Secret Agent Man (1966)

Johnny Rivers

Written by P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri
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Secret Agent Whisky Exterior


One of the best among many good things about “Secret Agent Man” is that it was recorded “almost live” at the Whiskey a Go Go in Los Angeles, the ultra venue for Rock-N-Roll in the city in the 1960s.

Indeed, it was at The Whisky that L.A. Rock-N-Roll was first given life.

When the club opened, Johnny Rivers and his group were the house band. They would be supplanted by The Doors in short order.

“Secret Agent Man” – a send-up of Cold War mania

 Secret Agent Man Whisky Interior 1Exterior and interior shots of The Whisky in the mid-1960s

The song is termed “almost live” because once the in-club-recorded track was taken back to the studio for cleaning up, two of the more outstanding features – the hooks – of “Secret Agent Man” were dubbed in: Jim Mesi’s guitar solo suggestive of James Bond movie themes and the hand clapping, that gave hipness and swing a la The Beatles to many contemporaneous 60s hits.

Secret Agent Man Dr No

Of course, the solo riff has become as familiar as an old shoe, but it still has magic if you’ve never heard it or if you haven’t heard it in a few years. (Eddie Van Halen claims he learned to play guitar by imitating it, as did so many aspiring guitarists of the era.) The original James Bond theme music was first recorded in 1962. British guitarist Vick Flick was paid about $25 for the immortal session. Used in almost every Bond production since Dr. No in 1962, it was most recently heard in 2012’s Skyfall.

Fabulously, Mesi’s guitar lead on “Secret Agent Man” does double duty not just as a grab from the James Bond file drawer but as a piece of surfing music, completely fitting and just for an L.A. band like the one Rivers fronted. It helps “Secret Agent Man” nuzzle into a position in the top 200 of all-time classic Rock-N-Roll songs. 

While Cold War paranoia had subsided somewhat by the time Rivers got into the spy game, the romance of the lone wolf agent was still in high gear.

Ironically, “Secret Agent Man’s” release year of 1966 was the only year from 1962 to ’67 in which no James Bond movie was issued. It might be that the absence of 007 allowed “Secret Agent Man” to slake the thirst of those missing M-I-5 action, sex and romance.

Songwriters, P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri, seized on a Fleming’s novelistic vision of the Cold War’s secret global battles – one that had been pushed through the movie director’s sausage-maker – and created a snapshot of that fictional world in sound. Impressively, it’s all accomplished in three minutes.

Together, Sloan and Barri were responsible for writing a few other giant hits like “You Baby” by The Turtles. On his own Sloan wrote the social protest classic “Eve Of Destruction” performed by Barry McGuire.

Secret Agent double guitarsJohnny Rivers’ vocals should be praised. He has one of the more unique singing accents, a cross between his early New York City upbringing and the influence of his family’s move to Baton Rouge, where he lived and absorbed sights and sounds of the Mississippi during his teen years. The deep growl of the big city is stirred in with the soulful country gumbo of Louisiana. In his delivery of “Secret Agent Man” you can also feel a winking attitude that hints discreetly at the satirical possibilities inherent in the music and lyrics.

The lyrics economically sketch out the world-under-glass of Bond-type characters, describing to perfection typical aspects of that real estate – all to up-tempo, danceable music. 

There’s a man who leads a life of danger
To everyone he meets he stays a stranger
With every move he makes another chance he takes
Odds are he won’t live to see tomorrow
 

The startling jangle of the guitars kicks, punches and jujitsus the chorus lyrics along:

Secret ayyygent man, secret ayyygent man,
They’ve given you a number and taken way your name.

Secret Agent Man IBM Punch CardGiven the general philosophical bent of the 60s, (though virtually all the other characters knew Bond’s actual name both on screen and in the Ian Fleming novels), it’s easy to grasp that there was a bit of social commentary in the line about being given a number and having a name taken away. Many people in the mid-60s were seeing the rise of the first computer intrusions into society. Russians, computer punch cards, the brave and the scary defined the new Western World.

“Secret Agent Man” touches upon the female villains of the Bond series as beautiful illusions:

Beware of pretty faces that you find
A pretty face can hide an evil mind
Ah, be careful what you say
Or you’ll give yourself away
Odds are you won’t live to see tomorrow
 

But its social commentary erupts anew with the final verse.

Swingin’ on the Riviera one day
And then layin’ in the Bombay alley next day
Oh no, you let the wrong word slip
While kissing persuasive lips
The odds are you won’t live to see tomorrow

This verse salutes Bond’s swinging lifestyle, getting all the girls but always being in some sort of poorly defined danger from them. London in the mid-60s was known as “Swinging London,” not in the partner-swapping sense, but in the fun-time, go-out-and-party-all-night sense. It was a very hot town and Bond seems to have arisen whole out of the scene. “Secret Agent Man” riffs beautifully on that.

Secret Agent Man Bombay“Secret Agent Man” also refers to what were in 1966 exotic, glamorous locations, the Riviera and Bombay. Today, those two spots are as familiar as mayonnaise on a BLT, but then they were as unusual to Americans as were bouillabaisse and saag ponir.

There are no trick pens or ejection seats in Aston-Martins in “Secret Agent Man.” The number captures the heart of Rock-N-Roll in an especially American way.

It’s a great dance song that, without its lyrics, would be at home at any local sock hop, beach dance or cocktail party. The Whisky a Go Go was a little bit of all those things. The ghosts of party animals now long past their prime can be summoned to once again dance the Chicken, the Frug or the Monkey.

“Secret Agent Man” is tidy in the way AM radio hits still were at the dawning of the Age of Albums. Get your business done in three minutes and get on out. (Long songs were generally slow songs so couples could bump and grind on the dance floor after a number of drinks.)

imgresThe nuclear age, the first age of fear of universal annihilation, hung over the heads of the partiers whether in L.A., New York or London. Go ahead and dance and party your ass off, the club scene and music said:

Odds are you won’t live to see tomorrow

 

mangoids
  • “Secret Agent Man” is an open invitation for re-purposing in film and TV. It comes as no surprise that it was used to lend a satirical gloss to 1997’s Austin Powers: International Man Of Danger.
  • Songwriters Sloan and Barri were members of The Grassroots, who had hits in the late 60s with “Let’s Live For Today” and “Midnight Confessions.”

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