Bombastic, kitsch, or catchy, there’s something unique about a James Bond theme song. There are a few timeless classics, but most either represent a weird moment in the zeitgeist, or are downright embarrassing. Uniquely, James Bond theme songs are often better than the films they kick off, though the reverse can occasionally be true, too. Now that Skyfall is out and we’ve all had a chance to enjoy Adele’s new theme song, it’s time to determine once and for all which 007 tunes are better than their respective films, which ones are worse, and which ones fit just right.
Shake up a martini, and grab your headphones. The James Bond Theme Song Dossier is declassified!
“Dr. No” (The James Bond Theme) written by Monty Norman. Performed by The John Barry Orchestra (1962)
Though the Eric Rogers song “Under the Mango Tree” features heavily in this film (Bond even sings a few bars) the actual theme song for Dr. No is simply the slick famous instrumental James Bond theme, complete with horns and guitar. Every single real James Bond movie (the Peter Sellers Casino Royale and Connery’s Never Say Never Again don’t count) uses some arrangement of this theme. Does it fit with the movie? Well, really, how could it not? Dr. No is a solid and entertaining James Bond film, but by no means the best. So, in this sense its theme song is better than the movie. It’s also possible that “The James Bond Theme” is better than all the James Bond movies combined.
Verdict: Theme song is better.
“From Russia With Love” written by Lionel Bart, performed by Matt Monro + “007” written by John Barry and performed by the The John Barry Orchestra (1963)
I love this one. Several months ago I was waiting for a train on a New York City subway platform and a man was playing an instrumental version of this on a trumpet, which is awesome because the opening sequence of the film is also an instrumental version. (People singing at the start of James Bond movies doesn’t happen until Goldfinger.) This is one of those great classic crooner songs that just gets stuck in your head and makes you feel all dizzy and romantic. Like many James Bond themes, it’s actually more tender than the characters in the movie. From Russia With Love is up there with my favorite Connery movies, and this theme song does generally fit with the film. However, I think it could have easily been a memorable movie even if it had a different theme song.
But, the real cool one here is the introduction of the instrumental adventure theme “007.” This orchestral drum pounding romp is basically a chase scene in the form of strings, percussion, and brass. I love love love this. It’s more heroic than “The James Bond Theme,” and when it’s used in subsequent movies, I get chills. I’m really not sure why contemporary Bond composer David Arnold never brought it back for Dalton, Brosnan, or Craig-era films. Easily a better piece of music than the film where it originated.
Verdict: “From Russia With Love” is probably as just as good as From Russia With Love. Meanwhile “007” beats them all and is perfect.
“Goldfinger” written by John Barry, Anthony Newley, and Leslie Bricusse. Performed by Shirley Bassey (1964)
Arguably, this is the best of all James Bond theme songs, introducing what is also arguably the best James Bond movie. Like other early films, the song also incorporates part of “The James Bond Theme” into its arrangement, making the instrumental motifs of the song throughout the movie super-nuanced. There’s no getting around how great the movie is or how great this song still sounds. It’s sexy, flashy and memorable. This is also the first time of three times Shirley Bassey is singing for Bond! If I was backed against a wall by a man with a lethal hat and forced to pick between the song and the movie, I’d probably pick the song, by a very small margin.
Verdict: Theme song is better, but only just barely.
“Thunderball” written by John Barry and Don Black, performed by Tom Jones + “Mr. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” written by John Barry and Leslie Bricusse, performed by Dionne Warwick. (1965)
This one is full of all sorts of weird history. The original theme for this movie was supposed to be “Mr. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” but was changed at the last minute to “Thunderball.” Johnny Cash also sent these guys a song called “Thunderball” which ended up not being used. Finally, Tom Jones apparently fainted after singing the last note of “Thunderball!” Weird.
After “Goldfinger” we got another Bond theme song seemingly about the bad guy, rather than about Bond. Or is it about Bond? Tom Jones is fairly cool in this one, but there’s something about Thunderball the movie and the song that aren’t quite up to par for me. (Maybe it’s because they couldn’t make their minds up.) There’s a great underwater scuba-brawl which uses “007” again, but this is definitely one where the movie is slightly better than the song. Tom Jones is right for a James Bond song, but fails to be as memorable as some of the other big artists.
“Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” shows up on some Bond music compilation and is a little too tinny and silly for my tastes. James Bond movies sometimes have two legitimate theme songs, but I really don’t think “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” should count.
Verdict: Thunderball and “Thunderball” are both decent, with the movie being slightly better. “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” is really hard to accept as being real.
“You Only Live Twice” written by John Barry and Leslie Bricusse, performed by Nancy Sinatra (1967)
Like many of the early Bond songs, the arrangements of the melodies are a natural fit for the film’s score. I think the opening strings in this one are totally over-the-top cheesy-wonderful. The world seems to agree with me, since covers and samples of this song are everywhere! From Bjork to Coldplay to Robbie Williams to Cee-Lo, those opening strings are part of the human musical brain. This one is a personal favorite and despite the various incarnations, I think Nancy Sinatra hits it out of the park. There’s also a stellar foot-chase sequence in where an aerial camera angle is accompanied by the orchestral version of the theme. Great movie moment. For me “You Only Live Twice” is a kooky and fun Bond movie, with a fitting saccharine theme song. But because of its deserved ubiquity, I think the song is winning.
Verdict: Theme song is better! (Related viewing: the video for Robbie Williams “Millenium”which is is a full-on Connery and Moore era James Bond homage. Aston Martin! Voodoo guy! Gambling! Jet pack!)
“On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” Written by John Barry, performed by theJohn Barry Orchestra + “We Have All the Time in the World” Written by John Barry, performed by Louis Armstrong (1969)
Oh no! The Connery era is practically over! When Bond was rebooted with new actor George Lazenby, the opening titles were, again only instrumental. “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” is an awesome piece of music and so iconic that it was even sampled in the trailer for The Incredibles.
The film itself is a little on the not very good side, though aspects are interesting. The song is certainly winning over the movie with this one. However, the other theme song for “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” is the Louie Armstrong “We Have All the Time in the World,” a love song about James Bond and Tracy, I guess. The title is also the last thing Bond says to the audience while he’s holding Tracy’s dead body in his arms. Seriously, this movie is such a downer; it almost makes me love it for being so weird. Almost. “We Have All the Time in the World” is sweet enough, but not something I ever listen to when I’m in the mood for Bond OR Louie Armstrong.
Verdict: Theme song—“On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” is way better than the movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Although “We Have All the Time in the World” is worse than On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
“Diamonds Are Forever” Written Don Black, performed by Shirley Bassey, (1971)
With Connery returning to the role of Bond, it makes sense to play it safe and go with Shirley Bassey for the song, since she previously did the best Bond song ever with “Goldfinger.” Notably, this is the only time a performer was used again (Bassey recorded three in all) to do a Bond opening theme.
However, it’s less than stellar. “Diamonds Are Forever” is slow, uninteresting and has creepy themes. Sort of like the movie! This is one everyone should skip. Hearing this song always reminds me of how bored Connery looked in this movie. The song and the movie certainly need each other, but they’re both just the worst. Then-Bond producer Harry Saltzman also hated the song.
Verdict: Both are terrible.
“Live And Let Die” written and performed by Paul McCartney and Wings (1973)
The first Bond film to feature Roger Moore was also the first to not have John Barry composing the music. This time, Beatles producer George Martin was in charge, making ex-Beatles Paul McCartney a natural choice for the theme song.
I’ve always loved how Bond is talking smack about The Beatles in Goldfinger but less than 10 years later; a Beatle produces the best James Bond song since the song “Goldfinger.” As a big Beatles fan, this is never a Paul McCartney solo song I ever listen to, mostly just because it’s been a bit over-played. But I loved it as a kid. It’s great, it seems like a Bond movie, it’s really different from 60’s era stuff and the orchestral arrangements of it in the film are thrilling.
Is it better than the movie it occupies? You bet. Live and Let Die is a disaster of movie. Sometimes racist, other times inappropriately slapsticky. This one is really hard to watch, even if Roger Moore’s 70’s suits look great and the alligator sequence rocks. The song will live on way beyond anyone’s knowledge of the film. Just don’t listen to that Gun N’ Roses version.
Verdict: ”Live and Let Die“ is way better than Live and Let Die.
“The Man With the Golden Gun” Written by John Barry and Don Black, performed by Lulu (1974)
Oh the 70s. I’m so confused by you. Why were there groups singers like Lulu in the 70s? Why did she do this song? Just how much does it suck? Almost as much as the oddly creepy movie? There’s a school of thought which claims James Bond was ruined over the years by too much self-parody in the writing of the scripts. The same might very well be true of the theme songs; with “The Man With the Golden Gun” being a big culprit. Full of sex/killing innuendos, this earworm is definitely one to skip. The movie is slightly better than its theme song, but only because Christopher Lee is in it and he has three nipples.
Verdict: Movie is barely better.
“Nobody Does It Better” Written by Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager, performed by Carly Simon (from The Spy Who Loved Me, 1977)
I know this is going to be hard for everyone to believe but this is easily one of my favorite songs of all time, and my secret favorite among the good James Bond theme songs. Carly Simon’s famous love letter to Bond has been covered by pretty much everyone, but the Aimee Mann version is easily the best and possibly better than the original. Of the various Bond songs which are corny love songs, this is the best. The movie isn’t bad either! Bond meets his match with agent XXX (not Vin Diesel), drives an underwater car, and shoots a dude while skiing. What more do want? It’s too bad the song is so memorable, because it would almost be a tie. But, really, this song could have gone with any Moore-era Bond movie.
Verdict: Song is better.
“Moonraker” written by John Barry and Hal David. Performed Shirley Bassey (1979)
Not sure what they were thinking here. I suppose after a love song worked as the opening theme for The Spy Who Loved Me, the producers figured bringing back the singer of “Goldfinger” (again) was money in the bank. It’s so weird that both of these Shirley Bassey songs after “Goldfinger” are big old clunkers. She’s got a gorgeous voice and in theory this should work, but it’s just weird. Why is this corny love song at the beginning of a movie about Bond flying space ships and shooting lasers? Is this a dream? Obviously because of the aforementioned lasers and the return of Jaws, the movie Moonraker is way better than the song “Moonraker.”
Verdict: Movie is better.
“For Your Eyes Only” by written by Bill Conti and Michael Leeson, performed by Sheena Easton (1981)
I am a huge James Bond fan, but I’m not sure I can tell you what happens in this movie. Part of me is convinced it’s not actually anything more than a series of Bond clichés strung together. Here’s the snow scene! Look, here’s Bond in the casino! Now he’s underwater! I also recall Roger Moore wearing a windbreaker and looking like someone’s lame dad throughout.
The theme song however is kind of sweet and is the only Bond opening sequence to actually feature the singer singing to you! The first time a character sings the theme song in a Bond movie is “Live And Let Die” but of course the person singing isn’t Paul McCartney. The only time a singer of the theme song is also a character in a Bond movie is when Madonna appears in Die Another Day.
“For Your Eyes Only” was also nominated for a Golden Globe and an Academy Award. Though I’m not crazy about the corny love-song marathon during the Roger Moore era, this one doesn’t really bug me. Though Blondie was originally going to do a song (bummer!) Sheena Easton is fantastic. There’s no question that this forgettable Bond movie is much worse than its sweet little theme song.
Verdict: Song is way better, and actually kind of romantic.
“All Time High” (From Octopussy) Written by John Barry and Tim Rice, performed by Rita Coolidge. (1983)
Wow. This song is terrible. I remember being mortified by its crappiness even as a teenager. The Roger Moore-era is sort of at its worse in Octopussy. The saxophone outro of this song describes the crappiness of the movie and the song perfectly. Shockingly, Tim Rice wrote the lyrics to this cliché nonsense. I’d like to say Maud Adams saves this movie, but she doesn’t, no more than Tim Rice saves the song. In terms of the song/movie competition, it’s slightly close because they’re both so bad, but I’ll have to give it to the movie, if only for the audacious title.
Verdict: Movie is better, I guess?
“A View To A Kill” written by John Barry and Duran Duran and performed by Duran Duran. (1985)
Boom! Bond is back! In terms of charts and sales, this is still the most popular James Bond theme song, ever. That’s right, Duran Duran beat Paul McCartney! Apparently it was also Duran Duran’s idea to do a James Bond theme song, after the bassist John Taylor asserted that nobody decent ever does the theme songs. Is the movie any good? Well, it’s got Christopher Walken, Patrick Macnee, AND Grace Jones, so it’s watchable as hell. But, Roger Moore looks terrible in it and the film has a general suckiness to it. Overall, it’s super fun. However, the contest between song and movie is pretty obvious in this one.
Verdict: Song is WAY better.
“The Living Daylights” written by John Barry and Ah-ha, performed by A-ha (Also “If There Was a Man” by the Pretenders, 1987)
After over a decade of Roger Moore as Bond, Timothy Dalton stepped into the role for what was a slightly more serious version of the famous agent. This was the last Bond film scored by John Barry, and featured an upbeat opening track by A-ha.
It’s funny how the successful Bond theme songs sometimes would create a trend of other very similar types of songs. After “Nobody Does It Better” became a success, all Bond movies had saccharine love songs. After “A View To A Kill” killed it, the producers seemed to have ordered a pop-replacement in the form of “The Living Daylights.” For being a poor man’s “A View To A Kill,” “The Living Daylights” isn’t all that bad. For novelty reasons only, I sometimes prefer it to “A View To A Kill.” The movie isn’t half bad either.
Though, on balance, everything here is just okay. And because the song really is a poor man’s “A View To A Kill,” and the movie has a scene in which Bond rides a cello case like a sled, the movie wins by a small margin.
Oddly, this is an instance in a Bond movie where there’s randomly another song sung over the closing credits. It’s called “If There Was a Man” and it’s by The Pretenders. I guess they were trying to make a big deal out of Dalton’s debut by giving him two songs? This one doesn’t have any impact on me at all, and there was a man, but so what?
Verdict: The movie is a little better. Though I really irrationally love this song.
“License To Kill” written by Narada Michael Walden, Jeffrey Cohen and Walter Afanasieff. Performed by Gladys Knight and “If You Asked Me To” written and performed by Patti LaBelle. (1989)
I feel like with this song the Bond franchise is splitting the difference. On the one hand this is a sort of old school love song from the Roger Moore era, but on the other hand it’s kind of got some throwbacks to “Goldfinger.” (It even uses some of the horn line from that one.) I actually quite like this song and I think there’s something slightly more romantic about it than it lets on. Like the previous Bond film, this one also has a second song sung over the end credits; the Patti LaBelle song “If You Asked Me To” which was covered by Celine Dion years later. It’s pretty obvious why Celine took it; it’s a belter of a big epic love song. Totally great. Weird that it’s in this James Bond movie.
The movie is sort of just okay. Though I’m always bonkers for the “Bond goes rogue” premise, this one has a lot of third act problems which really bury the movie in a confusing mess filled with semi-trucks and missile launchers. If you have to choose between the two, I think the Gladys Knight music video is sort of genius.
Verdict: The song is better and Gladys Knight looks great in a tux.
“GoldenEye” written by Bono and the The Edge, performed by Tina Turner (1995)
Despite some corny hacker stuff, GoldenEye holds up as being a really great Bond movie and easily remains the best of the four Pierce Brosnan outings. And the theme song is awesome! Written by Bono and The Edge of U2, this one feel like a classic era Bond song, but is somehow new and catchy every time you hear it. The opening title sequence was really hot and the music video with Tina is great. I’m sort of bummed out she’s not in the movie playing some awesome MI6 inventor or something. Not since Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome has a movie needed Tina Turner more. Further, considering how long Bond had been away, they needed some big guns like Tina.
Verdict: The song is better. Come on. It’s Tina Turner. Why did it take them so long to get her to do one of these anyway?
“Tomorrow Never Dies” written and performed by Sheryl Crow and “Surrender” written by k.d. lang and David Arnold and performed by k.d. lang. (1997)
The 1990s are a weird time for James Bond movies, and the choice of Sheryl Crow for this one seems super arbitrary. I actually don’t mind Sheryl Crow at all, but this is not one of her better offerings. I mean that “Steve McQueen” song of hers is better than this. Tomorrow Never Dies the film is also a huge step backwards after GoldenEye and the feeble attempt the song is making to be catchy parallels the feeling you get from the movie: it’s just trying a little too hard.
Oddly, there’s again another theme song in this movie which is much better called “Surrender”written with new Bond composer David Arnold and performed by k.d lang. This song is totally awesome, sounds like a Bond theme, and was relegated to end-credits status by the producers. Bummer! (But here’s a fan-edit with the good k.d. lang song for the opening credits.)
Verdict: The movie Tomorrow Never Dies is slightly better than the song “Tomorrow Never Dies” BUT, the k.d lang song “Surrender” is way better than Tomorrow Never Dies and “Tomorrow Never Dies.”
“The World is Not Enough” written by David Arnold and Don Black, performed by Garbage. (1999)
I really like this one. It’s got something really old-fashioned about it, but it also rocks. I think Garbage is great. (I mean really, who hasn’t jammed out to “I’m Only Happy When it Rains?”) The movie is sort of a mixed bag. It’s pretty hard not to be offended by the presence of Denise Richards, but the rest of the story is actually not bad. I like the way Bond gets screwed over in this one and the way M is in on the action. But, really, you could hear the song and never care about the movie one bit. Apparently David Arnold really wanted this one to sound like a John Barry-era song. It worked and Shirley Manson sounds like she’s time-traveled straight from 1963.
Verdict: The song is way, way better than the movie.
“Die Another Day” written and performed by Madonna (2002)
It’s shocking no one thought to get Madonna to do a Bond theme before this one. With Die Another Day the franchise was pulling out all the stops because, at the time, it was the 40th anniversary of the Bond film franchise. In terms of a movie, I think Die Another Day is probably the worst James Bond movie of all time, if only because it’s such a cynical mess. (Though it does have a great pre-title sequence) It’s hard to believe this is the same James Bond from GoldenEye. However, I think Madonna’s theme song is a great techno-dance track and totally belongs in a James Bond movie. It’s rad.
This music video in which she fights herself contains probably more James Bond references than the actual movie. It’s also sort of the best anyone could hope for in terms of being entertained by the weird medium of music videos based on songs written for movies. It should feel cynical, but it doesn’t.
Verdict: The song is way better.
“You Know My Name” (From Casino Royale, 2006) written by David Arnold and Chris Cornell. Performed by Chris Cornell.
Initially, I wasn’t crazy about this one mostly because I couldn’t get behind Chris Cornell’s voice. But as I’ve watched Casino Royale several times since, the song has really grown on me. I think it really hits me in an early scene when Bond is driving a fork lift and the awesome orchestra version of the theme sort of blasts through. It’s a great touch. Now, obviously Casino Royale is awesome and a nearly perfect Bond movie. I can’t say enough good things about it. It’s also the most faithful to the novels, which gives it huge points in my book.
Verdict: The movie is way better by virtue of being maybe the best James Bond movie ever.
“Another Way to Die” (From Quantum of Solace, 2008) written by Jack White. Performed by Jack White and Alicia Keyes.
Still loving Daniel Craig as Bond even though Quantum of Solace is totally terrible feels weird. What is even happening in this movie? I know D. Craig is supposed to be the dark, brooding Bond, but the complete lack of humor in this movie is shocking. There’s something almost depressing about the movie’s lack of thematic focus.
However, the song by Jack White and Alicia Keyes is excellent. Not since Tina Turner, Bono and The Edge have the Bond songs had such talented musicians around. What a waste to use them on this odd duck of a James Bond movie. They’re the only duo in Bond song history thus far! The song is catchy and hot and this music video with them is even cooler than the Madonna ”Die Another Day“ entry.
Verdict: The song is way better, if only because Jack White had the good sense to avoid using the word “quantum” in the lyrics.
“Skyfall” for Skyfall (2012)
Written by Adele and Paul Epworth. Performed by Adele
The last time a Bond theme song was actually written and performed by someone from the U.K. was Duran Duran’s A View to a Kill. And though there’s been some quality ones since then, Adele’s “Skyfall” is absolutely beautiful. This one is a kind of crossroads between an old-school “Goldfinger” style theme (insofar as it incorporates the James Bond Theme) and a contemporary song written by a cool contemporary artist. The song is lush and gorgeous and is made all the better by the excellent title sequence. I’d heard “Skyfall” before I saw the film, but the music gave me shivers in the theatre. Adele is also the first woman to feature by herself as a vocalist since Madonna’s Die Another Day. Unlike that one, Adele’s cool song opens up an awesome James Bond movie.
Verdict: The movie is really great, and the song is too. Likely they’ll be remembered together. Though, unlike “Live and Let Die” or a “A View to a Kill, “I can’t see myself putting “Skyfall” on the jukebox. Then again, Skyfall the movie isn’t exactly casual viewing.
There you have it readers/listeners. The history of James Bond theme songs is long and strange. If there’s one overall pattern I’ve noticed it’s this: when the film’s composer is not writing the theme song, and instead total creative control is left to that artist, the songs tend to be better and more memorable. But, without John Barry, and now David Arnold (who also now scores Sherlock), we certainly wouldn’t know what Bond sounds like in general, meaning their influence can’t be stressed enough.
Now, dear readers, tell me which theme songs you loved, which movies you thought were better than their songs and vice versa. Let’s shake things up 007 style!
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com. If you see him walking around lip-synching to his iPod, the chances of the song being “For Your Eyes Only” are really high.