A study in contrast: Barry's stylistic journey from the 60s to the 90s
John Barry has four distinct styles of music composition. Three of them he has virtually discarded and only one remains. I propose to take a look at these stylistic personas and comment on the whys and the wherefores which have led to his present day one-size-fits-all approach to film-scoring.
In the 50s something unique was happening to popular music in the world at large; particularly in the United States and in England. The 40's war years drew the populations of those countries closer to the technology of radio more than ever before. Big Bands and news broadcasts force-fed a unified style of music on what had previously been very different national sensibilities.
Movie attendance and the escapism of fantasy on screen allowed a pressure release on people stressed to the breaking point with bloody realities of everyday privation and danger. With the World War over and a new decade underway the radio remained an indispensable melting pot of international music exposure which unified populations in their tastes and commonalties. Movies provided the same unifying icons and background scores permeated subconscious vaults with 19th century Romanticism. Television was taking a foothold that would strangle the competing technologies.
If radio and movies were to avoid being relegated to the heap of dinosaur bones in the graveyard of pass‚ artefacts---there would have to be a massive RETHINK to grapple with a workable strategy.
YOUTH culture was the key. Radio and the movies turned to the younger audiences and tapped into the red-blooded vein of youth music. The young are the audience of the future, as a rule. But, parents were giving their kids allowances now and a consumer population was arriving on the scene. Young people had jobs and responsibilities and cash to spend.
The music world was poised on the brink of something big which was about to happen.
John Barry's SEVEN were panning for gold in the old streams and rivers where others had made their fortunes. But, the leftovers were not enough to sustain a career. The bulk of the fortunes had vanished. Barry struggled to find a template into which he could pour his talents for music-making. Doing "covers" of Stateside hits for English audiences was stale now - yet, it was a learning mode for record production and important business contacts.
Big Bands were taxed into disintegration. A club owner could ill-afford large bands with many hands out for dough. The only solution was the "single" act. Preferably singer-songwriters who could do it all. Thus the folksinger era replaced the Big Band era. And the folksinger was the grandparent of the Rock n Roller of the near to arrive future.
Barry straddled all venues like a modern day Colossus. He wrote, arranged, produced and played in first one and then another genres. None, however, was innovative in a way that would ignite popular enthusiasms and generate a career. He was relegated to a producing role for others eventually, leaving the JB7 to fend for themselves in a dying genre. There were only two choices: find a "star" to produce for and earn a living as a man behind the man; or--emerge as a composer in his own right. The odds against the latter were astronomical. With the "discovery" of Adam Faith Barry was suitably nested in a temporarily secure niche which allowed him to meet the "right" people and become a mover and shaker.
Had movies not come along to tempt him away--surely Barry would have remained a producer of first one group and then another along the lines of a Berry Gordy of MOTOWN.
With the opportunity of scoring BEAT GIRL suddenly Barry's stylistic persona was glimpsed in the raw. We will call this STYLE ONE. The Beat Girl score could have been done by an old school gentleman aping a popular style little understood and mostly scorned. Or it could have been injected with needle-dropping opportunities utilising hit songs of the era. Instead--a very youthful composer, arranger, conductor producer and maven of ALL STYLES had a go at it. Beat Girl is nothing if not original. It sounds--even today--original.
The components of the music are familiar. Guitars are played and a big-bandish backing chimes in. Percussion is not sedate--yet not overtly Rock. What sets Barry's composition apart is the identifying use of a rhythmic device he has never abandoned. It is a choppy beguine-like rhythm that enforces the dotted quarter notes (two of them) and gives us 2 chopping beats and 1 remaining lesser one. This 3 beats to the measure is definitely NOT a waltz but a catchy jerking motion that allows the next device--the ostinato--to fit into the gaps left by the sparse rhythm. These are like puzzle pieces-hand in glove. There is a sense of movement and an inexorable forward motion and incessant and insistent activity. Atop these two devices floats the hooky melodic line. It is not complicated. It is brief and readily identifiable. This simple recipe comes across very easily to the ears. It is closer to Stan Kenton than to Max Steiner--but not derivative of either. It has a 50s Rock 'n' Roll snarl to the instrumentation but it is not Rock. It definitely owes more to Jazz than anything else--yet, it is not merely Streetcar Named Desire ala North (one of Barry's heroes.) No--we have a full-fledged mosaic of stylisms pressed into a new service, a new voice and a new youthful vigour. It is Scarlett O'Hara turning the drapes from Tara into a lovely dress to impress Rhett Butler! Barry is the seamstress and designer rolled into one. He has CUSTOM-FITTED what the quires using anything that will fit. This style will return again and again. Barry visits the junkyard of previous eras and idioms and grabs a piece of this and a part of that and - Presto! - Picasso-like welds them into artistic sculpture than is no longer junk but a work of art. BEAT GIRL is a new kind of junk---fabulous artistic junk!
With the success of Beat Girl as a scoring assignment Barry became "hot" and was impressed into service to fix another project in music need. James Bond needed a musical fix to make him relevant. Barry was handed more junk and he went into his laboratory and started hammering, welding and filing away. The result was something astonishingly NEW! Yet--Tailor-like--it was a perfect fit. Bond had a Saville Row suit and the music was as tailored as that to his persona. The James Bond Theme is an amalgam. It has Dizzy Gillespie scat choruses, Les Paul/Duane Eddy guitar idioms, it has Minnie the Moocher razzmatazz brass writing and a harking back to the Big Band Era with expostulations that punctuate the segues from the middle eight back to the main theme. It is tailoring of the highest order. It is arranging genius. It is fresh and endlessly interesting. Barry has invented something new out of something pre-existing. This is what an artist does best. Suddenly Barry's career as a movie composer is assured. The usual fate of one such as he is to do variations on James Bond until the offers stop coming. Yet--two things happened to side-step this fate. Barry was offered arthouse melodramas by Bryan Forbes at the same time he was covering the spy genre.
For Bryan Forbes, Barry would cism. Using small combinations of evocative instruments Barry would achieve atmospheres as delicate as miniature impressionist paintings. These chamber music effects were not actually chamber music. Once again they would be amalgams; puzzle fittings of first this and then that. Jazz flavoured flutes and bass lines would be overlaid with harpsichord tinklings or violin obbligatos. The end result being more tailor-made backdrops highly evocative of the right mood and the right emotion. SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON is all mood and is achieved using very few instruments. The melody wants to find a key but is ill-fitted to tonality--yet, there is a melody lurking there.
The main character is a fraud psychic who fools even herself at times and longs to be recognised as an important person. The music and the character are one and the same.
Barry evolves a Romanticism that is sturdy and muscular rather than cloying and fey. His strings are always pure and in easy registers. The countermelodies are harmonically simple but gorgeously beautiful. The Horns infuse the emotional content with full-blooded vigour and strength of purpose. The melodies are usually cast as straight ahead "song" tunes which you end up whistling in your sleep. Yet--his chord changes can suddenly startle you with unexpected twists and turns that chromatically complicate the underlying feeling of inevitability. In fact--you can count on the fact that Barry will create a superstructure of unusual chords that will take you outside the usual pathways into exotic territories. Midnight Cowboy has a simple theme. Yet--those chord changes are not customary.
Midnight Cowboy is a good example for us to examine. Barry creates a clockwork mechanism of inevitability in the opening falling melodic background of four notes followed by four notes --over and over again. Many of Barry's arrangements will do something similar. He lulls your sense of expectancy into a regularity of singsong familiarity. Once you are introduced to the "environment" of the piece then the main melody is injected. It works in contrast to that background and fits perfectly like a Russian Kachina doll nested within another doll within yet another.
In THE IPCRESS FILE we have a jaunty rhythmic line of punctuated flutes and vibraphone that is overlaid with the Cimbalom melody. It is all very jagged and textured but is catchy as hell! QUILLER MEMORANDUM has hurdy gurdy rhythmic line over which the flexitone melody is laid to startling effect. Here is a lovely songleider melody set to a weird background of exoticism and intrigue. So in each instance the idea is to put simplicity to work by overlaying it with yet another simplicity dressed up in an exotic garb of orchestration. Barry's orchestration SOUND complex--yet you never lose your way. It is rather more like watching a juggler add yet another ball to those already in the air! Bach-like effects are achieved without the audience having to resort to internal intellectualities to sort the parts from one another. This is an enormous achievement and singular to Barry himself. Nobody else comes close to doing this.
We'll call this simply JAZZ. Barry has his own brand of Jazz. It is not like anybody else in its entirety--yet, it never grabs you with a feeling of innovation for innovations sake.
" again the way a mechanic does. He fits them in. The background may "feel" like a jazz improvisation in the piano and the sax may sound like an improvisation in the melody---but--there is a fixed architecture of melody in the strings and horns that is flat-out Dance band slow-dance. Barry has sleek and sensuous Jazz pieces in his repertoire. They can be big and audacious such as the quintessential MR. KISS KISS BANG BANG or they can be subtle and lush such as FUN CITY. Yet they are never ordinary. The difference between a regular jazz band performance and what Barry achieves lies in the fact that the improvisations are merely colorations and commentary. They are not THE raison d'etre of the composition. They owe more to Gershwin's Porgy and Bess than to Paul Whiteman or Duke Ellington. Barry's jazz are masterpieces of journeyman compositional/arranging skills.
Many of Barry's best Bond scores rely on this Jazz flavouring couple with his Romanticism and occasional eclecticism. His bag of tricks in the 60's was very large and often surprising.
Yet--in the 90's he has discarded most of his stylistic innovations and inventions. His approach has become one of pure music for music's sake. It is more of a religious philosophy. Barry's music is now ZEN. It is HAIKU. It is discipline and feeling and the tailoring is out of the same bolt of cloth again and again.
Those who only know Barry from Out of Africa and Dances with Wolves think this is all Barry can do or will ever do. "They all sound the same" is the mantra of the neophyte listener who is just discovering what Barry has to offer. I feel that John Barry is a person who has used his musical gifts to vicariously express the deepest possible feelings in his stiff-upper lip English soul. He has done a massive Freudian bit of therapy on himself along the way. By mining the depths of heartbreak, sexuality, fear and heroics his music has served two purposes; one for the moviegoer and one for Barry himself. At some point along the way the demon was exorcised and Barry became at peace with himself. Whatever muse/demon was tormenting his creative soul became exorcised and only once facet of his nature remains to be plumbed for treasure. That is the Romantic side. Again and again Barry tours the gentle and heroic in himself and demonstrates it romantically. He is relaxed about life. He accepts it. His music is-- gentle it is accepting. He eschews the action adventure vehicle. Been there/done that. There is nothing more for him to say about those emotions. The beauty of life and joy of feeling Life is what remains. While those of us who have accompanied John Barry on his musical journey may long for the wondrous times of innovations and exoticism of the past-- we have learned to savour the multifarious flavours of his vineyard of today. John Barry still vints a heady brew!