The Spectator remembers John BarryThe Spectator: That's The Key â John Barry Remembered
69 Cadogan Square â 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 âI was young and had the energyâ; 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 Yorkâs Oyster Bay, itâs telling that Barry always kept a place here. When I met him in 1999, it was at his Cadogan Square home. âWhen things started going well for me,â he remembered. âI bought Number 37 for Jane. But that was a bad idea. The separate address brought certain opportunities.â
John Barry wasnât 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 âinsincereâ¦ cross-fertilisationsâ that claimed Miles Davis after Sketches of Spain and Porgy & Bess. âI couldnât bear to see him lowering the glory of his talent.â
In his early years, Barryâs trust in his own instincts yielded extraordinary results and instilled a belief in him that he was right to âarrogantly stick to what I doâ. 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 didnât need much prompting to recount them either â 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, ânot distracted or destroyed by success or failure.â
And thatâs 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. âMeadows of Delight and Sadnessâ was written after Barry drove through Montana, scene of Custerâs last stand, where the native American Indians were wiped out. âMontana has an eerie sadness to it,â he said. âSame as when you go to France and there are all these battlefields where thousands died. And, you know, these things haunt the earth.â
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. âSaturday night and the theatre would be full, everyone smoking. Then the film would end, everybody would go, and weâd have to walk from the offices at the back, through the theatre and it was all ghosts. Imagine it! Twenty minutes before, youâd have 200 people looking at An American In Paris or Sunset Boulevard, and theyâd all be gone. I could see things in the air. Thereâs something that so many people leave behind when they exit a room. Thatâs what stays with you through life.â
For John Barry, the magic didnât 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 Sibeliusâs first symphony in E minor while playing with his toy cars. âThatâs the whole connection for me,â he said, âThings moving and the sense of drama in the music helping it along. So when people ask me, âHow do you do that?â itâs sometimes hard to find the advice, because I never had any problems doing it. By the time I was 19, Iâd 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.â
And following a correspondence course in composition while doing national service in Cyprus, he knew the method. âIf the muse is there, you just donât push it. You sit there and wait for it. It doesnât necessarily have to be a happy feeling either. Iâve frequently had falling outs with a movie producer and sat down and wrote.â
That might help explain why he was so prolific. He won two Oscars for Born Free, despite director James Hillâs assertion that âyouâre not my first choice of composerâ. He won another for Dances With Wolves despite Elmer Bernsteinâs warning that âa Western has never won an Academy award.â (Barryâs pointed riposte: âWell, itâs not a Western; itâs about a man who goes to the Westâ,) The theme to Goldfinger was loathed by producer Harry Saltzmann, who referred to it as âthat fucking songâ. 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: âYou spend all your time telling me itâs not a traditional Bruce Willis movie, and now youâre saying give me [something for] a Bruce Willis movie!â
When I met him, his vituperative words were reserved for Prince Of Tides and its producer, one Barbra Streisand. âShe said she loved it and then she did what she always does. She came back and said, âJohn, Iâm hearing something else, you know what I mean?â And I said, âNo, I donât know what you mean; Iâve spent a lot of time on this.â But she kept on. Eventually I said, âLook, Iâm going back to New York.â But sheâs like, âI want you here in LA.â So Iâm like, âEven if I did stay here, Barbra, youâre not going to be over every bloody day, listening to every bloody cue Iâm doing because thatâs not the way I write. Iâve done 100 movies and I have five Academy awards, so maybe I know something about my profession that you donât.ââ
âStill, no better, so eventually I called her and said, âBarbra, Iâve been working with you for five weeks and I gotta say, itâs been the most joyless professional experience of my life. So get someone else.â 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 Barbraâs album. Well, theyâd finished 11 songs, and Barbra was casting around for one more, so she goes, âDo you know anything that would fit?â David starts playing the very thing that Barbra had rejected for Prince of Tides and sheâs like, âThatâs so beautiful! What is it?â When he told her, she walked out of the studio.â
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 â right next to the orchestra, facing the crowd. In fact, we couldnât have asked for better. For three hours we got a ringside view of John Barryâs blue eyes twinkling with delight as he jabbed his baton through three decades of peerless instrumental music: The Ipcress File; On Her Majestyâs 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 â the composer who soundtracked those earliest childhood memories. Reading from the book, his booming baritone began, âRomanticism 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.â Slamming the book shut, Barry added, âThat is the key.â It felt like he was reading his own epitaph.
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