Born into a cinema owning family in 1933, there’s little doubt that John Barry loved cinema – and cinema loved John Barry too. Within a career spanning almost 50 years, the British composer scored eleven James Bond soundtracks, and won five Academy Awards for his other work, including Born Free, Out Of Africa and Dances With Wolves. His music is synonymous with modern cinema, especially in Britain. To put it plainly, John Barry made what you see sing.
Cinema is duller, more formulaic, for John Barry’s passing, but his music contained life that can never been dimmed. That said, there’s so much great music he scored - such a prolific, varied tapestry of composition – that if you’re coming to his work for the first time, you might be confused as where to start. That’s why I’ve pulled together this guide to his suites, soundtracks, compilations and the like that it’s worth going in first with. Start at the top, end at the bottom, leave primed to investigate further.
Where to start...
Themeology: The Best Of John Barry
Released in 1997 - as Barry’s classic sound was being reinterpreted by Portishead, an increasingly grandiose Pulp, et al - this Columbia release is largely sequenced from the sixties, the composer’s most commercially successful period. It contains nearly all of Barry’s most famous compositions for cinema; this means Midnight Cowboy, The James Bond Theme, Matt Monro dripping glandular honey all over the Oscar winning Born Free as well as Shirley Bassey’s performances of Goldfinger (and from 1971, Diamonds Are Forever). You get Hit And Miss too, the theme from the forever missed Juke Box Jury and a total win of a tune.
The Essential James Bond
This recording, from 2004, sees arranger/conductor Nic Raine lead the City Of Prague Philharmonic through the main themes from Dr. No (which Barry was paid £250 for to tidy up Monty Norman’s original composition in 1962 – but it’s all much more complicated and litigious than that), right through to License To Kill in 1989. The suite pairing On Her Majesty’s Secret Service with A View To A Kill is thrilling, the version of We Have All The Time In The World epic while Live And Let Die is so bombastic it sounds like it’s trying to tear the stars out of the sky.
The original 1964 Ember Records release of the Zulu soundtrack was... well, it was bonkers, frankly. On one side you got the soundtrack to the film (one of Barry’s best ever, and which is at once tense, swirling and tribal), on the other a collection of surfy instrumental rock songs that had nothing at all to do with the movie (yet saw Lionel Blair adapt a dance for anyway). Obviously it’s in mono, so if you’re looking for big, boisterous digital stereo sound, hunt down the 1999 release on Silva Screen. That gives you the first recording of Mister Moses - from 1965 and another score inspired by the rhythms of Africa - the jazzy suite from 1984 crime-drama The Cotton Club and the Academy Award winning theme from 1990’s nouveau western Dances With Wolves.
Get the knack…
The Knack… and How To Get It: s/t
Based on a play by Ann Jellicoe and directed by Richard Lester, the 1965 British comedy won the Jury du Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival - but it’s the Barry composed soundtrack that really helps it swing. The film works wonders in capturing the mood and mystique of London’s Carnaby Street days and, aided by jazzy brass, stabs of Hammond and a blanket of female vocals, the soundtrack is a film theme writing masterclass of the era. Best of all the compositions is the opening theme, sang by Barry’s singing protégé Johnny De Little (that’ll be Brian King to his mum).
Last but not least...
One of six movies Barry did with director Bryan Forbes (and one of Michael Caine, as cat burglar Henry Clarke, best ever performances) this 1968 score is one of the composer’s most unashamedly romantic works. The Shirley Bassey sung theme My Love Has Two Faces is the best known cut, but Romance For Guitar and Orchestra, which pits – y’know – Spanish guitar against a sweeping orchestra, is the soundtrack’s most awe inspiring moment. The piece appears at the centre point of the film and soundtracks the concert performance the robbery victims watch as Clark plunders their home. A sizzling pairing of visuals and sound.
John Barry's life in pictures
David Arnold on the genius of John Barry