Timeless, innovative, expansive and sensual, the music of John Barry Prendergast is a thought-provoking testament to a man who set the bar high and kept on raising it.
For many of us, the work of British composer, Barry, is synonymous with the Bond franchise, and there’s no mistaking his contribution to that legacy. His work (along with that of Monty Norman) came to signify the arch, dangerously seductive swagger and cool, ambivalent melancholy that is the man behind the martini glass. He captured a world of intrigue, code and double meaning, of subterfuge, ambiguity, covert operation and sexuality. His was a trenchant and identifiable yet intriguingly elliptical and diverse musical sensibility that lassoed widely different vocalists from Louis Armstrong to Duran Duran, invariably producing something magnetic and memorable.
But to fully comprehend Barry’s elegiac and heartfelt love affair with both cinema and music, one is duty-bound to explore the other stunning cinematic contributions that would define the narratives of several decades. For his was a distinctive style, associated with lush strings and extensive use of brass, but it took mesmerizing cues from contemporary technologies and popular culture, while at the same time paving the way for other musical narrators by pioneering new rhythms and instrumentation, with the likes of Moog synthesizers and zithers employed years ahead of many of his contemporaries.
In this series, I won’t even be able to try to capture the definitive list of the composer’s output. However, along with Glen, I’ll be considering some of his standout moments, their vitality and form, and their relationship with the films in question. This has been a monumental task, but it’s been a delightful experience discovering new treasures to join those that have already played out as part of the soundtrack to my life, as well as the films whose work he graced and elevated.
Beat Girl (aka Wild For Kicks) (1960)
Mad about beat? Living for kicks? This wasn’t just a tagline on a movie poster. This was the smoking pistol that proved Barry had arrived. The onset of the sixties was a time of frenzied creative impetus, and Barry was centre of the action in London, seizing every opportunity to further his vision.
He was already a bandleader with the John Barry Seven (he’d even tried singing), but his dream was always to work in the movies. In 1959, he’d co-produced What Do You Want? for Parlophone label mate, Adam Faith, and had also got the rising star a regular stint on TV series Drumbeat. In return, Barry was enlisted to compose and arrange this score for Faith’s first movie, Beat Girl. The result was the first British soundtrack album to be released on LP, one of the first examples of ‘rock’ in a film score, and devastating musical sequences bristling with electricity. You were thusly instructed to get your groove on.
This feverishly po-faced movie about a mythical Soho beatnik scene pushed rebellion to ridiculous extremes, detailing the exploits and exploitation of a sullen teenage beauty (played by Gillian Hills) who takes exception to her daddy’s French wife and gets revenge by undressing in a club for Christopher Lee.
The film, which also featured a young Oliver Reed, referenced a period of late-fifties youth rebellion that was tenuous at best. Indeed, Barry would later describe it as a poor man’s James Dean. But there were thrills to be had.
In this twilight world of striptease and sauce by numbers, the most exciting numbers were provided by Barry. The frenetic rhythms and rolling punches of brass and guitar betrayed a searing pop sensibility with an edge, courtesy of rhythm and blues specialists, The John Barry Seven, and here the swinging sound pulsates with a dangerous burnished cool.
Featuring songs for Faith, some striking instrumental cues and that dangerously hip title theme, this score is a proper declaration of intent, audacious, bouncy, futuristic and loaded with attitude. Some cues were so ahead of the game they would later be used as source music for Deadfall (see next week’s instalment).
The score includes the song Made You, which allegedly caused such a stir when it was released as a single (it mentions the phrase “first base”) that it was banned by the BBC for being obscene.
Barry would go on to work on another Faith vehicle, Never Let Go, but it was his name that became the buzzier buzz word. Like an Alka-Seltzer dropped into a bottle of Bollinger, Barry was off and running.
Séance On A Wet Afternoon (1964)
This creepy and claustrophobic kidnap thriller is an unheralded British classic, and it marks one of several collaborations that director Bryan Forbes would make with Barry, as well as actress (and wife), Nanette Newman.
In the film, an opportunistic ‘psychic’ and her weak-willed husband kidnap the daughter of a wealthy family and then pretend to locate the little girl by psychic means. It stars Richard Attenborough as harassed Billy Savage and Oscar-nominated Broadway actress, Kim Stanley, as his unbalanced wife and would-be psychic Myra.
John Barry’s understated and unsettling score compounds the sense of foreboding and dread in this taut and upsetting study of unravelling marital relations and mental illness.
Barry’s musical arrangement is used sparingly, but such is the impact of the music that it feels like another character, breathing menacingly in your ear. Forbes himself would later describe the composer as being light years ahead of the pack. The score suffuses this tense melodrama with a quiet yet pronounced chill, augmenting piano with harp and then cranking up the tension with subtle, anarchic touches that pluck surreptitiously against a mounting fog of flute, cello and timpani. Rhythms build ominously only to dissolve in on themselves, and atonal percussive flourishes hint at unspoken marital discord as well as more palpable horrors. The score underpins the macabre and psychological elements of the film, providing a heartrending interpretation of domestic instability.
Easy to overlook but deeply satisfying for lovers of Barry melancholia, this score offers us a fascinating foreshadowing of both the ‘subterfuge sound’ that blossomed with The Ipcress File and the neo-noir style that he would later adapt for Body Heat.
Awkward confession: I haven’t watched Zulu in full, but I do know the score and I know that Barry does something very special here. He merges two musical cultures into one authentic sound.
The prospect of contributing an epic score to complement the story of the British army’s stand against Zulu warriors at Rorke’s Drift would have made another young composer lose control of their guts, but Barry didn’t hesitate when asked to create a ‘big orchestral’ score. He was hungry for an epic.
This score was influenced by a series of indigenous songs that co-producer Cy Endfield had brought back from Africa, and in it Barry whips up a frenzied coalescence of animal instincts and human responses, sonic tidal waves of savage brutality and the ebb of energies drained by confrontation.
The main theme was adapted from one such hunting song, and in it Barry sought to establish a sense of heritage while creating something bold and unnerving. Subtlety and suspense are employed intelligently alongside the punchier elements of the instrumentation. As well as Barry’s score, the original soundtrack included a few ‘Zulu stamps’, some based on traditional dances that are still performed by modern tribes.
The score was recorded with a full symphony orchestra at the original CTS studios in Bayswater, an old Masonic hall with high ceilings. The colossal arrangements truly match the ‘size’ of the film, yet also underpin the detail, capturing not only the scale of the conflict, but also a sense of ambivalence.
Barry’s desire for cultural synthesis required honesty, consideration and risk, and the risk paid off. In incorporating traditional African ideas into a contemporary musical vernacular, he trumped Paul Simon by a good couple of decades. Incidentally, themes from Zulu can also be heard in his score for 1995 film Cry, The Beloved Country.
Given the frequency with which the film appears on UK TV, it’s easy to underplay how great Zulu is. It’s an incredibly intense siege movie that’s elevated by the quality of Barry’s score. Listening to this music in isolation is an immersive experience, which is testament to the quality of the arrangements. Incidentally, there’s an excellent CD release called Zulu: The Film Music Of John Barry, which is played brilliantly by the City of Prague Orchestra and collects together a number of Barry’s other works spread over two discs, including Mister Moses and King Rat.
In case you haven’t heard, it’s worth mentioning here that Caine and Barry were drinking buddies and that, in the months before Zulu made him a star, Caine crashed at Barry’s digs, expecting to capitalise on the fact that his mate frequented London’s finest clubs. What he got instead was a succession of sleepless nights enduring a loud crashing melody that Barry was repeating like a man possessed. Two blaring notes, F major and D flat, were being pounded into Caine’s brain like a sadistic mantra. That deranged fanfare was the intro to another composition that Barry was working on at the time, a persuasive little number called Goldfinger.
Honorable mentions (1960-1967):
Never Let Go (1960)
Another Faith vehicle, and another superlative effort by The John Barry Seven, with effortless cool, sleazy horns and the hard-edged swing that betrayed the influence of the Stan Kenton band. The music was a charming adjunct to the villainous turn by Peter Sellers, who memorably slams Faith’s hand in a car door.
The L-Shaped Room (1962)
Barry’s first collaboration with Bryan Forbes, supplying jazz sequences to this story of a melancholy French lady in a boarding house with a group of misfits and a disarming Pat Phoenix. Brahms’ No.1 Piano Concerto features heavily, but there are two tracks and several cues written by John Barry and performed by his Seven, lending a lightness of touch to this grim tale.
What Do You Want? (1959)
Adam Faith enjoyed a series of hits thanks to his collaborations with Barry and songwriter Les Vandyke, and this was the first number one hit for Parlophone. According to Faith, there was talk of removing those unnerving glottal stops from this pizzicato classic, but Barry wouldn’t hear of it.
Hit And Miss (1960)
This catchy, well beloved tune became indelibly linked with the seminal show Juke Box Jury, which ran from 1959 to 1967. The John Barry Seven would enjoy a string of hits during the late 1950s and early 1960s, including Black Stockings, a cover of the Ventures Walk Don’t Run and even a cover of the theme from The Magnificent Seven.
John Barry’s first album incorporated the might of the John Barry Seven (notably guitarist, Vic Flick, who also played for Barry on the James Bond theme), a small string orchestra and a clavioline electric keyboard, and cuts a dash through countless musical influences. It holds up pretty well fifty years later.
Elizabeth Taylor In London (1963)
Barry’s gloriously delicate and dreamy arrangements bring credibility and charm to Taylor’s readings of Wordsworth and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. This should be a nonsensical tumbling of style over substance, but it truly captures something sublime and intoxicating. Sheer poetry.
In the next part of this John Barry retrospective, we’ll be taking a detailed look at three more of his classic scores from the 1960–67 period, as well as a rundown of his other notable pieces from the same era.