This week, singer/songwriter Billie Eilish released her theme song for the next James Bond film, No Time to Die. I’m not 100% sold on it yet, but I can hear it growing on me. Like many classic Bond themes, it’s sung from the perspective of a lover who has discovered what Bond actually is. And the choice of Eilish, besides being trendy, also makes sense conceptually. As Daniel Craig bows out of the series, the rumor is that this last film attempts to redefine Bond’s role (not necessarily Bond himself) in a world where Sean Connery’s rougher, somewhat misogynistic version just doesn’t — and shouldn’t — play.
So there’s Eilish, not just the current big thing, but an artist whose persona aggressively fights against being objectified, as so many “Bond Girls” have been in the past. She can sing of love, she can sing of a broken heart, but there’s strength underneath, and this song, co-written with her brother, echoes Bondian riffs while being clearly her own. I’m not there yet, but like I said, it’s growing on me. And performing it live in a symphonic setting without making it a classic Bond music video — THAT intrigues me.
When Sam Smith’s theme for SPECTRE came out, I wasn’t a fan. I’m still not. “Writing’s on the Wall” remains a thin tune that sounds heartbroken — and Bond themes should not be driven by heartbreak – it also borrows from Sheryl Crow’s “Tomorrow Never Dies,” another Bond song destined to be barely remembered. See? You’d already forgotten it.
A Bond song needs to be brassy. That doesn’t mean the instrumentation has to be (see “No Time to Die” above), but the singer at least does (she may be sleepy-eyed, but Eilish is strong). The first Bond theme to really accomplish that was “Goldfinger,” sung by Shirley Bassey, who would come back to sing “Diamonds Are Forever” and “Moonraker” as well.
Hear that voice? Bassey has brass, as did Nancy Sinatra when she sang “You Only Live Twice.” Ironically, trumpeter Louis Armstrong played it much quieter for “We Have All the Time in the World” from the aforementioned On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but we can allow that exception because that whole film is an exception in the Bond franchise, yet still great. And it was the last thing Armstrong ever recorded, so it packs the emotional wallop that “Writing’s on the Wall” wants to have, but just doesn’t fit.
But back to that brass. You know who else has brass? Tom Jones, who followed Bassey’s “Goldfinger” with “Thunderball.” Though actually, Jones is more of a saxophone, it still works. What a duet they would have made.
It’s not as if Smith is the only top-selling popstar chosen to sing a Bond theme because of being a top-selling popstar. (Let’s be fair — Eilish was chosen because of that, too.) A-Ha made perfect sense for The Living Daylights, and Duran Duran for A View to a Kill, though they’re not theme songs that stick in your head. Paul McCartney and Wings must have been a major coup for Live and Let Die, though honestly, as much as I love it, it’s not that hummable a song and thanks to it being Paul McCartney (and decades later, Guns N Roses), it’s also got a life way outside of being a Bond song. Then there’s the Bond theme song, “Skyfall” by Adele.
Oh, wait. Adele’s got brass.
Let’s also give it up for Chris Cornell’s “You Know My Name,” from Casino Royale.
There’s power there. No writing on the wall, just thrust and danger.
Speaking of… another exception that sticks because it’s just so damned sexy… Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better” from The Spy Who Loved Me. (Actually, let me give all due credit to Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager for writing the song.)
Finally, it comes back to brass. And it’s never better than the original theme, which gets played in every Bond film. Short and oh, so, sweet.
Agree? Disagree? Let me know. I’m not ranking them, because I know that would be foolish, and some days I like some themes better than others.