James Bond Has Long Shared a Surprising Connection to The Beatles
As 007’s big-screen debut turns 60, we look back at the franchise’s ties to the legendary recording studio Abbey Road.
The first time 007 crossed over with the Beatles ranks as one of the rare times in the spy’s 60-year history in which he comes off as uncool. In 1964’s Goldfinger, Sean Connery drops a one-liner that has aged about as well as the flat champagne he would no doubt refuse to drink. “My dear girl, there are some things that just aren't done, such as drinking Dom Perignon '53 above the temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit,” smirks Connery to a blonde bedmate. “That's just as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs!”
At the time, this line was intended to reveal 007’s sophistication. A worldly, debonair man like himself might put on some jazz to set the mood, but he’d never bother with anything as crass as “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” But like so many things about James Bond, his taste in music has evolved with the times—to the point that Paul McCartney was tapped to write and perform “Live and Let Die” less than a decade after Connery slagged off the Beatles. Today, James Bond and the Beatles are arguably the two greatest and most enduring British pop-cultural exports of the 20th century—and the path to both leads straight through Abbey Road.
Though it was founded in 1931 as EMI Recording Studios in Greater London’s City of Westminster, Abbey Road is most associated with the title of one of the Beatles’ best albums (and for inspiring countless tourists to annoy local motorists by pausing in the middle of the road for a photo in an otherwise unassuming pocket of northwestern London). The studio was renamed in 1976 to capitalize on its association with the Beatles, who recorded 190 of their 210 songs within its walls and released their Abbey Road in 1969, but its alumni list also includes Pink Floyd, Kate Bush, Radiohead, and multitudes of other top artists.
But for all the iconic groups that have laid down tracks in Abbey Road’s Studio Two, which is renowned for its ever-expanding role in rock history, the list of film scores recorded at Studio One—a space large enough to accommodate a full orchestra—might be even more impressive. It’s there that Abbey Road’s history with the Bond franchise ends up cutting deeper than you might expect. Since 1988, the famed recording studio has been equipped with speakers from Bowers & Wilkins, a renowned British audio company whose founder could have been a contemporary and colleague of 007 himself.
John Bowers, the company's eponymous founder, was just 17 when he joined the Royal Corps of Signals at the onset of World War II. Already fascinated by radio, he was recruited by MI6, the same organization that James Bond himself reported to in the 20-odd times he’s saved the world. As a real-life MI6 operative, Bowers maintained clandestine radio contact with both British agents and resistance fighters across Europe. He also met Roy Wilkins, a colleague who quickly became a friend, and the pair agreed that they’d go into business together after they’d won the war.
Setting up a small shop in Bowers’ hometown of Worthing, England, Bowers supplemented the primary business of selling, renting, and repairing radios for fellow enthusiasts with a sideline in manufacturing his own speakers. Bowers, a classical music fan, was frustrated that no speaker could simulate the feeling of attending a live performance, and his tinkering aimed to make listening to a recording as close as possible to actually being in the room with the musicians. By the time Bowers’ obsession with finding new ways to building a better speaker became the company’s actual future, the 1960s were nearing their end, with Sean Connery handing over his tuxedo and Walther PPK to George Lazenby for 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (and then promptly taking it back for 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever).
It was nearly two decades later—and two Bond actors later—when Abbey Road officially adopted Bowers & Wilkins’ Matrix 801 speakers as the reference speakers used in its recording studios. Those speakers had been the result of four years of research, and were designed by engineers explicitly encouraged to do everything they could think of to make the best possible loudspeakers in the world, without concern about previous conventions or cost. Shortly after, in the 1980s, Abbey Road’s famed Studio One, the world’s largest purpose-built recording space, became the gold standard for recording bombastic film soundtracks, welcoming movie franchises including Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter.
Given the full weight of history, there was something especially potent about Abbey Road playing host to Adele and a 77-piece orchestra for the title theme of 2012's Skyfall—an instant classic, a song that made Daniel Craig cry, and the first Bond theme to win an Academy Award. (Sam Smith also dropped in to Abbey Road to record parts of “Writing’s on the Wall,” the Oscar-winning theme he co-wrote with Jimmy Napes for the 2015 Bond movie Spectre.)
“Skyfall,” along with the iconic “James Bond Theme” and Shirley Bassey’s immortal “Goldfinger,” were reprised by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at a recent event held at Abbey Road to celebrate Bowers & Wilkins’ latest crossover with the Bond franchise, including a special set of headphones made to match the midnight blue tuxedo Sean Connery wore in Dr. No. At Abbey Road, 150 attendees were invited to do their best Bond impressions by showing up in evening gowns or tuxedos. (No one was brave enough to try to pull off Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale swim trunks.)
Still: For one evening, Bollinger champagne was popped and Vesper martinis were poured in Abbey Road’s Studio Two, just across the hall from where Adele recorded “Skyfall.” Walking through the halls of the building feels like an intimate tour of recent Hollywood history—and not just because the walls are lined with signed posters bearing gushing handwritten messages from filmmakers and stars.
But the studios, and their control rooms, carry a different kind of weight: The history of so much genuinely iconic work, now heard on radios and in movie theaters across the world, but first performed and heard here in these rooms, which are large but somehow intimate. It’s fitting that the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra also recently commemorated the franchise’s 60th anniversary by recording new arrangements of all 25 James Bond theme songs at Abbey Road—an exhaustive tribute to the full history of 007, and a franchise built around music that has managed to be both of-the-moment and timeless.
“The Bond theme has been in our lives for as long as we can remember,” said Skyfall director Sam Mendes earlier this year. “You know, you’re in the womb… what do you hear? The heartbeat and the Bond theme.” Addressing the crowd gathered to celebrate 007 at Abbey Road in November, David Arnold—the composer behind five Bond films, including the franchise-relaunching Casino Royale—noted that no one in the room was likely old enough to remember a time before James Bond was a global icon. Watching a video that paid tribute to the series’ history, including his role in it, made Arnold “weirdly emotional,” he said. “It still feels like an enormous honor.”
“Why did I start writing music? Because when I was eight years old, I saw You Only Live Twice,” said Arnold. “I wanted to be a part of the thing that made this noise. To make you feel the way I felt.” And standing there in Abbey Road, it was hard to imagine feeling any different.