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. This week is the semi-finals, when the eight surviving songs get whittled down to our Final Four!
ROUND THREE, MATCH ONE
“James Bond Theme” – John Barry Orchestra (Dr. No, 1962)
“Thunderball” – Tom Jones (Thunderball, 1965)
Dylan: The classic “James Bond Theme” and “Thunderball” each trounced their underdog competition last week in the quarter-finals. Now that they’re up against each other, which will win out: the instrumental standby or the dramatic pop tune?
Julian: I know I said last week that in order for this tournament to be fair, I (we) would have to apply heavier scrutiny when evaluating the original “James Bond Theme,” but I’m not ready to vote it out just yet. There’s a reason it’s endured for 50 years as the theme for this iconic super spy—it’s damn cool, especially when you consider different arrangements of it. “Thunderball” is good too, it totally deserves it’s spot here in the Elite Eight, but I don’t think it continues on. I’m not a huge Tom Jones fan, but I recognize that he puts on a brilliant vocal performance; the arrangement is great as well, but so much of it borrows from the “James Bond Theme” that it seems silly to pick it over the original. There are definitely times in music where remixes are better than the source, but it’s not the case here.
Mike: I’ve been thinking a lot about something I wrote in last week’s match-ups that will help me get through the remainder of the rankings with a clear conscience. Writing about Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger,” I called it “the brass ring just about everyone in the 50-plus years since has been chasing afterward: the dazzling orchestration…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.” I think those qualities largely sum up a great Bond theme, with probably a few additions (something appropriately of its time and also timeless is a plus), and it’s why I’d pick “Thunderball.” Yes, Tom Jones’ tune is totally building a house on top of the framework of the “James Bond Theme,” but it’s a framework that lasts to these ears. Jones captures a moment when 007 was the preeminent superhero of the day with such appropriately Tom Jones-ian gusto. That’s what I want all Bond themes and films to be, ultimately: an improvement upon the ideals and imagery of what came before.
Sam: The beauty of the “James Bond Theme” isn’t just that its swaggering style is perfectly emblematic of Ian Fleming’s iconic super spy, it’s that the tune created from whole cloth a musical vocabulary for the entire franchise. Not only does every single theme tune in our bracket take cues from Monty Norman and John Barry’s electrifying piece, but every orchestral and instrumental score in a Bond film owes a debt to the “James Bond Theme” for setting the tone for the last 53 years. “Thunderball” is a great track in its own right, but can it lay claim to something like that? The answer is no, and so it goes.
The Survivor: “James Bond Theme”
ROUND THREE, MATCH TWO
“Diamonds Are Forever” – Shirley Bassey (Diamonds Are Forever, 1971)
“Live and Let Die” – Paul McCartney & Wings (Live and Let Die, 1973)
Dylan: Hoo boy. These two classics had it pretty easy last round, but this is gonna be tough as hell. Both considered essential Bond themes, yet they could hardly be more different.
Sam: This one is probably the toughest matchup I’ve deliberated on so far. Two songs that very much deserve to be here, and in my opinion, both deserve to go farther. One the one hand, “Diamonds Are Forever” is Bassey’s best performance in a Bond song, even if it’s not her actual best Bond song (see: “Goldfinger”, duh). On the other hand, you have my favorite member of the Beatles, delivering a track that stands with the best of his post-Beatles work—there’s a reason McCartney performs it on tour to this day. Bearing in mind I already know I’ll be voting for “Goldfinger” in the next round, I don’t feel too guilty passing on “Diamonds” and giving my vote to the rollicking “Live and Let Die.”
Julian: Both of these songs are just so good, they really deserve to be meeting in the Final Four. Unfortunately they are meeting here, so I have to choose one. On one hand “Diamonds are Forever” has the incomparable Shirley Bassey putting a stellar, better-than-”Goldfinger”-calibur performance, a pretty sweet proto-disco beat, and, of course, the Kanye Bump. “Live and Let Die,” on the other hand, is more explosive, and comes from the minds of former Beatle Paul McCartney and former Beatles producer George Martin. Really this is a toss-up for me, but since Sam went “Live and Let Die,” I’m gonna go with “Diamonds are Forever” in the interest of drama and that fact that it would be a crime if Bassey didn’t get at least one vote in this matchup. It’s in Mike’s hands now.
Mike: In keeping with my Bond Song Logic (I should patent that!), which of these has the most madcap suspense, the most hummable melody, the most stuff—and pulls it all off maddeningly well? One has only to listen to this radio ad to get a feel for the insanity of “Live and Let Die,” all pulled together by the mighty golden melodic lasso of Sir Paul McCartney. It’s big, it’s brazen, it’s beautiful, it’s my pick for the next round.
The Survivor: “Live and Let Die”
ROUND THREE, MATCH THREE
“Goldfinger” – Shirley Bassey (Goldfinger, 1964)
“Tomorrow Never Dies” – Sheryl Crow (Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997)
Dylan: “Tomorrow Never Dies” has had a pretty good run, besting Connery-era standards “From Russia With Love” and “You Only Live Twice.” But does Ms. Crow stand a chance against frigging “Goldfinger?”
Mike: Ultimately, the guiding principles I outlined earlier are going to put “Goldfinger” on my path to victory, and this is an even easier matchup. “Goldfinger” is the Rosetta Stone of Bond title themes. After 1964, it was nearly gospel to start a Bond flick off with a banger of a pop tune. (The sole outlier: John Barry’s still excellent score theme to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.) In their own way, everyone is gunning for the same sort of alchemy Bassey and Barry achieved on “Goldfinger,” and with few exceptions, just about everyone succeeded (if not surpassed—it remains to be seen!). It’s how well everyone succeeded that probably drives these songs further up the bracket, and that’s why I think my repping for “Tomorrow Never Dies” ends here. Crow’s torch song moment is quite underrated in the Bond canon, but it’s only nipping at the heels of a true original.
Sam: The funny thing about “Goldfinger” is that the music and melody and vocal performance are all so great that it kind of distracts you from how freakin’ goofy the lyrics are, amounting to not much more than a vaudevillian wail of “ooooh, he’s a bad man!” That doesn’t stop it from being one of my favorites, mind you; in fact, that tongue-in-cheek bravado probably adds to it. Also, everything Duque said above: it’s the codex to all Bond songs that followed, yadda yadda yadda. “Tomorrow Never Dies” is great, but can’t hold a candle to the genuine article.
Julian: I’m pretty glad that we made it into the Elite Eight with at least one theme from each decade; well, all except for the Craig era (“Skyfall,” ahem!). I was pretty pleased that “Tomorrow Never Dies” made it this far, as the last rep for the Bond movies of my youth. However, it looks like, even without my vote, this is where its run ends. That’s fine, there ain’t no shame in losing to “Goldfinger.” I don’t think I need to say anything about it beyond reiterating what both Sam and Mike have pointed out: that “Goldfinger” basically set the standard to which all other Bond themes are held. As underrated and fun “Tomorrow Never Dies” is, it just can’t compete with that juggernaut.
The Survivor: “Goldfinger”
ROUND THREE, MATCH FOUR
“Nobody Does it Better” – Carly Simon (The Spy Who Loved Me, 1977)
“The Living Daylights” – a-ha (The Living Daylights, 1987)
Dylan: “The Living Daylights” has been the big surprise contender of this tournament. First, it won an upset over Adele’s “Skyfall,” which puzzled Julian. Then it defeated Mike’s beloved “A View to a Kill.” “Nobody Does it Better” narrowly beat out “Licence to Kill” last week. I can’t wait to see how this plays out.
Julian: Sing it with me:
Ooooohhhh, The Living Daylights
OOOOOOHHHH, The Living Daylightssss!
Mike: I could only sit by and watch in horror as Julian and Sam willfully ignored history and put “The Living Daylights” (a song I love) ahead of Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill” (a song I love a little more, and a song that made “The Living Daylights” possible) last week. I don’t know where those goofy bastards will align themselves this time, but I do know that, despite my incredible love for both Marvin Hamlisch and Carly Simon, it’s “The Living Daylights” that keeps in my good graces. “Daylights” and “A View to a Kill” were really the only two (of five) ‘80s Bond themes to get what was best about the decade’s music—a crossroads of cutting-edge technology with old-school melodic focus and an interesting streak of emotional darkness–which is sort of a metaphor for Bond, a traditionalist with a bevy of gadgets and a barely explainable chip on his shoulder. Put Morten Harket’s high notes back in my ear holes, please.
Sam: I’m glad to see that you aren’t mad, Duque, and are actually laughing. But what started out as kind of a joke has, for me, turned into a full-blown obsession—I’ve been listening to “The Living Daylights” almost non-stop since we started this enterprise. I actually love it now. Please send help.
The Survivor: “The Living Daylights” will return…
Next week: THE FINAL FOUR!