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Rock'n'roll beats 'shaken not stirred'

Paul Vallely weighs up Sixties beacons James Bond and The Beatles
  • @pvall

The decade that marked the watershed in 20th-century popular culture began, not as Philip Larkin would have it, in 1963, but on 5 October 1962 – the day, half a century ago, when the first James Bond movie opened and the first Lennon & McCartney single, "Love Me Do", was released.

That was, in the words of The Beatles' musical svengali George Martin, "the day the world changed". Out went the received-pronunciation Britain of the bowler hat and brolly. In came the flat drawling vowels of Liverpool and a hard-edged Scottish burr. Out went Mantovani and Danger Man and in came the raw energy of the Merseybeat and the daring cocktail of action, sex and arch-eyebrowed amorality of the cinematic 007.

The suave good looks, cruel-mouth and ironic humour of Sean Connery had about them some of the same dangerous sexuality that screaming teenage girls saw in John Lennon. They were totems of a counter-culture. The Beatles burned themselves out in less than a decade. But Bond has gone on to become the longest continually-running film series in history. The difference is instructive.

Setting out to satisfy the Cold War appetite for spy thrillers, the Bond movies hit upon a formula of cocktails and casinos, stylish fashion and exotic settings, fast cars and faster women, which has endured for half a century, refreshed by a succession of six actors over 22 films.

As the decades passed, the nature of the gadgetry altered with the technology of the times. Bond abandoned his trademark "shaken, not stirred" martini for a product-placement Heineken lager. And author Ian Fleming's low regard for women was tempered by bringing in the masterful Judi Dench as Bond's female spymaster. But these tweaks never altered the basic franchise. The lapels of his jacket narrowed and widened but the Bond template has remained unchanged.

By contrast, the trajectory of The Beatles' brief but brilliant career took them from the fresh dynamism of "Love Me Do" to the multilayered complexity of "A Day in the Life" in just five years. They began as the boys-next-door, along with fellow mop-haired Scousers such as The Searchers, Swinging Blue Jeans and Gerry and the Pacemakers. But they emerged out of the explosion of Beatlemania as a force of constantly changing creativity. Titles such as "She Loves You", "Norwegian Wood", "For No One", "Paperback Writer", "Penny Lane", "I Am the Walrus", "Blackbird", "Hey Jude" and "Let It Be" chronicled an extraordinary journey that combined a gift for melody unparalleled since Schubert with a revolution in what was understood by popular music.

There were points of confluence. Early on, Connery quipped to a glamourpuss: "My dear girl, there are some things that just aren't done, such as drinking Dom Pérignon '53 above a temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit. That's as bad as listening to The Beatles without earmuffs!" And with considerably less irony, Paul McCartney in his later solo days composed the theme song of the 1973 Bond movie "Live and Let Die".

When the new Bond movie, Skyfall, the 23rd, premieres this month we may expect to be entertained. But tonight a remastered edition of The Beatles' 1967 film, Magical Mystery Tour, will be shown on BBC2. It will be preceded by an Arena documentary on the making of the movie which was critically derided at the time but can now be seen as the psychedelic precursor of a new style of humour – when Monty Python's Flying Circus made its debut on BBC television two years later, it changed the face of comedy. In the end, what Bond and The Beatles reveal is the difference between amusement and art.