The Eon James Bond theme tunes may be some of the most famous and iconic music moments in cinema, but they’re not without their absurdities – chief among these being some ridiculous and unforgivable lyrics. But then, what can we realistically expect when the writers are asked to do everything in their power to include bizarre phrases like “GoldenEye”, “Moonraker” and “For Your Eyes Only”? Just be thankful we were spared a song titled, and about, “Octopussy”. The madness of these themes, and their narrow range of subject matter – usually about Bond and his irresistible murderousness, frequently from the POV of a generic and uncharacterised female – has been parodied by everyone, from Monty Python to, yes, The Simpsons (twice). Here, ORWAV’s resident English teacher (no, seriously) picks apart the hits, the misses and the totally batshit in a completely official ranking of 23 Bond themes… based entirely on whether the lyrics make sense.
23. ‘Die Another Day’ (2002, wri. Madonna, Mirwais Ahmadzaï)
“I’m gonna wake up, yes and no… ” The fuck did I just hear? “I’m gonna kiss some part of/I’m gonna keep this secret… “ Was that… was that even a sentence? “I’m gonna close my body now/I guess, die another day… “ I’mma look this up. What the hell is she saying? Will it make more sense upon reading? “Sigmund Freud, analyze this/Analyze this/Analyze this… ” No, as you were.
22. ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ (1997, wri. Sheryl Crow, Mitchell Froom)
Here Sheryl Crow complains “Darling, I’m killed/I’m in a puddle on the floor,” which could be a reference either to blood, tears or an actual Wicked Witch-esque bout of melting. Sense nearly comes as we lead into the chorus – “It’s so deadly, my dear/The power of having you near/Until that day… ” – but thanks to some grammatical buggery we’re left with total incoherence: “Until you say there’ll be no more goodbyes/See it in your eyes/Tomorrow never dies.” And the less said about “It’s murder on our love affair” the better.
21. ‘The Living Daylights’ (1987, lyrics Paul Waaktaar-Savoy, perf. A-Ha)
In fairness, English isn’t Waaktaar-Savoy’s first language. The song opens with a fine if zany couplet (“Hey driver, where’re we going?!/I swear my nerves are showing!”) but then the man insists on the misconceived notion that “Set your hopes up way too high” and “The living’s in the way we die” actually go together as a pair of thoughts. And what in God’s name are the living daylights anyway? Can A-Ha explain? “Save the darkness/Let it never fade away/In the living daylights.” Well, they think they know – and that’s half the battle.
20. ‘For Your Eyes Only’ (1981, wri. Bill Conti & Mick Leeson, perf. Sheena Easton)
It starts off okay, but only insofar as some real grammatical head-scratching lends that opening couplet (“For your eyes only can see me through the night/For your eyes only I never need to hide”) any sense. I mean, that’s the same word (“For”) in two grammatically distinct contexts for chrissakes. The choruses, however, are perfectly fine: “For your eyes only, only for you/The love I know you need in me, the fantasy you’ve freed in me”. Kinda.
19. ‘You Know My Name’ (from Casino Royale, 2006; lyrics Chris Cornell)
Neat lyrical flourishes can’t prevent this from being a garbled opus of posturing silliness. Quite apart from the fact that Cornell’s words occasionally mean literally nothing, there’s the awkward shoehorning of the word “yourself” just to make “you yourself are nothing so divine” scan properly. That’s just weak songwriting. Excellent lines like “The odds will betray you/And I will replace you” are rendered relatively meaningless by the fact that Cornell isn’t certain whether he’s writing as Bond, a younger agent, a bad guy or, more worryingly, Lucifer himself. The coldest blood may run through his veins, but Cornell possibly doesn’t know his own name here. What chance do we have?
18. ‘Writing’s on the Wall’ (from Spectre, 2015; lyrics Sam Smith)
You can tell this took 20 minutes to write, but that’s not for lack of verbal cohesion. Cliched-sounding the words may be, they’re by no means nonsensical. Points also for Smith’s rare decision to sing, apparently, from 007’s perspective: “I’ve spent a lifetime running/And I always get away/But with you I’m feeling something/That makes me want to stay”. This is just the latest in an increasing line of Bond themes that actually reflect their actor’s portrayal in an interesting way – and it’s no coincidence that these have all been for Daniel Craig, whose subtle vulnerability (a plug here for Hugh’s brilliant piece last week) is lovingly portrayed in Smith’s lyrics and performance. A huge sin is committed, however: the title, as with so many of these, is shoehorned in and makes little real sense. Which, when you think about it, is three times as stupid as similar instances because in this case ‘Writing’s on the Wall’ isn’t the film name: Smith wrote the sodding thing himself.
17. ‘GoldenEye’ (1995, wri. Bono & The Edge; perf. Tina Turner)
It’s uncertain who Turner’s singing to, given GoldenEye was an astronomical superweapon. Unless she really has found its weakness, and just insists on referring to it as “he”. It’s only logical that once one’s found the launch codes, GoldenEye really will “do what I please”. Quite what Tina was doing watching “him” “from the shadows as a child” is a different matter, however. Oh, right. She’s singing about Bond. Then what the fuck has the space missile got to do with any of this?
16. ‘Moonraker’ (1979, lyrics Hal David, perf. Shirley Bassey)
Not to knock one of the all-time great lyricists, but “Just like the Moonraker” Hal David was on a grim autopilot here. Fair enough on “Where are you? Where will we meet?/Take my unfinished life and make it complete”, but aside from this wishy-washy self-parodying tripe that constitutes most of the song’s 16 lines there’s the more irritating issue of the title word itself. “Just like the Moonraker knows his dream will come true” is funny enough, but “Just like the Moonraker goes in search of his dream of gold” just throws up more questions, like: Why does Hal David think there’s gold on the moon? Why did they never make a film about men searching for gold… on the moon?!
15. ‘Another Way to Die’ (from Quantum of Solace, 2008; wri. Jack White, perf. Jack White & Alicia Keys)
Special mention should go to Joe Cornish for his hilarious proposed Quantum of Solace theme, but the wittier idea came from Supergrass’ Gaz Coombes, in a 2008 Q magazine interview: the song would play straight for some time before the band would stop and just yell “QUANTUM OF SOLAAAACE!” The innovation in Jack White’s maligned single is to ignore this impossible title and instead sing of general Bondian themes – “A door left open/A woman walking by/A drop in the water/A look in your eye … It’s just another way to die” – which amazingly work as a stream-of-conscious riff on this iconic character and his dangerous world. Impressive too is the way the words are not just Bond-esque but somehow fit specifically into the Craig era, all slick beatnik rhymes and fatalist paranoia. Points docked for the opening verse: “Another one with the golden tongue/Poisoning your fantasy”? That’s just another crap way to write, Jack.
14. ‘A View to a Kill’ (1985, wri. Duran Duran and John Barry)
Straight in there, Simon Le Bon has his title make sense: “Meeting you with a view to a kill” deliberately highlights itself but works as a proper phrase. Phew. It does get silly as it goes on – does anyone really know what “The weekend’s why” is supposed to mean? – but we’re given one of the best Bond choruses ever conceived, so everything’s forgiven. All together now: “Until we DANCE INTO THE FIRE/A fatal kiss is all we NEEEEEED/DANCE INTO THE FIRE/To fatal sounds of broken DREEEEAMS”!
13. ‘The World is Not Enough’ (1999, wri. David Arnold & Don Black; perf. Garbage)
Like ‘A View to a Kill’, this soaring monologue from a generic femme fatale is mostly carried by a pitch-perfect slice of chorus-writing: “The world is not enough/Oh, but it’s such a perfect place to start… ” And let’s face it, lines like “No one ever died from wanting too much” and “I feel safe/I feel scared/I feel ready/And yet unprepared” need all the help they can get.
12. ‘Skyfall’ (2012, wri. Adele & Paul Epworth)
People were once laughing at “Skyfall is where we start”, though once the film came out and it transpired Skyfall actually was a place, suddenly Adele’s warbling wasn’t so silly. This only just misses out on a Top 10 place for the lines “Put your hand in my hand”, which must’ve been a first-draft note that slipped through the cracks, and “So overdue I owe them”, which has that crap needless vagueness of the worst Bond lyrics. A shame, because the rest of this – haters be damned – is near poetic in its apocalyptic-romantic grandeur.
11. ‘Licence to Kill’ (1989, wri. Narada Michael Walden, Jeffrey Cohen & Walter Afanasieff; perf. Gladys Knight)
A lot of soulful Knight-isms (“Hey baby”; “Ohhh baby”) are a nice, if unnecessary, touch – but the basic idea, that Bond can’t escape Gladys now she has designs on him, is beautifully adhered to throughout without a single ridiculous turn of phrase. The writing team even use the title in a clever way, as Knight’s licence to kill applies both to her love-object (as in, “I’m going straight for your heart”. It’s “kill” in the, er… Biblical sense) and “anyone who tries to tear us apart”. This, folks, is straightforward and solid songwriting that, strikingly, actually isn’t hampered by its title. Forget Bond; ‘Licence to Kill’, in lyrics at least, could be right out of the Pips’ catalogue.
10. ‘Live and Let Die (1973, wri. Paul & Linda McCartney; perf. Wings)
An exploration of Bond’s fatalistic outlook, or just a desperate attempt to sing an unsingable line? Amazingly, across just nine distinct lines (not including “Youknowyoudidyouknowyoudidyouknowyoudid”) the McCartneys construct a solid and concise dissection of Bond’s basic ethos. When he was young, and his heart was an “open book”, he used to say “live and let live”. But if “this ever-changing world” (“in which we live in”, by the way, “in which we live in“) makes Bond give in and cry – then just say “live and let die”! After all: “What does it matter to ya/When you got a job to do/You gotta do it well/You gotta give the other fella hell”. The sheer balls needed to literally toss this one off and still have it all work is the only thing pushing this song so high. Heck, why not live and let die? – or something…
9. ‘Thunderball’ (1965, lyrics Don Black, perf. Tom Jones)
Another perfectly well-written track with all sorts of lyrical logic… tripped up by its necessary reliance on its own title. “He always runs while others walk/He acts while other men just talk/They call him the winner who takes it all/And he strikes! … like Thunderball”? Like what? Who? Why?
8. ‘All Time High’ (from Octopussy, 1983; lyrics Tim Rice, perf. Rita Coolidge)
“In my time I’ve said these words before but now I realise/My heart was telling me lies; for you they’re true”. This is a work of mawkish horror – but what a work of mawkish horror! Of every woman to sing about how magnetic James Bond apparently is, only one does it better than Rita Coolidge. Certain statements – not least “Doing so much more than falling in love” – sound completely forced, but the essence of the song remains perfectly clear. So hold on tight, let the flight begin; we’re an all time high.
7. ‘We Have All the Time in the World’ (from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1969; lyrics Hal David, perf. Louis Armstrong)
Note: This one wasn’t actually used as the title sequence. Still counts, not least because the melodic theme pops up throughout.
In many ways, ‘We Have All the Time in the World’ is just as wishy-washy as Hal David’s lyrics for ‘Moonraker’, but in this case the master songsmith’s words are actually rather good. “We have all the time in the world/Time enough for life/To unfold all the precious things/Love has in store/We have all the love in the world/If that’s all we have you will find/We need nothing more”. Props too for writing that rare Bond theme to use “us” instead of “you”, thus making a genuine love song for 007’s doomed marriage – and the tragic yearning that comes afterwards.
6. ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ (1971, lyrics Don Black, perf. Shirley Bassey)
The real question for Ms. Bassey is why diamonds are okay to so flagrantly fetishise while chrysophilia makes one a cold-hearted degenerate (cf. ‘Goldfinger’). Actually, there’s only one thing wrong with the lyrics here and that’s how unsettlingly saucy they are: diamonds, after all, can “stimulate and tease”, Shirley offering to “Hold one up and then caress it/Touch it, stroke it and undress it”. “They won’t leave in the night.” She- she does realise she’s singing about compressed carbon… right?
5. ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ (1974, lyrics Don Black, perf. Lulu)
Tee hee. “He has a powerful weapon/He charges a million a shot”. “Love is required whenever he’s hired”. “One golden shot means another poor victim/Has come to a glittering end”. “WHO WILL HE BANG”?! Apparently the Daily Mail was up in arms over this. The thing is, everything comes together perfectly with no awkward scans, undeveloped phrasings or trite ideas. Technically, the song is perfect. The worst you can say about ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ is that it’s definitely not talking about the title character, Scaramanga – it instead steals his moniker for a song all about Bond and his, er, “million dollar skill”.
4. ‘You Only Live Twice’ (1967, lyrics Leslie Bricusse, perf. Nancy Sinatra)
As we get closer to the top, it’s increasingly difficult to come up with snarky criticisms; so instead we’ll point out that ‘You Only Live Twice’ was used, quite pointedly, to soundtrack one of Mad Men‘s finest sequences, a rare instance of the producers using anachronism (the scene is set well before this song came out) just so they could take advantage of these beautiful, beguiling lyrics. In fact, this TV show so obsessed with identity and duality probably utilised Bricusse & Barry’s song better than its intended project – the piece being, simply, better than the phrase “Bond theme” would have you believe. “Love is a stranger who’ll beckon you on/Don’t think of the danger or the stranger is gone.” No matter how great the character is, 007 has never presumed to this level of dreaminess.
3. ‘Nobody Does it Better’ (from The Spy Who Loved Me, 1977; wri. Marvin Hamlisch & Carole Bayer Sager, perf. Carly Simon)
For a start, the use of the film title is truly stealthy: “But like Heaven above me/The spy who loved me/Is keeping all my secrets safe tonight”. Yet more simple and sensible lyrics, running through the not-yet-too-typical motif of Bond as totally irresistible to all ladies as Simon wonders “Why’d you have to be so good?” Speculation abounds, of course, as to whether the title phrase “does it” means what you think it means. Perhaps try playing this next time you “do it”, and see if it works. Get back to us if needs be. To quote this song: “Just keep it coming”.
2. Goldfinger (1964, lyrics Leslie Bricusse & Anthony Newley, perf. Shirley Bassey)
Let’s get this out of the way: the final chunk of ‘Goldfinger”s lyrics are literally “He loves only gold/Only gold/He loves gold/He loves only gold/Only gold/He loves gold”. By this point, it sounds less a character trait and more like Bassey’s become the crazed village hag, yelling at children not to go near the local jeweller. “Yeah, we get it grandma; he only likes gold, whatever. Jeez, I wonder what Crazy Shirl has against gold anyway.” Either way, it doesn’t detract from the simple fact that – and why quote?, you already know the whole thing – this song is faultlessly written.
1. From Russia with Love (1963, lyrics Lionel Bart, perf. Matt Monro)
Sweet and simple. For this first-ever vocal theme, Bond lyricists hadn’t yet become preoccupied with singing about the characters, let alone doing so in increasingly irritating ways (see: nearly every attempt on this list at painting 007 as a sexy murderer and “his women” as mildly dangerous lust-robots). Lionel Bart’s approach was instead a neat and romantic crooner ditty that could’ve been about any jetsetter returning home to their lover (the lyrics, note, aren’t even gendered). This is the real language of Bond: escapist and worldly, with a strain of straightforward entertainment.
Like the films, Bond’s themes have become flanderized over the years; with Adele and Sam Smith’s more recent attempts taking in the instrumental traditions while returning the lyrics to less absurd planes, this current era is increasingly looking to be the series’ most refined since its very beginning 53 years ago.