How the Fab Four opened up my big screen universe
JOHN GORE, founder of StokeScreen Film Club, on how the great film music of the 60s and 70s brought the world to his ears
Growing up in a house without a TV until Winston Churchill died, I was without the primary education of Sunday afternoon movies, those classics from the 40s and 50s, and dependent on the world described by radio which conjured the imagination with accounts of reality and the realisation of the abstract and the impossible.
Radio sitcoms brought the absurd world into our home over Sunday lunch, which left about an hour and a half to hide from being drafted in to the kitchen to dry up before it was time for Alan Freeman.
His Pick of the Pops, enjoyed in the solitude of one's bedroom, gave you the sense of being a puppy let off the leash for a couple of hours. But good grief! Sundays in the sixties were dull! Like lockdown without the threat of a pandemic. It was a time before Radios 1-4 and music programming had barely edged forward from the days of the nation being in uniform. Elvis went into the army and returned making radio friendly valium. I had yet to appreciate the refinement of Sinatra and Peggy Lee. We were eager for the Beatles and the Beach Boys, but this was still on ration.
In among this, however, were occasional rays of brilliant light: movie themes! I remember being arrested by the quirky sound of Anton Karas playing Harry Lime's Theme from the Third Man, played on a zither (A what? That will come in handy for Scrabble!); the rousing, open sound of The Big Country and the Magnificent Seven, (Bernstein. I think I recognise that name...); the optimistic grandeur of The Theme from Exodus and the urgent rallying call of 633 Squadron with its swashbuckling french horn theme. The ground had been prepared - and into this was thrust the shaded and threatening motif that would reshape the medium: The James Bond Theme. Cinematic, jazz-tinged, here was as concise a character portrait of suavity and menace and libido as a three-minute track would allow. I couldn't get to see the film, did not understand its zeitgeist, but could not deny what it made me feel. This is where I first encountered a truth that I would not fully appreciate until a lot later: Great soundtracks do not always come from great movies. Film making is a collaborative art form of varied and equally talented artists, some more equal than others. Engerland swung like a pendulum do. The invasion of America took place. London was where it was happening, but wherever it was happening was always a few streets away from me. The Beatles and the Stones and Radio London seized control of my ears and helped shape my cultural terrain.
The first film I chose to go to see at the cinema was A Hard Day’s Night. Compelled by the charisma of the Fab Four and the arresting F chord at the opening of the title track, I was unwittingly thrust into the intoxicating big screen universe and, more subtly, into Richard Lester's interpretation of the New Wave here, en Angleterre! I left the Art Deco splendour of Balham Odeon wanting the film life to continue with me in it. I was scarred for life. Then, almost by chance, around the age of 12, something possessed me to take my birthday record token to the local record and radiogram emporium and invest in a long player of John Barry movie themes. Side one had THE theme, of course, along with Goldfinger, From Russia with Love et al, but when you turned it over, here was an altogether more potent cocktail of mood and ambiguity: The Chase, King Rat, The Knack, Seance on a Wet Afternoon, The Ipcress File, Born Free. What marks all these themes out is the inspired and innovative scoring. We had grown used to new electronic sounds in pop music - the organ on the Doors' Light My Fire or Procol Harem's A Whiter Shade of Pale, Clapton and Hendrix's expressionistic feedback, fuzz and wah-wah, but this was different.
Neither Jazz nor the classical I knew at the time, Barry drew from across genres: Harmonica over strings and bass brass (The Chase); harp arpeggios and cor Anglais in King Rat; the cool jazziness of Hammond organ in the oh-so-of-the-moment The Knack ( it even had Rita Tushingham in it!); the brooding eerie marimba and alto flute (you mean there's more than one size of flute?) on Seance on a Wet Afternoon; The Ipcress File (is that a cimbalom?); the muted trumpet of film noir reinforcing the mood, composing a tone poem of a haunted and lonely world. All this on one 20-minute side of an LP. I wanted to see all these films as I felt that I already had a sense of their setting from these new worlds of sound laid out before my very ears. Lesson number 2: this is what good programming looks like. It is like marketing but more generous. Along with what you know and want, here is stuff you know nothing of, which you can enjoy if you give it an open mind. Years went by. I started to watch movies, listened to the classical canon and jazz, and recognised something of the exotic worlds of Zoltan Kodaly, Olivier Messiaen or Gyorgy Ligeti from what these soundtracks had introduced to me. Barry went on composing, winning Oscars for his soundtracks to Midnight Cowboy and Dances with Wolves, which are fine but not the tinderbox to the imagination that his work in the 1960s had been. I went on my own journey of discovery. And then I came across Ennio Morricone and it all began again.
Pictured: The Fab Four in A Hard Day's Night and Michael Caine in The Ipcress File
In normal times, StokeScreen Film Club shows great movies at the Coventry & North Warwickshire Sports Club. Find out more by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org or go to: www.stokescreen.uk