John Barry

Theme from Enigma

John Barry (1933- )

John Barry (born in York in 1933 as John Barry Prendergast) will forever be associated with those magnificent and exciting Bond scores, but has an enormous reputation for delivering the musical goods in any number of film genres. In a way he was almost predestined to be a film composer, since his mother was a classical pianist and his father owned a number of cinemas. As a young boy he would help his father in the cinema, no doubt watching a large number of movies, and developed a fascination for film music whose composition became his ambition. While doing his National Service he joined the army band playing trumpet and learned how to arrange jazz. On leaving he formed his owned band "The John Barry Seven" with which he initially sang before the group moved into instrumental music. Following regular appearances on the BBC TV series "Drumbeat" the band became very successful with these (as the Shadows were to be later), and had a string of hits including "Black Stockings".

At this time Barry met Adam Faith and suggested that he sing regularly on the programme. Faith went on to become very successful as a pop star singing numbers like "What do you want?" (this was in the days of Elvis Presley and the young Cliff Richard) while Barry wrote or arranged his songs. The relationship was to continue when Adam Faith starred in some movies like "Beat Girl" and having the same agent it was natural that John Barry be asked to compose the soundtracks to those movies. This then started his career as a film composer, but it was another event which became the turning point beyond which there was no looking back. Having been asked to arrange Monty Norman's theme for a new movie called Dr. No he established the unique soundscape of James Bond with the help of the John Barry Seven, and the rest is history.

Nevertheless there was some elements of the Bond film style which were not yet quite right with that first film, but these elements soon fell into place with Barry as the resident composer for the series. Those elements included the big title song which was thereafter to accompany the super-spy on his adventures, and John Barry asked the singer Shirley Bassey to record the theme for "Goldfinger", but equally important was the confident, exciting brassy sound of the incidental music with its references to both the main theme and the theme song.

Don't let the Bond associations lead you to conclude that all Barry's music is loud and bombastic. Far from it, the Bond scores are representative of his work only in so far as they illustrate Barry's unique talent for setting exactly the right mood. Time and time again Barry demonstrates that his insight and hard work can hit on just the right tone to convey the musical heart of a movie. More than other film composers, Barry's music has a readily identifiable style. Harmonically, Barry's music is primarily straightforward major and minor, with occasional use of chromaticism and unusual scales for effect and colour. His style is partly on the small scale with "mannerisms" that re-appear in several scores such as the repeated phrases with little or no melodic change but sometimes building to a climax with increasingly intense accompaniment, his use of brass chords or even simply the way he will quiesce on a single chord. But mostly his style comes on the large scale, with broad sweeping lyrical themes and a deftly chosen accompaniment and orchestration, pulling on a wide range of influences from Classical to Popular, Jazz and Big Band sounds. These have also combined to give Barry a worthy sideline in song-writing with several examples (and not only the Bond songs) reaching the charts.

John’s musical spectrum was diverse however and amongst his best scores are the expansive scores for Born Free and Dances with Wolves depicting majestic Savannahs or prairies respectively. Clearly music carries with it its’ own associations and Barry’s music when heard carries us back to the films that he wrote the music for. His diversity stretched to the more claustrophobic themes for Midnight Cowboy and The Ipcress File. He wrote big love themes for Out of Africa and Somewhere in Time; however my own personal favourite was the music he scored for Indecent Proposal. His jazz influenced Body Heat and of course The Cotton Club named after that hotbed of early Jazz development. He themed the historical dramas The Lion in Winter, Robin and Marian and Mary Queen of Scots. With such an illustrious career it is a little jarring to note that he also did Howard the Duck!

In more recent years, Barry has produced a couple of albums of his own music, Moviola starting with an unused theme for the film of that title, and The Beyondness of Things. These albums might be described as soundtracks without the intrusion of film visuals. His latest such album has only recently been released under the title Eternal Echoe. And needless to say, John Barry's position as the sound of James Bond is still recognisable despite its modernisation under the helm of the current Bond tunesmith David Arnold.

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