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50 Years of Bond and The Beatles - An Idiot's Perspective

Posted: 05/10/2012 00:00

Sometimes, for the lazy writer like me, history flings itself willingly into your lap, purring like a kitten. This is one such moment. On 5 October 1962, two culturally momentous events took place on the same day. No-one at the time would have possessed the foresight to scan ahead 50 years, and envision the impact these two titans might have upon the world; how could they? It was just another movie release, and just another debut single from a rhythm and blues band. Except, of course, that movie was a certain 'Dr No'; and that song was 'Love Me Do' by The Beatles.

At 30 years old, I might be considered a little young to appreciate the full glory of the James Bond franchise, or the extraordinary musical canon of John, Paul, George and Ringo; except, my childhood was a little unusual. I didn't listen to contemporary pop music until I was 14 - watching Top Of The Pops 2 today is a fascinating insight into what I missed, and I can't say I'm particularly disappointed that Madonna's conical bras and George Michael's bland crooning passed me by. No, the soundtrack to my youth was The Beatles, a perpetually cheery entourage of mop-topped harmonisers joining me on every car journey. Their early hits were infectiously catchy, an irresistible assemblage of handclaps, tightly-wound riffs, and high-pitched 'woooooooooooos'. Their later material sprawled elegantly through vast soundscapes, surreal and woozy poetry, and artfully bombastic production. I knew instinctively, even aged 8, that they were bloody brilliant - and I didn't need a Paul Gambaccini documentary to tell me why.

Of course, I could enjoy the full catalogue of albums. My parents' generation had been there for real, watching The Beatles grow into themselves an album at a time. It's tempting to imagine the Liverpudlian minstrels emerged fully-formed - like Aztec gods bathed in shimmering sunlight - to their rightful place as kings of rock and roll; except, the 1960s music industry didn't have that sort of promotional machine. Unlike our modern world, where Justin Bieber and One Direction basked in pre-emptive adulation before they had even mimed a note, The Beatles had to earn their reputation through hard graft. They put in perhaps 10,000 hours practice, mostly in the sleazy clubs of Hamburg, to be as good as they were - yet it did not win them immediate glory. Love Me Do only charted at 17 in the hit parade, and their second single, Please, Please Me, took two months to crawl its way up the charts to number one. 'Beatlemania' arguably took another year, and the support of the BBC, to get going properly... though when it did, it was an unprecedented sensation that made Bieber Fever look as popular as an autograph session at the Slough under 14s Sock-darning championships.

Despite the less than meteoric start, the cultural impact crater produced by this unlikely foursome was ma-hoosive. It is easy to damn them with faint praise, and merely applaud their catchy songs or cheeky inventiveness in movie spin-offs. However, The Beatles changed the music industry in the most elemental of ways. Suffering with an amplification problem, meaning their songs were inaudible over the sound of hysterical screaming, they retreated instead to the studio, traditionally a place one might spend only a few days - indeed, their debut album was mostly recorded in just a single day - yet, Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was the product of 400 hours of intense experimentation, using the studio as instrument in its own right. Having abandoned touring completely, the band was free to create songs of dazzling complexity that could never be replicated live. Bouncing off the undisputed genius of The Beach Boys' 'Pet Sounds', released a few months before, Sgt Pepper's emerged as a complete work of art - an album you played from start to finish, pausing only to flip the disc over. There were no singles, no touring, no appearances on TV shows. This was pop music's equivalent of the operatic magnum opus, and it was quite dazzling. I challenge you to listen to A Day In The Life, and not be stupefied by the chaotic brilliance on display - the jaunty piano ditty, in amidst the atonal orchestral cacophony, lyrically weaving an ordinary commuter routine, with the death of a celebrity and banal snippets from The Daily Mail, all mashed together in a mournful, hypnotically psychedelic tune. It's certainly not Call Me, Maybe...

The Beatles undeniably changed global music, and came to define a certain view of Britain. The recent Olympic opening ceremony just proves how talismanic their songs still are, while Hey Jude appears to have become some sort of secular national anthem, a communal nursery rhyme to unite the disparate masses under one cause... though with the number of times we've seen it recently, you get the impression Sir Paul McCartney would unexpectedly turn up and starting singing it at the opening of an ASDA in Hull, if given the chance. However, while The Beatles music peppered this unexpectedly glorious celebration of British heritage, there were only two individuals who were allocated a starring role in the flesh... and I'm not talking about Her Majesty, the parachuting Queen.

In my youth, the writing of Ian Fleming left me cold. I just couldn't relate to the man from MI6, who always saved the world and got the girl. Yet, I rarely meet anyone who dislikes James Bond's screen outings, and they certainly had a huge effect on me - the first film I remember seeing at the cinema was License To Kill, and the terrifying horror of the Great White Shark chewing on Felix Leiter like he was a squishy ragdoll. Over the years, I managed to watch the rest of the Bond canon, mostly because they seemed to be perennially looping on ITV. A Saturday could barely pass without accidentally stumbling across Roger Moore arching an eyebrow and delivering a one-liner to some foreign bloke in the midst of an ironic death. I watched each Bond adventure with fervent passion, trying to puzzle out the order in which the films were made by examining the modernity of the cars on show, proving that I was always destined to be a nerdy archaeologist. The fact that my French relatives were extras in the ludicrously exciting chase sequence in 'A View To A Kill', when Bond drives past the Eiffel Tower in only the front-end of a sawn-apart car, only further heightened my sense of personal identity with this franchise.

And then it got even better! In my teens, Goldeneye suddenly reinvigorated the flagging franchise, with one of cinema's greatest chase sequences - Pierce Brosnan thundering through St Petersburg in a hotwired tank - eliciting gleeful cheers from the cinema audience around me. Moby's version of the theme music was brilliant too, and filled me with such adolescent adrenaline, I'd frequently find myself trying to leap off walls, imagining I was descending gracefully in slow motion. Before there was parkour, there was just-falling-off-stuff-on-purpose - and Bond convinced me I was excellent at it, even though I had the grace and technique of a dead badger being tipped out of a shopping trolley. When I wasn't hurling myself down staircases, I was mostly eroding my thumbs playing the awesomely addictive Goldeneye video game on the N64. Alas, Goldeneye was Brosnan at his best, and he couldn't reach such dizzy heights again. Die Another Day was idiotically woeful, and signalled the temporary death knell of fantastical action movies. Instead, we were pummelled and bruised by Jason Bourne and Vin Diesel's XXX, until a psychologically damaged James Bond was rebooted and repackaged with Daniel Craig in those tiny trunks to lead us back into the 21st century.

My relationship with the films is highly personal, but there are people in their 70s, all the way down to current kids in school shorts, who have also experienced the allure of James Bond in their own unique ways. It's mad to think this one character has sustained 50 years, and entertained such vast hordes of people, but there seems no reason it won't sustain another half-century. From its very inception, Bond movies have stood out from the crowd. Dr No was ground-breaking in many ways, not just in the overt sexuality, but in its cinematic form. Hitchcock had been pumping out thrillers for years, but it was Sean Connery's opener that invented the classical action movie, replete with invulnerable hero immune to bullets, absurdly ostentatious villain, glamorous girl, and spectacular set-pieces.

Yet, the mythical man who has done so much to promote and define British heroism is an ever-mutating creature. From Connery's cocky chauvinism, to Moore's suave swagger, to Dalton's vengeful rage, to Craig's brittle loneliness - over 50 years, Bond has evolved to suit the cultural landscape, as have those wonderfully absurd baddies. Dr No was released in cinemas just a fortnight before the Cuban Missile Crisis, and subsequently all manner of Cold War politics would sneak in to later Bonds, from the SMERSH agents in From Russia With Love, to the dissident Russian General with the launch-codes in Goldeneye. Even Moonraker, with its eugenics-loving villain Drax, played into fears of the weaponisation of space, coming out just 4 years before Reagan's much-vilified 'Star Wars program'. Now that the Cold War is over, Marx-hugging commies have been substituted on the naughty step by hell-bent terrorists and greedy corporations. In the most recent outing, A Quantum of Solace, our Machiavellian baddie was a damp squib of an eco-capitalist, intent on doing something or other with the water supply - I was too bored to care, in truth - but hopefully Skyfall will feature something more befitting a super-villain... perhaps a bloke who's built a secret lair in Mount Everest, and is plotting to turn the Moon into a cheese mine? We can only hope.

It's curious, and reassuring, to see that both The Beatles and Bond movies are still relevant now, having emerged in such a distinctively specific era of cultural transition. Civil Rights, JFK, Mutually-Assured-Destruction were all on the verge of exploding into the public consciousness when these two displayed their wares in October 1962. It makes one wonder whether they were so potent because of the era in which they were forged, one of such febrile energy, or whether that makes no difference at all - perhaps good art is just good art, whenever it's made? In any case, I look forward to sharing my passion for all things Bond and Beatles with my future offspring, so here's to another 50 years of both.

 

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