Golden Years - Themeology: The Best of John Barry

Themeology: The Best of John Barry is a compilation of famous themes by the late composer. Although far from comprehensive it is a lot of fun and includes much of what you might expect to be on a collection like this. You get a smattering of Bond classics here but what the compilation does do well is highlight just how much great work Barry did away from the Bond factory. Everything from Midnight Cowboy to Dances with Wolves to cult sixties television shows. There is even a piece of music here he composed for a shampoo commercial that is strangely brilliant. Barry was one of those composers who had a very distinctive sound (lush orchestral works, vibrato atmospherics etc) and the moment a film he scored begins you can tell it's him. I had no idea John Barry had scored Game of Death (with the yellow tracksuited Bruce Lee) the first time I watched it but you can tell straight away who it is. Maybe he started to become a bit repetitive in the end but if it isn't broken why bother to change it. Even Barry's weakest Bond score was worth a million David Arnolds.
There are 23 themes here and the collection begins with the music for The Persuaders. This was an early seventies television series sort of in the vein of The Avengers with Roger Moore and Tony Curtis as two playboys (one a British Lord, the other a self-made millionaire from New York) who get into all manner of scrapes and do good deeds in Simpon Templarish fashion as they swan around the French Rivera wearing outrageous neck scarves and driving sports cars. You'd expect the theme to be cheeky and upbeat but it's actually very dark, somewhat sinister, and very atmospheric. Sort of pitched somewhere between Randall & Hopkirk and The Third Man with that John Barry residue.
Much in this vein are Vendetta/The Danny Scipio Theme and The Ipcress File. Vendetta is a sixties television series I'm not really familiar with at all but the dark, twisty theme is very impressive. Barry's scores here positively reek of the Cold War and clandestine shadowy characters and this was never so relevant with his brilliant theme for The Ipcress File. This was a 1965 film with Michael Caine as downbeat spy Harry Palmer, a very stylish sixties antidote or counterpoint to the fantastical and glossy James Bond series. Palmer was a downbeat, cynical, anti-authoritarian spy who wore thick NHS specs, shopped in supermarkets and munched on cornflakes. Sometimes he didn't even know if he could trust his own boss let alone the Russkies.
Barry's theme is simultaneously lush and downbeat with strings, piano, horns. It's both languid and edgy at the same time and very pretty. A perfect backdrop for the murky Tesco Value Bond world of Harry Palmer. Wednesday's Child from the film The Quiller Memorandum features some very haunting dreamy music with mandolin and guitar and some expert crooning by Matt Monroe. Monroe sounds rather dated today and very much of his own time but he's very effective with this music. Girl With The Sun In Her Hair (from a 1968 Sunsilk shampoo advert) is a tremulous Barry masterpiece that is all the more impressive for being written for a shampoo advert. Most composers would be lucky to come up with a film theme this good let alone almost cast it away for an advert. His theme for The Knack is much lighter than a lot of sixties theme stuff he did and more jaunty and airy. There are repeating horns and what sounds like a xylophone and the a somewhat tongue-in-cheek feel to the music. I don't think it's the best thing here to be honest.

Walk Don't Run is a pop number from the John Barry Seven. Not too familiar with them but this is certainly catchy, very sixties pop and guitar driven although unavoidably a bit dated now. It's a nice curio to add to the compilation although I think there is a bit too much of this early sixties John Barry pop beat stuff on the collection. You buy a John Barry collection for the film music rather than what pop songs he might have written in his very early years. Beat For Beatniks (not sure where this is taken from) is a big jazzy brassy number with trumpets and horns. It's impressive but not really my cup of tea to be honest. One can see how this might have worked very well in a film though.
Hit or Miss is the theme to Juke Box Jury. Very immediate and clever and annoyingly catchy but something you could probably live without on a John Barry compilation. I'd much rather have something from (the sadly overlooked) Star Crash. The Bond stuff takes up a sizeable section of the middle part of the collection and although you might have these themes and songs from other collections the version of his brilliant action theme for On Her Majesty's Secret Service does have the novelty of sounding slightly different as if we are hearing a live demo or something. The ominous strains of his Space March from You Only Live Twice are still superb and you get purely instrumental versions of his Thunderball and You Only Live Twice themes sans Tom Jones and Nancy Sinatra. Thunderball is a big bold Bond theme and justifiably famous but You Only Live Twice is perhaps the greatest of all Barry's song themes. This is a haunting and strangely hypnotic song that perfectly captures the world of James Bond and was perfect meshed with Maurice Binder's molten lava volcano themed title sequence.
From Russia with Love, with its lush wonderfully over the music is also sublime at its best. What doesn't work quite so well to modern ears is Matt Monro's crooning of the title theme song (played over the end credits in the actual film). This is a borderline dirge. Classy but fairly dull with a generous helping of cheese sprinkled on top. Goldfinger probably needs no introduction. Performed by Shirley Bassey, this is the most iconic and famous of the Bond themes and set a blueprint for the rest to try and replicate. It's very brassy, immediate and stylish with those trademark obtuse James Bond lyrics that are meaningless but effective nonetheless. Diamonds Are Forever marked the return of Shirley Bassey (and Sean Connery too) and is another wonderful John Barry contribution with lyrics by Don Black. "Diamonds are forever, Sparkling round my little finger. Unlike men, the diamonds linger; Men are mere mortals who are not worth going to your grave for."
This is again very evocative of the world of James Bond and good stuff. You also get Barry's arrangement of the Bond theme by Monty Norman. This needs no introduction either and is one of the most iconic pieces of film music ever composed. What else do you get in this collection? Midnight Cowboy of course, one of Barry's most haunting compositions and a perfect backdrop for the downbeat and poignant film it was written for and also the the themes for Born Free and Dances With Wolves. I've never seen either film but the scores are very good. Dances With Wolves is Barry in an especially lustrous mood and  wonderful. Themeology: The Best of John Barry only loses a point because it is far from comprehensive and includes one too many generic sixties pop pieces at the expense of more film music. This is still an enjoyable and very impressive collection though.
- Jake


c 2014 Alternative 007

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