Sunday, November 18, 2012

Spy Song: The Ten Best Bond Themes

Now that we've finished with our James Bond film retrospective, I thought I'd tackle some of the other aspects of this legendary series. 

One of the aspects that defines a Bond film is the title theme (or Bond Song).  For the first two films (Dr. No and From Russia With Love), they were just instrumental themes (though technically, the latter does have lyrics which can be heard at the end of the film).  It wasn't until the third film (Goldfinger) that the theme song had words, and when they decided to put words, they opted for one of the 100 Best Film Songs (according to the American Film Institute).  It also helped that Dame Shirley Bassey sang Goldfinger, and not only is her voice thoroughly fantastic but she has an amazing delivery that burst over what is now an iconic Bond Song in one of the best Bond films.

In the course of the twenty-three (or twenty-four with Never Say Never Again) Bond films, Dame Shirley is the only artist to have sung more than one Bond song (holding the record with three).  Most have either had the same title as the film (or at least had the title IN the song, as is the case with Nobody Does It Better, which has the line, 'The Spy Who Loved Me') with three exceptions: All Time High from Octopussy, You Know My Name from Casino Royale, and Another Way to Die from Quantum of Solace.  What it is about Daniel Craig's Bond that has him reject having the title in the title song I don't know.  Also, while On Her Majesty's Secret Service didn't have a theme song per se, there is an Honorable Mention with Louis Armstrong's We Have All the Time in the World, a haunting love song that brims with irony (the lovers DON'T have all the time in the world, and this was the last song Armstrong recorded before his own death two years later).

Now, with the title theme to Skyfall out there, I thought it was time to rank all the Bond Songs as I think they should be.  Therefore, without further ado, let us begin.  First, in descending order from Ten to One, the BEST BOND SONGS.  In another post, I shall have the Ten WORST BOND SONGS, but for now, let's concentrate on the positive. 

And now, at long last, my Official Bond Song Rankings of the TEN BEST BOND SONGS:

10.) Moonraker (Moonraker)
       Sung by: Dame Shirley Bassey

Coming in at Number 10 is Moonraker.  The film itself is held in pretty low regard, but I confess freely to loving it.  If one wants to think of it as a guilty pleasure, then so be it; I won't argue the artistic merits of Bond in Space! or in some other odd choices (turning the henchman Jaws into a good guy, having one of the Villains in the franchise).  I also think that the song itself isn't held highly.  I imagine that of the three Bassey songs, Moonraker is considered the worst. 

However, I put it in my Top Ten because Bassey can sell the idea that there is this mythical being called a Moonraker that will make your love dreams come true.  Moonraker came at a time when ballads were de jour in Bond films.  The last rock/uptempo song in a Bond film was five years and two years ago (and more on that later), and it would be a few more Bond films before we started getting away from lush ballads onto more contemporary sounds.  For my part, I found Moonraker to be romantic, and even beautiful, and make no apologies for liking it (and none for liking the film either).  

09.) You Know My Name (Casino Royale)
       Sung by: Chris Cornell

Very few men have sung a Bond song, and even fewer have sung one WELL.  Casino Royale was basically a reboot of the Bond franchise, a way of starting fresh from the previous films, some of which were excessive in their excess and exaggerated plots, names, and characters.  The rock number You Know My Name signaled that this Bond was going to be a darker, grittier Bond.  It also was a sign that the character is so well known that indeed we would "know his name". 

I fault the Daniel Craig-Era Bond films for a lot of things, but some things they got right.  One of them was in the choice of song for the first Craig Bond film.  It would have been a mistake to have started this dark beginning of Bond with a lush, romantic song.  It needed something with an edge, something that would signal that we were in for something far more serious than what people might have thought a Bond film was.  You Know My Name set the mood perfectly.

08). Diamonds Are Forever (Diamonds Are Forever)
       Sung by: Dame Shirley Bassey

Diamonds Are Forever is in many ways a terrible, albeit enjoyable film (if one doesn't think much on it).  Country star Jimmy Dean was flailing and wailing and shouting through his bit as this Howard Hughes-type recluse, and Blofeld, the SPECTRE mastermind, was reduced to escaping Bond by dressing in drag.  You also had two pairs of rather incompetent assassins: two women who called themselves Bambi and Thumper (wonder why Disney didn't object) and Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint.  The latter were particularly atrocious in the fact that it was understood that these two guys were lovers. 

However much DAF is criticized (including by me), I've never heard anyone say anything bad about the title song.  Bassey makes Diamonds Are Forever a remarkably, almost shockingly erotic number (the lyrics and her delivery are highly tinged with sexual innuendo), but the song is one of the few positives in one of Bond's lesser efforts.  Diamonds Are Forever got a new lease on life when Kanye West sampled it for his song Diamonds From Sierra Leone.  The juxtaposition of West's call against 'blood diamonds' with Bassey proclaiming "Diamonds are forever...forever...forever..." is an excellent mix.

07.) The Living Daylights (The Living Daylights)
       Sung by: a-Ha

I cannot understand why both The Living Daylights and a-Ha are particularly trashed.  When I saw the film, I was expecting the worst, but what I found was one of the better Bond films.  The same goes for the title theme, which is a good pop/rock song that fit within a desire to have a new, more grounded type of Bond film. 

The Living Daylights has a great melody that was a definite pushback from the ballads so associated with Bond Songs.  It also keeps a good balance between being too hard and being too soft in terms of said melody. The film was more grounded in reality, and the song reflected that by being slightly more hard-edged.  Also, I have to give it points because it is one of the few Bond Songs that I kept playing over and over after hearing it for the first time.  It's a curious thing that while Craig and Casino Royale get praised for being a more serious Bond and Bond film, The Living Daylights had Timothy Dalton being a more serious Bond in a more serious Bond film (though unlike Casino Royale, The Living Daylights had some humor to it). 

06.) GoldenEye (GoldenEye)  
       Sung by: Tina Turner

You want reboot?  Well, GoldenEye was pretty much one.  We'd had the (financially) disappointing Licence to Kill (which I thought was all right but not particularly a "Bond" film) and the end of the Cold War (FYI: the imperialist capitalist pigs won over the proletariat...screw you, Lenin!).  Now with the Ruskies gone, who was Bond going to fight?  Yet I digress.

With a new Bond, we have a new sound: one that expertly mixes a lush style with a touch more edge (no pun intended).  Enter Tina Turner, who can be elegant and fierce in equal measure.  GoldenEye was written by U2 Bono & The Edge (or as I like to call them, Paul and Dave).  Out of all Bond song singers, Turner is the only one who could go toe-to-toe with Bassey and who still sounds incredible considering both are in their 70s.  GoldenEye is romantic, but there is a hint of danger, in particular in how it builds and builds until Turner hits an amazing high note when saying "Eye".  Though the lyrics are still a bit odd to me (You'll never know/how I watched you from the shadows as a child appears more related to Hewson and Evans' film-going experience than a character's perspective in GoldenEye) Turner still delivers them with passion.  And besides...IT'S TINA TURNER!

05.) A View to A Kill (A View to A Kill)
       Sung by: Duran Duran 

A View to A Kill is a movie I enjoy watching, but it's also a lousy movie in general.  I can't believe that I once thought it was actually good.  I still get a kick out of it, but as a film critic I can't say that it has many good things in it.  There are a few, however, and one of them is the title song. 

With two exceptions (and one of them up for debate) the Roger Moore-Era Bond film songs were all ballads.  There were some amazing and beautiful numbers in them, and on the whole his time had some good songs to accompany the stories.  However, by and large the theme songs were a bit on the romantic side.  Not A View to A Kill.  This one was unapologetic rock, and Duran Duran pushed out the love songs into a song of tension, suggesting a wild adventure.  The fact that A View to A Kill did not match A View to A Kill, and that the former was a wild misfire, doesn't take away from the fact that A View to A Kill is a great Bond Song that is also a great Duran Duran song.  The public agreed: A View to A Kill is the only Bond Song to reach Number One on the Billboard charts as of today.   

04.) For Your Eyes Only (For Your Eyes Only)
       Sung by: Sheena Easton

As I said just now, the Roger Moore-Era had some great Bond Songs during his seven-film reign (the longest of any actor so far).   Here is a prime example: Sheena Easton's rendition of the theme to For Your Eyes Only

Of all the Bond Songs, I find this the most overtly romantic.  It also should be noted that For Your Eyes Only is the third and final Bond Song to be nominated for Best Original Song as of today.  It also marks the first and only time (so far) where the singer appears within the opening credits themselves.  There's been a backlash against For Your Eyes Only.  I've found it on quite a few Worst Bond Songs Lists, and a lot of chatter about it being a bad song itself.  I strongly disagree: I think For Your Eyes Only is a haunting and beautiful love song, which is what it was intended to be.  It might be because it comes after a combination action/comedy scene that people think For Your Eyes Only is bad.  I haven't, and still get goosebumps when hearing it. 

03.) Live and Let Die (Live and Let Die)
       Sung by: Paul McCartney...and Wings

In Goldfinger, Bond did the unthinkable: he disparaged the Beatles.  Well, to quote Khan from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, "Revenge is a dish best served cold."  It couldn't have come any colder than this: one of the Beatles, the future SIR Paul McCartney, wrote a Bond Song, and not just ANY Bond Song, but the FIRST Bond Song to receive a Best Original Song Oscar nomination.

Live and Let Die is the first truly rock song in Bond history, and the genius in Live and Let Die is in the melody: starting us slowly, then bursting out to full power, then back to a soft, ballad-like section, and concluding with a full force ending.  The energy that pummels through the music bursts through, and it's a sign of how good Live and Let Die is in that the song is almost always ranked high (as it is here) while the film itself itself isn't.

02.) Nobody Does It Better (The Spy Who Loved Me)
       Sung by: Carly Simon

In the canon of Bond Songs, few have achieved the level Nobody Does It Better has.  What other song title has gone on to become a catchphrase?  It also doesn't hurt to have a singer as talented as Carly Simon and a songwriter as talented as the late Marvin Hamlisch working together to great a song that celebrates James Bond's legend, his narcissism, and the power he has over both women and our collective imagination? 

This is a ballad, the best ballad because it starts slowly, just a piano playing the opening, then builds with a single voice and the piano, until it builds and builds with more instruments and lyrics describing the ecstasy James Bond creates.  Nobody Does It Better is also the second Best Original Song nominee, and its loss to You Light Up My Life remains one of the strangest and most embarrassing moments in Oscar history.  One of the most beautiful love songs lost the Oscar to one of the cheesiest.  The song that lost is still being played, while the actual winner is now held in derision and mocked for its overwrought sentimentality.

01.) Goldfinger (Goldfinger)
       Sung by: Shirley Bassey
I do not want to call Goldfinger the Gold Standard of Bond Songs, but when people think "Bond Song", it's Goldfinger they first think of.  Shirley Bassey belting out the song helps, her silky and seductive voice lending passion and force to the song.  The amazing lyrics help.  It would appear impossible to make a rhyme to "Goldfinger" that doesn't sound forced and that makes sense.  If you listen to the lyrics, they not only make perfect sense, but they flow so smoothly that one marvels at how a song with such a difficult lyric could be so masterfully crafted.

Goldfinger is also one that continues to echo in other Bond Songs.  Even the newest, Adele's Skyfall, which incidentally landed at Number 11 on my list, seems to borrow if not the actual melody of Goldfinger, at least the spirit of Goldfinger with its vocal delivery save for one respect: while Adele kept the vocal pyrotechnics down, Bassey ramped up her vocals to full force, belting it out like nobody's business. 

Well, that's it for the Ten Best Bond Songs.  Next time, the Ten Worst Bond Songs.

James Bond (Lists) Will Return...

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