“Bond . . . James Bond”
I love James Bond movies, and there is nothing quite like a classic Bond theme song. The best of them tie the familiar John Berry motifs from the score to a pop sensibility that sounds fresh while holding lingering echoes of another era. They feel both of the ‘60s when Bond first stepped onto our screens, but also very much of the moment when a given film was released.
There really isn’t any sort of consensus about the “best” Bond song, though there are certain tunes that are consistently high on individual lists. This is my personal top 5 – and, no, it does not include Adele.
No. 5 – Carly Simon, “The Spy Who Loved Me”
The first Bond song that I knew of in real time, I finally saw the movie about a year ago and was floored by what an epic cheese fest it is. The song matches it, step by step, Gruyère by Parmesan. From swelling strings, heavily-banged-on piano keys and that guitar sound that was endemic to ‘70s AOR tracks, you could easily dismiss this as pop pap. Yet, what saves it, what elevates it to art, is Carly’s measured vocal, the straightforwardness of her declaration about the man the singer loves but really doesn’t trust (he is not just a spy after all, but THE spy). The song as written isn’t worthy of her, but she redeems it anyway.
No. 4 – Duran Duran, “A View to a Kill”
The Roger Moore Bond flicks were often barely watchable within a year or two after their release (see above re “The Spy Who Loved Me”), and this was easily the worst of the lot. Other than Grace Jones being in it and this song, I remember zilch about “A View to a Kill”, the motion picture. And when it came out in 1985, I was to that point generally unimpressed with Duran Duran’s contributions to the music world. (That’s evolved over time – “All She Wants Is” is an all-time favourite tune, and those old singles always give me a jolt of nostalgic pleasure.) But this song grabbed me right away – I bought the 45 – with its mix of second British Invasion new wave pop and retrograde funk. The lyrics are completely nonsensical, which adds to the fun.
No. 3 – Sam Smith, “Writing’s on the Wall” (from “Spectre”)
Have you ever hated a song at first, then slowly grown to love it, and maybe love it more for the journey? That’s this song. And the journey is even more noteworthy for the song having been chosen over a hauntingly beautiful and sort of terrifying Radiohead tune. Somehow, this song sums up everything a Bond ballad should be – sensual, epic, vivid and, yes, a bit over-the-top. If you don’t get chills when this plays, you need to see a neurologist, because something in your nervous system isn’t working properly.
No. 2 – Paul McCartney, “Live and Let Die”
So, here we are: the alpha and omega of Bond theme songs, it falls to no. 2 only for the more contemporaneous nature of my experience with the song listed below. Obviously, McCartney knows how to write a great pop song, and this doesn’t let you down. (I was going to make a rude comment about it losing the Oscar in 1973, but having just listened to “The Way We Were” for the first time in about 500 years, I have to admit it’s a pretty potent record, even though the only part of it worth saving for posterity is Barbra’s vocal – the rest gives 1970s cheese a bad name. Hmm, I guess I have made a rude comment.) He changes tempo about 86 times, and, like a great Bond movie, it’s a thrill just to try and keep up. Killer Guns N’ Roses cover, too.
No. 1 – Chris Cornell, “You Know My Name” (from “Casino Royale”)
It’s hard to top McCartney, but Cornell does it for me. Daniel Craig is my utopian ideal of what Bond should be – pity the poor bastard who is going to replace him sometime soon – and I have loved the movies (yes, even “Quantum of Solace”). After a cold open that establishes how Bond earned his 00 status, we are thrown into the title sequence. Cornell truly had one of modern rock’s great voices, and him showing up here tells the viewer, if the black-and-white opening didn’t make that clear, that this is not your dad or older brother’s Bond. It’s gritty, and loud, but that voice, that magnificent howl, reveals the grace and poetry that will also follow. The lyrics, too, are ruthless, a window into the soul of a (possibly) irredeemable killer. Now, after five films, with Bond having (spoiler alert) made the ultimate sacrifice, the song feels even more potent for showing the “blunt instrument” (Judi Dench rules) who grew into the man who saved the world and, finally, himself.