Concluding our eclectic look at James Bond theme songs of the 20th century.
Nancy Sinatra’s “You Only Live Twice” was the first main title theme that essentially went the romantic route, whereas I have a strong bias in favor of those that make you feel you’re watching a movie in which somebody might get killed, rather than some Lifetime special. I’ll cut them some slack, however, partly because John Barry’s melody is so damn pretty, and partly because he went out of his way to evoke the Japanese setting. The film also makes what may be the best use of the durable 007 theme he introduced in From Russia with Love (1963)—my wife always says it sounds like the cowboys coming over the plains, which may or may not have been the effect Barry was going for—during the helicopter battle with Little Nellie.
Because it featured a new Bond for the first time, the producers must have thought they’d better get down to brass tacks with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), and Barry did so in spades with an instrumental main title that I’d rank second only to the Bond theme in sheer spine-tingling suspense. I think I read someplace that there were actual unused lyrics, but it’s hard to believe; I can only imagine they’d be as unsingable as those to Elmer Bernstein’s theme from The Great Escape (1963). The big vocal is Louis Armstrong’s heartbreaking “We Have All the Time in the World,” a very special song for me and my daughter and Bond co-conspirator, and I’ve often said only half-jokingly that I should sing it at Alexandra’s wedding (substituting “you” for “we”), but I know I could never get through it without crying, since I can barely do that now.
Sean Connery and Shirley Bassey both returned with Diamonds Are Forever (1971), and since I’ve long felt that the film was a little less than the sum of its parts, I regard the theme as not only better than it deserves but also a series highlight, sexy and sinuous with a hint of danger. Strength followed strength with the powerful “Live and Let Die” by Paul McCartney and Wings, and it’s presumably no coincidence that the instrumental score was by “fifth Beatle” George Martin rather than Barry, although ironically, leading lady Jane Seymour was a friend of Barry’s who persuaded him to score Richard Matheson’s Somewhere in Time (1980). And then there’s “The Man with the Golden Gun,” a silly ’70s song (befitting what we call “half of a good James Bond movie”) sung by Lulu, who’d seen cinematically better days when acting and performing the title tune in To Sir, with Love (1967).
One of my dreaded ex-girlfriends used to opine that Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better” (which, if it didn’t share the title of The Spy Who Loved Me , at least used it as a lyric) should be my theme song; she had many unfortunate qualities, but stroking my, um, ego wasn’t one of them. In any event, I loved the song—and, indeed, several of Simon’s, e.g., “You’re So Vain”—long before I met her, and see no reason to change my opinion due to guilt by association. I used to consider that the last great Bond film, but Alexandra and I felt on our most recent viewing that it didn’t hold up as well as we’d remembered. Still, Barbara Bach. I’m just sayin’.
It was with Moonraker (1979) that the series went into a steep downward spiral, and while they were not contiguous, I would lump Bassey’s title song and Rita Coolidge’s “All Time High” (from the lamentable Octopussy , with words by Tim Rice, yet) together. Each is a perfectly lovely, singable, and well-performed Barry ballad that just happens to have seriously goofy lyrics, and seems too romantic for a spy thriller. As for the film itself, it represents the more unfortunate influences of Star Wars (1977), transforming Ian Fleming’s relatively realistic, albeit uninspiring, novel into a far-fetched sci-fi saga that made the character of Jaws (Richard Kiel) from The Spy Who Loved Me even more ridiculous.
Before you start ragging on me for liking anything by Sheena Easton (or Sheena Beaston, as we affectionately called her back in the day), be aware that For Your Eyes Only (1981) opened in the U.S. exactly 132 days after my first date with Loreen, the theme quickly and aptly becoming “our song.” As much as she loves ’80s music, which I always call the soundtrack to our courtship, I think the decade took its toll on “A View to a Kill” by Duran Duran (a group that got its name from a villain in Barbarella , by the way) and “The Living Daylights” by a-ha. I don’t dislike them, but both are somewhat synthetic-sounding pop-rock tunes, and neither is particularly singable, due in no small measure to typically indecipherable and/or impenetrable lyrics.
Nothing against Gladys Knight, who didn’t write it, but “License to Kill” may be the worst Bond theme ever: featuring the repeated lyric “Hey, baby,” it’s ponderous, elephantine, not especially melodic—and then, with a sickening lurch, it gets even slower, as though the elephant had stepped in molasses. A six-year hiatus did wonders for the series in general (see “Will MGM Succeed Where Blofeld Failed?”) and Bond themes in particular with “GoldenEye,” written by Bono and The Edge; you may have heard of their little combo, U2. The song is electric with menace, and the great Tina Turner threatens to out-Bassey Shirley with her powerhouse delivery, after which Sheryl Crow’s ruminative, self-aware “Tomorrow Never Dies” seems a little too languorous…but still miles ahead of “License to Kill.”
Addendum: Fans of Bond, Quiller, Len Deighton, Donald Hamilton, et alia will enjoy The Debrief (http://jeremyduns.blogspot.com/), a relatively new blog by Jeremy Duns, who is not only an aficionado but also a practitioner of espionage fiction.
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