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The New British Empire: Pop-Culture Powerhouses

Nov 15, 2012

It seems that every time you turn around, you find another anniversary of some big cultural or historical event. I'm weary of the media's habit of playing all these things up, so I'm abashed to admit I'm about to do just that.

But you see, in the same three-day period I recently saw the new James Bond picture, Skyfall, and Crossfire Hurricane, a new HBO documentary about The Rolling Stones. And because the Bond movies and the Stones both turn 50 this year, I began thinking about how they might fit together.

After all, half a century on, 007 and The Rolling Stones are still alive and kicking in a way that nobody in 1962 would have ever imagined. And in very different ways, both were fantasy reactions to the decline of the British Empire.

James Bond is the loyal servant of a class-bound establishment, a loner who's equal parts swashbuckling heroism and snobbery — he demands his martinis shaken, not stirred, and insists on Sea Island brand cotton. Generationally, he leans back toward the '50s, which was when Ian Fleming first created him. His heroism confirmed his country's continuing power, which made him "the man who saved Britain," to borrow the title of Simon Winder's terrific book on 007. Bond inhabits a moral universe forged by the stark clarities of World War II.

In contrast, The Rolling Stones leaned forward into a more ambiguous era. As Crossfire Hurricane reminds us, the Stones were consciously designed to occupy a less reputable place in the pop zeitgeist.

With their scruffiness, racy lyrics and drug use, the Stones represented the rejection of the social order that Bond was so devoutly defending. Like 007, they too offered a sense of danger, but not in the guns-and-knives way, although that would eventually happen at Altamont. They embodied psychic danger, a Dionysian force flirting with all manner of uncontrollable sensuality and violence. That was their appeal.

Of course, one thing Bond and the Stones always shared was a pre-feminist sense of male prerogative. Just as the women in the early Bond movies largely exist to be bedded or killed (sometimes both), so the women we encounter in Crossfire Hurricane are shrieking fans or groupies in various stages of undress.

At the same time, the idea of masculinity we find is very different. Where Bond has always been the straightest of arrows — Skyfall gets some laughs when the villain comes on all gay with 007 — maleness was always more complicated and modern with The Rolling Stones. This was most obvious in Mick Jagger, whose onstage presence was surprisingly androgynous — think of those weird outfits he skittered around in. His sexual electricity turned on everyone, female and male. This helped make him and the Stones feel current in a way that Bond never really did.

In 1962, when Dr. No first came out, nobody knew The Rolling Stones. Six years later, when Sean Connery quit playing 007, the Stones were bigger than Bond. The culture had shifted. People still went to see Bond movies, but they didn't matter to anyone. They'd become the prototype of today's boring blockbuster franchises — bloated and jokey and profoundly square. In contrast, The Rolling Stones had become not simply the greatest rock band of all time, but the darkest, most ferocious band ever to occupy the center of the cultural mainstream.

Yet history doesn't stop. While the Stones have endured, they haven't had that same cultural impact for over 30 years. Their shows are now fun, nostalgic extravaganzas, not flirtations with danger. Meanwhile, the very disconnection from reality that once made Bond feel irrelevant has proved to be a strength. Unlike The Rolling Stones, who are forever the same band, only older, 007 is timeless. Bond can be forever reinvented, reinterpreted, updated.

And as Skyfall is showing, he's more popular than ever. Indeed, in our ultra-meta world he's become an emblem of a Britain that knows its true importance lies in its contributions to pop culture. That's its empire now. Just ask the queen why she got in that helicopter with Daniel Craig at the Olympics.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

The English rock and roll band The Rolling Stones have been playing together for the last half-century. The story of their rise is chronicled in a new HBO documentary "Crossfire Hurricane," which follows their trajectory from, as Mick Jagger puts it, a band that everyone hated to a band everyone loved. Our critic-at-large John Powers has seen "Crossfire Hurricane," and he says it got him thinking about the Stones and their relationship to another British pop culture phenomenon that also emerged in 1962.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: It seems that every time you turn around, you find another anniversary of some big cultural or historical event. I'm weary of the media's habit of playing all these things up. So I'm abashed to admit that I'm about to do just that. But, you see, in the same three-day period, I recently saw the new James Bond picture "Skyfall," and "Crossfire Hurricane," a new HBO documentary about the Rolling Stones.

And because the Bond movies and the Stones both turn 50 this year, I began thinking about how they might fit together. After all, half a century on, 007 and the Rolling Stones are still alive and kicking in a way that nobody in 1962 would've ever imagined. In very different ways, both were fantasy reactions to the decline of the British Empire.

James Bond is the loyal servant of a class-bound establishment, a loner who's equal part swashbuckling heroism and snobbery. He demands his martinis shaken, not stirred, and insists on Sea Island brand cotton. Generationally, he leans back toward the '50s, which is when Ian Fleming first created him. His heroism confirmed his country's continuing power, making him the man who saved Britain, to borrow the title of Simon Winder's terrific book on 007.

Bond inhabits a mortal universe forged by the stark clarity of World War II. In contrast, the Rolling Stones leaned forward into a more ambiguous era. As "Crossfire Hurricane" reminds us, the Stones were consciously designed to occupy a less-reputable place in the pop zeitgeist. Here, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger talk about how producer Andrew Oldham helped manufacture their image.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CROSSFIRE HURRICANE")

KEITH RICHARDS: Of course, we have to talk about Andrew Oldham, who had been working for Brian Epstein with the Beatles. He went around London, and he heard that we were kicking up a storm in some clubs. He looks around and says, hey, there can't be just one band in England.

MICK JAGGER: Andrew wanted to make the Rolling Stones the anti-Beatles. So if you've got heroes, you've got an antihero, like in a movie. You've got good guys and bad guys. Andrew decided that the Rolling Stones were the bad guys. It wasn't just an accident. He thought the Rolling Stones would suit that image. It helped to have people that go along with it, or will fit the bill. It's good to have an actor that will play the part.

POWERS: In their scruffiness, racy lyrics and drug use, the Stones represented the rejection of the social order that Bond was so devoutly defending. Like 007, they, too, offered a sense of danger, but not in the guns-and-knives way - although that would eventually happen at Altamont. They embodied psychic danger, a Dionysian force flirting with all manner of uncontrollable sensuality and violence. That was their appeal.

Of course, one thing Bond and the Stones always shared was a pre-feminist sense of male prerogative. Just as the women in the early Bond movies largely exist to be bedded or killed - sometimes both - so the women we encounter in "Crossfire Hurricane" are shrieking fans or groupies in various stages of undress.

At the same time, the idea of masculinity, we find, is very different. Where Bond has always been the straightest of arrows - "Skyfall" gets some good laughs when the villain comes on all gay with 007 - maleness was always more complicated and modern with the Rolling Stones. This was most obvious in Mick Jagger, whose onstage presence was surprisingly androgynous.

Think of those weird outfits he skittered around in. His sexual electricity turned on everyone, female and male. This helped make him and the Stones feel current in a way that Bond never really did. In 1962, when "Dr. No" first came out, nobody knew the Rolling Stones. Six years later, when Sean Connery quit playing 007, the Stones were bigger than Bond. The culture had shifted.

People still went to see Bond movies, but they didn't matter to anyone. They'd become the prototype of today's boring blockbuster franchises: bloated and jokey and profoundly square. In contrast, the Rolling Stones had become not simply the greatest rock band of all time, but the darkest, most ferocious band ever to occupy the center of the cultural mainstream.

Yet history doesn't stop. While the Stones have endured, they haven't had that same cultural impact for over 30 years. Their shows are now fun, nostalgic extravaganzas, not flirtations with danger. Meanwhile, the very disconnection from reality that once made Bond feel irrelevant has proved to be a strength. Unlike the Rolling Stones - who are forever the same band, only older - 007 is timeless. Bond can be forever reinvented, reinterpreted, updated.

And as "Skyfall" is showing, he's more popular than ever. Indeed, in our ultra-meta world, he's become an emblem of a Britain that knows its true importance lies in its contributions to pop culture. That's its empire now. Just ask the Queen why she got in that helicopter with Daniel Craig at the Olympics.

DAVIES: John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and Vogue.com. "Crossfire Hurricane" premiers tonight on HBO. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.