James Bond films have become an institution in British popular culture, and to celebrate the theatrical release of Skyfall, the 23rd instalment of the series, we thought it would be fitting to look back upon each of the theme tunes that have soundtracked 007’s adventures over the last fifty years. Arguably very few of them have much musical merit in themselves, but like official England football tournament anthems, they afford the selected artists the opportunity to try their hand at something a little different. Some provide a poised and fitting accompaniment to the context of their respective films. Others, unfortunately, are absolute clunkers that fail often because they try too hard to sound like Bond theme songs. A rare few are actually good songs in their own right. Without further ado, here is the complete list, ranked from worst to best:
23) ‘Die Another Day’ by Madonna (2002)
By quite a distance, Madge’s effort is the worst of the lot. A badly conceived and poorly executed attempt to update the paradigm, barely disguised by lame vocal treatments and glitchy R&B effects. The phrase ‘a load of old pony’ was coined specially for it.
22) ‘Kingston Calypso (Three Blind Mice)’ by Byron Lee & The Dragonaires (from Dr. No, 1962)
Not technically a theme tune (Bond themes were still finding their feet on Dr. No), but this calypso-flavoured version of the nursery rhyme with special lyrics provides a decent accompaniment to the film’s opening sequence.
21) ‘Licence To Kill’ by Gladys Knight (1989)
Eric Clapton was initially invited to record this film’s theme, but his offering was rejected. Probably a bad decision, in the light of the one that was actually chosen, this lacklustre throwback that borrows so heavily from the Goldfinger theme that it’s writers had to pay royalties.
20) ‘From Russia With Love’ by Matt Monro (1963)
A string-swept ballad that is clearly sung in Monro’s impressive baritone, though it has dated badly and sounds more than a little cloying.
19) ‘Thunderball’ by Tom Jones (1965)
For such a distinctive and show-stopping voice, Tom Jones’ attempt makes all the right noises but is strangely forgettable.
18) ‘Moonraker’ by Shirley Bassey (1979)
Compared to her previous efforts, ‘Moonraker’ displays all the trademark vocal somersaults but is disappointingly average and forgettable.
17) ‘The Living Daylights’ by a-ha (1987)
Although sleek and well-produced, a-ha’s effort is for the most part unmemorable and naff, much like the film itself.
16) ‘The Man With The Golden Gun’ by Lulu (1974)
With gratuitous and hilarious sexual innuendo in the lyrics, Lulu’s attempt had a livelier pace than most Bond songs.
15) ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ by Sheryl Crow (1997)
The electrified guitar hook makes a refreshing change from the usual Bond theme paradigm, but Crow’s voice lacks the operatic quality to carry off its ambition.
14) ‘The World Is Not Enough’ by Garbage (1999)
Shirley Manson’s sultry vocals fit the bill perfectly, but the song itself is strangely drab and uninspiring, the band itself shoved into the background in favour of the strings.
13) ‘All Time High’ by Rita Coolidge (from Octopussy, 1983)
An overlooked yet warm and romantic piece, this was the lowest charting James Bond theme song in the UK (peaking at #75).
12) ‘For Your Eyes Only’ by Sheena Easton (1981)
The only performer to actually feature in a Bond film’s opening credits sequence, Easton’s acrobatic vocal effort features glittering production for its time but has a touch of cheesy ‘80s power ballad about it.
11) ‘Skyfall’ by Adele (2012)
As you would expect, Adele’s effort is epic and soulful, though slightly ponderous and slow to get to its destination. More than enough star quality to stick in the memory, however.
10) ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ by The John Barry Orchestra (1969)
OHMSS is an oddity in that it has two ‘theme songs’, the other being Louis Armstrong’s ‘We Have All The Time In The World’. Both are good, the first a Moog-driven orchestral monster, the second a heart-breaking ballad (see the end of the film!)
9) ‘Another Way To Die’ by Jack White & Alicia Keys (from Quantum Of Solace, 2008)
A respectable collaboration between artists of two different genres. White’s rumbling blues rhythm is counterpointed by the commercial appeal of Keys’ voice.
8) ‘You Know My Name’ by Chris Cornell (from Casino Royale, 2006)
The former Soundgarden frontman’s effort is noisy yet thoroughly impressive and stylish, reflecting the new direction in which the directors of the film were taking the Bond character.
7) ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ by Shirley Bassey (1971)
Bassey’s second Bond theme song, this demure and stylish offering is very nearly as good as her first. Benefitted from renewed exposure when sampled by Kanye West 35 years later.
6) ‘GoldenEye’ by Tina Turner (1995)
A powerful and mesmerising vocal performance from Tina Turner, written by Bono and The Edge, ‘GoldenEye’ is an effortless highlight and the last of the ‘old-fashioned’ Bond themes.
5) ‘A View To A Kill’ by Duran Duran (1985)
An entertaining and flawlessly-executed piece of plastic ‘80s pop, Duran Duran made this work because they didn’t try too hard. ‘A View To A Kill’ is also the only Bond theme to reach Number 1 in the United States.
4) ‘You Only Live Twice’ by Nancy Sinatra (1967)
Chanteuse Nancy Sinatra sings spellbindingly, combined with an ear-catching string hook that has been sampled by both Robbie Williams and Blur.
3) ‘Nobody Does It Better’ by Carly Simon (from The Spy Who Loved Me, 1977)
A delightful, catchy piano-led ballad that remains one of the best Bond themes, despite Alan Partridge’s hilarious song/dance interpretation.
2) ‘Goldfinger’ by Shirley Bassey (1964)
Wonderfully kitsch and memorable classic that really kicked off the whole concept of Bond theme songs as a sub-genre of their own.
1) ‘Live And Let Die’ by Paul McCartney & Wings (1973)
The best of the Bond songs, listenable and commercially successful outside of the context of its parent film, with catchy vocal hooks, orchestral drama and a well-executed pace change. The recording process reunited McCartney with Beatles producer George Martin, and became Wings’ biggest selling single up to that point. Just try to ignore Guns N’ Roses schlocky cover.
Words: Ed Biggs