“Americans was a thrilling experience, a record with the concept of an imaginary soundtrack: for the very first time, instead of appearing on a screen, the images came from inside me."
John Barry interviewed by Stéphane Lerouge
October 2, 2009
"My vocation was born in the cinemas my father owned in Yorkshire. Seeing Mickey Mouse in black and white in 1937 was a decisive moment. I was four years old and those five minutes marked me for life. From then on, you couldn't get me out of my father's cinemas: being an assiduous visitor was the basis of my education, both in films and in music. It was the best school I could have had. I was a child and already I was analyzing the relationship between what I could see and what I heard. I'd see the same film up to three times a day with different audiences, and I ended up understanding films from the inside, especially the interplay between music and scenes, point or counterpoint. Films were an extraordinary means of escape from the everyday greyness and the war. They were a way to dream: I travelled to India, Africa and Asia, discovering the world. Not to mention the noir films or the Hollywood musicals: they gave me the impression I was living in the United States." That's how the great John Barry recently explained how he discovered motion pictures... and the power that music has over them. To his film-culture he added a solid, classical education that was thoroughly shaken when he felt the jazz earthquake as a teenager. "My brother Pat was ten years older than I was, and he was a great fan of swing, Ellington, Basie, Hampton and Woody Herman," emphasizes the composer. "He literally devoured everything that came from America. I was immersed in Chopin or Sibelius and I looked down at him; to me, jazz was a sub-language in music. Why would I bother listening to someone blowing into a saxophone when I had Mahler? One day, when I was around fifteen, I started getting interested in the history of jazz and its different styles, and I developed a passion for the modern school: Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Gerry Mulligan's Quartet with Chet Baker… What they played came as a revelation: I had to admit that it was another form of expression; it was stupid to create a hierarchy between jazz and the classical repertoire. And so I started playing the trumpet..."
The rest is history. In 1957, the composer formed The John Barry Seven with some old friends he'd known during his military service, all under the influence of Little Richard or Bill Haley. Their popularity grew crescendo and, one thing leading to another, Barry turned to composing for films. Thanks to the cinema, he was able to create a synthesis between the different cultures that had formed his apprenticeship. In no time at all, a series of box-office hits catapulted him into the limelight as a composer for the young and modern: Born Free, The Knack -a film-manifesto for Swinging London- the first James Bond films, and also those featuring the anti-Bond, Michael Caine in the role of Harry Palmer. Millions of film-buffs and music-fans discovered the singular splendour of John Barry's compositions: an unconventional harmonic universe filled with booby-traps, plus a very personal feeling for lyricism, melodies that were instantly catchy, a taste for characteristic, unusual timbres, not to mention the surprises created by his orchestration… Walking a tightrope between the wide-screen spectacular and the filmd'auteur, John Barry is a sophisticated composer whose most visible, most famous scores (say, the action movies, the Bond films) did little to hide a more secret, melancholy vein that tended towards introspection.
In 1975, John Barry was forty-two. He'd been living in Majorca for a year when he accepted an offer to go to Los Angeles and write the music for Eleanor and Franklin, a film made for television by the Canadian director Daniel Petrie, and in October that year he settled in at The Beverly Hills Hotel. His American stay was due to last a few weeks at most; he still lives there today, some thirty-four years later. Barry took advantage of his visit to begin composing a 12" LP that was highly original, containing music "seen" exclusively through his own eyes. "At the time," he remembers, "I was just coming out of an extremely intense period of work. 1974 had been particularly busy: the musical Billy had been staged, first in Manchester and then in London, and it was followed by the films The Dove, The Tamarind Seed and The Man With the Golden Gun. I needed to recharge my batteries, take on a new project that was quite different, like a breath of oxygen. So I went about it the way I usually do: I took notes spontaneously, on instinct, without even thinking about the way to treat them later. It might have been the first bars of a melody, a harmonic sequence or some counterpoint... The idea just came to me; I thought about it, jotted it down and then let it settle... and I took a look at it a few days later to see if it stood up. Put together, the different ideas all took shape as Americans, a personal impression of the sights and sounds of the United States. It was the vision which an Englishman (actually a Northerner) had of the country that had fed his imagination as a youngster. I tried to find the sensations of my first visit again, when I crossed The Atlantic for the first time at the end of the Fifties. Imagine the symbol: me, born in (Old) York, discovering New York! It was a way of confronting my dreams with reality."
In John Barry's career, Americans marks a deliberate pause, a desire to come face to face with his own self, as if he were taking his bearings now that he'd reached his forties. After the hectic pace of the previous fifteen years—a period that included ten films in 1965 alone—this first orchestral album outside the film-world gave Barry the opportunity to regain control over his freedom. "It's perhaps what I love most," he says, smiling. "It's exciting to work with a filmmaker who's touched by your contribution to his work. It's also just as exciting to have the power of decision over your own music... without having to explain it to anyone! (Laughter.) It allows your brain to function differently... Take the famous Yesternight Suite, for example; I conceived and imagined it the way I wanted to, quite freely. In films, I'd never have been allowed to compose a piece lasting seventeen minutes; in fact it's one of the longest I've ever written. It has a vast continuity exploring quite different atmospheres, and it links very contrasting moods. I wrote it first like a synopsis, before I got into the details of the orchestration, and I included quotes from As Times Goes By and By Myself. I didn't want to disconcert listeners too much, just give them the odd hint with standards that were objective... but also integrated into a brand-new original composition. That's a lesson I learned from my father: you must have a feeling for the audience. As an owner of cinemas and theatres, he always used to say: "Make them laugh, make them cry, make them thrill!" That's a caricature of course, but moving from one sentiment to another really is necessary."
Recorded in Hollywood in November 1975, Americans involved some spectacular sessions at Glen Glenn Sound. Facing John Barry were two formations, both of them physical incarnations of his twin cultures: an orchestra of fifty musicians (with first violin Israel Baker), completed by a fiery jazz combo. Barry had summoned some great players: trombonist Dick Nash and trumpeter Tony Terran, not to mention saxophone virtuoso Ronnie Lang, who was later the soloist on Body Heat, another Barry masterpiece. "I adore Ronnie's sound and phrasing," admits the composer. "He played with Les Brown... and Harry James, whose band was a reference in my young days. To me, the timbre of an alto saxophone has deep ties with America's great cities, and New York at night; a suggestion of urban solitude. That's what I tried to convey in the pieces where Ronnie's the soloist, like Social Swing or some parts of the Yesternight Suite. On the other hand, Strip Drive evokes Los Angeles, cruising down the coast at sunset. Speaking Mirrors represents the city-architecture, those forests of tall buildings with towers of glinting glass. Listening to these compositions again, I realise how much I loved working with those sublime musicians. At a pinch, I conducted them like a filmmaker directs his actors. Right from the start, they gave me the nuances I was counting on. They were rivalling with each other, playing together like brothers. Listen to the trombone and saxophone duet on Downtown Walker, for example, a kind of stroll through Manhattan: Nash develops a carefree melody while Lang stubbornly repeats the same phrase in a loop, like a translation of the unceasing movement there is when you're walking. I love that principle: like in Midnight Cowboy, the counterpoint is just as important as the melody..."
Americans was released both in Britain and in Japan, and is now available here for the first time since its original release in autumn 1976. To complete this reissue there are four John Barry titles from the Polydor years, including the theme from Follow me, the film that documented his meeting with veteran director Carol Reed. "He didn't have a musical background but his instinct for film-music compensated for it," remembers Barry. "Without thinking, he knew what would work. Personally, I was extremely flattered and impressed to find myself facing the director of The Third Man; the film left an indelible mark on me when I was a teenager. The theme composed and played on the zither by Anton Karas is a definitive model for obviousness and efficiency... It made me understand that a single instrument with a strange timbre, playing a tiny melody, can have more dramatic impact than a whole flood of orchestras. In a way, it was a lesson I remembered when I was writing the themes for The Persuaders, The Adventurer or Orson Welles’ Great Mysteries. They were meant to instantly catch the viewer's ear, with a heady bass line, scraping harmonies, and a very simple melody played solo on the cimbalom. At the time, I was working with an astounding English musician named John Leach, a real wizard who collected all kinds of ethnic instruments from around the world. John's help was very precious to me: the weird instrumental ideas he brought in allowed me to turn some of my ambitions into reality, particularly the idea of always aiming for a fresh, original, unconventional sound."
In their own way, the ten tracks on this present album act like a portrait of John Barry in the mid-Seventies. Americans, in particular, can be listened to like a permanent firework display, one whose jazz pulse and energy still allow glimpses of an overshadowing lyrical tristesse. A state of grace somewhere between swing and disillusionment… Twenty-three years later, for Decca, Barry would record two more albums outside the world of films, the works of a composer who'd reached maturity: The Beyondness of Things and Eternal Echoes. The colour of those albums is more autumnal, and their inspiration more elegiac, more introspective, too. As if spleen, both in the man and in the artist, had finally gained the upper hand. "You have to remember that the war hit me when I was six," concludes the composer. "It was a traumatic, wrenching experience that made me melancholy for life. It's a side of my personality that I no longer try and hide... So, when I listen to Americans today, I'm both amused and troubled at the same time: it's like going through an old album and finding a photo of me taken in 1975. But it was still a thrilling experience, a record with the concept of an imaginary soundtrack: for the very first time, instead of appearing on a screen, the images came from inside me."