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. Earlier this week in the first half of the quarterfinals, the underdog contenders were wiped out by first-seed favorites like “Live and Let Die” and “Diamonds Are Forever.” Will the same fate befall the four songs who survived the first round? Let’s find out.
ROUND TWO, MATCH FIVE
“Goldfinger” – Shirley Bassey (Goldfinger, 1964)
“GoldenEye” – Tina Turner (GoldenEye, 1995)
Dylan: Here it is, the big one, the song most likely to come to mind when you say the words “Bond Theme.” But does it live up to the hype? Tina Turner’s “GoldenEye” beat a lesser Bassey theme back in Round One; can she defeat her on her best day?
Mike: Last time we were all together, we talked a lot about what debts the various Bond title themes owe to Monty Norman’s original, precedent-setting “James Bond Theme.” While that may be true, it’s “Goldfinger” that really kicked off the tradition of proper James Bond pop songs. Written by John Barry and Leslie Bricusse while the third Bond film was still in production, “Goldfinger,” as expertly sung by Dame Shirley Bassey, is the brass ring just about everyone in the 50-plus years since has been chasing afterward: the dazzling orchestration (the result of an all-night session spurred by Barry’s commitment to absolute perfection), a melody that’s distinctive but still geometrically fits into the classic Bond theme, and a final high note that could strip paint off a wall (Bassey reputedly had to remove her bra between takes to get the note just right). Respecting the one that started it all is key—and for all intents and purposes, I have when I vote yes for “Goldfinger.”
Julian: Wow, just looking at all these matchups I can already tell this round is gonna be T-O-U-G-H. Both the songs in this matchup are, well, pure gold: “Goldfinger” is the go-to, the standard when people think of Bond themes and many people’s pick for best theme by Shirley Bassey, undisputed Bond-theme queen. As I said before, I actually prefer “Diamonds Are Forever” over “Goldfinger,” and one of the main reasons is Bassey’s performance. In “Diamonds” she feels more natural and more fluid, on “Goldfinger,” it feels like the musical equivalent of giving a Broadway-caliber performance for a serious TV drama; it’s just too much. With Bassey at level 10 for the whole song, it leaves no room for when she kicks it up even further towards the end. I’m fairly confident that “Goldfinger” will win this matchup, so I don’t feel too guilty if I cast my vote for “GoldenEye.” Tina Turner does exactly the opposite of what I said Shirley Bassey does—she plays it fairly understated for most of the song until the end when she lets loose, all the while staying cool just like James Bond. Plus, I just really freaking like Tina Turner.
Sam: Both Goldfinger and GoldenEye were firsts for me. Goldfinger was the first Bond movie I ever saw, at the tender young age of “not old enough to get a lot of the sex jokes,” and GoldenEye was the first I ever saw in a theater, my seven-year-old brain being blown out of the back of my fucking skull from the sheer awesomeness. Both hold a special place in my heart as the spark that ignited my love for James Bond, one of the special things I share with my father to this day. There’s not much to say about “Goldfinger” that hasn’t been said; it’s the mother of all Bond themes, setting the tone for an entire franchise. Bassey was, as Julian pointed out, better on “Diamonds Are Forever,” but every single theme song that followed owes a great debt to “Goldfinger”. As tempted as I am to rock the boat by picking “GoldenEye” because it’s a great fucking track, it feels deeply wrong to snub “Goldfinger” that way.
The Survivor: “Goldfinger”
ROUND TWO, MATCH SIX
“You Only Live Twice” – Nancy Sinatra (You Only Live Twice, 1967)
“Tomorrow Never Dies” – Sheryl Crow (Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997)
Dylan: “Tomorrow Never Dies” beat out Connery-era “From Russia with Love” last week, and now it’s up against another classic. These two songs are thirty years apart, but they really have a lot in common. Which is your pick?
Julian: I find it pretty funny, these two songs meeting; to me, the guitar-only parts of “Tomorrow Never Dies” feel very much like the Nancy Sinatra-sung “My Baby Shot Me Down,” and now here it is, up against Sinatra’s Bond theme. “You Only Live Twice” is a good song, Sinatra gives a good performance, and the instrumentation, especially the strings, are spot on. It’s become a huge favorite, and many pop singers and artists have done covers of it. Buuuut, I think I like “Tomorrow Never Dies” a little bit better. It’s grown on me since I had to listen to it in round one. It definitely has that swagger that we talked about last time, as opposed to “You Only Live Twice” which sounds like a beautiful lullaby. I totally accept it if you want to call me crazy, and if it doesn’t win this round that’s totally fine, but I’m casting my vote for “Tomorrow Never Dies.”
Sam: I for one don’t think this is that hard of a pick at all. Nancy Sinatra is a proper legend, and there are parts of “You Only Live Twice” that are legitimately breathtaking (the string arrangements, in particular, have never been better), but I have some serious gripes with the song. The Asian flavor of the instrumentation strikes me as kind of dated, something that was thematic in 1967 but too on-the-nose nowadays. The track is also awfully flat, emotionally speaking. It kind of remains at one level, intensity-wise, and never really registers much urgency. Maybe it’s a kind of Pavlovian response I’ve been conditioned to from listening to so many Bond themes, but I spend the whole song waiting for something big to happen, and it just…doesn’t. Which is fine, but I like a little more bombast in my Bond–which is why “Tomorrow Never Dies,” with its explosive chorus and sexy smoulder, wins my vote.
Mike: Funnily, the last time I heard “You Only Live Twice” was outside the context of a Bond film. No, not in the hook to Robbie Williams’ sorely underrated “Millennium,” but at the close of a latter-day episode of Mad Men. Even though Draper and Bond have similar trajectories—drinking problems, womanizing, dapper suits, nearly getting lasered in the nuts (note: I have not seen all of Mad Men)—the song certainly fit the ‘60s mood well. And what a killer melody, evocative of the film’s Eastern setting sweetened by Nancy Sinatra’s simple, seductive vocal. (It might be the best bridge in Bond history, for one thing.) I love “Tomorrow Never Dies,” and I feel like both it and “You Only Live Twice” serve similar musical purposes in the grand scheme of the series, but I gotta hand it to “Twice” for really cleaning up, no matter what the decade.
The Survivor: “Tomorrow Never Dies”
ROUND TWO, MATCH SEVEN
“Nobody Does it Better” – Carly Simon (The Spy Who Loved Me, 1977)
“Licence to Kill” – Gladys Knight (Licence to Kill, 1989)
Dylan: Carly Simon vs. Gladys Knight! “Nobody Does it Better” is one of the more commercially successful Bond themes, but I’m curious to see what you gentlemen think of it now in 2015, compared to the underrated “Licence to Kill.”
Sam: I went on record in the last round as a fan of “Licence to Kill,” and I stand by that here. “Nobody Does it Better” has the same pros and cons associated with the other ballads in the bracket: from a songwriting standpoint, it’s beautiful and compelling, but I get cognitive dissonance from listening to it while watching the iconic kaleidoscopic opening credit sequence. It’s kind of limp in the context of a movie where things get shot, punched, and blown up almost non-stop. This is the kind of song that Kenny Chesney would guest star on American Idol to cover during the finale. “Licence to Kill,” on the other hand, handily wins on the merit of those booming opening chords alone, but the rest doesn’t hurt, either. Sorry, Carly Simon, but it turns out somebody does do it better.
Mike: Sam and I have been in crucial lockstep in several rounds, but here’s where that comes to a close. (Note to readers: this has no effect on my deep and abiding love for my friend and soon-to-be-neighbor, Samuel Jeans Paxton.) I, too, love “Licence to Kill” more than the average fan, but “Nobody Does It Better” is an all-time favorite. Maybe it’s my predisposition for Carly Simon’s smoky alto or the music of composer Marvin Hamlisch, but this is a near-perfect song, not just for Bond but for anyone. And even if my fellow judges or readers disagree, I can rest easy knowing I have numbers and trivia on my side (No. 2 on the Billboard charts, and not only an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song but also a Song of the Year Grammy Award nod).
Julian: Whoo boy, this one is the toughest out of all of these, and it’s actually worse knowing that I’m the deciding vote. On one hand we have “Nobody Does it Better,” a ballad that’s gentle in its content but powerful in its impact. This one constantly shows up on people’s top 5 Bond song lists, and is actually surprisingly catchy to boot. On the other hand, we have “License to Kill,” a slick ’80s pop/R&B tune sung by the Empress of Soul herself, Gladys Knight. It’s really a shame that this one didn’t make any waves on the charts in its day, because I think this is the best pure pop song out of the entire crop of Bond themes. That being said, we’re not ranking solely on pop music viability, we also have to consider fit into the Bond franchise. And I think I have to go with my head over my heart and give it to “Nobody Does it Better,” but I urge everybody to give “License to Kill” another listen because it is criminally underrated.
The Survivor: “Nobody Does it Better”
ROUND TWO, MATCH EIGHT
“A View to a Kill” – Duran Duran (A View to a Kill, 1985)
“The Living Daylights” – a-ha (The Living Daylights, 1987)
Dylan: And here’s the matchup I’ve been most excited for since last week’s stunning upset, when “The Living Daylights” beat out Adele’s instant classic “Skyfall”! Now, a-ha is pit against their immediate predecessor, Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill,” which remains the only Bond theme to reach #1 on the Billboard pop charts. I’ll let Eighties Mike start.
Mike: a-ha and Duran Duran occupy my personal pantheon of not only Bond songs but musical acts as well—the result of an MTV 20th anniversary binge in the summer of 2001 that shaped my tastes, my personality, and my career simultaneously. Not long before that, my love of Bond coalesced into a trip to the library to borrow Capitol Records’ first The Best of Bond…James Bond compilation, featuring every theme up to “Tomorrow Never Dies.” The two have since become almost intertwined to this day, but while I have a deep and abiding love for a-ha (more than, say, 98% of America), Duran Duran was my greatest love of all the European synthpop acts of the day. Their seductive dance-rock edge was perfectly suited for horny nerd teens like myself, and it was perhaps no better on display than in “A View to a Kill.” The crack drum pattern, the bubbling John Barry horn stabs, Simon LeBon’s guttural vocal—it’s the perfect Duran single, and the possible apotheosis of their career. When a-ha was conscripted for “The Living Daylights,” it was not unlike the producers of Spectre getting Sam Smith to replicate a little of that Adele/”Skyfall” magic. And as with that follow-up, a-ha—while great—can’t hold a candle to those who did it first and best.
Julian: Duque, did you bring up “Skyfall” in this segment just to remind me of yours and Sam’s vicious betrayal voting for it to lose to “The Living Daylights”? Anyway, I like to think that I have a pretty good ear for pop music, and a good sense of what makes a pop song work, but I just don’t fucking get “A View To a Kill” at all. I absolutely hate the samples and whatever else that pop in every once and awhile; while I’ll give Duran Duran credit that the verses are pretty good, I think the song’s hook is weak and unmemorable, unlike the one from “The Living Daylights,” which gets stuck in my head constantly. I’m voting for the a-ha Cinderella story to continue. What say you, Sam, in for a penny, in for a pound?
Sam: Look, if we’re being real, there’s not a lot of difference between these two tracks, musically. Hell, as far as I’m concerned, Duran Duran and a-ha may as well be the same band, along with Tears For Fears, et alia. Not that I dislike any of them, actually quite the opposite, but they all occupy that same “cool heartthrob ’80s new wave band” space in my little brain. Both themes kick ass, and while I’m a little afraid Duque might smack said living daylights out of me if I snub his beloved Simon LeBon, I think I have to go with “The Living Daylights.” The hook is better, and I dig the faux-Bowie thing Harket has going on. Duque, you can take on me with these two at karaoke next time and we’ll see who comes out the victor.
The Survivor: “The Living Daylights” marches the fuck on.
NEXT WEEK: The semis, baby, when our pack of eight gets whittled down to the Final Four!