The Sound of Spying
The World of James Bond Cash-In Albums
There are many elements that go into making and so have become defining factors of James Bond films: the clothes, the cars, the exotic locations, the drinks, the attitude—and of course, the music. James Bond without that instantly identifiable guitar and big brass theme might as well be…well, I guess Michel Legrand’s score for Never Say Never Again. John Barry’s work on the Bond films created the audio template in which all future Bond composers would operate. Even the ones who synth and discoed things up in the 1970s and ’80s still colored within the lines of Barry’s style.
When the Bond films proved runaway successes in the 1960s, hundreds of movies were made in dozens of countries, all looking to cash in on the same basic formula, and each of those movies needed music. What they came up with, often composed by exceptionally talented and creative artists, was usually breezy, swinging ’60s-style cocktail lounge music laced with the occasional twangy guitar. Outside of film scores, there was an equally lucrative cash-in industry of record labels releasing Bond and spy-themed albums not connected to any actual movie—at least not officially.
Most of these albums were disposably enjoyable, offering nondescript but professionally competent renditions of popular Bond theme songs, as well as music from assorted espionage television shows. Some also mixed in original compositions done in the style of Bond music, and more than a few threw a half-assed rendition of a Bond theme song onto an album full of otherwise unrelated-to-spy-stuff easy-listening tunes so they could justify calling the album Music to Thrill By or something and putting a picture of a guy with a Walther PPK on the cover.
As a body of work, albums made to cash in on the popularity of James Bond movies and spy shows are generally regarded as “disposable,” something a group of studio musicians would throw together to earn some easy money. And while that may indeed have been the motivation more times than not, you can’t blame an artist for earning some cash, and you’ll frequently discover that talented musicians are talented musicians no matter how throw-away the project. But you’ll also discover that there are, after you do some digging, some genuinely strange histories attached to what might otherwise be pretty run-of-the-mill collections of Bond theme covers. For example, a record of James Bond surf and exotica tunes involving trippy jazz legend Sun Ra and members of Blood Sweat and Tears.
I didn’t expect to find the stories I found. But here we are, with records full of interesting music arranged by, for example, one of the most accomplished session guitarists in Hollywood, who worked with Nancy Sinatra; the son of a bandleader who worked at a restaurant where he likely performed for the Queen of England, Ian Fleming, and a playboy spy from WWII who inspired the plot of Casino Royale; or a truly nutty go-go pop record by an Austrian Jew who was arrested for being a German spy before being cleared…and becoming a British spy. And then there’s big band legend Count Basie, and his curious connection to Monty Norman and Dr. No.
So put on the headphones and prepare yourself for a swinging, occasionally baffling three-part journey through James Bond-themed records.
Note: Any discussion of James Bond-inspired albums should begin with Roland Shaw. So if you want the dossier on Shaw, a man who almost made the cut composing an actual James Bond theme, you can learn about him in my book, Cocktails and Capers.
The Secret Agent File (1965)
James Bond Double Feature (1967)
Billy Strange was, among other things, a guitarist for the famed collection of studio musicians that became known as the Wrecking Crew. If you’ve never heard about them, I suggest you do a bit of reading, because the story is fascinating, and a sobering look at how the music industry works (in short: many of the greatest groups in music history played their own instruments a lot less on albums than they’d like you to know). In addition, Strange worked with Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra, and arranged the non-soundtrack version of Nancy’s You Only Live Twice theme, which adds a pretty amazing layer of bombast to the song. He’s also the guy playing guitar on her melancholy hit, “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” and did the arrangements for “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.” He’s the guy playing guitar on the theme from the TV shows The Munsters and Batman. He worked with everyone from Elvis Presley to the Beach Boys to Willie Nelson. So…by no means is he some fly-by-night musician. Strange was the real deal.
Obviously, a Strange album of James Bond music is going to lean heavily into the guitar. The first of two Bond cash-ins for him, The Secret Agent File starts with a banger of a version of the Thunderball theme (the movie was released the same year as this album), full of twanging surf guitar and macho brass. That’s followed by a moody rendition of “A Man Alone,” the theme from the stellar Michael Caine spy film, The IPCRESS File.
Strange delivers most of the hits you will come to expect from a James Bond-inspired album, including great versions of I Spy, The Man from UNCLE, Get Smart, Our Man Flint, and a moody arrangement of the theme from the bleak The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, based on the grim John Le Carre novel. There are also top-notch versions of the James Bond theme; the nigh-ubiquitous “007 Theme” that manages to stand out from the pack and is very Ventures-esque (which makes sense—Strange worked with the Ventures) and then figures what the hell, why not throw in some burlesque beat R&B sax; and the similarly ubiquitous Goldfinger theme.
Strange’s second foray into spy movie music, James Bond Double Feature, is more varied, both in content and style. While it’s unfortunate that we don’t get his version of You Only Live Twice with Nancy (you can find that on the Nancy Sinatra retrospective Lightning’s Girl: Greatest Hits 1965-1971), we do get quite a lot, though not a lot of James Bond. The album fulfills the letter of the title, if not the spirit, and presents two Bond theme covers, one for You Only Live Twice and the other for Casino Royale, both released the same year as this album. Both are quite good.
The rest of the album is also good, despite the lack of any more 007 music. Strange shows his mastery of a number of styles, turning in everything from Ennio Morricone numbers (the theme from For a Few Dollars More) to breezy lounge pop (The Summer Scene, the theme from Alfie), and a pretty great version of the theme from In Like Flint. So, while it may be light in the James Bond music department, this is still a good album to pick up, especially if you’re a fan of twangy surf-meets-spaghetti western guitar.
Cheltenham Orchestra & Chorus
Songs from Goldfinger (1964)
If you have at least a passing familiarity with cocktail lounge music, you’ve probably run across the New Classic Singers and their version of “Call Me.” Even if you don’t know them, you know the sound, because it’s the very typical lounge sound you’d think of: lots of strings, and a chorus hitting you with lots of “zu zu zu wow!” singing. If you can imagine that sort of lounge pop choral group doing Bond themes, then you can begin to grasp this record.
Four songs aren’t really enough, but then again, maybe it is, because at just four tracks, it manages to be entertaining and even charming without the novelty wearing thin. Three of the songs are Bond themes: From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, and the “James Bond Theme,” which is a pretty small offering of Goldfinger songs for an album called Songs from Goldfinger. The fourth is a track with the rolls-off-the-tongue title of “Theme For Guitar – Fran – Chucks Monster – Riff – Funky.” It’s a little…you don’t want to call this sort of bubblegum cocktail pop “edgy,” but let’s just say it eschews the soothing singers in favor of electric guitars, wild drums, and a sax player who apparently wandered in from a 1960s burlesque club.
David Lloyd & His London Orchestra
Confidential: Sounds For A Secret Agent (1965)
The thing that makes this album weird isn’t the arrangement or style of the music. It’s pretty straightforward cocktail stuff. No, it’s the fact that almost all of these “themes” are original pieces. You should be clued in almost immediately by the fact that the album features themes based on Bond stories that wouldn’t be made into movies for years yet. So what you have, then, are original themes written by David Lloyd for the Ian Fleming books, though a few movie themes make it in. Just in case you didn’t already have 10,000 versions of Goldfinger, you get another one here, and it’s pretty good.
Also, you probably needed one more version of “007” from From Russia With Love, so here you go. Lloyd’s arrangement of the From Russia With Love theme is nice, with a lot of strings and even an accordion because, well, why the hell not? It’s like a version you’d hear by a band of talented French musicians pestering you outside a cafe while you’re waiting to exchange microfilm with a beautiful Eastern European spy. After those selections and the obligatory “James Bond Theme,” you get into the original stuff. While I can’t say any of it is overly memorable, it’s all decent, and if nothing else, it’s fun to hear what Lloyd imagined as the theme songs and then compare it to what became the theme song for the eventual movie. John Barry’s job was never in jeopardy, but I like most of Lloyd’s concepts.
James Bond will return…in You Only Listen Twice: Further Sounds from the J*MES B*ND Hi-Fi!