Benjamin considers himself an authority on James Bond, having reviewed every film and many more over a number of years.
Ever since he first appeared in Ian Fleming's 1953 novel Casino Royale, the world has been enthralled and entertained by the British secret agent known as 007. James Bond was an instant success and almost immediately transferred into a TV adaptation the following year, with Barry Nelson becoming the first actor to ever portray the character. Few would imagine then that the character and his various adventures would go on to become one of the biggest media franchises of all time, estimated to be worth almost $20 billion in 2015. Only Star Wars, Harry Potter, Spider-Man and the Marvel Cinematic Universe have taken more at the box office than Bond. To date, the character has appeared in twenty-five official films as well as two unofficial movies and inspired countless rip-offs, remakes, parodies and tributes. And despite his age, he appears more popular than ever before - reinvented and reinvigorated by the most recent actor to play the role (Daniel Craig), the Bond films continue to generate huge publicity and box office revenue sixty years after is cinematic debut in 1962's Dr No.
Today, I'll be looking back at the iconic theme tunes to the twenty-five official Bond films as produced by Eon Productions. The theme tunes are an often overlooked part of the film's appeal - the best ones are instantly recognisable and heavily associated with the films while others may be less popular but still recall the film's stylised opening credits or even just the title of the film itself. As I have only included the top twenty songs for this article, this means that some have missed out. This may be because they aren't especially well known (anyone remember 'All Time High' from Octopussy?), aren't especially good (Shirley Bassey's third Bond theme 'Moonraker' is a bit of a dud) or weren't in keeping with the film's requirements (I personally don't mind 'Another Way To Die' from Quantum Of Solace but it just doesn't stack up well against the others). Apologies in advance if this causes a few arguments because this will be quite divisive! So, sit back and listen to the best Bond bangers thus far...
Number 20: 'Thunderball'
The third theme song composed by series regular John Barry, the song itself was produced at fairly short notice after the original choice of song proved too short for the title sequence. The film was going to use a song called 'Mr Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang', composed by Barry and Leslie Bricusse and recorded by Shirley Bassey but the song was abandoned in favour for this effort by another Welsh singer, the legendary Tom Jones. Written by Barry and lyricist Don Black, the song reinserted the film's title into the song itself although the recording of the song caused another issue. Jones apparently fainted after singing the song's final note. "I closed my eyes and I held the note for so long when I opened my eyes the room was spinning," Jones later said. Another song for the film was submitted by none other than Johnny Cash but this was unused. As for 'Mr Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang', the song was later rerecorded by Dionne Warwick with a longer instrumental section but this version was not released until the 1990s.
Number 19: 'No Time To Die'
Written by singer Billie Eilish and her brother & collaborator Finneas O'Connell, Eilish became the youngest artist in history to record an official Bond theme at just 17 years old at the time of recording. Released in 2020 as part of the build-up to the release of the film, the song ended up preceding the film by more than a year after No Time To Die was delayed due to the global pandemic. But this didn't stop the song becoming a massive hit - it gave Eilish her first UK Number One single (the first artist born in the 21st century to do so) and only the second Bond theme to top the charts. It also won a Grammy, a Golden Globe and an Oscar which made Eilish the first person born in the 21st century to win any Academy Award. The song certainly has echoes of previous Bond themes but unfortunately, it's too early to tell whether the song has much lasting power. It doesn't have the inherent singalong feel other entries do and personally, I find the song a little underwhelming.
Number 18: 'Writing's On The Wall'
The theme song from Spectre, Sam Smith's stirring performance of the theme didn't win over many critics when it was released in 2015. Written by Smith and Jimmy Napes, the song still became the first Bond theme ever to top the UK charts and only the second to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song. The song was apparently written in just under half an hour and the vocal heard in the song was actually Smith's performance for their demo. Smith, though, isn't a fan of performing the song due to some of the higher notes and called it "horrible to sing". Compared to other Bond themes, it lacks some of the intensity traditionally heard but as a song, there isn't much wrong musically with it. Most critics agreed that the song was too reminiscent of Adele's work on the previous film Skyfall and failed to capture the mood of her song.
Number 17: 'Tomorrow Never Dies'
Pierce Brosnan's second outing as 007 saw Cheryl Crow pick up the performing duties for the theme song, 'Tomorrow Never Dies'. Written by Crow and producer Mitchell Froom, the song actually replaced another song of the same name by the film's composer David Arnold and artist k.d. lang - this would be renamed 'Surrender' and played over the closing credits instead. Crow's blend of country rock and orchestral flourish suits the film and the franchise well but Crow's vocal performance doesn't quite feel right for this type of material. She simply hasn't got the same pipes as Adele or Shirley Bassey, unfortunately. Peaking at number 12 in the UK charts, the song was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe but was beaten on both occasions by Celine Dion's 'My Heart Will Go On' from a certain Titanic.
Never heard of it...
Number 16: 'The Man With The Golden Gun'
Certainly not the strongest Bond film but at least you can say it hasn't a particularly strong theme either. Composed by John Barry who returned to the franchise after missing out on the previous film, lyricist Don Black wrote the song which was performed by pint-sized popstar Lulu. The theme soon became notorious for its suggestive lyrics and Barry himself considers the score and theme song for The Man With The Golden Gun to be the weakest of his contributions. The song also has the unfortunate distinction of being the only Bond title track to fail to chart in the US or the UK although Lulu's vocals were praised on the song. Barry's experience didn't put him off working with the Bond franchise as he continued working with the filmmakers well into the 1980s, as we shall see further down.
Number 15: 'You Know My Name'
The theme song from Daniel Craig's debut as Bond Casino Royale, Chris Cornell's punchy rock anthem was intended by he and co-writer David Arnold to ultimately replace Barry's iconic James Bond Theme to introduce a new, rougher Bond. The lyrics also reflect this new Bond, one inexperienced in the field and plagued by internal conflict and doubt. Bizarrely, the film does not appear on the film's official soundtrack as Cornell has claimed the song for himself, recording the song in the midst of producing his second solo album Carry On and feeling it felt better among those songs instead. Cornell cited two previous Bond theme performers - Tom Jones and Paul McCartney (as part of Wings) - as influences for the song, which remains one of Cornell's biggest hits. It peaked at number 7 in the UK charts and also earned a Grammy nomination as well.
Number 14: 'From Russia With Love'
Matt Monro's silky vocals are a classy accompaniment to John Barry's orchestral version heard during the opening credits to Bond's second film. From Russia With Love was the first film to feature Barry as the principal composer for the soundtrack although this track was actually written by Lionel Bart, the creator of the musical Oliver! Barry had originally intended for the song to use Turkish instruments and influences as the film is partially set there. Accompanying the film's sound crew on a trip to Istanbul, Barry ultimately decided against incorporating these elements into the title song. "It was like no place I'd ever been in my life," he later recalled. "[The trip] was supposedly to seep up the music, so Noel Rogers and I used to go 'round to these nightclubs and listen to all this stuff. We had the strangest week, and really came away with nothing, except a lot of ridiculous stories." The song became one of Monro's signature tunes along with songs from other movies like the title track from Born Free and 'On Days Like These' from The Italian Job.
Number 13: 'Licence To Kill'
This 1989 theme to Timothy Dalton's final outing as Bond was also the last UK chart hit for its performer Gladys Knight, peaking at number 6. Reflecting the more upbeat and contemporary musical cues from the film (who saw John Barry replaced by Michael Kamen), the song was written by Narada Michael Walden, Jeffrey Cohen and Walter Afanasieff. Originally, Eric Clapton was approached to perform the theme song but the prospect ultimately fell through. Uniquely, this was the first time in franchise history that neither the song's performer or writers were credited during the opening titles to Licence To Kill, even though the song itself was the longest Bond theme to date at five minutes and fifteen seconds. However, the version used in the film itself was edited down to just two minutes fifty-three seconds.
Number 12: 'For Your Eyes Only'
The theme to the twelfth Bond film, 'For Your Eyes Only' was written by the film's composer Bill Conti and lyricist Mick Leeson who originally had the film's title at the end of the song. After Maurice Binder (the creator of Bond's iconic opening sequences) complained about this, the song was rewritten and actually features performer Sheena Easton singing the song during the opening credits - to date, the only artist to appear in such a way. While Binder and Moore agreed that Easton's appearance was well suited, Easton herself was less keen and especially after one shot required her to remain perfectly still so she was literally strapped into a chair! Easton was an up-and-coming artist at the time and Conti was not happy about working with her, preferring a more established performer like Dusty Springfield or Donna Summer. The song went on to be nominated for an Academy Award and is one of Easton's biggest hits, peaking at number 8 in the UK chart and number 4 in the US Billboard Hot 100.
Number 11: 'The Living Daylights'
Continuing the trend in the Eighties of using more contemporary artists, Norwegian band A-Ha were called into action for the theme to Timothy Dalton's debut as 007. Primarily written by the band's guitarist Pål Waaktaar, series regular John Barry was co-credited after contributing more strings and orchestral flourishes which, according to Waaktaar, made the song sound more like a Bond theme. However, the working relationship between the band and Barry was not a good one - A-Ha insisted that their version be the one to appear in the film while Barry's version was the one that was actually used. This led to bad blood between both parties with Waaktaar later claiming that Barry contributed nothing to the song-writing process and should not have been credited as such. Peaking at number 5 in the UK charts, the song remains one of A-Ha's most popular songs and is regularly played live at gigs. Another group, Pet Shop Boys, also contributed a song for the soundtrack to The Living Daylights but this wasn't used and was later reworked into another song, 'This Must Be The Place I Waited Years To Leave', for their 1990 album Behaviour.
Number 10: 'James Bond theme'
While John Barry is the man mostly associated with the music of Bond, that unmistakable sound and theme music was written and composed by Monty Norman. Barry served as the band leader for the performing of the song which featured as the title track to the very first Bond film Dr No back in 1962 and has been heard in almost every Bond film since. The famous guitar motif was played by Vic Flick on a 1939 Clifford Essex Paragon Deluxe electric guitar and he was paid the princely sum of just £6 for his efforts. Barry was called on to modify Norman's song for various points in the film and he produced a number of different arrangements, resulting in some controversy as to the identity of the song's composer. But without Monty Norman's surf-rock influenced theme, one has to wonder how different the entire franchise would be. It is as instantly recognisable as the character of Bond itself and as well as featuring in so many films, many of the theme songs that came after it often features musical cues or nods to this original tune. It's importance to the franchise cannot be understated.
Number 9: 'Skyfall'
Written by Paul Epworth and the song's performer Adele, 'Skyfall' was an instant hit with audiences and critics alike. Peaking at number two in the UK charts and number eight in the US, the theme for Skyfall was a dark and reflective piece that mirrored the film's atmosphere and tone. Adele was hesitant to take on the task of recording a Bond theme but agreed after reading the film's script. According to Adele, the first draft of the song was written in just ten minutes but it took a lot longer to get the song recorded properly as Adele was forced to undergo microsurgery for a throat issue. The results were worth it though as the song won a Golden Globe, Grammy, a BRIT award and an Oscar where Adele performed the song live for the very first time. It has since gone double platinum in the UK (indicating sales of more than 1.3 million copies) and was one of the most successful digital songs ever at the time.
Number 8: 'You Only Live Twice'
Another example of John Barry's work with lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, the title theme from You Only Live Twice was performed by Nancy Sinatra. Nancy was actually suggested by her father Frank who was the choice of Bond producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli. Recorded in London in 1967, Nancy was extremely nervous during the recording and the final version heard is apparently made up from around 25 different takes. Regardless, the song remains one of her biggest hits to date and has been covered by a number of artists including Coldplay, Shirley Bassey and Robbie Williams who used the song's recognisable two-bar theme for his 1998 number one hit 'Millennium'. Nancy herself would rerecord the song with frequent collaborator Lee Hazelwood which was less orchestral and more guitar-based.
Number 7: 'GoldenEye'
It's important to introduce a new Bond with a killer theme tune and for Pierce Brosnan's debut as 007, they absolutely knocked it out the park. Tina Turner's powerful performance combined with lyrics by U2's Bono and The Edge and enough musical references to the classic John Barry scores of earlier films, the song was an instant classic among fans and critics alike and peaked at number 10 in the UK charts. The song has been sampled a few times and even covered by the likes of Nicole Scherzinger, DJ David Morales and Finnish goth rockers End Of You. The popularity of GoldenEye, no doubt aided by the legendary video game on the N64 console, means that the song will remain in the forefront of most Bond fans' minds but pity Swedish pop group Ace Of Base who also recorded a song for the film. After the filmmakers went with Tina's song, they reworked 'The GoldenEye' into another song - 'The Juvenile' - for their 2002 album Da Capo instead.
Number 6: 'Diamonds Are Forever'
If you're getting sampled by the likes of Lupe Fiasco and Kanye West (before his career went off the rails somewhat) then you know you've done something right. Shirley Bassey's second Bond theme was one of the few bright spots of this otherwise disappointing return to the franchise of Sean Connery, returning after a one film absence to much fanfare. Composed by Barry with lyrics once again by Don Black, Bassey's theme gives her amazing vocal talents plenty of opportunity to show off with an air of mystique in the music itself. It's also worth noting that Bassey sang the song in Italian for the Italian release of Diamonds Are Forever, renaming the song 'Una cascata di diamanti (Vivo di diamanti)' and was played over the film's end credits. Despite the song's standing among Bond themes, the song only just made the Top 40 in the UK and only spend six weeks in the Top 100. By contrast, Kanye's use of the song in 'Diamonds From Sierra Leone' peaked at number 8.
Number 5: 'Goldfinger'
If you'd asked me at the start which song would have been number one, this would have been my pick. Goldfinger was the first film that set the formula for Bond films until Daniel Craig took over the role in 2006 and this applies equally to the theme tune. The song, composed by Barry with lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, was Shirley Bassey's first and greatest contribution to the Bond franchise and became her biggest hit in the US, peaking at number 8 in the Hot 100. The song was originally recorded by Newley who gave a very creepy performance, according to Barry but Newley didn't want his version to be used. Barry then offered the song to Bassey who he had toured with in 1963. Much like Thunderball, the song's final note caused Bassey much trouble. She later recalled: "I was holding it and holding it - I was looking at John Barry and I was going blue in the face and he's going - hold it just one more second. When it finished, I nearly passed out." Jimmy Page claims to have played on the soundtrack for the film as a session musician. However, Bond producer Harry Saltzman hated the song and almost demanded it be replaced but fortunately, there wasn't enough time to record a different theme. It has also been covered by the likes of Count Basie, Hank Marvin, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers and even Celine Dion.
Number 4: 'A View To A Kill'
Almost unlike any other Bond theme heard before, 'A View To A Kill' brought the traditional Bond themes bang up to date using Eighties megastars Duran Duran to record the song. Combining the band's synth-pop with Barry's orchestration, the song was immediately successful and is still the only Bond theme to top the charts in the US (it was held off the UK top spot by Paul Hardcastle's '19'). The song is still one of the more popular tunes by the band, being played at the band's last performance before they split at Live Aid in 1985 as well as during their performance at the 2011 Coachella festival in tribute to John Barry who died earlier that year. The group were only involved in producing the theme after bassist John Taylor (a self-confessed Bond fan) approached producer Cubby Broccoli at a party and drunkenly asked him when he was going to get someone decent to record a Bond theme. The music video also capitalised on the emergence of MTV, recreating a scene from A View To A Kill on the Eiffel Tower with the band engaged in spy-type shenanigans.
Number 3: 'Nobody Does It Better'
This ballad by Carly Simon was the first to not feature the film's title as the song's title since Dr No although the lyrics do include the line 'the spy who loved me'. Composed by the film's composer Marvin Hamlisch with lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager, the song became one of Simon's biggest hits and has arguably transcended the Bond theme stereotype and is hailed as a great song regardless. Covered by acts as varied as Celine Dion (again!), Radiohead, Julie Andrews and Adam Sandler, the song made the top 10 in the UK and reached number 2 in the US, kept off the top spot by Debby Boone's 'You Light Up My Life' from the film of the same name. It was also nominated for an Academy Award and Golden Globe but lost both to Boone's song. It was also nominated for Grammy awards including Song Of The Year and usually features at the top of lists for the best Bond themes of all time including those published in Rolling Stone and USA Today.
Number 2: 'We Have All The Time In The World'
Speaking of songs that have risen above the series, Louis Armstrong's heartfelt rendition of this song was used as the closing theme to On Her Majesty's Secret Service as opposed to being used for the opening titles. Composed by Barry (who called the song one of the best pieces of music he had written for the series) with lyrics by Hal David, Armstrong was chosen partly because Barry wanted to work with him but also because he felt he could inject the lyrics with a sense of irony, reflecting the film's downbeat ending. Armstrong was in poor health at the time and was unable to play his trumpet so another musician was used. The song's title is taken from the final line spoken by Bond in both the film and the novel and the song is also heavily used in the latest Bond film, No Time To Die. Initially unsuccessful in the charts, it wasn't until 1994 when it appeared in the UK charts after being used in an advert, peaking at number 3. It has also been covered by the likes of Iggy Pop, The Specials, Fun Lovin' Criminals, My Bloody Valentine, crooner Vic Damone and tenor Alfie Boe. It's also one of the most popular songs chosen for weddings according to a BBC survey.
Number 1: 'Live And Let Die'
It's impossible to understate just how much was riding on the success of the Bond series upon Roger Moore's ascendance to the role. The series needed a serious reboot so Live And Let Die dispensed with megalomaniac baddies and was a more realistic story involving drug trafficking and was heavily influenced by then-popular Blaxploitation. It's no surprise that the film's theme, written and performed by Paul & Linda McCartney (as part of Wings), was also completely different to everything that went before it. It was the first rock song to be a Bond theme although it still featured a significant amount of orchestral accompaniment. It also reunited McCartney with former Beatles producer George Martin who arranged the song.
It was the most successful Bond theme to date, reaching number 2 in the US and number 9 in the UK. It is still regularly performed by McCartney almost fifty years after its release and is often hailed as one of McCartney's best songs. It was also the first Bond theme to be nominated for an Academy Award, losing to Barbra Streisand's The Way We Were from the film of the same name. Even a cover version of the song by Guns N' Roses was nominated for a Grammy Award. Perhaps more than any other Bond theme, the song brings memories of the film to mind even if you still haven't seen it but is also popular enough to appeal to an audience far wider than Bond could. It may be a bit quirky for some but this thunderous track, full of ominous brass and aggressive piano, rings the changes for the films far more than Moore ever did and signalled a new direction for the franchise. And for my money, it's the best Bond theme to date. If you disagree, please feel free to contact me with your arguments or suggestions. Thanks for reading and see you at the movies!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Benjamin Cox