MI-6 Madness: Bond Theme vs. Bond Theme—Quarterfinals, Part One

Welcome back to MI-6 Madness, where our panel of music critics pits the theme songs 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. We’re about the start the quarter-finals, where the eight winners from the first round are each matched against top-seeded classics who had a bye last week. Let’s get started!

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ROUND TWO, MATCH ONE

“James Bond Theme” – John Barry and His Orchestra (Dr. No, 1962)

“You Know My Name” – Chris Cornell (Casino Royale, 2006)

Dylan: First, a note about my inclusion of the classic James Bond Theme in this bracket: the instrumental themes are not typically included in other site’s Bond Theme rankings, but I wanted to include one song per film, and this is the song most closely identified with the first Bond movie, Dr. No. For the purposes of our bracket, I’d like you guys to consider only the 1962 arrangement of the theme, as heard in this movie. It’s up against “You Know My Name,” which beat out the theme to The World is Not Enough in the first round.

Sam: The Dr. No arrangement of Monty Norman and John Barry’s classic “James Bond Theme” robs the tune of some of its intrigue (by putting the swing section first instead of in the middle), but there’s no denying it’s still a tremendous piece of music. The tune went on to appear in every Bond picture to date, and for good reason—the swagger and confidence of the arrangement is emblematic of everything Ian Fleming’s debonair secret agent stands for. The sinister surf-rock guitar line and slinky chromatic chord progression single-handedly set the gold standard for music in the spy genre. Setting it up against Cornell’s “You Know My Name”, which is a perfectly fine song in its own right, is like comparing apples to a poorly xeroxed copy of a scratch-n’-sniff picture of oranges.

Julian: It’s kind of unfair to even have the “James Bond Theme” in this tournament since it IS James Bond. It became the overarching theme that links every Bond movie – and, I believe, almost every Bond song since has used one of the motifs from it. While I do like Chris Cornell’s “You Know My Name,” there’s no contest here, “James Bond Theme” all the way. I’m interested to see how we deal with it in later rounds, I guess this tournament weighs a song’s musical qualities with how it fits with James Bond the franchise. There are certainly better straight-ahead songs on this list than the “James Bond Theme”, but none more important.

Mike: The traditional James Bond theme is almost an unfair pick, like putting Muhammad Ali against the little guy from Punch-Out!! Monty Norman and His Orchestra’s “James Bond Theme” set an amazing template for the series in general. Its success has multiple fathers: John Barry, who’d later score eleven of Dr. No’s sequels, gave the theme its surf rock-cum-swing arrangement (and would unsuccessfully sue for writing credit several times), and it’d be wrong not to mention Vic Flick, the session guitarist whose speeding bullet guitar riff powers the “verse.” Much like Adele’s “Skyfall” was exactly what the franchise needed in that moment, “You Know My Name” did what it needed to do for a revitalized Bond. But in this round, there’s no messing with the original.

The Survivor: “James Bond Theme”

ROUND TWO, MATCH TWO

“Thunderball” – Tom Jones (Thunderball, 1965)

“We Have All the Time in the World” – Louis Armstrong (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1969)

Dylan: Two giants of pop, head to head! Tom Jones enters the fray with his bombastic follow-up to Bassey’s “Goldfinger”! How do they compare?

Mike: “We Have All the Time in the World” is a sorely underappreciated entry in the greater canon of Bond music, but one thing it does not have is the balls-to-the-wall swagger, the thing we expect from Bond films in general and some of the best music in the series in particular. Monty Norman and longtime composer John Barry gave us that in spades, helping set a template for how we remember the sound of spy films. “Thunderball,” a last-minute addition to the fourth 007 film (the original theme, “Mr. Kiss-Kiss Bang-Bang,” was named for a foreign nickname for James Bond and recorded by both Bassey and a young Dionne Warwick), has exactly the kind of swagger you expect from these songs. The deceptively simple repurposing of Norman’s original theme as a brassy hook and the gorgeous melody sung with appropriate gusto by Tom Jones (who reportedly fainted during his last note) make this one of the best themes in the series.

Sam: Thunderball came directly after Goldfinger, so it’s pretty telling that the two theme songs sound nearly identical. Brassy, jazzy, and bold, “Thunderball” picks up Bassey’s ball and runs with it. I’ve always been a fan of Tom Jones’ rich baritone voice, and he’s clearly having a lot of fun here, hamming it up for the song’s big finale. “We Have All the Time in the World” is perfectly lovely, and works great as a love theme, but there’s a reason it’s not the actual theme song of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and now is a good time for it to respectfully bow out.

Julian: I don’t think I have too much to say on this one, my colleagues covered “Thunderball’s” “boldness” and “swagger” and I totally agree. Last round I voted “We Have All the Time in the World” as a sentimental pick, but it’s not very Bond-ish. “Thunderball” on the other hand is incredibly James Bond – using part of the theme as the hook really ensures that the song is forever associated with the super spy and his movie franchise. It’s in a rare context that I’d pick Tom Jones over Louis Armstrong, but that’s why they call it “MI-6 Madness.”

The Survivor: “Thunderball”

ROUND TWO, MATCH THREE

“Diamonds are Forever” – Shirley Bassey (Diamonds are Forever, 1971)

“Another Way to Die” – Jack White & Alicia Keys (Quantum of Solace, 2008)

Dylan: Fun fact: this nearly could have been a Bassey vs. Bassey matchup—Quantum of Solace composer David Arnold wrote a more old-school theme for the film, “No Good About Goodbye,” but it features only as an instrumental motif. The full song was eventually recorded by who else but Ms. Bassey. (Here’s the song over the QoS opening sequence, just for shits ‘n’ giggles.) Anyway, instead we have this old school vs. new school bout. Thoughts?

Julian: Let’s put it this way,one of these songs was sampled by Kanye West on his second album when he was still making a name for himself, the other I’m honestly surprised made it this far. Need I say more? Okay, I will. The two remaining Bassey-sung Bond themes are gigantic; for a long while they were the standard to which every other Bond theme was held (some would argue they still are). Even when you think of the various parodies and imitations of bond themes – whether it’s the theme from Snake Eater, or “Scorpio” from The Simpsons episode “You Only Move Twice,” who are they imitating if not Shirley Bassey? It’s true that “Goldfinger” is probably more famous of the two, but I actually think “Diamonds Are Forever” is more interesting as a song, musically; it’s got more movement, there’s even a little funk in it towards the end, and Bassey is as brilliant as the diamonds she sings about. The association with Kanye can’t hurt either. “Diamonds are Forever” gets my vote.

Mike: It’s easy to think that “Diamonds” got a bump from “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” in 2005, but I think Yeezus was just showing the world what we forgot: that “Diamonds Are Forever” is an understated killer jam. Whereas Bassey’s third tune, “Moonraker,” was riddled with unnecessary bombast, this one gets the mood just right, allowing Dame Shirley to be alternately seductive and sensational throughout. Compared to the whatsit that is “Another Way to Die,” “Diamonds” is firmly planted in Bond territory, and that’s what earns it my vote.

Sam: Look, if I had my druthers, and I’m talking like, one hundred percent of my druthers, I’d actually write in “No Good About Goodbye”—that track is better than both of these, and it’s a damn shame that it ended up being relegated to a curio in Bond history. In any event, I’m all about that Bassey this time. “Diamonds are Forever” may not be as iconic as “Goldfinger,” but I think it’s a lot more fun, ditching the established style for a disco-funk flavor, without quite jumping the shark like “Another Way to Die” does.

The Survivor: “Diamonds are Forever”

ROUND TWO, MATCH FOUR

“Live and Let Die” – Paul McCartney & Wings (Live and Let Die, 1973)

“For Your Eyes Only” – Sheena Easton (Octopussy, 1981)

Dylan: Last week, “For You Eyes Only” easily beat out “The Man with the Golden Gun,” but how will Ms. Easton fare against a freaking Beatle?

Sam: Well,I think the choice here is overwhelmingly clear, unless someone else decides to be me (i.e., a jerk) this week and pick the underdog just for jokes. I’ll probably get more kickback from readers for saying that Paul is the best Beatle (hi haters!) than picking “Live and Let Die” over “For Your Eyes Only.” Unlike a lot of Bond themes, which have this sort of stately, somber feel to them, “Live and Let Die” is pure adrenaline-fueled fun. Macca has always been a master of melody, and while there aren’t a whole lot of lyrics here, the ballad-like verses and reggae-inspired bridge are unimpeachably stellar, and the instrumental melody line in the choruses(?) is immediately memorable. This is a catchy-as-hell song that burrows deep into your brain, and I could recall it with perfect clarity even before listening to it again for this article. On the other hand, you have Easton’s “For Your Eyes Only,” which I just listened to again and already forgot how it goes.

Mike: The Duquette-Paxton bromance that began not long after I started writing for Deadshirt reached a new plateau last week when Sam helped “The Living Daylights,” one of my favorite Bond tunes, move into the second round, and the revelation that we have the same favorite Beatle is just making things sweeter. I’ve been on a real Paul kick lately, and “Live and Let Die” has many of the qualities that made his post-Beatles work stellar at times and at least tolerable at many others. You’ve got the killer melody, the kitchen sink production from Beatles helmer George Martin—this tune was Paul’s first with Martin since the dissolution of The Fab Four—and, as Sam mentioned, a fair amount of carefree fun. (I’ll even forgive that lyric that everyone mocks; I always hear “if this ever-changing world in which we’re living,” not “in which we live in.”) “For Your Eyes Only” is a fine, tender ballad, but as I noted before, brazen often counts for more when 007 is involved.

Julian: As much as I feel a little bad voting for all the frontrunners this time around, I really like “Live and Let Die.” It’s by my favorite of Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles work. The song is totally badass; it’s really the first time that we got a rock song for a Bond theme, and by an ex-Beatle no less, what more can you ask for? I had a college professor who said that Paul McCartney was great at coming up with beginnings of songs but didn’t always know how to follow through, which explains why songs like “Live and Let Die” and “Band On The Run” and others kind of sounded like multiple songs. But here it totally works—even the slight touch of reggae doesn’t feel out of place. I didn’t realize George Martin worked on this, but it totally makes sense. It also helps that this was for one of my favorite Bond movies, whose first act drops the super British James Bond in the middle of a Blacksploitation movie. I was already only lukewarm on either of the songs in the match “For Your Eyes Only” won, so it definitely loses to “Live and Let Die” in my opinion.

The Survivor: “Live and Let Die”

That’s a clean sweep for the top seeds! Will the other four winners fare better against Duran Duran, Carly Simon, Nancy Sinatra, and Shirley Bassey’s iconic “Goldfinger?” Find out later this week!

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