A not-so-brief history of every James Bond song

Daniel Craig as James Bond. Photo: Shutterstock

This movie is late. Very late. If there hadn’t been a pandemic, the 25th JamesBond film, No Time to Die, would already be on VOD if not running on premium cable. The original release date in November 2019 was pushed to February 2020 because of production issues. When that didn’t happen because of the departure of director Danny Boyle, it was postponed to April 2020. But then COVID-19 hit — and well, we know that story.

The good news is that we’re getting No Time to Die slightly earlier than we thought. With improvements in the COVID-19 situation, the release dates of Nov. 12 (U.K.) and Nov. 25 (the rest of the world) were pushed up to Sept. 30 (U.K.) and Oct. 8 (everyone else). That’s a long wait for a movie that started production in 2016 and cost US$300 million to make.

This, however, gives us another chance to look back at all the title theme music that has come with every Bond film over the last 60 years. Here they are in chronological order.

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1. Dr. No (1962)

The first theme for a Bond movie was … the iconic James Bond theme. Composer Monty Norman actually plagiarized himself, taking the key elements of a song he wrote called Good Sign Bad Sign, which is sung by Indian characters on the island of Trinidad in a musical based on a book called A House for Mr. Biswas. You’ll hear it immediately.

Monty moved the melody to a twangy guitar and presented it to the producers — who hated it. Trying to salvage what they could, they gave the music to producer John Barry who gave it an orchestral arrangement. BOOM! A theme for the ages.

Known simply as The James Bond Theme, it has appeared in every single Bond film. The last I heard, Monty Norman is still cashing royalty cheques at the age of 94.

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2. From Russia With Love (1963)

The Norman/Barry Bond theme figured large in the second film with an instrumental backing the opening titles. But buried in the film and the closing credits was the first song written just for a Bond film. It came from Matt Munro, an English singer in the style of Frank Sinatra.

3. Goldfinger (1964)

This was the first Bond film to have a bespoke song over the opening title sequence and the first to use the title of the film in lyrics. John Barry, who would be synonymous with Bond films for decades, got help from Anthony Newley, a British song-and-dance man greatly admired by a young David Bowie. The singing job was given to Shirley Bassey, a Welsh theatre actress, even though Harry Salzman, one of the producers, absolutely hated the song. I quote from a note sent back to Barry and Newley: “That’s the worst [expletive] song I’ve ever heard in my [expletive] life!” But with no time to come up with an alternative, the song stayed in the movie. And it became a worldwide top 40 hit.
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4. Thunderball (1965)

Barry decided to mine Wales again, returning with Tom Jones. Still not very rock’n’roll, but hey. The music industry was a very conservative business back then.

5. You Only Live Twice (1967)

Sensing that they might be on to something by drafting in well-known singers, the producer hired Nancy Sinatra (daughter of Frank). A slightly different version ended up being released as a radio single, but moviegoers heard this.

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6. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

After five films, Sean Connery wanted out so the producers hired George Lazenby. John Barry wrote something wordless for the opening sequence. However, jazz great Louis Armstrong was also brought for a secondary theme called We Have All the Time in the World.

7. Diamonds Are Forever (1971)

When Lazenby didn’t cut it as 007, Sean Connery agreed to return for the Las Vegas-themed Diamonds Are Forever. Also returning was Shirley Bassey singing a proper song over the opening title sequence — which by this time had become extraordinarily elaborate things.

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8. Live and Let Die (1973)

After Diamonds, Connery was out for good (well, not quite — but as far as the official Bond canon was concerned, he’d had his last mission). With Roger Moore stepping into the role, it was time for a re-think of what to do with the title music. Producer Harry Salzman wanted Shirley Bassey again but co-producer Albert Broccoli had another idea. “Let’s rock it up,” he said, “And we’ll do it with a Beatle.”

Broccoli sent Paul McCartney a copy of the script. He liked it very much and agreed to write the theme. He had it done in a week between sessions for his Red Rose Speedway album. The recording took place at AIR Studios, the George Martin-owned facility above Oxford Circus with Martin producing, making this the first time he’d worked with a Beatle since their breakup in 1970.

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When the demo was done, Martin went to Broccoli and Salzman and said, “Look, we’ve got a very good theme song for you. But the only way you’re going to get it is if you let Paul do it. Otherwise, go get someone else for your little movie.”

With time running out, Salzman and Broccoli caved. And despite some of the most tortured grammar ever committed to tape — “In this ever-changing world in which we live in” (McCartney mean to say “in which we’re living,” which makes more sense, but it didn’t come out that way), the result was the best Bond theme ever. I don’t even want to argue about it.

9. The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)

You’d think that with the global success of Paul McCartney and Wings’ Live and Let Die that the producers would continue down that road. Nope. For the ninth movie in the franchise, they harried a Scottish singer named Lulu who was briefly a hot commodity. Bad move. This was the first Bond theme not to chart anywhere. A total stiff.

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10. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

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The next four Bond themes were sung by women. Carly Simon was hired to sing a major key(!) power ballad(!!!) written by Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager. This was the first Bond theme since Dr. No to have a different title than the movie (to be fair, though, “the spy who loved me” does show up in the lyrics. The only thing that kept this song from hitting number one on the Billboard singles chart was Debbie Boone’s You Light Up My Life.

11. Moonraker (1979)

Shirley Bassey returned for the third time after both Frank Sinatra and Kate Bush(!!!) declined to participate. Johnny Mathis had actually begun production on the song but couldn’t finish the project for some reason. Two versions are used in the movie, one for the opening title sequence and a disco(!!!) version over the closing credits. Both were chart stiffs largely because no one knew how to market the song and to whom. Fun fact: In 2007, an instrumental version of the song was used for promoting tourism in the Dominican Republic.

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12. For Your Eyes Only (1981)

The first choice was Deborah Harry. But when she was told that they had no use for Blondie and had no intention of letting them write the song, she quit. Plan B was Sheena Easton, a Scottish pop superstar in the early 1980s. She was chosen to sing a title sequence track co-written by Bill Conti, the composer of the famous Rocky theme. Easton is the only performer of a title song to actually appear in the opening sequence. Oh, and the rejected Blondie song? You can find it here.

13. Octopussy (1983)

After sitting out For Your Eyes Only, John Barry was back to score the 13th film in the franchise. He co-wrote this for Rita Coolidge with Tim Rice (yes, Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s lyricist) and had everything produced by Phil Ramone. I guess it’s hard to write a lyric that rhymes with “Octopussy,” so for the second time, a Bond theme song didn’t carry the same title as the movie. All Time High was the winner out of six titles put forward. Fun fact: Bookies had bet on Laura Branigan getting the job, so the selection of Coolidge — whose career had peaked several years earlier — was a surprise.

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14. A View to a Kill (1985)

With the last five theme songs drifting far into sleepy adult contemporary territory, it was time for another re-think. In 1985, Duran Duran was probably the hottest band in the world, but that’s not why they got the gig. The story is that drummer Roger Taylor drunkenly approached producer Cubby Broccoli at a party and said “When are you going to get someone decent to do one of your theme songs?” An unconventional pitch, but it worked. It probably also helped that Roger Moore was on his way out. A good time for a change, then.

Duran Duran came up with the bones of the song while John Barry hired a 60-piece orchestra. When it was released, A View to a Kill became the only Bond theme to ever reach number one on the American singles charts.

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15. The Living Daylights (1987)

Well, that New Wave-y thing worked for A View to a Kill, so the producers went to that well again, hiring the uber-hot A-ha from Norway. It’s a co-write between guitarist Pal Waaktaar and John Barry, although the process was anything but smooth. A-ha preferred their version to what Barry produced, which they later released on their 1988 album, Stay These Roads. It was a decent-sized hit in the U.K. (#5) but a smash in Norway (#1).

16. Licence to Kill (1989)

As the Bond franchise entered its second quarter-century, John Barry decided to take a break. The reins were handed over to Narada Michael Walden, a superstar producer (Temptations, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, and so many more; he’s now playing drums for Journey. No, really.) Reaching back into his love for R&B, Walden called up Gladys Knight to sing his theme. The song charted best in Europe but didn’t trouble even the lowest reaches of the American Billboard Hot 100.

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17. Goldeneye (1995)

Almost six years elapsed between Bond films before Pierce Brosnan resurrected the role with Goldeneye. If the franchise was going to continue, it was important to pay attention to every little detail including the theme song. It had to be a hit. The producers reached out to Tina Turner who in turn called up Bono and The Edge. The result was a U2 song in disguise.

It wasn’t the global hit everyone had hoped for, but it did well in the U.K. and Europe. It was also one of the biggest songs in Hungary that year.

18. Tomorrow Never Knows (1997)

Pierce Brosnan was back. But there was confusion about what to do with the theme. For the first time ever, the producers turned things into a sort of competition, putting out a tender for possible theme songs. Pulp, The Cardigans, Saint Etienne, and Swan Lee all had a shot. For a while, it looked like k.d. lang was going to get the gig. But then Sheryl Crow swooped in, pushing k.d.’s song to the end credits. Sheryl’s performance was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award in the best song categories but lost out both times to Celine Dion and My Heart Will Go On from Titanic.

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19. The World is Not Enough (1999)

For the 19th official Bond film, tenders were once again put out. Pulp was approached again as was Aimee Man. But given the musical environment of the time, the producer had this thing about having more of an electronica feel with this theme. But at the same time, they knew they couldn’t deviate too much from the big orchestral arrangements because that was so Bond, you know? Tradition!

They hired composer David Arnold to sort things out. He wrote the theme, tested demos with the producer, and then started looking for someone to perform it. Calls went out to Bjork, Melanie C of The Spice Girls, Jamiroquai, and Robbie Williams. In the end, the job went to Shirley Manson and Garbage. Shirley was third because being Scottish, she grew up watching Sean Connery as Bond.

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There was an ugly plagiarism charge from a couple of songwriters who believed The World is Not Enough sounded too much like the theme they wrote for The Thomas Crown Affair, but that was dismissed by a judge. In the end, Garbage proved to be a successful pick.

20. Die Another Day (2002)

You’ve probably noticed by now that there are some commonalities through most James Bond themes. They tend to be in a minor key; there’s usually a foreboding vibe; and there’s always an orchestral arrangement, which serves as a form of audio continuity through the series. Without those three things, the producers reasoned, the theme could be for any old action movie. That template became more pronounced through the 21st century.

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With the 20th Bond film, the producers demanded a hit in America, so they went right to the top: Madonna. She believed that Bond needed to go techno-y. And it worked. Die Another Day was the highest-charting Bond theme since 1985’s A View to a Kill.

21. Casino Royale (2006)

It was time for a new Bond. With Daniel Craig stepping into the role, the producers needed to define Craig in every aspect, including the title sequence theme. This apparently called for a strong male singer so a studio executive called up Chris Cornell. He thought she was calling about placing a song somewhere deep on the soundtrack and was shocked that he was the first choice for the title theme.

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Cornell loved the Connery movies and some of the Moore ones, but he’d lost interest during the Dalton and Brosnan years. But when he saw some of the rough cuts featuring Craig, he liked what he saw and signed on.

The song is a co-write with David Arnold, the composer of the film’s score. Chris’ parts were written in his apartment in Paris while listening to Tom Jones’ Thunderball over and over, just so he could come up with the right feel. He also spent a lot of time with Live and Let Die. It worked. The song was both a critical success and it was nominated for a Grammy. No one seemed to matter that the movie and the song had different titles.

22. Quantum of Solace (2008)

Through all 21 previous Bond films, the theme was sung by a single person. That was the plan for Quantum of Solace, too, but Amy Winehouse and Leona Lewis apparently didn’t have time to contribute anything. That’s when the job fell to Jack White who brought in Alicia Keys. Jack wrote the song, played all the instruments, and produced everything. The video was shot in Toronto during TIFF while Jack was promoting his guitar documentary, It Might Get Loud and Alicia Keys was in the city for her film, The Secret Life of Bees. And since there’s no elegant way to incorporate “quantum of solace” into the lyrics, no one bothered hence Another Way to Die.

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Not a great charting single but it’s certainly a fine short film.

23. Skyfall (2012)

In 2012, Adele was one of the biggest-selling artists in the universe, so she was a natural pick for the theme for Bond film no. 23. The result is about a modern classic as you can get. Co-written by Paul Epworth, Adele’s theme ticks every Bond theme box — and then some. The secret? Epworth listened to all the themes over and over and using a little music theory determined that he need to use some variation of something called a minor ninth. That’s apparently the secret sauce, though construction and recording the song took 18 months.

24. Spectre (2015)

This one was messy. A lot of artists submitted tracks. That included Radiohead, who really thought they had a shot with a reworked song that began life as Man of War in the late 1990s that they now called SPECTRE. It’s a great song but since it wasn’t written specifically for the film, it was ineligible for any original song awards. Sorry, guys. When it was rumoured that they were writing a song just for the movie during the sessions for their Moon-Shaped Pool album. English bookies had to stop taking bets that they would get the gig. That didn’t work, either, because it was ruled “too melancholy.” (Radiohead later released Spectre online for free.)

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Surprise! The gig when to Sam Smith, a flavour-of-the-moment English singer. And it was … fine. Writing’s on the Wall was a huge hit in the U.K. but a flop everywhere else. Then again, it did win both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award, so go figure.

25. No Time to Die (2021)

Remember the Billie Eilish theme for this one? Even though the movie just opened in the U.K. this past week (Sept. 28) and won’t appear elsewhere in the world until Oct. 8, No Time to Die is over and done as a record. It was released on Feb. 13, 2020, to coincide with the first proposed rescheduled release of the movie. That was so long ago that it was on the radio before COVID-19. It even won a Grammy for Best Song Written for Visual Media.

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While there have been 25 official James Bond movies, two films fall outside the canon controlled by Eon Productions.

Casino Royale (original, 1967)

David Niven’s one-and-only turn as Bond saw him come out of retirement and promoted to the head of MI6 to help smash SMERSH. It arrived two months before You Only Live Twice and was a surprising financial success. And did I mention it was a comedy? And that Burt Baracharch wrote a song called The Look of Love which won an Academy Award? Not a typical Bond song, though. Maybe this was satire, too.

Never Say Never Again (1983)

After sitting out most of the 1970s and early ’80s, Sean Connery wanted back in. Never Say Never is basically a remake of Thunderball with better special effects and was only made after a long legal fight with Eon Productions. And it did well, grossing US$160 million, a little less than Octopussy which had come out earlier in the year.

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Was there a theme song? Yes. It was sung by Lani Hall, the wife of Herb Alpert (of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass and the “A” in A&M Records). The song, named after the movie, sank out of sight. Maybe the producers should have gone with their first choice, Bonnie Tyler.

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