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John Barry on the Moon

By Ian Dunross
November 26, 2014
For clarity, song titles and musical compositions are presented in quotes, while film titles are in italics.
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By the time Moonraker was in pre-production (circa 1978), the 007 film series was back on track, reinvigorated by the success of The Spy Who Loved Me. In contrast to the dormant years spanning from 1974 to 1976, when the series was marred by the lackluster ninth entry, The Man With The Golden Gun, and thrust into limbo by a complex legal battle with former 007 producer Harry Saltzman, The Spy Who Loved Me heralded something of a renaissance for the franchise. The Bond makers must have felt invincible: for the next film, they upped the budget, whipped up ever more massive spectacles, and layered the script with relentless juvenile gags. They could do anything, they seemed to say, while the world was beneath them. How else to explain the comedic extravaganza they inevitably concocted? There was also the sci-fi mania of the late 70s to exploit: hence, producer Cubby Broccoli shelved the making of For Your Eyes Only (the next intended film) to pursue Moonraker, the only title from the Fleming canon that could possibly be applied to an outer space motif. It all leads to a ridiculous entry, more slapstick buffoonery than spy adventure, which reflects the confident swagger and self-assurance of the filmmakers. As John Brosnan notes, this 11th film in the series is “the most expensive slapstick movie since It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World” (263).

Lost in the absurdity is the film’s score. It’s one of composer John Barry’s finest, considering the outlandish film he was dealt with. Innovative and daring, it underscores the action-comedy with majestic, pensive strings. Barry gambled with this one: no other composer would have dared to approach the film from such an opposite direction, but such was his insight as a musical dramatist that it worked superbly. He offers a glimpse into his strategy, years later, during an interview for A View To A Kill:

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. (“Scoring James Bond”)

In other words, despite the antics on screen, approach the score from an entirely different perspective, even if it means giving it an austere but majestic essence to wrap the nonsense with grace. Ironically, with Moonraker, the accompanying title song is not as cherished as “Goldfinger” or, say, “Live and Let Die”. As its sad legacy, the “Moonraker” theme is excluded from the pantheon of great Bond songs, mainly because the film itself has the reputation as one of the worst in the series. Inevitably, the song and the entire score have been thrust into the archives of forgetting: as the backstory goes, the soundtrack was recorded at the Davout Studios in Paris but, supposedly, the master tapes have been lost. Moreover, Shirley Bassey was brought on board in the late stages of the recording sessions, after Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, and Kate Bush declined to sing the theme song. The result wasn’t exactly a chart-topper, most likely due to the swift recording session to meet the film’s release and Ms. Bassey’s inability to promote the song, considering her last-minute involvement.

Yet the song is a turning point in the John Barry canon: the brooding elegiac strings that characterize later works such as “Somewhere In Time” and “Out of Africa” start here, with the title song for Moonraker. I recall driving to Wellington from Fort Lauderdale, one evening back in 2005, along Florida’s A1A. Moonlight glowed on the ocean and “Moonraker”, as luck would have it, came on the radio. And, as always, I was entranced by its lyrical elegance, its almost magical chord progression and the subtle but intriguing textures. “Moonraker” consists of unique aspects, showcasing Barry’s ingenuity from a compositional standpoint.

The song starts without any sonorous brassy orchestrations, nothing to signal that this is a cool brazen 007 song. Instead, little percussive accents, slightly dissonant, from a percussion triangle ride atop sweeping strings (and a bit of melodrama from a harp), which foreshadow the main melody of the verse (the “Where are you?” melody), an ascending phrase but the counterpoint answers with a gentle descent, together evoking the bouncy, almost weightless essence of space, even the soaring feeling of romance. Hmmm…the limitlessness of space as a metaphor for the unbounded feeling of love? Anyway, I play the intro on my Roland keyboard (I gather it’s all in B major), relishing the ascending and descending phrases:

At this stage, the chord progression is straightforward: B major to E minor. But the dissonance from the percussion triangle is actually pointing to an added G on the B. I transcribe it thus:

The uniqueness of the verse’s chord progression suddenly appears when the verse ends by moving from B major to F#m7—yes, a minor fifth. Typically, in a pop song, that would be a major fifth. But maestro Barry is a wizard of chord progressions—in his hands, unlikely chord sequences somehow fit together pleasantly. This leads to the chorus, or at least to the first stanza of the chorus—a minor seventh chord progression, rather than a dominant major chord. It’s something that Barry introduced in “Diamonds Are Forever”: an F#m7, moving to a Bm7. Listening to the CD, I hear the chorus structured in this way:

So it goes with “Moonraker”:

The remarkable thing about the chorus is that it enters a sort of second movement, as if an entirely different chorus takes place. Here, though, we’re back to a major chord, but its segue into a minor chord is a throwback to all those minor seventh chords that we first encountered:

The lyrics are by Hal David. Ten years earlier, he collaborated with Barry on the romantic song “We Have All The Time in the World” for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. This time the verse he jots for the composer expresses a similar wistfulness. Here we have the speaker’s aching longing for romance, a perfect symmetry to the haunting mood of the song. The movie’s title is brought up, but it’s not necessarily a reference to the spacecraft built by Drax Industries. Instead, it’s a metaphor for yearning, longing for something greater than ourselves—in a sense, the human impulse to seek self-fulfillment: “Just like the Moonraker knows / in search of its dream of gold / I search for love, for something to have and hold.” For the speaker, love—the act of communion with another to achieve self-knowledge—echoes the human impulse to search for understanding and self-fulfillment. “Take my unfinished life,” she pleads, “and make it complete.”

Paul Williams apparently took a crack at the lyrics—then titled “Think Of Me.” This happened early on when the Bond makers were courting Sinatra. I suspect it was Barry who turned to Hal David to revisit the pensive atmosphere in the ballad they produced for Secret Service (sung by Louis Armstrong). Gone are the phallic imagery, the teasing verses. Matched with the rich somnolent strings, the lyrics almost point to the two characters in Somewhere In Time (played by Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeves), who long for one another but are separated by the vastness of time. As far as traditions go, “Moonraker” is not a song that immediately screams “Bond.” Yet by the time the song ends, it has evolved into a classy, refreshing Bond theme song. For Barry, though, it didn't matter that "Moonraker" was out of step with the style of the series. The story was what mattered and how the theme song complimented it:

I don’t think in musical terms straight away. I look at it in terms of what’s the drama, what’s the story, what’s the main character. . . . Almost like a literary point of view as to what the movie is about first and then I work from there—how do I service that dramatic point musically? (John Barry: The Man With The Midas Touch 238).

With such aesthetics, John Barry brought a unique element to “Moonraker”—a musical spirit just as enigmatic as the silhouetted nudes and guns and brassy orchestrations.

Rest in peace, maestro.


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Works Cited

Barry, John and Hal David. “Moonraker.” Moonraker Original recording reissued.
Capitol, 2003. CD.
Barry, John and Don Black. “Diamonds Are Forever.” Diamonds Are Forever Original recording reissued.
Capitol, 2003. CD.
Bramley, Gareth, Geoff Leonard, and Pete Walker. John Barry: The Man With The Midas Touch.
Redcliffe Press Ltd. 2008.
Brosnan, John. James Bond In The Cinema. A.S. Barnes & Co., Inc. 1981.
“Scoring James Bond.” A View To A Kill Official Movie Magazine 1985: 60. Print.
 
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