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Jack, Alicia and Bond... James Bond

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The pairing sounds like one of those fantasies rock critics conjure when lamenting an obvious talent sunk by mainstream pandering and overly polished production values:

"With her undeniable keyboard virtuosity and soulful, sultry vocals, it's a shame to hear Alicia Keys continually drowning in a sea of mainstream R&B gloss. How powerful could that voice and those keyboards be if they were backed by a real flesh-and-blood, dirt-'n'-grime blues band like, say, the White Stripes?"

Well, now we know. And, sadly, instead of Detroit's platinum-selling garage-blues auteur elevating the Gap ad R&B queen, Keys simply succeeds in making Jack White sound like a mediocre retro-rocker much like Lenny Kravitz or Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes.

After Amy Winehouse blew the assignment in the midst of her drug-fueled self-destruction, producers turned to Keys and White to craft the theme song for "Quantum of Solace," the latest "Bond" film (No. 22, to be exact). The duo delivered a little ditty called "Another Way to Die," written by White but dominated by Keys. And though the movie doesn't open in theaters until Nov. 14, the song and the video are already ubiquitous on the Net.

"Another Way to Die" has the distinction of being the first duet in the long history of Bond-branding ditties, as well as one of the few with a title different from the name of the movie. But its unique attributes end there.

White's fuzz-drenched guitar rubs uneasily against Keys' tinkling piano, and his nasal voice sneers where Keys purrs; rather than 007 seducing yet another possibly dangerous paramour, the impression these two create is of some clumsy henchman in the shadows leering after a Bond beauty as she sashays across the casino floor or the ballroom of some four-star hotel. All buildup with no big-bang payoff, the tune lacks the killer catchphrase choruses that mark the best Bond anthems.

I mean, really, can you imagine singing along with the verbal spew in this chorus? "A door left open/A woman walking by/A drop in the water/A look in the eye/A phone on the table/A man on your side/Someone that you think that you can trust is just/Another way to die."

Through the years, more than 20 of the Bond movies have opened with an original song, and 11 of those made the Billboard singles chart. But hiring musical talents to write original themes has become increasingly rare in this era of movie and record company synergy -- it's far more common to hear familiar hits on soundtracks -- and only two of those 11 Bond hits have come in the last 20 years.

Here is a look at how the most memorable Bond theme songs compare, including the great (lethal), the merely good (lustrous) and the downright lousy and lame. (Many of these songs are included on an expanded CD and DVD reissue of "The Best of Bond ... James Bond," set to be released by Capitol Records on Oct. 28.)

THE LETHAL

Nancy Sinatra, "You Only Live Twice" (1967):

One of the unheralded godmothers of punk, Sinatra really is the only woman on this list who could have been a Bond villainess.

Shirley Bassey, "Goldfinger" (1968):

Written by John Barry, who's been called the Q of Bond theme music -- he also penned the immortal "James Bond Theme" -- this ode to the film's villain made Bassey's big, brassy voice one of the most celebrated sounds of the late '60s.

Shirley Bassey, "Diamonds Are Forever" (1972):

Almost as enduring as "Goldfinger"; just ask Kanye West, who sampled it for his hit "Diamonds from Sierra Leone."

Paul McCartney and Wings, "Live and Let Die" (1973):

One of the hardest-rocking moments of Macca's often flaccid post-Beatles career.

Carly Simon, "Nobody Does It Better," from "The Spy Who Loved Me" (1977):

Sensual and seductive; a perfect pop song. Written by Marvin Hamlisch, who said the title was inspired by Bond's "egomania."

Garbage, "The World Is Not Enough" (1999):

One of the most chronically underrated Bond themes from one of the most chronically underrated bands of the alternative era.

THE LUSTROUS

Tom Jones, "Thunderball" (1965):

Whatever his assets, Jones lacked the sincerity Bassey brought to the gig; you get the sense that he's laughing all the way through it, but it's still a good time.

Lulu, "The Man With the Golden Gun" (1974):

A surprising bunt from the big-voiced balladeer who knocked it out of the ballpark with "To Sir, With Love."

Rita Coolidge, "All Time High" from "Octopussy" (1983):

A fine easy-listening trifle that could have been something else entirely if she'd used the movie's title.

Tina Turner, "GoldenEye" (1995):

Tina can never be denied, but Bono and the Edge hardly gave her their best when the U2 boys penned this tune for their neighbor in the south of France.

Sheryl Crow, "Tomorrow Never Dies" (1997):

A game attempt, but not quite up to her finest hits.

THE LAME

Shirley Bassey, "Moonraker" (1979):

The third time was not the charm for Bassey, as the producers dabbled in disco.

Sheena Easton, "For Your Eyes Only" (1981):

She missed the morning train.

Duran Duran, "A View to a Kill" (1985):

One of the whiniest tunes these hair-hoppers ever wrote.

a-ha, "The Living Daylights" (1987):

It certainly scared them out of me.

Gladys Knight, "License to Kill" (1989):

Simultaneously saccharine and bombastic.

Madonna, "Die Another Day" (2002):

Doesn't justify her love, or ours.

Chris Cornell, "You Know My Name" from "Casino Royale" (2006):

If only Soundgarden had been around for this job. Or better yet, if the producers gave it to Mudhoney.

Jack White and Alicia Keys, "Another Way to Die" from "Quantum of Solace" (2008):

Definitely sounded better on paper. Makes you wish Amy Winehouse hadn't checked out.

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7 Comments

"On Her Majesty's Secret Service" had a great tune, and isn't even mentioned here. Just because George Lazenby was a bust is no reason to neglect the theme. OHMSS never gets any respect!

Hi Jim,

Bond films have lost the formula in general, get back to basics, hire John Barry and Shirley Bassey, pandering to a younger generation isn't going to cut it. Fyi.......I like Jack White, but for Bond, Barry/Bassey is better.

BG

Goldfinger came out in 1964 not 1968.

Buddy Schow

Chicago

Notions of what make a song "memorable" differ but I think you should have a fourth category for Bond themes: loveliest. I would put two of the themes you omitted into that category: From Russia with Love and Never Say Never Again.

Thanks for the article.

Rachel Goodstein
Chicago

I agree with you that the new Bond song is bad, however, you clearly go overboard in comparing Jack White's contribution to Lenny Kravitz. There is no way Lenny Kravitz could fail so spectacularly! There are good elements to the song, including a couple of cool guitar licks, strong vocal moments from Alicia Keyes (especially at the end), and a sometimes interesting incorporation of Bond theme hallmarks. For me the song ultimately feels like a mish mash, weighted under particularly inane and wordy lyrics, simplistic rock drumming, and a failure to unleash the full vocal potential of a White/Keyes duet. Nevertheless, White should at least get credit for a modernist experiment on the Bond theme. The song wouldn't have nearly been as bad if it were attempted by Kravitz, but I'll take miserable failure over predictably boring any day.

My personal favorite Bond theme is "Nobody Does It Better" (The Spy Who Loved Me). It gets me every time.

Jim,
You must have had the Goldfinger date wrong when you recorded this week's Sound Opinions, too - you mentioned Nancy Sinatra "preceding" Bassey!!

In your column yesterday, you wrote that the James Bond Theme was "penned" by John Barry.

Actually, the theme was composed by Monty Norman and performed by Barry.

Sincerely,

Michael Perry Ladin

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