Drinking at the Duck - Robert Rotifer April 2015
I used to have a bit of a thing about James Bond, in spite of the dubious politics. I thought the whole franchise was a great technicolor excuse for wearing smart suits and shoes in difficult circumstances, and if that reminds you of a certain saying popular among a certain kind of people then you will know exactly where I'm coming from.
If it doesn't, let's just say it's a mod thing.
Beyond that I liked Desmond Dekker's “007 (Shanty Town)” and the whole idea of Jamaican Rudeboys appropriating this British imperialist super hero.
I also enjoyed the toe-curling daftness of the jokes that was amplified by the stilted delivery of the dubbed dialogue, which painfully jarred with the supposed coolness of it all (growing up in Austria, the Bond I knew spoke German, and I've only seen one or two of the films in the original version. Maybe they're all different jokes in English, that would explain a lot).
And then that 1990s post-ironic thing happened, and all of a sudden James Bond wasn't the stuff of afternoon telly re-runs but a pop cultural national treasure, and I gradually fell out of love with it all.
With the exception of Lazenby, of course. Everyone loves the Lazenby one, rightly so.
During my time in London I lived quite close to 2 Willow Road, the modernist abode of Ernö Goldfinger, Hungarian immigrant, champagne socialist and architect of Trellick and Balfron Towers whose work inspired the reactionary Ian Fleming to name one of his most famous villains. Ironically, we have come to associate Fleming's creation with the modernist design of his villains' lairs when he himself much preferred the original old Hampstead cottages that had been torn down in favour of Goldfinger's row of buildings at Willow Road.
In 2004 I moved from London to Canterbury, gradually exploring the countryside around the town, when I had another unexpected run-in with the world of Bond/Fleming. There's a place just a ten minutes drive away from my home, improbably called Pett Bottom (people who have actually read Fleming's books will recognise this as the place where little boy Bond lived with his aunt). There's a pub at the end of that village called The Duck Inn (also mentioned by Fleming), and according to a blue plaque on its walls, that's where the old bigot, who owned quite a pile in nearby Bekesbourne, used to hang out while writing “You Only Live Twice”, before succumbing to his second heart attack in a Canterbury hotel and dying in Kent & Canterbury Hospital in 1964 at the age of 56.
“He drank a lot here, I guess”, said the landlady when I went to visit the place yesterday. “Apparently, he was quite a drinker. If you had those Martinis that are described in the books, you'd be either impotent or on the floor. To be honest, I didn't know much about Fleming until we took over the place eighteen months ago.” Recently, a German film crew came round to film for a documentary about Fleming and Bond. “They asked if he was much like around here. I just told them that no one had had a bad word to say about him.”
I told the landlady that I'd been to the pub before under the former owners, and I remember there being more Bond-related stuff on the walls (I seem to remember some framed information about “Moonraker” on the toilets. Something to do with Bond taking just twenty minutes from the Old Dover Road in Canterbury down to Dover. That particular, though possibly misremembered, boast stuck because on a good day that's exactly how long it takes me to the ferry port as well, without breaking the speed limit. I suppose they hadn't built the dual carriageway yet in Bond's day).
Right now all I could see was the plaque outside, and what might have been a picture of Count Louis Zborowski's Chitty Bang Bang, which was the inspiration for Fleming's “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” (see what he did there?). There was also a rather nice artistic woodcut print of Ian Fleming with a gun.
The landlady at the Duck said that she had made the effort to read “You Only Live Twice”, and that it had been “very hard work indeed. a) because it's unbelievably sexist...” And b)? “Because it's just... badly written. It's the E.L. James of its time.”
The lunch was amazing, by the way. You can see photos of some of the dishes, the pub and the surrounding landscape on their website: http://www.theduckpettbottom.com
Speaking of websites, you would expect some Bond geeks to have already explored the Kent connections, and indeed they have, exhaustively so: http://www.007magazine.co.uk/fleming/kentish01.htm
007magazine even mentions my favourite Bond factoid, that the National Express bus route between London and the coast at Deal, passing through Canterbury and Dover on the way is the 007: “Surely no coincidence.” Indeed.
But this blog is supposed to be about the “A Girl and a Gun” covers compilation and my contribution to it, and of course, the music of Bond is a whole different kettle of fish, what with John Barry's genius inventing an instantly recognisable sonic world of suaveness and loucheness and elegance in menace.
It is testament to Barry's originality that none of the later Bond songs has ever dared to entirely ditch the formula of his grandly orchestrated chromatic theme, but with the passing of the decades the trademark musical tropes have worn thinner and thinner, with so much clutter added to disguise the decline.
To that effect, “Goldeneye”, the 1995 song I've been chosen to cover, isn't exactly a stone-cold classic. You can tell that by how there are no chord sheets for it on the internet. Not that we need those, of course!
Anyway, it seems it was written for Tina Turner by Bono and the Edge, and from what I can make out they've taken the generic Bond chord sequence and tacked on two similar bits in what seems like arbitrarily different keys, presumably to achieve a sort of anti-musical disjointed feel.
Poor Tina Turner, who famously said the she didn't hear a tune in “River Deep Mountain High”, what must she have thought of this? How could she say “Rubbish!” to U2 in their 1995 pomp?
I do realise that I've painted myself into a bit of a corner here: Whatever I say next (I've polished a turd/I've found its hidden beauty/It's grown on me, but only in my own version) will end up sounding horribly arrogant. But if I didn't feel I could improve on this particular original there really would be no point in doing it at all. And in the end it's a much more thankful task to cover a song nobody seems to be particularly fond of.
So let's just say I transposed the thing, added some harmonies and sonically tried to move it into some sort of perpetual sixties world which all the best Bond songs should inhabit anyway. Only mine is a bit Shabby Road. Hope you like it.