What Is It About John Barry?
Why can you hear a John Barry track across a crowded room and tell it’s him within three notes? There’s a sense of melancholy in even his most cheerful compositions. Barry began as a jazz musician, but went on to become the most evocative film composer ever to work in England. Notable for his use of woodwinds and lush string arrangements, he also introduced electronic sounds into film scores and pioneered the use of pop, particularly in weaving the title track of ‘Midnight Cowboy’ into its score. I love the part where Jon Voigt watches a space movie in a cinema, and we suddenly hear what could be a sinister low-key version of a Bond track.
Barry disagreed with the idea that a soundtrack should be carved into two separate parts in order to showcase a title song by any band currently owned by a studio subsidiary. He argued that a soundtrack should create a single united atmosphere for its film. The James Bond scores show a marked deterioration of style once forgettable songs shared space with carefully constructed themes. There’s a good chance that you can recall the title track of Goldfinger, but not the theme to ‘Casino Royale’. Barry’s spare brass-heavy orchestrations across some eleven films were clean, simple and impossible to forget.
Barry hit upon a smart musical mnemonic for audiences to remember his theme songs. ‘Goldfinger’, ‘The Liquidator’, ‘Born Free’ and ‘You Only Live Twice’ all use memorable note sequences to match the syllables of their film titles. James Bernard used this technique for his Hammer version of ‘Dracula’. His three-note sting (Draaac-u-la) over the name embeds so strongly into the mind that the two become synonymous.
Barry also loved working on musicals, but met with success only a couple of times, with ‘Billy’ and ‘The Passion Flower Hotel’. His scores for musical versions of ‘The Little Prince’, ‘Brighton Rock’ and ‘Lolita’ remain unrecorded (although I have a blurry bootleg of ‘Lolita, My Love’). Perhaps his musicals were too haunting for such a generally upbeat genre. Here he is with the title track to ‘The Knack’.