Singing the Praises of James Bond

Roger Moore died last week at the age of 89.  He is the first important Bond to pass (sorry David Niven!), so predictably heated arguments ensued: Where does Moore rank in the canon of Bond actors?

It was a boring debate.  Moore was the worst, plain and simple.  He helped drive the franchise into a ditch of silly gadgets and bad puns.  Revisionists now praising Moore celebrate the supposed “camp” of his films are badly misguided.  They weren’t camp.

John Waters films are camp.  The Avengers and Charlie’s Angels are camp.  Drag queen lip sync cabaret is camp.  Roger Moore’s James Bond movies were just bad.

Moore’s first turn as Bond (Live and Let Die, 1973) was actually quite good.  That’s because he was still cowed by the towering shadow of Sean Connery, so he played it straight.  But director Guy Hamilton (who also pushed the franchise in the wrong direction) soon told Moore to stop imitating Connery and just be himself.  It sounds like the kind of genuine, supportive advice you should give any artist.  Except that Moore being himself, as it turned out, was little more than a dandy in a tux.  By his second film (Man with the Golden Gun, 1974) pubescent girls were “upstaging” him in a karate scene.  Har Har.  It wasn’t camp.  It was failed comedy, 1970s-style.  At that point Burt Reynolds could’ve been playing the role.

Part of the problem also stemmed from Moore’s age; he was simply too old for the part during most of his career.  Connery debuted as Bond at age 31.  Moore was 45 when Live and Let Die premiered.  From Moonraker (1979) on, his fight scenes were laughable and his love scenes with women half his age or less were creepy.  Bond the charming dilettante.  Bond the well groomed pensioner.  Bond as a candidate for late life romance on The Love Boat.

Jesus, maybe it was camp.

Nevertheless, when my favorite film critic, A.O. Scott of the New York Times, exalts Moore as the best James Bond on the grounds of camp and pshaws Millennials for not getting it, I just can’t go along.  I’m a Gen Xer like Scott, and I do enjoy camp, but this smells of defending the crap of our youth with rationalized nostalgia.  Waters wants to be camp.  Charlie’s Angels has to be camp.  But Bond movies can actually be good without being campy.

Anyway, instead of prattling on about who the best (or worst) Bond was, I’d rather tackle something a bit tastier: The Top 10 James Bond movie theme songs.  Drum roll please . . .

10.  “You Know Me By Name,” Chris Cornell (Casino Royale, 2006)
Speaking of rationalized nostalgia .  .  .  I am not including this song as some sentimental ode to Cornell in light of his death a couple of weeks back (although I absolutely would have done that for Gregg Allman had he ever sung a Bond song).  Rather, it’s more a tribute to the former Sound Garden front man being the right artist with the right song at an interesting moment in the series’ evolution.  In 2006, Daniel Craig revived the floundering franchise with a serious performance in a dramatic, suspenseful action film that sneeringly dispensed with kitsch and comedy.  Cornell’s song hit the perfect chord, straining the essence of Bond theme songs through a grungy filter.  007 was back and he meant business; this song echoed that notion.

Photo by Gabriel Olsen/WireImage9.  “All Time High,” Rita Coolidge (Octopussy, 1983)
By the time this outer space yawner hit theaters in 1983, Moore’s Bond films had already jumped the shark, but they still often boasted good theme songs.  In this instance Coolidge’s voice, along with a solid chord structure and melody, helped elevate the number above the type of painful arrangement (“sultry” saxophone, crappy synthesizers) that was standard during the early 1980s.

8.  “The World Is Not Enough,” Garbage (The World Is Not Enough, 1999)
Garbage lead singer Shirley Manson always sported a mixture of gloss and snarling attitude that fit well with the Bond motif.  To that end, this song effectively touched upon the major musical themes that were by then firmly established by the Bond song opus.  It’s at once ethereal, driving, and sultry.  That’s authentically sultry, as opposed to the oozing saxophone of “All Time High.”  And as an added plus, the video is downright creepy.

7.  “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” John Barry (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1969)
John Barry scored the first eleven Bond films from 1962-1987.  Along the way he also authored instrumental Bond songs for two movies: this one and From Russia with Love (1963).  Despite having no lyrics, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” clearly hews to the early James Bond musical motifs Barry had developed along the way, while also making innovative use of early synthesizers.  In the first film without Sean Connery, this piece set the tone well in 1969: today’s version of the standard.

6.  “Thunderball,” Tom Jones (Thunderball, 1965)
After Shirley Bassey set the template for Bond theme songs with 1964’s “Goldfinger” (see below), Jones had no choice but to follow it closely.  The influence of Bassey’s song and performance on “Thunderball” is overt.  Jones summons all of his curly haired bravado in an effort to meet the new standard, and he does an admirable job.

5.  “You Only Live Twice,” Nancy Sinatra (You Only Live Twice, 1967)
Several singers auditioned and were rejected for the song.  It was then offered to Frank Sinatra, who declined and suggested his daughter.  Nancy Sinatra was never much of a singer but she certainly had her pop culture moment.  Part of it was family connections of course.  It was also partly because she surrounded herself with people (most notably Lee Hazlewood) who knew how to fashion interesting art from her voice, which was thin and lacked character.  At the time she was hot off her biggest solo hit (“These Boots are Made for Walking”) and her daddy duet (“Something Stupid”).  Once again, she had good people around for her Bond number.  John Barry wrote and arranged the music (including backup singers and multi-tracking), Leslie Bricusse penned the lyrics, and everything worked.

4.  “Live and Let Die,” Paul McCartney (Live and Let Die, 1973)
The first time Sean Connery left the franchise, the next film soldiered on in a business as usual mode with George Lazenby in the starring role.  Almost everything about 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was straight ahead Bond, which only served to showcase how inferior Lazenby was to Connery.  Afterwards, Connery returned for an encore in Diamonds Are Forever (1971), before abandoning Bond producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman for good.  Thus, when Roger Moore debuted as Bond, not only did he immediately follow a Connery performance, but the entire franchise also faced the precedent of faltering in that exact situation.  Hoping to avoid the same trap, it was time for something different.

Paul McCartney was something different.  No club crooner or torch singer, he was the first rock star to write a Bond theme song.  At first the producers wanted his song, but not him; they preferred a woman to sing it.  But none other than George Martin prevailed upon them, and so McCartney also became the first rock star to perform a Bond theme song.  The marriage of Bond and the Beatle was a fruitful one.

I’m open to arguments that “Live and Let Die” is actually the best song on this list.  It’s probably the only one that still gets regular air play on commercial radio.  And it’s badass enough that Guns n Roses once covered it.  But in many ways, it’s also the quirkiest song in the catalog; it begins with Bond basics (a dreamy ballad, richly orchestrated, and wrapped around ominous chords) before lurching into a driving syncopations, then reggae rhythms, and back again.  It’s classic McCartney, sounding like pieces of three songs, none of which he ever finished before cobbling them all together and somehow making it work.  Perhaps the worst you can say about “Live and Let Die” is that it’s overplayed.

3. “Skyfall,”  Adele (Skyfall, 2012)
Released on the 50th anniversary of the first film (1962’s Dr.  No), Skyfall was very much, in ways both subtle and overt, a self-referential and loving homage to the franchise.  This song reflects that.  McCartney had set a precedent, and after two decades of contemporary rock and pop stars blending modern music into the distinct Bondian sound, “Skyfall” defiantly harkens back to the classic Bond theme songs of the 1960s.  It’s all about the smooth composition, the lush strings, and most of all the sultry female vocals.  Adele is perfectly poised for the task.  She hits all the right notes, both literally and metaphorically, producing a song that is not only timelessly James Bond, but pretty damned good on its own merits.

2.  “Nobody Does It Better,” Carly Simon (The Spy Who Loved Me, 1977)
Much like McCartney’s contribution, in many ways this is only nominally a Bond song, largely transcending the genre.  It’s a strong composition by Marvin Hamlisch (music) and Carol Bayer Sager (lyrics) that didn’t need the 007 connection to find it’s way to the penultimate spot on the Billboard pop chart in 1977.  Simon’s soaring vocals are mesmerizing, right through to the mildly modulated crescendo at the end.  No Guns n Roses anywhere in sight, but cover versions have been offered up by everyone from Toots Thielemans to Aimee Mann to Bobbie Brown and Whitney Houston to Radiohead.  Also a strong candidate for the top spot on this list, It can rightly be considered a minor standard from the latter day pages of the great American songbook.

1.  “Goldfinger,” Shirley Bassey (Goldfinger, 1964)
Well, actually, one person did it better: Shirley Bassey.

Bassye’s performance of this song is iconic for several reasons.  For starters, it was the first James Bond theme song as we know it.  The previous two had been a John Barry instrumental (“From Russia With Love,” 1963) and none other than Sean Connery warbling “Underneath the Mango Tree” (Dr.  No, 1962); they were on a tight budget for that first film.  In 1964, Goldfinger presented a James Bond movie for the first time in the way we now expect it: gun barrel opening, initial action sequence, cue the song and credits.  Simply put, this song founded one of the Bond films’ signature and most enduring features.  It imprinted such an indelible stamp on the franchise that Bassey was brought back to do two more theme songs: “Diamonds Are Forever” when Connery returned to the role in 1971 after a one-film hiatus, and 1979’s “Moonraker.”

But while the other two Bassey songs don’t make my list, “Goldfinger” is the ultimate Bond song.  Yet it didn’t achieved this lofty perch simply through precedent.  It is also a damned good song and she sang the living shit out of it.  Barry’s opening measures are dynamic and ominous, a reminder that the films were originally intended for adults.  The refrain so perfectly encapsulated Bond that it was repeated throughout the film’s score too great effect.  The song’s music also incorporates phrasing from the original James Bond theme song (see below), further establishing it as canonical.  And in the end, Bassey torches the mic with her wailing crescendo.  Her long, final note is so dynamic that she fits seamlessly with Barry’s blaring horns to signal the arrival of a modern spectacle.

This is the one.
First Honorable Mention: “James Bond Theme,” Monte Norman (Dr.  No, 1962)
When the producers hired Monty Norman to write music for the very first James Bond movie, he went to Jamaica where the film took place and tried to come up with something that captured the local flavor.  However, he couldn’t cull a theme song from that, so he submitted a catchy little show tune riff in E minor he’d penned several years back.  The producers weren’t satisfied.  They wanted more, so they hired composer/arranger John Barry to flesh out Norman’s musical skeleton.  Barry added the bridge and the arrangements.  To play Norman’s introductory riff, Barry brought in the guitarist from his jazz combo (The John Barry Seven): Vic Flick.  Also an accomplished studio musician, Flick used a 1939 Clifford Essex Paragon Deluxe guitar through a Fender Vibrolux amp with a Maestro Fuzz Tone pedal.  He was paid 6 pounds for the studio gig.

Later, Norman and Barry each claimed sole authorship of the “James Bond Theme.”  The courts eventually sided with Norman, who twice won libel suits against publishers for misidentifying Barry as the author.  But sometimes beauty is born of acrimony.

This is one of the most iconic pieces of music in the history of cinema, and to this day can mean only one thing: JB’s gonna pop a cap in your ass, motherfucker; watch the blood drip.

Second Honorable Mention:  “For Your Eyes Only,” Sheena Easton (For Your Eyes Only, 1981)
I turned fourteen years old in 1981.  I thought Sheena Easton was hot.  I wanted to be her baby who took the morning train, worked from 9 til 5 and then took another home again to find her waiting for me.  Which is as close as I ever got to wanting a regular job and commute.

But eventually I grew up and realized this song is only mediocre, no matter how much I once adored it and its lilting, blue eyed chanteuse.

Are you listening A.O.  Scott?

This essay originally appeared at 3 Quarks Daily.

15 thoughts on “Singing the Praises of James Bond

  1. This is a fine contribution, and finally something worthy of yet another comment from ME. Little known fact, Cubby Broccoli gave John Lennon first crack at the “Live and Let Die” theme song. But when he came back with “Love and Let Live,” co-producer Harry Saltzman went meshuga and said, “Get me Ringo, dammit!” Ringo wasn’t available, so they settled on McCartney. Lennon, always the trouper, tried to make good and offered up the Yoko Ono penned “Abstract Voodoo Cat Persons,” but never heard back.

      1. Believe me, there was plenty of love for DF Jr. on the Love Boat. He made Dr. Bricker look like a celibate, by comparison. If they let him wear his old Sinbad costume, as he requested, he would have banged the entire Lido Deck.

  2. Solid list of Bond songs. One can quibble on the order, but really if that’s what you are doing then you pretty much nailed the list.

    You like A.O. Scott? i always feel like he is reviewing the movie he wanted to see rather than the movie actually produced.

    All I do is miss Janet Maslin when I read his reviews.

    1. Actually, I tend to read Scott’s other pieces more than his film reviews. For example, loved his memoriam to Phillip Seymour Hoffman. As far as the film reviews, I find I often agree with him, although clearly not on Bond, most probably because he grew up at some point, whereas I still want to be a secret agent.

  3. On second thought, I just listened to “Diamonds are Forever” and it is easily better than “Thunderball” or “All Time High”.

  4. Agreed overall. Heh, the Roger Moore movies were a lot of fun. Don’t you think it is time for a person of color to play the famous role, to better reflect the people of the U.K. today? Perhaps an African-Englishman James Bond? Idris Elba was been suggested for the role.

    1. I don’t care about Bond’s skin color one way or another, but Elba’s too old (44) to start now. With one more Craig film to go, Elba would probably be pushing 50 when he debuted. I think it’s a role for an actor in the early 30s-late 40s range, and if you want that person to do 5 or so films, they should probably start in their 30s.

      1. Me neither. Bond can be really dark skin, from tanning on the beach too long with a Bond girl sexual object. Well race is more than skin deep. And what about gender… We need a Jane Bond. The thing is, we need less white “cis” men, period. This is what the left believes.

        1. Why are you wasting your time here? Shouldn’t you be out protesting an all-female screening of Wonder Woman somewhere?

          Oh my god you’re redundant. You should really find a second note.

          1. Lol, not my thing. That strikes me as a nice publicity stunt for that movie and/or the poser hipsters of phony hyped up Austin, and their pretentious movie theater. I do understand not being OK with double standards and hypocrisy, unlike neutered progressive males, but maybe men shouldn’t be interested in seeing that thing in the first place and laugh at it.

  5. That’s what you get for thinking A.O. Scott is the tooth fairy of movie reviews.
    Reviewing is a skittish business to begin, but Scott is mediocre and wordy.
    Oh for the days of Pauline Kael. . . . (whether you always agreed, or not, she was incisive & got right down to it).


  6. When looking at the totality of Roger Moore’s acting roles, I have come to the conclusion that these guy was a send up of what Americans thought upper class Englishmen were all about. A fake persona acting out a fake person who happened to be upper class and somewhat snobby and jaded. Not much of a acting range but enough to make a handsome living off of preconceived notions.

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