The oddly forgotten musical recordings by the British cult movie queen.
Caroline Munro seems to be having a bit of a career resurgence at the moment, with her weekly Cellar Club hosting slot on Talking Pictures TV giving the 73-year-old the sort of exposure that her 1970s rivals might only dream of. It’s not bad for a model-turned-actress who, in the natural order of things, you might reasonably have expected to have had a career that came and went with youth, given that she was often hired as much for her extraordinary looks as for her acting talent.
Of course, Munro’s entire career has been a fascinating series of ‘one thing leading to another’ moments that make her life genuinely intriguing. She was hailed as ‘the face of 1966’ and was the poster-girl for Lamb’s Navy Rum for a decade – continuing long after she started making movies – appearing in press ads and on billboards squeezed into bikinis and wetsuits, looking suitably sultry and domineering – like her contemporary Valerie Leon, Munro quickly perfected a steely gaze that intimidated as much as it aroused. Again like Leon, she refused to appear topless – showing “everything but the nipple”, as Leon once said – but was still hired by Hammer films – who by the 1970s very much wanted all its starlets to disrobe on-screen – to star in a couple of movies even though her acting experience at this point was minimal and there must’ve been other, more compliant models around. Of course, Hammer producers did their best to persuade her to disrobe but she resisted.
Her film career went from Hammer to playing the female lead in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (after that film’s writer Brian Clemens, who had directed her in Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter, lobbied for her) and At the Earth’s Core, did bits of TV guest-starring and work on commercials, and then became a Bond Girl in The Spy Who Loved Me, which for more mainstream film critics is the height of her career, even though it was a small part where she was dubbed by someone else (not for the first or last time, though this happened a lot in the 1970s and shouldn’t be taken as a comment on her acting ability – the films that use her own voice have performances just as effective as those where she is dubbed) and supporting roles in Bond movies did not generally lead to substantial careers. Nevertheless, she then landed the role of Stella Starr in the high-camp Italian space opera Star Crash, which proved to be an unexpected global hit (Italian Star Wars knock-offs were a popular next step for cast members of The Spy Who Loved Me (Barbara Bach and Richard Kiel were both in The Humanoid) and co-star Joe Spinell then brought her in as the star of his bleak, bloody psycho film Maniac in 1980 – which in turn led to a curious career turn as the star of splattery slasher movies and Euro-horror from the likes of Jess Franco and Paul Naschy during the Eighties. Even more weirdly, while she was making these films, she was also working as a hostess on the game show 3-2-1 and popping as decoration in music videos by Adam Ant and Meat Loaf. The 1990s were lean years but her status as a horror legend has kept her working on films you’ve never heard of throughout the last two decades. Everyone says that she is genuinely lovely and she certainly seemed to be on the one occasion that I met her.
But there’s a side to Munro’s career that has seemingly slipped through the cracks. In a different world, Caroline Munro could have become a pop star as she had an unexpected turn in the music industry – and I don’t just mean as the cover star for Hot Hits collections. Now, it wasn’t unusual for models and little-known (or even well-known) actors to take a stab at pop stardom in the 1960s with the odd 45, but Munro was both quietly persistent and oddly prolific – if you gathered together all her singles between 1967 and 1984, you’d actually have a full album’s worth of material. I’m actually surprised that no one has done it yet. And by luck as much as design, she found herself working alongside some musical heavyweights on a few of these projects.
Tar and Cement was a twee little hippy-dippy number that allegedly has an extraordinary team behind it. Based on an Italian hit, it was produced and arranged by Mark Wirtz, the mad genius behind the ill-fated and ambitious Teenage Opera project and lots and lots of bubblegum classics, while the backing band allegedly featured all the members of Cream and Steve Howe – I say ‘allegedly’ because there are no credited musicians and the only evidence for this seems to come from a 2019 Guardian interview with Munro. We should note that Cream was already a Big Thing in 1967 and quite why Clapton, Baker and Bruce would be moonlighting with anonymous session work at this point is hard to fathom – and there is none of their trademark sound and fury either here or on the slightly bluesier B-side This Sporting Life. Still, stranger things have happened.
Tar and Cement was released by Columbia records – not exactly a small indie concern – so there was clearly some seriousness of ambition here. But it was not a hit and Munro’s recording career ground to a halt.
In 1970, she married Judd Hamilton, who had been a not-especially successful pop star in America since the start of the 1960s, most notably as a member of the surf band The T-Bones. Between 1975 and 1977, the couple released four singles as either Judd Hamilton and Caroline Munro, Hamilton and Munro or Judd and Miss Munro, which rather hints at the idea that they were constantly tweaking in the hope that something might work. The ‘married couple performing MOR pop’ idea had been successful in the 1970s with the likes of Peters and Lee and Captain and Tennille, so you can see where they were coming from. Notably, Hamilton takes the lead on these songs and I rather suspect that the whole thing was very much his idea, even though Munro wrote one B-side track, Where Does the Love Go?. It probably goes without saying that none of these records was successful, either musically or commercially.
Hamilton and Munro divorced in 1982 – just as he was moving into the role of her movie producer and screenwriter with the ludicrous slasher film The Last Horror Film that again co-starred his wife with Joe Spinell – and that might have been the end of her musical endeavours, you might think. But no. There would be one more extraordinary stab at the pop charts.
Signed to Gary Numan’s Numa record label, she recorded Pump Me Up, which is a duet of sorts between the two stars – Numan’s vocals perhaps being rather stronger in the mix. The record is very much a product of its time, full of cold synth beats and stop-start production touches that have not aged well. Numan, who wrote and produced, was probably already well on the way from being a critical darling to the widely-mocked figure that he was for much of the decade – his disarming honesty and nerdish persona never sat well with a music industry obsessed with faux cool and plastic sophistication – so his involvement here was not the guarantee of success that it might have been in 1980. Presumably, Numan was a fan of Munro’s movie work – that makes sense. But the record is all over the place, perhaps best summed up by the weird sleeve art that mixes one of Munro’s worst photos with Letraset titling to give the impression of something that a fan has knocked together. It’s also, for me at least, always odd to see someone who I associate so much with the 1970s looking so entirely Eighties, especially as that look now seems so much more dated than the previous decade’s.
The B-side, The Picture, is a little more interesting, a downbeat affair that perhaps exposes the flaw in the efforts to turn Munro into a pop star a bit too clearly – namely that she was struggling to carry a tune when not drowned out by instrumentation. That said, a lot of much, much worse singers have had hit records. It might be that anyone would struggle with this and perhaps electro-pop was not really in her comfort zone.
Once again, chart success proved a bridge too far and for Munro – who was in her mid-thirties and so, by 1980s pop star standards, effectively geriatric (we might remember that rock stars who were still in their early thirties were being dismissed as ‘dinosaurs’ and ‘boring old farts’ back then) – it was time to move on. Had any of these records hit home – and Tar and Cement seems the track most likely – then who knows where her career might have taken her? Personally, I’ll sacrifice yet another twee folky girl singer or MOR crooning couple for Stella Starr any day, so perhaps we should be glad that the records failed to land and she focused her attentions on meatier projects.
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