John Barry RIP, we remember the brilliant composer with a retrospective interview – by Ian Johnson
JOHN BARRY INTERVIEW 12th April 1999 by IAN JOHNSTON Copyright ÃÂ© Ian Johnston 1999
On 12th April 1999, I interviewed the late film composer John Barry OBE (3rd November 1933 – 30th January 2011). The urbane composer of Beat Girl, The Lion In Winter, Midnight Cowboy, Body Heat and eleven Bond films (Barry just arranged and conducted ”ËThe James Bond Theme’ on the first Bond film, Dr. No ”â the score of which was composed by Monty Norman) and many other magnificent movie scores granted me an exclusive interview, conducted in the well-appointed bar of the Langham Hilton, in London’s West End. Mr. Barry kindly kept the potent cocktails coming to our table and was a perfect interviewee; softly spoken, his voice still carrying the traces of a Yorkshire accent (despite living in America for many years), gracious and generous with his time. For a brief John Barry career overview, please consult my recent Louder Than War obituary.
In April 1999 a new John Barry soundtrack that he had written for the picture Playing By Heart, which starred Sean Connery and Geena Rowlands, was about to be released, which the composer was then promoting. Barry was also about to conduct three concerts of his work, Bond and Beyond, with the 90 piece English Chamber Orchestra at the Symphony Hall, Birmingham on 21st April and at the Royal Albert Hall, London on the 23rd and 24th of that month.
Your jazz influence score for Playing By Heart is wonderful, perhaps one of your best soundtracks. Did the chance to revisit your past attract you to the project?
John Barry: “Yeah. The project has a kind of long history. When I was first asked to do it, by the director and screenwriter Willard Carroll, it was called Dancing About Architecture. That was something Clara Schumann said when she was asked to describe music, she said, ”ÂTalking about music is like dancing about architecture.”Â
In the original screenplay the Sean Connery character and the Gena Rowlands character were of the 1950’s, they were brought up on the music of the jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, so that was a subliminal thing in the script. Carroll asked if we could do a score reminiscent of Chet baker. So, I wrote the theme, ”ËRemembering Chet’, recorded it in New York, and the first track on the album is a demo I did in New York. It’s just synthesizer, piano and trumpet. I didn’t do it originally with the trumpeter Chris botti, I didn’t know him, I did it with a session guy. Then I played it to Chris Roberts, who is the head of Polygram. He said he loved it, then asked me if I’d heard of Chris Botti. I said no, and he told me Botti was a young trumpet player that he had on the verve label. He called him up, he came straight over to the office, we met and he played some of his stuff. I loved his playing. I then re-did ”ËRemembering Chet’ with Botti’s trumpet on it, sent it to Willard Carroll in LA and he loved it. I said, ”ËWell, let’s just play about, there is nobody like him, he’s unique.’ That’s how it started. But then, as the title of the movie got changed to Playing By Heart, that whole Chet Baker thing got very diluted. That’s one of the things that sometimes happens to a movie. It was one of the things that got lost along the way, unfortunately. So, they then put a song soundtrack album out, which I have two tracks on. Capitol have that. My score actually suffered a lot because of what was going on with the picture, the re-cutting, whatever. Then Chris again heard the full score that I’d written, and he said, ”ËI just want to put it out as a jazz album. Can we do that?’ I said, ”ËSure, if you want to do it, let’s do a deal.’ So we did a deal. That’s why, if you see the packaging, it doesn’t look like a movie album. There are pictures of Chet Baker, Chris Botti and myself on the cover, and it doesn’t look like a movie album at all. And that’s the way we wanted it.”Â
You have managed to blend your trademark sweeping strings with a jazz mood. Was that difficult to achieve?
John Barry: “No, it came very easy. I mean, I love Chet Baker. I was a big Chet Baker fan way back in the 50’s.’
You of course were a trumpet player yourself, weren’t you?
John Barry: “Yeah, right.”Â
As well as Chet Baker there also seems to be echoes of the work of Miles Davis with Gil Evans on Playing By Heart”Â¦
John Barry: “Yeah, absolutely, which is my favourite stuff too. The Miles Davis/Gil Evans albums were fantastic. Later on, I liked Clifford Brown. Those were I think my favourite three trumpet players. They were all very cool. They weren’t like the Harry James style of the 1930’s, which was very outgoing. They had a very introverted style of playing, which appealed to me.”Â
The sound you developed with the John Barry Seven, driving guitar, blaring trumpets, swinging drums, blending rock ”Ën’ roll music into the film score, was a s influential as The Beatles. Did you imagine that your music would have that impact?
John Barry: “No. I get asked that question. When you’re doing a project, you get employed and you get on and do the project. You don’t look into the future at all, you’re looking at the piece of work and you do the best by it. It is amazing. Beat Girl (1960, released in the USA as Wild For Kicks), the first movie I ever did, people are sampling that, I’m getting letters all the time, ”ËWe want to sample Beat Girl.’ When I did it, the film was just a real low budget B-movie.”Â
It was the first score of its kind in British film, wasn’t it?
John Barry: “Right, it was, it was. It was my first movie; I was very excited about it. That was Adam (Faith). That was how that came about. These things happen by chance. I always wanted to get into the movie industry then I started recording with Adam, who never thought he’d have the success that he had. Then they wanted him to star in the movie. So it was a great intro for me into the movie industry. It’s not easy to get into, you know. Music for films, at that time, seemed like a closed shop.”Â
Film music is also much more respected now, don’t you think?
John Barry: “It used to be referred to as background music, and I always used to hate that. Music has become”Â¦ it’s not an afterthought now. Sidney Pollock, when I met him in LA before I scored Out Of Africa, he said, ”ËI’ve really designed his movie with music in mind. If I don’t have a great score, I’m dead.’ People think there was a lot of music in that movie but there was only 35 minutes of score. It’s the way Sidney designed the movie and the places where we chose to use the music were so out in front, five minute sections and room to really sing if you like, so it seemed like it was a hell of a big score. It just proves it’s not how much you write, it’s how effective you are in writing and how you place the cues that matter.”Â
With the Bond movies and The Ipcress File you created two models of spy film music. One, loud and brash, then the other”Â¦
John Barry: “Mood. The Ipcress File was very much The Cold War mood. I used a Hungarian instrument, the cimbalom. It looks like the inside of a piano, you can play it with your fingers, metal or soft beaters. A guy called John Leach played it. A terrific player, wonderful player. It was a kind of tip of the hat to my favourite film score, which is The Third Man. I think that’s one of the greatest scores ever, the economy of it all, all played on one instrument. A lot of people disagree with me, but I think it was an extraordinary movie score. I knew Carol Reed (director of The Third Man) very well, because he was my second wife’s godfather. I did the music for his film Follow Me (1971), and when I first met him and he asked me to do this, he said, ”ËEverybody thinks I know a lot about music because of The Third Man, but it’s the one area of movie making I’m terrified of. I know when I like it but I can’t tell you how to get there.’ Then I said, ”ËHow did you choose the music for The Third Man then?’ He said, ”ËI didn’t. My wife chose that.’ (Laughs)”Â
Before your remarkable sell-out Albert Hall performance of last year (1998), the last time you played live in London was in 1972. Why the long gap?
John Barry: “Even when I had The John Barry Seven, I never liked appearing in public. It was something I did in order to get on, but I’ve never been enthralled by going in front of an audience. And when it came to the symphony orchestras, you need a lot of rehearsal. And it’s a very expensive thing to do. For the Philharmonic Orchestra concert in 1972 we had two rehearsals. I also did The Hollywood Bowl and I had one rehearsal for that. There were three of us on: Johnny Green, Elmer Bernstein and myself. It was a nightmare because the rehearsal I had was almost like a read through, couldn’t get the refinement. I never warmed to it, then finally I started to work with the English Chamber Orchestra for the movie Chaplin. Did three more pictures with them, my album The Beyondness of Things, then the record company said, How about doing a concert because we have to promote the album somehow.’ So I said, ”ËOK, if I can have a certain amount of rehearsals.’ The Bond stuff might sound easy to play but it’s not, especially the brass section. There are a lot of high notes; they are way up there. I work with the ECO regularly now. They are terrific, I love working with them but you can’t earn a living doing this. Then the promoter says, ”ËWhy don’t you do it with a 40 piece?’ But I tell him that’s no fun. The idea is that people see 90 guys do the Bond stuff, Midnight Cowboy, Out Of Africa. That is the fun of it. I don’t want to do it any other way.”Â
No the Bond series is back on track are you tempted to go back one more time?
John Barry: “No. The style has changed considerably now. There was more of a story in the early movies, more of a mood to it, action sequences. No it’s no-stop action. It’s moved right away from the intrigue of what Goldfinger was about, witty interchange of dialogue and characters. It’s not my”Â¦. Anyway I think David, David Arnold, is doing a terrific job. He has preserved a lot of the harmonic and melodic intentions, sustains the mood and he adds that terrific rhythmic thing to it for today’s market.”Â
There are so many artists how who have been deeply influenced by your work: Barry Adamson, Propellerheads, Orbital, Portishead, to name but a few. Do you feel proud of that?
John Barry: “Yes, it’s nice, you know. When I first met David Arnold, we had lunch together, he said, ”ËMy dad took me to see You Only Live Twice when I was 11 years old and I came out determined to be a movie composer. All these young guys now, maybe younger, I think most of them were Bond fans and got attracted to music via the Bond imagery. I think that was the main influence.”Â
You’ve done such a wide range of material. Your choral music for The Lion In Winter, for instance. Is that one of your favourite scores that you have produced?
John Barry: “Very much so, very much so. I like things like The Lion In Winter, Out Of Africa, Dances With Wolves.”Â
So does the Pope, apparently.
John Barry: “Yes, he likes Dances With Wolves, which is a surprise. I went back to New York about a year ago and I started watching this ABC television show. They had the Pope’s private photographer on and he had a whole bunch of photos they never wanted to use. They caught the Pope off guard, so to speak. He showed them to the Pope and asked if he could publish them as a book, and he said yes. At the end of the interview they asked the photographer what the music the Pope liked. I was expecting him to say Beethoven’s 9th. He said, ”ËHe incessantly listens to the soundtrack for Dances With Wolves.’ That was a kind of boost.”Â
Fans in high places, eh?
John Barry: “Yeah, right! He’s in the charts now in America, and he knocked me out of the crossover charts. I was at number nine, then the Pope came in.”Â
The 1960’s was a pretty hedonistic time for you. How did you manage to get all those movie scores done?
John Barry: “I don’t know, but I did. I remember one year I did eight movies. I used to get up in the morning, work until about two, and if you don’t get the work done in that time you won’t be working till three, you know what I mean, that’s the nature of composition. So we then used to go out to dinner or to a club on the King’s Road, and sit there all afternoon. Then go back, do a little more work and go out again. We had a great time. I guess that’s what you do with youth, the energy you have at that time. We were busy, we were sparking on all plugs, I can tell you that.”Â
Copyright ÃÂ© Ian Johnston 1999