John Barry

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

John Barry Pencil Portrait
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Last update : 08/08/19

I could have drawn Barry as the quintessential man about 60’s swinging London, but I especially love the more introspective works of his later life. He was deeply affected by war torn memories of York, and much of his latter works are entrenched in those childhood recollections.

It is probably fair to say that this is one of my lesser known portraits yet to millions of movie goers over the last fifty years, this man has become synonymous with the soundtrack to their lives. John Barry Prendergast, OBE (3 November 1933 – 30 January 2011) was an English conductor and composer of film music and is best known for composing the soundtracks for 12 of the James Bond films between 1962 and 1987. He wrote the scores to the award winning films Born free,’ ‘Midnight Cowboy,’ ‘Dances with Wolves and Out of Africa in a career which lasted over 50 years.

He’s the man I turn to on long reflective drives when the pace of life becomes almost overpowering, and I need to think; to make sense of everything, and to reconcile some regrettable actions with my prouder moments. Once you’re hooked, discovering his extensive catalogue becomes an enduring audio feast.

John Barry was pop, as pop as the Beatles, and as representative of mid-60s London as anyone. He shared a flat with Michael Caine, pursued attractive women, and owned a pad in super-hip Cadogan Square. He said he could put on a suit and walk towards the gentlemen’s clubs of St James’s, or a pair of blue jeans and head into Chelsea. Though he was from the old, pre-Beatles world of arrangers and producers, he rose to the challenge of the new order and embraced the changing times.

As many of the biggest rock acts of the 60’s would notice, American studios invariably produced richer sounds than their English counterparts at Abbey Road and Decca and Barry travelled across the pond to discover why. He attended Phil Spector and Lee Hazlewood sessions (when neither were household names in America, let alone Britain) and was shocked to discover they used not one but four mikes on a drumkit! A diligent and confident worker, he arranged Adam Faith’s biggest hits, with pizzicato strings and a brisk shandy beat – “the best, most inventive British records of that time, the only truly POP records we were producing then” said writer Nik Cohn in 1969. In 1960, in tandem with his John Barry Seven and Adam Faith arrangements, Barry launched his film soundtrack career, starting with London “yoof” exploitation flicks Beat Girl and Never Let Go.’ The films were good, but the scores were excellent. John Barry deserved co-star billing.

It wasn’t just his lush chordal movements, it was also his predeliction for unusual instrumentation. Most strikingly, there was the cimbalom and once ‘The Ipcress File’ reached cinemas, this Hungarian hammered dulcimer, played by Barry’s friend John Leach, became the definitive sound of the cold war.

John Barry had a chequered marital history, marrying all four of his wives when they were teenagers, some when they were half his age. He married first, in 1958 (dissolved 1963), Barbara Pickard, with whom he had a daughter. The couple seemed happy despite Barry’s relentless work schedule, yet his longstanding lyricist Trevor Peacock, always found the presence of an au pair in the family home strangely disconcerting. The union was eventually ruptured by his affair with the family’s swedish ‘nanny’ Ulla, with whom he had a child. He subsequently set up home with her but a second marriage wasn’t on the cards and by ’64, Ulla and the child were back in Sweden. The affair ruptured several long standing relationships with business associates and “the original sinner,” as Barry would describe himself, was soon footloose and fancy free. A short lived affair with Shirley Bassey ensued, the pair having enjoyed quality time together when the singer toured the UK with the John Barry Seven. By ’64, Bassey was involved with the australian actor Peter Finch whilst she and Barry would continue a professional only relationship. He married secondly, in 1965 (dissolved 1969), the actress Jane Birkin; they had a daughter. He married thirdly, in 1969 (dissolved 1974), Jane Sidey. He is survived by his fourth wife, Laurie, whom he married in 1976, and by his four children.

None of his wives have ever gone on record to discuss their marriages and Barry himself was an intensely private man. There are very obvious reasons why men marry much younger women and the control factor invariably wanes as the junior partner asserts her own personality and independence upon the relationship. Factor in a man committed to his career, his obvious worldwide commitments, fame, wealth and reputation and the ingredients don’t blend well together for a successful marriage. As to why the legal knot continues being tied one would have to ask the relevant women involved in his life. Most are vain enough to believe that they will be the one to “make the difference.” He was 45 when he married for the fourth time and appears to have been content although illness nearly ended his life prematurely in his fifties. He, no doubt, was at last committed to a relationship but he was also slowing down. It’s a common trend in self made men.

Old grudges endured; the notion that Monty Norman, who wrote the key melody line, would continually enjoy all the credit for the James Bond theme, still rankled. Barry had fleshed out and turned the melody into an international anthem with its unmistakable combination of striptease brass, jazz-propelled rhythms and twangy electric guitar yet the record labels said differently. Nevertheless, there was no real need to worry, he’d written at least a dozen more affecting pieces of music.

A more pressing concern was his strained relationship with the English tax authorities. In 1970 he moved to California and became a tax exile. Indeed, despite his success, he owed large sums to the Inland Revenue, and shortly afterwards his company was liquidated with debts of £365,000. Seven years later Mr Justice Templeman accused him of deliberately emigrating to avoid paying the £134,000 due to the authorities, and it was not until the late 1980s that the situation was resolved and Barry was able to return to England. One suspects his multiple alimony settlements and the need to shore up his reserves, were contributory factors in his move abroad; determining whether his actions crossed over from tax avoidance to evasion a moot point for nearly twenty years.

In any event, Barry’s tax problems coincided with a general dip in his fortunes, and his stock did not recover until he was asked to score a Bruce Lee film, Game of Death,’ in the late 1970s. He did not want to take the job and named an astronomical figure for his services. The producer accepted, and thereafter Barry became one of the most sought-after, and richest, film composers in Hollywood. He also won two more Oscars, with the lush yet sophisticated scores for Out of Africa (1985) and Kevin Costner’s revisionist Western, Dances With Wolves (1990).

Recommended listening

The Beyondness of Things (1998)*

Eternal Echoes (2001)*

*These albums are not movie soundtracks but rather more semi-autobiographical scores.

Out of Africa (1986)

A Grammy award winning soundtrack to the Robert Redford/Meryl Streep picture.

Raise the Titanic (1979)

Lew Grade might have wished he had lowered the Atlantic after surveying the box office receipts for his film but no blame could be apportioned in Barry’s direction – one of his most majestic scores.

Body Heat (1981)

John Barry’s score sets the provocative mood of this film noir as attorney Ned Racine (William Hurt) meets Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner), a sexual siren with a well-to-do husband who leads him willingly down the path of damnation. It’s an 80’s homage to those glorious 1940’s film noirs like “Double Indemnity” and paved the way for every other sick and twisted tale of bad love that followed, from “Fatal Attraction” to “Basic Instinct” and beyond.

Despite the lushness of the score I still shudder when Kathleen Turner utters the immortal line “You’re not very bright, are you? I like that in a man.” I took great personal offence to those words at twenty two, but more than thirty years later I have to admit she was right. Poor Ned is thinking with the only brain he has, and it’s not to be found on top of his neck.

Robin & Marian (1976)

I just loved the film and the music works so well; truly one of Barry’s most beautiful scores yet he wasn’t the original first choice for the project. However, following the rejection of a soundtrack composed by Michel Legrand, John Barry was brought in at a late stage to oversee the musical content of a movie originally entitled “The death of Robin Hood.” In just a few weeks, he created a score which works wonderfully for the film where haunting romantic music is complemented by exciting action cues.

I personally found it impossible to locate the full soundtrack for years but a belated 2001 issue by Nic Raine and the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra truly restores this long obscure classic to the digital era.

007 Soundtracks

Goldfinger (1964)

Bond challenges the supremacy of The Beatles in the American album charts in the summer/fall of ’64 and Shirley Bassey achieves professional immortality with Barry’s title song. Pity poor Michael Caine though – he was kept awake all night whilst Barry put the finishing compositional touches to the piece in an adjacent room!

On Her Majesty’s Secret service (1969)

A watershed year for the moog synthesizer; George Harrison brought the instrument into The Beatles final “Abbey Road” sessions for tastefully understated overdubs on several key tracks and Barry opted to use it on the main title theme for the one 60’s Bond film not featuring Sean Connery.

Diamonds are Forever (1971)

Connery’s swansong for the Eon camp (he would return for a seventh and final outing with a rival company twelve years later), and a wonderfully diverse range of cues.

Desert Island Discs (BBC Radio 4) 18/6/99

The Deep (Intrada Double CD)

Limited Edition (3,000 copies only) reissue of Barry’s complete score in a 2-CD set.

For more than three decades, Intrada has engaged composers, film studios and musicians to restore, preserve and distribute more than 500 albums of film music old and new. the company’s online store sells Intrada CDs as well as thousands of soundtracks from around the globe. Combined, the Intrada label and store is the largest independent business dedicated to the music of the movies, television and games.

It took two years of strenuous negotiations with two major licensors (UMG & Sony Pictures), before Intrada could realize a complete presentation of Barry’s score in addition to the classic original 1977 album!

I sold my original vinyl copy which grieves me (as much as I can grieve about inconsequential matters), because I believed that digital compact discs would render records obsolete. By the time I had appreciated the sonic limitations of “full on compression,” it was too late and much of my collection was gone. As a part of my audio rehabilitation, I have invested in a new turntable (Rega Planar II), an upgraded Elyss elliptical cartridge and lots of cut price second hand vinyl in good condition. As tempted as I was by an original vinyl pressing of “The Deep,” I held back and thankfully so because – in one of those quirks of Ebay bidding – I obtained this expensive double CD package for an unexpected song. Factor in another thirty minutes of previously unheard Barry music, and – well you can guess…………….

CD1 contains the complete score in mono from the only surviving 1/4” session masters vaulted in excellent condition by Sony, whilst CD2 features the complete (and generous) original Casablanca soundtrack album in stereo from superb condition actual album masters vaulted by UMG.

Unusually for the time, Barry assembled highlights of his score into a single 24-minute suite, a technique reprised by Jerry Goldsmith the following year for his “The Boys from Brazil” album. While Barry covers major highlights, he only touches on half of his score. This complete presentation allows an entire hour of music to play in picture sequence, offering rich variations on theme, sizzling danger motifs, plus other highlights deleted from the original LP version. Both discs stand by themselves as great listening experiences and I should know!

Recommended viewing

John Barry – Licence to thrill (BBC Tv – Omnibus 2000)

An overview of the composer’s career to date suitably laced with interviews with Barry himself, his music teacher, Don Black, Sir George Martin etc. I try to avoid envy of anyone but I will confess to envying the lifestyle he had in the last two decades of his life. It’s not fame, it’s walking down the hallway to one’s study after breakfast and working through until four pm with only a piano and manuscript paper for companionship followed by relaxation with the family amidst the scenic views of boating lakes and hills. Oh and New York was forty five minutes by car. It must have been hell!

Recommended reading

John Barry – The Man with the Midas Touch (2009)

A scholarly read and essential for the audio completist. Another one for my studio –where else would it go?

John Barry – a 60’s theme (1998)

This book was written with the co-operation of Barry, and is therefore a sanitised version of his life. At the time of publication he had been married three times, and was about to embark on his fourth and most enduring betrothal that lasted until his death. There is hardly a comment in the book about his relationship failures beyond the rather bland statement “it was the 60’s.” In all, an interesting overview of his career to that date, but woefully short on personal insights.

A reminiscence from Glenys Roberts, who was married to the London restauranter and fashion tailor Doug Hayward and knew Barry well.


John Barry - Composer

The ultimate website for aficionados of Barry’s work.

Filmography reviews.

Youtube – plenty of Barry material to enjoy including the BBC tribute concert from the Royal Albert Hall in June 2011

John Barry - The man with the midas touch