Every Generation Gets the James Bond Theme It Deserves
Is there a better, more iconic theme song in movie history? Maybe the Raiders of the Lost Ark or Star Wars themes come close, but for those it’s really just one bar or two that stays with you – for James Bond it’s the entire 30-second opening theme.
The story of the James Bond theme is pretty interesting and is well told on this Wikipedia page. Credit for its creation is disputed between composer Monty Norman, legendary arranger John Barry, and guitarist Vic Flick.
I admire the gumption, the moxie, the chutzpah it takes to tamper with this theme for every Bond film. Imagine the direction you give to the orchestra for something like, say, Live and Let Die – “OK, that theme song is great, but can you make it a little bit more blaxploit-ish?” Most of these versions sound really similar.
It was a little difficult to pull together a good comparison of all these different versions, but I’m in luck. In virtually every James Bond movie, the theme plays during the classic gunbarrel intro shot. Youtubist Chris Gallen has compiled a playlist of every James Bond Gunbarrel sequence, in order. You can just watch this straight through and hear how the song evolved over the decades WARNING – the first one, Dr. No, doesn’t use the entire theme. There’s also this supercut of all the gunbarrel sequences that has some interesting notes on the evolution of the visuals, but it intercuts a bit of each movie’s title song, which makes it harder to compare the theme song versions. (Here’s another supercut of all the gunbarrel sequences that allows you to hear almost all the theme song versions back to back in order).
One interesting thing is that although the theme changes over time, it seems to gravitate back to the original, reference version. It’s not endlessly morphing beyond recognition, it’s just revolving around a sort of Platonic ideal Bond Theme. One change that has become permanent, though, is that the tempo has slowed down over the years.
Which is your favorite? What stands out to you? This is what I hear.
Original (Dr. No)- It’s a bit faster than I remember it. Vic Flick’s riff really has a surf guitar feel about it. It plays the riff three times before changing, lots of subsequent ones play it only twice.
From Russia With Love – My favorite James Bond movie, maybe my favorite James Bond theme. Similar to the original, maybe a little slower and less guitar reverb. Two repeats of the riff.
(note – the gunbarrel video for the first three movies is the same, using a stuntman instead of the Bond actor. I always thought that he fires too soon and must miss because it looks like he’s still turning when the shot goes off. But look at the two frames above – on the left he hasn’t fired yet and the gun is pointed straight. The very next frame the puff of smoke emerges. Maybe he just nailed it.)
Goldfinger – I really like this one too. The super-strong entry of the horns is there, and the guitar sounds just right, but there’s a busy jazz beat between the horns and the guitar that strikes me as a bit much.
Thunderball – Wow, this one starts out so great. The opening horns are more orchestral, the jazz percussion before the riff is gone, but the guitar riff itself is so muted here. Where have you gone, Vic Flick?
You Only Live Twice – so so slow. Is that a bass and not a guitar doing the riff? The first real departure, the first time that you’re SURE it’s a new version. In the intro horns section, the high notes are emphasized.
One Her Majesty’s Secret Service – This one substitutes some sort of keyboard for the guitar and adds some woodwind. Definitely distinctive, not my favorite.
Diamonds are Forever – Back to the hard horns opening and a really good guitar riff but there’s a lot of tambourine-type shaking percussion in the bridge that marks this one.
Live and Let Die – they are really slowing down the tempo in these. Horns and all kind of stuff playing the riff along with the guitar. If you go back and listen to the original after hearing this, the original seems shockingly fast.
The Man with the Golden Gun – clipped sort of intro, which I like, then a muted strings section riff instead of the guitar. Haunting and suspenseful but not iconic, I think. You here this and think, OK, let’s see where they go with this…(turns out they go to Dark Fantasy Island). Hey, three repeats of the riff!
The Spy Who Loved Me – No horn intro at all! Back to a much faster tempo, the riff is a guitar again but it sneaks up on you. It ends with a strange frission, maybe setting up the underwater sequence.
Moonraker – Turgid and slow (like the movie?!?), with a orchestral riff. I guess I like the bridge.
For Your Eyes Only – Funky. Bill Conti mix, I think. We’re drifting pretty far from the original, no one would hear this and think that it’s the reference version. I think some cowbell is starting to drift in there.
Octopussy – This is a nice understated orchestral version of the theme.
A View to a Kill – just a little bit faster and louder than the very similar Octopussy theme. No cowbell in this one, which is appropriate for a film where the villain, played by Christopher Walken, would definitely be calling for more.
The Living Daylights – slow, with the softest riff yet, played by strings.
License to Kill – wait, what was that? Bass drums instead of the horn intro, then at least a surf guitar sound for the riff. A truncated version, presumably so that we can get right into the action of a meaty adventure about something or another I pretty much forget.
Goldeneye – Wow! Something really different, with a style that matches the sound of the entire movie. This one is also pretty short and never gets to the iconic riff, at least not in the gunbarrel sequence. I have to say that I dig it. Wikipedia tells me there’s a more traditional version of the theme that plays during the movie.
Die Another Day – Pierce Brosnan was the James Bond of synth tracks. The riff is back in this one, again on a surf guitar. This blog post isn’t really about the visuals of the gunbarrel sequence, but what’s with that bullet coming back UP the barrel of the gun? Are we supposed to think that somehow Bond shot us right in the barrel of our own gun? If so, how does our gun remain undamaged and pointing at Bond? Why are we bleeding down from above the wound? I have questions. Moving on…
Casino Royale – Does this sound familiar? The fast tempo and the surf guitar are back. This is just a really rich, nice version of the classic theme, maybe a touch slower than the Dr. No original. This played over the ending credits, the gunbarrel scene in this movie is constructed differently. I think the same recording is used in Quantum of Solace and later movies as well.
I look forward to hearing what the future holds for the James Bond theme. Long live the surf guitar!