The James Bond Themes
Created | Updated Feb 22, 2013
He always runs while others walk
He acts while other men just talk
The opening theme of a James Bond film is as much a part of the whole Bond experience as the guns, gadgets and girls that are associated with the world's greatest secret agent. And, of course, the 'James Bond Theme' itself is one of the most instantly recognisable pieces of film music ever written. But, back in 1961, James Bond was just a character in a series of books, and a man called Monty was writing a musical...
Dr No (The James Bond Theme)
In the late 1950s, ex-singer Monty Norman had become a successful writer of stage musicals and was working on his latest show: Belle or The Ballad of Dr Crippen. The show was a dismal failure, receiving a string of scathing reviews, and closed after only seven weeks. The musical did, however, have one fan: Albert R 'Cubby' Broccoli who, with Harry Saltzman, had recently acquired the rights to produce a series of films based on the James Bond books of Ian Fleming. Norman was unsure about the project, until he was told that his contract would include several weeks in Jamaica.
Norman eventually wrote several songs for the first James Bond film - Dr No - including 'The Kingston Calypso'1, 'Underneath the Mango Tree' and 'Jump Up Jamaica'. All that was left was to find a suitable theme for the main character, a good-looking, amoral, deadly, womanising spy of impeccably refined taste. Rummaging around among his old manuscripts, Norman discovered a song called 'Good Sign Bad Sign' that he had written for a musical called A House for Mr Biswas. While the lyrics were a little odd...
I was born with this unlucky sneeze
And what is worse I came into this world the wrong way round
...Norman realised that the melody had a dark, sinister quality to it that instantly summed up the character of Bond. A young orchestrator called John Barry was recruited to complete the newly-formed 'James Bond Theme', with a combination of the then-fashionable twanging guitar sound2, plus the 'big band' sound of which Norman and Barry were both fans.
The new theme was a huge success and Norman went on to work with Saltzman on his next film, the Bob Hope comedy Call Me Bwana. Unfortunately, a disagreement over contracts meant that Saltzman did not invite Norman back for the subsequent Bond films, the job going instead to Barry.
Over the years, Norman has been forced to defend his ownership of the 'James Bond Theme' in court. On one occasion, a magazine wrote that he had bought the theme from a Jamaican composer for $100. Since then, two articles in the British press have wrongly credited John Barry with composing the theme. In all three cases, Norman has successfully defended his theme and won considerable damages.
From Russia With Love
The theme for From Russia With Love appears in its full version, as sung by Matt Monro, only at the end of the film. The opening credits are accompanied by John Barry's instrumental version. 'From Russia With Love', written by Lionel Bart3, is a slow, wistful, romantic ballad, telling the story of a man who has left for Russia (presumably on a secret mission) without telling his girl that he loves her:
Still my tongue-tied young pride would not let my love for you show...
In case you'd say 'no'
Realising the true depth of his feeling, he returns 'much wiser' and through with all his 'running around'. At this early stage, the Bond themes had not quite got into their stride, and 'From Russia With Love', although a pleasant song, lacks the bombast and grandeur of some of the later themes.
The film From Russia With Love also introduced a piece of music known as '007'. This recurring theme featured in a number of Bond films, invariably during a chase scene or at other moments of great tension and excitement.
Golden words he will pour in your ear
But his lies can't disguise what you fear
For a golden girl knows when he's kissed her
It's the kiss of death...
The most famous of the Bond theme songs, 'Goldfinger', was written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, with music by John Barry. The quintessential Bond theme, 'Goldfinger' was brought spectacularly to life by Welsh singer Shirley Bassey, who belts out the warnings about 'the man with the Midas touch' in a style that perfectly complements the music and lyrics. In fact, Bassey was to become so closely associated with the song that one of her compilation albums was titled Goldsinger.
The first song to be written as a theme to Thunderball was based on a nickname that James Bond had acquired in Japan and other countries around the world - 'Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang'. The lyrics were written by Leslie Bricusse, who felt that 'Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' would make a better song title than the meaningless word 'Thunderball' that Fleming had coined for his book title. John Barry contributed the music and the song was recorded by Dionne Warwick. The song is a straightforward tribute to Bond, describing him as tall, dark, suave, smooth, fast and cool. The song also emphasises Bond's 'love 'em and leave 'em' attitude toward women.
'Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' was on the verge of being used as the opening theme, when there was a change of heart, and it was decided that the opening theme should have the title 'Thunderball' after all. Don Black wrote a new set of lyrics, with Barry again providing the music, and Welsh singer Tom Jones was brought in to provide the vocals. The song is another ego-massaging piece, although it is not entirely clear whose ego it is. While the man who 'will break any heart without regret' could certainly be Bond, the song may instead be referring to Largo, the villain of Thunderball. 'He looks at this world and wants it all, so he strikes, like Thunderball' certainly sounds like a description of a megalomaniac who has just stolen two nuclear warheads. Whomever it's about, Jones certainly puts everything into the performance - there is a persistent rumour that he held the high final note for so long that he fainted through lack of oxygen, although this may well be apocryphal.
You Only Live Twice
You only live twice, or so it seems
One life for yourself and one for your dreams
This sweet little song is another Bricusse/Barry composition and was sung by Nancy Sinatra. It harks back to the wistful, romantic themes of 'From Russia With Love', commenting on the life-changing abilities of love and the importance of not hanging around when a chance for love is presented.
More recently, the distinctive descending strings motif was borrowed by Robbie Williams for his Number 1 song 'Millennium'.
On Her Majesty's Secret Service
With the departure of Sean Connery from the role of Bond, the opening credits of On Her Majesty's Secret Service were designed to link the new Bond with the adventures of the previous one. The titles consist of a series of film clips of previous Bond films, accompanied by the first instrumental Bond theme since 'From Russia With Love'. The theme from On Her Majesty's Secret Service is often cited as one of John Barry's finest compositions.
Although the main theme is an instrumental, On Her Majesty's Secret Service does contain two songs, both written by Hal David and John Barry. The first, the sickly-sweet 'Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown' (performed by Nina), is heard in the sequence set in a Swiss ski resort. The second is the heart-breaking 'We Have All the Time in the World', sung by Louis Armstrong. Out of context, this is a simple love song. When an instrumental version is played over the image of James Bond holding the body of his dead wife it makes a very powerful ending to the film.
We have all the time in the world
Just for love
Nothing more. Nothing less. Only love
Diamonds Are Forever
The producers celebrated the return of Sean Connery to the role of Bond with a song in the spectacular style of 'Goldfinger' and 'Thunderball'. The producers also brought back Shirley Bassey, confirming her status as the first lady of Bond themes.
The song 'Diamonds Are Forever' (Black/Barry) is a paean to the sparkling gems that cause Bond so much trouble in the film, noting in the process their many advantages over men. 'Men are mere mortals who are not worth going to your grave for,' sings Bassey. Maybe diamonds are a girl's best friend after all...
Some of the other lyrics to 'Diamonds Are Forever' - 'touch it, stroke it and undress it', for example - nearly fell victim to the censors. They survived intact, but had the censors known that they may have been written by Don Black in response to a suggestion from John Barry that he 'think of it as a penis', it seems doubtful that they would. Black has since denied this story, insisting that it was honestly just all about diamonds.
Live and Let Die
1973's Live and Let Die was the first Bond film since Dr No for which John Barry did not write the score. Paul McCartney, together with wife Linda and band Wings, were brought in to write the theme song, and ex-Beatles producer George Martin wrote the rest of the music.
The theme song, which was the first Bond theme to be nominated for an Oscar, is probably the best of the series. The lyrics, which are fairly meaningless, are the result of McCartney's starting with the common phrase 'live and let live' and then reversing the meaning of the song, making it easier to write.
But if this ever-changing world in which we're living
Makes you give in and cry...
Say live and let die
The structure of the song, with alternating slow and fast passages, was partly the result of a request from Bond title-designer Maurice Binder, who asked McCartney for the fast sections to accompany the writhing voodoo-inspired images of the opening credits. McCartney did just that, and the two complement each other perfectly.
In addition to its Oscar success, 'Live and Let Die' was also commercially successful, reaching number 2 in the US charts and number 9 in the UK. Fourteen years later, the song was covered by US rock band Guns 'n' Roses, reaching number 37 in the USA and number 5 in the UK.
The Man With The Golden Gun
By common consent, The Man With The Golden Gun is the worst of the Bond films, and many people feel that it has the theme song it deserves. On the other hand, 'The Man With the Golden Gun' is quite a jaunty, upbeat little number, even if the lyrics do contain some very dubious innuendoes...
Love is required whenever he's hired
He comes just before the kill
His eye may be on you or me
Who will he bang? We shall see...
The song was written by the familiar pairing of Don Black and John Barry, and sung with great gusto by Scottish singer Lulu. It was, however, almost very different. The album Muscle of Love by US singer/songwriter Alice Cooper contains a song called 'Man With the Golden Gun', which was submitted to the producers as a possible theme. In the end, they rejected it and went with Black and Barry's number.
The Spy Who Loved Me
The Spy Who Loved Me introduced a new composer to the Bond films - Marvin Hamlisch - who orchestrated an updated version of the 'James Bond Theme' ('Bond 77') to include elements of the disco music that was popular in the late 1970s.
After 'Goldfinger', the theme to The Spy Who Loved Me is probably the song most famously associated with James Bond. It was also the first Bond theme not to share its title with the film - the song is called 'Nobody Does it Better'.
But like heaven above me
The spy who loved me
Is keeping all my secrets safe tonight
The song, written by Hamlisch and Carole Beyer Sager, was recorded by Carly Simon, who took it to Number 2 in the US charts and Number 7 in the UK.
Moonraker saw the return of some old hands, with John Barry writing the score, Hal David writing the lyrics, and Shirley Bassey singing the song. The song tells of a woman who appears to be searching for 'Mr Right'. Unlike many, however, she seems certain of finding him:
Just like the moonraker knows
His dream will come true one day
I know that you are only a kiss away
Moonraker also saw the return of the '007' theme that was last heard in You Only Live Twice.
For Your Eyes Only
Another 'guest' composer - Bill Conti - was brought in for this film. Conti returned to many of the 'disco' themes that characterised parts of The Spy Who Loved Me, and opinion is divided as to whether the score succeeds.
The title song, with lyrics by Michael Leeson, is sung by Scottish singer Sheena Easton, who has the distinction of being the only Bond title performer to date ever to appear in the opening credits. 'For Your Eyes Only' reached Number 4 in the USA and Number 9 in the UK, although the song itself is a straightforward, fairly bland love song.
The second song not to share its title with the film it accompanies, 'All Time High' was perhaps written because the word 'Octopussy' was considered to be a little risque - the word does not even appear in the lyrics of the song. John Barry was brought back to write the score, this time paired with Tim Rice4 to write the lyrics. They wrote a number of songs together, 'All Time High' eventually being chosen by the producers. As with 'For Your Eyes Only', it is another faintly uninspiring 1980s love song.
A View To A Kill
After the disappointing themes from the previous three Bond films, there was a welcome return to form with 'A View to a Kill'. British pop group Duran Duran were invited to write and perform the song, on which they collaborated with John Barry. As with the last theme to be performed by a band - 'Live and Let Die' - the lyrics are almost meaningless, but are more than made up for by the music5.
Could it be the whole Earth opening wide
A sacred 'why'; a mystery gaping inside
The week ends - why?6 Until we...
Dance into the fire
The band entered into the whole James Bond spirit, releasing a video that was a pastiche of the Bond films, with some clips from A View to a Kill - most notably the scenes filmed on the Eiffel Tower. The Bond-Duran Duran connection continued a few years later when A View To A Kill co-star Grace Jones made a guest appearance on the song 'Re-election Day' by Arcadia, a band formed by three ex-members of Duran Duran.
'A View to a Kill' remains the biggest chart success of any Bond theme, reaching Number 1 in the USA and Number 2 in the UK.
The Living Daylights
After the success of 'A View to a Kill', the producers once more brought in a contemporary pop group - Norwegian band a-ha - to work with John Barry. Again, the lyrics were a little cryptic, possibly referring to the dark and mysterious world of the secret agent:
Comes the morning and the headlights fade away
Hundred-thousand people, I'm the one they frame
I've been waiting long for one of us to say
'Save the darkness, let it never fade away'
Oh-oh-oh-oh... the living daylights
The song was almost as successful as its predecessor, making the Top Ten in both the UK and USA. Reports from those who worked on the film suggest that, unlike Duran Duran, a-ha were not overly impressed by the James Bond experience, finding the whole process of working with a composer, orchestra and film studio rather boring. Perhaps as a result of this, the producers went back to working with individual singers rather than groups for the next few Bond films.
The Living Daylights also featured two songs written by Chrissie Hynde and performed by The Pretenders. The first, 'Where Has Everybody Gone', was apparently the favourite song of hitman Necros, who had it playing on his walkman whenever he killed someone. The second, 'If There Was a Man', is played during the closing credits.
The Living Daylights was the last Bond film to be scored by John Barry. Over a period of 24 years he wrote the music for 11 Bond films, establishing himself as an internationally renowned film composer who is still in demand today.
Licence to Kill
The score for Licence to Kill was written by Michael Kamen, who was not involved in the title song - the first time this had happened on a Bond film. 'Licence to Kill' was written by Narada Michael Walden, Jeffrey Cohen and Walter Afanasieff and performed by Gladys Knight. Because the song bears more than a passing resemblance to 'Goldfinger', Bricusse, Newley and Barry are sometimes mistakenly credited.
Following the trend set by The Living Daylights, Licence to Kill also has a different song playing over the closing credits. In this case, the song is called 'If You Asked Me To', written by Diane Warren and performed by Patti LaBelle.
After a break of six years, Bond returned in 1995 with another new composer - Eric Serra. His score for GoldenEye is generally considered to be one of the worst of the series, mainly because of its lack of reference to previous Bond films. Amazingly, the 'James Bond Themes' barely makes an appearance.
The theme song, on the other hand, is one of the best. Written by U2 singer Bono and guitarist The Edge, it was first offered to Shirley Bassey, but was eventually given to Tina Turner. The song begins with a highly distinctive and rather sinister four-note bass motif7, and the lyrics are equally mysterious, dealing with the 'darkness in the depths', presumably referring to the depths of James Bond's psyche.
For the closing credits, Serra performed a song called 'The Experience of Love', which he co-wrote with Rupert Hine.
Tomorrow Never Dies
For Tomorrow Never Dies the producers hired a man with something of a track record in Bond music. David Arnold had just completed an album - Shaken and Stirred - in which Bond themes were reinterpreted by artists as varied as Pulp, David McAlmont, Iggy Pop and the Propellerheads. Combining this experience with a love of Bond films and an admiration for John Barry, Arnold wrote music that used modern techniques and styles, but was still most definitely 'Bond' in terms of the feel and atmosphere of the score.
The title song, however, was written by Sheryl Crow and Mitchell Froom. The song itself is a typical Bond theme, with a slow start that builds up to a soaring crescendo. Crow's voice, however, is not as strong as Shirley Bassey's, Tina Turner's or Gladys Knight's and does not cope well with the dynamic and melodic shifts between verse and chorus. The lyrics of the song, the first to be written about a specific Bond girl, refer to the character of Paris Carver, an old-flame of Bond's who suffers the same fate as many of her predecessors.
Darling you've won, it's no fun
Martinis, girls and guns
It's murder on our love affair
A better performance is given by kd lang in the closing song, 'Surrender', which was originally submitted by David Arnold as a possibility for the opening titles. The lyrics were written by Bond veteran Don Black, and Arnold collaborated with David McAlmont on the music. The producers, however, preferred to use the name of Sheryl Crow to generate commercial interest in the film and title song.
The World is Not Enough
After the success of David Arnold's score for Tomorrow Never Dies he was invited back for The World is Not Enough, and this time allowed to use his song as the main theme. 'The World is Not Enough' was written by Arnold and Don Black and performed by Scottish-American band Garbage. Again, it is an attempt to recreate the style of the early Bond themes that doesn't quite succeed. Sadly, the closing song, 'Only Myself to Blame' (written by Arnold/Black, performed by Scott Walker) is even weaker.
2000 and Beyond
Die Another Day
The first Bond film of the 21st Century was Die Another Day, which, in 2002, coincided with the 40th anniversary of Dr No. David Arnold again wrote the score, and the title song was written and performed by Madonna8. The song, which uses a percussion track designed to imitate the clicking of scorpion's feet as they walk across the floor of Bond's cell, was not well received and seems highly unlikely to become a classic of the Bond theme genre.
The coldest blood runs through my veins
You know my name
2006 saw a new Bond and a new beginning to the franchise, but did welcome David Arnold back to write the film score and co-write the theme song. His writing partner this time round was the theme's singer, Chris Cornell, lead singer with Audioslave and, before that, Soundgarden. With 'You Know My Name', Cornell becomes the first solo male artiste to record a Bond theme since Tom Jones sang 'Thunderball' back in 1965, while the song joins 'Octopussy' with the distinction of not featuring the film's title anywhere in the lyrics.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Cornell's background, the song is a departure from the usual type of Bond theme, with an almost 'grunge' feel that is considerably removed from what has gone before. The film's score also departs from its predecessors, with even less referencing of the 'James Bond Theme' than Goldeneye. Indeed, the 'James Bond Theme' does not make itself heard until the end of the film, where it accompanies the first half of the closing credits. Unlike Goldeneye, however, this is a choice in keeping with the essence of the film, which returns to Bond's origins, showing how the character gains his double-O status and 'becomes' James Bond.
Quantum of Solace
Another tricky little gun giving solace to the one that'll never see the sun shine
The first duet ever to feature as a Bond theme, 'Another Way to Die'9 is performed by Jack White - the song's writer, better known as half of The White Stripes - and soul singer Alicia Keys. The lyrics have a rapid-fire delivery that is almost rapped by the singers as they alternate lines. The song has an anarchic, disjointed feel, perhaps reflective of Bond's state of mind as he seeks revenge for the death of the woman he loved in Casino Royale. The single reached Number 10 on the UK charts in 2008, but whether the song's style succeeds as a Bond theme is very much open to debate.
In a double-first for the Craig era, Skyfall has a theme song that shares its title with the film, and is sung by a solo female. The theme is co-written (with producer Paul Epworth) and sung by Adele, who has a stab at taking Bond themes back to the Bassey heydey of the 1960s and 70s. There are hints of Monty Norman's James Bond Theme, but the overall feel is quite low-key, ostensibly to reflect the darker feel of Craig's Bond and the film itself.
The theme was officially released on the 5 October, 2012 - the 50th anniversary of the release of Dr No - although it was leaked online some days earlier. It reached Number 1 in the iTunes download chart within hours of its official release. In January 2013 'Skyfall' singer Adele collected a Golden Globe for Best Original Song.
Baby, You're the Best
While James Bond themes are not always the greatest songs ever recorded, they are an essential part of the experience of watching a Bond film. Ever since Maurice Binder's silhouetted dancers jived to the 'James Bond Theme' in Dr No, viewers have come to expect certain key elements in the opening credits. In all but a few of the films, the Bond composers and lyricists have successfully done their bit for Queen, country and Her Majesty's secret service.