Billie Eilish’s eponymous theme for the new Bond film, No Time To Die, was released last week, to surprised murmurs of approval. This is nothing to do with Eilish, who is rightly regarded as both supremely talented and almost indecently youthful at a mere eighteen years old, making her by far the youngest artist ever to record a song for the James Bond franchise. Instead, it was because Cary Fukanaga’s picture seems to be cursed in virtually every regard, whether losing its original director and screenwriter in Danny Boyle and John Hodge, frantically rifling through replacement writers until settling on Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag does Bond! No sniggering at the back!) and being beset by production difficulties and rumours of widespread ‘creative differences’ between Daniel Craig and Fukanaga.
It remains to be seen whether No Time To Die is any good, although I have a sneaking suspicion that it will be an enjoyable and satisfying close to Craig’s tenure as 007, but the theme song is terrific. It doesn’t try and break any new ground, but as Eilish sings conspiratorially about how “The blood you bleed is just the blood you own”, and that “You were my life, but life is far away from fair”, it summons up an appropriately noirish atmosphere, aided immeasurably by Hans Zimmer’s brooding, sweeping orchestral arrangement and Johnny Marr’s guitar playing. Even if the rest of the film is useless, at least we’ll be assured that the opening credits will be worth watching.
The song, which was co-written by Eilish and her brother Finneas O’Connell, thus joins the pantheon of the best of the Bond themes, which surprisingly few recent efforts have deserved to inhabit. The most recent attempts in the Craig era have encompassed one absolute classic, which might even be the single finest song ever written for a Bond movie (Adele’s “Skyfall”), Eilish’s latest, Sam Smith’s warbly and boring Writing On The Wall from Spectre, the late Chris Cornell’s tuneless “You Know My Name” from Casino Royale and the nadir of them all, Jack White and Alicia Keys’ “Another Way To Die”, which sounds as if it was written and recorded in a frantic hurry. Two hits, three misses: not the finest of averages, all things considered.
Yet those who would try and talk about how much better the music was in ‘the old days’ are likely to come a cropper, too. It may sound sacrilegious to admit this, but the Shirley Bassey theme songs today sound dated and brassy, with the beautiful John Barry music almost overwhelmed by Bassey’s megaton vocals. It is impossible to listen to “Goldfinger”, in particular, and not think of the camp qualities of Austin Powers. Many of the others hold up far better, such as Tom Jones’s bravura “Thunderball” and, of course, Louis Armstrong’s infinitely sad “We Have All The Time In The World”, which none other than Barry believed was his finest composition for a Bond theme. He was not wrong.
The scattergun approach really began when Roger Moore took over from Sean Connery as Bond, and the theme tunes alternated between classics (Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die”, barring the unfortunate reggae interlude, Carly Simon’s magnificent “Nobody Does It Better” and Duran Duran’s “A View To A Kill”) and the profoundly unmemorable; Lulu’s “Man With The Golden Gun” was as dismal as the film it accompanied and Sheena Easton’s “For Your Eyes Only” was truly forgettable.
Neither of the Timothy Dalton theme songs have made much of a cultural impact, rather like the films themselves, and the Brosnan era started magnificently with Tina Turner’s “Goldeneye”, before going into a steep decline – although some would argue that Garbage’s “The World Is Not Enough” is a fine, classic song in the Barry tradition. The absolute low point, both cinematically and musically, came in 2002 with Die Another Day and Madonna’s appalling theme song for it. Many had hoped for a moody, sweeping epic like “Frozen” from her Ray of Light album; what appeared instead was anything but that. Perhaps the first warning sign came in an interview when Madonna stated that she had intended to turn down the commission, but decided ‘you know what? James Bond needs to get…techno’. He didn’t, it transpired.
If it seems surprising that so many disappointing songs have graced the Bond franchise, it is even more of a shock to realise how many good ones have been rejected. Those who have seen their work consigned to B-sides, or never released at all, include Radiohead, the Pet Shop Boys, Blondie, Johnny Cash and Pulp; arguably a more impressive selection of artists than those who did end up having their themes included. It is possible to find some of them still, and Pulp’s excellent “Tomorrow Never Lies” (from the film’s original title, which was changed due to a typo on a promotional release) and Radiohead’s mournful “Spectre” stand comparison with anything in their oeuvre.
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The James Bond themes, good, bad and ugly, retain a special place in musical and cinematic culture. It would be a heartless type who didn’t feel a sense of anticipation whenever a new one joins the canon, and the brief thrill of exhilaration when one hears it for the first time. If it’s up to scratch, as “No Time To Die” is, then it builds anticipation for the film, but if it’s a “Die Another Day” or “Another Way To Die” – and yes, the word “die” seems to be overused in Bond songs – then at least, once the shock and disappointment wears off, one can laugh at it. But ultimately, the real thrill of a good Bond song is that it transports you to a world of elegance and danger for a few moments, where martinis are shaken, not stirred and where secret agents have a licence to kill. And there are very few pieces of music that can do all that in three and a half minutes.