With the announcement of John Barry’sdeath on 31st January 2011, the door has closed not only on one of the most accomplished and illustrious careers in cinema history, but on an entire world of musical expression. He’ll principally be remembered as the man who gave a signature voice to spy fiction’s greatest hero James Bond during the first flush of the modern action movie.
But Barry’s contribution to film music encompassed much more than that, considerable an achievement as it may be. He lent every project he was involved with a depth, seriousness and a grandeur which was often greater and more lasting than the film itself deserved. It has been said that no score on its own can make a mediocre film into a great one, but it is arguable that Barry’s soundtrack work, especially in the ’60s and ’70s, often proved to be the exception to that rule.
Born John Barry Prendergast in 1933 to a father who ran a chain of cinemas in York, the young Barry was a gifted pianist and trumpet player who taught himself how to play jazz (via correspondence course) during his national service and emerged from the army to make a living as a big band arranger for Jack Parnell and Ted Heath. With his own group The John Barry Seven (which included future Bond theme guitarist Vic Flick) he had a string of upbeat hits which straddled the swagger of the big band sound and the cool snap of the pop charts with ease, as well as providing the theme tune to the classic TV show Juke Box Jury and sitting in as the house band on Drumbeat. It was on this latter show that he made the acquaintance of good-looking popster Adam Faith, and the two began a successful collaboration. Barry’s playful arrangements on songs like What Do You Want perfectly complimented Faith’s clipped, eccentric delivery.
When Faith was offered a lead role in low-budget British potboiler Beat Girl, Barry came along to compose the film’s score as part of the deal and fulfilled his youthful dreams of being involved in the movies, nurtured in his father’s fleapits in York. Soon the producers of Doctor No, the inaugural James Bond film adaptation, sought his services to re-arrange the film’s theme (composed by Monty Norman) to their satisfaction, and the most fruitful collaboration of Barry’s career began. Enlisting Vic Flick to lend the theme some hip, Duane Eddy-inspired rock ‘n’ roll glower ensured that it became an instantly iconic sound, and Barry went on to score 11 Bond films on his own. His development as a composer can be charted throughout his 007 scores. By the third film in the series he was introducing haunting and memorable chord progressions and eerie soundscapes into the quieter moments (a cluster of these chords on the track Golden Girl was significantly sampled by the Sneaker Pimpson their trip hop hit 6 Underground), which were balanced nicely against his more bombastic action themes or swooningly romantic string arrangements.
The Bond films saw him work with the lyricists Don Black, Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley as well as a series of vocal star turns (Shirley Bassey, Matt Monro, Nancy Sinatra, Tom Jones)to produce a peerless string of hit theme songs, which melded with Maurice Binder’s elegantly surreal, slightly mucky title sequences seamlessly and memorably. Concurrent with these masterpieces of pop art, Barry was busy scoring many lesser-known films on the side, and demonstrating an impressive diversity of style which always remained recognizably ‘John Barry’. He had lasting working relationships with directors like Bryan Forbes (The L-Shaped Room, Sance On A Wet Afternoon, King Rat, Deadfall) and Richard Lester (The Knack, Petulia, Robin And Marian) and created his second iconic spy theme with the cool, desolate cymbalom-drenched score for Sidney Furie’s The Ipcress File (which became MichaelCaine’s de facto signature tune thereafter).
His music won two Academy Awards in quick succession, for 1966’s lushly romantic Born Free and the grand, choral settings of 1968’s The Lion In Winter. Possibly his best work from this period however was his hypnotically sad, harmonica-driven theme from John Schlesinger’s bleak, sardonic Midnight Cowboy, whose soundtrack hefilled out with obscure psychedelic vocal groups like ElephantsMemory and The Groopto attain an authentic flavour of downbeat, hipsterlife in late ’60s New York.
At around this time he began to experiment further, introducing doomy Moog synthesizers into his score for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which, as every true Bond nerd knows is the best of all the 007 theme tunes, wordless as it is. He later combined some of the Moog’s squelchier effects with the lonely cymbalom once more for his eerie, endlessly spiraling theme for The Persuaders TV series. And here is undoubtedly where the man’s class shone. He seemed to pull the most dramatic music from his very soul to furnish what were becoming increasingly silly and slapstick projects. With slick Roger Moore taking over from grim Sean Connery, The Bonds had devolved into pure caper comedy. By the time Bond went into space in Moonrakerthe only team player not playing it for laughs was Barry, who produced a balletic, spine-tinglingly gorgeous score for what was essentially a daft Star Wars rip-off (see also: The Black Hole, Star Crash).
His soundtrack schedule barely let up until the last decade of his life and he continued to produce fascinating work for films good, bad and indifferent alike. His jazzy score for Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat, the string-laden romances of Out Of Africa and Dances With Wolves and the wistful nostalgia of Chaplin were all highlights of his later career.
As he entered the final years of his life, his music became understandably reflective and transcendent. He released two albums’ worth of original compositions entitled The Beyondness Of Things and Eternal Echoes, both of which soared with rich, orchestral textures and quizzical, playful melodies every bit as compelling as his best film work.Honoured with a Bafta Fellowship Award in 2005, another trophy to add to a considerably groaning shelf, and with a young son to raise from his fourth marriage, his work slowed in his final years.He continued working on his final project (tentatively entitled The Seasons) until very recently, a man driven by the need to create music every day. His legacy to the listener, however, probably lies in those classic thriller scores.Anyone who has ever lit a cigarette, knotted a tie or just walked around in a long coat soundtracked by the tense, otherworldly textures of his greatest scores owes him a debt of gratitude for turning the humdrum world around them into a rich playground for the imagination.