The Beatles, Bond & A Culture War Over George Lazenby’s Hair

At the end of the 1960s, Bond was old hat as the hippies wafted their locks over culture. John Higgs, author of a new book on 007, the Beatles and British identity, explores the culture war that raged over follicular extravagance

George Lazenby was ordered not to attend the Odeon Leicester Square royal premiere of 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, his debut Bond movie. He had grown a black beard and long hair after filming had finished, and looked not unlike the Northern Irish footballer George Best. In the eyes of producer Cubby Broccoli, he looked like a hippy. Broccoli would rather premiere his film with no star than one who looked like that.

To modern eyes, Broccoli’s attitude looks like a major overreaction. But the issue of men’s hair in the late 1960s was the frontline of a culture war. Like most culture wars, it appears absurd in hindsight. But what was being fought over wasn’t really hair, but the complicated mix of changing attitudes and values behind it. Hair was a visual manifestation of people’s sense of identity, and as such could generate strong emotions.

The beginnings of this clash were evident when the Beatles first landed in America in February 1964. Beatlemania exploded in the United States and the band were greeted at the airport by thousands of screaming girls and a huge mob of extremely patronising journalists. Their condescending attitude was most evident when they asked the Beatles about their mop-top hair, which they did repeatedly. The press conference at the airport immediately after they had landed in New York is a good example.

Reporter #1: How many of you are bald if you have to wear those wigs?

Ringo: It’s all of us.

Paul: I’m bald.

John: Oh, we’re all bald.

Paul: Don’t tell anyone please.

John: And deaf and dumb too.

Reporter #2: Are you for real?

John: Come on and have a feel.

Reporter #3: I have a question – won’t you get a haircut at all?

Ringo: No.

Paul: No thanks.

George: I had one yesterday.

The American press pack were almost entirely male and typically wore their hair short, either swept back or with a side parting, and with a liberal application of pomade, Brylcreem or some other shiny hair product. No hair was out of place, even if each strand was plastered to the scalp in a manner that now looks dirty or greasy. It was the same look that James Bond had worn when he arrived on screen in 1962’s Dr. No. It was, simply, the socially accepted way in which men in Western Europe and North America were supposed to wear their hair.

The Teddy Boys and rockers of the 1950s had made a point of growing their hair longer than would have been allowed in the armed forces. They knew how much collar-length hair and large quiffs annoyed those who had fought in the Second World War and spent their youth with army regulation haircuts. But they too used plenty of product to keep their hair in place, and they too had hair which was shiny and unmoving. They did not want to have their masculinity questioned.

The idea that men should have short hair and women long was a concept that was supported by the Bible. As the Book of Corinthians states, “Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.” As McCartney remarked in 1966, “There they were in America, all getting house-trained for adulthood with their indisputable principle of life: short hair equals men, long hair equals women. Well, we got rid of that small convention for them.”

Such was the social taboo about feminine-appearing men that Fleming gave Blofeld, his most evil of villains, a feminine aspect. “Blofeld’s own eyes were deep black pools, surrounded – totally surrounded, as Mussolini’s were – by very clear whites,” he wrote. “The doll-like effect of this unusual symmetry was enhanced by the long silken black eyelashes, that should have belonged to a woman.” It’s striking how much this description of Fleming’s ultimate villain sounds like Paul McCartney.

These changes were not lost on George Lazenby. Actor Joanna Lumley, who played one of Blofeld’s ‘Angels of Death’, remembers that Lazenby kept himself to himself on the set, and spent a long time alone trying to play the Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude’ on the guitar. As Lazenby described the situation, “People weren’t into James Bond. Out of vogue, it wasn’t current. Make love not war [. . .] I also found that it was very hard to get laid in the suit”. This comment makes Lazenby the only actor to claim that being cast as James Bond was an impediment to their sex lives.

For Lazenby, it seemed evident that an establishment assassin was so against the spirit of the times that there could be no future in the role. “Bond is a brute [. . .] I’ve already put him behind me. I will never play him again. Peace – that’s the message now,” he said at the end of 1969. He had been offered a seven-film contract with a million-dollar signing fee, but chose instead to walk away. With hindsight, and with children to raise and little income in the 1970s, he came to recognise that he had made a bad choice. But no one can make decisions with hindsight, and by the logic of 1969 the counterculture had won – Bond’s establishment was over.

The key factor here was deference. During the 1950s, it was still expected that working people would be deferential to members of the establishment. This was an aspect of England that other countries mocked, as if English people had some form of forelock-tugging gene. To the upper classes, it all seemed right and proper – a mark of deserved respect, rather than an act of fear or self-preservation. The scene on the train in A Hard Day’s Night where the Beatles were not deferential to Richard Vernon’s establishment gentleman captured the moment that, after many centuries, this practice ended. To the post-war youth, aristocrats weren’t impressive or ‘better’. They were ridiculous, because they believed in the delusion of their superiority. This end of deference in the 1960s paved the way for comedy troupes in the 1970s like Monty Python to endlessly mock the ‘upper-class twits’.

Deference towards the upper classes had long been a significant social tool for maintaining and policing the status quo. Once that ended, the establishment were in trouble – or so it seemed at the time. In this context, it made sense that Lazenby would walk away from Bond in the belief that the establishment was over. The Beatles, it seemed, had won. But as unthinkable as it would have been to George Lazenby when he grew his wild, wavy locks and turned down wealth and fame, it was not James Bond that was about to die. It was the Beatles.

Love & Let Die – Bond, The Beatles and the British Psyche by John Higgs is out now, published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson. For more information, go here

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