Friday, November 14, 2008

Friday Favorites: Culture Kills Reviews the James Bond Title Tracks (includes Quantum of Solace)

With the renewal of attention in the James Bond franchise with the upcoming release of Quantum of Solace, and the large number of lists being created surrounding its release, 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 while others 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 it as time goes on (and since this is the second time I've posted this, well, I think I kept my word about that). 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, as well as being very contemporary.

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. A great theme for a great Bond movie, and one that set a high standard for themes to come.

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 very 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 the Robbie Williams song Millennium, this is probably the one that is most evocative of the movie's 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, which is especially fitting as the lyrics of the song are basically just 8 lines.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service by the John Barry Orchestra: While this isn't my favorite Bond 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 helped move the franchise into the 1970's musically, as there are elements present in this song which would resurface later in the Roger Moore-era movies.

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 accompanied. It was a very good start for this new era of Bond. Without hyperbole, it is perhaps one of the greatest Bond theme songs ever, and the multiple times it has been covered over the years support that statement.

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 pales when compared to Goldfinger, the previous villain-based theme.

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. It doesn't make me think of Bond first, which is a problem, one which would plague themes throughout the later Moore era.

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 song craft doesn't do her talents justice, and as I learned from a recent post from Samuraifrog, she didn't really think of the song as hers as she was called in late in the process to sing it, so that may also be one of the reasons why it is the weakest of her performances.

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. It also continues the trend started by Nobody Does it Better of not immediately sounding like a traditional Bond theme, a trend which became central to the theme which followed it.

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 (if not all time), and the theme song for the movie that followed Octopussy really shows how just 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 one Bond song that matches or even exceeds the crapitude of this one.

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. Personally, I think the song is better than the movie it accompanies, as it was the final movie in the Moore era.

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. But I do admire the quality of the production despite my other objections.

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. I was expecting the rebirth of the Shirley Bassey style, but it just didn't materialize. Of course, members of U2 were also responsible for some of the music in Mission: Impossible which was also disappointing, so I should probably judge this theme with lowered expectations.

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 this 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 arguably the worst Bond song ever... and that is saying something.

You Know My Name by Chris Cornell for Casino Royale: When I first wrote this list, I was negative-neutral to this song, but with time, I've come to appreciate this song as a Bond theme, especially the opening riff. While it isn't my favorite Bond theme, it is certainly worthy of some praise in retrospect, though I don't know if the fact that the movie is so good actually helped change my opinion of the theme song. Perhaps it did.

Another Way to Die by Jack White and Alicia Keys for Quantum of Solace: There are a lot of people out there who,after hearing this title track, have been quick to judge this as the worst Bond song ever. Frankly, those people are wrong on so many levels (especially since they seem to have forgotten Die Another Day and All Time High). Bond themes are supposed to be big and bombastic, and Jack White and Alicia Keys understood this going in and they did something which I think should set the standards. As soon as I started listening to it, literally four seconds into it, I knew it was a James Bond theme. It builds upon the musical legacy laid down in the late 1960's and early 70's themes, especially On Her Majesty's Secret Service and Live and Let Die. But it isn't perfect, as there is one glaring weakness: Jack White's singing. If it was the Jack White/Alicia Keys orchestration with just Alicia Keys taking the lead in terms of vocals (and without White, her vocals could be more subtle, as she wouldn't be trying to harmonize with him, which is the weakest part of her own performance), I would be prepared to say that this was the greatest Bond song since Live and Let Die, but despite my reservations, this theme song largely blows the rest of the Bond tunes from the last quarter century out of the water.

Now when I first wrote this post back in 2006, I ended it with the following thought:

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.

After hearing the new Bond theme and hearing a Saint Etienne attempt at one, I have to admit that I was wrong. Another Way to Die is the musical reboot the Bond movies needed to match the Daniel Craig era, and I for one couldn't be happier with the direction the themes may end up going in.

I also think a post I wrote in December 2007 is relevant to this discussion, as it features a number of alternate title theme songs, which I feel really rounds out this discussion, as it presents a wider musical spectrum for some of the eras and some different directions the franchise may have gone in musically.


Arjan said...

awesome post. I won't agree on some judgements, but you sketched a great image of Bond songs through the years :)

SamuraiFrog said...

Now I'm going to do that thing that's so popular where I judge every opinion you have. (Just kidding; offering some thoughts of my own.)

The James Bond Theme is great, of course. I think David Arnold has been using it in a more interesting way than a lot of other composers did. I have all of the Bond scores; Bill Conti tried to do a sort of disco version of it in For Your Eyes Only that... well, let's not talk about that.

I like "From Russia with Love." It stands on its own as a nice song (not fantastic, but nice) and sounds good coming up at the end of the movie. The musical theme is great in the opening credits.

My favorite part of "Goldfinger" is that opening: the bombastic orchestra answered by the horns, but then it suddenly gets quiet just before Shirley Bassey starts singing. An oddly exciting moment.

I think you're exactly right on "Thunderball." Also on "You Only Live Twice," a song I love.

OHMSS is in my top 5 of Bond movies. The theme is some of the best Bond music that's ever been done. I like the Armstrong song, it's very pretty. Iggy Pop did a nice cover of it, too.

Sensuality is the word for "Diamonds Are Forever." That song's a real highlight in a movie that doesn't have many highlights going for it.

"Live and Let Die" is overrated and suffers from the same problem a lot of McCartney songs from the time suffered: he forgot how to write a song that didn't sound like three other half-completed songs stitched together. It's not a bad song, but it's not a very good one, either.

"The Man with the Golden Gun" is hilarious just for trying to make Lulu into a rocker. She's so out of her depth trying to get her voice to break and scream out. "He comes just before the kill" is one of the worst lyrics ever.

I like "Nobody Does It Better," but it doesn't sound very Bondian. That's probably why it was such a big hit single; it doesn't readily identify itself as something attached to a movie. Carly Simon sings it well, though, and it's pretty.

The disco version of "Moonraker" at the end of the movie is much better than the slow version at the beginning. It has very pretty music; that theme enhances some of the slower scenes in the movie. It sounds like John Barry inverted his "You Only Live Twice" theme.

"For Your Eyes Only" is kind of cheesy. Of course, Diane Warren wrote the lyrics.

I wouldn't call "All Time High" a train wreck, but it's pretty forgettable. What an ironic title. By this point, the producers seem to think they were making romantic movies for old people. Of course, since a senior citizen was starring in them...

"A View to a Kill" is in my top 5 of Bond themes. And much better than the movie, which I'd rate the second worst Bond movie.

"The Living Daylights" is okay. A-Ha and John Barry had a lot of fights over it; they released their own version later.

"License to Kill" is, I think, the longest theme song. It was up to that point, anyway. You're right, it doesn't fit the movie at all, one of the darker Bonds. I do like the song, and the use of the Goldfinger theme, but my God it goes on forever and is so over-the-top. Of course, a lot of adult contemporary sounded like this at the time and for years afterward. But this has no place in a Bond movie.

I think the Pierce Brosnan era is notable for being the first period since the sixties where Bond wasn't being aimed at an audience of women in their fifties.

I like "Goldeneye." But I do have a hard time not liking anything Tina Turner does.

I hate the song "Tomorrow Never Dies." Boring as hell. I was caught up in the momentum of the opening, and then the song just killed it. The end credit song (which was supposed to be the theme) by k.d. lang is a thousand times better and sounds much more like a Bond song; probably it's the best Bond song of the nineties.

I agree with the way you describe "The World Is Not Enough" as a throwback and a fusion. I like this song, and this movie.

"Die Another Day" ... ugh, indeed. The worst Bond song ever for the worst Bond movie ever. What a mess.

I really liked "You Know My Name," especially the opening riff. I hate Chris Cornell, too, but I liked this song a lot.

"Another Way to Die" could have been the name of the movie, I suppose (I know Craig pushed hard for "Quantum of Solace" because he didn't want the title to be "something generic about dying"). It is a generic Bondian title. I wouldn't say it was the worst Bond theme, but I do think it's pretty bad. Alicia White is an overrated singer, and that whole scatting thing she tries to do is pretty lame. If anything I think the song tries way too hard to be the new, hip Bond theme. That's my opinion, anyway. I've never found Jack White's inflated sense of artistry much to talk about.

You should submit this to Piper's James Blog-a-Thon:

Also, my verification word is "patio."

MC said...

Arjan: Well, disagreement is the first step to fruitful intellectual discussion.

SF: I knew we'd have differing opinions about the Bond themes just from reading your Trivial Bond post a few days ago (and our general discussing music in general). But I do have to say this: there was a Bond game that was released after Die Another Day came out on DVD... called Everything or Nothing. Both the plot of the game (with both the voice acting and likenesses of Brosnan, Dench, Cleese along with Willem Dafoe, Heidi Klum, Shannon Elizabeth and Mya) and the theme song are better than the movie that proceeded them. God, Die Another Day is the movie I thought would be the end of the franchise.

And I don't think I will ever like All Time High. It is horrid for a Bond movie... when I first heard it, I thought I was going to a Dudley Moore movie not a Roger Moore one.

Collie said...

My fave still to this very day , is View to a kill..Duran Duran, killed that shit (in a good way).... Love your blog.

MC said...

Thanks Collie... I appreciate the love, and I will certainly check out what you are doing in Pink Latex land. :)