Roland Shaw, master of the sound of spying

There are plenty of elements that go into making and so have become defining factors of the Bond films. The clothes, the cars, the exotic locations, the women, the booze — and of course, the music. James Bond without John Barry and Monty Norman’s instantly identifiable guitar theme might as well be that sad chap from Agent for H.A.R.M. Composer John Barry’s work on the Bond films created the audio template in which all future Bond composers would have to operate — even the ones who disco’d things up in the 1970s still stuck with many of Barry’s tried and true stylistic definitions of what the music for a James Bond movie should sound like. When the Bond films proved runaway successes in the 1960s, hundreds of movies were made by dozens of countries looking to cash in on the same basic formula. And each of those movies needed music. Usually breezy, swingin’ 60s style cocktail lounge music laced with the occasional twangy guitar.

Outside the realm of film music, there was an equally gigantic cash-in industry of record labels releasing Bond and spy-themed albums not connected to any actual movie. Most of the albums are disposably enjoyable, offering up nondescript but professionally competent renditions of popular Bond movie theme songs, as well as music from assorted espionage television shows. Some also mixed in original compositions in the style of Bond music, and more than a few would throw a half-assed rendition of a Bond theme song onto an album full of otherwise espionage-unrelated easy listening tunes just so they could justify calling the album Music to Thrill By or something and put a picture of a dude with a Walther PPK on the cover.

Towering above all others in the realm of Bond cash-in albums, however, was British composer Roland Shaw, an accomplished musician who attended the Trinity College of Music and served in the Royal Air Force in World War II, where he lead the RAF No. 1 Band of the Middle East Forces . Shaw released a series of James Bond cash-in records that featured arrangements of Bond themes and background music that were often just as good as the originals, and in some cases, perhaps even better. His willingness to delve into the library of background music is what set Shaw apart from his contemporaries, most of whom were happy to simply churn out a thousand different covers of the themes from Goldfinger and Thunderball. Recording for Decca between 1966 and 1971, Shaw and his orchestra released several James Bond themed albums, as well as one album of more general spy themes. Keeping the albums straight can be a chore, as in the true spirit of cash-in albums, they were re-released multiple times, often with different names and covers. Plus, Shaw’s previous releases were frequently reassembled by producers into wholly different albums of the same basic material. But the following run-down should cover the additions you need to make to your smooth spy lounge soundtrack.

Themes for Secret Agents

This foray into the world of spy music sees the orchestra taking a more general approach than the orchestra’s all-Bond albums. This collection of brassy, bombastic themes includes arrangements of music from The Man from UNCLEThe SaintThe Spy Who Came In from the ColdOur Man FlintI SpyThe Avengers, and The IPCRESS FIle. There are also several Bond themes, including “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and the themes from GoldfingerFrom Russia with Love,Thunderball, and of course the original James Bond theme. Shaw keeps things fast paced and upbeat. In particular, I love his versions of The Avengerstheme, From Russia with Love, and “The James Bond Theme” — that last one will make you feel like going out and getting in a speed boat chase or leaping from rooftop to rooftop in pursuit of some dastardly assassin. I like this album for its more general survey of spy themes from the era. After all, a proper international man of mystery needs to be well rounded, and your world cannot consist of James Bond themes alone.

James Bond Thrillers

Shaw’s first foray into the world of pure James Bond music also happens to be the only one of his spy music recordings currently missing from my collection, but that’s neither here nor there. This album sets the tone for all of Shaw’s subsequent albums. It’s a mix of main themes (From Russia with LoveGoldfinger, and the “James Bond Theme” and other notable cues from From Russia with LoveGoldfinger, and Dr. No. Most of the best songs on this collection would pop up on later Roland Shaw albums, but a couple — “Dr. No’s Fantasy” (from Dr. No), “Leila Dances,” and “The Golden Horn” (both from From Russia with Love) — I haven’t found on any other album but this one. Shaw’s arrangement of “007″ is, in my opinion, even better than the John Barry original.

More Themes From James Bond Thrillers

Shaw’s follow-up to his first album of Bond music is another great one, partly because it sticks almost entirely to more obscure tracks and background music. There’s the obligatory arrangement of the theme from the latest Bond movie (Thunderball, with no one bothering to attempt a recreation of Tom Jones’ barrel-chested vocal bravado), but after that, Shaw shies away from themes and instead serves up a host of great takes on the rest of what James Bond music has to offer: a few tracks from Dr. No (including a cover of “Underneath the Mango Tree” that has the first appearance of vocals on a Roland Shaw spy music album), From Russia with Love, and Goldfinger. There’s not as much that’s “iconic” on this album, though once again it’s very good and serves to create a more complete universe of James Bond music.

Themes From The James Bond Thrillers, Vol. 03

This third volume of Bond music kicks off with a vocal version of what might be my favorite Bond theme of all time: You Only Live Twice. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say this version is superior to the John Barry-Nancy Sinatra original, it’s still a great version and makes this album worth owning even if the rest of it wasn’t any good. Luckily, the rest of it is pretty good, once again following the trend of leaning heavily on music other than the themes — though you do get arrangements of the themes from Casino Royale1967 (both the Herb Alpert instrumental and Dusty Springfield’s “The Look of Love” with vocals that obviously can’t match Dusty’s) and Thunderball, just in case you didn’t have enough versions of the theme from Thunderball. The rest of the tracks are cues taken from ThunderballYou Only Live TwiceCasino RoyaleFrom Russia with Love, and one more from Dr. No. All good stuff, but the theme from You Only Live Twice makes this one essential.

The Return Of James Bond In Diamonds Are Forever…And Other Secret Agent Themes

This is a spectacular sampler of Roland’s work through the years, though it eschews his tendency to focus on non-theme music cues. I guess by 1971, with the negative reaction toward George Lazenby’s turn as Bond in 1969 and the questionable quality of Sean Connery’s triumphant return in the largely ludicrous Diamonds are Forever, background cues were simply too esoteric to make for a potentially successful release, and so they stuck to the big guns. Released in 1971, it repackages most of Shaw’s arrangements of the Bond themes up to that point and combines them with additional spy movie and TV show themes previously featured on other albums. New for this album are superb renditions of the themes from Diamonds are Forever and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, as well as the song “Let the Love Come Through,” which Shaw originally wrote for the 1967 James Bond send-up Casino Royale. Those three tracks alone make this album worth the repeated material, but you also get new tracks in the form of Mission: ImpossiblePeter Gunn, and Wednesday’s Child. The orchestra’s “Diamonds are Forever Reprise” decides that nothing jazzes up a song quite like adding a bunch of funky wah-wah guitars. Plus, there’s really no beating the album cover. I suppose if you were to seek out one Roland Shaw album, this would probably be the one to get.

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