SPECTRE, the new installment of the James Bond 007 film series, is still a few weeks away, but one of the most exciting parts of the Bond film experience is the unveiling of the new Bond theme! Each of the 24 official Bond features has featured its own signature song, usually performed by a popular contemporary artist using a blend of then-current pop style and the series’ patented orchestral grandeur. Some Bond themes have stuck around in the popular zeitgeist for decades, while some have been flat-out forgotten. Now, Deadshirt’s biggest Bond fanatics are putting their heads together to determine which is the best, in a limited series we’re calling MI-6 MADNESS!
I’m Dylan Roth, Deadshirt’s Editor-In-Chief and compulsive Bond movie marathoner, and I’ll be serving as moderator for this month’s movie music match-ups. Using other websites’ rankings of their favorite Bond themes to determine their seed rankings, I’ve created a March Madness-style bracket pitting the twenty-four existing Bond themes against each other, two at a time. Our panel of music critics will debate the merits of each pair, and then vote to determine which one will move on to the next round. By the time Spectre opens in theaters here in the US (November 6th), we’ll have crowned a champion!
Our panel consists of Deadshirt Music Editor Julian Ames, singer-songwriter Sam Paxton, and professional music nerd Mike Duquette.
ROUND ONE, MATCH ONE
“The World Is Not Enough” – Garbage (The World is Not Enough, 1999)
“You Know My Name” – Chris Cornell (Casino Royale, 2006)
Dylan: Alrighty, we’re starting pretty contemporary with this first round, with two themes from prominent American rock artists—one from the popular debut of Daniel Craig’s Bond, and the other from that one with Denise Richards that pretty much everyone but me hates. Julian, you want to kick us off with your thoughts on “The World is Not Enough?”
Julian: I was originally expecting to hate “The World is Not Enough” the song as much as I dislike the movie, but actually it’s a pretty capable tune. It’s got a prominent melody and pretty catchy hook. The one thing I have against it is that, to me, it’s not exciting – it doesn’t go anywhere. “You Know My Name,” on the other hand, starts out with the musical equivalent of fireworks; it’s more dynamic, exciting, and, while I’m not really a fan of his other works, Chris Cornell has a cool voice and uses it well here.
Mike: “The World is Not Enough” is the kind of Bond song you want–slinky, sensuous intrigue over a cavalcade of strings. David Arnold, the go-to Bond composer from 1997-2008, and longtime lyricist Don Black built a hell of a chassis for Garbage to lay their custom electro-rock sound upon, and the end product may be the most underrated of the Brosnan-era Bond tunes. “You Know My Name,” however, was the kind of Bond song we needed, much like Casino Royale itself: a vital reinvigoration of the series after the Brosnan era descended into mediocrity. Cornell’s taut rocker is the perfect musical opening statement for the Craig films: after the shocking opening sequence, it’s the extra exclamation point declaring “All bets are off, baby!”
Sam: I actually adore The World Is Not Enough as well, Dylan, even if it occasionally skews toward the Bond franchise’s worst tendencies to overstuff films with plot contrivances and jokey gags. The Garbage tune is, as Duque pointed out, sexy as hell, and the melody line in the chorus is fucking killer. As a non-fan of either Soundgarden or Audioslave, “You Know My Name” is probably my favorite song penned by Chris Cornell, and it’s a perfect fit for the stylistic reboot that Casino Royale represented. Like Craig’s take on the iconic secret agent, the track is a rough-and-tumble thriller. This one’s a tough matchup, but the edge goes to “The World Is Not Enough” in my mind.
The Survivor: “You Know My Name”
ROUND ONE, MATCH TWO
“We Have All the Time in the World” – Louis Armstrong (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1969)
“Writing’s on the Wall” – Sam Smith (Spectre, 2015)
Dylan: Here we’ve got our #24 seed, the rookie, Sam Smith’s brand spanking new ballad “The Writing’s on the Wall,” versus the very last track recorded by jazz legend Louis Armstrong for the divisive OHMSS starring George Lazenby. Duque, I know you have a particular attachment to this Satchmo tune; would you like to go first?
Mike: Being attached to one of the lesser-regarded Bond films (whose star would not reprise the role) may not do “We Have All the Time in the World” any favors, but you’d be crazy to ignore its gentle power. John Barry’s penchant for gorgeous melodies and orchestral flourishes may have been at their apex when scoring OHMSS, and Louis Armstrong (who was well into the twilight of his venerable career, passing on two years after recording his vocals) leads with a sense of quiet beauty. Audiences may have been slow to react to the tune—it didn’t chart until it was used in a U.K. Guinness ad 25 years later and subsequently shot to No. 3 across the pond—but it’s got considerable staying power, unfortunately more than I can surmise for “Writing’s on the Wall,” which, five-note opening hook and U.K. No. 1 chart placement aside, will be regarded as little other than a chance to make lightning strike twice after Adele’s “Skyfall” three years ago.
Sam: I’ll be the first to admit that I do not understand the Sam Smith phenomenon at all; I find his vocal style really grating and uninspired, if technically impressive. When his name was being bandied about a year ago as “the perfect choice” for the next Bond theme, I remember rolling my eyes and thinking that the choice was so safe and bland that there was no way it would actually happen. But, here we are, and I’m about as disappointed in “Writing’s on the Wall” as I could possibly be. It’s just a real slog of a tune. Satchmo, on the other hand, is Satchmo, and can pretty much do no wrong in my eyes.
Julian: When they inevitably make the James Bond broadway musical, they can pluck “Writing’s On The Wall” out from obscurity and turn it into a decent showstopper. I’m usually a big fan of Sam Smith…when he’s working with an electronic producer, otherwise I find his stuff boring and forgettable. When I first heard he was doing the Bond theme it was erroneously reported to me that he was working with Disclosure, so I was very disappointed when I finally heard it and couldn’t shake my ass to it. “We Have All The Time in the World,” is a little bit mushy for a Bond theme, but then again it’s not the official theme of the movie, so I guess it gets a pass, even though I absolutely hate OHMSS. I got my start in music as a trumpet player so I gotta give props to the legend.
The Survivor: “We Have All the Time in the World”
ROUND ONE, MATCH THREE
“All Time High” – Rita Coolidge (Octopussy, 1983)
“Another Way to Die” – Jack White & Alicia Keys (Quantum of Solace, 2008)
Dylan: Here’s a fun one, a match-up between two songs that have basically nothing in common with one another. “All Time High” is the love theme to Octopussy, so titled because they probably didn’t have high hopes for a hit single called “Octopussy.” (At least not in 1983. Someone please submit this challenge to Nicki Minaj.) I was personally pretty surprised to find this so high on so many other site’s song rankings, making it the #12 seed in our bracket. Its competition is “Another Way to Die,” which seems to be one of the most hit-or-miss tunes in the Bond canon. So many people hate it, but I sorta dig it. Sam, you want to weigh in?
Sam: Frankly, “All Time High” is a way better theme than Octopussy deserves; it’s immediately recognizable as a Bond theme, both musically and lyrically. The sleazy sax solo that opens the song is a bit of a stomach-turner, but John Barry’s iconic string arrangements and Rita Coolidge’s sultry voice still hold up today. Even still, I thought it was pretty schlocky as a kid, and revisiting it now hasn’t done much to change my mind. “Another Way to Die”, on the other hand, features a killer duo in Jack White and Alicia Keys, even if the (albeit fun) track is a pretty ill fit for the Bond franchise and a fitting signifier for the many ways Quantum of Solace went so terribly, terribly wrong. I wouldn’t skip it if it came on shuffle, though, which is more than I can say for “All Time High”.
Julian: Yeah, “Another Way to Die” definitely feels like some weird Frankenstein’s monster that resulted from studio meddling with a Jack White tune and also Alicia Keys was there. That being said, I applaud the effort, because it might not be great, but it’s certainly something different that the Bond movies have never heard before. Maybe it’s because I haven’t seen Octopussy that many times, but I actually didn’t remember “All Time High” until preparing for this. “All Time High” is pretty good, definitely schmaltzy, but still good. The strings really make it here and Rita Coolidge turns in a commendable performance. I have to give the edge to “All Time High.” I have less to say about it because it’s fine and wasn’t a disappointing collaboration between two artists that I really like.
Mike: If “Another Way to Die” had been performed by anyone other than White and Keys, it could have been way bigger. White did his homework, fusing Barry’s sound with his own neo-blues style, which largely forgives the mistake that neither White’s rough-hewn wail nor Keys’s merely pleasant croon match Bond’s sonic palette. A stumble is far better than a total fall, though, which is what I’d call “All Time High.” From its adult contemporary production to the incongruous performance of Rita Coolidge, who was four years out from two consecutive Top 10 hits from 1977’s Anytime…Anywhere, nothing particularly works about this one. May it forever fizzle out on that wobbly sax riff.
The Survivor: “Another Way to Die”
ROUND ONE, MATCH FOUR
“For Your Eyes Only” – Sheena Easton (For Your Eyes Only, 1981)
“The Man with the Golden Gun” – Lulu (The Man with the Golden Gun, 1974)
Dylan: I know I don’t get a vote here, being moderator and all, but I just want to say that “The Man with the Golden Gun” isn’t only hands down the worst Bond theme, it’s also one of the worst songs ever published, and I hope it burns in hell. (No disrespect to Lulu, who tries so hard to make it work.) On the other hand, I don’t think I could have an opinion about “For Your Eyes Only” if you paid me. Good luck picking a winner here, fellas.
Sam: Maybe I’m just a contrarian (okay, definitely I am) but I actually love “The Man with the Golden Gun” – it’s fun and exciting, the swing arrangement recalls the central section of Monty Norman’s iconic “James Bond Theme,” and the booming brass and strings always scream “Bond” to me. The chilly soft-rock synths of “For Your Eyes Only,” on the other hand, make this song seem safe but woefully out of place. I’ll take swinging for the fences over a bunt any day.
Julian: Both of these songs can go in that James Bond Broadway musical I am apparently making. It’s kind of a toss up for me between these two, since I’m lukewarm on both of them. “The Man with the Golden Gun” has the kind of boastful “Secret Agent Man” style lyrics about the title villain, which is pretty fun, but combined with the swing and Asian-influenced musical motifs, the song approaches maximum cheese factor. “For Your Eyes Only” is very pretty, but at times Sheena Easton’s vocals approach a level of flamboyance that also feels a bit…much, but I don’t think it’s anywhere near as bad as “Golden Gun” in that respect.
Mike: To me, this doesn’t look anything like the “lesser of two evils” bout some readers might be imagining. “For Your Eyes Only” is the right mix of beauty and bombast (not unlike Easton herself, who was just coming off the success of the dippy “Morning Train (9 to 5)” and would be the voice of some of Prince’s most leering mid-’80s tunes). When that little three-note synth riff jumps an octave, I can’t help but smile. By contrast, “The Man with the Golden Gun,” the theme to the first Bond film I ever saw, is the aural equivalent of your drunk aunt who’s really obsessed with James Bond villainy, for some reason. It’s easily my least favorite theme in the series, Sam Smith be damned.
The Survivor: “For Your Eyes Only”
That wraps up our first set of song match-ups! We’ll be back later this week to finish out the first round, and see which other songs get to go head-to-head against top-seeded legends like “Goldfinger” and “Live and Let Die!”