Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Culture Kills Reviews the James Bond Title Tracks

With the renewal of attention in the James Bond franchise with the upcoming release of Casino Royale, and the large number of lists being created, I thought that since I am also a Bond enthusiast, I would write about something that interests me the most: the title tracks. I've had some bad experiences with them... and some of them have really shone.

I have to warn you all, this is probably the longest post I've ever written, and I may still do edits to . And on that note, let's start at the beginning, shall we?

The original James Bond Theme from Dr. No by the Monty Norman Orchestra: It is one of the most recognizable pieces of music in cinematic history, it sort of invented how a spy instrumental track should sound, and it did have quite an impact on how the rest of the title tracks would play out. There have been a few variations over the years with some of the renditions going a bit tacky during the Moore years, but the modern interpretation of this iconic piece of music is still fabulous.

From Russia With Love by Matt Monro: This is a slow song performed crooner-style with accompanying music which is evocative of the subject matter. While it isn't even close to being my favorite Bond song or the best out there, it fits well with the movie, and I have to cut it some slack for being the second one out there.

Goldfinger performed by Shirley Bassey
: Shirley Bassey is the queen of the James Bond title track having performed three of them, and her first effort was probably both the best and most widely-known of these performances. And with the Goldfinger theme the bar had been raised rather high, much like the movie had raised the bar for the Bond franchise. It is bombastic and theatrical, and really sets the stage for the movie that is to follow.

Thunderball performed by Tom Jones: The simplest way I can put this is it sounds like Tom Jones trying to match Shirley Bassey... and that is difficult to say the least. Not the best, not by a long shot, and it looks weak sandwiched between Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice

You Only Live Twice performed by Nancy Sinatra: Probably better known as the source of one of the major samples for Robbie Williams' Millennium, this is probably the one that is most evocative of its larger setting, Japan, as it does have a real East meet West vibe to it. The playing of what is largely an "Asian" theme with electric guitars make this one a winner all the way. A lush production all around and a real high point for the series.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service by the John Barry Orchestra: While I don't love the movie, I do love this instrumental track... in fact, in many ways I prefer this to the James Bond theme, and it is immeasurably better to the accompanying track for the movie by Louis Armstrong, We Have All the Time in the World. A very strong instrumental indeed and very memorable.

Diamonds are Forever performed by Shirley Bassey: With the return of Sean Connery, we were also treated to another title song performed by Shirley Bassey. While not as bombastic as Goldfinger, Bassey manages to add a greater sensuality to the song that may not have been there on the page. The song also moved the franchise into the 1970's musically.

Live and Let Die by Paul McCartney and Wings: This was one of the first big departures for Bond title tracks as it was totally rock... a new style of music for a new style of Bond, as this was the first Roger Moore film of the series. It had a great cinematic adventure sound with some a little bit of a Carribbean breakdown in the middle, which was matching with the movie it went well. It was a very good start for this new era of Bond.

The Man with the Golden Gun performed by Lulu: Responding to the rock gauntlet laid down by Wings(I never thought I would ever write a sentence like that), we were treated to this sinister sounding though kitschy rendition of a title track by Lulu. While the lyrics are a little wanting, I can't fault Lulu for that. While not a great Bond song, it is a decent intro song so you have a heads-up on the villain of this particular picture, though it is no Goldfinger.

Nobody Does it Better performed by Carly Simon
for The Spy Who Loved Me: It is a typical 1970's bond song that is well-performed though a somewhat melodramatic, and the backing track is at times a little distracting. I also have this weird memory from Late Night with Conan O'Brien attached to this song that sort of wrecks it for me, but I still stand by my review.

Moonraker performed by Shirley Bassey: The weakest of the Shirley Bassey Bond songs, it still stands above the song that preceded and came after it. With Shirley Bassey, you know you are getting a good performance, but the songcraft doesn't do her talents justice.

For Your Eyes Only performed by Sheena Easton: The Bond movie this song accompanies was a more serious turn for the Moore films, and the track carries some of the same gravity, setting the proper mood for this much darker film. It is a good fit all in all but it does show its age, and again, it pales in comparison to the song it came after.

All Time High performed by Rita Coolidge for Octopussy: Now this one, this one is a train wreck. While No One Does it Better and For Your Eyes Only were a little sappy, this song is full on dripping wet in melodrama and sickly sweet sentiment. It is probably the worst Bond song of this era, and the song the follows it really shows how bad this tune really is. I can't believe the producers thought that this one would be a good idea. And this is the bad thing, there is still at least one Bond song that is worse in my estimate

View To a Kill by Duran Duran: Now this is a Bond song I can really get behind. Duran Duran was at the height of their popularity at the time and the track reached the top of the charts in both the US and UK and listening to it now, it still holds up as a high-quality song 20 years later, a track that while slightly departing from the tradition still manages to keep at its heart the power of the franchise.

The Living Daylights by A-Ha
: At first I didn't like this track, but the more I heard it, the more I could see its merits and enjoy it for what it is... a solid Bond track and a good introduction for Timothy Dalton. It also follows the more electronic sound that Duran Duran introduced with a View to a Kill. Of course, it was this track that also signalled the move towards longer Bond title tracks as this one clocks in at over 4 minutes, and to my knowledge the tracks that followed this have never fallen under this symbolic mark.

License to Kill by Gladys Knight: This track sounds much like a lot of the movie tracks that were being produced in the late 1980's-early 90's... it has its charms, but in the end it does feel a little empty. Knight does perform the track well, but it just feels way too overindulgent, especially in light of how serious Dalton played Bond... it just doesn't fit.

Goldeneye performed by Tina Turner: This should have been a slamdunk, awesome Bond song... but the pieces just didn't come together too well. I mean, you have a great performer like Tina Turner singing a song written by Bono and the Edge... it had everything going for it, but the end result was hugely disappointing.

Tomorrow Never Dies by Sheryl Crow: A sensual and dark song that, while being a decent song, doesn't really connect to the Bond tradition, and part of me questions the use of Sheryl Crow as their are other artists that could have made this song work for the movie. It wasn't a good fit. I imagine that is the Lalo Schiffren inspired Portishead had tackled it, this would have been a classic, but as it stands, it just doesn't inspire me. After I posted this, a commenter mentioned that K.D. Lang was first up to bat doing the theme song, and hers is the superior product, but that is not all I've discovered. Both Pulp and a group named Swan Lee had a shot at crafting the title song as well.

The World is Not Enough by Garbage: To me, this is a very traditional Bond theme, and in a way, a throwback to the excesses of the Shirley Bassey performances. It is a good fusion, and this is what Goldeneye should have been but wasn't. It was probably the best theme of the Brosnan era, though that may not be saying much, especially given the questionable quality of the other songs of that era.

Die Another Day by Madonna: Ugh. This is the moment when I knew that those behind the Bond title tracks had really lost their way. If I could disown a Bond song the way I have disowned the movie Never Say Never Again from my own internal Bond canon, this would be that song. It is an electro-techno mess that makes me sad every time I think of it, and I stand behind John Barry's attack on Madonna and the Razzie nomination for this song, because to me at least, this is the worst Bond song ever... and that is saying something.

You Know My Name by Chris Cornell for Casino Royale: I appreciate that those who make the decisions in the Bond franchise decided to really distance themselves from the scrapheap that was the Die Another Day theme, but again, this song is really lacking. If I didn't know it was supposed to be a Bond song, well, I'd think it was just some derivative modern rock song. I don't hate it, because it would have to be better for me to actually feel any emotion for it. It is just... well, it is just bland.

I think it is time for the producers of the Bond franchise, while they are reinventing the character with an origin story to get back to that wonderfully coy 1960's vibe their original title tracks gave their movies. There are lots of artists out there who can do that if you give them a chance... I am talking about groups like Broadcast, Stereolab, Saint Etienne, Death By Chocolate or they can hire some hot Brazilian group that knows how its supposed to sound, or some downtempo post-trip hop group that eat, drinks and smokes the 1960's sound. It really isn't that difficult. I know they are trying to stay hip, but they still have to stay true to the roots of what made the series great.


Mr. Fabulous said...

Great post! My favorite theme remains Live and Let Die.

The Foo said...

awesome list! thanks for posting this. i have to listen to some of them again as I can only remember some of them. you are right about the madonna one - she could have done a better job. yes, the "all time high" one is the worse one... it sound like a Charlie's Angel song rather than a bond one. haven't heard the chris cornell song - or maybe i have on the radio and didn't even know it. i can't find it on itunes (to sample). you are right, Shirley Bassey ones are the best!

Steven said...

If I may add a "stealth candidate", the Tomorrow Never Dies theme song was supposed to be "Surrender" by KD Lang, but it was scrapped at the last minute. I really, really like Surrender, and I think the theme song is used in the actual picture soundtrack quite nicely. Perhaps it deserves mention, even if the Bond management team blew the title song decision.

MC said...

Fab: Do you always see a motorboat in the Bayou when you hear it?

Foo: There is a video for it up at Youtube.

Steven: I looked into it, and I found not just that track, but Pulp and Swan Lee also had songs ready for that title... I have edited my review to reflect that new information. Thank you. :)

Jess said...

Fabulous post!

My person favorites are "Live and Let Die" and Garbage's "The World is Not Enough." Ever seen the the creepy robot Shirley Manson video for the latter?

MC said...

She's got a very hot kisser.

Lee said...

Owwwww dissin' Mr Jones! Great list - though you under rated some of my favourites!
I actually quite liked Goldeneye.

MC said...

I guess we have to agree to disagree on that one lee ;)

eriu said...

I think the phrase 'Bond enthusiast' was the understatement of the year :P.

David B said...

Spot on, though I like the Crow and Coolidge tracks a little more than you. I still think the instrumental to OHMSS is the best, though I'm currently hooked on the soundtrack to the original unofficial David Niven 'Casino Royale'. Terrible terrible film but great Bond track.

MC said...

Eriu: and yet I've never read any of the books.

David B: I guess I have to check that out. Is it kitschy good or just good?

David B said...

I hate kitsch and all things kitschy, but who am I to judge. The album's full of that Bacharach sound. The second track of the album is 'The Look of Love' by Dusty Springfield, which I guess (don't know) was written for the film and is a bit of an old classic.

As a Bond theme, the first (theme) track is just great, especially when played *damn* loud. I can't help but feel it would have fitted the new Bond really well.

David B said...

PS. I guess I am a bit of a Bond fan as I've just finished re-reading all the books. Loved every minute of them. So much better than the films, except perhaps the new one, which sounds like has so much lifted from the original book, including Bond himself who tends to get treated as an emotion and physical punchbag.

MC said...

David, I've heard there is no Q in the new movie... I guess they really are going back to basics eh? And yes, the James Bond theme and OHMSS theme are great loud.

Jeremy Barker said...

Good list Matthew and a nice change from the usual "Who's the Best Bond" versions. My heart will forever be with Live and Let Die, but the best is the orignal theme song, which I have a terrible version of as my cell ring.

Casino Royale almost killed me by waiting until the final seconds to play the theme. I understand why now, but I was waiting for it the whole movie.

MC said...

Well, the music is almost as much as part of the experience as the actor really.

Without having seen Casino Royale, I can think of a good reason why it appeared so late in the movie(based on the original movie's chronology so to speak).

Daz said...

i personally think that the new song by Chris Cornell is a success, maybe it will grow on you. it isnt the 60's anymore, get used to it.

Anonymous said...

i think many of your reviews are off mark. most of these songs are pretty good songs. However, Lulu's is awful and complete crap and only beaten for worst by Madonna's. Cornell's is awesome. Goldeneye is great both lyrically and musically and the best Brosnan theme with Surrender, which is one of the best ever. a-ha's is crap. Duran's is so-so at best, along with Sheena Easton's which is worse. Crow's is lukewarm and boring. Sinatra's is outstanding and one of the best. Bassey's Diamonds and Moonraker are both tremendous, and better than Goldfinger. The latest by Jack White and Alicia Keys is crap too.

Calogero said...

A lot of famous songs, thanks a lot.