So Mr. Bond... Who really did write your theme music?

David Mellor

David Mellor is CEO and Course Director of Audio Masterclass. David has designed courses in audio education and training since 1986 and is the publisher and principal writer of Record-Producer.com.

Wednesday October 24, 2012
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As the new James Bond movie Skyfall opens, it seems an appropriate time to revisit the question of whether the 'James Bond Theme' was actually written by Monty Norman or John Barry.

The answer to this question is very simple - Monty Norman wrote the James Bond Theme, and John Barry was merely the arranger. I say this with certainty because this is what was decided in a court of law in London in 2001. Not wishing to be sued for libel I absolutely and categorically state that Monty Norman wrote the James Bond Theme and what follows in this article is all from my warped and twisted, and not-to-be-relied-upon, imagination.

This is a topic I have followed on and off over the years. What it boils down to is this...

Monty Norman was hired to write the music for the first James Bond film, Dr. No. Allegedly, the music he wrote for the theme was found unsatisfactory by the producers and John Barry was brought in to improve it.

Over the years a dispute arose whether the James Bond Theme was written in its entirety by Monty Norman, or almost entirely written by John Barry (who claimed he used nothing of Norman's work but the first two bars).

Composer vs. arranger

Where this has relevance to modern-day music is the division of roles between composer and arranger. Normally the composer of a piece of music would receive a royalty on performances and recordings (as well as perhaps an upfront fee); the arranger would only receive a fee.

There is potentially a lot of money at stake here. A composer could, for instance, write a few bars of melody, which an arranger turns into a fantastic piece of music that then goes on to earn hundreds of thousands of pounds or dollars in royalties. Does the composer's original few bars entitle him or her to ALL of the royalties? Legally speaking, yes it does. It can however be decided, either by agreement or later litigation, that the arranger did actually contribute to a degree that is worthy of a royalty payment. The recent Procul Harem case is an example.

For the James Bond Theme, it seems that John Barry was brought in to tweak up Monty Norman's sketches for a flat fee of £250. If the film was successful, then Barry would be engaged as composer for the next James Bond film, From Russia With Love, which he was.

The evidence

Monty Norman's contribution to the James Bond Theme can be heard in a song called Good Sign, Bad Sign (from an earlier musical by Norman that didn't take off) and Dr. No's Fantasy, which was not used in the film but appears on the soundtrack album. (There is also a track called The James Bond Theme on the soundtrack album - notice 'The' as part of the title. This is clearly related to the James Bond Theme under discussion, but the musical essence is already there in Good Sign, Bad Sign, which was in existence before John Barry's involvement.)

You can hear Good Sign, Bad Sign at Monty Norman's website YouTube. You may notice that Good Sign, Bad Sign is a modern recording. You can hear a clip of Dr. No's Fantasy on YouTube, and elsewhere on the Internet.

What we can hear in these two tracks is what most people would recognize as some of the music that characterizes the James Bond movies. But clearly it is not the entire James Bond Theme.

John Barry's arrangement

Before discussing John Barry's arrangement of the James Bond Theme, it is worth establishing a frame of reference. Here is a track called Bee's Knees by The John Barry Seven, released in 1958...

Got that? Back to Bond...

In the court hearing, the prosecution called musicologist Stanley Sadie who analyzed the work thus (numbers correspond to bars)...

1-4 Vamp 5-10 Guitar riff 11-12 Semitone descent 13-20 Repeat of riff 21-24 Repeat of vamp 25-28 Bebop 1 29-32 Bebop 1 repeat 33-40 Repeat of 25-32 41-42 Bebop 2, melody related to riff 43-44 Repeat of bebop 2 45-46 Climax to bebop 2 47-48 Vamp 49-56 Riff 57-60 Coda related to 25-28

Now if I am allowed to chime in with my opinion (the legally-established fact is that Monty Norman wrote all of this and John Barry is the arranger), I can definitely hear that the guitar riff comes from Good Sign, Bad Sign, although Barry has modified it slightly.

Bebop 2 I would say is an arranger's masterstroke. OK, Norman wrote the riff, but to transform it like this, picking out the most significant notes and making something new but already known is a stroke of genius, which is as good an argument as any as to why arrangers should ever deserve to receive a royalty.

Stanley Sadie held that bars 11-12 relate to two guitar chords in the middle section of Dr. No's Fantasy. I'll let you be the judge of that (the link used to go to a the exact spot in a YouTube video (not mine) of the piece. However that video has been taken down on copyright grounds so just find a suitable video in the search listing and click forward to 0:37. The similarity is a bit far fetched in my opinion, which as I keep saying is totally incorrect.

As for the characteristic vamp at the beginning that sets the 'Bondy' tone of the whole thing... Well, Norman's Dr. No's Fantasy incorporates a vamp. But it isn't the James Bond vamp. Listen to this...

It's Nightmare, by Artie Shaw. He probably wasn't the first to use this vamp either. It's been around for so many years I doubt if anyone, living or dead, could realistically claim copyright to it.

So who did write the James Bond Theme?

Simple - Monty Norman wrote it, as I've said all along. But in my warped and twisted imagination he didn't write the vamp, he didn't write the first bebop section, and John Barry's masterstroke surely trumps anything else one could say about the second section of bebop. And the ending, and that wonderful chord - surely all John Barry's work. And the orchestration!

But in truth, Monty Norman wrote the James Bond Theme all the way from beginning to end and John Barry merely arranged it. That was decided in a court of law, therefore it is true.

P.S. I can't end without a special mention for guitarist Vic Flick without whom James Bond just wouldn't be the same. He was paid £7.50 for his work.

P.P.S. Comments on this article could easily be a legal minefield. I will state clearly and categorically that any comment below that disagrees with the court's verdict is wrong.

A few comments (from our old comment system)...

Michael Savoia, Nagoya, Japan

Rather a late comment, this, but I liked this article, and with its humour, the point I take home is that there are so many licks/vamps/melodies out there (especially now vs. 1950-60's) that even our most "original" ideas can't hope to be purely independently original. On that basis, it would seem the arranger's twists to the music are every bit as vitally important too. (Still Monty Norman wrote it :-)) Monday November 26, 2012

Lane Hood, Westhampton Beach NY, USA

Sounds like a similar question to "Who wrote the Diabelli Variations? The mighty Beethoven or hardly-remembered Diabelli?" Diabelli wrote the first 16 bars. Beethoven wrote all of the rest of this massive 50-minute work. But according to the logic of the court case, Diabelli is the composer and Beethoven merely the arranger. Monday October 29, 2012

Matthew Brice, Springfield MA, USA

I've listened to the examples and I can't say that I can hear more than two bars of Norman's work in the finished James Bond Theme. It's a good two bars though. Thursday October 25, 2012

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