On Her Majesty's Secret Beatle


I recently rented the movie The Rock, in which Sean Connery portrays a character quite reminiscent of his original take on James Bond. In one of the early scenes, his costar Nicholas Cage, playing a chemical warfare expert... is delighted to finally receive the crown jewel of his record collection: a mint American Meet the Beatles album. That ties it, says I to me, there is something about those two, Bond and the Beatles, that always keeps cropping up, so let's get on with it.

For what we have here is a cultural synchronicity that has spanned more than three decades. It all begins in around 1963, when Ian Fleming's Bond novels were very popular, especially among young males, at exactly the time the Beatles began to emerge. Then, based on the popularity of the novels in the one case and the records in the other, Bond and the Beatles entered the popular consciousness in film at about the same time. Since then, there has been a parallelism, an interplay, that is both fascinating and quite entertaining.

Men Yes, Gray Flannel No

In both cases, we can see at least one clear and common theme that accounts for both the popularity and the parallelsim: rebellion against Fifties social, corporate and governmental stodginess. On the British side of the pond, both entities can be viewed as irreverent, stylish rebels against the staid Saville Row banker mentality. In America, both can be positioned in revolt against the corporate, homogenous Ward Cleaver ethos. Humor, stylish clothing, sexiness, and refusal to simply go along with established patterns of thinking and behavior link the Beatles and James Bond irrevocably, throughout the history of both.

Both had a tendency to poach on one another's territory, as well. The Beatles always had a political side to them, whether in matters of hair length, musical style, attitudes toward organized religion, drug laws, the American adventure in Vietnam, the examples abound. Similarly, the Bond phenomenon is consistently associated with musicality, from the enduring popularity of the "theme" guitar leitmotif through a string of hits from performers as diverse as Matt Munro, Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, Duran Duran, Carlie Simon, and Louie Armstrong. For a real thrill, check out Sean Connery singing a love song to Ursula Andress, certainly the moral equivalent of (let's say) Paul McCartney trying to act the part of a macho spy...

Thus, even as both Bond and Beatle movies were attracting wide audiences, the pop charts reflected this parallel popularity, as Bond movie themes and Beatle singles were often popular at exactly the same time. There were more dimensions to this cultural admixture as well, because both the Bond and Beatles phenomena were early, prototypical examples of what is now taken for granted: multilevel, time-coordinated depth marketing that included movies, songs, and various consumer paraphrenalia such as trading cards, lunchboxes, dolls, toys, and so forth.

Spoof Me, Spoof You Too

In terms of a direct interplay between these two, there is much material of interest. The first shot, if you will, is fired by Sean Connery early on, in an opening scene to either Dr. No or From Russia With Love (I forget which). He remarks that a noise in the background is at least not as bad as that of a Beatles record. While seemingly a gratuitous slur, or one designed to get an Allan Shermanesque Pop-Hates-the-Beatles guffaw from the older crowd, the line is delivered with the usual ambiguous, ironic tone associated with Bond humor. Like the Beatles at a press conference, Bond tosses off one liners almost constantly, in total refusal to take either himself or his situation seriously.

The Beatles answer this one almost immediately, and at length. For their entire second film, Help!, is of course a takeoff on the Bond series, replete with gadgetry, exotic locations, attractive women, and the immediate threat of physical harm to the heroes. The soundtrack version of Help! of course begins with a Bondesque reverb guitar theme, then breaks out into one of the all time great Lennon tunes. While Bond by this time has already visited Help's Caribbean location, he won't get to India until 1983 in Octopussy.

While their relationship so far seems to have contained a good deal of adversity, one must always remember that neither the Beatles or Bond ever play it totally straight. The back and forth taunting is a sign of mutual respect, and at times there is even a clear tribute: the opening shot of the Peter Sellers/Woody Allen take on Bond (Casino Royale) is a closeup of some graffitti in Paris, "The Beatles" in white spray paint. Thus it is no suprise that a few years later, the two synch up in Live and Let Die... where George Martin scores the movie, Paul McCartney writes the Bond hit single (and is nominated for an Oscar), and Roger Moore delivers the irony. With the exception of those incredibly lame backing vocals, this is one of Paul's best solo tracks, where he delivers on the extended form first developed on side 2 of Abbey Road, with a good deal more substance than in similar efforts such as "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey." In this great flick, with an all time chase scene that basically destroys the entire state of Louisiana, it is not too much to say that the Bond and Beatle sensibilities finally "come together."

John Connery, Roger McCartney

One difficulty with comparing, for example, other musicians to the Beatles is the diverse nature of the Fab Four's appeal. The differing looks, talents, and personalities of John-Paul- George-and-Ringo created a someone-for-everyone hook that no individual artist, and very few other groups, could ever approach. Related to our topic, though, is the parallel diversity of actors playing James Bond, which probably unintentionally but nevertheless effectively produces a similar effect.

The prototypical Bond, certainly the favorite to this day of Ian Fleming purists, was of course the cruel-mouthed Sean Connery. While doublessly a "good guy" on balance, there was a dark amorality to Connery's approach, a dangerousness that in many was reflected in the public persona of Beatle John Lennon. Handsome and sexually appealing, but somehow edgy and deviant, both brought a certain element of not-the-boy-next-door to superstardom.

Ironically enough, Connery was replaced by Roger Moore because producer Albert Broccoli wanted someone younger... the joke being, that while more youthful in appearance, Moore was actually chronologically more advanced than Connery. Purists deride the Moore approach as too gentlemanly, not edgy enough, yet Moore did succeed in carrying the stylish aspect to new heights, and his brand of cool allowed even more irony to emerge, putting comedy more to the forefront and enabling Bond films to thus rely less on what were becoming cliched devices to create suspense as the latest Blue Meanie villian plotted to destroy, dominate, or depopulate the entire planet whilst some or other digital counter crept ever downward exactly to the number 007.

And in that sense, the accessibile gentility of Roger Moore made him the Paul McCartney of Bonds... the one Mum would definitely like, although she might perceive him as just a bit too slick and smarmy to be really trusted. Whereas Connery and Lennon sort of wore their edge on their sleeve, so to speak, in the case of Moore and McCartney one is up against a subtler character, one more aware of others' perceptions and how they themselves are being viewed.

Without pushing this one too far, there are some other aspects to Bond diversity worthy of mention. For example, George Lazenby in On Her Majesty's Secret Service has a gruff, everyday quality characterizable as the Ringo of Bonds, and there is a certain sour-milk sharpness to the Pierce Brosnan approach that maps to parts of George Harrison's public persona. Woody Allen's sendup film, Casino Royale, connects Peter Sellers (Beatle friend and favorite actor, recipient of an early version of the White Album) to the Bond phenomenon in a "sidekick" role. The fact that several cinematic, comedic sendups of both Bond and the Beatles were successful is another common factor between the two, the aforementioned Casino Royale and the Our Man Flint movies corresponding somewhat exactly to the Rutles and This Is Spinal Tap!

Got A Match?

Beyond the near-infinite Six Degrees connections and the musical and comedic overlap, the notions of style and sex appeal are central to both of our subjects. Natty dress, and the easy but ominous connection to feminine pulchritude, plus omnipresent cigarettes and drinks (martini shaken not stirred, rum and Coke) run through the cinematic record of both Bond and the Beatles. Even in the dimension of gadgetry, besides the obvious spoof angle in Help!, our heroes have a lot in common. For just as Bond used trick pens and watches and other doodads to thwart the villain du jour, so did the Beatles pioneer things like volume pedals, cassette recorders, automatic double tracking and so on.

Going further, just as Bond always had one or more faithful sidekicks, whether the stolid Felix Leiter of the CIA or locals such as Quarrel, Vijay Amitraj et al., so the Beatles in both film and real life were associated with trusties like the fictional Shake and Norm, the real life Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans. Most interesting along these lines is the correspondence, if you will, between the somewhat senior and upperclassish technowizard Q on the one hand, and Sir George Martin on the other...

Speaking of matchmaking, it becomes less than surprising to note that Ringo is married to Barbara Bach, whose first significant starring movie role was as a Bond "girl" in The Spy Who Loved Me. OTBT's own Richard Porter, watching a Bond special on the telly during the time of the Anthology, reports that Paul McCartney's response to seeing his first Bond film as to go out and purchase an Aston Martin. The trick-cars theme carries into the Lennon mythology as well, with the psychedelic Rolls Royce having its own Bondesque cachet.

On my side of the pond, I noted that the debut of the Anthology on American television precisely coincided with the last Bond film but one, Golden Eye. The transition from the Fab Three reminsicing to promo clips of Pierce Brosnan's derring-do was thus easy and familiar, almost to be expected. What else, indeed, COULD one advertise during the reunion than the latest return of Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang himself?

And it's still going on. The newest Bond film is called Tomorrow Never Dies. Hmm, isn't there a famous rock group that had a groundbreaking song, using technology in a new way, whose title is extremely similar? Could the person who invented that title have been thinking of anything *other* than John Lennon's song, based itself on one of those wonderful Ringo malapropisms?

From England, With Irony

I think it has by now been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that as Bond is the Beatles of spies, so the Beatles are the Bond of rock bands. One might then ask, so what?

Obviously it is absurd to read too much into matters like these, to interpolate pregnant cosmic meanings along the lines of the recent Dark Side of the Moon/Wizard of Oz craze. Still, it is clear that in the collective subconscious or whatever one wants to call it, James Bond and the Beatles fill a common and connected need for adventure, style, pizzazz or what have you, and those lovely ladies in the background don't hurt. While the "sexist" label has been somewhat accurately attached to both, in their defense themes of female empowerment on various levels can certainly be traced by those so inclined. And while looking at notions such as these has its purpose and validity, it is also somewhat against the grain of what are, in essence, comedic phenomena not intended to be taken too seriously or criticized for failing to provide utopian formulas leading to ideal societies.

The analysis of popular culture in pieces like this one always has to run a course between saying nothing of substance on the one hand, and more than the matter contains on the other. In spite of all that danger, we remain steeped in popular culture; the average person is probably far more exposed to it than they are to (for example) the political system or the religious establishments, and therefore it is certainly an area worthy of some discussion and analysis. The Beatles and James Bond, in specific and interesting, sometimes trivial, sometimes meaningful ways, have both expressed who we are as a culture, and influenced it as well. They are to us what the characters depicted by Homer and Shakespeare were to Greece and Elizabethan England. And Shakespeare has endured for quite some time, especially his films...