This is the sound of cool:
Any man who has put on a tux, or ordered a shaken martini, or tried to learn how the hell to play baccarat has hummed it. It’s almost impossible to hear that iconic “James Bond Theme” and not pretend you’re holding a gun to your cheek, the way Connery and Moore did. That music is credited to composer Monty Norman, but the guy who arranged it and conducted the orchestra that first recorded it (and argued for decades that he, in fact, was the guy who created it) was John Barry, who died Sunday at the age of 77.
The Bond theme is truly is one of the most perfect pieces of film music ever written. It encompasses all the moods of James Bond from quiet and sultry, the perfect accompaniment to a life-or-death card game, to loud and bombastic, just what you need for a raid on a super-villain’s mountain fortress. It’s been tinkered with over the decades — a splash of strings here, a smothering of synthesizers there — but the original version, written by Norman and arranged by Barry, is timeless. It can be changed, but not improved upon.
Norman won several court cases over the right to be called the creator of the Bond theme, but Barry surely deserves at least some of the credit for sculpting it and for scoring eleven of the Bond films that followed. The most famous piece of music associated with Bond after the theme song is “Goldfinger,” which Barry wrote with lyricists Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse.
The Bond themes — every movie must have one, preferably named after the movie itself — are one of the series’ most charmingly nonsensical tropes. Why the hell do we need a song called “The Man With the Golden Gun?” Writing pieces of music to fit phrases like “Thunderball” or “Moonraker” must have been impossible, but Barry was one of the best at it. Take “Diamonds Are Forever,” with insane vocals by Shirley Bassey.
Barry had a long career beyond the world of 007 and won five Academy Awards, one for best song (“Born Free”) and four for his scores for “Dances With Wolves,” “Out of Africa,” “The Lion in Winter,” and “Born Free.” But he’ll be remembered for Bond. Whether he wrote it or not, he helped define the sound of cool.