Do You Remember the First Time? #2. John Barry

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

The first James Bond film I remember watching on television was You Only Live Twice, on a Sunday evening in 1977. Sitting on scatter cushions, wearing loud pajamas, a melting choc-ice in hand, I recall those two hours as an episode of dissipation; an almost total sensual immersion. Not just because of the obviously risqué content, but the surface elements: the music, the set design, and, especially, the colours . . . This is why Bond is perfect for children, or early adolescents: it’s all surfaces. The plots didn’t matter as much: I didn’t fully understand them, and anyway, to a 12-year-old they were always the same.

Moreover, it’s hard to believe it was an accident the films were often shown on a Sunday. I like to think that ITV was aware of the crushing banality of a 1970s Sunday, with school or work looming the next day, and felt the nation needed some escapism. A glance through the 19th-25th November 1977 edition of the TV Times (yes, of course I still own it) reveals a stifling consumerism at odds with any young music-obsessed mind. It’s the advertisements rather than the listings that are most revealing. Hoeseasons boating holidays, Lulu’s Freeman’s catalogue, home organs (‘incredible value!’), Kathie Webber’s cookery cards, Birds in Autumn and Winter by Yootha Joyce, John Player cigarettes, hi-fis, tellys, Townsend Thoresen ferrys, Pontins, Butlins, Germolene, margarine . . . In among this litany, it is revealed that on Sunday 20th November, after 100 Best Hymns and Family Fortunes, You Only Live Twice was shown.

It was impossible to go back to normal life on Monday morning.

David Arnold, composer of many of the later 007 scores, suggests that You Only Live Twice is the perfect introduction to Barry’s music. In the first five minutes, all the stirring trademarks are present: the rambunctious ‘James Bond Theme’, the solemn, menacing ‘Space March’; the soaring, deliquescent theme tune. However, at the time, the music, always accessible – invariably memorable – seemed somehow otherworldly. Like the Beatles’ music, it didn’t always go where you expected it to. It’s now clear that Barry scored brass instruments higher than most composers would dare; used odd harmonies and voicings, employed calculated dissonances. In my mind, the boundary between the two Bs started to blur. Helpfully, George Harrison had been investigating Indian music systems at around the same time Barry had been using Eastern European scales, on Hungarian or Egyptian instruments such as the cymbalom or the kantele. This peculiar music was like nothing I’d ever heard before. At least, it was certainly nothing like the Boomtown Rats.

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