‘This is the end

Hold your breath and count to ten

Feel the earth move and then

Hear my heart burst again…’

Adele’s mesmerizing voice fills the air the moment the train-top action sequence concludes in the latest James Bond movie Skyfall, and the credits are shown against an underwater scene. For the British singer, the entry into the prestigious James Bond club is another feather in the cap, after the string of Grammys she won earlier this year for her album 21.

Musically, Bond has always been beautiful. Over the past 50 years, ever since Dr No was released in 1962, the soundtrack has played an extremely important role in James Bond movies, with film enthusiasts following the score as much as the action scenes and cinematography, other essential ingredients of the brand. While the ‘James Bond Theme’ is one of the most recognised pieces of film music ever, the choice of the title track’s singer has also been a subject of much discussion.The extra-popular ‘James Bond Theme’ was written by Monty Norman for Dr No, though a controversy arose when John Barry, who led the orchestra in that film and composed several subsequent themes, claimed it was his score. In fact, Barry has composed the soundtrack for nine of the twenty-three Bond films, followed by David Arnold, with five newer ones.

Other well-known film composers to wield the Bond baton include Marvin Hamlisch (The Spy Who Loved Me) and Michael Kamen (Licensed to Kill). In Skyfall, director Sam Mendes, working on his first Bond movie, stuck to close associate Thomas Newman, who composed music in his earlier ventures American Beauty, The Road to Perdition and Revolutionary Road. The music in Bond movies is very situational, and often captures the mood of the moment perfectly. For each composer – and there have been quite a few – the challenge is to sound absolutely fresh with each film, and yet retain the basic theme as often as possible.

Marvin Hamlisch           Michael Kamen

Bond tunes have recently been up for commercial release as well, with EMI Music putting out a collection of original pieces to mark 50 years of the brand. While most new Bond themes have retained elements of the original piece, the title songs are as varied as can be, ranging from soulful balladry to rocking grunge to synthesiser-driven pop.

Interestingly, a large number of title songs have been sung by women with Shirley Bassey having done the most (in Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever and Moonraker). Popular ones are Nancy Sinatra (‘You Only Live Twice’), Carly Simon (‘Nobody Does it Better’ in The Spy Who Loved Me), and Sheena Easton (‘For Your Eyes Only’). Others are by Rita Coolidge (‘All Time High’ in Octopussy), Lulu (‘The Man With The Golden Gun’), Madonna (‘Die Another Day’), Gladys Knight (‘Licensed to Kill’), Lani Hall (‘Never Say Never Again’) and Sheryl Crow (‘Tomorrow Never Dies’).

The men singing Bond title songs include Matt Monro (who was superb in ‘From Russia with Love’, effortlessly hitting the high notes towards the end), the versatile Tom Jones (‘Thunderball’) and Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell (who gives a grunge feel to ‘You Know My Name’ in Casino Royale). Jazz legend Louis Armstrong sang the secondary tune ‘We Have All The Time in the World’ in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. And of course, Paul McCartney was joined by his band, Wings, on ‘Live And Let Die’, where the music was composed by The Beatles-associate, George Martin.

Matt Monro           Chris Cornell

The Bond catalogue has also heard some unusual renditions, which foray into experimental territory. The duet by Jack White and Alicia Keys in the Quantum Of Solace song ‘Another Way to Die’, and British new wave band Duran Duran’s ‘A View to A Kill’ were totally different from most songs from the genre. Norwegian duo A-ha did a synth-pop piece in ‘The Living Daylights’, whereas alternative rock band Garbage came up with the neatly orchestrated ‘The World is Not Enough’. Another lesser-noticed characteristic of James Bond music is the tendency of composers to use tunes written by others. Besides western classical composers Mozart, Vivaldi, Tchaikovsky and Chopin, Bond movies of the past have included popular themes from other films like The Magnificent Seven, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Lawrence of Arabia and Dr Zhivago. In ‘Skyfall’, the climax features an extract of the Animals’ 60s version of John Lee Hooker’s ‘Boom Boom’.

In the end, while the signature theme remains an eternal favourite, which Bond song has been the most popular?

General belief would hint at Bassey’s ‘Goldfinger’ or ‘Diamonds Are Forever’, but a BBC Radio poll conducted a couple of months ago sprung a surprise by declaring Paul McCartney and the Wings’ ‘Live and Let Die’ as the winner,  followed by Carly Simon’s ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ song at second spot, with  ‘Goldfinger’ strangely making it to no. 3. ‘Goldfinger’, of course, is currently leading a poll conducted by The Telegraph London website, garnering 21 per cent of the votes, much ahead of Adele’s ‘Skyfall’ ― no. 2 at 13 per cent ― and A-ha’s ‘The Living Daylights ― third at 12.5 per cent. This survey, however, gives participants an option of only 11 songs. The poll results may not really matter, as each person would have his or her own favourite, and answers would also depend on the age profile of the participants. What’s consistent is the quality of the Bond songs, even though the styles of various performers have differed vastly.

So while we celebrate 50 years of this magnificent music, let’s again soak in Adele’s voice, which is the flavour of the season.

‘Let the sky fall, when it crumbles

We will stand tall

And face it all together

Let the sky fall, when it crumbles.’

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Read the unedited version of this article on the author’s blog here.