For Your Ears Only: The Best James Bond Themes Remembered

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Film.


Movie theme songs work as souvenirs; they bring the movie back to your heart—through your ears. No movie series has given the world more aural mementos than the James Bond films.

Like the lusted-over, fantasized Bond girls, the Bond themes are not just love objects; the songs are timeless, idealized encapsulations of the excitements of their times.

Is this also true of Adele’s new theme “Skyfall”? Like all Adele’s recordings, this one is formulaic—but what a workable method! It is quasi-sultry, ersatz romantic, and its enigmatic titular image contains a hint of intrigue and possible hazard that is befitting for a mystery/crime/espionage thriller.

Adele received her Bond commission by right of pop star eminence. In the past, each Bond-theme crooner was a test-proven chart-topper famous enough to attest the new film’s worthiness as a pop culture object. (Adele’s track recalls Nancy Sinatra’s passable “You Only Live Twice” or Rita Coolidge’s “All Time High” rather than Madonna’s forgettable “Die Another Day.”) The formula dictates that if the song and performance was good enough, it worked in tandem with the movie to create a pop event. This actually only occurred a few times, leaving the majority of Bond themes to simply be anti-melodic relics such as Duran Duran’s “View to a Kill,” Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Live and Let Die”—or campy gems like Tom Jones’ “Thunderball,” a wonderfully exaggerated response to “Goldfinger,” the archetypal Bond theme, done with Jones’ testicular melodrama befitting a pop-besotted operatic tenor more than a secret agent’s surrogate.

The greatest of all Bond themes, “Goldfinger,” is so because almost 50 years later it remains a sizzling emanation of what was thrilling in 1964. It still carries the aura of the new, which proves its value as a theme song par excellence. The Goldfinger plot appears in Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s lyric description “web of sin,” the narcotizing scent of an intangible element felt in John Barry’s composition. That’s the thrill of movies in a single tune. As a song, “Goldfinger” draws one into the allure of the James Bond phenomenon. The films are not works of high cinematic art, but they are almost ideal examples of commercial movie pleasure, and the song is perfectly scintillating even when it is silly.

Shirley Bassey’s unbeatable, overdramatic recitation maintains the exhilarating promise of a movie trailer. She’s all hype; even her natural sexiness is put to the use of sheer commercial seduction. In the Warhol ’60s, artifice and desire were one. Yet, like the best moments in any Bond film, vocalist Bassey grins—Cheshirely, if not Welshly.

As intro and exeunt to the film—and as a stand-alone 45 rpm, one of the first I ever bought—Bassey’s style established that the Bond theme song was a tease. Its brevity is part of its genius. Though not a rock ’n’ roll tune, it bears that ineffable quality of the greatest pop song: Its two-minute entirety is a hook. It worked before you saw the movie, as you watched and forever after seeing it. Even if you’ve never seen the film—and I find it to still be the most dazzling of the Bond movies—the “Goldfinger” song provides a comparably, pleasurably memorable experience.

According to the documentary Everything Or Nothing, the Bond franchise faced perennial challenge by producers other than Saltzman-Broccoli, who finagled rights to Ian Fleming novels—which explains why the best song to come from a Bond film is a renegade, “The Look of Love” for the 1967 Casino Royale. That Burt Bacharach-Hal David composition, superbly sung by Dusty Springfield, is a really good song despite being a movie tie-in. But its excellence is the rare exception.

Runners-up: Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better” for The Spy Who Loved Me—an odd, elliptical ’70s-singer-songwriter test of the Bond theme formula that builds grandly even as it becomes an obscurely personal woman’s confession. And Louis Armstrong’s “We Have All the Time in the World” for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service eludes campiness to provide love wisdom. It is the most melancholic Bond theme (for the most grandly tragic film of the series). If unquestioned authority were needed to confer worthiness on the Bond films, Armstrong does it.

Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair


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