Who Is the Author of James Bond Theme?

In memoriam John Barry (1933-2011)

  • John BarryMusical chameleon

    At the end of January 2011 it was sadly announced that John Barry, one of the most prolific film music composers, died at the age of 77 (John Barry lived from November, 3 1933 – January, 30 2011). In the film music community, John Barry was known as the composer who could easily change styles for different film genres. He began composing jazz, which he loved from childhood (his father owned eight theatres which served for film projections but also as concert halls for different jazz musicians and bands; this way he met some of very important jazz musicians). This is the reason why his filmography contains scores for the films which are explicitly jazz oriented (for example, The Cotton Club, 1984). He also composed for the films with titles which don’t discover genre(s), but which also contain jazzy feeling in story and in the score (like in the film Playing by Heart from 1998 where Barry created the score in the manner of Chet Baker). But, in John Barry’s filmography there are also films which needed completely different musical approach, among them Lion in the Winter (1968), Out of Africa (1985) and Dances with Wolves (1990) which have sweeping, epic orchestral themes; there is also music for film Chaplin (1992) with its specific combination of tragic and comical approach; and there are scores for films Born free (1966) and Midnight Cowboy (1969) with more song-oriented score.

    These scores are, without doubt, very important and valuable but none of them is remembered as is the music for popular film serial about the agent in Her Majesty’s Secret Service, James Bond. But, the musical solution of these films, especially the James Bond theme, is full of controversy.
    Dr. No, director Terence Young
    Dr. No – beginning of James Bond films

    When producers Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli decided to pursue rights for Ian Fleming’s stories about secret agent 007, they didn’t have intention to create big film in the manner of contemporary blockbusters. Nevertheless, they thought that Fleming’s stories are good material for film or films which could interest broad audience (the very first story about James Bond, Casino Royale, was written in 1953, and the movies with the same title was made in 1966 and 2006). It was not easy to find director who would want to direct Dr. No (1962), the first movie about James Bond. They had the same problem with the actor for the leading role. Finally, British director Terrence Young accepted the offer to direct Dr. No and he was of big help to Sean Connery, the newcomer who accepted the role of James Bond after many famous actors declined it (including Roger Moore, who was busy shooting another movie). Saltzman and Broccoli also decided to invite lyricists and songwriter Monty Norman to write the score. This was rather unusual choice, because Norman wrote songs for musicals, but it seems that producers of James Bond liked his occasionally modern, slightly experimental approach in some of his works.

    In the meantime, John Barry went to army where he played trumpet in the military band. He spent three years in Egypt and Cyprus and he used those years to complete musical education (he took two correspondence courses: Music by Math with Joseph Schillinger and Harmony and Orchestration for Jazz Orchestra with Bill Russo. After he came home, he founded a band called John Barry Seven in which he played trumpet. Soon, John Barry Seven had the attention of music company EMI where Barry soon started to write string arrangements as a musical director. He also got first film offers (the first movie he scored was Beat Girl, 1960). And soon he was brought up to the attention of producers of Dr. No.

    From Barry’s perspective

    Dr. No, director Terence Young, movie poster John Barry described his involvement in Dr. No to film analyst and musicologist Royal S. Brown: “I received a phone call on a Friday evening from gentleman called Noel Rogers, who ran United Artists Music in London. And he said: “Look. We’ve got this movie called Dr. No. It’s a James Bond thing.” I knew of the Fleming books, but I’d never read one, although I knew roughly what it was – a secret-service kind of thing. And then he told me that Monty Norman had been signed to do the music. I said, “Monty Norman doesn’t write music, he writes lyrics, doesn’t he?” Rogers didn’t want to get into that! But they were not happy, and they wanted me to come in the next day to see what we could do. I went in, and Monty played this thing. And I took Noel Rogers out into another room and said, “I can’t work with that material. I’m being pretty successful now with what I’m doing, and that doesn’t bend into anything close to what we’re looking for.””

    In short, John Barry didn’t want to be a part of a project which already had its own composer. Norman already had a contract to do the film, but it was clear that he wasn’t able to write the main theme. Besides, producers needed the main title music urgently. Noel Rogers tried to persuade Barry by promising him: “If you do this and it works, and if this takes off, it could be something for your future.”

    Barry was telling his story: “They offered me tow hundred pounds – believe me, at that time it sounded all right! – and the record rights to the single that I could do under my Columbia Records contract, because I was at Columbia/EMI by then. And so I said O.K. I never saw the movie. I went away, saying that I had to write what I had to write. And Monty Normans’ words were, “Well, I’m not proud. Go ahead.” So I went back home that day, worked all weekend, wrote this theme, very much in the Hank Mancini – Peter Gunn / Nelson Riddle – The Untouchables mood. But it also brought together a lot of the things I’d done years before the Bond movie.”
    Dr. No, director Terence Young
    “And so I wrote the damn thing, went into the studio, recorded it, and then later I stood in line outside the Pavillion in Picadilly on the Sunday that Dr. No opened, went into the theater, and the goddamned thing’s all over the picture! I phoned Noel Rogers and asked him what the hell was going on. And he said, “I’ve been waiting for this phone call. Look. They know what your contribution is.” And so of course, when From Russia With Love came up, they asked me to be involved.” (All citation from Royal S. Brown: Overtones and Undertones, 1994, University of California Press, p. 327-328)

    One theme – two composers

    This is how John Barry’s involvement in Bond films began – it launched his career and he composed music for eleven Bond films. But, since Monty Norman had the contract with the studio on the first film, Norman had legal right to claim that he composed James Bond Theme. So, when the conflict between two composers ended up at the court, the court decided in Norman’s favor, although Barry claimed that he wrote the theme, but his name wasn’t signed due to Norman’s contract with studio. So, according to court, Norman legally wrote melody of the theme (which he, as he told to the jury, took from one of his earlier musicals), and Barry orchestrated and arranged it.

    In his book Overtones and Undertones Royal S. Brown summed the conflict (and Barry’s anger) up with the sentence: “John Barry may be the only film composer ever to have a major piece of his fame rest on a theme that he did not write – except he did.” (p. 322). In fact, it is hard to say who is right by listening claims of both composers and by reading court’s decision. Nevertheless, it is easy to see that John Barry had right all along – by watching and carefully listening to the movie Dr. No. The movie discovers immediately two different musical styles, Normans’ and Barry’s.
    Dr. No, director Terence Young
    Norman’s contribution to Dr. No has two sides, since he composed the score and songs for the film. His themes, harmonies and orchestration are rather, let’s say, unclear – it is obvious that the music is thought in the way that it should be quietly played in the background. But, this wouldn’t be so bad (although, it is quite strange for the action movie not to have themes which are loud and clear) that there isn’t Norman’s compositional need for constant use mickey mousing effect! On the other hand, this is not the film with lots of music in it, and this, possibly, mirrors dissatisfaction of bosses with Norman’s score (I can only suppose that some parts of the score weren’t used, since there are film scenes which literally cry for music, and these scenes include the Bond’s final escape from prison and final fight with Dr. No’s solders).

    And yet again, Norman, who is in fact songwriter, wrote three effective songs, in the calypso style (Three Blind Mice, Jump Up and Underneath the Mango Tree). Those three musical numbers are great in their description of Jamaica, where story of the First James Bond movie is going on. It is also great in description of film characters (in famous scene where Ursula Andress comes out from the water she sings Underneath the Mango Tree and Sean Connery is answering, also by singing Norman’s tune).

    Barry’s part of the score strongly differs from the rest of it in the sense that it doesn’t hide itself behind the picture (by thematic and orchestrational unclearness or by rather low dynamics, as Norman did in his part of the score). Barry’s part is loud and clear, as if the composer wants the music to come in foreground. To be honest: court decided partly in Barry’s favor, saying that he did write (part of the) music for the film’s main title. But, it is interesting to know that this is the only title for Bond movie which has two themes in the score: James Bond Theme and calypso song Three Blind Mice (Kingston Calypso). The song was Terrence Young’s idea: he wanted Norman to write a song which would introduce the first killing in an unusual way of musical counterpoint (it is also possible that director asked for a song and put it beside the James Bond Theme to prevent Monty Norman being angry).
    Dr. No, director Terence Young
    The film shows that Barry was right: it seems that he was really told to write only the music for the main title, and that this music was, without his knowledge, used at the other parts of the film. Namely, James Bond Theme never changes during the course of the film – it is always the same. It is clear that it was changed only by film’s technical staff which shortened it on different lengths in order to cover different durations of different scenes where it was used. But, there are no composer’s interventions concerning orchestration and harmonization, let alone rhythm or melody: in every scene the theme sounds as it sounded in the film’s main title. There are no variations or other types of transformations which could help the theme to adjust to the context of different scenes. But, the theme is so well written (which was, in fact, misfortune for John Barry) that it functions in every scene, and it doesn’t matter is it car chase or simple scene of Bond’s telephone call at the airport where he is surveyed by a suspicious man.

    To repeat once more: analyses of music in the film shows that James Bond Theme was written by John Barry. Following a deal with Noel Rogers, he wrote the theme which should be used only in film’s main title. When it wasn’t used according to the deal but was used in film’s scenes, film’s people (technical staff) couldn’t develop or change the theme (it seems that Monty Norman also didn’t have the knowledge to develop Barry’s theme, or he was never asked to do so). People who used Barry’s theme in Dr. No didn't think much of rights which were (together with the great deal of money) annotated to Monty Norman. The only Barry’s satisfaction was that after Dr. No he got the job of James Bond composer, and that he actually composed music for eleven James Bond films. He created their musical identity composing scores and songs for From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965), You Only Live Twice (1967), On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), Diamonds are Forever (1971), Octopussy (1983), A View To A Kill (1985) and The Living Daylights (1987). All composers who came after John Barry (the longest career after Barry has David Arnold who wrote for the movies in nineties and for the newest movies in 21st Century) used in their scores the Barry’s Theme which became the musical trademark of the whole film serial.

    © Irena Paulus, FILMOVI.hr, 6 March 2011