With No Time to Die finally in theatres it seems timely to revisit the exquisite pleasures of 1960s-derivative spy music. The genre and its distinctive vibe was arguably invented when British session guitar player Vic Flick was invited to add some ‘punch’ to Monty Norman’s “James Bond Theme” before the release of the first Bond film, 1962’s Dr. No. With the addition of John Barry’s horn arrangement and Flick’s instantly recognizable rumbly guitar hooks, the track is as much a brand for the franchise as Moneypenny and the Walther PPK. Since then the song has appeared in all 25 official Bond films and, according to the website SecondHandSongs, been covered more than 153 times. Lanny Flowers produced a killer version for the superb Curry Cuts powerpop collection of Bond covers, Songs, Bond Songs, reviewed in detail here. But we won’t limit ourselves to just the double-O ranks in taking up our spy music theme. Flick’s guitar sound became synonymous with spy music more generally in the 1960s, which means it’s all pretty groovy.
Of course, we have to begin with the Bond theme, this time from Boston’s premier twang band The Weisstronauts. The take is pretty traditional, except when it’s not. Check out the intriguing guitar counterpoint that surfaces early in the tune or the brief Hawaiian guitar flourishes. It’s from the fab wiaiwya Bond songs covers album, A Girl and a Gun. Next up, the inspiration for this spy-themed post, The Outta Sites stunning spy song EP, Shaken Not Stirred: The Secret Agent Sessions. The band offer up covers of classics like “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and “You Only Live Twice” as well as more off-the-beaten-track – but still great – material like the “Theme from Our Man Flint,” James Coburn’s satiric take on Bond from 1966. But the price of admission is paid entirely with their “Secret Agent Medley” combining elements of Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man,” “The James Bond Theme,” “Goldfinger,” and “Live and Let Die.” “Double Agent” is also a treat with its relentless organ-driven sense of panic and excitement. Sticking to the instrumental side of spy music, San Diego’s The Shambles serve up a rare non-vocal track with “A Girl to Kill For,” the b-side to their 1995 single “(We’ve Got a) Groovy Thing” and deep cut on their 1996 album Clouds All Day. The song packs the requisite degree of guitar-driven ominous dread in a concise 2 minute workout.
Sometimes people like to sing about spies and spying. Like when Starbelly admit to some on-the-side employment in “I Am a Spy,” one of a load of bonus cuts that appear on the 2012 reboot of their 1998 album Lemon Fresh. The song has the cool melodic bite of any of The Odds 1990s material, with the spy guitar shots just an added benefit. Santa Barbara’s The Tearaways tell Bond’s story in musical form on their “James Bond.” The track is a supremely pleasant poprock tune with maximum Bond film-title name-dropping exposition. Now if you want to dig back into more historical spy song treatments, check out Ace Records fantastic collection of 1960s tunes, Come Spy With Us: The Secret Agent Songbook, featuring John Barry, Dusty Springfield, the Supremes, Nancy Sinatra, and many more. As you leave this post and the credits roll, taking us out are The Surf Trio’s “Cocktails with Bond,” basically a languid cocktail interpretation of the Bond theme, from the Exotic Guitars compilation.
The Cold War may be over but our nostalgia for the combination of international people of mystery and rumbly guitar lives on. Bond will return, undoubtedly inspiring another wave of cool tunes and covers.
It’s so close you can almost taste the vodka cocktails. Summer! And that means music to accompany those warm breezes, surf and sand, and lazy, hazy days of scorching heat. To that end, let me present an almost summer bevy of selections for your mixtape, uh, I mean, playlist. In this first of two installments, we offer up 20 suggestions for high rotation seasonal singles.
Let’s get started with my hometown, Vancouver, and some nice ringing guitar from The Uptights on “The Pulse.” The song is from the longplayer Back Again, which came out right near the end of 2020. I love the organ that really comes to fore as the song progresses. 4000 kilometres away (but still in Canada!) Waterloo’s B.U.D. rises from the ashes of Goldfinch in a new solo project from Omar Elkhatib. There’s not much not to like here. Crunchy guitars, punchy synths, and a solid swinging hook anchors “What’s the Point of This (If I’m Not Into It).” A promised follow up EP has yet to materialize but a few more singles have arrived, like the rollicking fun “Popstar Rock N’ Roll.” Ok, enough Canadian content (for now), we’re off the NYC and a bit of a boundary tester for this blog from Laura Stephenson. “After Those Who Mean It” is just a heart-wrenching acoustic number from an artist who normally rocks it up a bit more. There’s something searing and so melancholy about this performance. I can be such a sucker for a good sad song. In Memphis, Your Academy offer a pick-me-up with “Starlight,” a great guitar poprock tune with a slight country feel, from their recent self-titled debut. Now I say ‘debut’ but the band are all veterans of the local music scene and it shows all over this tight record. Brooklyn’s Answering Machine also have a debut album out (well, actually, it’s been out for a year …). Verdict? Bad Luck is more of the eerie melodic rock goodness that appeared on previous EPs and stand-alone singles. For me, the stand out song here is “Marie.” The lead vocal has the soulful country ache of Neko Case cast against a driving lead guitar hook and surging rock and roll beat. It would be a killer cut live in concert, no doubt.
Now, generally speaking, I’m not a live album guy. But when I saw the cover of The ShamblesLive at the Casbah with its obvious nods to The Beatles Second Album (Long Tall Sally in Canada) I thought it warranted a needle drop. The opening cut was the band grinding through their first single from 1993, “(She’s Used to Playing With) Fire,” and from the opening rhythm guitar I was hooked. The performance is anything but a shambles: loose yet solid, exciting, with great harmony vocals. The album was assembled from various shows at this location early in the new millennium and it showcases the band’s strong material and serious live chops. Another California band effectively working the retro rock and roll scene are The Forty Nineteens. Their new album The New Roaring Twenties vibes those classic 1960s rock and roll outfits (e.g. Rolling Stones, CCR) while still giving off a bit of 1980s indie (a la The Replacements), depending on which track you pick. I was torn about whether to choose the rockin’ Joe Walsh-ed vocal on “I’m Always Questioning Days” or the more melodic package that is “It’s the Worst Thing I Could Do.” I went with the latter, with its pumping piano and judicious use of jangle guitar. Throwback Suburbia’s drummer had an interesting idea. Write some songs and then ask a gang of different artists to sing on different tracks for a new band, Rooftop Screamers, and a new album, Next Level. It’s a project idea that can easily lose its focus but Mike Collins makes it work, largely because the songwriting is so consistently good. Case in point: “Buckle Up,” featuring Jellyfish vocalist Tim Smith. The song has the sleek pop aura of a top rank Crowded House single. I fell hard for the ear candy that was Ten Tonnes “Better Than Me” from his 2018 self-titled debut. Recently he reignited that spark with the glammish “Girl Are You Lonely Like Me?” with its shuffle beat and emotional vocal, kinda like The Vaccines or Haircut 100 in therapy. The kid’s got swing and killer sing-along background vocals. For those of us who can’t get enough of the Bryds, a very special record is due out soon from an exquisite jangle-friendly band, The Floor Models. You can get a taste of their fab back catalogue from the 2013 retrospective Floor Your Love but here I want you to enjoy their indie-fied version of “Lady Friend,” a teaser from their soon-to-be-released album, In Flyte Entertainment: A Tribute to the Byrds.
Jeremy Porter and the Tucos’ “Dead Ringer” is straight ahead melodic Americana, reminding me of the more upbeat moments on that first Peter Case solo album back in 1986, particularly vocally. I love the synth snippet that kicks in at 3:10 in the final few moments of the solo. It’s featured on their new longplayer, Candy Coated Cannonball, and it’s just one of many highlights. Given that Ramirez Exposure’s latest album is named after an environmental newsletter that advocated the end of humanity as a solution to environmental crisis, the contents are surprisingly chirpy. Opening track “Bridges and Roads” is light and sunny, but it is the title track “Exit Times” that really grabbed my attention with its cool electric guitar arpeggiations and dreamy vocals. Sometimes I imagine NYC as just teeming with bedrooms for making pop music. Like the work from Goodman. I’ve featured this talented, almost totally one-man-band before and every new release reveals new depths and influences. On his new record Goodman Versus the Nostalgia Machine he is like Ray Davies reborn, piling up catchy tunes with clever commentary. “Bitter. Alone. Again” shimmers with sneaky, subtle hooks and vocals that add emotional colour and depth. From the mean streets of Baltimore Bombardier Jones offers us the cool vocal delivery of a Steve Miller. “Great Ideas” from Dare To Hope is just a straight up AM radio goodtime single, circa 1975. Love the spare piano solo to bursts on the scene two thirds in. Cotton Mather guitarist Harold Whit Williams has a side project that might conjure up the ‘s’ word for any remaining red diaper babies out there. It’s called Daily Worker. Now you don’t have to be a card carrying anything to enjoy what he’s doing here. I mean, check out the shuffling strut behind “I Got Hypnotized” with its creative mix of acoustic guitar rhythm, sixties organ, and tasty lead guitar. The rest of Hometown Hero is a winner too, with a Harrisonian soft rock flair competing with a Plimsoulsian new wave vibe.
You’d swear contemporary LA band Electric Looking Glass were giving it to you straight from 1968 Haight Ashbury in San Francisco. It’s not like they’re hiding their influences with an album title like Somewhere Flowers Grow. But it really is there in the music too. Opening cut “Purple, Red, Green, Blue and Yellow” kicks off with a solid blast of psychedelic pop guitar before opening up into a great bit of Turtles/Jefferson Airplane hippie poprock. Moving back to the future, there is something so cool about the brooding New Order-ish riff kicking off and driving Mattiel’s recent single, “Those Words.” I really enjoyed the rough-hewn rock and roll sound of the band’s last effort Satis Faction and this new song suggests there more where that came from. The band’s vocalist/songwriter Mattiel Brown really delivers on both here, with a striking performance and timely lyrics. Some bands like a real challenge, like writing a song about American President Warren G. Harding. Who, you might ask? He’s no Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, or Kennedy but The Rose Petals manage to turn out a western style performance a la True West or Rank and File all about Harding’s many foibles. It’s the opening track on the band’s engaging debut LP American Grenadine. Now for a complete change of mood, there’s Robert Sherwood. On Mr. Sherwood he showcases a bevy of light pop sketches that remind me Roddy Frame’s Aztec Camera. Sherwood does wonders with interesting vocal harmonies and spare but intriguing lead guitar work. On “Blue All Over” and the rest of this highly listenable record there’s more than a hint of a genius song arranger bearing similarities to Richard X. Heyman or the Eels’ Mark Everett. Ok, big finish time and what better band to close things out by taking us over the top than Weezer? Seems like an army of haters are out there just waiting for Rivers and Co. to stumble but the band just keeps on delivering the goods. The playful Van Weezer is no exception. “The End of the Game” cleverly rides the edge of rawk bombast with love while delivering the band’s signature knock-out hooks. And there’s more to love here – my blog writing friends can’t agree on what track they love the best.
The pent up energy for a perfect summer this year is swelling all out of control. People are desperate for fun. Here at Poprock Record we take our public service role seriously. So relax, we’ve got your music sorted. And even more is on the way with part II, coming soon.