The all-time best Bond scores

With Skyfall out this week, Ivan looks back at some of the best Bond scores of the past 50 years…

There’s no getting round it. John Barry was a musical genius – something soundly demonstrated by Janey Goulding last year in her incredible retrospective of his work. So when it comes to Bond soundtracks, it’s difficult to draw the line. So much of the JB style, that iconic 007 sound, comes directly from him. It’s no wonder that he accounts for half of the scores on this list. The hard part is trying to rate 007’s other composers. How much should they be praised for imitating him – or, in some cases, not? 

Here’s my take on the best Bond soundtracks of all time.

From Russia With Love (1963, John Barry)

Exciting, symphonic and instantly hummable, From Russia With Love’s score is nothing short of a masterpiece. The opening theme sets the tone, beginning with a brash staccato version of the Bond theme before suddenly sliding into a smooth swagger. Barry keeps doing that same thing throughout the soundtrack, setting up expectations then knocking them down. 

The Golden Horn, possibly the greatest bit of composition in Bond music history, starts off fast and quiet, a syncopated tambourine and timpani duo, then rushes into a sumptuous string-led tune that could almost belong in a western. That’s the sound of Barry: the complex rhythms that charge underneath, not to mention the xylophone, sing of his rhythm and blues roots. Goldfinger’s Into Miami is one of the rare times Bond music deviates from a four-four time signature, but that’s because Barry’s jazzy beats could fit anywhere. Play The Golden Horn alongside Count Basie’s cover on the album Basie Meets Bond and there’s barely any difference, despite one being straight and the other being swing. Oh yes, Mr Barry got rhythm and he knew how to use it.

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You can only sit and listen as the Horn’s five-note riff plucked on the double bass explodes into the groundwork for 007 Takes The Lektor, which then packs in stabs of brass to create that familiar, gigantic big band feel. And yet there’s still room in the film’s score for some lyrical guitar work on The Zagreb Express, a wobbling woodwind refrain in the tense Girl Trouble – which crops up again in a completely different style for Goldfinger’s Dawn Raid At Fort Knox – plus, of course, the gushing romance of that main theme.

Rarely has a Bond score, let alone any movie soundtrack, been so rich, colourful and wildly unpredictable. It’s only Barry’s fourth official feature film score, but this is an astonishing display of one man’s voice, one that was loud and confident enough to define a franchise for 50 years.

You Only Live Twice (1967, John Barry)

In between Sean Connery speaking Japanese with a thick Scottish accent and Nancy Sinatra’s divine title song, you can hear John Barry revealing his tender side in You Only Live Twice. Goldfinger’s blaring two-note intro is flawless, but this is a soundtrack that showcases gentler arrangements of the Bond staples. There are loud moments to go with Blofeld’s humungous volcano lair, brief bangs of brass and xylophones that proved one classic Bond lesson that lasted all the way through to The Living Daylights: if in doubt, bump it up an octave and pass it to the trumpets.

But the star of the show is Barry’s ear for instrumentation – a knack that enables audiences to identify immediately where the globetrotting spy is going. A flute here, a koto there, Barry delicately pieces together West and East sounds to create a blend that sounds far more authentic than Connery’s Japanese ever could.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969, John Barry) 

If From Russia With Love is the greatest Bond score of all time, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is definitely the second. It’s a score that’s so comfortable in its own stave that they didn’t even bring in a pop star for the opening credits. Instead, the film is kicked off with a shot of pure Barry, all contrapuntal chaos, overlapping percussion and punchy French Horns. But amid all that there’s something new: a synthesizer.

Something Bond has struggled to do throughout the years is mix old and new. Rousing symphonic stuff is all well and good, but what of the more modern instruments? Eric Serra bravely tried (and failed) to add in some electronic percussion for GoldenEye to give it a 90s feel, but rewind to 1969 and Barry has already mastered that balance. He even squeezes in some saxophone on Bond Meets The Girls, almost making up for George Lazenby’s lack of sex appeal.

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Combine the two and you end up with The Ski Chase, one of the series’ best action pieces, a sax-laden, synth-stuffed smorgasbord of drums and brass with a relentless, descending four-note bassline that craftily echoes that belter of a main theme.

It’s because of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service that A View To A Kill’s ambitiously modern (and wonderfully loud) soundtrack sounded so brilliant – the scores are almost identical in places, most notably in the mountain set pieces. The Ski Chase was updated, i.e. more electric guitar, to become the equally impressive Snow Job. That interweaving between albums betrayed Barry’s over-arching view of the franchise, part of why 007’s sound has remained so consistent. 

It all culminates in the devastating We Have All The Time In The World, a flawless composition that Barry and lyricist Hal David knew could only be sung by one man. With Louis Armstrong’s soulful vocals bringing out the tune’s painful irony, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service begins with a bang and ends with a whimper; a decision that saw John Barry become as important as director Peter Hunt in establishing the movie’s tone.

The result? A soundtrack that, much like Bond at the time, was simultaneously dated and timeless.

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977, Marvin Hamlisch) 

Glang! Glang a lang a lang a lang a lang a lang…

Introductions don’t come more iconic than that (except, perhaps, for You Only Live Twice). It’s an ear-grabbing start from Marvin Hamlisch, who had a tough act to follow: with Barry unavailable, it fell to The Sting’s Oscar-winning composer to fill in the empty bars. Amazingly, he didn’t drop the ball once.

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Nobody Does It Better (a superb power ballad) opens in instrumental form with that familiar piano, but suddenly switches to syrupy violins – an unpredictable shift Barry would be proud of. Then, Hamlisch brings in the sax. You can never have too much sax.

The rest of the score sashays along with 70s style. Ride To Atlantis is a dreamy rising and falling melody, a chromatic scale that threatens to slide out of control. Hamlisch wittily develops that aquatic theme into the more threatening track The Tanker. The same lurch between two jarring chords is there, drifting between suspension and resolution, but the sashaying rhythm is replaced by an austere military beat; this is the kind of transformation that separates the rich Bond scores from the thinly developed ones.

Even the disco beats of Bond 77, which should be completely cringe-worthy, actually work well. A funky take on the 007 theme? It’s not an easy task to undertake. Compare it to For Your Eyes Only four years later, when Bill Conti had to step into Barry’s shoes. His pop-driven ideas dominated the score, sounding more tacky than trendy. Play The Spy Who Loved Me alongside the brilliant Michael Kamen’s Licence To Kill soundtrack, which – rushed at the last minute – failed to find a distinctive theme or even a memorable action tune.

In a world where nobody does it better than Barry, Hamlisch stepped up to show that someone could do it just as well. And that’s saying something.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997, David Arnold)

Fast forward to 1997, and Bond was in trouble. Eric Serra’s GoldenEye score was an awkward mess, even paling in comparison to the soundtrack for the N64 game. Who could score 007 now? Enter David Arnold, a composer who remixed Barry’s classic themes for the album Shaken And Stirred: The David Arnold James Bond Project. So deft were his arrangements that Barry hailed him as the natural successor for Bond’s conducting baton – and Barbara Broccoli followed his advice. Thank goodness she did.

A lot of attention when it comes to Tomorrow Never Dies goes towards Sheryl Crow’s title track. Chosen at the last minute in a talent contest, she bumped Arnold’s own Shirley Bassey-style number, Surrender (sung by k.d. lang), to the end credits. The result was a score that used a song no one had heard for its main themes, but did it matter? Did it heck. 

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Taking his cue from From Russia With Love (already a sign that he knew what he was doing), Arnold adopted Barry’s harmonic approach and made it his own, fusing that symphonic sound with modern electronic rhythms. It’s what Eric Serra wanted to do but couldn’t. Or, more accurately, it’s what John Barry started to do in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but taken to an even more polished level.

It’s the perfect calling card for a guy who played around with Bond music for a hobby before being offered the job. He even called back Propellorheads from Shaken And Stirred to help score Tomorrow Never Die’s memorable car park sequence. That standout track, Backseat Driver, ranks alongside Ski Chase as one of the franchise’s best action themes. Electronic loops, bongos, Hammond B-3 organs and discordant vamping on the piano? Who knew all that could ever sound like the Bond of the 60s? David Arnold did. And by God, he was right. 

Casino Royale (2006, David Arnold)

What do you do after you’ve comprehensively toyed with and updated Bond’s legacy? Get rid of it all together. It’s one of the smartest decisions a 007 composer has ever made – one that forces Arnold to invent a whole new Bond theme from scratch that could still carry the weight of Monty Norman’s iconic tune.

He starts with You Know My Name, a song that upset many fans with its shouty lead singer, Chris Cornell, but cheekily steals Norman’s chord progressions for the main chorus line. Building from that Bondy base, he creates something that uses the same three minor notes as the iconic Vic Flick riff but inverts them into a fanfare. Dumm… dumm… dumm… dumm… becomes the livelier Ba-bum-ba-BAA Ba-bum-ba-BAA.

Rearranging that with his usual Barry-esque panache, Casino Royale converges into Arnold’s most symphonic score. It doesn’t have the outright crazy percussion of Tomorrow Never Dies, but it doesn’t need it. This is innovative in a very different, more instinctive way; a musically clever and subtly beautiful soundtrack that drives along for the set pieces (African Rundown and Miami International are action masterpieces in their own right), and still manages to pause for some muted piano during Vesper’s tragic love theme – a melody that, even in its quiet moments, echoes Norman’s major-to-minor transitions.

After making love to your ears for 72 gorgeous minutes, Casino Royale sends shivers right up your ossicles when Bond’s signature theme finally bursts out for the closing track. The really thrilling part? The score almost doesn’t need it at all.

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As David Arnold steps down from the conductor’s podium and lets Thomas Newman have a go, the question now is this: will Skyfall’s score make the list?

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