MI6 looks back to 1966, when John Barry's film scores were chart topping albums and his rise in stardom was inextricably linked to Bond Mania...

Time Tunnel: Barry On The Bondwagon
12th November 2007

Back in the early 1960's, John Barry was just making his break in to the big league of film composers. His rendezvous with James Bond in 1962 was to set up a partnership that would thrust him in to the spotlight, and by Thunderball in 1965, he would have a chart-topping album surpassed only by The Beatles. A couple of weeks after Thunderball had been released in theatres, Time Magazine published a piece about Barry and his rise in stardom, which was inextricably linked to Bond Mania...

Agent 007 has come to pay his last respects to the shapely, black-veiled widow of a SPECTRE assassin. An oboe sighs mournfully. He goes to press her hand and bam! da-bam! bam!—a volley of brass suddenly screams bloody murder. Agent 007 knocks the widow head over high heels with a bone-jarring right cross to the jaw. Aha! Just as he thought: it was not the widow but the assassin himself.

Accompanied by thumping kettledrums, 007 methodically works the villain over with karate punches and a well-placed kick, then strangles him to death. A clatter of cymbals brings on a gang of bodyguards as 007 bounds onto a balcony, coolly dons his one-man rocket unit and goes whooshing up, up and away to a shattering chorus of gunfire and screeching trumpets.

So begins Thunderball, the latest James Bond free-for-all, accompanied by what English Composer John Barry calls "million-dollar Mickey Mouse music."

At 32, Barry can afford to be so disarmingly modest about his work. Since boarding the Bondwagon three years ago with Dr. No, he has become one of the most successful composers writing for films today. In the past year, his scores have accompanied an impressive flock of first-rate films, among them Séance on a Wet Afternoon, King Rat, The Knack and The Ipcress File. The LP version of Thunderball, released only a few weeks ago, is already high on the bestseller charts, following briskly on the heels of Barry's Goldfinger, which last year outsold all rock-'n'-roll albums except the Beatles'.


What makes Barry distinctive is his ability to project the mood of a film—"a certain smell that unifies," as he says—with offbeat instrumentation that titillates without distracting. Against a backdrop of gently swelling strings, he punctuates the action with a rippling organ (young love), a nervous twitter from a marimba (trouble in the streets), or perhaps the distant, breathy wailing of a girl's voice (ecstasy). One of his favorite instruments is the Hungarian cimbalom, which looks like the innards of a piano and sounds like an oversexed harpsichord. Rather than treat each scene with "big masses of symphonic sound," he takes the opening theme and works endless variations on it. It is not Brahms, but in the shadowy world of the movie house it works a magic all its own; besides, who goes to films to hear music?

Above: John Barry, circa 1965

Barry was more or less raised in the flickering film world. As a teen-ager he worked as a projectionist in a string of movie theaters that his father owned in York. At 19, he played trumpet with a regimental army band stationed in Cyprus, took a correspondence course in composition. Later, he formed the John Barry Seven and made his calculated entrance into the movies by playing the accompaniment for a rock-'n'-roll idol named Adam Faith. Barry's first film score, Beat Girl, led to an invitation to doctor the score for Dr. No. He did it without ever seeing the film.

In the breakneck pace of film making, Barry is prized for his ability to turn out a score on demand. To meet a recording schedule, he composed the key parts of both Goldfinger and Thunderball in just two days. A lean, supercharged man with long sideburns, Barry is a swinger in the Bond mold—clothes with an Edwardian flair, fashionable Chelsea apartment, Pickwick Club, E-type Jaguar (white, XK), E-type wife (brunette actress, Jane Birken).

"I don't take myself too seriously," he says. "I know exactly what I want to write, and that's really as serious as you've got to be."

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