James Bond: John Barry on creating the theme music
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Over the years there have been various Bond songs performed by notable British or American artists, but none are as recognisable as the James Bond Theme. The piece has been used as an accompanying and dramatic fanfare to the Bond gun barrel sequence that’s featured in every Eon Bond film besides the 2006 reboot Casino Royale.
Music producer and host of the Where is My Hit single? music industry podcast Luke Jones thinks that the music perfectly fits the swagger of the Bond films.
He said: “The work opens with some attention-grabbing stabs from the brass section, then moves straight into a tense but slick riff from the string section.
Then we hear that iconic guitar riff, which perfectly encapsulates the essence of a suave secret agent in glamorous locations undertaking dangerous missions.
“The actual sound of the guitar is also reminiscent of West Coast Surf Guitar music, which is probably what makes it feels so quintessentially 1960s.”
It has firmly become a part of pop culture, despite being composed almost 60 years ago.
To audiences in the Sixties though, it would have sounded distinctly modern according to composer and session guitarist Owen Gurry.
He said: “The theme combines traditional scoring elements with more contemporary instruments like an electric guitar. Instead of becoming dated, that sound palette has been repeatedly reimagined for new audiences as the franchise evolved.
“It’s a piece of music that does exactly what a good theme should – whenever we hear it, we are transported to the world of Bond.”
Despite being one of the most famous themes in the film, there’s a rather convoluted history to the works musical composition that fans might not be aware of.
The iconic guitar riff that we all know, [Dum de-de dum dum, dum-dum- dum] was originally a song called Bad Sign Good Sign, composed by Monty Norman.
He created the track for a musical adaptation of VS Naipaul’s novel A House for Mr Biswas, set in the Indian community in Trinidad.
The ambitious musical was abandoned but Norman held onto the song and put it in his “bottom drawer” as he described it.
Bad Sign Good Sign is about a man with a magic sneeze, a far cry from the slick world of 007.
So how did an Indian sitar song about a man with the sniffles become the famous 007 theme?
According to the Monty Norman website, it all began when Bond producer Cubby Broccoli, who was impressed with Monty’s music, invited him to a meeting.
“Cubby Broccoli rang me,” Norman remembers, “and asked me to come to his office to meet his new partner [Harry Saltzman]. He said they had just acquired the rights to Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and were going to turn them into films.
“The first one was going to be Dr No and would I like to do the score?”
At the time Norman was busy with new stage shows and had to be persuaded to get involved with the promise of a trip to Jamaica, where Dr No was being filmed.
Happy to get an all-expenses-paid trip to Jamaica, Norman agreed and as he was leaving, he was approached by one of Broccoli’s assistants who said: “See if you can get a good theme for this because I reckon we’ve got two films and a television series out of this.”
While in Jamaica, he worked with Byron Lee and the Dragonaires who appear in the film performing Jump Up.
He also worked on other songs for the film including Under the Mango Tree, performed by Diana Coupland, (then Norman’s wife and later to be Sid James’s long-suffering wife in the sitcom Bless This House).
For the main James Bond theme, Norman had several stabs at it before reusing the notes from his bottom drawer, sitar song, Bad Sign Good Sign.
Monty realised that the song was distinctly Asian as it stood and set out to reinvent the song for the spy film.
He had his eureka moment when he split the notes in his composition for a more staccato feel and replaced the sitar with a guitar for the initial riff.
“His sexiness, his mystery, his ruthlessness – it’s all there in a few notes,” he said.
Where the origin story of the theme song starts to get messy, is when up-and-coming composer John Barry was brought in by producers to rearrange Monty’s theme and jazz it up a bit.
The official 007 website notes that Barry’s “arrangement and orchestration of Monty Norman’s The James Bond Theme, combined his own twangy-guitar signature with a jazz big-band kick”.
In a BBC music clip, Barry fondly talks about the theme and says: “I didn’t sit down and concoct a Bond sound… It was a whole mixture of the guitar thing, that whole rock thing that I’d been through, plus… all that brass thing. That style of music for film was new, but what that style of music was me. It’s what came out of me.”
So far, so Bond, but the music mash-up soon led to a heated musicological debate, intense media speculation and several legal disputes.
John Barry claimed he wrote the theme to the first Bond movie, not Norman and the question of composition rages on amongst fans to this day.
Media outlets including The Sunday Times and Melody Maker suggested that Norman hadn’t composed the James Bond Theme and even proposed that he bought the track from a Jamaican for a hundred dollars.
This fuelled further speculation that John Barry had composed the track, not Norman, and this resulted in Monty defending his credit in several court cases.
In one court case, Barry’s lawyers contended that Norman’s Dr No efforts needed all the help they could get, and what Barry provided deserved at least co-authorship recognition and royalties.
The courts disagreed, and Norman has successfully defended his composition rights three times, the last case being against The Sunday Times in 2001.
Norman pursued a case against The Sunday Times after they reported in 1997 that he had not written the James Bond theme.
Speaking in 2001, Norman said the article was “cruel” and added: “It was a scurrilous and slovenly researched article that rubbished my whole career – all 53 years of it. It also said that the piece of music that I was best known for, had been written by John Barry (a fellow composer).”
Norman won the case and was awarded £30,000 in libel damages after the court rejected a claim that he did not write the James Bond theme.
A blow for Barry, who maintained he wrote the theme right up until he died in 2011.
It wasn’t all bad news for Barry though, as off the back of the Bond association, he built a successful Hollywood career. He won five Oscars and composed soundtracks to 11 other Bond films, as well as Midnight Cowboy, Out Of Africa and many others.
Despite several court cases and song credit speculation, the theme has endured and still inspires feelings of excitement and nostalgia amongst fans to this day.
Singer-songwriter and author of Noise Damage: My Life as a Rock’n’Roll Underdog, James Kennedy said: “No matter where I am, as soon as I hear that opening riff, I’m immediately transported. Adrenaline up, excitement at the ready – I know I’m entering a world of suave spies, bad-ass baddies, awesome cars and Martinis. The theme tune is perfect. Classic. Timeless. Iconic.”
While we don’t know what musical direction future Bond films will take, it’s probably safe to say that the classic Bond theme will continue to be used for many years to come.
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