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First Love
  • Composed by John Barry
  • La-La Land Records / 2013 / 58m (score 39m)

A largely-forgotten 1977 romantic drama, First Love told the story of various amorous entanglements in a college dorm, starring William Katt, Susan Dey, Beverly D’Angalo and John Heard.  It was notable at the time firstly for its nudity (and was originally intended to be even raunchier) and, incredibly, as being the only film being made in the time in America directed by a woman (Joan Darling).  While small steps forward have been taken since then, Hollywood does seem to still be stuck in the stone ages when it comes to that sort of thing.  Producers Lawrence Turman and David Foster intended the film to be a kind of cross between The Graduate and Love Story and, while it attracted decent enough reviews, it clearly didn’t come close to matching those films’ commercial success.

The score, by the great John Barry, has not only never previously been released in any format, even the small number of people who saw the film didn’t get to hear much of it, since only very small fragments of his music remain in it.  Jeff Bond’s liner notes for this album reveal that Barry was hired seemingly as a kind of afterthought – the original intention had been to use needledropped songs to score the film.  After his score had been written, and seemingly well-received, the decision was taken to revert back to the original approach and because only a few minutes of his music was ultimately heard in the film, the composer requested that his name be removed from the credits.

John Barry

John Barry

While the 1980s and beyond saw the composer become well-renowned for his lush symphonic romantic Hollywood scores, First Love has more in common with his earlier, generally smaller-scale music for British films, with a real feeling of intimacy and no small degree of sophistication.  That said, the opening section of the main title certainly does feature one of those lush Barry themes, sweeping and free-flowing in its enthusiasm for romance.  A surprising touch comes from a slightly spooky whistling effect added by synthesisers, lending an off-kilter sense which is actually quite arresting.

For the lengthy love scene which is the film’s centrepiece – in a cue imaginatively called “The Big Love Scene” – Barry wrote a surprisingly playful piece, over seven minutes long, which seems to dance around with great energy and yet great intimacy, the harpsichord lending it a very distinctive (and very distinctively John Barry) sound.  As a portrait of young love, it’s perfect, and avoids any hint of schmaltz or sentiment.  Contrast this with the following “The First Time”, whose romance seems more conventional – but the piece is no less attractive.

A couple of pieces of source music (“Elgin’s Room” and “The Hallway”) are hugely entertaining takes on 70s porn music, done with real flair.  The very brief “Two on a Bike” is a lovely little piece, a delightful scherzo again so full of joie de vivre – it’s a bit of a shame Barry didn’t get chance to explore that sound a bit further.  “Soccer Game” is a standalone piece of more intense drama (probably meant in an ironic way).

I think it would take a fairly brave man to claim that First Love is a major score by Barry standards, but it’s one which is full not just of charm but also of class.  The themes are strong, the dramatic progression is striking, the emotions are at times unexpected and always very carefully applied. It’s a really lovely score to sit and listen to – and reveals surprising depths on repeated listens.  La-La Land’s album features a suite of bonus cues (alternative versions of Barry pieces plus some more source material) and is a must-have for Barry fans, who will be delighted at the chance to finally hear a score which has previously been heard only in the film and then only very briefly.

Rating: *** 1/2 | |

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  1. Mark Wright (Reply) on Thursday 21 February, 2013 at 15:02

    It comes as no suprise to me that John Barry’s score for First Love has been sitting in a dusty, dark room since 1977. The wonderful guys a La La Land (Surely one of the finest film music labels around currently) have unearthed a rare score that can only be discribed as a lesser work in Barry’s distinguished cannon of composition. I agree that the main theme carries a certain ‘whimsy’ to it. It’s pretty enough but lacks impact and this follows through in the rest of the score. At 39 minutes it can hardly be said that it outstays its welcome but at the same time it did not have this listener screaming out for more. Repetition is rife and the
    thematic structure and quality of the material is pretty sub standard from the great man. It could be said that such a weak score was fitting for the pile of junk it accompanied on screen.
    Two tracks do stand out as truely awful. Elgin’s Room and The Hallway – tooth gratingly dated
    and memorable only for how annoying they are. (James: I don’t know what kinda 70’s porn you have been watching to recall memories of this kind of music but I’d stop watching it before you go blind and deaf!) There was little flair in either pieces, in fact I found them cringe worthy to listen to. The 7 minute The Big Love Scene is a stand out track (No pun intended there James) showing of all the elements of what Barry did best, long lined themes, elegant flute, solo harp etc. Delve a little deeper and one can hear similarities in First Love with Alice’s Adventures, Follow Me, The Dove and even a little bit of The Knack, but sadly it simply does not measure up to any of these fine scores.
    So a big thumbs up to La La Land for uncovering it and I trust it finds a happy home in
    film music and Barry fan’s collections. Sadly for me, its one that’ll receive only the rarest
    of replays.