It all started in June 1962 with the “James Bond Theme.”
London songwriter Monty Norman had written most of the score for “Dr. No,” the first 007 adventure. He struggled for weeks to come up with a tune that might characterize Ian Fleming’s ruthless British agent (Sean Connery), then incorporated it at several key moments in the underscore.
But for the opening titles, they wanted a more exciting and possibly commercial sound, so they sought the services of a 28-year-old arranger-producer with a little film experience and a lot of popular-music savvy: Yorkshire-born John Barry.
Barry, trumpet-playing leader of the hit-making John Barry Seven, arranged and orchestrated the “Bond Theme” for an ensemble that was part rock ‘n’ roll, part jazz and part classical. It was a fresh sound for a new screen hero.
“John Barry uniquely, single-handedly, created the spy genre of music,” says David Arnold, composer of the past five Bond scores. “In his initial arrangement of the Bond theme you have the bebop swing vibe coupled with that vicious, distorted electric guitar. You hadn’t really heard that combination before. It was cocky, swaggering, confident, dark and dangerous.”
The Barry-arranged “James Bond Theme” was a hit both in the film and as a record. So starting with the second 007 film, “From Russia With Love,” Barry became Bond’s house composer. “Goldfinger,” “Thunderball,” “You Only Live Twice” and seven more films benefited from the composer’s dynamic musical approach.
Barry’s compelling music was not just effective in the films; it sold millions of records. The “Goldfinger” soundtrack toppled the Beatles and “Mary Poppins” to reach the top of the charts in early 1965. Shirley Bassey’s vocals of “Goldfinger” and “Diamonds Are Forever” were hits, as were Tom Jones’ “Thunderball” and Nancy Sinatra’s “You Only Live Twice” — all sporting memorable Barry melodies.
Barry liked to call his Bond scores “million-dollar Mickey Mouse music.” As he explained before his death last year at age 77: “The films put forth a kind of simple, almost endearing comic-strip attitude toward danger, intrigue and romance. The main thing is to carry it off with style. Don’t belittle the subject matter or make it cheap. Just give it a whole lot of style and make it sound like a million dollars.”
Those who followed Barry (including Marvin Hamlisch on “The Spy Who Loved Me” and Bill Conti on “For Your Eyes Only”) were obligated to emulate his bold, brash style — which, Barry often said, meant employing brass and percussion in creative ways to make sure the music could be heard over the inevitable sound effects of gunfire, explosions and screeching tires.
Beginning in 1997 with “Tomorrow Never Dies,” Arnold — the only composer besides Barry to do more than one 007 epic — followed the Barry style but updated it with contemporary rhythms and electronics, not to mention performers like Propellerheads (“Tomorrow Never Dies”), Garbage (“The World Is Not Enough”) and Chris Cornell (“Casino Royale”).
“John Barry casts an enormous shadow,” says Arnold. “He is the sound of James Bond. You ignore it at your peril. It’s inescapably entwined with the character.”
Arnold, now busy overseeing music for London’s Summer Olympics, has passed the baton to composer Thomas Newman for this year’s “Skyfall.”
(Jon Burlingame is the author of “The Music of James Bond” (Oxford University Press), the first behind-the-scenes chronicle of the creation of the Bond songs and scores. It will be released in October.)