Adele's Skyfall was released today and to be honest it's a bit flat. My five favourites however, all cut the mustard and leave your spine tingling...
This year James Bond turns fifty and, to be fair, he’s looking pretty good for it. He can still take out an army of henchmen, defuse a nuclear detonator and identify a cheeky vintage Bordeaux, even with his Walther PPK crammed into an unforgiving pair of turquoise budgie smugglers.
That’s what we love about James Bond. Whereas some film franchises suffer from their over reliance on ‘formula’, we tend to feel cheated if a bond film doesn’t feature a debonair villain, three exotic locations and some kind of man-eating animal (piranhas, sharks, alligators, Denise Richards). Perhaps the most comforting element of the entire series, however, is the Bond theme song. Bold, brassy and about a subtle as a wedgie from Brian Blessed, the best examples rise above their contrived origins and flavour-of-the-month vocalists, to stand the test of time as classics of film music.
Everyone has their own special memories of the Bond theme. We’ve all enjoyed a Christmas Day afternoon, stuffed with turkey, listening to Lulu coming to a “glittering end”, as silhouetted women dived naked from the barrel of golden gun. Unfortunately, this is one area of the well-loved series that seems to be getting weaker with every new instalment. Just as the Craig-era directors attempted to revitalise the format with a gritty, hard-edged style, the songs’ composers seemed to be working to a similar brief. Another Way to Die, by Jack White and Alicia Keys, had all the aural appeal of four minutes listening to Paul Shane fart into a wet football sock.
Over the years, the franchise has danced dangerously close to self-parody. So it’s a good bet that those big, bombastic themes, with their overblown horn sections, have forever been consigned to annals of history, along with hand-drawn animation and Steve Guttenberg. Even so, Bond has given us some timeless musical moments and it would be foolish to overlook the heritage of the series. As beefy balladeer Adele debuts her own distinctly nostalgic theme song in the form of Skyfall, we may at last see a resurgence of those classic Bond sounds, right down to the torturous non-sequiteur reference to the film’s title in its lyrics.
To get us in the mood, here are my favourite five Bond theme songs – feel free to disagree and suggest your own.
Matt Monro – From Russia With Love
As the second film in the series, certain elements of what was to become the Bond ‘formula’ began to make their presence known. One of these was the notion of a theme song – although it wasn’t until Goldfinger that the title song would play over the opening credits. Matt Monro’s ballad about a pointless return trip to Moscow had to make do with appearing on a radio fifteen minutes into the film, before getting a full airing once Rosa Klebb had kicked her last shin. Lyrically, it’s almost entirely meaningless – an issue that many subsequent songwriters would struggle with. Given the franchise’s penchant for preposterous titles, it’s enough to give any self-respecting lyricist an aneurysm. Despite all this, it’s a powerful song, and my top tip if you ever find yourself coerced into any kind of karaoke activity. Just be sure to save enough breath for that last “looooooooove” – the ‘singing bus driver’ could hold a note from Putney to Plaistow.
Louis Armstrong – We Have All The Time In The World
1969 gave Cubby Broccoli the opportunity to shake and stir things up a bit. Sean Connery had temporarily surrendered his licence to kill, leaving the portly producer with something of a casting headache. By choosing a handsome but largely inanimate plank of three-ply, Eon made it clear that this was a different kind of Bond. Taking this logic one step further, they also decided to do away with the opening theme song which, by now, was now a well-established component of the series’ ongoing success. It didn’t help matters that even Lesley Bricusse was struggling to fit the title ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ into a workable lyric. So out went the theme song, and in came Hal David and John Barry to compose the classic Louis Armstrong ballad. Although it was considered a flop at the time, the gentle optimism of the song, coupled with a masterclass in distinctive delivery, is now a bona fide classic and one of the few Bond themes you wouldn’t be embarrassed to admit owning. The fact that it’s the soundtrack to a film that ends with the hero’s wife being shot before she even makes it to the honeymoon suite, gives it an extra sting in the tail.
Another Way to Die, by Jack White and Alicia Keys, had all the aural appeal of four minutes listening to Paul Shane fart into a wet football sock.
Carly Simon – Nobody Does It Better
Carly Simon was the perfect choice for mid-70s Bond. Only four years into the role, Roger Moore’s portrayal of the suave super spy was so tongue-in-cheek he was in danger of giving himself a mouth ulcer, and his self-awareness must have inspired Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager’s straight-faced sarcasm. Superficially, one could argue that the song is a straight-forward declaration of love for the world’s best lover. But then, why would the studio choose Carly Simon of all people to sing it? Carly, after all, was most famous for a blistering take-down of an ex who loved nothing more than to watch himself gavotte.
Duran Duran – A View To A Kill
If you were to poll every Bond fan in the world for their favourite episode, it’s unlikely that AVTAK would be troubling the top of the league. Badly paced, disjointed and incoherent, it’s coming to something when the high-point of your movie is Grace Jones feverishly pumping a mine cart full of explosives. By 1985 Roger was looking pretty long in the tooth, to the point that the producers were deploying rear projection and stunt doubles for anything that required more than a light jog. Ever the pro, Moore was at least willing to do his own love scenes, but the sight of a decrepit man in a safari suit attempting to pull up to Grace’s bumper was a little like watching your granddad trying to mount a well-polished sideboard. And yet, despite the film’s inherent craptitude, the theme song’s a blinder. Full of mid-eighties thump, and boasting a seductive LeBon vocal, this is one of Duran Duran’s finest songs. In my mind, it’s also one of the least dated soundtrack entries to emerge from that dark era in music history.
KD Lang – Surrender
A number of songs were submitted to accompany Pierce Brosnan’s second outing as Bond, with Sheryl Crow’s unlistenably scratchy Tomorrow Never Dies being the eventual victor. However, the producers made an egregious error by overlooking this masterpiece by David Arnold, who also composed the film’s score. Bond doesn’t have a the best track record with lesbians – the last time he had a sapphic encounter, he converted her with a roll in the hay and left a bunch of comely pilots without a leader. So maybe it’s no surprise that KD Lang failed to make the cut, although she did at least get the runner’s up slot over the end credits. But it just seems such a waste, since the song is an absolute belter. With a gloriously OTT arrangement that could give DSB DVT, kd channels the awesome lung-power of Tiger Bay’s finest herself, nailing the melodrama as well as the melody. Adele, I hope you’re taking notes.
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