Jô Shishido was a big deal in 1967. He was one of the most famous faces at Nikkatsu studio, which was in turn one of the most successful studios in Japan thanks to their trailblazing “Borderless Action” style films. Jimmy Wang Yu was also a big deal in 1967. He was busy becoming the most famous face at the Shaw Brothers studio, which was in turn the most successful studios in Hong Kong. 1967 saw Shishido star in his most famous and most controversial role, that of the mad “Number Three Killer” turned on by the smell of boiling rice in director Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill, the film that got Suzuki fired from Nikkatsu.
Wang Yu, meanwhile, became an icon of Hong Kong cinema after his appearance in the blood-soaked martial arts revenge film The One-Armed Swordsman. He also starred in wuxia classics The Assassin and Trail of the Broken Blade, cementing his position as the Shaw Brothers star of the 1960s. Shishido filled 1967 with Nikkatsu noir classics A Colt Is My Passport, Massacre Gun, and Like a Shooting Star. Pairing Shishido and Wang Yu up in a co-production seemed like a sure thing, the sort of meeting of titans that thrills fans.
Sweetening the deal would be the nature of the film: an international (well, at least inter-Asia) spy adventure cut from the same cloth as James Bond and other colorful espionage films that were wildly popular at the time. Nikkatsu’s stock in trade was brightly-colored action films that strove to be “international” in appeal, stuffed with cool cats in slick suits drinking whiskey and gunning one another down at an assortment of locations, though usually “on the docks.” However, the Japanese film industry was, at the time, feeling the squeeze from the rapid proliferation of television, and while the country produced many of its best films during that tumultuous decade, the fact was that money was always tight.
The Shaw Brothers, on the other hand, were in ascendancy, flush with cash, and anxious to trade it in exchange for the technical expertise and cinematic professionalism of Japanese filmmakers that would help raise the bar at Shaw Brothers and garner them greater acclaim on the global market (this being before the kungfu film trend hit the United States). This resulted in a lot of Shaw Brothers employees apprenticing in Japan, and it meant a few Japanese filmmakers would make the trip to Hong Kong to practice their trade, at least on a part-time basis, at the Shaw’s sprawling movie-making compound.
Among them was Matsuo Akinori, aka Mai Chi-Ho in Hong Kong. Matsuo was an able journeyman director who had previously directed Shishido in Nosappu no jô (1961) and Taiheiyo no katsugiboshi (1961 and also starring Nikkatsu mega-stars Akira Kobayashi and Ruriko Asaoka) as well as working with Nikkatsu superstar Yûjirô Ishihara on Yakuza sensei. For Asia-pol, Matsuo traveled to Hong Kong and worked, technically, under the auspices of the Shaw Brothers, whose logo graces the beginning of the film. But right away, it’s obvious that something is different than one expects from the the Shaws.
We’re not on the backlot, where just about every Shaw Brothers film was shot. Instead, Matsuo takes the show on the road, shooting on location in Japan and the streets of Hong Kong (among other places), making it a unique experience for those otherwise well-versed in Shaw Brothers films. Matsuo handles Hong Kong like a Eurospy film would handle any of its major locations, filming it with a travelogue’s eye for local color and famous landmarks, which must have been novel to watch even for Hong Kong residents, who would have been more accustomed to seeing the streets of their city recreated on the Shaw backlot.
Sadly, that lush travelogue aspect is the only thing exciting about the movie, which is otherwise unevenly paced, dull in plot, and hampered by Jimmy Wang Yu’s limitations as an actor. The man who would become famous as martial arts cinema’s grimmest, bloodiest hero is surprisingly lightweight in his role as a suave secret agent. Much of that is because Wang Yu’s most famous roles called on him to exhibit exactly two emotions: no emotion, and burning rage. And in those regards, Jimmy Wang Yu proved exceptional. But playing a James Bond style playboy spy calls for much more. When asked to be sexy, playful, and charming, Wang Yu is seriously lacking, especially when he’s being asked to perform alongside exceptionally talented professionals like Jô Shishido and Ruriko Asaoka, who here fulfills the role of Miss Moneypenny, but with more field work, trendier outfits, and chaste HR policy-violating office flirting traded in for actual romance.
The plot is as simple and convoluted as one expects from your average spy film: Jô Shishido stars as George, a Japanese-Chinese gangster who hates Japan and has vowed to destroy it by smuggling gold and destroying its economy. Hot on his trail is secret agent Yang Ming Xuan (Jimmy Wang Yu), a Chinese orphan raised in Japan who defends the country’s honor against nefarious villains like Shishido’s George, making for an odd disconnect for those familiar with Wang Yu’s other films. The man built a career on films portraying the Japanese as leering monsters he needed to slaughter by the dozens. Yang works for Asia-pol, the Asia-specific version of Interpol and one of those organizations that are handy for spy movies since their jurisdiction and overall mission is conveniently nebulous.
The cat-and-mouse game between George and Yang leads them from Tokyo to Hong Kong to Macau, and Matsuo revels in the locales, taking full advantage of Shawscope to indulge the sightseeing aspect so crucial to globe-trotting spy films. There are also plenty of the requisite gadgets (oh for the days when hidden listening and tracking devices were the size of a loaf of bread), ultra-cool suits (Jimmy Wang Yu may be a wet blanket as a spy movie leading man, but at least he looks sharp), secret lairs, hidden doors, hands wielding weapons emerging from behind curtains, and beautiful women in beautiful clothes, the latter exemplified by Ruriko Asaoka, one of Nikkatsu’s most famous and talented leading ladies.
Although this is a Shaw Brothers production, it’s really a Nikkatsu film hampered by a Shaw Brothers leading man out of his league. It’s shot in the Nikkatsu style and with a lot more familiar Nikkatsu faces than Shaws. What they bring to the table is why this film is worth watching. Shishido is predictably accomplished in the role of a grinning, murderous Bond villain, exuding an effortless cool and his trademark subdued but tangible insanity. Asaoka is similarly memorable as Asia-pol’s number one adventuring secretary. Maybe she should have been the film’s lead.
Nikkatsu cinematographer Kazumi Iwasa shoots a gorgeous film, vacillating between the postcard presentation of the film’s locations as well as its seedier back alleys and inevitable construction sites. Composer Toshiro Mayuzumi lends the film a snappy crime jazz score that helps the film pick up the pace even when the pace isn’t as quick as it should be. Had this been a purely Nikkatsu production, it probably would have gone much better. The script is slight, but had the hero been played by someone like golden boy Akira Kobayashi, there would have been ample charisma on screen to compensate for some lackluster thrills and the patchwork script by Nikkatsu writer Gan Yamazaki, who has done much better work than Asia-pol.
Instead, we have Jimmy Wang Yu, woefully outclassed by his co-stars from Nikkatsu. Scenes between Wang Yu and Shishido play less like a battle of wits between super villain and super spy and more like a world-class talent struggling to work with a petulant upstart, or the cool older kid trying to school the spoiled young brat on how to be suave. Everything Jô Shishido does can’t help but expose Wang Yu’s limitations. Ditto Ruriko Asaoka, who does her best to spark some chemistry between her and Wang Yu but can’t draw much blood from the stone.
Jimmy fares better in scenes with fellow Shaw Brothers star Fang Ying, who rose to prominence during the studio’s huangmei opera phase with 1963’s A Maid From Heaven and went on to star in some of the studio’s most lavish productions, including the Monkey King film The Land of Many Perfumes, martial arts epic The Iron Buddha, and the Hitchcock/Agatha Christie style thriller Diary of a Lady Killer. Asia-pol wastes her in the small role of Yang’s long-lost sister, but at least Jimmy Wang Yu seems less stiff around her. Maybe it was the language barrier that made him so awkward in his scenes with the rest of the cast, or maybe he was simply better at playing against a character meant to be a familial relation than a love interest. Whatever the case, his stilted performance is enough to distract from, but not completely tank Asia-pol, which manages to summon up enough charm elsewhere to make it worth a watch.
If the film succeeds at all, which is a dubious assertion, it succeeds primarily on the merits of its location work and the novelty factor of seeing the Nikkatsu players alongside Shaw Brothers stars. But think of it less as an example of unrealized potential and more as a learning experience for the Shaw Brothers. Wang Yu went on to brighter things that same year (maybe he would have been more comfortable playing a one-armed spy). Subsequent Shaw Brothers spy films were much better paced and better cast, with Paul Chang Chung stepping in as their de facto leading man and bringing all the impish charisma Jimmy Wang Yu lacked, while the wonderful Lily Ho became the studio’s go-to female lead for all things espionage, including Lady Professional, a much spritelier spyjinks affair from director Matsuo Akinori.
Other Shaw Brothers spy films would also eschew the relatively grounded nature of Asia-pol. Despite secret lairs and spy gadgets, Asia-pol plays things pretty straight and even a bit humorless. Other Shaw espionage efforts would revel in the most outlandish sci-fi aspects of spy films, from masked super-villains to gold jumpsuit-clad henchmen to doomsday weapons and futuristic secret lairs. Asia-pol may not be the measure of those later films, but with all the smart suits and colorful mini-dresses, not to mention death by exploding golf ball, there’s just enough to keep you around as you see the sights with Jô Shishido, Ruriko Asaoka, and pouting teenager Jimmy Wang Yu sitting in the back seat.
Well, I hope you really enjoyed No Deals, Mr. Bond, because we’re back into dodgy territory with this one. There was a cult scare in the 1980s, similar to the Satanic Panic of the 1970s (umm, and also the 1980s again; we panicked a lot in the 1980s), which is probably why Gardner decided to turn in a story in which Bond goes up against a mesmerizing cult leader who, as is always the case, is using the religious fervor of his converts for more materialistic gains. Pretty much every spy novel franchise inspired by James Bond had at least one story where the main character went up against some robe-clad Moonie stand-ins, so I guess Gardner figured why the hell not? The resulting book isn’t particularly good. It’s another in the increasingly large pile of Gardner plots with a simple solution that everyone refuses to take for reasons no better than, “it’s what he’d expect us to do.”
Bond is in the middle of a refresher course when M calls him back to headquarters. Not long after, people start harassing 007. He discovers that he’s to investigate a nutty religious cult called the Meek Ones, led by Father Valentine, who plans to use his deluded followers—many of them from well-connect families—as assassins and suicide bombers. Valentine is really Vladimir Scorpius, a former Soviet agent turned freelance arms dealer. Despite the duplicitous nature of the villain’s identity, almost every assassination scheme he hatches is telegraphed well ahead of time and proves exceedingly easy to foil. So Gardner just has Bond and all of the other characters do a bunch of dumb time-wasting stuff so that action happens for enough pages to satisfy the publisher.
Bond is paired with, a woman from the IRS, since they too are investigating Valentine and the phony credit card company he’s established as a front. Not the most thrilling of cases, but I suppose it beats all that guano farming we got in Doctor No. Mostly though, what sinks this book is it’s the insistence against all evidence on the page to the contrary that Scorpius is a dangerous, charismatic leader who can inspire unquestioning fanaticism in anyone. Even Bond falls under the hypnotic sway of Scorpius dime-store new age philosophy, and Gardner expects us to swallow it. It’s simply too much to buy, and the more Gardner writes scenes about 007 staring deeply into the persuasive eyes of Scorpius, the more comical it becomes.
Throw in a finale at a Hilton Head resort—Hilton Head!—and you have a real clunker of an adventure. There is a long history of Bond having his adventure wherever the author last took a vacation, but when it’s Jamaica or Greece or Finland, it’s one thing. When it’s a resort for middle-aged bankers in flip-flops and gaudy golf shirts…come on, Bond! What’s next? 007 going out for Kahlua Mudslides at a Bahama Breeze restaurant (actually, we’d get close to that once Raymond Benson took over the series, but one thing at a time)?
During the finale, Bond accomplish nothing. The one thing he does causes the death of a supporting good guy, and in the end, Bond’s presence on the scene contributes absolutely nothing to the take down of Scorpius. In fact, the entire plot of the book, which sends Bond undercover in Scorpius’ sham cult, is superfluous to the wrap-up. If 007 had sat in his room ordering pay-per-view, exactly the same amount would have been accomplished.
Speaking of pay-per-view, there’s a scene where Bond watched The Untouchables on his flight to the United States and ruminates on how this Sean Connery chap is a pretty good actor. Good gravy, Charlie Brown.
If real-world politics made their way into Fleming’s novels, it was purely by accident. John Gardner, on the other hand, seemed to have really wanted to put current events and issues in his writing, though one assumes having to adhere to the publisher-issued Bond formula tethered his aspirations. Let the harsh reality of Cold War politics remain the purview of John le Carré. Icebreaker hinted at political content but still defaulted to the usual megalomaniacal madman (in that case, one who dreamed of resurrecting the Reich, complete with retro uniforms and a soundtrack of “Greatest Nazi Hits” piped through his secret base).
But Gardner, when not neck-deep in James Bond, wrote a series of books that had more in common with le Carré than Ian Fleming. With No Deals, Mr. Bond, he finally achieved enough clout, or had at least been around long enough, that it seems he was given a little more leeway to “do his own thing.” The result is one of the Bond book series first full-on Cold War espionage thrillers since, well, since From Russia with Love, really. It’s also one of Gardner’s better Bond books, possibly because he seems energized by pretending that he’s not really writing a James Bond novel.
We join Bond in the midst of a mission to extract two agents from East German territory. The agents, Ebbie Heritage and Heather Dare (pretty good spy names, those), were part of a “honey trap” operation—the common practice of using good-looking agents to seduce enemy targets and extract pillow talk secrets, classified information, and all the other stuff moon-eyed fools spill when someone bats their eyelashes at them. Five years after completing the mission, Bond is pulled back into it and learns the history of the two women and “Operation Cream Cake.” It turns out that Cream Cake’s intention had been to use five honey trap agents —four women and one man—to spirit two highly ranked Soviet defectors to safety in the West. The operation was a disaster, however, and the agents taking part in it were dispersed and given new identities. The whole sordid failure was then put to rest — until two of the female agents turn up gruesomely murdered.
Bond’s charge is to find the remaining members of Cream Cake and get them to safety. Some of them have already caught on they are in danger, however, which means there will be a lot of scrambling around as Bond attempts to herd the agents in while also trying to determine the identity of the murderer and juggling the (inevitable, for this sort of story—news that one of the surviving operatives may, in fact, be a double agent. And because Bond can never deal with just three or four complications, it looks like his old enemies at the now renamed SMERSH are somehow involved, and they are none to happy with James Bond.
Overall, despite the usual Gardner plot contrivances and decisions that are made expressly to complicate the plot and cause the reader to roll eyes, this is among his best efforts in the Bond arena. Although this story—with its jumble of East German, Soviet, and British spies and politics—was closer in spirit to what Gardner wanted to write, one thing with which he was expressly unhappy was the title forced upon him by the publishers. Gardner had originally called it Tomorrow Always Comes, which isn’t exactly a stellar name but is a damn sight better than the title the publisher initially wanted: Oh No, Mr. Bond! With the exclamation point. Between that and an operation dubbed Cream Cake, it would seem that 007 had wandered into pure Carry On! territory, and that the story would be full of flabbergasted British gentlemen being shocked by saucy ladies exposing their knickers.
Title aside, this is a pretty good one. Bond gets to chum around with an Irish buddy, and for once we have a plot that doesn’t seem like it could have been wrapped up easily in a few pages if M hadn’t dismissed some common-sense, surefire plan as “too obvious.” Which means that for once, all the twists and turns through which Gardner runs Bond are actually a good deal of fun. Somehow, a plot that involves England, East Germany, and Russia that plays out quite a bit in Ireland ends up for the finale in Hong Kong. It’s another one of those “I could kill you, but why not play a game instead” sort of deals where the villain devises a ridiculously elaborate way to kill Bond (these almost always boil down to “let’s play The Most Dangerous Game!”), but I don’t really mind it this time out since the Hong Kong stuff is good and the whole book is a good deal of fun. Best of all, this novel doesn’t really tie into any others or require you to have read previous of Gardner’s Bond books, so you can skip right to it and enjoy yourself.
As John Gardner settled into the role of Bond author for the long haul, he began to lose interest in the aspects of the novels that made James Bond “James Bond.” Partly this was a symptom of the times. What worked in the 1960s, what defined James Bond first in Fleming’s novels and later in the Connery movies, didn’t really translate to the 1980s, at least so far as Gardner could see (there was still plenty of flash and cool in the 1980s, but it must have passed Gardner by). Which means that we are increasingly left with a sort of bland guy who just happens to be named James Bond — which, in a way, might be bringing the character back around to how Fleming originally imagined him, as an anonymous blunt instrument into whom a reader could pour his or her own identity; a characterless cypher of a man who might not be interesting but to whom interesting things happened. But honestly, by the middle of the 1980s, with decades of suave, awesome James Bond under our belts, did anyone really want an anonymous 007?
Released in 1986, Nobody Lives Forever has a similar feel to the movie For Your Eyes Only, in that both are essentially one chase scene after another. I admit, after the grind that was Role of Honour, the only thing that moved me on to this book was a combination of grim determination and the need to finish all the novels. It isn’t a triumphant recovery from a terrible previous entry, but it is a recovery, with a brisk pace, a lot of dumb coincidences that set off alarm bells to which Bond never pays attention, and another go-round for the newly reformed SPECTRE, the Daleks of the James Bond universe (when in doubt, trot ‘em out). It’s also the first (and only) Bond book that puts Moneypenny and, unbelievably, Bond’s maid and “Scottish treasure” May in the middle of the plot, if not the actual action. Sadly, if you were hoping that John Gardner would take the opportunity to reveal Moneypenny as a resourceful and brave woman despite not being a field agent, well…you haven’t been paying attention to the way Gardner writes women.
Bond is en route via a leisurely drive to pick up his housekeeper May from a clinic where she’s been recuperating from an illness (I guess he didn’t want to send her to Shrublands) when he learns that blimp enthusiast and head of SPECTRE Tamil Rahani miraculously survived his tumble out of an airship in the last book, though he sustained so many crippling injuries that he basically a crushed man with only weeks to live. He has decided to spend his final few bedridden days by putting a price on James Bond’s head and waiting for one hitman or another to bring it in—something you have thought was sort of like a standing invitation for the past few decades. Thus Bond finds his progress across Europe hampered by a number of assassination attempts, many of which are almost comically unsuccessful thanks to the assassins trying to do one another in as well.
Along the way, Bond picks up Sukie Tempesta, a lovely Italian princess, and her bodyguard, Nannette ‘Nannie’ Norrich. That at least one of these women is a SPECTRE operative is screamingly obvious to everyone except James Bond, though to his credit he does at least vacillate between being cautious and being the typically gullible oaf Gardner turned him into. And also as one expects from Gardner, he goes to great lengths to establish at least one of the women—Nannette—as a cool, competent bad-ass, then of course constantly undercuts that claim with the way he actually presents her on the page.
The cliché of Bond getting captured by the main villain, who then inexplicably refuses to just kill Bond and end things then and there, is well established by this point and just something you have to deal with. When Fleming did it, he usually came up with some way to make the delayed execution plausible. Under Gardner, however, that almost never happens, and the illogic of the situation is simply too glaring and impossible to ignore. That’s certainly the case here, where Bond’s inevitable capture and inexplicable stay of execution never makes any sense other than “the formula required it.”
At least this time around, Gardner keeps the (slightly repetitive) plot moving quick enough so that few of the book’s weak spots stick around long enough to sink the ship. Role of Honour really seemed to be a case of Gardner not giving a shit about the book, and it dragged on forever. Here, Gardner still doesn’t give much of a shit, but at least he seems mildly engaged in writing decent action bits in between all the dumb coincidences, irrational behavior, and terrible sex jokes. And it really only takes a day or so to read, so at the end of things, an easily satisfied lout like me—especially coming off a thoroughly boring and dreadful entry in the series—Nobody Lives Forever is a decent enough adventure.
The violence in an average giallo film can evoke a host of reactions: a thrill, repulsion, disapproval, disbelief, incredulity, excitement, and even a sort of “oh, so it’s the straight razor again then, is it?” boredom, depending on your particular disposition. Rarely does the violence inspire anything approaching emotional sympathy or distress. This isn’t a failure of the genre, and in fact is often by design. This violence usually serves a little more than a visceral shock or as a way to move the plot along. Creating an emotional attachment to the characters, and a more sympathetic reaction to the violence done against them just isn’t a priority. So, when one encounters a giallo that not only tugs at the emotional heart strings, but succeeds in connecting with the viewer on a more personal level, the impact is amplified.
Aldo Lado’s moody thriller Who Saw Her Die? (Chi l’ha vista morire?, 1972) is the rare giallo that attempts this, and the rare one that succeeds, and it is thanks primarily to a committed performance from former James Bond George Lazenby in a role that puts him through an emotional ringer. Lazenby, looking haggard and emaciated even before tragedy befalls his character, plays Franco Serpieri, a sculptor living in Venice apart from his estranged wife Elizabeth (Anita Strindberg, who also stars in A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail, and Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key), who lives in London.
They have a young daughter, Roberta, played by Nicoletta Elmi, who despite only being eight or so when she made this movie had already appeared in two other giallo, Giallo in Venice and Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood, both 1971) and who would go on to appear in more Bava (Baron Blood), giallo (Dario Argento’s Deep Red), and general genre weirdness (Paul Morrissey’s Flesh for Frankenstein and Lamberto Bava’s Demons). In terms of little kids with impeccable Italian sleaze and gore records go, she’s matched only by Giovanni Frezza, a Lucio Fulci regular who gained fame as “little Bob” in House by the Cemetery and also appeared in Fulci’s Manhattan Baby, Enzo G. Castellari’s post-apocalyptic adventure Warriors of the Wasteland, and, once again, Lamberto Bava’s Demons.
Roberta comes to visit her father and, for the first twenty minutes or so of this film, the two have a grand time in old Venice. There’s a great amount of father-daughter chemistry between Lazenby and young Elmi. We, of course, know that these moments of bliss are inevitably going to be interrupted. As the rapport between father and daughter grows, the tension of the film slowly ratchets up. First, there’s an expectation of danger in this sort of film and, second, the off-kilter score by Ennio Morricone is brilliant at creating a threatening, moody atmosphere.
Sure enough, someone is stalking Roberta, someone involved in a previous child murder from the film’s prologue. Unaware of the evil following his daughter, Franco is naively willing to leave her alone with her friends on what he thinks are the safe streets of their neighborhood while he gets some sculpting done and engages in a tryst with a local flame. When Roberta fails to return home that evening, Franco starts searching the neighborhood for her; casually, at first, reasonably assuming she’s at a friend’s house. But when she doesn’t turn up at any of the places he expects to find her, Franco’s search becomes increasingly frantic. It also introduces us to the bulk of the film’s potential suspects, including a sleazy art dealer (played by former Bond villain Adolfo Celi, making this the most James Bondy giallo ever), a shifty homosexual who might also be a pedophile, a steely eyed boy toy, and Franco’s closest friend, who also seems to pay an unsavory amount of attention to Roberta before she vanishes. Other suspects come and go as Franco prowls the fog-shrouded labyrinth of Venice in search of his missing daughter.
The bulk of this film rests on the shoulders of George Lazenby, who at the time of its release was still somewhere between a punchline and forgotten. Lazenby was catapulted to fame when he won the role of James Bond after Sean Connery’s departure from the series, a plum acting job that was also obviously fraught with peril given how beloved Connery was in the role. Lazenby, an Australian with no acting experience, basically bluffed his way into the role, but what made almost as many headlines was his swift departure from the series. After just one film, the phenomenal On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Lazenby announced he was turning down the offer to appear int he next Bond film. As far as he was concerned, Bond was over, a relic of the 1950s that had no place in the age of hippies, social revolution, and the Vietnam War. He grew his hair long and grew a mustache which he refused to shave while doing the press rounds for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service much to the consternation of Bond producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, who didn’t want some shaggy hippie parading around under the mantle of 007.
On top of all that, reports were (and he later confirmed them himself) that Lazenby conducted himself poorly on the set of his first film, assuming a degree of egotism and self-indulgence that made him a number of enemies, including his co-star Diana Rigg (“I can no longer cater for his obsession with himself,” she said. “He is utterly, unbelievably … bloody impossible”). Lazenby might actually have been correct about Bond being out of touch with the times, but his behavior made him more or less persona non grata in the British film industry. He quickly found himself unable to secure quality work. Or any work, for that matter. As Lazenby himself tells the story, Harry Salztman said to him, “If you don’t do another Bond you’ll wind up doing spaghetti westerns in Italy.”
Even those were hard to come by. He put together what he described as a plotless anti-war comedy, 1971’s Universal Soldier, but really he spent more time indulging in the drugs and sex of the late-era counter-culture. Eventually, he drifted to Italy, where he secured his first real post-James Bond role in Who Saw Her Die? After wrapping, he took what money he earned from it, and whatever remained of his On Her Majesty’s Secret Service paycheck, and spent the next year and a few months sailing around the world with his girlfriend, Chrissie Townsend. Honestly, if you have to fail, that’s not a bad way to do it.
The fact that Who Saw Her Die? was an Italian horror film, and that Lazenby was Lazenby, meant that no one took it or him very seriously. But just as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has benefited from time and reconsideration, so too can one look at Who Saw Her Die? today unfettered by whatever baggage might have been strapped to George Lazenby’s reputation at the time. And what one finds is perhaps one of the best performances in the entire giallo genre. Whatever hard living gave Lazenby his wracked, hollowed-out appearance (he’s still muscular, but he also looks emaciated at the same time, like a body that’s been slightly mis-assembled), it works to his advantage here in the role of a father increasingly wracked with guilt, frustration, and grief. He has a few emotional explosions, but for much of the film he opts for a more reserved but still palpable quiet desperation that is much more effective than the histrionics in which one might be tempted to indulge.
In their scenes together, he has an easy believable chemistry with his young co-star Nicoletta Elmi that makes her later disappearance truly effective in a way rarely experienced in giallo. He ha similarly powerful scenes with Anita Strindberg as his wife, who like him is wracked with guilt and determined to unravel the mystery revolving around the disappearance of their little girl. It is a convoluted tangle of events surrounding Roberta’s disappearance, but no more so than in any other giallo. At times, it’s difficult to keep straight who is who and what they’re guilty of (everyone is guilty of something), and in classic giallo style, ultimately almost none of it has anything to do with the central plot. The reveal of the killer and the connection to another case is hardly surprising, but the film has by then successfully disarmed the expectation that its finale hinges on this revelation.
Most successful films in the genre accomplish their success by layering style (visual and sartorial) on top of their confusing plots, making logic and clarity less important. Who Saw Her Die? doesn’t lack for style, but it succeeds mostly thanks to Lazenby (and somewhat because of Strindberg, who is a strong actress but doesn’t have much screen time) and for the way director Aldo Lado and cinematographer Franco Di Giacomo (fresh off working with Dario Argento on 1971’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet) shoot Venice. This isn’t a film full of eye-popping visual trickery. Instead, it settles into a grim, colorless depiction of one of the most famous cities in the world. It avoids the big tourist attractions and wanders the places where actual Venetians live and work, getting lost among the city’s backstreets and twisting alleys, its tiny courtyards and cul-de-sacs and crumbling piles of rubble. When it takes to the iconic canals, they are shrouded in a fog through which the characters drift like half-seen ghosts. At times, the only color that seems to exist is the red of blood.
The viewer can never find firm footing in the film’s world. The geography of Lazenby’s first search for his daughter becomes increasingly confused as his panic mounts, at times seeming to double in on itself and lead nowhere. The film’s most notable scene has Lazenby pursuing, then being pursued, through the misty streets, a chase that culminates in a cat and mouse game inside and around an abandoned warehouse. Di Giacomo and Lado stage the sequence in a disorienting fashion. It quickly becomes unclear, other than Lazenby, who is who or what they want. Rotting floors, stairwells, and fire escapes are rendered like something out of an M.C. Escher drawing.
Much like his character (though without the missing child), Lazenby found himself wandering aimlessly through the early 1970s. When he found himself broke and Chrissie Townsend pregnant with his child, he had to dock his endlessly questing boat and find real work. At first, luck seemed to be on his side. He washed up in Hong Kong and enjoyed an audience at Golden Harvest, a fresh-faced upstart studio that had collected dissatisfied young filmmakers from Hong Kong’s older studios (and would later become the home of people like Tsui Hark, John Woo, Jackie Chan, and Sammo Hung). At the time, though, one man ruled the roost at Golden Harvest: Bruce Lee.
Unconcerned with Lazenby’s reputation, Golden Harvest was overjoyed to have a former James Bond calling on them. Lazenby was cast in Bruce Lee’s upcoming film, which Lee was determined to make the martial arts movie to end all martial arts movie. Lazenby was scheduled to meet with Bruce Lee for lunch, but Lee never showed up. He had, shockingly, passed away. The film he was shooting and in which Lazenby was cast, Game of Death, became a fiasco of legendary proportions, as Golden Harvest scrambled to recoup their losses and capitalize on the sensation of Lee’s death by pasting together Lee’s footage with a pastiche of nonsense, stand-ins, lookalikes, and perhaps most absurdly, scenes in which a still photograph of Bruce Lee’s face is simply pasted onto the film to obscure the face of a double.
Lazenby may not appear in Game of Death (a bullet dodged, frankly), but he did get work in Hong Kong, starring in a reasonably fun martial arts adventure called Stoner, alongside martial arts superstar Angela Mao and, curiously, Bruce Lee’s Hong Kong mistress, Betty Ting Pei. He went on to star in two more Golden Harvest productions, The Man from Hong Kong (1975) and A Queen’s Ransom (1976) before returning to Australia and, later, moving to the United States. Although he never achieved the fame that could have been his had he played his hand better, he managed to build a career out of small film and television parts. In the 1990s, he kept busy alongside Sylvia Kristel in a television series based on her Emmanuelle films. He and Kristel appeared at the beginning of each episode, reminiscing about the erotic adventures of their younger selves.
He also had a recurring role on the cartoon Batman Beyond and became a regular on the convention circuit, where his frank honesty about his past made him a fan favorite. Of course, almost all of that talk revolves around his brief tenure as James Bond. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has, over the decades, gone from one of the most derided Bond films to one of the most beloved. Horror and thriller fans are rediscovering and reassessing Who Saw Her Die? and discovering, as did I, the best performance in George Lazenby’s checkered, interesting career; and one of the very finest, most thoughtful, and most emotionally mature films of the giallo genre.
A year after the release of Who Saw Her Die?, Nicolas Roeg and Anthony Richmond shot Venice in a similar fashion in Don’t Look Now, a film that has many similarities with Who Saw Her Die?—grief over the loss of a child, location work that minimizes Venice’s most famous sights, and a lanky shaggy-haired protagonist with a mustache. Don’t Look Now is rightly considered a moody horror masterpiece, which is a level of prestige generally denied Who Saw Her Die? But that doesn’t stop Aldo Lado’s film from being pretty damn good in its own right. If Who Saw Her Die? is considered not quite the measure of Don’t Look Now, it still holds its own plenty well when measured against it.
Whatever good will was built up with the brisk action of For Special Services and the intriguing locations of Icebreaker is undone with Role of Honor, a dreadful entry in the series. Nothing makes any sense, every character is poorly written, Bond’s mission is moronic, and fully forty pages of the story are devoted to descriptions of Bond learning how to program a computer. The villain “every single person in the world, including myself, says I should not believe you, Mr. Bond, but I think I’m going to trust you” gullibility is ramped up to levels even the liberal amount of suspension of disbelief I have when reading Bond novels can’t tolerate. The villain is yet again a rehash of Murik and Bismaquer, a brilliant but insane billionaire who is friendly and fun one second then insanely filled with rage the next. But mostly, Bond learns COBOL.
When Bond inherits a small fortune from a distant relative, M uses the event to weave a plot in which Bond has been accused of impropriety, causing 007 to resign in disgust and take up the life of a wild and crazy playboy and disgruntled ex-agent who might be swayed to the cause of some other intelligence organization. This is all so Bond can worm his way into the inner sanctum of reclusive computer genius Dr. Jay Autem Holy, who builds realistic computer simulations used by the world’s military, flamboyant art thieves, and a shadowy terrorist organization that is pretty obviously SPECTRE under new management yet again. As was the case with Murik in License Renewed, Dr. Holy is on the verge of launching a massive terrorist action that will threaten the entire world, yet when Bond shows up with a half-assed cover story about how MI6 hurt his feelings, Holy accepts it and brings Bond into the fold—but this happens only after forty pages of Bond holed up in a Monte Carlo hotel room learning about computers.
His teacher is Percy Proud, a CIA operative who was formerly married to Holy before Holy faked his own death. Anyway, it’s Gardner’s Bond and a woman, so cue juvenile dick jokes and double entendres. Despite having basically no character, we’re meant to believe that over the course of his training, Bond falls head over heels in love with Percy. In perhaps the worst example of writing yet in Gardner’s run as a Bond author, 007 will frequently picture Percy or think of her, and it’s written in a way that practically demands cheeseball romance movie soaring string music. All things considered, I prefer the dumb sex jokes.
Once Bond infiltrates Holy’s secluded mansion, he meets yet another woman who casts conspiratorial glances at him and immediately wants to bed him and make dumb sex jokes. And then Bond is kidnapped by not-yet-announced-as-SPECTRE 3.0 so that at least something happens besides Bond hanging out in a bedroom typing “10 print James Bond is cool/20 goto 10.” Despite the fact that James Bond killed Blofeld, and then killed the other Blofeld, and ruined all sorts of other SPECTRE plots, and despite no one being sure whether they believe that Bond resigned from the secret service and harbors a grudge against them, SPECTRE still recruits 007. Then after some training in the desert, they dump him back at Holy’s compound for the big mission, a scheme so half-baked and stupid that it only gets off the ground because M decides it should and I guess spoiling the scheme at the first opportunity isn’t as cool as waiting until the last second then revealing that there was no last second, and that the villain’s master plan had already been found out and disarmed before it even started.
John Gardner himself said that Role of Honour stinks, and far be it from me to disagree with him. For Special Services and Icebreaker were dumb and had silly plots and some bad writing, but at least they also had some positive attributes that made them readable. Not so, Role of Honor, a book that exceeds every length of slack I try to cut it. Gardner lies at least part of the blame on coincidence — that the plot he came up with about computers and war-simulator video games was close to a more or less throw-away scene in the off-canon Bond film Never Say Never Again, and so he had to do a lot of last-minute replotting. But that excuse only gets him so far, and there is enough rotten in this book that “it was too much like a scene from Never Say Never Again” can’t account for all of it.
The convoluted fake disgracing of James Bond makes little difference. We spend multiple chapters reading about him learning to program computers, a skill he never has to use. The in to SPECTRE’s plot is Holy’s advanced computer model of their nefarious plan, a plan so simple, so common, so exactly like any other SPECTRE plan, that it doesn’t need any sort of advanced computer simulation in the first place. Then the plot is exposed and disarmed before it’s ever set in motion, and the only reason we have a climax to the book with a fist fight in a blimp is because M figured, why the hell not? And also, why not leave James Bond in the dark that the entire world isn’t actually about to be destroyed, because…I don’t know. Screw James Bond?
The only moment this book has going for it is one off-hand paragraph where Bond is excited to be driving into Monaco, only to discover that the Monaco of the 1980s blows. Traffic, chain stores, package tourists, tackiness, scoured almost entirely of the romance and glamor he remembered. It’s about the best Bond segment Gardner has written up to this point. It understands that 007 is a man forged in the 1950s but now in the 1980s, forced to deal with the erosion of the world he knew. It’s the first moment where the reader gets a sense that Bond is a man out of time and that at least part of him knows that. It’s certainly a more effective means of conveying the passage of time than previous attempts at a similar nostalgia, which have mostly just been Gardner having Bond mechanically think of the names of past women and villains in his life like a bulleted list. It’s too bad that one effective and thoughtful moment is couched in such an awful book.
Several of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels have plots in which James seems, for large portions of the book, to just be along for the ride. A large chunk of From Russia With Love is about the villains, and at least as much features Bond’s local ally, Kerim Bey, doing the work while 007 hangs out behind him and fondly contemplates the man’s warm, dry handshake. Icebreaker is John Gardner’s version of one of those “Bond on a holiday” books. Bond does almost nothing—which is probably for the best, because when Bond does do something, it’s usually an example of some of the worst espionage work the man has ever done. Pretty much every single person dupes Bond in this story, and sometimes on multiple occasions since Icebreaker doesn’t settle for mere double crosses when it could go for triple and quadruple crosses. A shocking number of Bond’s decisions, and nearly every conclusion he draws, are the wrong one. For Special Services felt like a Bond spoof because of the absurdity of the villain’s plot. Icebreaker feels like a spoof because Bond is so bad at his job.
At least when Fleming passed off a vacation as a Bond novel, he usually succeeded, delivering indulgent descriptions of exotic locations, customs, drinks, clothing—the usual—and energizing enthusiasm. Fleming made Bond sitting around learning about branch water exciting. Icebreaker is set in icy Finland (Gardner admitted he came up with much of Icebreaker‘s plot while on an all expenses paid holiday in Rovaniemi courtesy of Saab) and, for at least a portion, cruises by in much the same way as Fleming’s most indulgent travelogue writing, provided you (as I do) enjoy snowy, remote locations. Gardner, also like Fleming, takes the opportunity to reflect on (or show off) bits of esoteric knowledge, on Finland, the fine quality of Saab cars, vacationing above the Arctic Circle, and the complicated nature of espionage in countries that are aligned with “the West” but share borders and culture with the then Soviet Union. As such, the setting alone is enough to carry me through a story that is basically a rehash of Ken Russel’s strange Harry Palmer spy movie, Billion Dollar Brain (1967), starring Michael Caine—only with less awareness of its own absurdity.
Bond is sent to Finland for a mission already in progress, which in accordance with all John Gardner missions, is a hopelessly convoluted time-waster when a simple “go in and kill them, 007” is already overdue. Teamed with cranky agents from Mossad, the CIA, and the KGB—none of whom trust one another, of course—Bond has to observe and report on the comings and goings of a group of neo-Nazi terrorists. It’s not a very useful assignment. Everything Bond observes and reports on is something the involved governments already know about, so there’s no point to any of it. Because a James Bond book is supposed to be exciting, Gardner crams in a ridiculous number of feints, traps, and double crosses.
Villain Aarne Tudeer, who keeps Bond alive on the flimsiest of excuses, commands a Fourth Reich up to the usual Fourth Reich business. They idolize Hitler, cosplay like WWII era Germans, listen to WWII era German music, and give Mein Kamp-fy speeches. The book keeps assuring us that despite their absurd WWII fetish, Tudeer’s National Socialist Action Army is one of the most dangerous threats the world has ever faced, and they are mere inches away from sparking a global Nazi revolution that will destroy us all and usher in a horrifying new era of people who don’t speak German never the less insisting on saying things like “Jahol, Mein Fuhrer.” And that’s a plot that should work, and that is depressingly relevant today, in our environment of moronic Nazi fetishists and white supremacists.
But just as For Special Services undercut claims of Bond sidekick Cedar Leiter’s competence by making her a fool in action, so too is the threat of Tudeer’s terrorist organization unrealized in deed despite frequent narrative insistence. Billion Dollar Brain‘s similar plot, about a bunch of Texas rednecks building a new Nazi army in the wilds of remote northern Europe, was much more successful. In that movie, the racist army was regarded as patently ridiculous but still dangerous, since a moron with a tank still has a tank. Icebreaker doesn’t manage that, however, and no matter how hard it tries to sell us the plot, the whole thing is just too silly, even by James Bond standards.
Additionally, the crosses, double crosses, and triple crosses are more wearying than they are surprising. No one is what they appear to be, and then they are not what they appear to be after they stopped appearing to be the last thing they were appearing to be. Improbably coincidences abound, and through it all, Bond exercises the worst judgment of any spy in the history of spies. I think at least 25% of this book is made up of the sentence, “Bond decided she was either the greatest actress in the world, or she was telling the truth,” only to have Bond be totally wrong. So I guess there are a lot of greatest actresses in the world operating out of Rovaniemi, Finland. If you plan to read Gardner’s Bond novels, you better get used to this, because it also pops up in subsequent books a lot.
In Icebreaker‘s favor are, as was the case in the previous two novels, Gardner’s skill at writing breathtaking action sequences. A showdown between Bond and his Saab and an army of deadly snowplows on the lonely roads of northern Finland is tense. The bobsled chases and shootouts in beautiful, desolate Lapland are thrilling. And as mentioned, the locations and descriptions of these remote places are superb. We still get slammed with the clunky come-ons and sex joke dialog I’ve quickly learned to fear from Gardner’s Bond novels, but at least it’s surrounded by sweeping Arctic wastelands, some good action, and lovingly detailed descriptions of Bond suiting up in his snow pants.
Bringing the iconically fifties/sixties Bond into the eighties fell to British author John Gardner, and his first Bond novel, License Renewed—the first original James Bond book since Kingsley Amis’ Colonel Sun over a decade before—did its best to maintain the events and timeline of the original Ian Fleming novels while being set in and making sacrifices to the 1980s. Bond is greying at the temples, he drives a more fuel-efficient Saab turbo, he smokes low tar cigarettes. Overall, License Renewed wasn’t a bad novel; it just wasn’t great, and part of the problem with it was probably that Gardner was under so much pressure to maintain all the details that would make License Renewed seem like one of Fleming books.
Gardner’s second James Bond novel, For Special Services, maintains all the ties to Ian Fleming’s original novels (including conjuring up several specters—har har—from Bond’s past), but it gets a little more breathing room since it isn’t saddled with re-introducing Bond and acclimatizing him to the 1980s. As a result, it’s a better, faster moving, and more developed book than License Renewed.
Things kick off with a great action sequence in which Bond and some undercover SAS men foil a hijacking. We learn that there have been a large number of such hijackings lately, and Bond uncovers that they are the work of his old nemesis, SPECTRE—and more disturbingly, Blofeld, even though Bond knows Blofeld is dead. According to the combined intelligence of both MI6 and the CIA, this new Blofeld might be operating in conjunction with, or perhaps even be, an eccentric Texas billionaire named Markus Bismaquer.
Bismaquer (and yes, I did spend the whole book imagining it was actually Biz Markie) lives the life of a recluse behind the electric fences and walls of a sprawling estate that can only be reached by monorail, and it looks like he’s been doing business with all sorts of unsavory characters. At the request of the CIA, and because he is the world’s foremost authority on busting up SPECTRE operations, Bond is disguised as an art dealer, shipped off to the United States (along with his specially tricked out Saab) to determine if SPECTRE truly is back, and if so, whether Bismaquer is the new Blofeld—and if not, who is?
To assist in the mission, Bond is paired with Cedar Leiter, daughter of his old buddy Felix “My God James, you’re right! Why didn’t I think of that?” Leiter. Cedar represents one of the weakest aspects of Gardner’s writing, and one of the most irksome tendencies in all sorts of spy lit: the woman who is constantly described by everyone as tough, competent, and every bit as professional as a man, who then proceeds to spend the entire book giggling, freaking out, screwing up, crying, and pining for the male hero. Considerable words are spent on assuring us Cedar is a tip-top agent, and then every action, every line of dialog Gardner saddles her with, seems designed specifically to disprove these assertions. She’s not a thoroughly terrible character; she’s just very disappointing, a typical example of how male writers often fail to make good on their female characters.
Gardner’s propensity for clunky sex dialog is carried over from License Renewed, and once again we have two women (Cedar, and Bismaquer’s wife, Nena) who within ten seconds of meeting Bond are trading lounge lizard quality double entendres with him as they try to get him in bed. I know some will claim this is all part of James Bond, but it’s really not, at least not in the books. Plus, it’s not the sex and the seduction I mind; it’s how poorly written it is. Nena is one in what will turn out to be a long parade of the “villain’s kept woman” who are described as giving Bond “conspiratorial glances” the second he shows up with a suspicious cover story that no one should believe.
Much of For Special Services is a pastiche of plots and events from previous Bond novels. Bismaquer’s sealed-off, Disneyworld-esque private estate is like the silly cowboy fantasy land constructed by the gangsters in Diamonds Are Forever. Bond’s cover as an art dealer is similar to his cover as a genealogist in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The eventual SPECTRE plot is reminiscent Goldfinger‘s raid on Fort Knox (the movie more than the book). And Bismaquer himself is basically the same villain as Dr. Murik from License Renewed: an oddball billionaire who is back-slapping and gregarious one moment, then batshit insane and furious the next. And like Murik, once he uncovers Bond’s true identity, he makes sure to explain every part of his plan to 007 and take him along whenever he can.
As to whether or not Bismaquer is the new Blofeld? The identity of the new Blofeld is a screamingly obvious mystery that is drawn out through the entire length of the book, mostly via lazy cheats in writing. For example, early in, there is a meeting of the new SPECTRE in a Louisiana bayou mansion. Blofeld is presiding over the meeting, in full view of everyone present and without manipulating appearance or voice—this exposure should, logically, extend to the reader, but while Gardner describes almost everyone else who plays a role in the meeting, he intentionally leaves out describing Blofeld, because he needs that to be a mystery—even though the solution to the mystery is visible from practically the beginning of the novel. Why be coy? Why cheat the reader in the service of such a weak “revelation?” And why did the movie Spectre fill the need to follow Gardner’s lead???
If you thought License Renewed‘s plot was far-fetched, then For Special Services‘ absurd mix of ice cream, mind control gas, mesmerism, and impossible invasions of top-secret military installations will have your eyes rolling. It’s like the plot of a Bond spoof than of an actual Bond novel. However — all those criticisms thus entered into the record, I thought For Special Services was a fun read. It’s obvious that Bond is not Gardner’s character, and that maybe Gardner is a poor fit for Bond, but when the author gets away from the character and concentrates on the action, For Special Services has an opportunity to shine. The opening hijacking scene is thrilling, as is a tense car race between Bond and Bismaquer’s typically disfigured henchman. Attempted assassination by ants and a number of chases and shoot-outs also afford Gardner a chance to take a break from writing Bond the character and concentrate instead on adventure. I’ll even let the ice cream-based infiltration plan slide. But not Cedar Leiter. Oh lord, Cedar Leiter.
Because these moments are good, I suspect the embarrassing awkwardness of the character moments, of the banter between Bond and the women, and the derivative nature of the villain is because Gardner was forced into a formula and a character with which he could not identify. Fleming was no great wordsmith, but his novels had charisma and spirit, because this snobbish old British man truly believed in, reveled in, and wanted to celebrate James Bond. Gardner took the job of writing another man’s character and as that other man, and it’s obvious that it doesn’t work well for him. Perhaps sensing this, For Special Services relies much more on Bond in action than the previous book, and it’s a substantial improvement.
A Primer on Blended Scotch Whisky and 007’s Favorite Labels
It was a good plan. You managed to sneak into the sprawling underground lair disguised as a member of an exotic dance troupe hired to entertain a madman’s private army. The dance number was opulent, and you managed to maneuver yourself close to your target. But then his right-hand-man remembered you from a grainy photo handed over by a traitor somewhere in the ranks of Interpol. Suddenly you found yourself tied down in front of a villain sitting in an egg-shaped plastic chair. He’s going to kill you. An alligator pit perhaps, or some sort of slow-moving laser so he can savor your demise. But first, he will do two things: explain to you his nefarious scheme for world domination, and offer you a last drink. That drink will almost certainly be blended scotch whisky.
For the villains of old spy and Bollywood thrillers, no secret lair or fortified chateau was complete without a hidden panel that slid open to reveal a silver serving tray, two rocks glasses, and a bottle of whisky. They drink it to celebrate. They offer it to the captured hero to gloat. They drink it again when their nefarious schemes begin to crumble around them. It’s near universal. Italy, Germany, India, Turkey, the United States—it doesn’t matter where you are. If you are a megalomaniac bent on world destruction or just a common thug who is sick and tired of Maurizio Merli slapping you around, chances are your drink of choice is scotch. You’re not going to catch Blofeld toasting the demise of James Bond with a wine cooler, and you’d never catch Bond wooing a sultry woman by ordering a Fuzzy Navel. Those drinks have their place, but that place is not a secret lair inside a volcano.
James Bond, one of global culture’s most recognized imbibers, drinks no fewer than 317 drinks throughout the series of books authored by Ian Fleming. Most of those are whiskey or whiskey cocktails, with Bond favoring bourbon over scotch. It’s not random that Bond champions the American spirit; he likes to tweak his nose at his country of origin from time to time. Ian Fleming famously switched from gin to bourbon because his doctor told him it was better for his health. But scotch need not worry. Bond’s number one drinking buddy, American CIA agent Felix Leiter, has only two functions in the novels: to slap his forehead and exclaim, “James, you’re right! Why didn’t I think of that?” and to order Haig & Haig on the rocks.
Whiskey is a distilled spirit made from grains and water, with yeast added to activate fermentation. Scotch, simply enough, is whisky made in Scotland. Like champagne is to a specific type of sparkling wine from a specific region in France, so is “scotch” a legally defined and pugnaciously protected term. It has to be whisky, and it has to be from Scotland. There are other rules, but those are the basics. Within the sub-category of scotch, there are subdivisions, but the most important for now are single malt and blended scotch. A single malt is a whisky that comes from one distillery and is made from 100% malted barley. It does not have to be from a single batch distilled at the same time; just from the same distillery. For years, single malt was a niche product, but during the scotch revival of the 2000s, that changed.
Even with that change, blended scotch still makes up the bulk of the scotch that is made and consumed. Blended scotch combines a number of single malts in pursuit of a particular profile. These malts can come from any distillery, as long as it’s in Scotland. This blend is then further blended “neutral grain spirit”—something close to vodka, produced inexpensively and in large quantities. Traditionally, when people referred to scotch, they were referring to a blend, and when someone is asked to name a scotch brand, chances are that if they don’t say “Jack Daniels,” they’ll probably name a blended scotch: Johnnie Walker, most likely.
In a blend, the neutral spirit generally makes up the bulk of what you’re drinking. The higher the price, most times, the higher the amount of single malt in the blend, or the older the single malts. If you are going to put an age on the whisky, for single malts it is the duration between when it goes into a barrel and when it goes into a bottle. Whisky does not age once bottled. A ten-year-old whiskey from 1940 is still a ten-year-old whiskey. On a blend, if it carries an age statement, the age is of the youngest whiskey present. So if you combine a 50-year-old scotch and a four-year-old scotch, you have a four-year-old blend.
Because most single malts, despite the market for them on their own, are still sold to professional blenders (in fact, quite a few single malts will never be tasted by consumers, as 100% of the output is allocated for blending), and because less actual “whisky” goes into them, blends are less expensive and, thus more popular. Some are great, some are good, and some are terrible, but master blenders have been at this game for a long time now, and in a competitive market like whisky, few producers manage for very long with an inferior product.
If you’re looking to dip your toe into the world of scotch, or if you are looking for a gift for an old-timer, blends are almost always the best bet. Master blenders work hard and have passed knowledge down for decades about creating appealing, enjoyable, and above all, consistent blends. Single malts, lacking the cheaper-to-make neutral grain spirit, are usually more expensive and have traditionally been less popular. However, among whisky connoisseurs, single malts enjoy much greater popularity, even if master blenders will joke that drinking a single malt is like eating the ingredients of a cake instead of combining them to make a cake.
Of War and Whisky, Monks and Malts
Trying to pinpoint the “first” whisky is a fun but pointless endeavor. By the time people get around to writing something down, it’s been around for ages. For the sake of verifiable facts, however, let’s begin in 1494, which is the first known recorded appearance of whisky in Scotland. “Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae.” With that entry into the Scottish Exchequer Rolls, whisky revealed its existence. But of course, that was just for the tax man. It had been around longer.
According to whisky lore, distillation came to Scotland by way of Ireland and is likely traced back to North Africa. St. Patrick, it is said, introduced distilling to Ireland in the fifth century, and the Dalriadic Scots took the process with them when they migrated to Scotland. St. Patty himself apparently learned the process from people in France and Spain, where distillation was used to create perfume and later used on grapes to create brandy. In areas where there were no grapes, and thus no wine-making, distillation of “mashes” made with an assortment of grain was adopted. The official use for this concoction, of course, was medicinal. Things that make you tipsy have a long history of being “medicinal.” Surprisingly, it was sometimes even true. Scientists figured out that the presence of certain antibiotics, which would not be discovered by medicine for thousands of years, in Egyptians mummies was because they occurred naturally in the beer Egyptians consumed.
The medieval version of whisky—the water of life, aqua vitae, or usquebaugh in Gaelic, sometimes shortened to usky and later…well, you can figure it out—was raw stuff that had more in common with backwoods moonshine that modern scotch. Distillation was primitive. The recipe and process varied from one maker to the next. Aging it in a barrel was basically non-existent. It was a local drink, growing in popularity but with no sort of agreed-upon definition or production method. A modicum of organization was introduced in 1505 when King James IV of Scotland granted the Guild of Surgeon Barbers in Edinburgh sole rights to make and sell usquebaugh in the capital. Whisky’s popularity continued to grow during the 1500s. The quality of spirit improved. Advances in still design and distillation produced spirits considerably less harsh than the early whiskies. And then there were the monks.
At the end of the 1400s, Europe and Britain were in a hopeless tangle of treaties that seemed designed to guarantee rather than prevent war. The first to go at each other were Italy and France, in what would become known as The Italian Wars. If there’s one thing England loved, it was going to war with France, so England allied itself with Italy. James IV of Scotland, however, had a binding treaty with France. In 1295, Scotsman John Balliol and Philip IV of France agreed that one country would always help the other if attacked by England. This agreement, known as The Auld Alliance, was renewed from time to time with little consequence, until eventually French monarch Louis XII called in the favor. As England came into the war on the side of Italy, Scotland was obliged by the Auld Alliance to invade England in support of France.
Italy—which is to say, Pope Leo X—was most displeased with Scotland and threatened the Scottish monarch with censure. England’s King Henry VIII decided that if the Pope was mad at James IV, Henry (himself not exactly a fan of popes, but whatever) might as well declare himself overlord of Scotland. He felt justified in doing this since, in 1502, England and Scotland had signed a non-aggression pact. By fulfilling Scotland’s old treaty with France, James IV was violating the newer one with England. James IV defied both king and pope, carrying out raids and sending Scottish sailors to reinforce the French navy. The war between the two neighbors came to a head in 1513, when James IV led a host of 30,000 Scots into battle against the English. the Battle of Flodden, sometimes known as the Battle of Branxton since that’s actually where it took place, went poorly for the Scots. James IV himself led the army and paid the ultimate price, falling in battle and effectively ending Scotland’s involvement in what was now being called War of the League of Cambrai.
Things settled down, but not for long. Henry VIII’s support of Italy in the wars had less to do with England’s love of the Pope and more to do with their hatred of France. The Reformation, which among other things sought to combat the vast wealth of the Church and the terrible poverty of its followers, was gaining steam throughout Europe, and Rome was scrambling to curtail the damage. In distant England, Henry VIII was pushing through a series of reforms to the Church of England that better reflected the mood of the population—and also happened to make it easier for the crown to confiscate wealth from the Church (and get a divorce). In 1534, Henry issued the first Act of Supremacy, naming the Crown, rather than the Pope, supreme head of the Church of England.
Among the things Henry did as the Church of England extracted itself from the Roman Catholic Church was begin the dissolution of monasteries. Monks were the original distillers. What else are a bunch of dudes living together going to do with their time? You can only chant so much. When Henry declared the monasteries to be no more, suddenly a lot of monks were out of a job. Forced to make it in the outside world, many fell back on their distilling skills, resulting in an influx of knowledgeable experts to the world of whisky-making and substantial advancement in the art and science of distilling. Whisky making continued to thrive and evolve in a loose and wild style, with the occasional violent conflict over taxation, until 1823 when the Excise Act essentially laid the foundations for the modern whisky industry. At that time, whisky was still a pretty rough spirit. The knowledge of the monks advanced the process substantially, but that’s “advanced” by the standards of the 16th century. It remained largely a provincial indulgence sold locally by grocers—grocers who had surnames like Walker, Dewar, Ballantine, and Chivas.
Blend in the Wind
In 1831, an inventor by the name of Aeneas Coffey invented the Coffey, or Patent, still, sometimes also called a continuous or column still because why let something have one name when it can have like half a dozen? Traditionally, whisky had been made in a pot still consisting of a rotund “pot” with a neck where condensation takes place. In a pot still, you could only distill one batch of whisky at a time. Then you had to drain it, clean it, and pour in the next batch. By contrast, the Coffey still ran liquid through a long column that enabled distillers to ply their craft in a continuous flow. The only time you had to stop distilling was when you needed to clean the still or your workers went on holiday.
The invention of the column still also led to the production of “grain whisky.” But isn’t all whisky “grain” whisky, what with the legal definition of whisky being that it has to be made from grains? Well yes, but the designation of something as “grain” whisky at the time meant that it is made with, well, pretty much any grain other than barley. It is more accurate to call them “neutral” grain spirits, as the goal eventually became to produce a mostly-flavorless spirit, which generally occurs because it is distilled at a higher proof. Not everything that comes off a column still is a neutral grain spirit. Many bourbons, for example, are produced using column stills, and many grain spirits are rich in flavor because they are distilled at a lower proof and then aged. So, a little fuzzy sure, but if we’ve learned anything, it’s that the history and laws of booze are fuzzy.
Grain whisky off those early column stills had an altogether different taste than the rustic pot still whisky being cooked up by Scottish hillbillies. But that hillbilly stuff, well, it had it’s good points, too. A man named Andrew Usher wondered what might happen if you took that big, beastly pot still whisky and blended it with the more refined , delicate column still whisky. What might happen, it turns out, is you might create the biggest whisky market in the world. Since then, “blended” scotch has dominated the market. Up until very recently, it was pretty much all any whisky drinker consumed. Single malts were a statistically non-existent sliver of the market. As far as most people were concerned, single malts were nothing more than the raw ingredients that went into making true scotch; that is to say, blended scotch.
Yet, as mentioned, many hardcore whisky aficionados have changed their tune, trumpeting single malts as the true expression of a whisky while blends are diluted and “dumbed down” for the masses. Go to any reputable whisky shop these days and you will almost certainly see the bulk of the shelves taken up with an array of single malt scotches—Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Balvenie, and so forth—while the blends are relegated to the bottom shelf. This arrangement does not reflect the reality of the market as a whole, however, even if it may reflect the focus of people at that particular specialty shop. First of all, anyone who thinks a single malt is superior to a blend purely by virtue of being a single malt is a person whose opinion should not be trusted in any matter of import. There are fantastic, complex single malts. There are also dumb, simple, one-note single malts. There’s everything in between as well. The same is true of blends. There are blended scotches that can easily go toe-to-toe with the best single malt has to offer. There are also blends that are terrible, and the whole range in between.
The heavy weighting of a specialty shop’s whisky selection toward single malts also doesn’t reflect the simple economics of the industry. Over 90% of the single malt produced is used to make blends. There would be no single malt market if not for the demands of blended scotch. The world over, blends are still overwhelmingly what people drink. Chances are when ordering your first whisky, you probably ordered a blend. Those are the brands everyone knows. If your grandfather drank scotch, he almost certainly drank a blend (your dad didn’t drink scotch, at least not when he was your age; he drank beer and smoked weed). Recently, that wave of single malt snobs has come back around to the blends they once dismissed. Boutique whisky makers started making blends glamorous again. The over-inflation of single malt prices as they gear themselves more toward ultra-mega-billionaire investors and portfolio managers rather than drinkers also meant that people with less money to spend started eying blends. What they discovered was that a lot of these blends are good.
Going for a Walk
When you talk blends, especially blends favored by movie villains, there is no more obvious a place to start than Johnnie Walker, the drink of choice for screen villains and heroes alike. Johnnie Walker boasts an almost incomprehensible cinematic pedigree, thanks to its popularity, along with VAT 69, in the prolific film industry of India. Johnnie Walker has appeared in more Bollywood films than any other actor, including Johnnie Walker, a comedic actor who changed his name to reflect the popularity of, well, Johnnie Walker.
To count the number of villains who have sipped Johnnie Walker while relaxing in their lair, plotting the overthrow of the government, is an impossible task. Everyone from Dev Anand to Amitabh Bachchan to Dharmendra has celebrated victory or drowned defeat with Red or Black Label. Pretty much every Bollywood hero has had it offered to him by a sneering villain or femme fatale. The “dancing while displaying a bottle of whisky” routine that appears in so many Bollywood movies has resulted in Johnnie Walker Red likely being popular dancer Helen’s most frequent on-screen partner.
Johnnie Walker started as an experiment conducted by Kilmarnock farmer-turned-grocer John Walker, whose specialty was blending tea leaves. He figured that, although tea leaves were nothing like whisky, the experience could apply to making the harsh spirits commonly thought of as whisky into something more palatable. He began mixing malts together, then blended them with less abrasive grain whisky to create his signature store brand. It was a modest success but hardly a global juggernaut—at least until 1857, when Walker’s son took over the business. Alexander Walker was ambitious. He was the one who created the brand’s unique identity with the slightly askew black and gold label. He was the one who came up with the square bottle, a design that reduced breakage during shipping and also enabled retailers to fit more onto a shelf.
Alexander Walker’s three sons took over the business in 1889. Alexander Walker Jr. expanded and improved the product portfolio. By 1906, the John Walker & Sons whisky company offered three blends: the basic blend, with a white label; Extra Special Old Highland, with a red label; and Walkers Old Highland Whisky, 12-years-old and sporting a black label. In 1909, the three brand names were simplified: White Label, Red Label, and Black Label. In 1909, George Walker hired cartoonist Tom Browne to create a logo for the brand. Browne created a likeness of John Walker sporting a top hat, waistcoat and high boots—the iconic Walking Man.
Through a combination of canny, aggressive advertising and quality product, Johnnie Walker became one of the pre-eminent global brands. In 1925, when a lot of consolidation was happening and businesses were reeling from American experimentation with Prohibition, Johnnie Walker merged with Distillers Co. Ltd, an arrangement that stayed in place until they became part of Guinness in 1986. In 1997, Guinness merged with Grand Metropolitan to form Diageo, the whisky world’s number one Blofeld-esque supervillain. Diageo’s stewardship of Johnnie Walker has been fraught with controversy, as are most things involving Diageo.
The global beverage mega-corporation shuttered the facility in Kilmarnock, causing substantial economic strife in a small town who’s number one industry was Johnnie Walker. Accusations of a substantial drop in quality plagued the brand as well, though whether these are true or simply a symptom of the dislike engendered in so many people by Diageo and its business practices is a matter of debate. Suffice it to say that there’s a pretty good chance the entire town of Kilmarnock found itself dangling over a crocodile pit while Diageo offered it a tumbler of Johnnie Walker and explained its dastardly plan to close the plant (citation needed).
Bollywood’s relationship with whisky in general, and Johnnie Walker in particular, is also contentious and often contradictory. India consumes more Johnnie Walker than anywhere else in the world, and their fondness for it is what makes it the most popular whisky in the world. In fact, Johnnie is so popular in India that there are years when Indian consumers purchase more Johnnie Walker than is actually made. Counterfeiting Johnnie Walker is a booming business that India is only just now beginning to get under control, a fact that has led to a seemingly endless economic and legal battle between India and the Scotch Whisky Association, the body tasked with enforcing a variety of trade agreements and copyright issues.
In movies, Johnnie Walker represents the schizophrenia inherent in judging the perceived vices of others. Out of one side of the mouth, Indian cinema frames alcohol as a demon stalking virtue and traditional Indian goodness. Johnnie Walker, more times than not, is the drink of the evil or a crutch for the weak. Out of the other side of its mouth, of course, whisky is heralded as a symbol that you (and India) made it, that you have attained a better standard in life. That message, of Johnnie Walker equating to a more sophisticated status, is often undercut by the need to pander both to the urbane city dweller and the more suspicious traditionalists who see such advancement as horrifying and immoral.
Ultimately, the morality expressed by most Indian cinema is the same as the one espoused by the cinema of most other countries: buy a ticket. So Johnnie Walker remains both hero and villain, success and ruin. Whatever the case, you’ll see a lot of it. When the villain swivels around to offer you a pour from his bottle of Johnnie Black, sneer at him and say, “I prefer Green Label. But then, it’s less common so perhaps you’ve not familiar with it.” You may still get strapped to the nose of a nuclear missile, but at least you’ll die with the satisfaction of knowing you got a minor whisky-related leg up on the megalomaniac super villain.
Bond In a Pinch
Ironically, the most recognizable scotch in the world never makes an appearance in Ian Fleming’s Bond novels. Fleming himself, when he wasn’t downing a pint of gin or whatever, preferred bourbon because he thought it was healthier (he also thought Miller High Life was the greatest beer in the world). But as mentioned, while James Bond might have reflected Fleming’s taste for the American spirit, and while Johnnie Walker may be conspicuous by its absence, there’s no shortage of scotch consumed in the Bond books, most of it by Bond’s number one sidekick, Felix Leiter. And there’s nothing Leiter likes more than Haig & Haig on the rocks.
Perhaps no other brand is mentioned by name and consumed quite so often as Haig & Haig, known these days as Pinch and instantly recognizable thanks to the odd-shaped bottle enclosed in a thin web. Haig & Haig, or Pinch—or Dimple, as it’s known everywhere but the United States—was one of the first-recorded whiskey distilling companies. Well, in a manner of speaking. It got on the books when farmer Robert Haig was summoned before church elders in 1655 to answer for the crime of operating his still on the Sabbath. Blue laws, you know. Haig & Haig proper came into existence 1824, when one of the blasphemous farmer’s descendants, John Haig, opened a distillery in Cameronbridge, Scotland. In 1870, John’s son, John, became the first Haig to go into scotch blending. One of his best creations was Pinch, introduced sometime in the 1890s. Like many scotches, Haig & Haig was eventually absorbed into the conglomerate United Distillers and Vintner, and later became part of beverage leviathan Diageo.
Massive quantities of the stuff, still referred to at the time as Haig & Haig (that portion of the name was eventually dropped) are consumed in the Bond novels. Felix Leiter has two Haig & Haigs on the rocks in Casino Royale. In fact, it shares space with perhaps the single most quoted drinks order in James Bond history, short of “vodka Martini…shaken, not stirred.” Bond insisted ordering Leiter’s Haig-and-Haig ‘on the rocks’ and then he looked carefully at the barman. “A Dry Martini”, he said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet…Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?” That’s Haig & Haig, rubbing shoulders with the cocktail soon to be known as the Vesper.
In Live and Let Die, Bond and Leiter drink it in Harlem and share a bottle when they’re in Florida. Bond also drinks Haig & Haig by himself while wasting time in his hotel room in New York. In Moonraker, Bond finds a half a bottle of Haig & Haig in the villain’s desk and drains it with Gala Brandt. You know, to prepare for the harrowing life-or-death mission ahead. The Dimple also makes appearances in Goldfinger, the short story The Living Daylights, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, where Marc-Ange Draco drinks Pinch when he meets 007. Draco is one of the Bond associates for whom Fleming had the most affection (note his “warm, dry handshake,” a sure sign of trustworthiness in any Bond novel), so having him prefer Pinch is a glowing endorsement.
Bond in Black and White
Bond also proves fond of Black & White, a blended scotch whiskey that traces its beginnings to the 1880s. It was an offshoot of London-based whiskey makers James Buchanan and Company’s Buchanan Blend and was originally known as House of Commons. Buchanan was actually born in Canada, lived in Scotland, and was raised in Northern Ireland. He got into the whiskey business through his brother’s grain company, and after picking up experience, became a London agent for whiskey blenders Charles Mackinlay & Co. He set up his own company five years later, acquiring casks of whiskey for private clients.
He soon noticed that the bulk of the product available on the market did not appeal to the London palette. He set out to create a blend that would find purchase among the denizens of the big city. The result was House of Commons, deriving its name from one of Buchanan’s biggest booze clients, the British House of Commons. However, the distinctive packaging—a black bottle with a white label depicting a Scottish Terrier and white Westhighland Terrier—eventually became so recognizable that the whiskey changed its name to Black & White. Buchanan pushed Black & White into other markets: France, Germany, Canada, The United States, New Zealand and South Africa. He established satellite offices in Paris, New York, Hamburg and Buenos Aires. He used the money from his success to purchase several Scottish distilleries, including the lowland distillery Bankier and the highland distillery Convalmore. He built his own distillery, Glentauchers, at Mullben in 1898 and later acquired the Campbeltown Distillery Lochruan.
Buchanan, like many distillers, ran into hard times because of Prohibition. The industry was already in turmoil. Many distilleries were going out of business, so distillers began forming coalitions. Chief among these was the Distillers Company, Ltd. (DCL). Buchanan and some associates formed their own Scotch Whisky Brands, Ltd. in 1915. When, on top of that, Prohibition began across the Atlantic, things got dire. After a merger in 1919, Buchanan’s coalition changed its name to Buchanan-Dewar’s. Eventually, “Buchanan” was dropped. Dewar’s became part of the DCL family. Black & White changed hands a couple more times, passing for a time to Guinness before finding its way to its current home under the globe-encompassing umbrella of spirits megalith Diageo, which it turns out is actually controlled by SPECTRE mastermind Ernst Stavros Blofeld (citation needed).
Bond drinks his first Black & White in the novel Moonraker, when he stops in at a Dover pub called World Without Want to investigate the murder of a Ministry of Supply security officer. He also enjoys a Black & White in the movie Dr. No when he, Leiter, and Quarrel are having a post-dinner round before they confront a mysterious female photographer trying to snap their pictures.
Starting in the Pierce Brosnan era of movies, single malts started making appearances, first int he form of Talisker and, in the Craig era, Macallan. Additionally, the movies finally started tapping into that spirit that truly captured 007’s heart: bourbon. And that is another tale.
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.
Billy Strange 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.
Count Basie 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!
Diving Into 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 John Barry and Monty Norman’s instantly identifiable guitar and big brass theme might as well be that guy from Agent for H.A.R.M. 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 disco’d things up in the 1970s and ’80s still colored within the lines of Barry’s style. As Never Say Never Again illustrated, James Bond without the James Bond sound was awkward.
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.
There were a number of pretty great cash-in albums and cash-in composers sprinkled through the trend, the biggest of whom happens to have also gotten the closest to actually working on a James Bond film…even if it was 1967’s Casino Royale.
Roland Shaw: The Man with the Golden Horns
Towering above all other Bond cash-in album composers was Britain’s 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 007 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. But the following run-down should cover the additions you need to make to your smooth spy lounge soundtrack.
Themes From The James Bond Thrillers (1964) Shaw’s first foray into the world of all-007 music sets the tone for all of Shaw’s subsequent albums. It’s a mix of main themes (From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, and the James Bond Theme and other notable cues from From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, 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 (1965) 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’ vocal bravado), but after that, Shaw shies away from themes and instead serves up 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 as “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 (1966) This third volume of Bond music kicks off with a vocal version of the theme from You Only Live Twice. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say this version is superior to the Nancy Sinatra original, it’s still an great version. The rest of it is pretty good as well, once again leaning heavily on music other than the themes — though you do get arrangements of the themes from 1967’s Casino Royale (both the Herp Alpert song and Dusty Springfield’s “The Look of Love” with vocals that obviously can’t match Dusty) 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 Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, Casino Royale, From Russia with Love, and one more from Dr. No. All good stuff, but the theme from You Only Live Twice makes this one essential.
Themes for Secret Agents (1966) This collection of brassy, bombastic themes ranges outside the James Bond canon and includes arrangements of music from The Man from UNCLE, The Saint, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, Our Man Flint, I Spy, The Avengers, and The IPCRESS File. There are still several Bond themes, including “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and the themes from Goldfinger, From Russia with Love, Thunderball, and of course the James Bond theme. Shaw keeps things fast paced and upbeat. In particular, I love his versions of The Avengers theme, 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.
The Return Of James Bond In Diamonds Are Forever…And Other Secret Agent Themes (1971) This is a spectacular sampler of Roland’s work, sticking primarily to main themes rather than highlighting lesser-covered tracks. Released in 1971, it repackages many of Shaw’s arrangements of the Bond themes and combines them with other spy movie and TV themes 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 make this album worth the repeated material, but you also get Mission: Impossible, Peter 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.
And They Strike…!
There were a lot of other great albums made to cash in on the popularity of music from the James Bond movies. There were even more passable but forgettable albums, and more than one or two terrible ones. And then there were a few that were, for one reason or another, completely weird. A lot of the people working in the field of cash-in albums were legitimately talented musicians, so the urge to tweak the formula and get a little bonkers must have been overwhelming.
While by no means the “weirdest,” here are some of my favorite variations on the spy lounge theme.
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 isn’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 straight forward 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 here 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 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.
Harry Roche Constellation Casino Royale & Other Hip Sounds (1967) First of all, the fact that they refer to their songs as “hip,” even when it was hip to call things hip, means that you’re pretty much guaranteed something decidedly unhip. That said, this album opens with a decently danceable arrangement of “Strangers in the Night” that would play well if you’re looking to take a slightly tipsy dame in a “just a little bit too short” black cocktail dress onto the dance floor at a decent hotel bar. That song sets the mood for the rest of the album: hardly hip, but perfectly serviceable for a boozy night of cocktails in the lounge. Despite invoking the name of Casino Royale, there’s little in the way of Bond or other spy themes. You get a decent instrumental version of “The Look of Love.” The Constellation also turns in a fair enough rendition of the Tijuana Brass’ Casino Royale theme, this time with female vocals. The rest of the album is cocktail lounge standards. If you’re looking for spy anthems, you won’t really find them here, but if you’re in the mood for an undemanding collection of easy listening tunes that are, true to the genre, easy to listen to as background music, then you’re in pretty safe territory here.
The “Sleepwalk” Guitars Of Dan & Dale Theme From Thunderball And Other Themes (1965) Other than the Roland Shaw albums mentioned above, if you were to seek out one James Bond cash-in album, it should be this one, because not only is the music pretty oddball, it has by far the most interesting backstory. Dan and Dale was a studio-only group made up of guitarists Danny Kalb and Steve Katz of Blood, Sweat & Tears. Backing them up on organ, sax and other instruments were ultra-outre avant garde jazz musicians Sun Ra, Al Kooper, and other players from Sun Ra’s bizarre Solar Arkestra. Sun Ra and the Arkestra are best-known for discordant free jazz heavily influenced by Sun Ra’s personal mythology about space aliens, alternate dimensions, ancient Egypt, and Black empowerment. However, they were adept at a wide range of styles, so it’s not quite as crazy as it sounds to hear them earning a paycheck playing on album of James Bond covers and original spy-inspired compositions.
Everything here is a winner, leaning very heavy into the surf guitar sound that would become increasingly identified with espionage movies. There’s also more than a little exotica and Polynesian pop in the mix. Never has the “Spectre Theme” made the amoral organization seem so languid and ready for a luau. But then it gets stranger, because in 2021, the record was released as an mp3 album, but with a near-totally different line-up of songs. Except they’re not different songs; they’ve just been retitled by…who exactly is even responsible for the mp3 version (which is available through Amazon)? No idea, but by any name the songs are supremely weird and amazing.
James Bond cash-in albums will return in… You Only Listen Twice: Further Sounds from the J*MES B*ND Hi-Fi!
Around these parts, Wyngarde is revered for his role as Jason King, the swingin’ international man of mystery, adventure novel writer, and part-time espionage agent he played on the series Department S and, later, in his own spin-off series, Jason King. The man spent his days solving unsolvable mysteries, penning potboilers, wooing ladies, drinking champagne and scotch for breakfast, and puzzling over which of his many puff ties to wear with his silk lounging robe. This despite the fact that Jason King was, shall we say, something less than a Greek god to behold. But he carried himself with such panache, such style, and such biting wit and arrogance that it’s hard not to see his charms, if only from a somewhat campy aspect.
Anyway, if King wasn’t your style, there was always his Department S colleague, Stewart Sullivan (played by Joel Fabiani). And we can’t really say enough about his other colleague: analyst, computer wiz, and second most beautiful woman in espionage (Emma Peel is secure atop the heap, after all), Annabelle Hurst (Rosemary Nicols). But none of them had the bizarre yet undeniable appeal of Jason King, who was the perfect blend flamboyant dandy and hard-drinkin’ lady’s man — it’s the sort of thing that might happen, say, a screenwriter comes up with a swingin’ Romeo superspy then gives it to a gay man to interpret — which is what Wyngarde was, and what he did.
Riding the tide of popularity his portrayal of Jason King brought him, Wyngarde was approached by RCA with the prospect of recording an album. Getting popular TV personalities to record albums was all the rage, and when they promised Wyngarde complete creative freedom, he agreed. And thus we start down the road toward infamy.
The album was completed, released, then yanked from shelves almost immediately in an air of blistering controversy. Expecting, one assumes, some frothy concoction of easy listening and perhaps go-go rock, RCA execs and fans must have been taken aback when they spun the record and found it to be a bizarre collection of musical cues in multiple styles accompanied by Wyngarde — or more accurately, perhaps, Jason King — rambling on and occasionally talk-singing about a variety of topics. Sex, mostly, though. There was indeed some easy listening cocktail groove thrown into the mix, but he doesn’t restrict himself in any way. At the center of the controversy was the song “Rape,” which would be offensive if it wasn’t so goddamn weird. In it, Wyngarde/King babbles semi-coherently about how the style of rape differs from one country to the next. Not content to simply offend in that aspect, it throws a racist “Chinaman” bit in for good measure.
The rest of the album really veers into left field. The “song” “Hippie and the Skinhead” begins with Wyngarde, accompanied by some music, opening the paper and reading a letter written by a couple skinhead girls explaining various factual errors in the paper’s recent article about skinheads. As the letter draws to a close, Wyngarde suddenly launches into a country-western style song about queer bashing.
The rest of the album is just as strange, with Wyngarde talking and pseudo-singing, occasionally flying into fits of boiling rage, occasionally adopting bizarre character voices. Even in the permissive atmosphere of 1970, the album was considered too much to bear — not so much because of the one song, but because of the whole thing just being to artistically confounding. RCA pulled it off shelves and did their best to pretend it was never recorded. In 1975, Wyngarde was “outed” as a homosexual — even though his homosexuality was well-known amongst his peers, where he occasionally adopted the name Petunia Winegum. The ensuing scandal and “moral outrage” saw the man shuffled to the margins of the public consciousness, much like his album. In 1980, he appeared behind a metal mask as Klytus in Flash Gordon, but his career never fully recovered from the 1975 scandal.
Collectors have been searching for and trading the elusive album for years. While finding the album was not that difficult (the Internet makes it all so easy), affording the album was well beyond my means. Although there were labels looking to re-issue the self-titled record, contractual wrangling, cold feet, and other tangles always got in the way. Until 2009.
Out of the Closet, Out of the Shadows
Through some Herculean dedication to the cause, British label RPM managed to secure the rights and re-release the album on CD in the United Kingdom, retitled (appropriately) When Sex Leers Its Inquisitive Head. While some people would consider buying a CD re-issue no proper accomplishment when compared to searching for the vinyl, all I really wanted to do was own and listen to the damn thing, treasure hunt and exorbitant LP prices be damned. So I made the purchase, actually knowing very little at the time about the album other than that it had disappeared almost as soon as it had been released, and having only heard one track, the more or less conventional (when compared to songs recorded by other TV stars — Nimoy and Shatner, for example) “Neville Thumbcatch.”
You know that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Belloq screams, “It’s beautiful!” right before his head explodes? Well, pretty much. When Sex Leers Its Inquisitive Head is indeed a study in profound weirdness, the recorded LP equivalent of a drunken ramble at the end of a night of secret society decadence and debauchery delivered by a man who is at once embracing and lambasting his ladies’ man image while struggling with the fact that his heart’s just not into being a ladies’ man. The opening track, “Come In” starts about like you might expect the album to start — with a splashy bit of adventure series music right out of the ITC production library. But that quickly fades, and we are greeted by Wyngarde drunkenly singing in French then introducing some woman/us into his bachelor’s den. Still, if you knew Jason King, this isn’t really out of character, and the unsuspecting listener couldn’t be blamed for thinking this was just an in-character intro to more conventional tracks to come. But when Wyngarde tells this unseen lover (actually, it could just as easily be a man, but for the line about a beautiful dress, and even then…), “Here’s to a pleasant evening… and a few surprises,” he speaks the truth.
“You Wonder How These Things Began” is a strange spoken word “mood setter” accompanied by medieval style lutes. And then comes “Rape.” Returning to the brass-and drums action music that began the album, the song adds female screams and pleas, guttural roaring of the word “rape,” then launches into Wyngarde’s “international rape 101” lecture. On the surface, the song is obviously full of things to offend. But taken in the context of Wyngarde’s semi-secret personal life, it could just as easily be an indictment of the “might makes right” machismo that makes rape such a tragically common crime. Like everything surrounding Wyngarde and Jason King, it’s hard to extract any cohesive “philosophy” from the swirling mix of emotion.
Nothing else on the album is quite so incendiary, though it remains plenty weird. Musician Vic Smith did the arrangements, and he seems to be having a good time indulging every bizarre whim and fancy; here sparse and minimal, there symphonic and melodramatic, elsewhere Sgt. Peppers style baroque-pop. And all the while Wyngarde talks on like some psychotic stream-of-consciousness poet, at once sad and enraged. Beneath the weirdness is a chord of bitterness, frustration, and melancholy, Laugh with it, laugh at it, and then all of a sudden you’ll realize that, campiness aside, something just isn’t quite right. It’s as amusing as it is oddly unsettling, especially once you get to the closing track, “April,” the jaunty strings-and-“picnic beneath the veranda on a fine summer day” style music of which can’t mask the stinging final message.
It’s hard to pick anything out as a favorite. The album works more or less like a long suite rather than individual tracks, and the gestalt experience is more important than the separate pieces. The cover of “Neville Thumbcatch,” as I said, is the most conventional song, but it’s still quirky. I quite like “Once Again (Flight Number 10)” as well, being a sort of Ulysses-style stream-of-consciousness rumination on everything from existential loneliness to the kid who won’t stop picking his nose.
If you are a fan of Jason King, then the album is essential listening. All things considered, it really does sound like the kind of thing one would hear if one spent some time with Jason King, who (especially in his own spin-off series) always boasted an air of world-weary bitterness beneath his promiscuous frolicking. For those unfamiliar with Jason King, the album is a harder sell, though if you enjoy exploring the unusual world of celebrity vanity projects and utterly strange cult albums, you should be mightily satisfied. All others need tread lightly and with trepidation into these waters, though. You may never emerge again. And even if you do, you might be wearing a silk dressing gown and lavender ascot.