He was the ultimate ladies’ man, the epitome of everything that a woman could find desirable. He was mysterious, charming, more than a little dangerous and oozing with sexual bravado. And while Britain was in no short supply of role models during the sixties, from the boyish charm of the Beatles to the suave machismo of James Bond, there was only one that every boy wanted to be and every girl wanted to be with. He was a gentleman spy, a fashion icon and a pop culture pin-up. He was Austin Powers, international man of mystery. And for several years he lived in the mind of a young actor called Mike Myers but in 1997, thirty years after the Summer of Love, he would make his big screen debut and much like the women of London in the swinging sixties, the world was soon seduced by his charms.
Myers was turning twenty-nine when he finally became a household name in the wake of his overnight success with the rock ‘n’ roll comedy Wayne’s Would and by the time of its release he was already a fifteen year veteran of the entertainment industry. Having landed his first break in 1989 as the latest addition to the popular sketch show Saturday Night Live, Myers would develop as assortment of wild and wonderful characters but it was his most popular creation Wayne Campbell that would lead him to his first starring role in a motion picture. Following the unexpected cultural impact of two Wayne’s World movies pictures Myers soon found himself in a commercial slump, with his follow-up feature So I Married an Axe Murderer proving somewhat underwhelming, but it was a character that he feared audiences would fail to understand that brought him his greatest success.
While in retrospect it may seem that Austin Powers could not have failed at the box office, the origin of the project would be very personal to its creator and one born out of tragedy. ‘My heroes of comedy were also that of my father,’ Myers told the Evening Standard during the promotion of the third and final film Goldmember. ‘My dad was a guy who loved to be silly and do daft things. He was a man with a highly developed sense of humour. When I used to bring my mates back home if he didn’t think they were funny he wouldn’t let them in the house.’ Yet sadly his father would pass away as Myers was developing the first Wayne’s World project for Paramount Pictures. ‘After my dad died in 1991 I was taking stock of his influence on me as a person and his influence on me with comedy in general,’ he explained to the Hollywood Reporter in 2017.
Powers was not only a deadly spy and dashing hero but also a man of many talents
In the wake of his father’s death Myers drew heavily from their comedy heroes, the cream of British humour that included Peter Sellers, Monty Python, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, in order to develop a character that would be a love letter to their early influences. Austin Powers owed as much to those comedic icons as he would to the James Bond series, in which his latest creation would playfully satire. But Powers was not only a deadly spy and dashing hero but also a man of many talents, one of which was music. Regularly throwing parties at his London pad, Powers was known for his impromptu performances and this was most often accompanied by his backing group Ming Tea.
Although Austin Powers had been inspired by comedy, the character would be developed over a few years through performances with the fictitious band, one whose humble beginnings could be traced back to 1992 when Myers crossed paths with a former member of the Bangles. Having enjoyed major commercial success during the eighties with such hits as Walk Like an Egyptian and Eternal Flame, by the end of the decade they had self-destructed, allowing singer Susanna Hoffs to embark on a solo career. Two years after their split she released her debut album and despite gaining a positive response for the song My Side of the Bed, she would fail to receive the same level of acclaim that she had enjoyed with her former group.
Myers had already developed a strong affinity for music with Wayne’s World, having featured both Aerosmith and Madonna on early sketches, while rock legend Alice Cooper made an appearance in the big screen spin-off, but a chance meeting with Hoffs would finally allow him to immerse himself in the world of rock ‘n’ roll. ‘We bonded over music immediately,’ recalled Hoffs to the A.V Club. ‘He knew all about the Rickenbackers I was playing and he was a major music fan. And then I took Mike to see Matthew Sweet play at McCabe’s, a little club in L.A. And then shortly after that we decided to do a little band project together and Matthew and I were in the band, along with a couple of other guys. And it was during this period that Mike was writing Austin Powers and he kind of came up with the whole character.’
Taking the name Ming Tea from a fictitious company depicted in Elio Petri’s Italian science fiction classic La decima vittima (The 10th Victim), each member of the group would adopt a faux persona, with Myers developing his Austin Powers character through music. Meanwhile, Hoffs took on the role of Gillian Shagwell alongside fellow guitarist Christopher Ward, performing under the pseudonym Trevor Aigburth. Sweet, who had released his debut album a decade earlier at the age of twenty-one, would play bass as Sid Belvedere while being joined in the rhythm section by drummer and actor Stuart Johnson, using the alias Manny Stixman. Modelling themselves on the brand of sixties pop rock that had been popularised by the Monkees and the Kinks, Ming Tea would help to reenforce the authenticity by dressing up in retro costumes.
Despite the obvious comedic intentions behind the group, Ming Tea would succeed in landing one of their first shows at a popular Los Angeles night spot, one that had gained a considerable amount of notoriety in the short time since it had reopened. Hollywood heartthrob Johnny Depp had purchased the Viper Room, a relatively small venue on Sunset Boulevard, in early 1993 and within months of its relaunch it had become a popular hang-out for both actors and musicians. River Phoenix had died following an overdose while attending their Halloween party, while Australian pop star Jason Donovan almost suffered a similar fate two years later. After years of critical disappointment, country icon Johnny Cash performed an acoustic show at the club in preparation for his long awaited comeback album American Recordings and now the latest artist to grace its stage was Ming Tea.
The band became this kind of fun thing for Mike
For Austin Powers fans they would get to see a glimpse of the band briefly during two of the movies and yet many believed they were merely created for these irreverent cameos. But for both Myers and Hoffs it was a chance to indulge in a kind of music that was free from the usual commercial pressure musicians would face. ‘The band became this kind of fun thing for Mike because he was able to work in a way on the Austin Powers character and figure out different aspects of the character through performing in the band,’ stated Hoffs. ‘And then the band ended up being in the Austin Powers movies. It was a really fun collaboration. And we still to this day talk about making a Ming Tea record and trying to do some shows because it was so much fun.’
Austin Powers was a risk and one that could have brought the career of Mike Myers to a premature end and yet when International Man of Mystery was released in May 1977 it became an unexpected success, a cultural phenomenon that took its creator by surprise. ‘I knew we had something when I was driving on Halloween in Los Angeles and I couldn’t get past Santa Monica Boulevard because of a parade, so I sat on the hood of the car and I saw fifteen Austin Powers go by,’ recalled Myers in 2017. ‘One of the Austin Powers spotted me and came over. I had a picture with all these Austin Powers which was unbelievably cool…I was devastated by my father’s death but to have that turn into something that makes people happy is unbelievably satisfying.’