Questions of Doom with film composer John Cameron
One of your first scoring projects was Poor Cow - in which you arranged the soundtrack with Donovan writing the songs. How did that occur?
Don had set a poem by Christopher Logue for the film- "Be Not Too Hard"- and we were recording it. Apparently he'd been asked by Ken Loach, the director, to write the music for the rest of the film. It was fashionable at the time to improvise sound-tracks live to the picture, but the Line Producer, Teddy Joseph, wanted something more formal than this, they didn't have long before the dub, so he asked " Who's actually going to score the picture?" Don pointed to me and said " He is". "Can you get it ready for next Wednesday?" (a week away) " Yes". (Help!) I rushed home, phoned Elisabeth Lutyens, a classical/film composer I had met through my father, who gave me a 10 minute crash course on film synchronisation over the phone. We spotted the film (choosing the music areas in the film) Thursday, I got the timings Friday, I was playing Rugby Saturday, so i wrote the score Saturday, from midday till 1 a.m., had it Monday and recorded it Tuesday.
Was the English Film Industry at an exciting point during the late Sixties?
The whole entertainment industry was exciting, with records being recorded and released within a week (as Jennifer Juniper was), working with TV Directors such as Stanley Dorfman, who bought whole swathes of young singer songwriters over (James Taylor, Randy Newman etc...) and of course this "can-do' philosophy permeated everything including the film industry.
What do you think you learned from scoring Poor Cow and how did you do that?
The first thing I learnt was "always say yes, and then worry afterwards". Then, that I had an aptitude for the mathematics of film scoring. Even now, with computer programmes to assist you, the most challenging thing in film scoring is to write music that feels right for the sequence but just happens to hit the right points along the way, and that’s down to getting the math(s) right at the start.
You've arranged one of Donovan's biggest hits - Sunshine Superman - and others. How did the connection with Donovan occur?
I was working in what you would call a “supper club” nowadays, performing a jazz cabaret, pastiches of Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, setting lyrics to Blue Monk etc. The resident band was Ronnie Ross, Bill Le Sage, Tony Carr and Spike Heatley. Spike came in one night to say that Donovan was looking for a new arranger, did I fancy having a crack at a couple of tracks with him? We met Don, his new manager Ashley Kosak, who was a friend of Spike’s, and producer Mickie Most. I’m not sure if it was this or a subsequent meeting, but halfway through Chas Chandler dropped by to say he’d found this amazing guitar player in New York (Hendrix of course!). Anyway, I wrote the chart for Sunshine Superman with Spike, we recorded it, it was a huge hit in the States but because of a contractual dispute couldn’t come out here till the following year. So I went back to conducting panto at Watford Palace Theatre!
What was it like working with Donovan?
Don was great to work with, as he was always open to new ideas, a jazz phrase here, using a string quartet there, without any of the compartments that music seemed to be in then.
People refer to your arrangements has tasteful psychedelic backings which were different to the culture of drug-fuelled excess. What was on your mind when you were scoring Donovan's songs?
Somebody had to stay straight! Somehow or other I’d come out of Cambridge with a love of classical music, jazz, folk, blues, as Danny Thompson put it “Whatever!”, with no boundaries existing in my mind. Don’s songs were like short stories, and as such an ideal canvas on which to use a whole swathe of music ideas, to try and paint sound pictures, maybe a forerunner to my later film scores.
You've scored Kes. It has to be one of the most poignant film scores. How did you come up with the haunting flute?
I wanted to find something that tied the boy and the kestrel, so I came up with a fragile little folkie theme (in 3+2+3/8) played on a descant recorder (the reedy little one that all school kids get to make a mess of playing). The kestrel needed to be nobler, but still fragile. A regular flute would be too close to the sound of the recorder, so I asked Harold McNair, who was my favourite flautist at the time ( a great jazz player, but also a very sensitive musician), if he played alto flute. He hadn’t but was happy to try it, went out and bought one, and the following week played it on the session. The combination of Harold’s innate freedom of phrasing and the alto flute’s beautiful sonority gave us exactly what we were looking for.
Psychomania was completely different than both Poor Cow and Kes. It was a strange trashy teenage punk band playing - why did you choose that sort of vehicle for the film?
It went with the film. The most important thing in scoring a movie is the movie itself, so you sublimate yourself to the atmosphere the film is trying to create, hence the kind of trashy rock type score. The most bizarre thing to me is the way, thirty years later it’s hip again!
It was definitely psych-rock - what were the opinions of the session musicians who were participating in the soundtrack thinking as they were playing?
I had a bunch of jazz-rock/crossover guys that did all my stuff in the early 70’s. Most of them were in CCS, and had played with Donovan, and on the Stan Dorfman TV shows (Stanley Dorfman’s “In Concert” series, Once More With Felix, The Bobbie Gentry Show). I guess it was just another gig, but all the gigs then were enjoyable, as much as anything for working with a bunch of like minded musos.
You named the group who performed the soundtrack ‘Frog' - why?
What was it like working on it? What was the atmosphere?
The atmosphere was slightly strange as we recorded it on the Shepperton sound stage, that was about to be closed and really wasn’t equipped to record rock’n’roll! That probably accounts for the “early-garage-band” sound quality. All the announcements (“One-M-Three, Take Two” etc..) on the master take are in this wonderful plummy voice which tells you the engineer had to be wearing a suit and tie!
Are you surprised when people ask you about Psychomania?
I still am!
You've done a lot of work with the KPM music library - could you explain what is library music?
Library Music, once called Mood Music, and now often called Production Music is music for productions without the budget or the ability to commission an original score. A TV company, or advertising agency, will be looking for a particular sort of music for a programme, approach a library company, or more often go through a whole shelf-full (or now, hard-drive full) of titles a library has supplied them to find the particular flavour of music that fits their product/programme. They then license them from the library company for a fee. The company itself will make sure that its library is one step ahead of the market, and to that end ask it’s favourite composers to write and record tracks they think will fill the niche. It doesn’t necessarily have to be cutting edge “now” music, as witness the usages I’m getting on my 60’s and 70’s catalogue (e.g. Half Forgotten Daydreams, Swamp Fever etc.)
A whole DJ and Record Collector Culture has grown up around library music. When did you first encounter this culture and what were your thoughts?
Johnny Trunk told me about it. It’s a bit like finding very old photographs of yourself in dodgy flares with a dubious haircut.
In your earlier film works - was free-rock improvisation a key?
Though I used players with a free feel in their playing, most of the music was written out.
With library music - were they sketches of songs or complete tunes that you brought to KPM?
No I went to KPM with a concept and then delivered the whole thing, arranged, copied. I hate making demos as what I put into the final orchestration is often as important as the thematic material.
You've arranged one of the best disco singles of all time ‘Boogie Nights' - how did this occur and what are your thoughts of Heatwave? Do you think that their classic status had been neglected?
They were a great band, masterminded by a brilliant songwriter, Rod Temperton. He was very easy to work with as he always had a whole slew of ideas for a song. I think they would have been massive if it hadn’t been for Johnny’s accident.
What was it like working with Mickie Most?
Mickie was one of the great “entrepreneurs” of music ; always knew which writer to put with which artist/musician/arranger.
You were nominated for an Oscar for the film composition of A Touch of Class - did you attend the ceremonies and if so, were they surreal and why?
Not really surreal : I was young and impressionable and I loved it! Looking back, it was strange sitting between John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith with the Sherman Brothers in front of me, but at the time I just went with the flow. I was back in LA recently and the buzz is still there for me. It’s still the place they make the movies!
What film scores are you working on at the moment?
The last feature score I wrote was for “To End All Wars” directed by David L. Cunningham, and I’ve just worked with David again on a 6-hour mini-series remake of “Little House on the Prairie” for Touchstone/Disney.
What's on John Cameron's stereo?
With the amount of traveling recently, it’s “what’s on the I-pod?” Current favourites Jacqueline Dupre (Elgar Cello Concerto), Max Vengerov (Prokofiev 1st Violin Concerto), The Dave Holland Big band, and Joss Stone.
To purchase the original poster of Kes; please click here.