AS x Bond… James Bond

When first hearing about No Time to Die, the latest 007 adventure to hit the theatres, I realized something. Alongside “what will the story be?” or “who will be playing the main villain?”, every time a new adventure of the British super spy is announced another equally important question is immediately asked – “who will be doing the opening theme?” For better or worse, and whether we like the songs or not, teaming up with the world’s “most famous spy” [Author’s note: I know – a paradox, right?] brings a different level of visibility to the artists that lend their talents to soundtrack one of the most famous franchises in Hollywood. Hell, with 6 Academy Awards nominations for Best Original Song, an artist can even take a crack at an Oscar! Not everyone nails it, of course. In fact, there are some pretty terrible songs in the repertoire – who can forget the awful Madonna song (from the even more awful Pierce Brosnan movie) or the dullness of Sam Smith’s poor attempt in Spectre? Boy, those did not age well – even though, God knows how, Sam Smith was able to fool the Academy into a win.

Anyway (bear with me, there is a point to be made here, I promise), the other day I was rewatching Skyfall – because every occasion is a good occasion to watch it again, right? – when I found myself reaching the conclusion, for the millionth time, that Adele’s opening track is a phenomenal tune, truly worthy of its Oscar [Author’s note: I promise it’s the last jab I’ll take at Spectre]. But is it the best 007 song ever?

Yes. Yes, it is. So once that is out of the way, what other great tunes have been delivered over the years in the now decades-long repertoire of Mr. Bond’s adventures? To help us answer that question, one of the great questions of our time indeed, I present AS x Bond… James Bond, a collection of the 15 best opening tracks from 007 movies. Allow me to say right off the bat that this list it is not presented in any particular order other than chronological – if narrowing down all the themes songs of the world’s most famous spy to the best 15 is already controversial enough, ranking these songs would most likely start chaos and, unlike Fox News, the Snobs are not here to cause any social uprising.

We’ll have to kick this off with John Barry’s iconic James Bond Theme, from the secret agent’s first appearance on the big screen (Dr. No, immortalized by the late and great Sean Connery), as the trademark orchestration set the scene for what would be known as the Bond sound. But given that it is just an instrumental theme, one can say that the first real theme song of the franchise is From Russia with Love, from the movie of the same name. For James Bond’s second outing, the producers decided to go for an exotic and seductive opening, perfectly complemented with Matt Monro’s silky-smooth voice. Was there ever a song that truly captured the essence of Sean Connery’s portrayal of the iconic British spy? I don’t know, but this is probably the closest we ever got.

But it would take Shirley Bassey and 1964’s Goldfinger to take things one step further and truly immortalize the Bond theme songs, paving the way for everything that came after – much like the movie itself, I might add. We can only speculate if the iconic agent and his adventures would have been enough to attract multiple Grammy and Oscar nominee artists for future themes on their own, but probably Mrs. Bassey’s iconic performance played its part in putting 007 songs on the radar of every artist aiming to dip their toes on the Hollywood glamour pool. Also, and credit where credit due, it is nothing short of a miracle what Mrs. Bassey pulls off – she makes the lyrics, as well as the title, work. I mean, I’ll admit that not every James Bond movie name makes sense, but Goldfinger is probably one of the hardest to work with.

The next song in our playlist, You Only Live Twice, comes from the 1967 movie of the same name. One of the most beautiful Bond songs ever written, and one of John Barry’s best productions, it is perfect for Nancy Sinatra’s voice and tone, the first non-Brit to put their hands on one of the UK’s national treasures – it should come as no surprise that this moody and darkly romantic song also ended up becoming one of Mrs. Sinatra’s most famous hits. We then jump 2 years to 1969 and to We Have all the Time in the World, a beautiful and elegant theme that only Mr. Louis Armstrong and his iconic voice could deliver. Unfortunately, this song is often overlooked, much like the movie for which it was recorded  – you know, the always forgotten On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the one where he really falls in love and gets married in Portugal [Author’s note: what?]. Well, the truth is that this is probably one of the greatest love songs of all time, and the fact that it came from a James Bond movie oddly makes it even more special.

Moving on, 1971’s Diamonds are Forever. On Shirley Bassey’s second tackle on 007 opening tunes, she delivers once more – arguably one of the most complex songs in the Bond repertoire, her powerhouse pipes elevate the entire thing to a new level. One will never know why men much wiser than me often loose themselves in the debate of who the definitive “Bond Girl” is, when Mrs. Bassey is, undoubtedly, the “Bond Woman”. Perhaps equally relevant as the production or as Mrs. Bassey iconic performance, Diamonds are Forever is probably the franchise’s least carnal song ever, so top marks for that. Also, allow me to finalize by correcting a common misconception amongst some in our youth – no, this sample does not come from Kayne West’s Diamonds from Sierra Leone, it is the other way around. And this is the far better superior version – sorry Yeezus.

From there, we move on to 1973 and Live and Let Die, the opening theme of Roger Moore’s first outing as the British spy. Truth be told, Live and Let Die is not Paul McCartney good – it is The Beatles good. There, I said it. This should come as no surprise, given that the production was helmed by legendary producer Mr. George Martin (A.K.A. the fifth Beatle), who packs everything in a single tune: ballad, rock and even a little reggae. The first Bond theme to, deservedly, receive an Academy Award nomination, is also probably, and perhaps more importantly, the only 007 song to include any good guitar bits – again, I said it.

We then get to 1977’s Nobody Does it Better. Where to start? What to say? Well, the fact that this song was probably Radiohead’s most frequently played cover in the 90s should tell you most of what you need to know – a fantastic and elegant tune, propelled by Simon’s passionate deliver and the progressive orchestration, it is not only one of the best Bond themes, but is probably one of the best pop songs of the entire 70s. More than 40 years after, Mrs. Simon’s performance still keeps us shaken and stirred, and the that big finale of “Baby you’re the best” is nothing short of glorious. Which ones amongst us haven’t shouted in falsetto over this part, muffing Mrs. Simon’s impeccable voice? I know me and my brothers, understandably, always do so, so feel free to come forward with your admission of guilt.

A View to a Kill, from Duran Duran, represents a big landmark in the Bond franchise – even though John Barry remained involved, the 1985 theme is a Duran Duran composition from beginning to end, which explains its pop-vibe when compared to previous themes of the franchise. In practical terms, what this meant is that rather than having producers just picking some interpreter to “karaoke” a song previously made, artists began seeking out the producers interested in leaving their own personal mark in the Bond franchise history. Following up A View to a Kill was always going to be tricky, and it can be argued that Norwegian pop group a-Ha failed to do so with The Living Daylights – hell, my own father will likely disown me when he sees that I am including it in our playlist, but here we are. The theme starts amazingly, and then the 80s happen – for better or worse, it is an unforgettable tune and one must always remember that 007 songs, much like the movies themselves, often gracefully go hand in hand with “tacky” and “cheesy”.

We follow this with Tina Turner’s GoldenEye – kicking off the Brosnan era of James Bond, the track is a nice throwback to the golden years of Mrs. Bassey and the tradition of the Bond opening themes. With Mrs. Turner’s excellent vocals and the songwriting of U2’s own Bono and The Edge, GoldenEye ticks all the boxes – powerful vocals, big orchestration and a dangerous and sexy tone. 2 years later, in 1997, it would be Sheryl Crowe’s turn to lend her voice to the iconic super spy – even though the movie was the beginning of the end for Pierce Brosnan’s incarnation of the character, on Tomorrow Never Dies (or James Bond vs Fox News) Crowe delivers a quite surprisingly unforgettable performance, particularly considering what an odd choice she is for a Bond theme. With a quite interesting string interlude which is followed by an impressive final, one can say that Mrs. Crowe was able to update the Bond formula to modern times. Next up, The World is not Enough. Credit where it’s due: on it, Garbage frontwoman Shirley pulls off [Author’s note: by far!] the best drama to come out of the movie from the same name. If Tomorrow Never Dies was the beginning of the end for Pierce Brosnan, let’s do ourselves a favour and ignore any movie subsequent to it. Movie plot aside, the track is arguably one of the best of the Brosnan era, a dark and sombre theme perfectly balanced with contemporary and modern sounds, a result of Garbage’s exquisite production – 20 years on and the sound has barely aged.

After an impressive reboot of the franchise with Daniel Craig’s portrayal of the secret agent, but two rather forgettable songs (one of which, the Jack White and Alicia Keys one, had everything to work on paper, let’s be honest), producers went big and teamed up with Adele to release what is arguably the best 007 theme song. I am a firm believer that Adele’s Skyfall probably had some saying in the movie’s monstruous success [Author’s note: yes, a Bond movie grossing more than US$ 1 billion is, in fact, a monstruous success], as the English multiple Grammy winner delivers a memorable and classy performance, superbly accompanied by a symphonic orchestra which culminates in an emphatic finish – much like the  movie itself. It feels exactly like a Bond theme should feel, and is a perfect example of how the key to a great James Bond tune is to know when to go big and when to stay low.

We close the playlist with No Time to Die, the starting point of this adventure. Much like the formula followed in Skyfall, blending Billie Eilish’s iconic and signature vocals with the classic Bond orchestration paying homage to the past proved to be a success – also, teaming up with legendary producer Hans Zimmer didn’t hurt their chances. Mind you, when following Sam Smith’s bland attempt in Writing’s on the Wall any song was always going to be an improvement, but Eilish goes further – she imprints her own mark in the song, with its overall fragile and harmonious tone, a trademark Eilish sound. She’s no Shirley Bassey, of course, but at 18 Eilish became the youngest musician to ever write and perform a Bond theme, and pulls off a great job.

Despite the occasional misfire, it is fair to say that producers of the secret agent tend to hit it big when it comes to their artist and song selection, and have been perfecting what is now known as the “Bond sound” – a sleek and seductive sound, filled with mystery and intrigue, and emphasized by strong female performances and classic orchestration arrangements. And so that question will always be asked – which artist will team up next with the legendary spy to guarantee its place in movie and music history along the way?