The Man Who Made Me Love Kettle Drums

John Barry with his then wife Jane Birkin in his Aston Martin DB5. Lucky bastard.

John Barry has died, aged 77. From all accounts he lived his life pretty well, partying big time in the 60’s with Caine, Stamp and – had he been there – Austin Powers. He bagged the hottest girl in London as his wife (Jane Birkin), won 5 Oscars, several Baftas (plus more nominations), had top ten hits, best selling albums, worked on classic films like Zulu, Midnight Cowboy, Walkabout and Dances with Wolves, on not-so-classics like Raise the Titanic, Howard the Duck and Night Games, settled down with his kids and (fourth) wife (married in 1976) on an island near New York and reaped the rewards for his hard work with (I like to think) a tidal wave of PRS money.

Oh, and he invented James Bond music. He made the guitar theme sound the way it did and wrote lots of it bar the twangy bit. He put the stabbing trumpets in, he added the gong, he did the Dizzy Gilespie inspired do-wap middle eight, that’s all him. And you can tell by listening to his work from before that it’s him. Listen to the soundtrack to The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960), one of the few soundtracks by true Bond Theme’s composer Monty Norman, and you can’t hear James Bond at all. Maybe Norman is more literate musically than I’m giving credit for – and John Barry did use the same tricks in his scores time and again, but what tricks! My favourite is the timpani. He made kettle drums snarl. Listen to Bees Knees (the live version) and try not get swept up in the excitement.

His scores make me cry (Two Sock at Play from Dances with Wolves is so sweet, it’s dangerous), shiver with tension (you know somethings about to happen listening to Gumbold’s Safe from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) and it’s near impossible not to drive like a complete tit, drunk on invincibility, listening to Ice Chase from The Living Daylights.

For these and countless other aural pleasures this man has given me, and those I’ve yet to discover from his 60+ soundtracks over 45 years, John, I, my ears and the hairs and skin you raise on my face via goosebumps, salute you.

John Barry Prendergast 1933 – 2011


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