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John Barry

I hope you will allow me the opportunity to offer a reminiscence about the impact of the great John Barry on my life over the past couple of decades.

My own journey into film music fanaticism came about in no small part because of the music of John Barry.  It was, really, Barry that turned my casual interest into the full-blown (expensive!) hobby it became.  Like most British boys who were born in the second half of the twentieth century, watching James Bond films played a key role in school holidays and the like, and I had watched all of them dozens of times by the time I was a teenager.  I don’t know when I first noticed the music, but my age was still in single digits.  A collection of Bond themes was one of the first albums I ever bought, and I played it to death.  It didn’t take long to notice that most of them were written by the same man.

Fast forward a few years, to the time I started buying CDs in anger.  Back in the day – no iTunes, no Amazon – if you wanted an album, you walked into a shop and bought it.  Living in a British city which wasn’t London meant taking whatever morsels you could find (usually few and far between).  Barry – due to his popularity in this country – was disproportionately well-represented in the soundtrack department.  After buying Dances With Wolves and being blown away – listening to it multiple times per day for weeks on end – I started exploring his catalogue.  Out of Africa, Somewhere in Time, Chaplin – there seemed no limit to the breathtaking melodies this guy could write.

John Barry with then-wife Jane Birkin

Then, delving back further in time, discovering the astonishing breadth of output from the 1960s – the sexy, swinging The Knack, sheer coolness of The Ipcress File, choral magnificence of The Lion in Winter – it was perfectly clear that this guy had the lot as a film composer.  Best of all, it was all about melody – completely out-of-fashion these days.  How many films in the last decade could you walk out of humming the theme?  I could walk out of Dances with Wolves humming ten different themes.

Sadly, my interest in the music of John Barry coincided largely with the period in which he wasn’t scoring many films any more.  This was scarcely believable to me, since his music was still of such high quality – his penultimate score, Playing By Heart, is one of his very best.  It seemed that directors couldn’t work with him any more, or that films simply weren’t there any more that he wanted to work on.  He even took to releasing soundtrack-like music on a couple of concept albums – it seemed he wanted to write, but couldn’t find films to score.  Truly sad.

While I wasn’t there to experience the thrill of that many new film scores by the composer, fortunately I was there to experience one of his career’s high points – his magnificent concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 1998, the first time he had conducted in public for over two decades.  The wonderful music was of course one thing – the reaction of Barry to seeing the adulation thrown his way by the audience quite something else.  It seemed he had no idea quite what effect his music had had on so many people.  Experiencing that concert (with my dad – I was so happy to share this experience with him and, in what I suspect is a reversal of roles compared with many others, convert him into a real Barry fanatic, sadly not too long before he passed away himself) was one of my great film music moments; those which followed, again in London and also in Birmingham, offer more magical memories.

John Barry receiving his Dances with Wolves Oscar from Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin

Fortunately, as with any great artist, the body of work will survive forever.  I had no doubt that his music will be heard and loved for generations to come.

Of all the great film composers, I don’t think any had Barry’s innate knack of capturing the whole mood of a film within a single two- or three-minute theme.  He did it so many times – from the adventurous spirit of Born Free to the expansive love of Out of Africa; from the sultry noir of Body Heat to the frenzied excitement of Zulu; countless others.  He left us with so  many wonderful melodies; and he left me with so many wonderful melodies.  Even though I never met the man, having to listened to his music for so long, I feel I know so much about him.

Rest in peace, John; and thank you.


  1. Jon (Reply) on Monday 31 January, 2011 at 21:35

    Bravo, James. Perfect words to sum up a career of brilliance. I well remember the Birmingham concert you and I attended together – the one and only time I saw him in the flesh – and the amazing rush of emotion that I felt when he played the John Dunbar theme. It’s a memory I will always cherish. I’ve been feeling really weird all day today because of this. It’s difficult to explain – the only time I ever felt this way before was when Michael Kamen died. Even though both you and I spent a fair bit of time in Kamen’s company, I didn’t know Barry at all, but like you say I feel I knew him through the music. Strange to feel so upset about the death of someone who I never even spoke to.

  2. JNH (Reply) on Monday 31 January, 2011 at 21:37

    Wonderfully written, James. Well done.
    I never truly understood why he stopped composing films in the last decade, because I remember seeing an interview with him from about ten years ago, in which he said that he’s planning to take things easier and to write about one score a year from now on. He didn’t say anything about retiring. So maybe it was, like you said, that he just couldn’t find projects to work on. Either way, it’s terribly sad, because the man really had an incomparable talent.

  3. Peter Greenhill (Reply) on Saturday 15 October, 2011 at 23:24

    A wonderful tribute James.Sadly, I suspect that his health wasn’t very good during the final decade of his life and scoring movies was becoming more stressful what with tight deadlines and rewrites.However,John Barry has left us his legacy of wonderful music to enjoy, always.