James Bond and music have made pretty fine bedfellows (and he’s had a few) over the 59 years since the first film – Dr. No – was released in 1962. That first outing for 007 relied on John Barry and his orchestra, the composer taking Monty Norman’s iconic instrumental theme tune and stepping it up several gears to become one of the most familiar arrangements in film music.
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From the second film, an original song was included and thus began a decades-long tradition for the series. More often that not, the tune was written by the composer of the film’s score, but not always. Over the years, the coveted role of penning the Bond song has gone to some of the world’s most popular hit makers – whether they themselves sang it or not.
Which musical moment is an ‘All Time High’ and for which would we say the ‘Writing’s On The Wall’?
- ‘Die Another Day’ from Die Another Day (2002)
Pierce Brosnan’s last outing as 007 saw a bit of a departure song-wise. You couldn’t ask for a bigger star to get behind it, though. Madonna wrote and produced, along with producer Mirwais Ahmadzaï and composer Michel Colombier. The song continues to split opinion, but it strays too far away from the proven models to be in anything but last place.
- ‘All Time High’ from Octopussy (1983)
With a title like Octopussy, it’s no wonder John Barry (who returned after a break) and lyricist Tim Rice struggled. So ‘All Time High’ it was, marking something of a comeback for singer Rita Coolidge… Sadly the song is more of an ‘all time low’.
- ‘For Your Eyes Only’ from For Your Eyes Only (1981)
Rocky composer Bill Conti scored the film and wrote this title song with Mike Leeson. He’s a great melodist and it’s a nice production with a strong vocal from ’80s star Easton. That said, it’s all a bit frothy and lightweight for 007 isn’t it?
- ‘The Living Daylights’ from The Living Daylights (1987)
After Duran Duran’s success with A View To A Kill, going with another of the decade’s biggest pop groups was a no-brainer. The band’s guitarist Pål Waaktaar is behind the track, which was produced by composer John Barry. It’s a fine track and very much in line with the Norwegian superstars’ chart-topping output. It’s just not very Bond.
- ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ from Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
Sheryl Crow wrote this with producer Mitchell Froom and it’s… alright, if a bit lightweight. Composer David Arnold made his Bond debut with the score for this film and wrote an original song with Don Black and David McAlmont, but ‘Surrender’ was relegated to the end credits, despite being a far superior song.
- ‘Goldeneye’ from Goldeneye (1995)
There was quite a gap between Timothy Dalton’s last outing as 007 and this, Pierce Brosnan’s debut in the role. Much anticipation, then, for the music… French composer Eric Serra oversaw the score, but this song was penned by U2’s Bono and The Edge. Under appreciated, perhaps considered a little low-key at the time, it’s actually rather good.
- ‘Moonraker’ from Moonraker (1979)
If someone asked you to hum ‘Moonraker’ you might be hard pushed to do so. The third of Dame Shirley’s three Bond songs, it hasn’t enjoyed the success or familiarity of her earlier efforts. That’s probably because only the melody was used to open the film, which ended with a Disco arrangement (!). Bassey was apparently brought in to record the track at the eleventh hour…
- ‘No Time To Die’ from No Time To Die (2020)
We heard this for months before the film was actually released, thanks to the global pandemic. Written and performed by Billie Eilish, and penned with her broher Finneas O’Connell, it has all the musical hallmarks of modern Bond. A tried and tested formula, then, but perhaps nothing very new.
- ‘The Man With The Golden Gun’ from The Man With The Golden Gun (1974)
John Barry had stepped back for the prior film (Live and Let Die) but returned for this, with its classic title. Penned with Don Black it hasn’t aged quite well – even the older songs sound fresher than this. It’s cheesy and just a little bit infectious… or is it a little bit irritating?
- ‘A View To A Kill’ from A View To A Kill (1985)
Totally a product of its time, but none the worse for it, this song was a close collaboration between the band and composer John Barry. It’s colourful, epic and occasionally a bit bonkers. Synth-tastic.
- ‘Licence To Kill’ from Licence To Kill (1989)
Bond went Pop in the ’80s and this song by hit makers Narada Michael Walden, Jeffrey Cohen and Walter Afanasieff ended the decade’s offerings on a high note thanks in no small part to Knight’s fabulous vocal.
- ‘The World Is Not Enough’ from The World Is Not Enough (1999)
Composer David Arnold was always a natural with Bond and he penned this original song for one of the world’s hottest groups, and with one of John Barry’s go-to lyricists, Don Black. It feels like a classic Bond song from the first few bars.
- ‘You Know My Name’ from Casino Royale (2006)
When Bond was re-cast with Daniel Craig whose edges, let’s face it, were a little rougher (buffer?) than Pierce Brosnan’s, this song was somehow perfectly cast along with him. The late Chris Cornell wrote it and it was produced by score composer David Arnold. It definitely had more swagger than we’d heard in a while.
- ‘You Only Live Twice’ from You Only Live Twice (1967)
This is a bit of a treasure and widely considered one of the best Bond songs, with its classic Barry melody and words by Leslie Bricusse. Its most famous component is perhaps the lofty string intro, adopted by Robbie Williams for his hit song ‘Millennium’.
- ‘Writings on the Wall’ from Spectre (2015)
After the success of Adele’s song for the prior film, it made sense to stick to the idea of working with a mega bestselling singer-songwriter. Smith worked his magic with this soulful, sultry number and bagged himself an Oscar in the process.
- ‘Another Way To Die’ from Quantum of Solace (2008)
Jack White and Alicia Keys
White Stripes frontman Jack White wrote and produced this one, teaming up with the brilliant Alicia Keys for the performance. It has a fabulous swagger that sets it apart from many of the songs that came before it in recent years.
- ‘Thunderball’ from Thunderball (1965)
Tom Jones and James Bond went together like apples and oranges, but this was the Bond song that almost never was. Another, by Barry and Leslie Bricusse, was written for the film with Shirley Bassey in mind, but it never made the cut. Instead Barry hurriedly penned this with Don Black… and it’s a cracker.
- ‘From Russia With Love’ from From Russia With Love (1963)
The first Bond song! John Barry returned for 007’s second outing, but the song itself was written by Oliver! composer Lionel Bart. Barry references Bart’s tune in his opening title medley and it appears later as source music; Matt Monro’s silken vocals aren’t heard until the end titles. Swoon.
- ‘Skyfall’ from Skyfall (2012)
The first Bond song to win an Oscar, Adele wrote the track with producer Paul Epworth. Score composer Thomas Newman had no hand in it, though his regular orchestrator JAC Redford did the arrangements. Its rich dramatic sheen and smokey vocals were emulated in the two songs that followed…
- ‘We Have All the Time in the World’ from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
Quite the classic and if you didn’t know your Bond, you might be surprised to learn that it was written for 007. Penned by John Barry with the great Hal David, it was actually secondary to Barry’s main orchestral theme for the film which was used for the opening credits. The title comes from the last line of the film (and book).
- ‘Nobody Does It Better’ from The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
A change of pace came with this smash hit song, performed by the great Carly Simon and written by composer Marvin Hamlisch with Carole Bayer Sager. It was the second Bond song not to employ the film’s title as it’s own, though it does appear in the lyric.
- ‘Goldfinger’ from Goldfinger (1964)
Third film, second-ever song, Bassey’s first. John Barry teamed up with lyricist duo Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley for this solid gold piece of musical storytelling. It set the benchmark for Bond’s trademark brassy, bold and brilliant song arrangements.
- ‘Live and Let Die’ from Live and Let Die (1973)
Paul McCartney and Wings
Paul and Linda McCartney wrote this legendary track, which was produced and arranged by former Beatles producer George Martin (who wrote the score for the film). Its probably one of the most unusual songs penned for the series, but stands out thanks to its orchestral largesse and rhapsodic qualities.
- ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ from Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
It might have been her second Bond outing, this is surely Shirley’s best? Written by John Barry and Don Black it has become an immortal hit. Sultry melody, pitch perfect (and powerful) vocal and lyrics that paint the most vivid picture. It doesn’t get much better than this.
- ‘The James Bond Theme’ from Dr. No (1962)
John Barry Orchestra
The best Bond theme tune? Why the James Bond Theme’ from Dr. No of course. It’s iconic and you recognise it from the first downbeat. Monty Norman’s theme, brought to vivid life in John Barry’s spectacular arrangement, is present in some form in every Bond film. So of course it’s in the top spot.
Top image by Getty Inages
Michael is the Reviews Editor of BBC Music Magazine. He was previously a freelance film music journalist and spent 15 years at St George's Bristol. Michael specialises in film and television music and was the Editor of MusicfromtheMovies.com. He has written for the BBC Proms, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, Hollywood in Vienna and Silva Screen Records.