John Cameron has worked on well over fifty movies, including the Oscar Nominated score for: A Touch of Class, and the Ken Loach movie Kes. His work for the small screen includes the Emmy Award nominated music for The Path to 9/11 and he is also active in the theatre working on the highly successful musicals Les Miserables, Zorro, (Co-Composer), Nils’ Wonderful Adventure, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, as well as working on shows such as Honk, Spend, Spend, Spend, and Mutiny. His arrangements for Joseph. Are still in use today and are heard in the recent presentation of the show at the London Palladium and its subsequent tour. He has also been active in song writing for popular artists such as Cilla Black and Agnetha Faltskog, penning hits such as If I Thought you’d Ever Change Your Mind, and the hits Sweet Inspiration and Tap Turns on the Water, Brother for Johnny Johnson and the Bandwagon and CCS respectively. He was also responsible for the song Na na na na which was a UK hit for pop artist Cozy Powell.

In addition to writing songs he also arranged and orchestrated hits such as Sunshine Superman, Jennifer Juniper, Epistle to Dippy for Donovan, Whole Lotta Love, Walking for CCS, Brother Louie, Emma, Disco Queen, A Child’s Prayer, You Sexy Thing, So You Win Again, Every 1’s A Winner, Man To Man, Put You Together Again  for Hot Chocolate, Boogie Nights, Too Hot To Handle, The Groove Line, Mind Blowing Decisions, Always and Forever, Gangsters of the Groove  for the British funk group Heatwave, and Silver Dream Machine, and Tahiti for David Essex.

John Cameron

Your score for the TV mini-series Jack the Ripper, is probably one of the most requested scores to be released by film music fans. I was surprised when the series was on TV for the first time that the soundtrack was not released after all it was a popular movie and of course starred so many well-known actors including Michael Caine. Were there any plans at the time to release one, or has this never been discussed?

At the time, it wasn’t commonplace to release a soundtrack recording for made for TV Films and Mini-Series. I suppose it’s testament to the piece’s longevity that there is still interest in the score.

What size orchestra did you have for the score?

Around 50–54-piece orchestra for the main cues, less for some of the smaller scale cues, and the stings and FX were all manufactured in my own studio using a Prophet 2002 Sampler, a Roland 1080, and various “found” sounds such as stacked up screams, crowbar hitting metal door, detuned breathing etc.

 How did you become involved on Jack the Ripper?

I had worked with the director David Wickes on Silver Dream Racer (with David Essex) where I arranged David’s songs for the film and wrote incidental music, and then as composer on the TV series Marlowe Private Eye with Powers Boothe.

Did he have any specific ideas or requests regarding the music for the movie, or did he leave this up to you?

David basically wanted a main theme which was proud, confident, and late-Victorian-Imperial in character that could disintegrate into something darker and more sinister. He wanted the two sides of Victorian life to be uncomfortably close to one another. The stings and FX/Sound Design elements were largely my idea, but I worked closely with David to refine them and make sure they had maximum impact. In fact, in all three of my “gothic” collaborations with David, I would supply him with temp tracks, beds, drones, and stings to help him edit & set the mood.

The “Ripper-sting” we used on all the murders was premixed and allocated to a certain note on my master keyboard, and one night while I was working late in the studio, a good friend of mine came round to ask “Do you fancy a pint down at the Hollybush” while nonchalantly playing a random note on the keyboard, and of course, it was that one, and a full blooded scream FX roared out of my Tannoy Gold speakers. As George went white, I knew that yes, that would work fine!

Can you recall how much music that you wrote for the movie, and did you conduct the score?

I probably wrote around 60 minutes of music for the mini-series And yes, I conducted it.

You later collaborated with David Wickes on Jekyll and Hyde and Frankenstein, both of which contained wonderful scores. When working on movie’s how many times do you like to be able to watch the film before you begin to put together ideas about what style of music the project needs and is it sometimes helpful if the director has installed a temp track?

I made it a practise with DW to supply him with Temp music. In fact, on every project I worked on with him, I was involved from Script stage, often feeding ideas pre-shooting. Temp tracks can be dangerous, especially if a director uses well known pieces of music, and suddenly you’re competing with John Williams or James Horner. Some directors make creative use of temp tracks – David L Cunningham, who I worked with on To End All Wars, the Touchstone remake of Little House on the Prairie, and Path to 9-11 would put in a piece of music and tell me “I like the tempo/texture/orchestral feel of this passage”, or “I like the way this music contrasts with the action”.

On an earlier instance I recorded a temp vocal for Charlie One-Eye (with Richard Rowntree) back in the 70s, and then put a famous British Blues singer on the track but the director had got so used to my voice, he said he preferred it, and took a huge amount of persuading to change it!

Both Jack the Ripper and Jekyll and Hyde have striking opening themes, do you think it is important for a TV movie in-particular to have a theme that that sets the scene and will become familiar with an audience?

In both instances we wanted the title scene to convey the “public” face of late Victorian Britain. Then by deconstructing the theme, putting it into a minor key with darker orchestration we could unpeel the dark underbelly of Victorian society.  

Orchestration is said to be an important part of the composing process, do you orchestrate all your music for film and TV or is this sometimes just not possible because of tight schedules?

I’ve always orchestrated every note of my movie scores. To me orchestration, the choice of instruments, the use of different orchestral timbres, the choice of alternative chord inversions, and the incorporation of Sound Design elements is as important as the crafting of themes and the placement of the music. And for many of my film projects from Jack The Ripper on, I’ve started the whole process with pre-lays of samples, effects etc. that give me a bed on which to lay a live orchestral performance.

Staying with orchestration, you did the orchestrations for Les Misérables, how did this come about?

Record boss Mickie Most, with whom I had worked extensively in the 1960s and 70s with artists including Donovan, CCS, and Hot Chocolate was approached by his Parisian sub-publisher Alain Boublil, who was looking for an arranger with movie experience to work on a new show based on Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, that he had written with composer Claude Michel Schonberg and lyricist Jean-Marc Natel. I flew to Paris, met Alain and Claude-Michel, spent an afternoon listening to a tape of C-M-S murdering pianos and impersonating the whole of Paris, all in French of course.

A few hours later I’m on a plane bound for London and I have a headache. “I think I said yes”… oh but the children need shoes… The rest is history, so they say. A French Concept Album recorded at CTS with a UK line-up led by Pat Halling, combined with French artists and a wonderful vocal ensemble led by Christiane LeGrand in Paris produced the original Concept Album that went double-gold in France, then the 1980 Robert Hossein Production at The Palais de Sport that nobody from the UK saw except my family and Andrew Bruce and Billy… who were in charge of the newly invented radio microphones. (David Essex was set to see it on his way back from the South of France but got caught up in a traffic jam!) Then nothing until Cameron, so the story goes, found the record in a record store in France. Then of course Trevor, John, Herbie, the whole new crew, the RSC, Palace, Washington, Broadway Productions etc. etc….

Do you think that film music today is as good as say the movie scores of the 1960’s and 1970’s, I ask this because the main title theme seems to have disappeared, I am not sure if this is the composers or the actual filmmakers decision to do away with it, but it seems gone are the days that one comes out of the cinema with the theme from the film going round inside your head?

The title theme hasn’t disappeared in long form TV pieces like The Bridge, but it seems to have morphed into a rather moody, wispy song sung over an intricate montage of images. The theme is then seldom heard after that. The other thing that I’ve noticed is the use of sample loops and patterns, which may be interesting to use occasionally but seem to take away the dynamism of the score if used incessantly under the action, which often seems to be the case in Scandi-Noir productions. But there are some interesting scores: I was particularly taken with Jonny Greenwood’s score for Power of The Dog, and Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score for Joker last year was very effective and disturbing. Funnily enough, on Joker the director used a similar technique to what we had used on David Wickes’s pieces, having a pre-recorded theme played on set to create mood during the shoot.

Using Jack the Ripper as an example, do you have a routine when scoring a picture as in main titles through to end titles or do you like to establish a core theme and then develop and build the remainder of the score around this. Or is the process different for every movie?

Each project is different in approach and intent, so there is no set formula. For instance, on Path to 9-11, director David L Cunningham felt that the subject was so emotionally loaded that he wanted there to be an almost documentary feel to add to the credibility of the piece. Consequently, after the front title music which was very low key over black and white images, in the first hour of action the only music was “found” music, rock music on a car radio or in a rental agency, a street band, qawwali music from cassette player in an apartment. So that when the plot started to unfold in earnest, and we brought the main theme in, it would have a much bigger impact. However, Jack the Ripper, Jekyll & Hyde and Frankenstein adhered much more to a more traditional model.

The creation of themes would come first i.e. the main theme, striking and grandiose, less grandiose, more calm versions of it, the deconstructed versions for dark moments, a love theme, and then elements of sound design, sting etc. Having established all these signposts, my general method is to start from the top of the movie and write through sequentially, so as to always keep in mind how each cue flows into the next, or into Foleys, FX etc.

Can we go back a few years to your early film scores, I always thought that the 1969 movie Kes was your first score, but it was Poor Cow, which you scored in 1967, how did you become involved on the movie, and was the director Ken Loach hands on regarding the music for this and then for Kes?

I had been working with Donovan, in the studio and on the road for a couple of years, and he had been asked to set a Christopher Logue poem to use as the title music for Poor Cow. I wrote the arrangement, and we were in the studio listening to playback. I wasn’t aware that Don was contracted to write music for the whole movie. Perhaps he was going to do the new thing which was to improvise to the screen (as Sonny Rollins did with Alfie)?

But Teddy Joseph, the Executive Producer was Old School. “Who’s going to actually score it to picture?” he asked. “He is” answered Don, pointing at me. “Can you have it ready for a week tomorrow when we dub?” “Yes”. (Gulp!) Went back home, rang Elisabeth Lutyens, avant-garde composer and doyenne of Hammer House of Horror scores, whom I’d met through my father (her aunt taught him violin). “Elisabeth, how do you write a film score?” Ten minutes of no-nonsense method and logistics, me frantically scribbling, a meeting next day with Don, where he played me the themes and songs he’d written, Thursday, where we spotted the film (decided where music should be), got the timings Friday and then, on Saturday I was playing rugby, so wrote through all of Sunday, had it copied Monday, recorded it Tuesday (straight to mono optical – no mixing) and they dubbed it Wednesday. Ken must have been happy because he then called me up to score Kes as composer.

Kes was recorded at Olympic studios I think, the movie was a personal, intimate, and very raw kind of film, which was perfectly enhanced by the music that you wrote, how many players did you have for the score?

It was quite a small line-up, must have been around 20. A lovely woodwind section, with classical and jazz players, including Harold McNair on Alto Flute, a small string section, bass, drums, percussion.

PSYCHOMANIA, was a movie that you scored, I noticed on the soundtrack lots of electronic sounds, but this was released before synths and the new styled sounds that we are now used to, so how did you achieve these sounds on the score?

You’re right. Robert Moog’s set-up took up a whole room, mini moog’s were still just a dream. But guitars had a certain amount of pedals by then, (phase wah wah etc) and added to that we used all kinds of tricks, playing inside the piano, stroking and plucking and playing with mallets, feeding Musser vibes through a phase pedal, and similar effects on bowed bass, using solo voice in a weird unison with the flute, and then a large amount of processing, tape echo, feedback etc on the mix.

When you record a film score do you try to make sure that it can be preserved in some way in case at the time of the film’s release or in the future someone is interested in releasing it?

I do now! I do have a certain amount of ¼” tape copies from the 70s, 80s, some DATs of 90s projects & digital copies from 200 on, but in the early days the music was considered very much part of the overall package and the final movie was what you were aiming for, so a separate soundtrack was very seldom considered.

Many thanks to Mr Cameron for agreeing to answer my questions.