Further Sounds from the J*MES B*ND Hi-Fi
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.
When I was selecting the line-up for a follow-up article about 007 cash-in albums, 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 another swinging, occasionally baffling journey through James Bond themed records.
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 some fly-by-night musician. Strange was the real deal.
Obviously, a Strange album of James Bond music is going to lean heavy 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’s 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 (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 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.
The Chaquito Big Band
Spies And Dolls (1972)
Coming out in 1972, this Bond cash-in from Chaquito Big Band takes full advantage of the musical styles that had become popular by then. Lots of wah-wah guitar, Hammond organs, rapid fire percussion, and the sort of big brass and strings you were getting in everything from Isaac Hayes to the music from Enter the Dragon to big hit cop TV shows. The Chaquito of the group’s name was British composer Johnny Gregory, who among other accomplishments, led the storied BBC Radio Orchestra for nearly two decades. He came from a musical family, with a father who led a dance band at London’s legendary Italian restaurant, Quaglino’s. Apart from being a hot spot for British aristocracy (including Queen Elizabeth herself, who became the first reigning British monarch to dine at a public restaurant when she dropped by in 1953), Quaglino’s has a few important stamps on its James Bond and espionage history passport. Ian Fleming dined at Quaglino’s with Maud Russell, an American ant-fascist activist and, for a time, Ian’s lover. The two spent dinner arguing over politics, most likely having to do with Ian being at the time, like many upper-class Brits, in favor of appeasement rather than war with up-and-coming dictator Adolf Hitler.
Quaglino’s was also the restaurant that MI5 operative Major Thomas Robertson, who specialized in double agents, chose to influence a potential important asset: Agent Tricycle, aka Dusan “Dusko” Popov.* Popov would eventually be chaperoned at a Lisbon casino by young Naval Intelligence officer Ian Fleming, who watched with awe as playboy spy Popov used the money given to him by the British government to bankrupt Nazi after Nazi at the gambling tables. Popov’s brash actions made such an impact on Fleming that he eventually used the night as the basis for the plot of his first novel, Casino Royale. Later in life, when asked what it felt like to be one of the primary models upon which Fleming based James Bond, Popov, in a move as cool as 007, brushed it off, claiming (perhaps rightly) that his own life was far more exciting than Bond’s.
Johnny Gregory’s father, Frank Gregori, would likely have been the band leader at Quaglino’s while all of this was going on, and since young Johnny worked in the band for a time as a violinist, it’s even possible he performed for some point for Ian Fleming or Dusko Popov. True to his background in pop, dance bands, and scoring, the Chaquito Big Band’s contribution to the world of Bond cash-ins, is big and bold and very early 1970s. It starts out with a truly blistering rendition of the theme from the Sidney Poitier film They Call Me Mr. Tibbs, followed by a number of other ace arrangements of movie themes, including The Anderson Tapes, The French Connection, Our Man Flint, Bullit, and Shaft. There’s also some good original compositions. What there isn’t weirdly, are any James Bond themes. However, don’t let that sour you on this album. Chaquito Big Band delivers a high-energy album that bridges some gaps between the purer John Barry sound of the 1960s and the more groove-oriented sound of the 1970s.
Basie Meets Bond (1966)
While a lot of accomplished musicians recorded albums of James Bond and spy movie music, most of them were big names behind the scenes, as talented arrangers and session musicians. But there’s no bigger name in the field known to the public than jazz pioneer Count Basie, who in 1966 decided to make a few extra dollars by committing his band to dashing off some disposable but well-executed spy anthems. Not surprisingly, of all the albums so far featured in these world tours, this is the one that skirts the closest to pure swinging jazz and big band, though it also remains modern and in touch with the John Barry style. Also not surprisingly, it didn’t fall on particularly receptive ears when jazz fans at the time, attracted by Basie’s name, gave the LP a spin and found it mostly to be a skippable cash grab. In subsequent years, it’s been reassessed, and generally gets more complimentary reviews.
Well, cash grab it may have been, but it’s still a pretty great album. The Count draws music from the first four 007 films (Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball) and concentrates particularly on music from Dr. No, which gives him an excuse to flex some calypso muscle. In fact, the messy story of the Dr. No soundtrack directly involves Count Basie and a song on Basie Meets Bond, “Dr. No’s Fantasy” (of which the album contains two versions). When Monty Norman, officially the composer for the movie’s soundtrack (the bad blood between he and John Barry, especially over what would become the well-known James Bond theme, was the stuff of multiple lawsuits), was in Jamaica doing research alongside Island Records founder (and eventual owner of Ian Fleming’s Jamaican home, Goldeneye), he met up with Basie. Norman was struggling to nail the film’s signature theme, and Basie was interested in Norman’s Dr. No music, so Monty sent the Count some of his ideas. What Basie came up with and pitched back to Norman as a possible theme for the movie was “Dr. No’s Fantasy.” In the end, it was judged not “sinister” enough to serve as James Bond’s theme, though a version appears on the re-issued Dr. No Soundtrack and Basie’s two versions appear on Basie Meets Bond.
Given his connection, however tangential, to Dr. No, it’s no surprise that Basie would explore other tracks from that film, including arrangements of “Kingston Calypso” and the movie’s signature tune, “Underneath the Mango Tree.” Monty Norman’s life probably would have been easier if they’d gone with Basie’s proposed theme. Beyond the Dr. No songs, Basie and his band deliver breezy versions of themes from the subsequent three Bond films, as well as the inescapable “007 Theme” and, of course, a swingy, loungy version of the James Bond theme. Is it an essential album for Basie or harder-core jazz fans? I doubt it. But for aficionados of Bond music and some of the more esoteric pieces of James Bond history, Basie Meets Bond is a worthwhile curiosity with some fun, undemanding music with a twisty direct connection to official James Bond music.
Ray Martin and His Orchestra
Goldfinger and Other Music From James Bond Thrillers (1965)
Thunderball and Other Thriller Music (1965)
Ray Martin was a Austrian-British orchestra leader who made a name for himself as a dependable composer of “light” music. Wasting no time (notby choice) in establishing his espionage bona fides, he immigrated to England from Austria in 1938 and was promptly placed under suspicion of being a Nazi spy (even though he was Jewish). He was interned as a prisoner of war and sent to Australia, where he was held until 1941. Upon his release, he apparently bore no ill will toward the new home that had tossed him in a prison camp, because he promptly joined the Army. He worked for six years in British Intelligence and, in his spare time, he was an arranger and composer for the Royal Air Force Band, and he somehow mounted an operation to rescue his brother, who was imprisoned in a concentration camp. If that doesn’t qualify a man to dash off a couple albums of James Bond and spy movie music, then nothing does.
The first of his two Bond albums, Goldfinger and Other Music From James Bond Thrillers opens with…you guessed it the theme from Goldfinger yet again. However, for a change, this version brings something new to that well-worn territory. Martin’s arrangement nails the brassy John Barry sound, but he gives it a little something extra by adding female vocals either sighing wordlessly or belting occasional lyrics from the original. No Shirley Bassey, these ladies, but they give the song a very mod, pop sensibility. After so many versions of this particular theme, it’s a joy to hear one that makes you take notice. The ladies stick around for most of the tracks, taking on, among other things, a vocal rendition of the guitar parts in the James Bond theme, which Martin really jazzes up. Because not only did the song need ghostly female vocals, it also needed a sax solo. Similar goosing is done to most of the song, including the theme from From Russia with Love and the one song other than Goldfinger and the Bond theme that might be the most ubiquitous, “007 Theme,” and even that Ray and the gang turn into something new. Every song is infused with go-go boots and miniskirts energy, much poppier than jazzy most of the time but always exciting and unique among Bond cash-ins. It’s one of my favorite of all of these albums.
He brings along the girls, the sax, and the gusto for his second Bond album, Thunderball and Other Thriller Music, anchored by a spectacular, fast-paced version of the Thunderball theme and delving into more non-Bond material, including a breezy arrangement of the theme from The Knack…And How to Get It, a version of “A Man Alone” from The IPCRESS File that could almost fool you into thinking the movie isn’t depressing, and similarly lunatic go-go pop versions of The Man from UNCLE, the Bond track “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” Honey West, and more. Both of these Ray Martin albums are absolute joys. They are just…delirious. Beautifully, energetically delirious, like someone took John Barry, Esquivel, Lulu, Bruno Nicolai, Al Caiola, and a drive down the Amalfi Coast in a convertible MG and threw them all into a blender.
* Want to know more about the wild story of Ian Fleming and Dusko Popov? Well, I just happen to have written a book, Cocktails and Capers, that has a chapter dedicated to the story, with special guest appearances by Mussolini, Lucky Luciano, and a bunch of cocktail recipes.
James Bond cash-in albums will return in…
Goldsinger: Now Sounds from the J*MES B*ND Hi-Fi!