Article by F. L. Toth
Among Bond and Fleming aficionados, it is almost as much fun to cluck our tongues affectionately at his mistakes as to delight in what Fleming does right. Fleming creates sumptuous feasts, but, some say, the author really didn’t know food all that well. His product placement is riddled with incorrectly attributed products. And it is common for Fleming fans to note that he and his creation didn’t know much about the arts.
John Pearson, in his biography of Fleming, notes that he “had no ear for music.” Henry Chancellor, in James Bond, the Man and his World, states, “Of art, he knew nothing.” Fleming probably contributed to this image himself, calling Bond a “cardboard booby,” among other pejoratives. In a small way, a reader can thus feel superior to Ian Fleming and to his creation: James Bond may be a jet-setting international man of action who knows his way around the bedroom, but I know my way around an auditorium.
A discrete reread of Bond novels reveals that we have repeated the Bond-as-uncultured song for so long we tend to internalize it, but that it does not hold up in the long run. Music, in particular, plays a big part in making Bond books the magic that they are.
From Casino Royale to The Man with the Golden Gun, Ian Fleming relies on music to set the scene, move the plot, or tell us about the characters. And his knowledge is surprisingly broad, ranging from an a capella folk song to names of specific classical cellists.
In his debut novel, Casino Royale, music performs all three actions. When Bond meets fellow agent Rene Mathis, the first thing Mathis does is to tell Bond he must test the radio, that Compagnons de la Chanson are touring and that they should listen. This is a marvellously efficient use of music. Mathis, being French, would naturally listen to French music; however, the group was sufficiently popular at the time that the average Bond reader would recognize them as a culturally important group—so Fleming fills us in on a Bond character and sets the scene with that one sentence. Over the next few paragraphs, we learn that Mathis has blasted out the ears of those listening in, and he tells Bond that his cover is blown. Music has been used to advance the plot.
Also in Casino Royale, Vesper and Bond stop to listen to a trio, which Fleming takes the time to describe as a guitar, drums, and a keyboard. They are playing “La Vie en Rose,” which is referenced again later, indicating that even when times are good for Bond and Vesper, there is an inevitable sadness to their story.
Arguably the book wherein music plays the most important part, plot-wise, is Live and Let Die. Felix Leiter goes with Bond to a jazz club where they are kidnapped by Mr. Big’s henchmen after a distracting erotic dance by G. G. Sumatra. It is Leiter’s love of music that saves his life, as he and the trumpet playing baddie find a connection while discussing articles Leiter has written on jazz.
Fleming chose to make Leiter, not Bond, the jazz expert. Why? Fleming strove to make Bond “cold” and “cruel” and a love for music seems at odds with that role. Both Mathis and Leiter are seen as more cuddly than Bond and their love of music helps shape their characters. Bond’s musical tastes and interests, when he bothers to express them, are on the low brow side. He sings “Marion” [sic] in Dr. No to establish a kinship with and get the attention of Honeychile Rider. It’s a cute little tune, and Bond makes a mental note that the original song had been “cleaned up.” He’s therefore been paying more attention to that song than he wants to let on.
Bond also makes a point of asking for the “blue” version of “Belly Lick” in The Man with the Golden Gun. Bond likes music but enjoys naughtiness even more.
While it is true that, for the most part, Fleming works in Bond’s interest in music to show an uncultured taste, on occasion Fleming slips up, and by “slips up,” I mean that he reveals that the author, at least, has some knowledge of, and opinions on, classical music.
Notably, in the short story “The Living Daylights,” Bond expresses his opinion on women cello players. He believes they look “indecent with that bulbous thing between their splayed thighs,” and opines that “somebody should devise a way for them to play the damned thing sidesaddle.” Bond makes an exception for Suggia, who “managed to make it look elegant,” and for “that girl, Amaryllis somebody” (a reference to Fleming’s musician half-sister). It stretches credulity to think that Bond, who never willingly attends a concert and has no apparent ties to the arts, somehow knows one cello player from another or even is able to identify the instrument.
It is no stretch at all for Fleming to have preferred cellists, coming as he did from a family whose members included an accomplished violinist, his mother, as well as his famous cellist sister. In addition, his mother’s lover, Augustus John, painted a portrait of Suggia that is still so well-regarded it is used as her illustration in Wikipedia. Both Fleming’s family of origin and the family into which he married were well known for their involvement in the arts, and whether he participated willingly or was dragged (as he may have been, to the parties his wife, Anne, gave) he was clearly around art and artists for much of his life.
Other characters besides Bond show their personalities through their musical tastes. Notably, Bond Girl Tatiana “Tania” Romanova (From Russia with Love) listens to the radio and is irritated that the State radio program has tunes from outlying Turkmenistan; she calls it old-fashioned and would prefer jazz, or even classical. It’s no accident that Tania, like Bond, prefers jazz over other styles of music.
Music runs through the life of The Spy Who Loved Me heroine Vivienne Michel as well. She listens to the Ink Spots on a portable gramophone in her early, disastrous courtship and it brings her back to that time, years later, when she hears a favorite Ink Spots Song, “Someone’s Rocking My Dream Boat,” on the radio an ocean away from where she first heard it. She mentions many of the pop songs played by Albany, New York radio station WOKO (which still existed up until 1983; the station now uses the call letters WOPG and has a Christian radio format).
Live bands are important in some Bond works, but accessing recorded music, record players and radio, also play important parts in several Bond stories. Viv takes her portable record player on a boat trip. Dr. No uses a record player to frighten the natives on his island. And it is a radiogram which is the final means of revenge, because of its assumed value, in the beautiful short story “Quantum of Solace.” (In this use “radiogram” means “radiogramophone”–a device which was both radio and record player– not to be confused with “radiogram” meaning “radio telegram.”)While Fleming was not known to be a musician, he would have absorbed some knowledge of music from his artsy family, and he was sufficiently interested in music himself to seek out lessons, as a young man, in “Hawaiian guitar.” Anyone who has ever been forced to practice the piano by an insistent mother will appreciate that to be an adult and to go to the trouble of finding an instructor, procuring an instrument, and taking private lessons shows more than a passing interest in music.
Fleming does a passable job of describing an orchestra going from tuning up to performing in the short story “The Living Daylights” before turning to his typical self-deprecation. “From somewhere inside the Haus der Ministerien there came the familiar sounds of an orchestra tuning up—the strings tuning their instruments to single notes on the piano, the sharp blare of individual woodwinds—then a pause, and then the collective crash of melody as the whole orchestra threw itself competently, so far as Bond could judge, into the opening bars of what even to James Bond was vaguely familiar.” (The overture to the opera Boris Goudunov, which, interestingly, From Russia with Love’s Tania also enjoys.)
Bond books are rich with the music of everyday life, even when music is not formally presented. A good example is found in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service when the recording is lulling the hypnotized girls to sleep and to a change in attitude. “The sweet cooing voice and clucking of chickens softly obscured the vanishing voice, then that too died away and there was only the electric whine and the tick-pause-tock of the metronome.”Fleming, in real life, made a point of knowing the best clubs in New York City to hear the latest performers. Close friend Ivar Bryce claims, in his memoirs, that although Bryce himself lived in New York City, it was Fleming who would show him the hottest clubs, and it was Fleming who introduced Bryce to the music of Sinatra, who was described as “a young chap with an Italian name who was performing at intermission.” Bryce adds that Fleming only occasionally danced but enjoyed watching other dancers; one can surmise Fleming’s own skill as a dancer by the fact that James Bond does not dance.
You can pick up any Bond book, and, aware that Fleming used music to enrich his works and did so intelligently, you will see it. It is inescapable. So how did the myth of Fleming as musical dummkopf start, and how does it persist? We can surely assign partial blame to Fleming himself. He publicly made fun of Bond’s shallowness, e.g. the “cardboard booby” remark, and his self -disparaging quips have been extremely quotable. But Fleming made a great many reckless statements—why is music in particular so persistently talked down?
It could be “tall poppy syndrome.” Perhaps the sniffing at Bond books began in earnest after Fleming had achieved bestseller status. It is certainly true that Anne’s artistic friends, once the books became well-known, made fun of Fleming’s books for not being sufficiently literary, and she was in agreement. When Fleming was in the process of limiting the production of The Spy Who Loved Me, she tried to talk him out of it—not because she felt his work had merit but because she knew the book would sell well and she wanted new curtains.While Bond books have been accused of “sex, sadism and snobbery,” it is snobbery directed toward Bond books that are likely to bear some of the blame. When Bond enjoys music, he doesn’t go to the symphony or the opera. Bond enjoys smokey clubs with half-naked women and lots of hot jazz. Racism, present now in alarming amounts but even more so when Bond books were being written, also contributes: the best jazz musicians were Black, as were the musicians in The Ink Spots. Therefore, in Bond’s world, their contributions to music can be believed to be less important than mainstream white music.
A modern reader is presented with the problem of changing world musical tastes making Bond’s music less recognizable. Everyone would have known Compagnons de Chanson in the 1950s, but someone new to Bond this year would probably be obliged to look them up to understand their importance, and for this reason, their mention makes less of an impression on the reader.
“La Vie en Rose” has been covered many times since Edith Piaf made it famous, even as recently as 2016 by Jason Lux, so it is perhaps easier for a modern reader to appreciate that lovely song than something by The Ink Spots. But at the time of writing their respective books, Fleming was using musicians at the top of their game, household words that just as surely make their use archaic in the present as made them immediately relevant at the time of publication.
Music changes quickly in comparison to other life experiences and has differing importance. Contrast this with food. Not everyone enjoys music but everyone eats, and food changes to a markedly lesser degree than musical taste. Strawberries with cream are as recognizably delectable and available now as they were in 1954, but Compagnons de Chanson has not performed since 1985.
Another reason Fleming’s use of music is less well-known than it should be maybe the interests and education of earlier scholars. As Fleming once said, all cats are grey in the dark. Without illumination, without information, no one can appreciate the depth of detail, and biographers who themselves did not have a profound musical education may not have seen things plainly there. Similarly, I am ignorant of the games of golf and Bridge. I can read passages Fleming wrote and enjoy them, but I am not in the group who can truly understand or critique the passages, like those who say it was Goldfinger, not Bond, who truly won that famous game with the help of Alfred Blacking. Without an appreciation of golf, the passage does not resonate as much as it would for someone with greater knowledge.The waters of understanding are also muddied by the fact that Fleming was known to simply make things up when he felt like it. A reader who is not familiar with the work of Guilhermina Suggia or of Amaryllis Fleming will understand Bond is referring to cellists but may think Fleming just used names that sounded plausible for musicians, much like Fleming used the name Sanguinetti for a gangster in The Spy Who Loved Me. (Sanguinetti does sound like a good gangster name but was actually the name of one of Fleming’s neighbors in Jamaica.) A person who does have a good command of music will get the added pleasure of seeing Fleming deftly work both his sister and a musician known to his mother’s lover into a short story, and may even have an opinion on who was the better cellist.
Let’s not lose sight of embarrassment as a frame for how a writer’s work is perceived. Fleming infamously tried to do something different with The Spy Who Loved Me. The attempt at writing from a woman’s perspective and to be daring in the writing didn’t do as well as he hoped, and he returned, after this experiment, to the formula of charismatic baddie directly challenged by Bond. The attempt to elevate himself, literarily, had the opposite effect and probably contributed to the notion of “Fleming as a clever hack.” (All writers should “fail” as splendidly as Fleming did. In an era where most books sold only well enough to have one edition, one printing, The Spy Who Loved Me had eleven printings, even before Fleming’s death, in the Signet edition alone.)
There’s a left-handed compliment to Shakespeare that goes, “he had small Latine and lesse Greek,” which can be interpreted that it was amazing he could write as well as he did with only the primary education he was able to get at the local school. Fleming, for all his self-promotion of attending Eton and Sandhurst, did not have a college education and picked up his musical knowledge from where ever life took him. This makes it all the more impressive that he uses music as well as he does, and it is worth noting that when Fleming was writing his columns as “Atticus” for the Sunday Times, he was known to work in references to opera or even to ballet.
Although Bond’s taste in music is not as famous as that of fine food or of alcohol, music is a rich part of the enjoyment of Bond novels and it is worth it to explore the references to bands, to songs, and to musical styles as you read. So, the next time you and your Bondian friends are kicking back with martinis or Miller High Life (from six feet away, as I write this during COVID-19), you’ll be ready. When the required sniff at Bond’s lack of musical knowledge comes, you can be the one to say, “Well, actually . . .” and really have something to contribute.
F.L. Toth has been singing opera for the sheer joy of it since she was nine. She has performed with what is now Opera Saratoga and took classes at the Crane School of Music while earning a degree in Art History; she also studied vocal performance at the college which is now known as Liverpool Hope.
A librarian of two decades experience, she has written multiple articles on Ian Fleming, specializing in his time in the United States, and has presented at SAMLA (South Atlantic Modern Language Association) on the topic of Ian Fleming and feminism. Follow on Twitter @007intheAdirondacks @3Octaves.
The Art of the Matter by F. L Toth