John Cameron’s composing and arranging covers an amazing array of music genres, from rock, soul, jazz and folk music, through electronic, world, orchestral and choral music, working in film, television, theatre of all kinds, and recording. His career in music started in earnest at Cambridge University where he was Vice-President of the Footlights and busy in many forms of music, most notably the local jazz scene. On coming down, he was soon writing arrangements for artists such as Donovan (within 6 months he had his first no.1 hit in the US with Donovan’s Sunshine Superman that he arranged with Spike Heatley). John became Donovan’s music director, touring with him, and arranging hit singles Jennifer Juniper, & Epistle to Dippy, & the Sunshine Superman & Mellow Yellow albums, and subsequently arranging Donovan’s music for Ken Loach’s Poor Cow.
John went on to work extensively in Television, as music director and arranger for three series of Once More With Felix (with folk-singer Julie Felix), The Bobbie Gentry Show and numerous shows in Stanley Dorfman’s In Concert series, featuring artists such as James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman. (taken from the composers web-site).
A Personal appreciation by John Williams.
The Sixties still seem to have that magic and effective pulling power on what we say, hear and watch. Coming out of the more austere fifties, time the Beatles and the Mersey sound kicked in around 1963, British Movies and Music slowly dragged themselves into the new decade with renewed vigour and optimism. Books 10 years earlier would never see the light of day were published, and movies, with subjects that wouldn’t have got past the censor on the oppressive fifties got the green light. It wasn’t all kitchen sink dramas either, a lot of so – called Swinging Sixties Movies. were light, frothy and sometimes downright daft! I don’t think they were called Swinging Sixties then, or were they? Film music moved forward too, shall we say, from the respectable Symphonic sounds, to reflect the notable changes happening in the music world. Many leading Composers of the period came from Pop, some were instrumentalists in their own right and some in fact had no musical backgrounds at all. They were just in the right place at the right time. Composers like Basil Kirchin, Stanley Myers, John Scott , Johnny Harris, Barry Gray and they brought a welcome input of fresh ideas and thoughts
One of the most talented, and innovative composers to burst on the scene during those exciting times was John Cameron. Now a much-respected orchestrator of leading West End Musicals, most notably LES MISERABLES for which he has won many awards, after working on the Original French Concept album in the 1980s. No one who has heard the Symphonic recordings of the score will fail to realise how a first-class orchestrator. / arranger at the top of his game can make a superb difference to the whole sound of a show
I had always thought that John’s first score was KES – Indeed many records show it as thus, but John put me right. “The first film score I handled was POOR COW, also directed by Ken Loach. Donovan had been hired to write the score, and we were in the studio recording “Be Not Too Hard” a setting of Christopher Logue poem, for the soundtrack, when Teddy Joseph the line producer said to Don “Who’s actually going to score the music for the picture?” Pointing to me Don said, “He is”. “Can you have it ready for the dub next Wednesday?” (8 Days’ time) “Yes” (the foolhardiness of youth!) Quick phone call to Elisabeth Lutyens, doyenne of the Hammer Horror genre, who I had met, a ten-minute run-down of how to do it, spotted the movie Thursday, timings Friday, played Rugby Saturday, wrote it Sunday, copied it Monday, recorded Tuesday, straight to mono, ready for the dub on Wednesday. After that Ken asked me to write the score for KES. I don’t remember having any budget restrictions. The way it had been shot meant the score needed to have a small, personal, chamber quality to it, using a combination of woodwind sounds and terse string movements. It was recorded at Olympic Studios with all my favourite musicians, Harold McNair, Danny Thompson, Ron Ross, Tony Car et, and Vic Smith as sound engineer, once again mono, straight to optical. It was only because we’d had a 1/4″ safety tape running that we were able to produce a CD all those years later.”
Who then could ever forget the wam- bam title song from EVERY HOME SHOULD HAVE ONE belted out by Millicent Martin, in some way overshadowing what was going to follow, How about “Jack’s Theme” from the Peter O’Toole movie THE RULING CLASS – Heavenly choir, jazzy piano and infectious percussion – Irresistible!! The unusual almost quirky Main title for NASTY HABITS, a re-encampment of the Watergate Saga to a Convent!!
I asked John how from his first assignment did the next one follow, word of mouth? ” I had an agent, David Wilkinson who still looks after me, although he’s semi- retired now, but most of the movies then did seem to come one after the other. There was a lot of production in the UK, especially of mid-budget movies”
A cult movie in more ways than one is PSYCHOMANIA, a movie I have yet to see. As John put it “So what’s wrong with Zombie Biker movies? Every CV should have one! It was one of those movies you do to buy shoes for the children. But now it seems to have turned into a cult movie! The main thing about the score was how we got all kinds of weird electronic stuff pre- synthesisers by putting vibes through phase pedals, playing inside the piano etc…..”
Around this time there was a Movie with the sadly departed Keith Michell and Angharad Rees entitled MOMENTS. BBC showed the Movie, I think during a season of lost movies towards the end of seventies. This was when the BBC really cared about the films they showed, not like now when the have virtually given up and handed to the Specialist channels. I admit I can’t recall the score, but at the time, both film and music made a deep impact on me, but to my knowledge, it has never been re-shown on TV or available on any form of video or DVD. I asked John if he recalled much about it. ” Not too much, as you say it seems to have fallen off the radar” It may be that this is truly a lost film , somewhere in a Wardour Street vault, but when so many inferior Movies are dusted off and now re mastered to Blu Ray, I would be interested if anyone out there has any more information that they could pass on.
John also worked in Television during this time, SPECTRE, 1990, and dare I say, infamous THE PROTECTORS with Nyreen Dawn Porter and Robert Vaughan. A true time capsule of Seventies style, clothes, and indeed Music. As John recalled, “I scored as much as I had budget for, with John Richards at CTS, we worked very fast, and I think we actually scored most of the episodes. Very early 70s – heavy on the Electric Harpsichord! And loads of good musos involved – mainly my jazz funk team plus Pat Halling’s string section”
Also, around this time, the BBC was heavily involved in high quality versions of Classic Novels, or the Sunday afternoon serial which had been going for a long time. Many good composers worked on these, Carl Davis, Patrick Gowers, Paul Reade, Dudley Simpson, Wilfred Josephs, and that is just a few of the fine talented composers involved. John scored SHE FELL AMONGST THIEVES based on the Dornford Yates early 20th Century novel. It was shown as part of BBC 2 Play of The Week, and one of an unofficial trilogy of similar filmed novels, all directed by Clive Donner (The remaining two were ROGUE MALE and THE THREE HOSTAGES, both scored by Christopher Gunning). I think ROGUE MALE has had a limited DVD release, but the remaining two, sadly not. Good atmospheric film, aided right from the beginning credits by John’s fine score. “Clive was very good to work with and I enjoyed scoring this one – excellent performance by Eileen Atkins as I recall”
In 1973 he scored A TOUCH OF CLASS when he was nominated for a well – deserved Oscar. This was just one film he scored for George Barrie – Head of Brut. I WILL, I WILL FOR NOW, LOST AND FOUND and NIGHT WATCH with Elizabeth Taylor. I found a very rare Single on eBay last year called THE NIGHT HAS MANY EYES by Lee Vanderbilt, coupled with a version(?) by the John Cameron Orchestra from the latter film. It was an amazing price though I think the price does vary considerably. It does appear on you tube though. Here again, always curious about such things I asked John about this as well. “I had forgotten about that recording! George Barrie, head of Brut (the after- shave people) like to write a song or two with Sammy Cahn (good bloke, very funny) for his movies. It’s listed on Discogs, so it must have had some kind of release”
A terrific song that John had more to do with was AND I WILL LOVE YOU from SCALAWAG. In the film it was sung by the fetching Lesley Anne –Down, and suitably covered by Frankie Valli. Lovely song, and I wondered as Kirk Douglas was part director / writer etc, if he had input to the song? “Yes, Kirk was very hand – on as a director. Lionel Bart and I had been struggling with the title song (it was during one of Lionel’s more insure periods, we’d work on the song one day, and he would want to scrap it the next). One morning there was a knock on my apartment door in London. I opened it and there was Kirk’s steel blue eyes cutting a hole right through me: “I thought you guys were professional!” I was terrified! But we finished the song, and everything went well after that. One great thing that came from it was that when working in the cut in LA , the editor needed helping sync-ing the song into the action and called on his friend, the music editor Ken Johnson. Ken and I went on to work on a whole raft of movies after that and stayed firm friends until he died. We’re still in touch with his son Dan, who handled the music editing on the two mini- series I scored in LA in the 2000s, LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE and PATH TO 9 – 11 for which I got an Emmy nomination”
I came back to Lionel Bart for as composer, I have always had undying admiration for his talent, when you think of the songs he accomplished, classics that will live forever, and someone who could not read music as such, it is just amazing. ” I was always fond of Lionel. He could be difficult to work with, but it was always worthwhile. A lovely geezer!”
John also scored THE MIRROR CRACK ‘D with Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. Highlight was the Mini Film within a Film that the Village inhabitants were watching in the Village Hall. Filmed in Black and White, MURDER AT MIDNIGHT with stars of the fifties, Dinah Sheridan, Nigel Stock, Anthony Steel, and scored in a very 50s British noirish way, a great way to start the film proper. Good score, and many years ago, 23 years ago to be precise, I interviewed Guy Hamilton for Music from The Movies. and he had this to say,” It seems to me that music for an Agatha Christie movie is always tricky by the fact that every three minutes a clue is dropped, a revelation thuds out and the temptation is to underline. In THE MIRROR CRACK’D we opened the film with a satire of all ‘ B’ movie picture ‘whodunits’ and John Cameron pastiched splendidly. After that we settled down and I think he did an excellent job in avoiding the pitfalls”. * As a reviewer says on IMDB, “The music is stunning too.” I wondered if there was ever any thought of a commercial recording. “Don’t recall plans for a soundtrack album. Wasn’t the norm then”
THE MIRROR CRACK’D has just come out in Blu Ray in the UK, New interviews with Dame Angela Lansbury, writer Barry Sandler, Producer Richard Goodwin. Why no interview with John? It would make people not familiar with is music, listen out for it more, and for us with a specific interest, even more keen to pick up the Blu Ray. It is not just this film though; Blu Ray firms seems very loath to make the music part of the film watching experience.
It seems that John records the music here and USA. ” Some here, some there: I scored MARLOWE PRIVATE EYE (with Powers Booth) here, all to picture. I hate tracking and I figured one reason the US TV shows sold well was that they were all scored to picture – the Musicians Union in LA wouldn’t allow tracking. We had a hand – picked bunch of jazz musicians and most of the cues were done in one take. I also scored JACK THE RIPPER and JEKYLL AND HYDE (both Michael Caine) here, and the Patrick Bergin FRANKENSTEIN, all with David Wickes directing.”
I have always noticed that on John’s albums etc, there is no additional orchestrator credit. ” I always do my own orchestrations, even on TO END ALL WARS, when I had 10 days to write the score for the LSO to get it ready for Cannes. Always conducted.”
Which brings us to the tricky question if you have ever replaced another composer. “There have been times, not of my own volition when I have found out that I have replaced another composer. As they were people I have / had respect for, I’d rather not list them. Don’t recall being replaced…”
With all these wonderful scores, it’s a shame not many are out there in the market place ” It would be good to see more out there, and I was happy when Jonny Trunk got KES out there. Usually it flounders on the cost of clearing musicians fees.”
And with all these wonderful scores, is there one you are particularly fond of? “I wrote a Cantata “Missa Celtica” for the English Chamber Orchestra and the Choir of New College Oxford some years back. It used the Mass as a framework for Celtic poems and songs charted the journeys of 6/7th Century Celtic Saints through Europe. It was on Errato and well received but sadly had bad luck in public performances. Film score wise, one of my favourites outside KES, A TOUCH OF CLASS etc was TO END ALL WARS. It was enormous buzz working with the LSO, and with Maire Brenna writing Celtic songs”.
I should also mention that John has been very active in the World of Production music or as it used to be called Library Music. I personally feel that a lot of the music for these various specialist labels far exceeds the quality of writing for the media as we know it. Certainly, the World of Music for Television in the UK at least has deteriorated. I am working on long term project on Production Music which will of course, include many of John’s outstanding contributions to many libraries. In the meantime, I asked him a little about it. ” In the early days, one tended to go to Robin Philips with an idea, often allied to a film or recording project I had worked with. If he liked it, whoosh, you were in the Studio. Now Production Music set-ups tend to plan more, research the market. The old way was more fun, but the new is probably more cost effective.”
Lastly, I can’t leave this brief overview of John ‘s career, without mentioning RUN THE LENGTH OF YOUR WILDNESS by Kathe Green. There is a filmic link here for Kathe’s father was the legendary head of MGM Music Department John Green. This is always the album I would mention, if I wanted to highlight what a gifted arranger can do with songs, however good or mediocre. I should say none fall into the latter category here, but obviously some songs are stronger than others. The title song, may echo Jimmy Webb’s MACARTHUR PARK, but that is no handicap. John also wrote the evocative, IF I EVER THOUGH YOU’D CHANGE YOUR MIND, a hit for Cilla Black, and later covered by Agnetha Faltskog. of Abba fame. Bernard Herrmann once said that” Orchestration is the colour of the music”, and John brings many orchestral colours to this wonderful album which even after how long? – don’t answer that! – I can still listen to with that first initial excitement. Don’t forget John also worked with David Essex on the Musical, MUTINY, Scored SILVER DREAM RACER and arranged many albums, including CENTRE STAGE for K-Tel, full of excellently arranged Show songs.
To me, a true genius in the film music world, is someone who does all the composing, conducting, orchestrating himself. Gets it done on time. It aids the film, sounds good in and out of the movie theatre, Music you remember long after you have caught the last bus home. Music you remember days or weeks after and pause and say to yourself. “You know, that music was pretty good wasn’t it?”
And that my friends is John Cameron. A true genius in writing for film and TV.
*quote from Music from The Movies (C) 1995