"Love and Let Die": Why the Beatles and James Bond remain strong British cultural exports

John Higgs' new book makes a powerful case for the enduring significance of 007 and the Fab Four

By Kenneth Womack

Contributing Writer

Published February 4, 2023 10:59AM (EST)

Rock and roll band "The Beatles" and Sean Connery as secret agent 007, James Bond. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Rock and roll band "The Beatles" and Sean Connery as secret agent 007, James Bond. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

There was a time, many decades ago, when the English could proudly assert that the sun never set on the British Empire. Although the British Empire has long since lost its luster, two of its greatest exports still shine brightly. In his latest book "Love and Let Die: James Bond, the Beatles, and the British Psyche," John Higgs explores the remarkable history, often intertwined, behind the James Bond movie franchise and the Beatles.

And Higgs might just be onto something. As it happens, Bond and the Fab Four can trace their emergence to October 5, 1962 — a Friday — when "Dr. No" premiered and "Love Me Do" was released as the Beatles' inaugural single. With Sean Connery as Bond, Dr. No earned nearly $60 million, launching the series in fine style and leading to the enshrinement of October 5 as "Bond Day." (Global Beatles Day, by the way, is celebrated annually on June 25, the date of the group's famous Our World performance in 1967 of "All You Need Is Love.")

"Love Me Do" would fare less successfully than "Dr. No." The single earned a number 17 showing on the British charts that autumn. While it would be a far cry from their chart-topping exploits to come, it wasn't too shabby for a largely regional act at the time. But the superspy and the band's connections didn't end back in 1962. The Beatles' second feature film "Help!" offered a spoof — in zany British style, no less — on the Bond films. And their magisterial producer George Martin helmed the recordings of three different Bond themes, including Matt Monro's "From Russia with Love," Shirley Bassey's "Goldfinger" and Paul McCartney and Wings' "Live and Let Die."

In the present day, Bond and the Beatles continue to reign supreme. Adjusted for inflation, the Bond franchise has netted some $19 billion in box-office receipts, while the Fabs have sold billions of records and eclipsed their genre — and the generations — many times over. With the possible exceptions of Shakespeare and the monarchy, which has clearly seen better days, Bond and the Beatles continue to make Britons proud and enjoy adulation the world over. As Higgs puts it, "The Beatles and Bond movies are our monsters in the cultural ecosystem."

With "Love and Let Die," Higgs makes a powerful case for his subjects' enduring significance. His argument that the Beatles and Bond enjoy an oppositional relationship because the Fab Four's music connotes love and Bond films represent death — thanks to the character's well-known "License to Kill," of course — is less convincing.

Love the Beatles? Listen to Ken's podcast "Everything Fab Four."

But Higgs more than makes up for this thread through his discussion of Bond and the Beatles' twin 1960s emergence. Even as the sun was setting on Great Britain's colonial past, Bond films and Beatles music came to epitomize that era's penchant for English sophistication, later manifesting itself in fashion and a fresh approach to culture. Even when he was dealing out Cold War death, Bond seemed invariably happy with his lot, while the Fabs' music celebrated the virtues of peace and love at nearly every turn.

Not surprisingly, Bond and the Beatles are still going strong at this relatively late date. While other cultural artifacts have slipped into the past, 007 and the Fab Four have transcended one generation after another, still finding new adherents six decades removed from their originating moments. Long may the monsters abide.

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By Kenneth Womack

Kenneth Womack is the author of a two-volume biography of the life and work of Beatles producer George Martin and the host of "Everything Fab Four," a podcast about the Beatles distributed by Salon. He is also the author of "Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles," published in 2019 in celebration of the album’s 50th anniversary, "John Lennon, 1980: The Last Days in the Life" and the authorized biography "Living the Beatles Legend: The Untold Story of Mal Evans" (November 2023).  Womack is Professor of English and Popular Music at Monmouth University.

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