Website last updated: 8-7-2024

Review of John Barry Plays 007

By: Brian Smith
John Barry Plays 007 book review
John Barry (1933-2011) was not one of life’s natural collaborators, although occasionally he found himself in that position. He wrote his Bond theme songs, as he did most of his film scores, in isolation before handing them to his lyricists – Leslie Bricusse, Don Black, Hal David et al. and once said working with a-ha was akin to ‘playing ping-pong with four balls.’ He also sniped (as quoted in this book) to Noel Rogers (United Artists Music, London) that ‘Monty Norman doesn’t write music, he writes lyrics, doesn’t he?’

In John Barry Plays 007, there’s little love for Norman who was a multi award-winning writer of stage musicals spanning four decades before and after Bond. He also wrote an entire soundtrack of songs and incidental music for Dr. No (1962), but in the opening chapter of Geoff Leonard and Pete Walker’s latest volume on the work of John Barry, it is the James Bond Theme in the cross hairs.

Dr No soundtrack
Cover for the Dr No soundtrack.

Monty Norman wrote the James Bond Theme; John Barry was hired to arrange and record a version for the opening titles. In the ensuing years, a narrative was promulgated that Barry either wrote some, or all, of the Bond theme. In chapter one the authors question Norman’s sole writing credit (the subject of three court actions, all of which found in Norman’s favour) in order to ‘add clarity to what has already been a muddy and muddled subject.’

The authors’ obvious love of Barry (which is by and large a positive influence on their work) does not leave room for impartiality. Nothing conclusive is presented and, despite the authors’ good intentions, the subject feels no less muddy and muddled by the end of the chapter. What is beyond dispute is the effectiveness of Barry’s arrangement. Leonard and Walker note that it perfectly captures ‘Bond’s persona, musically, with Barry’s input proving absolutely pivotal in achieving this aim.’ When Monty Norman allegedly fell out with producer Harry Saltzman on the second EON Productions feature, Call Me Bwana (1963) co-starring Swedish actress Anita Ekberg, John Barry, having previously impressed the producers, was hired to write the score for their third - From Russia with Love (1963).

I’ve been a huge admirer of Geoff Leonard and Pete Walker – the bee’s knees of Barry biography - ever since the publication of John Barry: A Life In Music (1998, co-authored with Gareth Bramley). A new version of the book appeared in 2008 and is, to date, the definitive career biography. Later books by the duo include Hit And Miss: The Story Of The John Barry Seven and Music By John Barry (with Jon Burlingame).

John Barry books by Geoff Leonard and Pete Walker
Photo above: Other John Barry books written by Geoff Leonard and Pete Walker.

Each chapter of John Barry Plays 007 discusses a Barry Bond film and follows the same structure – a brief plot synopsis, a deep-dive into the development, writing and recording of the score (and songs) plus a selection of record releases.

I love the rich detail, such as the description of the recording session for The Living Daylights (1987) and Barry’s enthusiasm for recording at CTS Studios in Wembley where Studio One ‘provides a lovely big movie sound.’

The book is illustrated with a plentiful helping of photographs from recording sessions and record sleeves.

Although some of this may seem like well-trodden territory, there is a huge amount of new material which compliments their original biography. The authors also write extensively for the first time on Thunderball (1965), Diamonds Are Forever (1971), The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) (all with lyrics by Don Black) and A View to a Kill (1985), a fractious time with Duran Duran where Barry re-entered the world of pop, alien to that in which he started out. Barry’s Yorkshire bluntness came to the fore when he described these enforced mid-Eighties pop collaborations. It was, after all, his tenaciousness which produced dozens of incredible film scores, none more so than those discussed here. This book captures those stories and serves to honour Barry’s incredible music for James Bond.

Review by Brian Smith. Copyright © 2023 From Sweden with Love. All rights reserved.

Editor's Note:
Available editions of John Barry Plays 007:

>Hardback edition
>Paperback edition



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