The James Bond movie title theme is a genre unto itself: fifty years and twenty-four songs. The best Bond themes are defined by their distinct orchestral motifs and impassioned hooks; they are often ballads, melancholic but elegant and potent, like the hero of the story himself.
So it is understandable where Sam Smith is coming from on “Writing’s On The Wall,” the theme song for the upcoming “Spectre” (which sadly, still does not star Idris Elba). Smith follows the formula of his direct predecessor, Adele’s skeuomorphic “Skyfall:” his song is beautifully orchestrated, with a soaring melody and epic dips and swells. The orchestra immediately delivers a familiar Bond riff, both ominous and painful, thematically foreshadowing “Spectre’s” central plot push in which Bond is seemingly hunting a dark organization related to his past.
Roger Moore, the underrated 70s Bond, called “Writing’s On The Wall” “very haunting and wonderfully orchestrated,” which is true. But Smith’s vocals and lyrics don’t capture the polish and dignity that define James Bond’s emotional spectrum. While Adele’s stoic Bond “will stand tall / face it all,” Smith’s Bond can’t quite handle the pressure: “How do I live, how do I breathe? / When you’re not here I’m suffocating.” As Tony Soprano would say: “What ever happened to Gary Cooper?”
Bond is the archetypal “strong, silent type,” who suffers like the rest of us, but in silence. The ideal Bond theme song should the equivalent of Don Draper pitching The Carousel, channeling deep pain into dignity and charm. “Writing’s on the Wall” is closer to drunken crying over Hershey’s.
All this being said, the song is okay, but disappointing–between the ace orchestration and high production values, Bond songs are supposed to be better than this. Ultimately, Writing’s on the Wall lands itself a solid buffer from the bottom, but its turgid lyricism can’t let it rise much higher than that. Here are the definitive rankings, with comments on the top and bottom five.
22) Another Way To Die, Jack White & Alicia Keys (Quantum of Solace, 2008)
The Daniel Craig reboot Bond was branded as gritty, dark, modern and grounded in reality. Likewise, this is an ambitious attempt to be a rugged and dissonant “Live & Let Die:” it’s dark, pessimistic and hip to reflect its Nolanized James Bond. The result is a disjointed bastard chimera of a song, with very little in common thematically with anything that had come before it, and a broth spoiled by too many cooks.
21) Die Another Day, Madonna (Die Another Day, 2002)
The movie and song combination that nearly killed a fifty year franchise, “Die Another Day” would be the runaway last place finisher if not for its immense comic value. It’s important to recognize how surreal and unaware this song is, and it amazes me to think of all the people who had the chance to pull the plug and didn’t. The opening credits show Pierce Brosnan getting tortured by North Koreans while Madonna sings about taking a break from sex: “I’m gonna delay my pleasure / I’m gonna close my body now.” There is simply very little in this world that is as funny as Madonna singing “Sigmund Freud… Analyze this, analyze this, analyze this,” while James Bond gets scorpions placed on his nipples by a North Korean torturess.
20) The Man With The Golden Gun, Lulu (The Man With The Golden Gun, 1974 )
Jon Barry, the composer of the Bond theme and 11 of the film’s scores, has reportedly described “The Man with the Golden Gun” as: “the least interesting Bond song. It’s the one I hate the most. It’s the one thing I think was really… bad. It was bad.” At least the cartoonishness of the orchestration and lyrics are self-aware, but it’s just not a pleasant song to listen to.
19) Tomorrow Never Dies, Sheryl Crow (Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997)
This song is throaty and belongs in a dive bar in Vinci, California.
18) Writing’s On The Wall, Sam Smith (Spectre, 2015)
Wonderfully orchestrated, but the Drake of Bond songs.
17) All Time High, Rita Coolidge, 1983 [Octopussy]
16) The World Is Not Enough, Garbage, 1999
15) Nobody Does It Better, Carly Simon, 1977 [The Spy Who Loved Me]
14) License to Kill, Gladys Knight, 1989
13) For Your Eyes Only, Sheena Easton, 1981
12) From Russia With Love, Matt Monro, 1963
11) A View to a Kill, Duran Duran, 1985
10) You Know My Name, Chris Cornell, 2006 [Casino Royale]
9) Skyfall, Adele, 2012
8) The Living Daylights, A-ha, 1987
7) Moonraker, Shirley Bassey, 1979
6) Thunderball, Tom Jones, 1965
5) Goldeneye, Tina Turner, 1995
Bond songs are not just about music aesthetics like vocal range and melody: they’re just as much about charisma and personality. Sam Smith described his music as “a diary and it’s a recap of my life, and I wanted to bring that kind of honesty,” and perhaps overexposed himself, choosing vulnerability over panache.
Tina Turner is the queen of panache and swagger on “Goldeneye,” a track where she is on the prowl: “Goldeneye, I found his weakness/ Goldeneye, he’ll do what I please.” Goldeneye may have the most personality of any Bond track, as Turner is as much an actress playing a part as a singer nailing a note; the range of emotion from when “a bitter kiss will bring him to his knees,” and Tina has the upper hand to when he’ll “never know how it feels to be the one who’s left behind / you’ll never know the days, the nights / the tears, the tears I’ve cried” back around to “Now my time has come / and time, time is not on your side.”
In “Goldeneye,” we listen as Tina’s vulnerability and pain becomes her strength–the film Goldeneye’s central themes are scorn and revenge, and Tina delivers the finest performance of the entire film.
4) You Only Live Twice, Nancy Sinatra, 1967
The orchestral introduction to “You Only Live Twice” is so luscious and beautiful that it sounds almost celestial: Sinatra sounds like a siren from your dreams. The lyrics are a haunting journey through ambition and escapism, until the snap back into reality: “You drift through the years, and life seems tame / till one dream appears, and love is its name.” You Only Live Twice is about living life and chasing your dreams instead of living in them.
3) Diamonds Are Forever, Shirley Bassey, 1971
For a whole generation, this song is inseparable from Kanye’s transcendent sampling job on Late Registration, and while it is hard not to start throwing a diamond in the sky thirty seconds into the song, it is easy to feel the vibe. The song is fun and bombastic, but eerie and painful. The hook is not one you’ll forget in a lifetime, and there is nothing like a vintage Jon Barry orchestration job. Shirley Bassey doesn’t just hit notes, she projects a calculating, powerful and vulnerable character: “Men are mere mortals who are not worth going to your grave for / I don’t need love / For what good will love do me?”
2) Live and Let Die, Paul McCartney & Wings, 1973
Bond songs traditionally start big, with the blaring of a lush orchestra, a gun shot, a long note, but Live and Let Die opens minimally, to only Paul McCartney and his piano:
“When you were young and your heart was an open book / You used to say live and let live / But if this ever changing world in which we’re livin’ / Makes you give in and cry / Say live and let die”
“Live and Let Die” is about the innocence of youth, compromising one’s self in the face of duty and the realities of the “ever changing world.” For James Bond, it serves as a spyglass into his humanity. The song goes into an intrepid orchestral score, one of the fastest and most explosive of the series, meant to simulate the high flying adventures of secret agent extraordinaire, but returns to a forlorn Paul McCartney singing the hook again; not everyone saves the world for a living, but we all yearn for a time when we were uncompromised.
1) Goldfinger, Shirley Bassey, 1964
Simply put, there is no song like Goldfinger. The string motifs, the hypnotic lyrics, the striking hook, (“He’s the man / the man with the Midas touch”) all serve in perfect unison to make Goldfinger unforgettable. It’s the ultimate mood song: dangerous, mysterious and seductive.
The orchestra and lyrics are as over the top as the idea of one British super agent saving the world from one man who plans to irradiate all the gold in Fort Knox. The song serves as the villain’s primary characterization, playing in the film before he is ever introduced. It’s primarily written from the viewpoint of a “golden girl” being beckoned to “enter his web of sin,” as Goldfinger has a perverse view of women and wealth. As Bassey puts it so unforgettably, while “golden words he will pour in your ear,” the truth is “he loves only gold.” The song mysteriously shifts back and forth from major to minor, capturing both Goldfinger’s allure and evil; after tiptoeing around quietly for a couple minutes, Bassey belts, “this heart is cold!,” and the beat launches into a postitively Motown thrashing shuffle.
More than any other title theme, Goldfinger defines its film, its characters and the entire spirit of the franchise.