Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Remembering John Barry

The first time I noticed the impact that music can have in a movie, other than in an Elvis flick, was probably in Thunderball, the fourth James Bond film which I first saw in December 1965 when I was eight-years-old. There was the Bond theme, heard over the gunbarrel opening, the wailing horns in the pre-title fight sequence, followed by the dramatic title song and lots of moody musical musings accompanying all those scenes underwater. It was the handiwork of John Barry, the British born composer who died January 31 in New York at the age of 77.

Sean Connery was James Bond, but John Barry was James Bond in a way, too. His distinctive music was as important in making 007 a phenomenon in the 1960s as Connery, that witty dialogue, those sexy Bondgirls, Ken Adam's mind-blowing sets, the Aston Martin, and all those ingenious gadgets. According to the legend, Barry, who had already enjoyed some success recording with Adam Faith (one of England's Elvis knockoffs) and with his own jazz group, the John Barry Seven, was brought in to "arrange" the James Bond Theme when Monty Norman's music proved inadequate for the opening titles of the first Bond film, 1962's Dr. No. Working from a Norman song called ""Bad Sign, Good Sign," Barry revamped the composition and with the aid of guitarist Vic Flick, produced the recording that would be heard in Bond films for decades to come, as well as be endlessly imitated by other composers seeking that distinctive Barry created "Bond Sound." Through the years, Norman has successfully sued those who have suggested that he did not write the most recognizable theme in movie history but was simply credited because contracts had been signed before emergency surgery was required on the score. Norman probably did "write" the theme, but it was Barry's arrangement, adding notes and flourishes, that made all the difference. Certainly, Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, the producers of the Bond films, were aware of the importance of Barry's contribution because it was Barry, not Norman, who was hired to compose, conduct, and arrange the score for the next film in the series, 1963's From Russia With Love. Lionel Bart composed the title song, but Barry handled all the other musical duties, and with 1964's Goldfinger, Barry took complete charge of the score, including the title song.

Goldfinger was the film that truly kicked off Bondmania, and ushered in an era when superspies dominated the movie and television screens in the hope of cashing in on the public's obsession with 007. Barry's title song, with lyrics by Anthony Newley, became a major hit as recorded by Shirley Bassey, reaching number 8 on the Billboard chart. The soundtrack album outsold records by every rock group except the Beatles that year, and Barry was now the hottest film composer in the world. He won three Oscars that decade - best song and musical score for 1966's Born Free and for his choral music in 1968's The Lion in Winter - but he made his name with Bond, James Bond whose screen adventures are unimaginable without Barry's dynamic scores.

The Bond films are known for action, sex (of a PG nature), risque dialogue, and hi-tech gadgetry, but Barry's music had a haunting, melancholy quality that gave the films a depth that was rarely present in the screenplays. The scores for You Only Live Twice and On Her Majesty's Secret Service are among Barry's finest work, and though other composers imitated his style for competing superspy projects like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. TV series and the Flint and Matt Helm movies, they succeeded only in duplicating the bang-bang of Bond, and on a less grander scale, but failed to invest their work with the heart and soul that made Barry's Bond scores so special, and capable of providing rich listening experiences apart from the films.

Following 1971's Diamonds Are Forever, Sean Connery left the series for good, and Barry also took a break, returning for five more Bond films from 1974-1987, but turning over the baton to George Martin, Marvin Hamlisch, and Bill Conti for several films. Paul McCartney's title song for 1973's Live and Let Die is terrific, but George Martin's score for that film, like the others in which Barry did not participate, is as lightweight as Roger Moore was when filling in for Connery as Bond. Ironically, though Barry would add two more Oscars to his mantle (Best Original Score for 1985's Out of Africa and 1990's Dances With Wolves), none of his Bond music was ever nominated by the Academy, which did nominate the themes composed by McCartney, Hamlisch, and Conti, as well as honored The Spy Who Loved Me with a nomination for best original score. These composers also had bigger chart hits with their Bond songs, with McCartney, Carly Simon, and Sheena Easton all taking the themes from those films to the top ten. Other than "Goldfinger" and 1995's "A View to a Kill," which Duran Duran (credited as co-authors of the song) took to number one, only a few of Barry's theme songs reached the top 40. Tom Jones's powerful performance of "Thunderball" reached number 25, but, surprisingly, "You Only Live Twice," my choice as the best title song in the series, climbed no higher than number 44. It was certainly the highlight in the recording career of Nancy Sinatra, then riding high on the heels of "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" and, therefore, favored over Barry's original choice, Aretha Franklin.

But Barry's themes saw impressive chart action in various cover versions. Pianist Roger Williams took the Oscar winning "Born Free" to number seven in 1966, and the piano playing duo, Ferrante and Teicher, who specialized in cover versions of film themes, took Barry's "Midnight Cowboy" to number ten in January 1970, a moody recording distinguished by the "water sound" guitar of Vincent Bell. Although only credited with "musical supervision" on the latter film (the Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1969), Barry composed the haunting harmonica driven theme that underscored the tragic lives of the film's characters and provided a stunning contrast to "Everybody's Talkin'," the Fred Neil song that Harry Nilsson memorably sang over the opening titles.

Barry's other scores include Deadfall, Seance on a Wet Afternoon, Zulu, The Ipcress File, King Rat, Robin and Marian, Touched by Love, Body Heat, Howard the Duck (yes, the George Lucas fiasco), Enigma, The Cotton Club, Peggy Sue Got Married, and his best-selling score of all, 1979's achingly romantic Somewhere in Time.

Somebody once said that the best film scores are those that the viewer doesn't notice. John Barry disproved that notion just as Bernard Herrmann did with his Hitchcock scores and Ennio Morricone did with his work for Sergio Leone. James Bond would not have been nearly as exciting or successful without John Barry's musical accompaniment, and every film he worked on was enhanced by his contribution.

Rest in peace, Maestro. Your music lives forever.

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks


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