John Barry RIP and Conviction--Real or Fake
February 6, 2011
You've no doubt heard the phrase "If you can fake sincerity you've got it made in Hollywood".
It came to mind when I heard about the passing of composer John Barry. He did a guest lecture when I was studying music in Los Angeles in the '80s. As I just now listened to the replay of an interview he did in the '90s on NPR, for Fresh Air with Terry Gross—it brought back some memorable statements he made in front of our class.
Someone asked how he could convince himself to write music to a film that he either hadn't seen yet, or that didn't impress him. He answered the first part of the question by referring to the mechanics of writing to timing sheets (tables that map musical beats at all tempos against real time).
He answered the second by encouraging budding composers to go with the underlying emotion—even a badly acted or directed scene has elements like conflict, resolution, mystery, suspense—and so on. Write to those, with conviction, and you just may save the scene.
Then he told of two instances where faked conviction saved the day in the recording studio. If you've heard the recent replay of the interview, you know what I'm referring to.
In 1964 he wrote the theme song for the James Bond movie Goldfinger—a melody that doesn't always go where you'd expect it to go, and with lyrics that are not your garden-variety, either. British pop diva Shirley Bassey was huge on the charts, and she was offered the job of singing the theme song. She took one look and said "What the heck is this about?"
John Barry knew that the one quality that made Bassey stand out was the fact that, when she belted out a song like only she could, it always sounded convincing. So he told her not to worry about the meaning of the song—"Just sing it and it will be allright".
And it was—it became a hit, even though nobody could really whistle the tune from beginning to end...
The next year, it got even weirder, with Thunderball. The Bond franchise was huge, any artist wanted to sing a theme song, and when worldwide superstar Tom Jones was asked to sing Thunderball, he, too, questioned what this was all about.
He, too, was told "Don't worry about what it means, just sing the @#$% out of it, like only you can". He did.
Listen to those two songs, still today they are among the most convincing sounding recordings of all time:
Shirley Bassey sings Goldfinger ("Goldfingaaaah") in concert, and cracks herself up over the nonsense of it all, at www.youtube.com/watch?v=51Wg6k9cWhM
Tom Jones sings Thunderball at www.youtube.com/watch?v=2zM9sjQsKz0
John Barry conducts a concert arrangement of Goldfinger with a big orchestra at www.youtube.com/watch?v=DLh8oDnWHHw
John Barry wrote much more than the famous Bond scores—his work is listed at www.imdb.com/name/nm0000290/