Welcome back to MI-6 Madness, where our panel of music critics pits the theme music from each of the 24 James Bond films against one another in a March Madness-style tournament! I’m your moderator, Dylan Roth, and here again are our judges: Julian Ames, Mike Duquette, and Sam Paxton. Let’s pick up where we left off, halfway through the first round of elimination…
ROUND ONE, MATCH FIVE
“GoldenEye” – Tina Turner (GoldenEye, 1995)
“Moonraker” – Shirley Bassey (Moonraker, 1979)
Dylan: Classic vs. neo-classic, and the first appearance of Shirley Bassey in our little competition. (Her other two were seeded high enough to skip the first round.) I’m an enormous fan of “GoldenEye,” but it’s hard to best Bassey when it comes to Bond Themes.
Julian: Oh man, this matchup is good. The first Bond movie made in my lifetime, GoldenEye, swings for the fences getting Tina Turner; the music feels modern (for the ’90s) but still has a classic Bond feel to it. Turner sings most of the song in a sexy but subdued tone, and, just when you think she’s gonna do the whole song like that BOOM she pulls a “Proud Mary” on us and shows off her pipes. Shirley Bassey brings it, as usual, to her third Bond theme. At the end of the day though, there’s two other, better Bassey-sung Bond themes and only one Tina—and I loves me some Tina. Gotta go with “GoldenEye.”
Mike: Bassey is an undoubted legend for Bondheads–one needs only to see her performance at the 2013 Oscars to understand why—but this is a real swing and a miss. John Barry and Hal David, the same two who put together one of the best Bond themes in “We Have All the Time in the World,” can’t replicate their success, from melody (Bassey tries, and only partially succeeds when she hits her highest notes) to lyrics (you couldn’t have shoved a more awkward title reference in here even if this was the theme to Octopussy). Honestly, Tina Turner out-Basseys Bassey here, with the help of a slinky tune written by U2’s Bono and The Edge near the beginning of their weirdest phase yet. As Julian said, maybe it’s the temporal advantage (GoldenEye was the first Bond flick released in all our lifetimes, and the source for the most bitchin’ Nintendo 64 game), but “GoldenEye” is the clear winner.
Sam: There’s not much to say here that hasn’t already been said—Turner kills it here. I remember seeing GoldenEye in theaters with my dad and being instantly obsessed with the title track. It’s everything Bond is, equal parts seduction and bombast. I won’t argue that it’s “the best,” but it’s almost definitely my favorite theme song. Bassey is great as always, but “Moonraker” is easily the weakest of the songs she contributed to the franchise. “GoldenEye,” all day, every day.
The Survivor: “GoldenEye”
ROUND ONE, MATCH SIX
“From Russia with Love” – Matt Monro (From Russia with Love, 1963)
“Tomorrow Never Dies” – Sheryl Crow (Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997)
Dylan: Most die-hards rank From Russia with Love as one of the best films in the series, but does the song hold up as well as the movie? On the other hand, Tomorrow Never Dies is considered pretty forgettable. That song, though? For my money, the best part of the film.
Mike: Now here’s a tough one—maybe the toughest match-up I’ve had to face yet. On one hand, you have a sorely underrated theme from the Brosnan era (itself a largely underrated era, musically speaking), crafted by one of the least likely candidates for Bondian success, Sheryl Crow. (In an alternate universe, Crow’s sold millions in the pre-download era as an adult contemporary torch singer). “Tomorrow Never Dies” has become a hit in recent years, thanks to a spellbinding performance by Dylan at an all-time great karaoke party for my birthday last year. On the other hand, Matt Monro’s European Sinatra croon on “From Russia With Love” may not have set the charts on fire (indeed, the tune barely registers in the film until the closing credits), but it’s a standout for being the very first pop song written for a James Bond flick. I might have said otherwise a year ago, but ultimately I’m giving the point to “Tomorrow Never Dies.”
Sam: I actually watched From Russia With Love just the other night, and I had completely blanked on the fact that the proper song only shows up over the closing credits. It’s perfect soundtracking the final scene, as Bond and Russian minx Tatiana Romanova gently smooch in the back of a gondola, but I think it’s a little too lovey-dovey to stand out as a great theme tune. Sheryl Crow doesn’t do much for me one way or the other, but “Tomorrow Never Dies” shies away from her standard singer-songwriter fare to great effect. Plus, the ominous plonking melody that opens the song is funky and cool. Put me down for Crow.
Julian: Yeah, I also forgot there even was a proper song for From Russia With Love, I think it’s because I’m really not a fan of white dudes singing to jazz, not typically anyway. So right off the bat, “From Russia With Love” had an uphill battle for my affection. The song actually grew on me, but only a little. “Tomorrow Never Dies” is pretty cool, though. I love the twangy guitar at the beginning, but I gotta admit, I don’t know what Sheryl Crow is saying at certain points in the chorus. Whatever it is, she sure sells the hell out of it. “Tomorrow Never Dies” hands down for me.
The Survivor: “Tomorrow Never Dies”
ROUND ONE, MATCH SEVEN
“Die Another Day” – Madonna (Die Another Day, 2002)
“Licence to Kill” – Gladys Knight (Licence to Kill, 1989)
Dylan: I collected data from a number of different websites’ James Bond theme rankings to determine the seeds for our tournament, and “Die Another Day” always appeared near the top or at the very bottom of anyone’s lists. It’s far and away the most divisive Bond theme, and I’m very curious to see how you guys feel about it. On the other hand, we’ve got Gladys Knight’s “Licence to Kill,” which is a bit more traditional.
Sam: Hoo boy. I actually came into this thinking I liked “Die Another Day,” but after listening to it, I realize fourteen-year-old Sam must have just blocked out how awful it is. The autotuned vocals are grating and heavily date the song, and the faux-techno instrumentals are just really bland and ineffectual. There’s something really iconic about “Licence to Kill,” however. The opening chord hits directly reference the horns from “Goldfinger,” and Knight’s sultry alto is a perfect fit for a Bond theme.
Julian: Hmm, see, I actually don’t mind “Die Another Day,” and that’s coming from someone who was raised to dislike Madonna (I’ve recently come around on her). I think the glitchy techno juxtaposed over orchestral strings is pretty cool, and the hook, although simple, is actually pretty catchy. That being said, I’ll take Gladys Knight’s soulful voice over Madonna’s robot voice any day of the week. What really sells me on “Licence to Kill,” beyond Gladys of course, is that two-note hit that happens at the beginning and throughout the song, it just screams “James Bond!” to me.
Mike: Shockingly, it looks like I’m the one who dislikes “Die Another Day” the most. Didn’t like it then, don’t like it now—even as a big fan of Madonna’s post-Ray of Light decade (even American Life, the album that followed this single). It’s as tacky as some claim Eric Serra’s industrial-electronic score to GoldenEye is, and it’s one of only two Bond themes I don’t own in some manner (and I thought I had “The World is Not Enough” on a hard drive somewhere). “Licence to Kill” is definitely a classy Bond affair (thirded on the two-chord “Goldfinger” reference!), but it’s also significantly modern for its time, produced by both Narada Michael Walden (who helmed some of Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin’s biggest hits during the ’80s) and Walter Afanasieff (whose slick adult-contemporary sound was crucial to Mariah Carey’s early pop crossover, as well as virtually every Disney end-credits pop song of the ’90s). That extra something makes it the pick for this unrepentant chart geek.
The Survivor: “Licence to Kill”
ROUND ONE, MATCH EIGHT
“Skyfall” – Adele (Skyfall, 2012)
“The Living Daylights” – a-ha (The Living Daylights, 1987)
Dylan: WHOOF. “Skyfall,” the instant classic. I’ll admit that I wasn’t in love with this song at first listen (mostly because I’d already given my heart to Muse’s “Supremacy,” which would have been an excellent choice had the filmmakers decided to continue to use rock songs as themes for the Craig movies), but now I’ve come around. “The Living Daylights” failed to make a big splash when it was released, but I have a feeling you three ’80s sound nerds will have an appreciation for it…
Julian: Ha-ha Dylan, and fuck you for having these two meet so early in the tournament. Both the Dalton Bond movies have really good pop songs as their themes. “The Living Daylights” is one of my favorite Bond themes: every once in a while the “woooaaahhhaaooohhh, the living daylights” from the chorus will pop into my head unprompted. Plus the guy from a-ha (I’m sure Mike knows his name) starts the song out doing a Bowie impression, so I gotta give him props for that. Still, though, “Skyfall” is a juggernaut, and another one of my favorite themes; and playing it back to back with “This Living Daylights” feels like comparing a pop-up book to the movie Avatar. Part of that comes from the difference in fidelity, sure, but it’s also just Adele’s commanding, soulful voice. I love everything about “Skyfall,” from the drum fill that starts the chorus to the backup Adeles that show up later in the song. It’s with a heavy heart that I have to vote against “The Living Daylights,” but “Skyfall” is totally superior.
Mike: I spent most of the day leading up to us writing this afraid that I’d have to defend “The Living Daylights” from you characters. Not only is this song one of my top Bond themes, it’s one of my favorites by one of my favorite bands—I’m poised to spend upwards of $100 this year on reissues of a-ha’s Warner Bros. catalog from 1985-1993, and seeing them live in 2010 is still one of my fondest concert memories. America was long icy on a-ha by this point, but this song is a hell of a theme tune. Morten Harket (of course I know his name) is up to his usual vocal heroics, and the production, halfway between a-ha’s Norwegian New Wave and late ’80s modern rock (dig that drumroll between verse and pre-chorus!), is top-notch. “Skyfall” is both appropriate for its film (a throwback to the early ’60s belters in honor of Bond’s 50th anniversary onscreen) and a canny, timeless tune (eternal thanks to pop juggernaut Adele for making middle America care about Bond themes again), but not even Adele’s millions of albums sold will change my mind. If you thought I wouldn’t pick “The Living Daylights,” you set your hopes up way too high.
Sam: I practically rubbed my hands together with glee when I saw this matchup and knew that I would be the tie-breaking vote. “Skyfall” is a beautiful, masterful song, harkening back to the majesty of Shirley Bassey’s early Bond themes. Adele’s vocals are timeless and incredible, as always; it’s a press of the reset button after repeated attempts (with varying success) to marry Daniel Craig’s iteration of the Bond franchise with a more modern sound. “The Living Daylights,” by contrast, is a bit of an oddity in the Bond canon—new wave, electronica, lacking any of the lietmotifs that are usually shoehorned into the title tracks. And yet, it’s that quirky spirit that really sways me to a-ha’s dark horse of a song—leaving me in agreement with Duque, the only Deadshirt staffer who loves parentheticals more than I do. Adele’s “Skyfall” may be Goliath, but “The Living Daylights” is David.
The Survivor: “The Living Daylights” (WOW, what an upset!)
We’ll be back next week for Round Two of MI-6 Madness, when timeless classics like “Diamonds are Forever” and “Live and Let Die” enter the fray!