you compare it to other Barry work from roughly the same period, it doesn’t even sound that much different — and yet, listening to it now, it’s as iconic a piece of music as anything else in movie history.

Goldfinger — Shirley Bassey

Goldfinger (1964)

Really, is there any movie theme that so perfectly encapsulates the appeal of the movie it belongs to as well as “Goldfinger”? I put it to you, dear reader, that the answer is no. And, simply because I know that you’re already agreeing with me, I accompany the above with this remix by the Propellerheads that does magical things with the “He loves gold!” end line (Skip to 3:54 to see what I mean. Looping, you can be so fun).

Spectre, the gauntlet has been thrown. We expect as good as this, or better.

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