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The James Bond songs: Best of the forgotten and underrated

If you’re getting ready for the new Bond movie—and its recently released James Bond song—you might want to sift through the history of this 50-year-old franchise and think about your favorite Bond films and songs. But how many songs do you remember once you get past “Goldfinger” and “Live and Let Die”? We dug into the ones you might not recall, and those we believe deserve another listen. Here are our top 10.

k.d. lang, “Surrender”

Underrated, if not exactly good; forgotten partly because it’s not… memorable. Still, lang did her job and got a raw deal. “Surrender” is heard over the closing credits of 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies. An earlier demo-version had been solicited as a potential title song, along with loads of demos by other artists, and seemed like the clear winner to everyone but the people who were actually calling shots. It was written by the film’s composer, David Arnold, with lyrics by Bond-song veteran Don Black. The problem? lang wasn’t famous enough. (Didn’t the producers kind of know that when they asked her to submit a song?) “Surrender” itself is slightly spooky, well sung, and altogether competent and ok—much better than the cliché-filled and half-unintelligible Sheryl Crow offering that replaced it.

The John Barry Orchestra, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”

Usually when the Bond-film titles can’t work in song lyrics—Octopussy or Quantum of Solace, anyone?—the songwriters get a pass: they’re allowed to invent the name of the title song. So Quantum of Solace became “You Know My Name” and, though it hardly counts as an improvement, Octopussy’s title song was called “All Time High.” But 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was different. Legendary Bond-soundtrack composer John Barry, who scored 11 of the films and co-wrote 14 Bond songs, provided an instrumental number that perfectly encapsulates his convoluted-but-lyrical style. An uptempo march, this song has Barry’s trademark stabbing brass, busy strings, and surf guitar, along with then-trendy touches like Moog synthesizer and harpsichord. People who write Bond music haven’t forgotten this song; it gets shout-outs in many later films, most recently the forthcoming SPECTRE.

The Pretenders, “Where Has Everybody Gone”

Toward the end of his tenure at Bond Inc., John Barry did triple duty for 1987’s The Living Daylights. There’s the title song Barry wrote with a-ha, and two songs sung by the Pretenders. This one is the more prominent of the two. Not only does Barry reference it quite extensively in his orchestral score (much more than the a-ha piece, which he doesn’t seem to have cared for), it’s also on heavy rotation on one particular baddie’s playlist. That baddie is named Necros—if you’ve seen the movie, he’s the guy with the slicked-back hair and the very 80s track suit—and “Where Has Everybody Gone” seems to be the only song playing on his Sony Walkman (yeah, remember those?), which also happens to be his favorite murder weapon.

The John Barry Orchestra, “007”

There’s little about the sound of the Bond films that John Barry didn’t influence, for better or for worse. But a funny exception is the “James Bond Theme,” which was written by Monty Norman for Dr. No and orchestrated by Barry. Or at least that’s what we’re legally obligated to say, since any suggestion that Barry wrote the iconic theme tends to lead to imbroglios with the very litigious Mr. Norman. In any event, once Barry went from orchestrator to series composer with From Russia With Love, he decided he needed his own Bond theme. And just like the surf-guitar riff, this one has stuck around. It has appeared in more than a half-dozen films over the years and has been alluded to a lot more than that. Chances are you’ll recognize it…

Patti LaBelle, “If You Asked Me To”

Written by the great Dianne Warren, a key architect of the power ballad, “If You Asked Me To” served as the end-credits song for License to Kill (1989). It’s not exactly forgotten; you can still hear it on quiet-storm radio, Celine Dion recorded a popular cover version, and LaBelle continues to perform it. But it’s a strange case of a Bond song that probably would’ve been more popular if it hadn’t been a Bond song. It certainly doesn’t sound like a Bond song; it sounds like what it really is, a Dianne Warren power ballad performed by a superstar soul singer. LaBelle crushes the song’s poppy bridge and ad-libs the song to a climax with her famous gasp-inducing long notes. We wonder what would’ve happened had this song been promoted the right way. “If You Asked Me To” has something else going for it. In the music video LaBelle wears one of the most over-the-top hairstyles since—well, since humanoids stopped having fur.

a-ha, “The Living Daylights”

Everything went wrong with this one. The Living Daylights was the follow-up to 1985’s A View to a Kill, which had had a super-successful title song by Duran Duran. So the flash-in-the-pan Norwegian band a-ha got chosen basically because they were avid Duran Duran imitators. John Barry, brought in to score his eleventh Bond film, realized there was trouble ahead when he and a small party of Bond-brass fifty-somethings attended an a-ha concert and discovered they were the only audience-members old enough to drive themselves home. The recording sessions were a mess. Barry fought with the huffy Norwegians and decided to never again work on a Bond film. The product of this unhappy collaboration was heard over a ridiculous credit sequence in which the line “and the headlights fade away” is set to an image of—guess what?—a headlight fading away. Then a-ha decided to release their own “definitive” version of the song, scrubbed of Barry’s input. Both versions died on the charts. But the Barry/a-ha version is surprisingly good—a pleasantly cluttered arrangement with lots of little hooks supports a catchy melody that singer Morten Harket just manages to deliver with a kind of charming nervousness. Hey, sometimes recording-studio dustups can make songs better.

Carly Simon, “Nobody Does It Better”

Simon’s 1977 Bond song might not seem underrated. People think it’s pretty good. But it doesn’t usually rank among the greats. That’s probably because you could easily hear it and not think “Bond song.” It doesn’t churn like “Goldfinger” and most importantly its lyrics barely employ the film’s title, The Spy Who Loved Me. Plus it begins so unpromisingly, with that little bit of drunk piano. But if you make it through the opening and stick around until the song’s amped-up final section, you’ll hear the Bond songs at their most sublime and fist-pumpy. In general you’ll hear an of-its-time and compelling sound—very rare among the normally stodgy Bond songs—from a great year in popular music. Not to mention the whole concept of “doing it,” our favorite 70s sex-act euphemism. One cavil: The song’s anthemic ending got sliced out of the film version, even though it appears on all the records. Perhaps the film’s producers didn’t want the movie to be upstaged. In Simon’s words, they weren’t ready for the song “to be so good.”

Madonna, “Die Another Day”

Bond fans hate this. They aren’t cheered by the fact that this 2002 entry reached the top 10 on both the pop and dance charts. At the time they mostly thought it was too electronic, not “song-like” enough; that Madonna wasn’t a Bond-appropriate artist; that the film itself wasn’t any good, especially once Madonna-the-actor appeared as a fencing instructor. The song’s two torture videos made things worse: the film’s scorpion-heavy credit sequence looked incredibly CGI-cheesy, while Madonna’s own lavish video cranked up the S&M factor to just about fourteen and a half. But “Die Another Day” opened up the Bond song to electronic dance music, no mean feat. It did so in an incredibly canny way, with some classic EB-303 acid bass, chopped-up real strings, flamenco clacks, voguey silences—and yes, enough genuinely hooky melody to make it work as a pop song. Even Madonna’s voice sounded good once they autotuned it. Equally key, Madonna’s typically less-than-idiomatic lyrics work in service of the film’s main theme: the inability to put words together in a coherent manner—let’s face it, a problem affecting most of the Bond songs—becomes here a way to register the experience of trauma.

Nancy Sinatra, “You Only Live Twice”

To our ears this is one of the classic Bond songs—partly because it captures the oddness and excitement of its musical moment. 1967 was the year of Sgt. Peppers, Hendrix, Aretha, the Doors, the San Francisco sound, and over-the-top pop-soul groups like the 5th Dimension. “You Only Live Twice” throws itself into the swirl of it all and comes out dripping with distorted guitar, faux-Asian xylophone, heavy electric bass, hyperactive strings, and a long, fancy vocal line. It almost didn’t happen. The producers really wanted Nancy’s father Frank, who might’ve taken out a hit on any musical arranger who dared to put xylophone and fuzz guitar up in his face. Thank god, because Nancy totally nails the difficult melody, cementing the idea that the Bond song is truly a female domain. The lyrics? No, they don’t make any sense, but neither does the film, nor the whole concept of “living twice.” It doesn’t matter; this record is really about the sound of its voice and instruments. Composer John Barry’s catchy string arrangement has been sampled and quoted many times over the last couple decades—shamelessly in Robbie Williams’s 1998 “Millennium” and with more subtlety about two-thirds of the way into Cee-Lo Green’s “Bright Lights Bigger City.”

Gladys Knight, “License to Kill”

It took the Bond franchise 25 years to find its way to a legitimate soul/R & B singer. Black music was basically a no-go zone for the Bond films, unless you were in Jamaica or a Harlem nightclub, or you needed some “jungle music” in the Caribbean or some old-timey jazz in New Orleans, or it was 1973 and you were trying to take money from blaxploitation fans. And 1989 wasn’t exactly the best year to try it; by then the grooving rhythm sections had been replaced by drum machines and digital keyboards, African American ballad singers could hardly make the pop charts, and soul music was something you sampled. But Knight and veteran producer Narada Michael Walden knew how to make drum machine-driven soul. Knight overcame her ambivalence about singing lyrics with violent imagery—though if you listen hard you’ll notice she never quite says the word “kill”—and delivered a mostly one-take performance that shows why, almost 30 years after her debut, she remained a major-league diva. Part of the song’s beauty is its opening section, in which Knight ad-libs over a pastiche of the intro to “Goldfinger.” Poor Walden lost a chunk of change over this borrowing; sheisty “Goldfinger” composer John Barry threatened him into sharing songwriting credit. But, you know, Bond songs wouldn’t be Bond songs without some behind-the-scenes drama.

Featured image: SPECTRE Standee Art. (c) Danjaq, LLC, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc., Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. SPECTRE, 007 Gun Logo and related James Bond Trademarks via 007.com.

Recent Comments

  1. Paul Cunningham

    a-ha. Flash in the pan? Get your facts right. A few nights ago they played to an audience of 90,000 at Rock in Rio. They’ve had numerous singles and albums in the Top 10 across the UK and Europe (in 2015 included). As for “avid Duran Duran imitators” – might be worth bothering to listen to their music to see why this odd statement falls flat. Unless you’re talking exclusively about the song’s reception in the US, it’s also incorrect to state that The Living Daylights “died on the charts” – going Top Ten in about 14 countries ain’t bad. Fantastic song.

  2. […] Oxford University Press anticipates the new James Bond movie by giving their top 10 of the most forgotten and underrated Bond title songs. Gems include Nancy Sinatra’s “You Only Live Twice” and Patti LaBelle’s “If You Asked Me To”. […]

  3. Al

    The Quantum of Solace song is “Another Way To Die”, the Casino Royale song is “You Know my Name.

  4. the heathen

    Well said Paul Cunningham.

    The A-Ha section is full of inaccuracies and even an actual lie* or two.

    FYI – A-Ha’s chief beef with Barry was that they brought the song to the table more-or-less written and looked to claim a co-credit – how dare they not allow someone to steal from them!

    And Duran Duran imitators? Have you heard either band?

    Bizarre

    *Two versions of the song were released and died in the charts? That’s a lie. Nothing more, nothing less. The film version was released – the other appeared on A-Ha’s Stay On These Roads album but was never released as a single – so basically you pulled that nugget out of your arse. Well done.

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