(PLEASE NOTE: This post was originally published in 2014, but that version developed some problems including missing text, photos, audio etc. I was unable to correct those errors, so it was just easier to republish the post with everything reinstated. Enjoy!)
James Bond Theme (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra):
Anyone who collects records has the story of a Eureka moment. A moment when they happened upon a new record of unfamiliar music that, for whatever reason, was a revelation, and subsequently became a firm favorite, a cornerstone of their collection. I’ve had a number of these, but one of the first happened when I was around 12. Leafing through the record bins I happened upon a collection titled The Phase 4 World of Thrillers. The cover was the first thing to catch my attention. It featured all the accoutrements of the gentleman spy or world adventurer, guaranteed to pique the interest of a kid who was already devouring James Bond’s adventures on the page and screen at every possible opportunity.
But the title intrigued too. What was this “Phase 4” thing all about? Quite a few “Phase 4” records littered the bins, both in the Classical and Easy Listening sections. Scanning the track listing of The Phase 4 World of Thrillers revealed an eclectic range of music drawn from movies and TV shows. It was on the Decca label, and the price was right – 99 pence – (ie. almost one pound sterling) – so I plonked down my lawn-mowing pocket-money and hurried home to listen.
The Man with the Golden Arm (Stanley Black and the London Festival Orchestra):
Immediately I knew this was a different kind of record. The sound was Technicolor rich and vivid, with the stereo image panned sharply to the left and right channels, in the manner of the early Beatles stereo records. The arrangements were likewise larger-than-life and eclectic in the manner of Easy Listening records of that vintage. The tracks featured an array of Decca’s top so-called “light music” performers and session players. Divvying up the main duties were two label stalwarts: Stanley Black and Roland Shaw, supplemented by Frank Chacksfield and his Orchestra and the stereo novelty act of Ronnie Aldrich and his Two Pianos.
Charade (Ronnie Aldrich and his Two Pianos):
All the music was compelling, from Leonard Bernstein’s jazz-inflected On the Waterfront to Miklos Rozsa’s lurid Hollywood fantasmagoria, Spellbound, but the tracks that most caught my schoolboy imagination were those by Roland Shaw, of themes from spy movies.
The music flew out of the grooves, sexy and sassy, with gigantic drums and bass guitar, tight brass licks, and kinetic strings. The track that really blew my ears back was I Spy.
Just listen to the way those opening mega drums propel us forward (the drumming on all Phase 4 records is fantastic – was it the same guy, and if so, who was he?). The brass kicks it up a notch, and then that propulsive, MASSIVE bass guitar anchors the groove while the strings punch out the theme like they are on a combination of speed and caviar. A blistering sax solo unfurls against rhythm guitar, then it’s back to those strings and fat horns punching up that 60s glam. On a good stereo, the vinyl practically catches fire, filling the room with three-dimensional sound.
I did not know it then, but Phase 4 Stereo was something more than a marketing gimmick. Decca had long enjoyed the highest reputation amongst audiophiles for the quality of its classical recordings, achieved by the famous “Decca tree” of microphones. This was a simple arrangement of three microphones suspended above the conductor’s head, whose aim was to “hear” the orchestra like a listener would, in natural proportions from this optimal position. (A few supplemental microphones were carefully placed at strategic points within the orchestra to add detail to the primary sound image). It was a minimalist approach to recording which echoed that of the similarly esteemed American audiophile labels, Mercury and RCA Living Stereo.
In many ways the apogee of this approach to recording had been the historic issue of Wagner’s monumental Ring cycle of operas under Georg Solti, produced by the legendary John Culshaw between 1958 and 1965, complete with sound effects and singers wandering around the imaginary stage, just like in a radio drama.
With the advent of multitrack recording in the 60s, more microphones crept into recording sessions, and the increasing tendency was for the producer and engineer to fine-tune the balance of the orchestra long after the session, rather than have the conductor do so as the recording took place. The result, over succeeding decades, was a sound which, while more refined, with each instrument carefully placed and balanced against every other instrument, lost some of its energy and sense of “aliveness”.
What was different about the “Phase 4” recordings was that, even though they were multi-miked and artificially balanced, deliberately incorporating the idea of “stereo cool” into their marketing, they retained that sense of “aliveness”. There was a palpable excitement in the grooves, as you can hear in this arrangement of the Mission Impossible Theme of Lalo Schifrin by Roland Shaw.
Mission Impossible (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra):
The instrumental colors were rich and vibrant, at times almost over-ripe. The recordings had retained many of the qualities that had made earlier Decca records audiophile favorites, while adding the extra spice of the Easy Listening palette of unusual instrumental combinations. The arrangements reveled in artificial stereo effects, exotic orchestrations and sound effects, and the result was records which were spectacular showcases for the musicians, the music – and the listener’s stereo system.
Record collectors are obsessive types, and can talk for hours about the relative merits of different pressings of the same record from different eras and countries. Early Decca records were mastered using an all-tube chain of electronics which added an organic warmth to the sound, a palpability to the instruments and voices. When the company switched to solid-state electronics in the mid to late 60s, the gain in precision was offset by a loss of the natural quality which tubed electronics brought to the recording chain. Compare identical records in different pressings made before and after the switch and you can clearly hear the difference.
Collectors will tell you that the American versions of Phase 4 records, released on the London Records imprint, are brighter sounding than the Decca originals. Interestingly, unlike many of Decca’s classical releases, Phase 4 records were all mastered in England. I hear the brightness on some titles, but not others. Clearly some records destined for the American market were simply EQ’d differently. I guess the assumption was that Americans needed everything a little brighter and brasher than the Brits to maintain their interest. I’d love to know whether that assumption was based on any kind of quantifiable research.
In a later article I will talk about some of the other Phase 4 records which occupy pride of place in my collection, including seminal recordings of his film music by Bernard Herrmann which, along with the RCA Classic Film Score Series, played an important role in establishing the legitimacy of film music recordings as standalone LPs. But for now, this article focuses on Phase 4 recordings of music for the various secret agents who spread across movie and TV screen in the wake of the massive popularity of James Bond.
Here is a typical example of how the Phase 4 label spiced up the originals, with Roland Shaw doing the honors for Burt Bacharach’s theme for the “alternative” Bond romp, Casino Royale. Note the addition of screaming teenage girls to Burt Bacharach’s catchy original.
Phase 4’s compilations of spy themes were entirely the province of arranger/orchestrator Roland Shaw. He was one of Decca’s principal house arrangers, working for Vera Lynn, Mantovani, Ted Heath, and the label’s principal conductor of film music, Stanley Black. He also worked on several films as an original composer, including The Great Waltz, Summer Holiday, and Song of Norway. He had a passion for motor cars, of which he owned several exotic examples over the years. These ranged from a Rolls-Royce to a Bentley and a beautiful classic red Ferrari. He competed in club meetings at Silverstone, Goodwood and Brands Hatch, where he often acted as a race marshal. In fact, it was while parking the Rolls (purchased with a royalty check from Tutti Camerata) near his home in Barnes that he got his break with Decca Records. He was approached by an admirer of the vehicle, who turned out to be Frank Lee, head of A&R at the label.
Shaw’s first spy genre album, Themes from the James Bond Thrillers, was released in 1964 to coincide with Goldfinger. It was massive hit, spawning a number of sequels.
Monty Norman had composed the music for the first film in the series, Dr. No, and Shaw’s arrangements filled out the minimally orchestrated originals to great effect. In this track, Underneath the Mango Tree, the addition of rippling flute and harp, plus swirling strings, creates a sense of travelogue exotica.
However, it was John Barry’s iconic arrangement of the James Bond Theme, and his scores for Goldfinger and beyond, which defined the “Spy Sound” of the Swinging Sixties soundtrack. Barry seamlessly blended his jazz and bop background with lush romantic strings and heavy Wagnerian brass chords (interspersed with fabulous, soaring breaks that wailed over the propulsive drums and bass) to create a sound that defined the cool of Bond every bit as much as the beautiful girls, designer clothes, exotic locations and futuristic gadgets.
You can hear all these elements at work in this music from the pre-credits sequence in Thunderball, which culminated in Bond making his escape with a jet-pack.
Record labels were jumping over themselves to create knock-off compilations of Bond and other spy music, using various Easy Listening arrangers and scratch bands. The results were frequently lacklustre, but every so often these cover versions struck gold. Such was the case with Roland Shaw’s series of albums for Decca Phase 4.
In his arrangement of music from Diamonds of Forever you can hear how Shaw, while remaining true to the essence of John Barry’s original, has embellished the orchestration to highlight the Hi-Fi aspect of the recording and give it more zest.
He has added soaring and swooning contrapuntal string lines to the original: you can clearly hear the legacy of his arranging for Mantovani’s orchestra. Then fat, funky bass lines combine with propulsive guitar licks (even throwing in a bit of wah-wah for good measure), latin drums and stabbing brass to give the whole thing an extra tinge of pop and of the exotic. (Many Phase 4 albums highlighted unusual percussion and other sounds of world music to lend a sense of travelogue to their albums).
Staying with Bond, here is Shaw’s arrangement of one of Barry’s most lyrical inventions for the Bond series, You Only Live Twice.
Interestingly, one of the theme songs that Shaw leaves more or less unchanged, is On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Maybe because this was already one of Barry’s most exciting inventions — and why mess with perfection? It was the first title sequence in a Bond film not to feature a song. Instead, to accompany visuals that recapped the previous Connery adventures in preparation for George Lazenby who was to take over the role, Barry built a driving chase fanfare over a Moog synthesizer playing in unison with a bass guitar.
The Moog was a completely new kind of sound, and sounds radically different between even Barry’s own various recordings of this theme.
In the wake of Bondmania, film and television companies fast-tracked numerous secret agent projects, all demanding their own Barry-tinged music. One of the most successful of Bond imitators was the series starring James Coburn as an urbane American agent, which kicked off with Our Man Flint.
Jerry Goldsmith, one of the most distinctive film composers to emerge at that time (his credits include Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, and Alien) provided a theme which channeled the Barry sound in its guitar licks and brass stabs. But he also added his own distinct elements (percussion and jazzy improvisations) to convey a sense of the send-up that the film encapsulated.
Back in the U.K., a quirky TV series that combined Bondian elements with fantasy and sci-fi became a cult classic and ran for many years.
The Avengers launched the careers of several subsequent Bond girls — Honor Blackman in Goldfinger and Diana Rigg in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The hero, always immaculately dressed in the finest Savile Row suits, with accompanying umbrella and bowler hat, was played by Patrick MacNee, who later featured as Roger Moore’s accomplice in A View to a Kill.
The Avengers had a killer theme written by Laurie Johnson.
A precursor to Bond was the American TV show Peter Gunn, the creation of maverick film-maker Blake Edwards, one of the most unsung talents among post-War American writer/directors, who found enormous commercial success with the Pink Panther movies.
The iconic theme song, by his long-time collaborator Henry Mancini, undoubtedly influenced later composers working in the genre (including Barry).
It has been much covered, most notably by cult 80s group The Art of Noise, with Duane Eddy doing the guitar twanging duties. Roland Shaw doubles that guitar line with an early synthesizer, adds some percussion pops for Hi-Fi glitter, and plays up the drums and jazzy improv. elements.
Not all spy movies of the 60s were upbeat. John Le Carre’s The Spy who Came in from the Cold offered Richard Burton one of his most celebrated roles in a gritty cat-and-mouse game set in a divided Berlin. The muted, evocative score was by Sol Kaplan.
The Spy who Came in from the Cold (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra):
Another highly successful series that, tonally, fell somewhere between Fleming and Le Carre, was launched with The Ipcress File, starring Michael Caine as the world-weary British agent Harry Palmer. The series shared much of Bond’s DNA, not surprisingly because the producer was Harry Saltzman (half of Eon Productions), bringing with him Bond’s editor, Peter Hunt, and production designer, Ken Adam. The music was by John Barry, who used his taste for exotic instrumentation (in this case the cimbalom) to evoke eastern menace on the streets of London.
The Ipcress File (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra):
In finest Easy Listening fashion, even Shaw was not afraid to go with a somewhat cheesy vocal arrangement when called for. Here is his take on one of Burt Bacharach’s numbers from Casino Royale. (In the film it was only used as an instrumental; this is the version with Hal David’s lyrics).
Note, as always, the fabulous drumming and that tight rhythm guitar. I wonder how many bachelor pads have echoed to this track at the cocktail hour…..
Twisting with James (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra):