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What is the best James Bond song? My money would be on You Only Live Twice by Nancy Sinatra but with a franchise that has been running for fifty years there are no shortage of candidates. Having a James Bond theme accepted in the first place is no easy task. Amongst those who have submitted a song and been rejected are names like Blondie (For Your Eyes Only), Alice Cooper (The Man with the Golden Gun), The Pet Shop Boys (The Living Daylights), Johnny Cash, Dionne Warwick (Thunderball), Pulp (Tomorrow Never Dies), Straw (The World Is Not Enough), Ace of Bass, Saint Etienne, Marc Almond, Swan Lee, The Cardigans and Space (all for GoldenEye), Scott Walker (Die Another Day) and French pop muffin Alizée (Quantum of Solace). "The best of Bond... James Bond" (what an original title!) is a CD that gives you all the Bond themes from Dr No to (ugh) Chris Cornell's You Know My Name from (ugh again) 2006's Casino Royale. I'm surprised at how many of these songs I love as many are terribly naff but then I suppose that's all part of the charm. Things only really take a big turn for the worse here when John Barry leaves the series in the late eighties. The songs for the Brosnan films are very uninspired and the less said about Chris Cornell the better. At least you are spared Jack White's Another Way To Die from Quantum of Solace - probably the worst song ever recorded without anyone serving a jail sentence. I can only assume Barbara Broccoli is either tone deaf, not very bright or has "artists" foisted on her by the studio. Maybe it's a combination of the three.
The collection begins with Monty Norman's James Bond theme from Dr No - easily one of greatest and most recognisable pieces of film "hero" music ever created. It's a work of genius that can be reinvented and toyed with but is still probably at its most striking in its original retro incarnation. The Kingston Calypso is fun too and then we move onto From Russia with Love with its lush wonderfully over the top opening title music by the great John Barry. What doesn't work quite so well to modern ears is Matt Monro's crooning of the title theme song (played over the end credits in the actual film). This is a borderline dirge. Classy but fairly dull with a generous helping of cheese sprinkled on top. It's falling asleep on a Sunday afternoon. A packet of mints. Goldfinger probably needs no introduction. Performed by Shirley Bassey, this is the most iconic and famous of the Bond themes and set a blueprint for the rest to try and replicate. It's very brassy, immediate and stylish with those trademark obtuse James Bond lyrics that are meaningless but effective nonetheless. The only slight problem with this song is that it's hard to hear it now without thinking of Alan Partridge singing it as he walks down the side of the motorway on his way to the garage. Thunderball is another lush Barry tune that is as brassy and bold as Goldfinger but not so charming. It's still good though and belted out by Tom Jones as if his life depended on it. I think he held the last note for so long he passed out in the studio. "He looks at this world and wants it all... and he strikes... LIKE Thunderball!"
I think Bond songs work better if they are sung by a woman but you can't fault Sir Tom for effort and this is a pretty good song nonetheless. Nancy Sinatra's rendition of You Only Live Twice is possibly the highlight of the collection and the prettiest of the James Bond themes. This is a haunting and strangely hypnotic song that perfectly captures the world of James Bond and was perfect meshed with Maurine Binder's molten lava volcano themed title sequence. The song was originally recorded by Julie Rogers but not nearly so effective or arresting. John Barry modified it to suit Sinatra's vocal range and the results were amazing. On Her Majesty's Secret Service was an unusual film for a number of reasons. This was the first James Bond film that didn't feature Sean Connery and it also had an instrumental piece over the titles rather than a theme song with lyrics. What an instrumental piece though. John Barry's On Her Majesty's Secret Service instrumental is fantastic. It's like a brand new James Bond theme that is different but practically as good as the real thing while still being incredibly Bondian and escapist. The theme was used for action sequences too in the film and makes a fantastic backdrop with its strident opening bars and horn blaring rhythmic majesty. The remix for this by the Propellerheads for the Shaken and Stirred Project is fantastic too by the way and well worth seeking out.
There is also of course the wonderful Barry composition We Have All the Time in the World sung by Louis Armstrong. A lovely song used for the romantic montage sequence featuring George Lazenby and Diana Rigg in the film. Diamonds Are Forever marks the return of Shirley Bassey (and Sean Connery too) and is another wonderful John Barry contribution with lyrics by Don Black. "Diamonds are forever, Sparkling round my little finger. Unlike men, the diamonds linger; Men are mere mortals who are not worth going to your grave for." This is again very evocative of the world of James Bond and good stuff. No John Barry for Live and Let Die (Roger Moore's debut) but George Martin did a decent job in filling in and the theme song by Paul McCartney & Wings is one of the more famous ones. I think there is always something very naff about the post Beatles Paul McCartney but his song is undeniably catchy with great hooks and makes good use of the song's title. Although it isn't very highly regarded (John Barry disliked it too) I also like Lulu's rendition of the Barry composed The Man with the Golden Gun. This is a very funky seventies bauble that is faster than most Bond songs and has enjoyably prosaic and to the point lyrics. "He has a powerful weapon, He charges a million a shot, An assassin that's second to none, The man with the golden gun!"
The Spy Who Loved saw Marvin Hamlisch replace Barry for one film and a sterling job he did too. His uber seventies score is as lavish as the film and Carly Simon's rendition of the theme song Nobody Does It Better is again one of the more famous in the series. This is a very simple cheesy song that is great nonetheless and somehow perfectly captures the Roger Moore era. Moonraker has Barry and Bassey back together one more time for one of the most beautiful songs in the series. This is a slower one but very melodramatic and wonderfully composed. "Where are you? Why do you hide? Where is that moonlight trail that leads to your side? Just like the Moonraker goes in search of his dream of gold, I search for love, for someone to have and hold." The old Bond lyrics are so brilliant in their unique cheese drizzled way. For Your Eyes Only suffered the indignity of a disco themed score by Bill Conti but the theme song by Sheena Easton wasn't bad at all. Not one one of my favourites but ok. Sheena gives the ballad some welly. John Barry was back for Octopussy and the main song for the film was All Time High sung by Rita Coolidge (no idea who Rita Coolidge was) and written by Tim Rice. This song has terrible lyrics that are preposterous in their saccharine drippy intent and Coolidge is no Shirley Bassey but it still sort of works thanks to the lush orchestration. These Barry songs always feel somewhat epic - just like the old films.
1985's A View To Kill by Duran and Duran and Barry is surprisingly brilliant. It marked something of a sea change at the time. It was the first time they'd got a modern pop group who were down with the kids (or whatever) to do a Bond theme and against the odds it worked. The lyrics are as pointless as ever ("The choice for you is the view to a kill. Between the shades, assassination standing still. The first crystal tears, fall as snowflakes on your body...") but the song is great. Very strident and jarring and yet still immediate. The Living Daylights by Norwegian pop trio a-ha is not widely regarded to be one of the better ones but I like it. John Barry did not get on with a-ha and wanted to strangle them in the end but the song is ok I think. It's a dificult one to describe other than eighties pop chancers a-ha meet the great John Barry. A mixture of the old and new with modestly good results. Sadly, The Living Daylights was Barry's last contribution to the series and it's a mixed bag from here. Licence To Kill by Gladys Knight is absolutely wonderful though. Definitely one of the most underrated Bond themes. It deliberately evokes Goldfinger and is sung superbly. GoldenEye by Tina Turner is not so great. It was written by Bono and The Edge and I've never really cared for it that much. Tries to be very Shirley Bassey but not a patch on the Gladys Knight song.
Tomorrow Never Dies by Sheryl Crow is an insipid limp puddle of a song that never really goes anywhere but you get a nice bonus here with the inclusion of Surrender by kd Lang. Surrender was rejected (Broccoli and Wilson always pick the wrong song!) as the main theme in favour of Sheryl Crow's song but was included over the closing titles. It's vastly superior and a million times more Bondian and you would imagine it was only shunted because someone decided Sheryl Crow was more mainstream and famous and would make them more money if she performed the official theme. The World Is Not Enough by Garbage is very forgetable and a bit of a dirge while the techno dance suffused Die Another Day by Madonna is universally loathed. To be honest I have a sneaking soft spot for it myself. At least it was different. Finally there is You Know My Name by Chris Cornell from Casino Royale. A generic film and a generic song. Crappy grunge and croaky voice. I've no idea who Chris Cornell is (somewhat ironic given the title of the song) and his song is so awful it almost defies comprehension that someone decided to use it in a film. It should have been wiped from existence and Cornell arrested. This is a fun collection on the whole and contains some great stuff. It only loses a star for some of the less than inspired later efforts.