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A Chat with The Composer - John Barry

A Chat with The Composer

ca. April 1972

LONDON - The lights dimmed in the fashionable Leicester Square Odeon, and from behind the glowing orange stage curtains came a blast of thumping, amorphous sound that purported to be music. Soon it was joined by a thin, childlike voice that kept singing, "Curiouser and curiouser" . . . and some other words that got lost between the forced volume (obviously based on someone's notion that more is better) and the inadequacy of the theatre’s sound system to reproduce in the higher registers.

All this was the prelude to a midnight screening of excerpts from a forthcoming, multistarred production of Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, due here around Christmas. For a preview, as well as a glimpse of the actual shooting, American National, which opens the U.S. and Canadian rights to Alice, flew to London a planeload of about eighty prospective exhibitors, some sixty press and TV people, and perhaps thirty-five of its own key executives. The screening was intended to be the highlight of the trip.

Unfortunately, as was soon apparent, it was anything but. To be sure, one could recognize in the excerpts such luminaries as Sir Ralph Richardson as the Caterpillar, Peter Seller's as the March hare, Sir Robert Helpmann as the Mad Hatter, and, if one looked very closely beneath the make-up, Michael Crawford as the White Rabbit. The excerpts, however, were studded with printed slugs reading "Scene Missing," the editing was still rough, the colour and the sound unbalanced. The underscoring, so important to a film of this sort, had yet to be written and many in the audience stated that they found the songs themselves uninspired.

As it happened, I had purposely sought out John Barry, Alice's composer, during my visit to the rambling Shepperton studio the day before, mainly because his was one of the few behind-the-camera names with which I was familiar. Also, I have consistently admired his work, from the rock variations of The Knack to the medieval classicism of The Lion In Winter, and from the pungent guitar concerto that accompanied Boom! to the blaring, driving rhythms of the James Bond pictures. I was curious to discover the kind of man who composed so effectively in so many different idioms.

There is probably no more endearing introduction to an artist than a display of familiarity with his work. In any case, before the afternoon was over, Barry - a lean, tall fellow who looks at least a decade younger than his thirty-nine years - had auditioned the entire score for me on the superb stereo system installed in his sleek white Citroen '72. "Actually," he said, half-apologetically, "the sound here is far better than the studio's sound system, and the tracks for my cartridges are properly mixed, while the film tracks won't be finally mixed until September."

I found John Barry's music for Alice - all twenty-one numbers - utterly charming, ingeniously orchestrated, and wholly different from any of his scores that I was familiar with. For one thing, it was more tender, more romantic, much in the spirit of Prokofiev's nostalgic modernisms in the Romeo and Juliet or Cinderella ballets, although interspersed were Elgaresque fanfares, and a hilarious patter song between Sellers and Helpmann that owed more to the Twenties' music halls than to Gilbert and Sullivan. Somehow, Barry had managed to make an orchestra that never numbered more than fifty sound like twice that many. And the lyrics by Don Black - often witty, sometimes poetic - always seemed to ride effortlessly just above the surface of their accompaniment.

Next day, over a kipper mousse at Burke's Club, Barry somewhat diffidently began to talk about composing for films. Although he had a classical education in music, his entrance into the film field was through association with a rock group, the John Barry Seven, and a period as accompanist to a rock singer named Adam Faith (who seems to have been the British Elvis Presley). When Faith went into the movies, Barry went with him. The duo did not remain together very long. "We had different ideas about music," said Barry, succinctly.

"I've come to look on music as a voice, an attitude, that exists outside the film itself," he continued. "If the music is saying the very same thing as the pictures, then obviously it is being redundant. If you begin to notice the music as an intrusion, then it is bad. But if you become aware of the music emotionally and are responding to it along with the film itself, then it is a good score. I feel that the film composer should be, first, a good dramatist, and, second, a good composer. He should be able to expand, through his music, what the film is saying, not merely repeat or underline it."

Barry rejects emphatically the notion that movie music should be bland or neutral, or simply-as Aaron Copland once put it - "a small lamp placed beneath the screen to warm it." According to Barry, "If music doesn't sing, or dance, or have an interesting harmonic concept, then it shouldn't be there at all. A film score should burn with its own fire, not merely glow in the dark like a pretty charcoal." When he reads a new script, it is with an eye to what he can add to it - and also to what he is not going to do with it. "Choice is taste," is virtually his maxim, and it applies equally to his choice of scripts and his choice of the musical forms to accompany them.

What concerns him most is the quality (or lack of quality) in most theatre speaker systems. Barry became extra conscious of this at an early age, because his father was an exhibitor. "It's absolutely pointless to go for hi-fi sound in films when you know how it's going to sound for most audiences," he said. "When I record a score, I go for the highest quality that the studio can give me. But then I bring in standard speakers and re-record for these. Actually, it's a recording calculated to bring out the best in your average theatre installations." By all odds, he admitted, the sound on his numerous LPs and tapes was better than anything one might hear in the theatre, or, for that matter, in the Royal Albert Hall, where the Royal Philharmonic will perform an all-John Barry program on October 7 (including excerpts from his score for Goldfinger, which he calls "Mickey Mouse Wagner").

I looked around for John Barry at the Leicester Square Odeon on that last night in London, but failed to spot him. I hope he wasn't there. What with the curtains that muffled his sound, the unbalanced tracks, and the Odeon's tubby speakers, he would probably have been tearing great handfuls out of his long, but already thinning hair.

Read 10264 times Last modified on Tuesday, 02 June 2015 09:50
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PIA website

Have a look at our old "Play It Again" label website here.

Play It Again Records CD catalogue offered the discerning listener a wide choice of digitally re-mastered recordings from film and television, and rare collections of work from the likes of Don Black and Ron Grainer.

Contact the JB site

If you wish to send an email, for example with content for the website, please contact Geoff Leonard:

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Bristol, UK

Geoff (owner) and Ruud (webmaster) have been running the John Barry website since June 18, 2001.

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John Barry related Events or Concerts

Submit your Event or Concert, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. We will not be responsible for any errors or inaccuracies.

A lot more James Bond concerts collected on the link below, I have put them all in this news item. So check it out from there!

The Music of BondThe Music of Bond
Royal Albert Hall
Wednesday 19 September 2018
Starts: 7:30pm


Presented by Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace). Over fifty years of timeless James Bond themes from all your favourite 007 films.

Hits from Goldfinger, Licence to Kill, Casino Royale, Skyfall, Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die, Spectre, From Russia with Love to name just a few, all sung by outstanding vocalists Alison Jiear and Matthew Ford.

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Gareth Hudson Conductor
Alison Jiear Vocalist
Matthew Ford Vocalist

James Bond fans are in for a treat in January 2019, as renowned Band, the popular Q The Music Show, are putting on a special concert - performing all the music from Moonraker on

26th January 2019

at the

Wycombe Swan Concert Hall,
High Wycombe,
United Kingdom.

You can back the project and buy tickets here

They are drafting in professional musicians from London to create a 100-piece Orchestra and Choir to recreate all of John Barry’s iconic cues from the 1979 film. As there is only around 50 minutes of music in the film, they will perform the best of the James Bond songs in the second half in true Q The Music style, but with full orchestra.

Because of the nature of this concert, and the huge costs involved, they are crowd funding it, so tickets have to be purchased by 6th May this year for the concert to go ahead on Saturday 26th January 2019.

Q The Music Show are popular with James Bond fans all around the World thanks to their dedicated and authentic versions of the music and were chosen to perform at Sir Roger Moore’s Memorial Event at Pinewood Studios in October last year. The concert will be compered by Bond girls Madeline Smith and Caroline Munro, who have been working with Q The Music this year on their theatre tour of the UK.

The concert will not be available to buy on recording after the show, and the Moonraker score has never been performed live, so this is a unique opportunity for fans to see it. If the project is a success, Q The Music plan to go on a do a different Barry/Bond score each year.

You can back the project and buy tickets here

*Please note, this is a music only performance – no images or footage from the film will be shown, and Q The Music are not associated with EON, Danjaq LLC, or the James Bond Films in any way.

Warren Ringham
Q The Music Show - James Bond Tribute Band
The London Showband - Party & Covers Band