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’.


10 comments on “What Is It About John Barry?”

  1. matt says:

    This week we have had a lot of his music on at bedtime. Its the kind of music you just feel comfortable with and for us it helps us get off to sleep after a busy day.

  2. Wayne Mook says:

    Hit and Miss by the John Barry Seven, used for Juke Box Jury, (I only saw repeats and when they tried to bring it back.) shows a lot of what he was doing encapsulated in 2 minutes.

    I remember hearing an interview with him, he was very complimentary about Duran, Duran. He said they were professional and knew what they wanted to do, his tone of voice said everything. You could tell he surprised in a good way and enjoyed the experience. When asked about A-ha, the change in voice was most notable, they were not professional, the feeling was he wasn’t prepared to do that again.

    Just listening to Beat Girl (Wild for Kicks.) theme on the internet, sounds very Bondish. The film dvd slogan is Hop-Head UK School Girls Get in Trouble.


  3. Paul Graham says:

    Yes Admin, I’ve noticed this too. For example, Maurice Jarre or John Williams are equally unique and undoubtedly gifted composers, and yet (Jaws aside) you need to hear more than a few notes to definitely recognize them.

    Musicians who have used John Barry samples; Portishead and the Sneaker Pimps, spring to mind, the taken bits of his music are immediately identifiable as JB.

  4. John says:

    I had to smile at something that you wrote in trying to make Barry sound like he’s wholly unique. Using “memorable note sequences to match the syllables of their film titles” is the fundamental basis of writing a good song. Any good song is one in which the words and music are intrinsically combined. It’s not just a skill or talent in writing a good movie theme. Those themes were songs, too. And I can think of hundreds of movie themes that are also songs by a myriad of composers in which the syllables of the movie’s title and the melody are forever linked in my mind.

  5. Brian Evans says:

    I’ve just finished “Film Freak” (a page turner) so the details you go into re film music are still fresh in my mind. Like you, I also think the stars of the “Carry Ons” are the composers-Bruce Montgomery and Eric Rogers. The former thought of Hattie Jaques as bassoon and Charles Hawtrey as a piccolo in “Nurse”-hence these instruments accompany them during the film. As for the latter, watch the credits for “Carry on Cabby”. This was not originally planned to be one of the series, and was to be titled “Call Me a Cab”. Listen to the way Rogers uses the first few notes of his jaunty soundtrack to spell out the title, just as John Barry does in the way you describe above.
    Also, is it only me, or does anyone else think Sir Malcolm Arnold’s “St Trinians” music is “Lilli Marlene” speeded up?

  6. Helen Martin says:

    It’s the voice I hear with Goldfinger and Born Free was so heavily played it engraved itself, but this theme from The Knack (which I didn’t see) is certainly a fine piece of music, one which I could enjoy over and over.

  7. Alan Morgan says:

    And now there’s Danny Elfman. Where everything is the same, and that same is Danny Elfman.

  8. admin says:

    Blimey, Brian, I just played the two tracks together and you’re right! St Trinian’s is Lilli Marlene! (this is the sort of pointless stuff that makes my day!)

  9. Brian Evans says:

    Thanks for the above Christopher. I’m chuffed that you liked it.
    You may know about the following, but just in case you don’t, try this: Play the “Dambusters” theme, then if you have it (if not it may be on You tube or a cheap download on Amazon), listen to Doris Day singing “I’ll Never Stop Loving You” I don’t know the details but I think it ended up in court case as either Eric Coates or Associated British Pictures (poss both) were rattled.

  10. I share your enthusiasm for Barry. His score for Body Heat isn’t one of his best known,but it makes a brilliant mystery film even more memorable and haunting. Barry even appears,and plays a part in the plot, in Deadfall, a Sixties film with another great score, although it’s nothing like as gripping as Body Heat.

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