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The Spectator remembers John Barry

12-Mar-2011 • Bond News

The Spectator: That's The Key – John Barry Remembered

69 Cadogan Square – that was the place. Back in the days when he was married to Jane Birkin; when the nearby Kings Road became the beating heart of a decade; when composing eight film scores in a year was no great shakes, because ‘I was young and had the energy’; in the years after the James Bond theme sent demand for his talents supernova, 69 Cadogan Square was home to John Barry. And even if the final three decades of his life were spent mostly resident in New York’s Oyster Bay, it’s telling that Barry always kept a place here. When I met him in 1999, it was at his Cadogan Square home. ‘When things started going well for me,’ he remembered. ‘I bought Number 37 for Jane. But that was a bad idea. The separate address brought certain opportunities.’

John Barry wasn’t the most daring or innovative film composer of his generation. But, then, neither did he care to be. He passionately espoused the value of songs, which he felt had been minimized over the years. A huge be-bop fan, he was openly scornful of the ‘insincere… cross-fertilisations’ that claimed Miles Davis after Sketches of Spain and Porgy & Bess. ‘I couldn’t bear to see him lowering the glory of his talent.’

In his early years, Barry’s trust in his own instincts yielded extraordinary results and instilled a belief in him that he was right to ‘arrogantly stick to what I do’. Before the first of those five Oscars, it was an arrogance upon which he relied. Blazing rows with producers and record company people were an occupational hazard for Barry in the 1960s. He didn’t need much prompting to recount them either – not with bitterness, rather with an exuberance well represented on the drunken trombones and ribald strings of Goldfinger and Thunderball. The most important quality of all, he would say, quoting Samuel Beckett, was to carry on, ‘not distracted or destroyed by success or failure.’

And that’s what he did, chalking up over a hundred scores before, in 1998, looking to create a retrospective soundtrack to his own life with The Beyondness of Things. ‘Meadows of Delight and Sadness’ was written after Barry drove through Montana, scene of Custer’s last stand, where the native American Indians were wiped out. ‘Montana has an eerie sadness to it,’ he said. ‘Same as when you go to France and there are all these battlefields where thousands died. And, you know, these things haunt the earth.’

Ghosts permeated his language, because ghosts were what he saw when reflecting back on his life. Much of his childhood was spent gazing at the eight cinema screens owned by his father in South Yorkshire. ‘Saturday night and the theatre would be full, everyone smoking. Then the film would end, everybody would go, and we’d have to walk from the offices at the back, through the theatre and it was all ghosts. Imagine it! Twenty minutes before, you’d have 200 people looking at An American In Paris or Sunset Boulevard, and they’d all be gone. I could see things in the air. There’s something that so many people leave behind when they exit a room. That’s what stays with you through life.’

For John Barry, the magic didn’t lie in the stories or the actors. The synergy of music and images was what inspired him. One of his earliest memories was listening to Sibelius’s first symphony in E minor while playing with his toy cars. ‘That’s the whole connection for me,’ he said, ‘Things moving and the sense of drama in the music helping it along. So when people ask me, “How do you do that?” it’s sometimes hard to find the advice, because I never had any problems doing it. By the time I was 19, I’d seen more movies than anyone on the face of the Earth. And often, the same movie seven times a week. So even before I knew how to write film scores, I knew I wanted to.’

And following a correspondence course in composition while doing national service in Cyprus, he knew the method. ‘If the muse is there, you just don’t push it. You sit there and wait for it. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a happy feeling either. I’ve frequently had falling outs with a movie producer and sat down and wrote.’

That might help explain why he was so prolific. He won two Oscars for Born Free, despite director James Hill’s assertion that ‘you’re not my first choice of composer’. He won another for Dances With Wolves despite Elmer Bernstein’s warning that ‘a Western has never won an Academy award.’ (Barry’s pointed riposte: ‘Well, it’s not a Western; it’s about a man who goes to the West’,) The theme to Goldfinger was loathed by producer Harry Saltzmann, who referred to it as ‘that fucking song’. Luckily though, there was no time to replace it. Even relatively late into his career, he was withering about the mixed messages given to him when assigned to work on Bruce Willis vehicle Mercury Rising: ‘You spend all your time telling me it’s not a traditional Bruce Willis movie, and now you’re saying give me [something for] a Bruce Willis movie!’

When I met him, his vituperative words were reserved for Prince Of Tides and its producer, one Barbra Streisand. ‘She said she loved it and then she did what she always does. She came back and said, “John, I’m hearing something else, you know what I mean?” And I said, “No, I don’t know what you mean; I’ve spent a lot of time on this.” But she kept on. Eventually I said, “Look, I’m going back to New York.” But she’s like, “I want you here in LA.” So I’m like, “Even if I did stay here, Barbra, you’re not going to be over every bloody day, listening to every bloody cue I’m doing because that’s not the way I write. I’ve done 100 movies and I have five Academy awards, so maybe I know something about my profession that you don’t.”’

‘Still, no better, so eventually I called her and said, “Barbra, I’ve been working with you for five weeks and I gotta say, it’s been the most joyless professional experience of my life. So get someone else.” The line went dead and that was that, until 18 months later when David, the guy I was doing my demos with, happened to be producing Barbra’s album. Well, they’d finished 11 songs, and Barbra was casting around for one more, so she goes, “Do you know anything that would fit?” David starts playing the very thing that Barbra had rejected for Prince of Tides and she’s like, “That’s so beautiful! What is it?” When he told her, she walked out of the studio.’

A couple of weeks after that encounter, he brought the English Chamber Orchestra to the Royal Albert Hall and triggered one Proustian rush after another with a wish-list of themes spanning three decades. We had the cheap seats – right next to the orchestra, facing the crowd. In fact, we couldn’t have asked for better. For three hours we got a ringside view of John Barry’s blue eyes twinkling with delight as he jabbed his baton through three decades of peerless instrumental music: The Ipcress File; On Her Majesty’s Secret Service; and, to many a misting eye, Midnight Cowboy.

Played under the direction of the man who wrote them, these long-ubiquitous pieces of music morphed into something else. No longer excerpts of individual soundtracks, we realised we were listening to a soundtrack of our own lifetime. Back in Cadogan Square, John Barry reached for a biography of Sibelius – the composer who soundtracked those earliest childhood memories. Reading from the book, his booming baritone began, ‘Romanticism is the innermost essence of music. What is romantic is imperishable. It always has been and always will be as long as people inhabit the Earth.’ Slamming the book shut, Barry added, ‘That is the key.’ It felt like he was reading his own epitaph.

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