When it premiered in cinemas on June 24, 1981, the James Bond thriller “For Your Eyes Only” was notable for two main reasons. First, it was the grittiest and most realistic Bond adventure since “From Russia with Love” almost two decades earlier. And second, it instantly established an iconic new theme song that was embraced by fans as one of the best in the blockbuster spy series’ history.
Performed by then 21-year-old Scottish singer Sheena Easton, and written by composer Bill Conti and lyricist Mike Leeson, the song was a worldwide hit, reaching number four on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and No. 8 on the U.K. singles chart. Nominated for a Grammy for best pop female vocalist and an Academy Award for best original song, it remains one of Easton’s biggest hits, and ranks alongside Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die,” Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better,” and Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill” as songs that exist both as beloved Bond themes and mainstream pop classics in their own right.
Easton was born in Bellshill, Scotland – less than 40 miles from the birthplace of Sean Connery – and was a major 007 fan growing up. “I saw all of the Bond films that were shown on TV, and when a new one would come out, I’d go to the theater and see it,” Easton tells Variety. “Of course, being Scottish, I loved Sean Connery. Watching a Scottish movie star like him was a big thing for me. But I also loved Roger Moore because he was just so elegant and suave.”
The Bond songs were particularly meaningful to Easton, who cites Shirley Bassey’s three Bond themes as some of her favorites in the franchise. “They’re classics,” she says. “The Bond series was the first to have a well-known theme song associated with a film. By the time I was making records in the ‘80s, every movie that came out had a song associated with it, but the Bond franchise was one of the first to do that. You found yourself looking forward to the movie and to the big song that came with it.”
Easton’s career began at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow where she perfected her craft singing in local clubs at night, and was eventually selected as the subject of a BBC documentary chronicling a relative newcomer’s rise to fame. Within a year, she had earned a recording contract from EMI, resulting in the hit singles “Modern Girl” and “Morning Train.”
With her music exploding on the charts in the U.S. and the U.K., Easton’s name was quickly submitted by United Artists as their top choice to perform the coveted theme song to “For Your Eyes Only.”
Conti was hired to score the film when frequent Bond composer John Barry was unavailable, and he claims he was unsure at first if Easton was the right singer for the job. In numerous interviews over the years, the Oscar-winning composer of “Rocky” and “The Right Stuff” has said his preferred choices were Donna Summer and Dusty Springfield, both of whom he felt were ideally suited to performing a Bond theme, and it wasn’t until he actually met with Easton in London and heard her voice while he accompanied on piano that he agreed she was indeed more than capable of handling the song.
Easton, however, remembers things somewhat differently. “To be honest, I’ve heard that story and maybe that comes from Bill’s point of view, but from my point of view, I never heard any of that,” she says. “When it was brought to me, it was literally done as a fait accompli. It was, you know, they want you to do the next Bond song and are you interested? And it’s like, yeah! Of course I’m interested! Please, who would say no to that? So I was never told about any of the behind-the-scenes [discussions] at the time.”
With the deal struck, work on the song happened very quickly according to Easton. “I met Bill early on, and he played me two or three different versions of the song,” she says. “He had a few different melodies in mind, and we demoed some of them. Mick Leeson was a writer that was working with me on some of my own stuff, so he wrote the lyrics. Once it started, it all went very fast.”
As for her actual vocal recording session, Easton admits there was a lot of pressure involved because Bond producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and several film executives showed up at one point and had to be kept from entering the studio. “They sat in an anteroom, and they were anxious to make sure this kid hadn’t screwed up their theme song,” she says. “They wanted to make sure they had bet on the right horse, basically. It almost felt like there was a judge and jury sitting right outside the studio.”
Easton credits famed record producer Christopher Neil as the primary reason why “For Your Eyes Only” remains such a beloved song 40 years after the film’s release.
“It’s a beautiful song, but it became a hit record because of Chris Neil,” Easton says. “When you listen to the song, it’s the sonic elements that stand out more than my performance. And I’m not just being humble, I really believe that. For example, the movie has all of these underwater elements, and when you listen to the song, you hear swirling waters and the sonar ping from a submarine at the very beginning. It opens with a dramatic, mysterious sound. So Chris was very conscious that this had to sound like a real James Bond theme. He didn’t want to just record a Sheena Easton record and put it in the movie. He really wanted it to reflect the film itself, so when you heard the song and saw the movie, you would forever associate the two.”
In addition to performing the song, Easton also made history by being the only musical artist thus far to appear on screen singing a Bond theme during the opening credits. As the story goes, legendary Bond title designer Maurice Binder was so dazzled by Easton after meeting her, he personally requested that she make an appearance in the opening credit sequence.
“I didn’t have a lot of warm, cozy fireplace chats with Maurice Binder,” Easton recalls. “He very much knew what he wanted, and he had created those opening titles for years, so there was no messing around. He was there to get it done, and he was very technical about it. I remember the cameras were on dollies and tracks, and I was trying to stand as still as possible while giving an emotive performance, and at one point Maurice went, ‘forget it, we’re going to clamp you.’ So they literally put a clamp behind my neck on a metal pole, so I couldn’t move at all. And yet I was supposed to look like I was one of the naked nymphs coming out of the water!”
In the leadup to the film’s release, Easton found herself on a whirlwind promotional tour with James Bond himself, Sir Roger Moore. Though their encounters were brief, Easton was nevertheless struck by the star’s elegance and charm.
“My lasting impression was that he didn’t disappoint,” she says. “I was this young thing, and Roger Moore was this amazing, glamorous movie star with all the suave and polish that you would expect. He knew how to carry himself, and he knew how to play the part on and off screen. I’m not saying he stayed in character, I’m just saying he kept the dignity and the charm you’d expect. You could instantly see why he was cast as James Bond, because he kind of had that in his bones already.”
One experience that did, in fact, disappoint Easton was performing the song at the 54th Academy Awards ceremony. With a wildly elaborate production number filled with laser beams, explosions, costumed dancers and a hovering spaceship, her Oscar performance is fondly remembered by 007 fans today for its over-the-top staging. Easton, however, was not pleased with the results.
“It was horrible,” she says. “It was not a fun experience in a lot of ways, and I don’t think I really performed the song as well as I would have liked to because it was all about running around on stage past pyrotechnics.”
The Oscar number suffered a major setback when the lead dancer who was playing Bond during a rehearsal that day was badly injured, and another dancer had to quickly replace him. “By that point we were literally practicing in the lobby of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion because they had to use the actual stage to get ready for the rest of the show,” Easton recounts. “I’m sure from the audience you didn’t know any of this drama was going on backstage, but it was nerve-wracking and not the most fun thing to do.”
Today, Easton is still a devoted James Bond fan and is looking forward to the release of the long-delayed “No Time to Die,” which is currently scheduled to premiere on September 30 in the U.K. and October 8 in the United States. “I think Daniel Craig is awesome,” she says. “I love the fact that the Bond franchise was smart and evolved with the times. It moved with whatever the current aesthetic was, and it got edgier and more aggressive as time went along. I think that’s what today’s audiences expect.”
As for the latest 007 theme song, Easton couldn’t be more impressed. “I’m a huge Billie Eilish fan!” she says. “I just love her. For such a young person, she’s so talented and mature beyond her years. Her theme song is fabulous, and I think it’s a great track and a perfect Bond song.”
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Easton occasionally performed live Bond-themed concerts around the country, typically backed by a full symphony. And with music venues beginning to finally reopen again, she hopes to revisit those concerts someday soon. “I will definitely be performing Bond hits like ‘For Your Eyes Only,’ ‘Goldfinger’ and ‘Skyfall’ again in the future, because they’re too much fun to sing not to do that,” she says. “Symphonies really showcase the drama and excitement and great instrumentation of the Bond themes.”
Reflecting on her 40-year musical relationship with Ian Fleming’s secret agent, Easton remains thankful for her Bond connection. “I’m just happy that people still really love the song,” she says. “When I perform it live and that dramatic opening beat happens, I can see a ripple go through the fans in the crowd and watch their faces light up in the excitement. So it’s a great feeling to be part of something like that, and I’ll forever be grateful to ‘For Your Eyes Only’ and what it continues to mean for me and for the concerts I do.”