Year of Bond, the Beatles and of Marilyn's birthday song
Published 07/10/2012 | 05:00
1962 was a year of seismic cultural changes and fear of mutually assured destruction, recalls David Robson
IT was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Fifty years ago on Friday, the first James Bond film, Dr No, had its world premiere at the London Pavilion in Piccadilly Circus, a glamorous event launching an obsession that is still with us. The following day Love Me Do, the Beatles' first single, was released rather more quietly. It became a top 20 hit -- it got to No 17 -- largely because their manager Brian Epstein had bought 10,000 copies, most of which remained unsold.
Prompted by hundreds of requests from Liverpool, Love Me Do got its first airing on Radio Luxembourg. George Harrison sat at home by the wireless all evening with his mother waiting to hear it. She had given up and gone to bed when he rushed upstairs shouting: "We're on, we're on."
Ian Fleming was less enthused by his night in the cinema and the party afterwards. Though he knew Bond films would make him a far richer and more famous man, he was exhausted and ill, already suffering from the ailments that killed him less than two years later at the age of 56.
Ten days later, and just a couple of hundred miles from where Ursula Andress had emerged bikini-clad from the sea, another plot started to unfold. A US air force U-2 plane on a photo-reconnaissance mission spotted a Soviet missile base being constructed in Cuba. For the following fortnight, Russia and America faced each other down.
"This was not only the most dangerous moment of the Cold War," wrote President Kennedy's aide, the historian Arthur Schlesinger, "it was the most dangerous moment in human history."
Experts at the time calculated that, had the worst attack and retaliation taken place, 215 million people would have died at once.
Even today's most hysterical climate-change/global-warming doomsters find it impossible to generate anything even vaguely approaching what the world felt then, nor indeed what many felt throughout the decades of the Cold War, when the H-bomb seemed to carry clear and present danger. It seemed quite sensible to believe that the world would end in a mushroom cloud.
The A-bombs that had been unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki less than 20 years previously were a vivid memory. During those terrifying missile-crisis days, people did not panic -- there was no point. But millions genuinely did go to bed wondering whether they would still be alive in the morning.
More importantly, however, Kennedy didn't panic. As a newly, and narrowly elected, president, he had met Russia's president Khrushchev at a summit conference in Vienna in 1961 and been shocked by what a brutal man Khrushchev seemed.
But when the crisis came, it was never his instinct to follow his chiefs of staff and attack. Nor was he going to appease. In the end, it was Khrushchev who blinked.
Fantasy and reality inform each other and intertwine. Ian Fleming wrote as he did because of his wartime experiences in secret operations. Kennedy's misguided support of the ludicrous and hopeless attempt by exiles to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs early in 1961 had brought a spike in Fleming's book sales -- the threat of real trouble stimulating the appetite for fantasy.
One US advertisement for a Bond book, under the caption "an increase in tension", showed the White House with a single upstairs light on and the words: "You can bet he's reading one of those Ian Fleming thrillers."
When the film of Dr No was released in America in 1963, Kennedy demanded an early screening at the White House. On the night before he was assassinated, Kennedy is said to have been reading a Bond novel and so was his killer, Lee Harvey Oswald.
The Cuban missile crisis confronted us with the threat of total destruction and, after that, things never seemed quite so frightening again. The arrival of Bond and the Beatles seems now to have coincided with many other things that signalled the start of a different world. In 1962 That Was The Week That Was appeared on British television, satirising leaders for the amusement of the citizenry -- not the sort of thing previously certified by the BBC.
The Rolling Stones, the Beatles' naughtier cousins, played their first gig at the Marquee in London's Soho.
It was the year when Z-Cars took over from Dixon of Dock Green as the tele-version of policing. The first newspaper colour supplement was launched that February: on the cover were 11 small photographs of the fashion model Jean Shrimpton and one of the footballer Jimmy McIlroy, something you might see in an upmarket newspaper today, but not in 1952, or even 1959.
The people who are reaching pensionable age now, who grew up listening to the Beatles and, for the first time, wearing clothes quite different from their mum and dad, remain different in attitude from people just a few years older, who matured listening to trad jazz, wearing sports jackets and who could dance the waltz and the quickstep.
The Beatles, by introducing the middle classes to rock'n'roll, are more than anyone else responsible for the sickening sight of old men trying to dance as they did when they were 18. They put an end to growing old gracefully on the dance floor.
On May 19, 1962, Marilyn Monroe had sung 'happy birthday' to President Kennedy at his Madison Square Garden party, with special lyrics and wearing that special dress:
"Thanks, Mr President
For all the things you've done
The battles that you've won
The way you deal with US Steel
And our problems by the ton
We thank you so much"
It was Kennedy's 45th birthday. He didn't see 47. Marilyn Monroe was 36, the ultimate goddess of old-fashioned Hollywood sex appeal. We have not seen her like again, nor could we ever. She died less than two months later. She didn't survive 1962 -- but the Beatles did and James Bond did, and so did all the rest of us.