Film and Television Features

Barry... John Barry

John Barry is better known for composing the soundtracks to a dozen James Bond films, but there’s more to the man and his music. The Bond movies were the springboard to an illustrious career that reaped a harvest of five Oscars, four Grammys, two BAFTAs, and numerous other award nominations. His unique style bridged the genres of jazz, classical, and pop with ease. The quality of his music comes through whether the film is good or bad. If fact, some of his best scores are found in forgettable films and TV shows.

Barry was born in 1933, at a time when composers such as Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold were perfecting the art of film scoring. His father owned a chain of movie theaters across Northern England, so Barry grew up with the talkies. The images and sounds beguiled him. He became aware, early on, that Mickey Mouse cartoons and swashbuckling movies had something in common —the music essential to the fabric of illusion. It heightened the action, adding pacing, texture, and scale; it brought forth emotions, hinted motivations and helped define characters. Along with writers and directors, film composers were also storytellers.

Barry became an accomplished piano and trumpet player, but composing was his main goal. After a three-year stint in the army, he began arranging for big bands, making a living of it until the advent of rock ‘n’ roll. Times were changing, but Barry was adaptable. In 1957, he formed his own group, The John Barry Seven, which would go on to have a string of instrumental hits. The band played concerts and backed other performing artists. Around this time he met Adam Faith, a singer whose style wavered between Buddy Holly hiccups and Eddie Cochran snarls. Faith became a regular on Drumbeat, a TV show where Barry worked as musical director. Barry had his plate full but still took time to produce and arrange for him, an association that paid off with hits like What Do You Want? and Poor Me. When Faith got a role in Beat Girl (1959), its producers asked Barry to score the film. This score changed the course of his life. Catchy and original, the soundtrack was pressed on vinyl, a first for a British film.

Film scoring was moving away from the classical-based model. Alex North was writing jazz-based scores that proved influential on a new generation of film composers. What Barry added to the mix was his vast knowledge of modern recording techniques and his pop-friendly style.

Film work was increasing when the producers of Dr. No (1962) approached Barry to fix the James Bond Theme, written by Monty Norman. He did so remarkably. His arrangement is close to what he had used for Beat Girl; brass and a lively beat provide the instrumental foundation as Vic Flick’s guitar cuts through it, with treble and reverb to the max.

Barry was also a last-minute fixer on From Russia With Love (1963), sharing credits with Lionel Bart. The producers finally gave him free rein on Goldfinger (1965), and this is where he set the standard for the films to come. It was modern music: bold, brassy and hip, up-to-date with the swirling cultural changes going on at the time.

Barry understood that all film scores, no matter what genre, demanded attention to plot structure and character motivations. He resembles Henry Mancini in his use of a main melodic thought behind a character, a motif that is given variations through different scenes. Sometimes, the sounds he heard in his head had never been attempted before. Of all Bond films, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is his best score. He figured a way to incorporate a Moog synthesizer in its grand-scale action sequences, laying a low beat that blends perfectly with ominous flugelhorns.

Barry’s music had a great deal more to offer than rapid chord stabs and bombast; he wrote unforgettable melodies. Recording artists such as Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, and Nancy Sinatra jumped at the chance to sing title songs, which have become a staple to the Bond sound to this day. Yet Barry’s romantic side is found on non-title songs such as We Have All The Time In The World (Louis Armstrong) and If There Was A Man (The Pretenders). The latter appears on The Living Daylights (1987), Barry’s last score for the Bond series, proving he bowed out in peak form.

Top directors such as Bryan Forbes, Richard Lester, and John Schlesinger sought Barry’s talents, certain he’d bring something fresh to their projects. Take for instance Séance On A Wet Afternoon (1964), where he achieves an unsettling mood with a sparse score that centers on cellos, alto flutes, and a xylophone. The theme for Midnight Cowboy (1969) suggests loneliness through the use of a slow walking beat and a harmonica. The Ipcress File (1965) posed a challenge for Barry: it was a gritty cold-war spy story that demanded an anti-Bond score. He delivered the goods through the use of a Hungarian cimbalom, which imparts a mysterious atmosphere to the scenes. This experimental side of his talent has collectors like me on a constant search for Barry soundtracks.

Though Barry enriched the art of motion picture scoring as he went along, Academy voters only rewarded his orchestral scores. One can’t help being seduced by the music he wrote for Born Free, The Lion In Winter, Out Of Africa, and Dances With Wolves. There is, however, a long list of orchestral titles that are arrestingly beautiful but didn’t make the cut, including Robin And Marian (1976) and Somewhere In Time (1980).

John Barry died on January 30, 2011, and his genius is missed. Film scoring for the latest Bond movies has been competent, but there are no melodies that compel you to sit through the end credits. In contrast, any Barry soundtrack captures the imagination and stirs emotions. There have been only a handful of film composers that reach such heights. With a legacy of over a hundred film and TV credits, his memory is sure to linger on.