There have been 24 films about the dashing British secret service agent James Bond, beginning with Dr. No in 1962, up to the most recent film Spectre, released in 2015. It has been a long-established tradition for each film to have a theme song. Over those 53 years, some are impressive tracks that have stood the test of time, while others were quickly forgotten. Here are my picks for the ten best Bond theme songs:
10. LICENSE TO KILL – Gladys Knight (License to Kill – 1989)
Initially, Eric Clapton and Vic Flick (who played the guitar riff in the original “James Bond Theme”) were asked to write and perform the theme song for License To Kill. It was to be an updated version of the original theme, but that project fell apart, and this song, performed by Gladys Knight, was chosen instead. It was composed by Narada Michael Walden, Jeffrey Cohen and Walter Afanasieff, and based on the “horn line” from Goldfinger, which required royalty payments to the original writers. I love Gladys Knight’s voice, and think it’s a pretty good song that well complements the film.
9. GOLDENEYE – Tina Turner (GoldenEye – 1995)
“GoldenEye” was written specifically for Tina Turner by Bono and the Edge of U2 after they learned that she had been invited to sing the theme to the Bond film of the same name. Like many of the other women who sang Bond themes, Turner’s strong, sensuous vocals were perfectly suited for the genre.
8. NOBODY DOES IT BETTER – Carly Simon (The Spy Who Loved Me – 1977)
I really love this song, which is why I’ve ranked it higher than it probably should be. It’s a great song, but it just doesn’t evoke the sense of mystery and danger we expect from Bond movie themes, and is better suited for a romantic comedy. Written by Marvin Hamlisch, with lyrics by Carol Bayer Sager, the song is one of the more pop-oriented, radio friendly Bond themes, and it was a huge hit for Carly Simon.
7. THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH – Garbage (The World Is Not Enough – 1999)
Written by composer David Arnold and lyricist Don Black, “The World Is Not Enough” was performed by the alternative rock group Garbage, with sensuous sweeping vocals by lead singer Shirley Manson. Regarding the choice of Garbage to record the song, Arnold stated “Part of the reason I thought Garbage would be such a good idea is that I think Shirley Manson is someone who could easily inhabit Bond’s world.” (Wikipedia)
6. SKYFALL – Adele (Skyfall – 2012)
After the massive success of “Rolling in the Deep” in 2011, Adele seemed the perfect choice by Sony Pictures President of Music Lia Vollack to record the theme for Skyfall. She thought Adele’s voice had a “soulful, haunting, evocative quality” that would bring back the “classic Shirley Bassey feel” of several earlier Bond themes, so she suggested to the film’s producers that Adele be asked to write and record the theme song. After reading and falling in love with the script for Skyfall, Adele agreed to write a song, with assistance from Paul Epworth, her producer and co-writer for her smash album 21. The result was a tremendously powerful track that captured the Bond vibe that Vollack had envisioned, even incorporating the 007 theme. It was awarded the Oscar for Best Original Song in 2013.
5. LIVE AND LET DIE – Paul McCartney & Wings (Live and Let Die – 1973)
Film producers Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli invited Paul McCartney to write the title theme for Live and Let Die, but wanted it to be sung by Shirley Bassey or Thelma Houston. McCartney told them he would only allow it to be used in the film if performed by his band Wings. “Live and Let Die” captures the menacing danger of the film, and was the first Bond theme to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song.
4. YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE – Nancy Sinatra (You Only Live Twice – 1967)
One of the most gorgeous Bond themes, “You Only Live Twice” was composed by John Barry, with lyrics by Leslie Bricusse. The song features lush, soaring orchestration and lovely vocals by Nancy Sinatra. Barry initially wanted the song to be performed by Aretha Franklin, while Cubby Broccoli wanted Frank Sinatra to sing it. Frank recommended his daughter Nancy instead, and the rest is history.
3. A VIEW TO A KILL – Duran Duran (A View to a Kill – 1985)
John Barry teamed up with Duran Duran in the writing of the excellent “A View to a Kill.” Another dramatic song, it perfectly complements the perilous espionage-filled world of James Bond. Duran Duran were chosen to do the song after bassist John Taylor, a lifelong Bond fan, approached producer Cubby Broccoli at a party and rather pointedly asked “When are you going to get someone decent to do one of your theme songs?” (By the mid-80’s, Bond themes had become pretty stale and boring.) Obviously a good sport, Mr. Broccoli subsequently introduced the band to John Barry, resulting in this awesome collaboration. A huge hit, it’s the only Bond theme to reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart.
2. JAMES BOND 007 THEME – John Barry & Orchestra (Dr. No – 1962)
The original – and classic – Bond theme, and the basis for many subsequent Bond themes, has been the subject of much squabbling over songwriting credit. Monty Norman has been credited with writing it, and received hundred of thousands of dollars in royalties, despite the fact that for Dr. No, the tune was arranged by John Barry, who claims he actually wrote it. (Barry would go on to compose the scores of another 10 Bond films.) Courts have ruled twice that the theme was written by Monty Norman.
1. GOLDFINGER – Shirley Bassey (Goldfinger – 1964)
The most iconic Bond theme, “Goldfinger” is the gold-standard of them all (no pun intended). This masterpiece was composed by John Barry, with lyrics written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley. The song opens with piercing horns, followed by Shirley Bassey’s powerful, dramatic vocals that propel “Goldfinger” into the sonic stratosphere, guaranteed to raise goosebumps every time. Unbelievably, the song was almost taken out of the film because producer Harry Saltzman hated it, saying, “That’s the worst fucking song I’ve ever heard in my life”. (Wikipedia) Thankfully, he reconsidered.
A final note about Bond themes. The alternative rock band Radiohead were asked to write a song for the film Spectre, but it was rejected by the film’s producers in favor of the song “Writing’s On the Wall” by Sam Smith. They considered “Spectre” too “dark.” The band was rather stoic about it, and decided to release the song themselves (it appears on their phenomenal latest album A Moon Shaped Pool). Many critics and fans agree that “Spectre” is superior to Sam Smith’s song, despite the fact “Writing’s On the Wall” went on to win the Oscar for Best Original Song. I think it’s gorgeous and a perfect Bond theme that would have placed in my top 10.