The Five Best And Worst James Bond Themes

What is this, the last dance at the school disco? Bond is about excitement, not ballads and smoochiness, so expect little of Shirley or Sheena here...

Thunderball: the two of them stop to listen to a bit of John Barry.

While admirable compositions, classic Bond-theme favourites such as Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice and Nobody Does It Better dwell on the romantic aspect of 007. But we’re concerned here with the livelier musical motifs from the Bond series – both good and bad.


5: Thunderball (1965, Barry/Black)With failed submissions from Dionne Warwick, Shirley Bassey (both singing an earlier theme called ‘Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ and Johnny Cash (who wrote his own song called ‘Thunderball’), the theme to Bond’s fourth outing was hanging in the balance very close to release date. In the first of three collaborations (the others being ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ and ‘The Man With The Golden Gun’), John Barry and Don Black came up with a sinister, lilting theme which was only partly susceptible to the Bond treatment – i.e. lush orchestral flourishes, but was taken to immortality by the golden tonsils of Tom Jones, who is reported to have fainted after executing the closing high note.

4: Live And Let Die (1973, Paul & Linda McCartney)Covered several times since ushering in the Moore age (notably by Guns ‘N Roses), LALD fuses all moods available to Bond theme-song composers in one rollercoaster musical ride. Opening with a typically hummable and plaintive McCartney verse, the thundering chorus is ushered in with some of the most effective orchestration ever used in a bond song. It loses points only for the ditzy and weak middle-eight, and even that ends fairly well. All the drama and romance of Bond is captured here, and it paints an effective picture too of a bitter journey from optimism to callous cynicism.

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3: James Bond Theme (Dr No, 1962, Monty Norman)A strong candidate for the most exciting instrumental piece in the world, Monty Norman’s theme was too good to give up, and has opened every Bond movie since (with the exception of the ex-franchise Never Say Never Again in 1983). Frequently re-orchestrated, there is little to change, compared to the likes of fellow die-hard theme Doctor Who, just a looping and grave 4-note string refrain, to which is added a powerful and finger-busting bass/guitar riff, all preceded with a high-octane orchestral machine gunning. Built to last.

2: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969, John Barry)Realising that only Gilbert And Sullivan would be able to string the title of George Lazenby’s sole Bond entry into a hummable song, John Barry sought and got permission to try for the latent instrumental-only power of Monty Norman’s original theme to Dr. No. He nailed it. OHMSS follows the same formula as Dr. No, laying down pioneering groundwork with that Moog synthesiser sound that kick-started many classic seventies’ soundtracks. After establishing this dramatic 4-note loop, Barry lays on relentless drama with a pile-driving horn section that adds a romantic depth in conclusion that is missing in Norman’s original. Used endlessly in trailers ever since.

1: The Man With The Golden Gun (1974, Barry/Black)The last of the great exciting orchestral Bond themes, the opening orchestral strings alone remind us why the seventies was the golden age of title-theme composers, attacking with the same staccato intensity as the opening of the Dies Irae in Verdi’s Requiem. The verse structure that follows is exquisitely melodic, and musically strong enough to need no chorus. The first middle-eight is not up to the quality of the rest, but is sustained by pounding bass horns, whilst the second is an extravagant soprano fantasy that pre-figures the early work of Kate Bush and shows the little-heard range, power and flexibility of Lulu’s voice. Like the best themes, TMWTGG plays well as romantic accompaniment or pulse-pounding scene-mover. It even sounds good on the wonky western piano in the pre-title sequence in Scaramanga’s practice rooms.

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5: The Living Daylights (1987, Barry/Waaktaar)A wasted opportunity, as A-Ha lead-singer Morten Harket had (and retains) a remarkable four-octave voice that could have done a lot with a strong composition. Instead TLD satisfies itself with then-fashionable Ferry-like utterances that usher in an unremarkable chorus.

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4: All Time High (Octopussy, 1983, Barry/Rice)Possibly the most meandering and uncommitted Bond theme ever composed, All Time High seems to represent the off-cuts of various 1970s Bond-theme notebook jottings. Rita Coolidge struggles to make anything of it, and the coruscating string section have no hook to support.

3: Die Another Day (2002, Madonna/Ahmadzaï)Only the remarkable melting ice-women CGI of the title-sequence to Brosnan’s Bond swansong can rescue this staccato, tuneless, pulseless, dog’s breakfast of a song…if it can be called that. It’s a pity, because Die Another Day deserved far better and Madge herself isn’t bad in her small role in the film. The awfulness of the piece is slightly distracted-from by the fact that – unusually – the title sequence itself advances the plot, and shows Bond being tortured over a period of years in a North Korean prison camp.

2: Moonraker (1979, Barry/David)Any song that can make Shirley Bassey sound like an alley cat that just lost a fight has a lot to answer for. The theme to Moonraker marks the passing of Barry’s big-brass stings and the beginning of his ‘gentler’ period. There’s nothing wrong with that, but unfortunately he is totally out of ideas, and this theme sounds like the composer has been up all night playing (far-better) earlier Bassey Bond themes on a loop with three hours to deadline. The notes meander and go nowhere, and the song has no hook – just as the cadences rise, they fall back, uninspired, to earth.

1: The Man With The Golden Gun (1974 – Barry/Black)“He has a powerful weapon, he charges a million a shot…Who will he bang? We shall see.”The things you see when you don’t have a Golden Gun. Tasteless twits in great cars with beautiful girls; sixty-inch plasma TVs tuned to reality shows; and lyricist Don Black uncharacteristically pissing all over the most thrilling Bond theme ever written with back-of-a-napkin, seaside-saucy words that I can only commend Lulu for committing herself to. He has a powerful weapon…?

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