Love and Let Die: James Bond, the Beatles and the British Psyche
Pegasus: 400 pages, $30
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On October 4, 1962, the Soviet Union installed its first nuclear missile in Cuba and the world braced for a possible war between its two superpowers. A day later, another serious clash between two aspiring hegemons was to begin in England.
On this day, the Beatles released their first single “Love Me Do” and the first James Bond film “Dr. No”, was premiered in London. For John Higgs, author of the new book Love and Let Die, this confluence of events is his own neutron bomb, the moment when England was confronted with two contrasting self-images: Bond a metaphor for a colonial power clinging to the last remnants of its Kraft after World War II, and a younger generation of Beatles fans willing to break away from everything the Empire stood for, particularly its notions of class and privilege. The Beatles and Bond opened up an abyss in culture, a “crisis of masculinity” that Higgs is dutifully trying to unravel.
Today, as alienated royals fight over a wounded monarchy and the once Empire struggles with its self-estrangement from Europe, questioning how Britannia perceives itself seems timely, even urgent.
“Love and Let Die” is sadly an intermittently fascinating but lumpy cultural tale. Higgs posits that Bond and the Beatles represent the Janus face of early 1960s England. He traces the arc of these two cultural giants running on parallel tracks, wading through much familiar territory for his lightning-fast insights. However, he is right when he claims that “imagination matters because ideas change beliefs” and “beliefs shape attitudes”.
Sixty years later, it’s hard to imagine the harmless “Love Me Do” as a transgressive act, but it was less the song than the Beatles’ idea that unsettled Britain’s ruling class. The four band members were lowborn northerners from a dingy port town with no formal education; Her success went against the natural order of things, an act of insolence. In contrast, Bond was an establishment man in the service of the Queen, an Eton-trained, sexy killing machine whose job was to save the world while indulging in the best the world had to offer. For Higgs, the most famous band on the planet and the most enduring film spy thus represent a rift in the social fabric of a country that had so long viewed class as destiny.
The soul of James Bond can be traced back to its creator, author Ian Fleming. Born into one of Britain’s most prominent banking families, Fleming was raised by a socialite who didn’t care for him. (His father was killed in World War I; Winston Churchill wrote his obituary.) Fleming was deported to various elite schools, including Bond’s Eton, and developed a taste for Bond-like voluptuous pleasures.
His destiny was outlined in shades of beige: marriage and family, a senior post in the civil service. Fleming became engaged to a woman he didn’t love and moved toward somber seriousness—until he created secret agent 007. The James Bond novels were an act of self-creation on the page; Higgs writes that Flemings would become Bond’s “avatar…with the same tastes, background, opinions and prejudices, but without the issues that weighed so heavily on him – an unabashedly emotionless male fantasy”.
Bond, in Higgs’ view, was Fleming’s answer to the weakening of England’s colonial power, its weakening global pulse. In the persona of Sean Connery, he was a super-spy who embodied the country’s exceptional virtues, which, for Fleming, included a callous disregard for women and ethnic minorities. Racism and sexism are casually embedded in Fleming’s novels – a dark mirror held up to a retrograde worldview that the Beatles were in the process of dismantling.
The pretty female characters in Fleming’s Bond stories are more props than people, a distraction to the point of being a nuisance. “Fleming wanted to sleep with glamorous, exciting women,” writes Higgs. “Then he just wanted them to go away afterward.” The number of dead among Bond’s lovers is alarmingly high: “Bond is death and must always be. The women he touches must therefore die.” Here British machismo was immune to mockery, the pre-war vision of England that Fleming wished to project onto an upside-down world – in short, a world in which the Beatles became stars could become.
In the context of Fleming’s England, Higgs’ Beatles were bomb-throwers, ravaging everything that was virtuous in the aristocratic British soul. “I wasn’t worried about the empire collapsing,” Paul McCartney mused in an interview with Barry Miles, excerpted here. “I thought it was a good thing. I was very pleased to see the old regime exit.”
Disdainful of tradition and lineage, enormously successful despite not being educated in the last schools of Fleming’s youth, McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr brushed aside British decorum as a relic. Even a song like “Can’t Buy Me Love,” Higgs argues, is a shot across the bow, as money “plays a secondary role” since it can only be used for material purposes. How un-Bond-like of them.
The culture naturally bowed to the Beatles. Even Prime Minister Harold Wilson called himself a fan. Yet Bond’s regressive masculinity thrived in films that grossed billions worldwide, while the Beatles became worldly saints, loved and immortal, light-years removed from the 1962 insurgents. Eventually, McCartney succumbed to Bond’s lucrative charm while writing the theme song for the 1973 Bond film Live and Let Die, his first major hit as a solo artist.
So who won the war for the British psyche? Higgs can’t really tell, opting for a muddy middle ground between Bond’s confident swagger and the Beatles’ emotional intelligence. These evasions do Higgs a disservice. Its intriguing thesis loses its potency about halfway through the book, when “Love and Let Die” alternates between a fairly detailed history of the Bond franchise and the history of The Beatles – the latter being one of the most iconic tales of the 20th century. There are nagging flaws, too: Harrison wrote a song called “Apple Scruffs,” not “Apple Scrubs.” Higgs is on to something here, but with “Love and Let Die” he doesn’t quite deliver an enticing premise that raises some fundamental questions about the soul of Britain.
Weingarten is the author of Thirsty: William Mulholland, California Water, and the Real Chinatown.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2023-02-07/review-beatles-vs-bond-book-love-and-let-die John Higgs’ “Love and Let Die” on Beatles vs. Bond in British history