Monty Norman knew why the music he’d written for the first James Bond film had remained the defining theme for one of cinema’s most indelible characters. “His sexiness, his mystery, his ruthlessness — it’s all there in a few notes,” said the composer, who died today at the age of 94.
Starting out as a singer before focusing on writing, Norman worked on Tony-winning musicals (Irma La Douce) and horror flicks (The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll). But “James Bond Theme,” part of a medley of tunes used in the opening credits to 1962’s Dr. No, is easily his most famous song. You can hear it in your head, its slinky, slightly jazzy melody conjuring up 007’s globetrotting sophistication. How many deeply uncool dudes have tried to latch onto “James Bond Theme” as their own personal soundtrack, hoping against hope that the song’s bulletproof swagger will rub off on them? It never works, fellas: You can swipe “James Bond Theme,” but you won’t ever be James Bond.
There are many memorable movie themes — John Williams wrote a bunch — but “James Bond Theme” is special because of how long-running the 007 franchise has been. Over 60 years and 25 movies, including last year’s No Time to Die, that snippet of music has announced that you’re about to watch a James Bond movie, starring an actor who will behave in reliably James Bond-ian ways. The series has gone through multiple directors, stars, bad guys and Bond villains, but one of the very few consistent guideposts has been “James Bond Theme.” It’s been covered, remixed, modernized and parodied, but its essence doesn’t change. It’s a song that reflects the mindset of a certain kind of British bloke who’s a suave ladykiller. It’s a fantasy and perhaps faintly silly, but it works really, really well.
Norman hadn’t written the track originally for Dr. No. It was initially an element of “Bad Sign, Good Sign,” a song from a musical version of V.S. Naipaul’s novel A House for Mr Biswas he’d been working on, but the adaptation got shelved. “Bad Sign, Good Sign” had lyrics, buttressed by Eastern instruments that gave the tune a dreamy, transporting feel. The producers of Dr. No invited him to visit the production, which was taking place in Jamaica, and although Norman wasn’t deeply familiar with the Ian Fleming novels that had inspired the film, he figured that “Bad Sign, Good Sign” could work as the theme. “When I split the notes of this Eastern-sounding melody, it metamorphosised into exactly what I was looking for,” Norman later said.
Another composer, John Barry, who went on to write the scores to several subsequent Bond movies, was approached to arrange “James Bond Theme,” leading to decades of confusion over who “really” wrote the song. Norman had to stand up for himself and his authorship, sometimes in court, successfully winning a libel case against The Sunday Times a couple decades ago after the newspaper claimed that Barry had composed the song. (“The Sunday Times always said that they were only interested in the truth,” Norman declared after the 2001 judgment in his favor. “Well, now they’ve got the truth.”) Norman never had the career that Barry did, but his considerable contribution to 007’s legacy is unquestioned.
It must be a challenge for a composer to sum up a character in just a few notes, especially if that character evolves over decades. There have been multiple Batman and Superman themes, each one trying to capture the essence of a new iteration of the superhero. But “James Bond Theme” has always been James Bond’s theme, no matter what pop star the producers hire to write that particular film’s signature song. Bond himself has gone in and out of fashion over the decades, but “James Bond Theme” suggests something eternally true about the character, for better or worse.
Charlie Harding, a musician and music journalist, and musicologist Nate Sloan touched on this in a 2021 episode of the Switched On Pop podcast that dissected the evergreen appeal of “James Bond Theme.” After Sloan asked his co-host if the song was “the musical personification of toxic masculinity,” Harding responded, “Yeah, more or less. You’ve got a philandering spy who drinks heavily and somehow finds a lot of time for romance in between international espionage. … I think that what you hear is this very modern mash-up of a bunch of different genres that a playboy character might be listening to at the end of his day while he’s sitting down with his martini: jazzy chords, big-band swing, even surf guitar.”
In other words, “James Bond Theme” is a very early 1960s way of thinking about suaveness, and because of the sexism of the time — not to mention the sexism of the James Bond franchise, especially in those early days — the character’s sonic fingerprint also became the theme music to a now-outdated form of masculinity. To hear “James Bond Theme” now is to hear a cliché, a collection of cultural ideas and musical influences that are now passé. But the brilliance of Norman’s simple tune (and Barry’s ace arrangement) is that it transcends its era, proving to be both old-fashioned and hip, classy but also cool. Whether it’s Sean Connery or Daniel Craig in the role, “James Bond Theme” fits the man. It always sounds like Bond.
Any actor who plays 007 knows that, for the rest of his life, he will probably be greeted by Monty Norman’s instrumental whenever he walks into a room or presents at an awards ceremony. You don’t ever stop being James Bond, and you can’t run away from “James Bond Theme.” Neither could Norman, who was interviewed for Dr. No’s 50th anniversary. “I’m very proud of it, very proud,” he said of his enduring tune. “I’m happy that it’s 50 years on, and I’m happy that I’m still here!”
We lost Norman today, but that song will outlive us all.