Music in the movies: further scores of John Barry 1960-1967

We continue our unabashed appreciation of some of the highlights of composer John Barry’s early movie career beyond the remit of the Bond franchise...

In the second part of our look at John Barry’s extraordinary back catalogue of movie scores, we concentrate on a few more of the films from the mid- to late sixties. This was the beginning of a phase of phenomenal output, as well as experimentation, signposting his continuing diversity of technique and his burgeoning sense of style. Following on from the success of Zulu, his was a reputation that was quickly gaining momentum and garnering feverish accolades.

Stylish, contemporary and full of energy, Barry played as hard as he worked, and this musical period took place in a blur of fast living and nights at the Pickwick Club with the likes of Michael Caine and Terence Stamp, sampling the delights of the sixties at full pelt before meeting his second wife, Jane Birkin.

However, as we consider the music from this period, we can not only appreciate the way his pioneering modern tastes fused with more organic and classical sounds, but we can also begin to see how adept he was becoming as creating emotional intensity and high drama. As early as Goldfinger, he was proving that he could create music that acted as a conduit into a complex and seemingly impenetrable character, and he would show his mettle again and again through the sixties, as he tapped into those onscreen creations, giving them depth, heart and a compelling voice in moments when not a single word was uttered.

His writing partner and friend, Don Black, said that the best way to get to know him was over lunch. Barry was fastidious, quirky and distinguished, but also spirited, generous and receptive to simple pleasures. Although he wasn’t a big eater, he wanted his cracked crab to have dark bits, but he also liked fish and chips (with vinegar on the side). He liked his vintage brandy, but he also enjoyed taking slow walks around the modern streets of London after he ate, in search of gifts for friends or some new intellectual stimulation, and often an early edition of Shaw or Dickens.

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As we continue looking at Barry’s early work, one is never far from those charmingly broad and selective passions, that idiosyncratic nature and unwavering curiosity, and, above all, his very human responses to universal ideas.

The Knack … And How to Get It (1965)

“He’s just got a certain knack with the ladies, that’s all,” posits Michael Crawford’s mousey teacher Colin at the onset of Richard Lester’s film about three very different roommates. This declaration pops the cork on the various games of sexual intrigue that ensue with the arrival of enticing out-of-towner, Nancy (Rita Tushingham), in this cocksure comedy of sixties London, set against a Greek chorus of disapproving ‘old folks’.

Ostensibly, he’s referring to professional womanizer, Tolen (Ray Brooks), who’s so popular that he has a guest book for the ladies to sign as they exit his bedroom. But, really, Crawford could just as easily be talking about John Barry, who, at this point, was not only proving himself an accomplished master when it came to capturing the zeitgeist, but was also becoming confident and playful enough to reinvent it.

The Knack, along with other Lester movies of the period such as Help! and A Hard Day’s Night, is popular for its disjointed edits and its saucy manner. Provocative? Certainly. But Barry embraces the whole enterprise with giddy abandon and his lascivious, kinky score is stuffed full of joy and experimentation, as well as an impeccable sense of timing and a palpable appreciation of what was fashionable and what would be deemed shocking.

Where scattered imagery abounds, Barry’s score provides a convincing connecting thread. Achingly hip, louche and decadent, his score tinkers with three-four time, and playful female voices are heard humming the movie’s melodies throughout. He deftly adapts to the whims of individual characters, moving easily between casual, laidback sass and more bizarre segments, providing an upbeat contrast to a film where central characters struggle to communicate, dislocated and cut adrift. It’s a slam dunk of waltz and bossa nova, of traditional jazz elements with avant-garde splashes and pizzicato strings, of pulsating Hammond organs, exuberant bongos and a throbbing double bass, along with that recurring accent of a rattlesnake about to pounce. Even the conclusion’s romantic refrain is brought up short with an impish horn section.

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This score is an excellent early example of Barry’s craftsmanship and confidence with wide ranging instruments and genres, as well as his sense of humour, and his sense of style.

With a nudge and a wink, his success was assured, and the film would go on to take the Palme d’Or at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival. And yes, that is Barry’s former wife and sixties wild child, Jane Birkin, playing the girl on the motorbike.

The Ipcress File (1965)

Barry’s Bond themes have been dealt with in a previous Den Of Geek column, but The Ipcress File represents an interesting comparison, not only with the tone of the film, but also because it starred possibly the finest Bond that never was, Michael Caine.

Fans of the Bond scores will find a number of techniques that are employed in the series are present here. However, this arrangement also incorporates a range of new ideas that make this score truly memorable.

It would be no exaggeration to say that this score redefined the template for the spy genre Barry had, himself, helped to create with Bond, deconstructing his own musical giants in order to lend anti-hero Harry Palmer real vitality onscreen, in this way was the subterfuge sound presented with a startling new palette of musical colours.

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Barry was again teamed up with Bond impresario, Harry Saltzman, but Palmer was the antithesis of Bond, something of a loner. He did his own shopping and didn’t have a girlfriend. He was like the reflection of the martini drinker viewed through a warped and musty glass. And his was a claustrophobic, austere life, some way removed from the world of epidermal suffocation and Pussy Galore.

Yet, one could still pick out Barry’s trademark touches in this study of bespectacled espionage, with its stark theme of A Man Alone. There are splashes of harp and some sensuous strings here and there that provide some relief from the contemplative arrangements.

What connects many of these early scores is a relentless commitment to experimentation with instrumentation in all forms, pitching new instruments in isolation and meshing in bizarre and unexpected combinations. Barry’s gusto is palpable, as he employs a Moog synthesiser, woodwind and a Hungarian cimbalom to capture a Cold War sound that would become shorthand for countless composers, bringing a wintry gravitas to the character of Palmer, as played by Michael Caine.

Assisting Barry in his thirst for new sound textures was multi-instrumentalist, John Leach, whose flat was filled with the instruments that Barry would pick up whenever he visited his friend. Barry’s predilection for the weird and the wonderful meant that this score captured something chillingly ephemeral in physical form, eliciting sympathy for Palmer such that the anti-hero acquires real potency, and leaving an indelible impression on the listener.

Born Free (1966)

I don’t revisit the film anywhere near as much as I do the excellent score [GC], but it’s hard to deny they’re perfect for each other. Barry’s music really accentuates the emotional content of the film and pulls you in, but without seeming manipulative or cloying. The title theme, which formed the foundation of Matt Monro’s song (also covered by Andy Williams), is one of the most recognisable of Barry’s career, but the score as a whole is a fantastic piece of work that was very much deserving of its Oscar.

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It was the first time an Englishman had ever won Oscars in both the Best Song and Best Score categories. This was a particularly momentous coup for Barry, as he himself had had few fond memories of scoring Born Free. Furthermore, he was unable to attend the Oscars and bask in the full glory of this prestigious event, as his then-wife, Jane Birkin, had just given birth to their first child together, Kate. In a veritable bundle of firsts, the film Born Free was chosen for the Royal Film Performance of 1966, and Barry became the first British composer to be presented to Queen Elizabeth.

Hard to believe, perhaps, that Barry almost didn’t work on the project at all, as he disagreed with director James Hill about how to interpret the film on a musical level. Barry saw it as Disney-style entertainment, while Hill was hung up on making a political statement about liberty. The song Born Free won the Ivor Novello Award and has been covered by no fewer than six hundred acts, but in the film, it was sung by former London cabbie, Matt Monro. Apparently, Monro and others had to beg for the song to be restored to the film, because producers had initially rejected it for not being commercial enough. It’s just as well that ‘the powers that were’ eventually listened. The song, although not one of my personal favourites [JG], is now undeniably a gargantuan bona fide standard.

Next week…

In the next part of this John Barry retrospective, we’ll be taking a look at some of the incredible scores he was responsible for during the late sixties, including Deadfall, Midnight Cowboy and The Lion in Winter. Don’t miss it!

Honorable mentions (1965-1967)

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The Party’s Over (1965)

Another turn by the young Oliver Reed in a storyline about a nascent beat generation taking umbrage at the establishment, this slight and stark instrumental was another opportunity for Barry’s experimentation to shine. Barry’s collaboration with vocalist Annie Ross was suitably downbeat and suffused with blues, and yet also, oddly, some provocative Bond influences.

Four In The Morning (1965)

An appointment with future Bond regular, Judi Dench, in her first onscreen appearance, Four In The Morning‘s modest budget limited Barry’s scope, but not his instincts. The combination of an oboe, four cellos and some well-placed percussion helped to produce an accomplished and unsettling score to accompany this drama about two couples and their connection to a woman found drowned in a river.

King Rat (1965)

Thanks to his military service and time spent playing trumpet in the army, as well as his flair for experimentation, Barry knew exactly how to turn the screw in this POW drama, converging drums, xylophones and harps, unexpected chord sequences and discordant melodies to create an eerie and idiosyncratic score.

The Chase (1966)

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Featuring Marlon Brando and Jane Fonda, this movie’s edgy score is one part blues, one part jazz and two parts Wild West. It’s stuffed with subtle touches, though. Timpani, strings and brass create an uneasy chemistry, there’s a Morricone-style trumpet, and a mouth organ appears years before Midnight Cowboy.

The Quiller Memorandum (1966)

Gloomy, bleak and utterly alluring, this creepy score included a deceptively smooth vocal by Matt Monro, as well as a cimbalom, low flute and what appears to be a theramin, creating the perfectly sinister backdrop for this espionage thriller featuring George Segal, Alec Guinness and Max von Sydow.

The Girl With The Sun In Her Hair (1967)

Not a movie score, although this beguiling arrangement could easily have performed that role. Here, a modest little advert for Sunsilk shampoo showcased Barry at his most evocative and playful. The ad itself was memorable for more than one reason. Alongside the usual choices for normal, dry and greasy hair, this gorgeous music was used to promote the alarming egg shampoo.

See Also

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