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From Bassey to Billie: A history of Bond songs

The announcement that Billie Eilish will record the theme to the next James Bond film may have left some fans scratching their heads.

Bond themes
Bond themes

Even West Midland film critic Carl Jones, a leading expert on all things Bond, was trawling the internet for clues. But what he found did surprise him.

“My first thought was it makes me feel old when the singer recording the Bond theme is somebody I’ve never heard of,” says Carl, who writes for 007 Magazine.

“But she’s got 40 million followers on social media, and every time she posts something it gets 140 million hits. She’s got a big following.”

It is fair to say Eilish is no Shirley Bassey. The 18-year-old vegan from California’s music, which is usually co-written with her brother Finneas O’Connell, tends toward the introspective and focuses on themes such as teen angst, and is delivered in a husky slurred voice.

While she might not be the first name that springs to mind, Carl believes it could prove to be a shrewd move.

“There will always be the Bond devotees who think a Bond theme should be belted out by somebody like Shirley Bassey or Tom Jones,” says Carl.

“But the makers of the film want to attract new people, to broaden the appeal of the franchise, and the people who listen to her music will not be natural James Bond fans. They are looking for the next generation of Bond fans.”

For better or worse, Eilish’s new song will follow in a long tradition of memorable music. The first Bond film, Dr No, featured Monty Norman’s now-familiar theme tune performed by the John Barry Orchestra.

The piece, with its distinctive opening fanfare, reached No. 13 in the UK, and has featured in most of the films since.

But it was the smooth, mellow sound of Matt Monroe on the second film, From Russia With Love, that set the tone for future Bond movies, with the soundtracks often becoming as memorable as the films.

Shirley Bassey is probably the most familiar of the singers, having recorded two of the most memorable tracks – Goldfinger in 1964, and Diamonds Are Forever, in 1971.

She also recorded the song for Moonraker in 1979. Yet while everyone remembers the Bassey songs, their performance in the UK charts were unexceptional: Goldfinger peaked at No. 21, Diamonds Are Forever at No. 38, and Moonraker did not even make the top 40 – although that film proved something of a debacle for songwriter John Barry. After considering Frank Sinatra, he approached Johnny Mathis who pulled out over reservations about the song.

Barry then approached Kate Bush, who turned down the role because she was about to embark on her UK tour. After a scramble to find a suitable artist, he turned to Bassey just weeks before the release date. The Welsh songstress later said she had never considered Moonraker to be her song, having recorded it in a rush without the chance to promote it. She has seldom performed it since.

The song for the 1965 movie Thunderball also had a troubled beginning. Believing the generic title of the movie was too vague, Barry wrote a song called Mr Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, initially recorded by Dionne Warwick.

However Barry was unhappy with Warwick’s vocals, and asked Bassey to record a version. The legal dispute which followed – Bassey was unhappy with the decision to use Warwick’s version at the end of the film – led to both versions being canned, and Tom Jones was called in to perform a new song which Barry hurriedly co-wrote with Don Black.

Jones reportedly fainted while singing the high note at the end of the track, but the song was pretty well received, making 35 in the singles chart. Johnny Cash also submitted a song for the film, but it was not used.

Barry had wanted Aretha Frankling to perform the song for You Only Live Twice in 1967, but he was over-ruled by the producers who insisted on Frank Sinatra’s daughter Nancy. It appears to have been a good call, with the song making No. 11 in the charts.

Time has been kind to George Lazenby’s only outing as Bond in the 1969 film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which was subject to scathing reviews at the time, but is now thought of more fondly. And the same could be said of the song We Have All The Time In The World, recorded by an ailing Louis Armstrong, making it one of his final recordings. The song failed to make any impression on the charts at the time, but reached No. 3 in the charts in 1994 – after being used in a Guinness advert. Barry said the song was the finest piece of music he had written for a Bond film, and had enjoyed working with Armstrong.

Roger Moore became the third actor to play Bond in 1973, so it was fitting that Paul McCartney – who had also had an image makeover following the break-up of The Beatles – would perform the theme tune for Live And Let Die. With his new band Wings, the song made No. 9 in the charts.

Less successful was Lulu’s song for the next movie, The Man With The Golden Gun, which remains the only Bond song never to have made the charts in either the UK or the US. By contrast, Carly Simon reached No. 7 in the UK charts with Nobody Does It Better, from The Spy Who Loved Me, in 1977, and Sheena Easton made No. 8 in 1982 with For Your Eyes Only.

Brummie synth-pop group Duran Duran captured the mood of the 1980s perfectly with A View To A Kill in 1985, which reached No. 3 in the charts. The synth-pop theme continued for Timothy Dalton’s first appearance as 007, with Norwegian group A-Ha called in for The Living Daylights in 1987. A more traditional approach was adopted for Dalton’s second and final appearance in 1989, with Gladys Knight performing Licence to Kill.

Madonna, Tina Turner, Sheryl Crowe and British-American rock band Garbage all performed during the Pierce Brosnan years, but since Daniel Craig took over the lead role in 2006, the focus has been more towards edgier or up-and-coming performers, aimed at a younger audience.

Multi-Grammy winner Adele became the highest-charting Bond singer in 2012 when Skyfall reached No. 2 – a feat broken three years later by Sam Smith with The Writing’s On The Wall, from the film Spectre, the first Bond theme to have taken No. 1.

Now Eilish must find her place among this who’s who of music greats, and many will ask whether the eccentric teenager has what it takes to follow in the footsteps of some of the biggest names in music.

Carl Jones thinks she may, believing the quirky Californian could be just right for the time we live in.

“I think it could be very good, she’s got the voice and she’s got the moodiness,” says Carl.

“They say the new James Bond film is going to be the most woke yet, driving an electric car and with women ruling the world. What better than having an 18-year-old vegan singing the theme tune?”

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