Of all the iconic features of the long-running James Bond franchise, the music from its movies might be the most influential. Espionage films existed before Bond, but none of their scores defined “spy music” the way 007’s themes and incidental pieces did. (After all, when people say a song as sounds like a spy movie theme they probably aren’t comparing it to a Hitchcock score.) But the influence of Bond themes runs deeper than the music that apes their lavish orchestration and seductive minor-key melodies. On a micro level, artists have been using the "James Bond Theme" bassline in music for decades. From Guided By Voices to Madonna to Janelle Monáe, pop musicians have been quoting the instantly recognizable four-note, song-opening lick whether they know it or not. So with Spectre still bouncing around in theaters, we explore this phenomenon.
Putting the riff through so many different contexts reveals that while it’s best at crafting an uneasy mood, the bassline has a lot of versatility within that frame. In the same way the theme appears in both scenes where Bond is sneaking around and in explosive shootouts, the melody serves tension and release equally well. Indie rockers Spoon, Metric and White Rabbits have used the riff to wind-up segments of “The Beast and Dragon, Adored,” “Combat Baby” and “Lionesse,” respectively. Each tune then springboards from this riff to anthemic choruses.
Yet when amped up, the Bond bassline also sells the catharsis. Pulp uses it to great effect in capping off the towering chorus of its Britpop classic “Mis-shapes” while Madonna wields it in the bridge of “Deeper” to push the dance party to the next level. Janelle Monáe, meanwhile, uses it as the engine for a sustained synth-funk workout in “Many Moons” that reminds you the song belongs to an EP subtitled “The Chase.” Guided By Voices diverges from this dichotomy by filtering the riff through the band's characteristically blurry vision and injecting a note halfway through it in “Hang Up and Try Again.” In doing so, GBV trades the danger and intrigue found in the other examples for a hungover rock groove that nears grunge in its dirtiness.
Granted, "Bond Theme" composer Monty Norman and arranger John Barry didn’t invent the progression from a root note to a half-step up, to another half-step up and then walking back down those steps. In this case it means a bassline of B-C-C#-C that then returns to B to restart the cycle. Composers can’t lay claim to a four-note progression, and even if they could, the Bond team was beaten to the riff by Elvis Presley. His song “Surrender,” which was adapted from the early 20th century Neapolitan song “Torna a Surriento” by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, employed the same melody and was released in 1961, one year before the Bond film franchise debuted with Dr. No. It’s likely not the first piece of music to do so either.
That said, some of the aforementioned songs have hints of spy and combat themes. White Rabbits’ “Lionesse” features a gunshot and ricochet, and while the fighting described in Metric’s “Combat Baby” is metaphorical, it’s still enough of a connection for its use of the "Bond Theme" to fit with Bond’s themes. And considering the cinematic nature of Monáe’s music and performances, not to mention a few obvious allusions to spy music tropes in other songs, it’s doubtful her use of the Bond chord progression was an accident.
However one views the progression, its longevity and adaptability are remarkable. It shows how a melody can lend a feel to a song without defining it. But its iconic use in the "Bond Theme" casts a shadow over other songs that use it large enough for a secret agent to hide in.