The 10 Greatest Musical Moments of the James Bond Franchise

Updated 10/28/2015: All the hype of around the release of “Spectre” inspired me to go back to an aspect of it that is dear to me: its music. I originally compiled this list when “Skyfall” came out, but it still stands in my mind. Unfortunately, Sam Smith’s new theme song doesn’t find a place on this list as far as I’m concerned.

To get ready for the release of Skyfall, I listened to every score in the series in chronological order, and finished more or less in time for the release of Thomas Newman’s score. Out of that experience, I pulled out my 10 favourite musical moments. Like all top 10s, it is a snapshot in time of one man’s opinion, so please share any of your own favourites!

10- We Have  All the Time in the World

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was an important milestone in the series: after 5 outings as 007, Sean Connery stepped out of the role, and George Lazenby, an unknown, assumed the mantle. Under the circumstances, you would expect the producers to play it safe, but some surprising musical choices were made. For one, the movie’s theme is instrumental, and the closest thing we have to a theme song is this Louis Armstrong-sung ballad that acts both as a love theme, and as underscore for the personal tragedy Bond experiences at the end of the movie.

Armstrong’s soulful interpretation was surely enhanced by the fact that he was himself in bad health, and close to death. The vulnerability in this track is surprising considering that the character is usually invincible. But it creates a highlight event in the series.

9- The use (or lack of use) of the Bond theme in Casino Royale. 

Casino Royale brings us Bond at an early stage in his career. We see him get his first kill to obtain his 00 licence, and slowly become the agent we’ve known since the beginning of the series.  As such, for most of the movie, he’s in development, and composer David Arnold wisely avoids using the famous theme. Only at the end, as Bond “comes of age”, does the theme make an appearance, and a glorious one it is, at it is presented in its full arrangement. We’re reminded of just how amazing that theme is, and the movie ends with the viewer wanting more. Thankfully, James Bond WILL be back.

8- Bond 77

Alright, I know, this one is hard to swallow as a great moment, but bear with me. As the series was veering into comedy and outrageousness, business issues prevented John Barry from scoring The Spy Who Love Me. Scoring duty fell to composer Marvin Hamlisch, who brought a new sound to a new era of 007. Even though the previous film (The Man With the Golden Gun) had been silly, The Spy Who Who Loved Me is an all out cartoonish outing, with larger than life villains like the uber-henchman Jaws, silly plots and outrageous gadgets (Bond’s submergible Lotus being a good example), along with the usual half-ass plan for world domination.

It is in this light that I identify Bond 77 as a key musical moment in the series. This (then) current arrangement of the classic theme is a clear message that this is not the old Bond. Looking back on it some 35 years after the fact, it is quaintly dated, but oddly appropriate for the movie’s style. In today’s world, where old kitsch is cool again (thanks in large part to Quentin Tarantino), Bond 77 stands as a milestone in the music of James Bond. And, like the classic arrangement of the theme, provided several building blocks for the score.

7- Adele sings Skyfall

For sure there have been other great Bond songs, some even better than Adele’s entry into the series. But it brought back the classic Bond sound, after a decade and a half of rock experiments (Jack White and Alicia Keys, Chris Cornell, Garbage, Madonna (probably the lowest musical moment of the series) and Sheryl Crow). You’d have to go back to Tina Turner singing GoldenEye, to find something in the classic Bond vein. For bringing back that sound, Adele gets a spot on the list.

6- 007

For From Russia With Love, the second film in the series, John Barry decided to write a new theme that could complement the James Bond theme. This new theme, called 007, can be heard during the attack on the gypsy camp. Highly energetic, the first part provides a frantic backing for action scenes, while the second part is more adventuresome, and has a triumphant spirit that underscores well Bond’s successes. This second section also seems to foreshadow the main title theme to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Strangely enough, this theme was not reused much in the series. Barry brought it back successfully during the underwater battle in Thunderball, in You Only Live Twice, Diamonds are Forever and,, of all places, in Moonraker for the boat chase in the Amazon. It’s a shame that such a rousing piece hasn’t been used more. Considering all the nostalgic references in Skyfall, it would have been awesome to have brought it back.

5- Live and Let Die

For the first film of the Roger Moore era, the producers also decided to make a musical break from the previous entries. Beatles producer George Martin replaced Barry for the score, while Paul McCartney wrote and sang the title track. Incorporating a reggae section, and a high energy,  almost hard rock vibe (years later the track would be covered successfully by Guns n Roses, in an incredibly faithful arrangement. The track has remained a staple of their live set), this track was a departure from the jazz/pop feel of the previous theme songs. And what would Bond himself have thought of having a former Beatles sing his theme song? After all, in Goldfinger he famously declared that ” (…) drinking Dom Perignon ’53 above the temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit (…) is just as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs!”

4- On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

The only movie to appear twice on this list. As if having for the first time a new actor portraying 007, the main title piece is an instrumental, the only time this has happened in the series. An adventurous piece that lent itself well to the film’s action set piece, one could conceivably trace back its origins in the B section of the 007 theme from From Russia With Love.  It’s one of the greatest musical pieces of the franchise.

3- The James Bond Theme

Its origin is obscured by a legal smokescreen. Officially credited to Monty Norman, who provided then music to the first movie of the franchise, Dr No, it has also been attributed apocryphally to John Barry (who always claimed credit for it).

Musicological evidence point to the piece having its origin in an unreleased musical by Norman, where it started has an Indian piece!

At the same time, if we look at the Barry claim, we have to look at a piece called Bee’s Knees by the John Barry 7, which has been pointed as evidence. It’s influence on the Bond Theme is there in the arrangement style, but personally I find the link very thin. It’s probably safe to say that Norman did write the theme, but that Barry re-arranged parts of it.

Whatever the origins of the piece are, this piece has not only occupied a centre piece in the series but it is also part of the popular cultural consciousness of the last 50 years. Its  hard picked clean guitar sound, blasting brass and jazzy undertones set the way for the spy sound of sixties and seventies. In the Bond series, it has been a part of every movie that was produced by Eon. The non canonical Bonds (the 60’s version of Casino Royale and 1983’s Never Say Never Again) suffered greatly from being legally prevented from using the theme. In all fairness, Casino Royale never tried and went for parody, but the other was a remake of Thunderball and even coaxed Sean Connery out of Bond retirement. Despite that, it never feels like a proper Bond film. Having the famous theme would surely have helped that.

One of the great things about this theme is the number of elements it provided to future Bond composers to build on. The opening section, with its chromatic chord movement, has been used throughout the series to underscore suspense and impending danger. The twangy guitar part is used to highlight Bond’s coolness, while the brassy section usually accompanies Bond’s superhuman feats. Whenever the audience’s suspension of disbelief is strained, just playing those brass lines makes you go “oh yeah!”, and you remember that Bond can do anything. Or most anything.

2- The Pretenders songs in The Living Daylights

Although not unprecedented, The Living Daylights’ score has the unusual characteristic of featuring 2 high profile songs apart of the Main Title song (this time sung by one hit wonders A-Ha). These songs were co-written by the band and John Barry, and provide much more thematic material to the score that the main song. Barry also used rock instruments (mostly drums and guitars) to tie both aspects together.

The first song, If There Was a Man, provided the basis for the love theme (Bond is uncharacteristically a one woman man in this film, if you disregard the implication of the pre credits scene). The second song, Where Has Everybody Gone, is used for more menacing purposes, and in one of the best musical moments of the series, serves as the theme for the villainous killer Necros, who even listens to the track on the Walkman (yes, cassette!) he wears while stalking Bond.

The result is one of the best scores of the series, and a fitting last hurrah for John Barry who retired from the series after this movie.

1- Goldfinger

Not the first Bond film to feature a title song (that would be From Russia With Love), but the one that set the standard.  Shirley Bassey’s powerful vocals, coupled with the screaming brass defined the James Bond sound right there. And right after the track ends, John Barry’s jazzy score further sets the tone (Into Miami on the soundtrack), both for the series and the genre.

And there you have it, my top 10 musical moments of the series. What are yours?

P.S. Big thank you to Jon Burlingame’s book The Music of James Bond for the inspiration, and teaching me quite a few things I didn’t know about the music of 007.

Jean-Frederic Vachon
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