13
Oct
2012
Random Pop Culture Top Ten List
Top Ten James Bond Theme Songs
Jordan
Random Pop Culture Top 10 List is a (fairly self-explanatory) biweekly list in which the Review to be named gang take stock of the realm of pop culture, and come up with their Top Ten in a specific category.

For 50 years now, James Bond movies have been gracing our screens, and their theme songs have been setting the tone for the films to follow. The Bond theme is not always a great indicator of the quality of the film to follow (some of the best songs serve as appetizers to some of the series' lesser entries), but they are a genre in and of themselves, with their own tropes and conventions. The songs run the gamut from fast-paced to downright balladic, and from laying out the film's plot to trying to shoehorn an awkward title into lyrics that make some sort of sense (can anyone tell us what "he strikes like Thunderball" means?). Some of them are all style and no substance, and some of them pay homage to past successes, or to the series highlights ( like the "martinis, girls, and guns" referenced in Sheryl Crow's "Tomorrow Never Dies"). In honor of the 50th anniversary of Dr. No and the recent release of the newest Bond theme, Adele's "Skyfall"here are our all-time favorite Bond Themes.

Note: Both "Skyfall" and the Monty Norman Orchestra's James Bond Theme" have been taken out of contention. The former, because it is too new to judge in context, and the latter because it is too iconic to place anywhere but number one in the hearts of every Bond fan.

10. "The Man with the Golden Gun," from The Man with the Golden Gun by Lulu

That rapid-fire opening is enough to sky-rocket "The Man with the Golden Gun" into any conversation of best Bond themes. From its first riff, the song primes you for the sort of pulse-pounding, non-stop action James Bond movies always promise. Its acid rock with a jazzy sheen, pulpy with a vague sense of class. The song comes from the "recite the plot of the movie" school of Bond themes, but it does so shamelessly, and pulls it off well enough to get viewers excited for the inevitable confrontation to come. Plus, isn't it nice to know what you're getting yourself into at the beginning of a Bond movie? We know that "he has a powerful weapon, he charges a million a shot," we know that "love is required whenever he's hired" (which is fittingly creepy), and we even know what color his gun is! Fun in the most mindless way possible, "The Man with the Golden Gun" is a metaphor for a lot of the Roger Moore era Bond films: its more than a little silly, completely embraces the formulaic construction of the series, and it never takes itself too seriously.



9. "The Living Daylights," from The Living Daylights by a-ha

The "˜80s were not kind to James Bond, as a rule, but they did manage to turn out some of his most memorable theme songs. A-ha manages to perfectly capture the darker, more mysterious feel of new Bond Timothy Dalton (who made his debut in The Living Daylights, and his swan song two year's later in License to Kill. The less said about the latter's theme, the better) without losing the rock-pop edge that made the band so popular during its prime. A-ha does wonders with an essentially meaningless title (choosing to basically isolate the title of the movie in the chorus around a lot of "ahhhs"), a struggle for some other Bond themes that try too hard to shoehorn an absurd title into pop song format. "The Living Daylights" is a somber mood piece that manages to also be incredibly catchy. The instrumentation is dark and jazzy (in a distinctly "˜80s way), but the lyrics are a just-right mixture of foreboding and candy-coated absurdity ("the living's in the way we die" is either something a noir anti-hero says right before a gunfight or a pseudo-profound discovery made by an incredibly stoned college sophomore. Which means it's a near perfect Bond theme lyric). "The Living Daylights" is a rock-solid encapsulation of what James Bond should have been in the "˜80s. Too bad The Living Daylights couldn't live up to the promise of its theme song.



8. "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," from On Her Majesty's Secret Service by the Jon Barry Orchestra

It is nowhere near as iconic as the "James Bond Theme," yet the instrumental opening to On Her Majesty's Secret Service is as underrated as the film it presages. An incredibly moody piece of jazz that still manages to pump you up for what's to come, the song builds its striking theme through repetition and then drives it home. It also introduced the Moog-synthesizer to film soundtrack's, thus heralding a decade full of soundtracks that would steal the sound. It tells you everything you need to know about the dark, emotionally resonant film ahead: from its striking, high-note opening, to its somber, downbeat end. And in-between is a piece of music that drives home the iconic status of Bond as an existential hero without leaving aside for a second the lighter, more adventurous side of the character. On Her Majesty's Secret Service was the only outing for George Lazenby as Bond, and it found our notorious lothario of a hero finally falling in actual love (with the stunning Diana Rigg). That meant it was bound to be a controversial Bond film, a fact that continues to belie its status as one of the series' high points. Barry's theme may have been intended to take the series back to basics (and was only allowed to be instrumental once Barry pointed out how difficult it would be to fit "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" into lyrics organically), but what it did instead was signify that On Her Majesty's Secret Service would be a massive departure from the Bond film format, from beginning to end.



7. "A View to a Kill," from A View to a Kill by Duran Duran

Like most of the best Bond songs, "A View to a Kill" paints a picture with a combination of pulse-pounding riffs and darkly alluring lyrics. Duran Duran begs audiences to "dance into the fire," a prospect they make sound both intriguing and terrifying. This is the James Bond theme as "˜80s dance track, and the two genres go together far better than could be expected. The band packs the revelation that "It's A View to a Kill" with all the luridly voyeuristic feeling the title implies, turning the theme song into a pitch-black tale of forbidden love at its most violently consequential. Fans could be forgiven for expecting the equivalent of a James Bond version of Rear Window after this set-up (good God that would have been amazing), and while A View to a Kill does not live-up to the expectations set by the song, it does feature Christopher Walken as a Bond villain and Roger Moore engaged in an affair with a love interest 28 years his junior (shockingly, that isn't the largest age gap between Bond and his Bond girl. That title belongs to For Your Eyes Only, where Moore romanced a woman 30 years his junior), so it is far from a waste of viewer's time. But for the four-minute run-time of the song, "that fatal kiss is all we need." And in a franchise that makes its bread and butter with explosions, that's saying something.



6. "You Know My Name," from Casino Royale by Chris Cornell

When Casino Royale hit theaters, it had been four years since the last Bond film, and that had been the disappointing Die Another Day. The film was burdened with introducing a new Bond (Daniel Craig) to audiences and with rebooting the franchise (because it was the mid-'00s, and everybody was doing it). It succeeded at both, and the confidence it needed to do so is obvious from even the title of its theme song. "You Know My Name," as a title is arrogant and absolutely goddamn correct. The title alone is enough to get any Bond fan's heart beating faster, but the song offers much more. It is a fast-paced rocker that is tinged with foreboding and has enough noirish sentiment to carry it even if the material was weaker. "You Know My Name" is as effortlessly cool as the character it profiles, with lyrics like "I've seen angels fall from blinding heights, but you yourself are nothing so divine, just next in line" and "I've seen diamonds cut through harder men, than you yourself but if you just pretend, you may meet your end" that simultaneously remind audiences who they are dealing with and prime them for a Bond that is less assured of his own immortality. And then there is the chorus, which pretty much defines everything the Bond series has become in the Daniel Craig era in one awesome stanza: "Arm yourself because no one else here will save you, the odds will betray you, and I will replace you, you can't deny the prize it will never fulfill you, it longs to kill you, are you willing to die?" Its a question Bond must ask himself every morning as he wakes up. But after this theme song, the answer is pretty obvious: Abso-fucking-lutely.



5. "Goldfinger," from Goldfinger by Shirley Bassey

The first Bond theme to really nail it, "Goldfinger" set the (can't help myself) gold standard for what a Bond theme song should be, and remains the song that all others are judged up against. Bassey (who returned to record two more Bond themes, with "Diamonds are Forever" and "Moonraker") is the Bond theme singer; her voice is the platonic ideal all others shoot for and most fail to attain. "Goldfinger" is a profile of the film's villain (the wonderfully despicable Auric Goldfinger. Get it?), and sets him up as a menacing figure who works behind the scenes to achieve his nefarious ends. "He's the man," Bassey croons to us, "the man with the Midas touch, a spider's touch." She infuses each word with a universe of meaning, and what might have been a straightforward profile of greed and sin is transformed by Bassey's vocal power into a parable. "Such a cold finger, beckons you to enter his web of sin, but don't go in," she warns, and while the words read as painfully straightforward on paper, they sound downright chilling in the delivery. The song may be elevated in our consciousness by the film its attached to (regardless of your personal preferences, I would hazard a guess that Goldfinger is somewhere within your top five Bond movies), but it stands on its own as a striking musical achievement. It isn't Bassey's best Bond theme (spoiler alert: see below), but it single-handedly created the template all other Bond theme songs must follow or eschew, and in the process formed an indelible image leading audiences cautiously forward into one of the series' classic installments.



4. "You Only Live Twice," from You Only Live Twice by Nancy Sinatra

Easily the most atmospheric Bond theme of all time, "You Only Live Twice" ignores everything about the film it opens except the title and the fact that it's set in Japan. The country and its mythology influenced songwriters Jon Barry and Leslie Bricusse (the latter of whom also wrote the lyrics to "Goldfinger"), but ultimately, it is vocalist Nancy Sinatra who infuses the song with its mysterious, ethereal romanticism. The song is philosophically interesting in ways few other Bond themes even attempt, positing that "You only live twice or so it seems, one life for yourself and one for your dreams." This is a Bond theme uninterested with violence or its consequences, and focused instead on another frequent Bond song theme: love. When Sinatra croons about danger, it isn't of the mortal variety: "And love is a stranger who beckons you on" she half-warns, "don't think of the danger or the stranger is gone." In terms of mood-setting, this is the peak of the Bond themes, a quietly bewitching mood piece that feels like a dream: fragile, brittle, and unbelievably beautiful. The song was recently utilized to great effect during the closing montage of Mad Men's stellar fifth season, showing that it both has staying power and remains an iconic signifier of the era.The film that follows it has its merits (including a script by Roald Dahl, the first on-screen appearance of Bond's greatest nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and a lair inside a hollowed out volcano), but it is never better than during its discrete three minute theme song.



3. "Nobody Does it Better," from The Spy Who Loved Me by Carly Simon

Eventually, someone had to have the gall to say it in song: James Bond has to be really good in bed, right? "Nobody Does it Better" is all thinly-veiled innuendo masked as "˜70s AM balladry, sung by one of the genre's queen's, Carly Simon. Many Bond theme songs are meditations on the violence of the series; "Nobody Does It Better" is a consideration of the inherently sexual undertones of the films. The song is disturbingly catchy and surprisingly sexy (Radiohead's Thom Yorke has called it "the sexiest song ever written," and while that may be hyperbole, it isn't that much of a stretch), and holds the distinction as the first Bond theme to have a different title than the film in which it appears. It also gets extra credit for effortlessly integrating the film's title into the lyrics ("But like heaven above me, the spy who loved me, is keeping all my secrets safe tonight"), shoving past it like its checking a box on its to-do list, knowing it has more important things to do. "Nobody Does it Better" stands on its own as a great song; that it also happens to be the theme to one of the series' greatest installments is just icing on this very sexy cake.



2. "Diamonds are Forever," from Diamonds are Forever by Shirley Bassey

"Goldfinger" paints a picture of a man; "Diamonds are Forever" is a lifestyle, an entire worldview encapsulated in less than three minutes of vocal power and sensuality. Where "Goldfinger" is tied inextricably to the film it opens, "Diamonds are Forever" is a narrative unto itself, a story of abandonment and a recovery calculated to avoid ever experiencing heartbreak again. "I don't need love," Bassey tries to assure herself, "for what good will love do me? Diamonds never lie to me, for when love's gone, they luster on." The song is sexy, in its own way, but Bassey is sexualizing materialism, rather than championing sex in and of itself. "They are all I need to please me," she says of the stones, "they can stimulate and tease me, They won't leave in the night there's no fear that they might desert me." The whole song is full of heartbreaking revelations couched as a cold lust for jewelry. Its a beautiful ode to loneliness and abandonment, and a tragic picture of a woman shutting down emotionally. It's resonant, it's catchy, it's tragic, it's beautiful. Oh yeah, and it happens to be a James Bond theme. Sure, it is attached to the weakest Connery installment (Never Say Never Again is a noncanonical bastard child, and that is all we will say about it), but this song doesn't need a movie to hold it up. Like the stones at the song's center, "Diamonds are Forever" is timeless, iconic, and everlasting.




1. "Live and Let Die," from Live and Let Die by Paul McCartney and Wings

Ok, let's start from the top. Paul McCartney is a fucking Beatle. And "Live and Let Die" is an all-out rock song from beginning to end, a classic in its own right that has the benefit of being talked of along side a superior Bond film (racism aside, Live and Let Die is a hell of a lot of fun). Its impossible not to read some of McCartney's post-Beatles cynicism into the lyrics, which are sparse and minimalist, and all the more effective for it. "When you were young and your heart was an open book," the former King of pop romance intones, "you used to say live and let live, But if this ever changing world in which we live in makes you give in and cry, say live and let die." The song's title is such an effective kiss-off, delivered with such gleeful menace, it's hard not to give in to the "burn down the world" guitar solo that follows. "Live and Let Die" is a piano ballad and a guitar-heavy rocker rolled into one, displaying McCartney's evolution as an artist and as a thinker. But none of that matters when, in the middle of the song's amp-it-up guitar solo, McCartney breaks in (with a tonal shift that rivals his own on "A Day in the Life" a few years earlier) declaring "What does it matter to ya, when you gotta job to do you gotta do it well, you gotta give the other fella hell." The song slows down for a moment before recovering its bombastic sense of grandeur. "Live and Let Die" is more than just a Bond theme. It is more than just a classic rock song. It is a statement of purpose, lighting the way forward for one of the greatest songwriters of all time. Its a smart, philosophically interesting, important song. And it doesn't hurt that it kicks ass at the same time.



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