May 23, 2010

Bond Theme Songs: A Countdown (Part IV)

Here we are - the top five. Even as I assembled this final quintet I had trouble with the order. This is hard. And I'm probably going to cause some controversy. Not least because of number five...

#5 "Die Another Day", 2002

Possibly the biggest polariser on this list, "Die Another Day" nevertheless makes it to the top five for being an absolutely appropriate Bond song, when you look closely at lyrics, mood and context. It was only natural that Madonna should do a Bond song, and the 40th anniversary film coincided with her 20th anniversary in the music business, so it worked out nicely. Turns out for me the song was the best thing about "Die Another Day", apart from the cute anniversary references and the Aston Martin Vanquish (ohhhh, yeahhhhh). Halle Berry's Jinx can frankly go jump, the punning got ridiculous even for me and JAMES BOND SHOULD NOT USE CGI. Special effects? Sure. Clever modelling and film tricks? Absolutely. But ABSEILING OFF AN ICE SHELF? That dog won't hunt, Monsignor.

But back to the song. I first heard this on the radio before the film came out, and I will admit to not liking it at first. The electronic fiddling with the vocals, the stop-start structure of the song - it seemed too remote, too alien for the Bond world. But this song requires re-listening. Go back and do that, and you'll start hearing other things: the menacing baseline; the clapping drumbeat; the sharp strings, and the lyrics. When I then went along to the movie, everything feel into place. While the "Die Another Day" of the title refers to Toby Stephens' villain (who uses radical gene therapy to change his appearance and escape punishment), it also refers to Bond's 14-month imprisonment in North Korea, during which time he is brutally tortured. The lyrics "I'm gonna destroy my ego/I'm gonna close my body now" and "I'm gonna suspend my senses/I'm gonna delay my pleasure" all refer to the physical and psychological training that enables Bond to stand his capture. It brilliantly ties together the pre-credit sequence with Bond's subsequent release and escape. It's also MADONNA, people. MADONNA. She's so far ahead of the trend, she's practically coming around the back again - you only have to look at the way people abuse Auto-Tune now to realise how contextually appropriate her use of synthetised sound was.

#4 "You Only Live Twice", 1967

This one almost crept up on me - but I cannot deny its place at the top end of the list. Wistful and whimsical, with delicate Oriental overtones, "You Only Live Twice" is the Bond song equivalent of a fine perfume. Composed by John Barry, with lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, it's part hymn, part love-song, part warning - but all lovely. Although the title refers to Bond's death being faked so he can investigate Blofeld's nefarious activities in secret, I'm not sure the song is about Bond. Indeed, the lines "And love is a stranger who'll beckon you on/Don't think of the danger or the stranger is gone" imply that Bond is that stranger, and the song is an entreaty to those who would love him to do so boldly ("This dream is for you/So pay the price"). The opening melody line is so wonderful, it pushed Robbie Williams' "Millenium" from good pop to great pop. More than any other, this Bond song makes me wish I'd kept up ballet so I could choreograph some sort of gorgeous routine with a parasol and a cut-down kimono. Of course, knowing my clumsiness, I'd wind up popping a knee joint and crashing to the ground skirts akimbo before Nancy Sinatra even started with the vocals.

#3 "You Know My Name" from Casino Royale, 2006

Rocker Chris Cornell comes screeching into the top three with this heart-pounding, guitar-slamming, fist-punching anthem for the New Bond. From the first aggressive guitar licks, you know this is a different Bond, a reborn Bond, a blond Bond, a Bond who can take a half-hour pounding to the balls and still hang shit on you, you loser. I saw this film with The Wah in an English cinema in Madrid - we'd been travelling around Morocco and Spain in the build up to Casino Royale opening and so hadn't heard the theme song before it came blasting out of the speakers post-Daniel Craig's spectacular pre-credit sequence. It's grown on me ever since - even though the title sequence featured a rather inexcusable lack of naked silhouetted women. I mean, I know it was a do-over, but really, there are some things that stand the test of time, and naked silhouetted women is one of them. As for the song, all the lyrics are genius - too many to quote here, so just go and read them. "You Know My Name" is wonderfully appropriate as a title, because the film of course is about Bond "becoming" 007 - the number becoming the name.

#2 "Live and Let Die", 1973

One of the best experiences of my life was seeing Paul McCartney perform this song live during a free concert outside the Colosseum in Rome back in 2003. He was there to wrap up Rome's Cultural Week, during which time they'd thrown open the doors to all state-run historic attractions to the eternal gratitude of cash-poor ruin-loving backpackers. The whole thing wrapped up with one of the few remaining Beatles donning his best skivvy and jacket for his "Back to the World" concert. It started with about 20 minutes of fire-twirlers and circus performers faffing about onstage, which had thousands of onlookers confused. But when Sir Paul ran out with all the enthusiasm of a puppy on Pepsi Max and broke into "Hello, Hello", all was forgiven. I actually burst into tears. And I couldn't even see Paul - the Via dei Fori Imperiali is a rather long and winding road, and we were so far back we were watching the jumbo screens for close-ups of the then-Mr Heather Mills. I'd said to The Wah we could leave just as soon as he'd done "Live and Let Die", in order to get back to our campsite outside the city. But it didn't come. And we waited. And kept waiting, through a bunch of other hits until POW! Second encore. And BOY did I rock out. It was totally worth missing the last train home for.

"Live and Let Die" is just amazing - a boppy, upbeat tune at times, which matches the film's New Orleans Carnivale atmosphere, it starts with a cautionary, world-weary reflective tone. "When you were young your heart was an open book/You used to say live and let live". But after the ever-changing world in which we live in makes you give in and cry....the song CRASHES like a BEAR ON STEROIDS into ..."Say live and let DIE". Oh, those guitars. Oh, those drums. Oh Linda MacCartney avoiding the tambourines. Then it rolls into that guitar riff "Da-da-da, da-da-da, da-da, da-da-da, da-da-da, DA DAAAA". You can't really dance to it, but that's because you're too busy ROCKING OUT.

The film itself is a fun first outing for Roger Moore, with lots of memorable Bond moments such as Baron Samedi, Jane Seymour's beautiful fortune-teller and Yaphet Khotto's villainous Kananga meeting an explosive end. But the song tops them all. Can you believe it lost the Oscar for Best Song to BARBRA FRICKIN' STREISAND for "The Way We Were"? I mean, doesn't that just make you want to punch someone in the nuts?

#1 "Goldfinger", 1964

Honestly, I can't tell you how hard it was to decide on the top two. Even until the last moment, I had Wings down to take the top possie. But then, you hit play on "Goldfinger" and something happens. You're transported, transposed, transformed - your life is no longer your own, you ARE James Bond. You are Britain's best uber-spy. That's YOU driving around the Alps in an Aston Martin DB5 with an ejector seat, that's YOU avoiding OddJob's nasty bowler, that's YOU saying "Do you expect me to talk?" - "No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die!"

"Goldfinger" is not the best lyrically (not a lot rhymes with "Goldfinger" but "cold finger"? Really?), nor the most accomplished musically. But it has magic - which I suspect has something to do with that brass section. "Wap-waaaaaap-waap!" The vocals are Shirley Bassey's finest - bold, clear, spine-shiveringly piercing. It's also the best Bond song about the villain, warning those foolish enough to get entangled with him that their futures are grim: "For a golden girl knows when he's kissed her/It's the kiss of death/From Mister Goldfinger". Above all, the orchestra builds and builds to that climatic crescendo - who hasn't heard the song and tried to sing along with Bassey as she belts out "He loves GOOOOOLLLLLLLLLDDDDD"? It is simply classically, evocatively James Bond. With "Goldfinger", John Barry and Shirley Bassey proved they had the Midas touch - and it's the standard against which Bond theme songs will always be measured.

Well, that's it. Some of you won't be surprised by number one - but I hope you've enjoyed the journey all the same. If you have any ideas for future lists you'd like to see from me - Bond-related or not - please leave a comment. I'd love to hear your suggestions!


  1. Rhymes for Goldfinger,....
    Bold Linger? Not really the crime of a super villain.
    Cold Zinger? Good if he killed people with a frozen Sewing machine.
    Sold Inger? People smuggling, Maybe? From Scandinavia? Not so much.

    Old Singer? Maybe a bit too meta for Bassey to sing about herself.

  2. "And I couldn't even see Paul - the Via dei Fori Imperiali is a rather long and winding road,"

    I saw what you did there.

    Good list!

  3. YES! Picked it. What a movie, what a theme.

    Mind you, I don't agree so readily with Madonna's No 5 spot, for a song I think is terrible. I half suspect it only got that high because of your self-confessed madge-idolatry. But still, a very nice rundown.

  4. #1 and #2 - yes. Wrong order, but yes.

    #5 - you are dead to me.

  5. Hooray! Finally, my Madonna choice sparked some controversy!!! :)

    Seriously, go listen to "Die Another Day" again. It really is great.

    Also - it was SO hard to choose between #1 and #2!

  6. The exactly correct No. 1 choice. I was seven years old when I saw Goldfinger with my family at a Chicago drive-in theatre. My brother, sister and I were in our pajamas. It was a double feature, paired with The Flesh Eaters - a low-budget horror flick. Both films left deep impressions.

    I believe emphatically that View to a Kill should have ranked higher on your list. You were negatively influenced by bad visuals (Duran Duran in general and the film's awful opening sequence in particular).

  7. Great count down!

    Unfortunately due to the exciting life (and TV habits) I have, I can't even look at the titles of these songs without thinking of one of Miss Squid's favoured TV shows, "Special Agent Oso".

    Each episode Special Agent Dotty sings a couple of songs relating to the challenges Oso (voiced by Sean Astin as I found out tonight!) has to overcome. Who could forget such greats as:

    To Grandma With Love/Gold Flower

    Never Say No Brushing Again/The Girl With The Golden Book

    The Boy With The Golden Gift/Birthdays Are Forever

    Carousel Royale/Leaf Raker

    License To Clean/On Her Cousin's Special Salad

    Hide Another Day/Live And Let Dry

    Tie Another Day/You Only Start Pre-School Once

    For Your Ice Only/Coldfingers

    (with thanks to wikipedia for the names of these gems)