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Classic Tracks: Shirley Bassey 'Goldfinger'

Producers: John Barry, George Martin. Engineer: Eric Tomlinson. By Richard Buskin
Published January 2014

Engineer Eric Tomlinson recorded a host of classic soundtracks during his 40-year career, not to mention what's arguably the Bond theme to end all Bond themes...

It's the title song that, after a half-century and 23 films, still stands above all others in the James Bond big-screen series, melding music that captures the films' ubiquitous sense of intrigue, adventure, evil, opulence and glamour with lyrics about the most iconic of all larger-than-life cinematic villains: "the man with the Midas touch, a spider's touch... Mister Goldfinger.”

So, it's somewhat ironic that Shirley Bassey's strident, striking performance, captured after composer John Barry put her through the wringer at London's CTS Studios on 20th August, 1964, was very nearly pulled from the movie because producer Harry Saltzman considered it "the worst song I've ever heard in my life” (with a couple of expletives thrown in to emphasise his disapproval). It only survived because, with the film's UK premiere precisely a month away, there was no time to replace it. It therefore endured to become a worldwide smash, the subject of widespread acclaim, and Bassey's signature song, although it's not even among her dozen UK top 10 hits.

Gilded To Death

Barry first asked Bassey to record the number when serving as her conductor — and romantic interest — during a national tour in December 1963, before Lesley Bricusse and Anthony Newley had written the lyrics. As Bassey herself has recalled: "One day he said, 'There is this new song for the James Bond film Goldfinger and we'd like you to do it. I know your rule that you will never listen to a song unless there are words. There are no words, I must warn you — there's only the music, which I have done. And we're waiting on the lyrics.' And because we had such a wonderful relationship on our tour, I said to John, 'Well, I'll listen to it. I'll break my rule.' And thank God I did, because the moment he played the music to me, I got goose pimples and I told him, 'I don't care what the words are. I'll do it.' And fortunately the words were great.”

That is, after Bricusse and Newley really applied themselves to the task. Initially, the film's director, Guy Hamilton, had pointed John Barry towards 'Mack The Knife' as an example of a "gritty and rough” song about an arch nemesis that might inspire him. The composer had then worked on the music long into the night, creating a melody that accommodated the word 'Goldfinger', but when he played the opening three notes to his flatmate Michael Caine over breakfast the next morning, the cockney actor immediately responded, "It's 'Moon River',” referring to the theme song of the 1961 movie Breakfast At Tiffany's.

Barry added a three-note brass line to mask the similarity, but this didn't fool Bricusse or Newley. As soon as they heard the tune after being asked to provide the words, they looked at each other and sang, "Goldfinger, wider than a mile” to the 'Moon River' melody. John Barry was not amused. And for their part, Lesley Bricusse and Anthony Newley weren't provided with much information — including samples of the script or rushes of the film that was still in production — on which to base their lyrics. Instead, they were just told about how Auric Goldfinger (portrayed by Gert Fröbe) punishes his sexy aide Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton) for betraying him by having her gilded to death.

This prompted them to come up with the "Midas touch” phrase, which in turn provided the lyrical pattern for the song and the means to complete the words within a couple of days. On 14th May 1964, Anthony Newley recorded a heartfelt demo of 'Goldfinger' with John Barry conducting, and this served as the blueprint for the version later tracked by Shirley Bassey. (Newley's recording would eventually be issued on the 1992 compilation album The Best Of James Bond.)

Eric Tomlinson at the Telefunken board at CTS.

Right-hand Man

Meanwhile, having composed the soundtrack music and arranged the famous 'James Bond Theme' written by Monty Norman for the first two films in the series, 1962's Dr No and 1963's From Russia With Love, Barry fulfilled the same task to outstanding effect on Goldfinger by way of his brassy and audacious jazz orchestrations. And there, sitting beside him at the console, as he had done for the previous picture, was engineer Eric Tomlinson.

"I loved working on those Bond films and I really enjoyed working with John Barry,” Tomlinson says. "He was an enormously talented man and, even though he could be very insistent in terms of how things should sound, we got on extremely well.”

While doing his national service in the late-1950s, Eric Tomlinson, a fan of jazz and big band music, would return home at weekends and help an acquaintance working for Radio Luxembourg to connect cables and set up microphones. That person was Allen Stagg, the future manager of EMI Studios on Abbey Road, and when he secured a job as manager of IBC Studios on Central London's Portland Place, he invited Eric Tomlinson to join him there as an assistant engineer. Tomlinson soon began learning the ropes, recording assorted forms of orchestral and 'easy listening' music, while also working with jazz artists such as Johnny Dankworth and Cleo Laine. In 1959, he worked on his first film score, John Paul Jones, for composer Max Steiner, and that same year he then decided to pursue that particular line of work by relocating to the new Cine-Tele Studios (CTS) in nearby Bayswater.

Until then, very few studios — including the major British film complexes — had the facilities to record large-scale orchestral film music, and so CTS offered a conveniently situated alternative, capable of accommodating around 65 musicians in its rectangular 85 x 40 foot room while the relatively basic control room was equipped with a 12-input Telefunken console, a three-track Philips tape machine, custom Tannoy monitors and, in terms of effects, a couple of EMT echo plates.

"That studio area had originally been built as a banqueting hall for Whiteleys department store,” Tomlinson says. "They would have an orchestra playing amid potted palms and it was basically a very large tea room. Then it had become an auction room, so it hadn't been acoustically correct by any means. That had been taken care of by the backers of the CTS venture and the result was very good. There was a curtain which we could draw halfway across the room to separate, to a certain extent, the string section from the brass and percussion, and so the overall sound was very controllable.”

Orchestral Manoeuvres

John Barry and Shirley Bassey pose with their gold discs for Goldfinger.Although Eric Tomlinson's involvement in the Bond series commenced with From Russia With Love, the music for Dr No was recorded at CTS. This included the original version of the 'James Bond Theme' which, tracked on 21st June, 1962, featured Vic Flick producing the then-fashionable surf-guitar sound on his 1939 cello-bodied Clifford Essex Paragon Deluxe, using a DeAmond volume pedal running through a Vox amp. John Barry's arrangement of that theme then used saxophones, brass and a rhythm section, and this was subsequently updated for each of the films.

"Vic always played it the same way with the same old guitar and same old crappy-looking, unique-sounding amplifier, and that's the sound we stayed with all along,” Tomlinson says. "He'd be positioned in front of John Barry, who was conducting, and that's also where the vocalist would be when we recorded the title song. On some occasions we put up quite a lot of baffles for separation, but there wasn't a proper booth, so it was a case of using the right microphones to ensure there wasn't any leakage. Being that we were working three-track, I'd place the vocal on its own in the centre as much as possible, with the orchestra spread left and right.

"I always used a Neumann M49 for the vocals, while for the orchestra I'd position a Schoeps stereo mic up high in the room to pick up the sounds that I wanted and sweeten that with a combination of 49s, U47s and, in some cases, a ribbon for the French horns, trumpets, trombones, saxophones and whatever else. I didn't have a hard-and-fast rule. If there was a brass solo, the musician would stand and get a bit closer to a particular microphone, although that would be difficult for French horn solos as the microphone was positioned behind. Still, we always got the right quantity of sound for a solo.

"In those days, when they had the equipment that was capable of handling it, certain engineers would put four microphones on four trumpets and four microphones on four trombones, and that's ridiculous. It's a group and, if they can't get the right balance between themselves, it shouldn't be left to the engineer to do that. So, I just used one mic on the trumpets, one on the trombones, one on the saxophones and adjusted accordingly. Then again, for the drums, I used probably three Neumann KM54 microphones: an overhead as well as one each on the hi-hat and snare. Back then, we didn't go for the bass drum sound — that came in later.

Eric Tomlinson with Victor Davies in the early '90s.

"At the start of a session, while John Barry was rehearsing the orchestra, I'd be rehearsing my recorded balance of the orchestra. He'd have the musicians run through his score a couple of times to make sure they had the right tempo in conjunction with the film, and by the time he said, 'Let's go for a take,' I'd have to be ready to record. When the musicians walked into the studio, they didn't know what they were going to play. This was the first time they'd heard the music, but those top-notch British guys were amazing. They'd just sit down and talk about horse racing or the football results, and then as soon as John was ready, they would open the chart, look at the music for a particular segment of the film and play it. Absolute magic.

"The musicians were seated with their backs to the screen while John watched the film and conducted, and I don't remember many times when we had a problem. However, there was one occasion when Eric Rogers — who composed the scores for the Carry On films — got annoyed and said, 'Stop looking at the screen! It's very bad manners! You're supposed to be watching me.' Don't ask me which Carry On film it was; those scores were basically all the same.

Take 15!

"Although John Barry and I got along really well, he was a demanding person and was never satisfied. He'd always be saying, 'Let's do one more take,' and that's why Shirley Bassey nearly blew her top when she had to hit the extended high note at the end of 'Goldfinger' several times. 'Yes, that's very good, very good,' John kept saying, 'but I think we'll just do one more.' I remember Shirley went purple and mouthed something that I didn't pick up.”

Despite Bassey's regular producer, George Martin, being credited with fulfilling the same role for her rendition of 'Goldfinger', John Barry was the man in charge.

"Everyone knew Bond would get the broad, kill the villain and be happy, and we enjoyed it on that level,” he'd later say about his music scores. "This was not Citizen Kane. You could do anything really silly and that was the fun of it.”

Maybe, but Shirley Bassey certainly didn't see things that way during the course of about 15 takes that required her to keep hitting that final high note.

"I was holding it and holding it,” she would subsequently recall. "I was looking at John and I was going blue in the face, and he's going, 'Hold it, just one more second.' When it finished, I nearly passed out.”

Vic Flick was one of the guitarists on the session — as, purportedly, were Jimmy Page and Big Jim Sullivan — and he recalled how the singer quite literally gave herself a little more breathing room.

"Barry wanted this long note held,” he told the Daily Mail. "He said to do it again and she said she couldn't. But then there was a rustling noise, and suddenly this bra comes over the top of the vocal booth. And then Shirley really let it go.”

Those Magnificent Men...

This effort paid off when 'Goldfinger' became her only US top 10 hit, peaking at number eight on the Billboard Hot 100. While the song only reached 21 in her native Britain, the Goldfinger soundtrack album was a major success, going all the way to number one on the Billboard 200 in 1965. Meanwhile, in addition to engineering the John Barry scores for other films such as Zulu, Thunderball, The Knack... & How To Get It and Born Free during his time at CTS, Eric Tomlinson recorded the work of numerous other top composers. Among them was Ron Goodwin, whose highly popular score for the 1965 all-star comedy smash Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines nevertheless became the source of tension with Pinewood Studios' re-recording mixers John Mitchell and Gordon McCallum. Indeed, their gripes highlighted the kind of condescending attitude towards film music that certain people harboured at that time.

"The film was made at Pinewood, they were dubbing it there and they insisted on hearing the result of our first morning's work,” Tomlinson recalls. "They had a car waiting outside to collect a tape of the music and at around noon we got a phone call telling us, 'Stop, it's no good.' Well, you can't just stop when you've got a big orchestra ready to play. So, we just carried on and went over to Pinewood that evening, where we were met by all of the sound crew and their manager who, after telling us how the music had too much echo, was too distant, didn't work with the picture and should be 'felt and not heard', then insisted that Ron and I listen to what they considered to be proper film music.

"This turned out to be a rather boring dirge and Ron Goodwin was appalled. He mentioned some film that he'd recently seen in which the music had really zoomed out from the screen, and he therefore wanted to discuss what we should do, but all of the Pinewood staff who were obviously on overtime bowed out. The bottom line was that they thought my recording of Ron's music was too up-front and should have instead been a very bland sort of background noise. As far as they were concerned, it was meant to go behind dialogue, but that dialogue often consisted of people shouting at each other over the sounds of aircraft. So, we carried on the next day in our own sweet way, the music was eventually accepted by that antiquated sound department and I think the results speak for themselves.”

So, unfortunately, did the results of an instruction that Tomlinson gave to the cleaning staff at CTS one weekend when he thought the studio was looking "a bit dull”.

"It was a week when we had very little work there, so I thought they could clean the studio and tart it up,” he explains. "Well, when I came back after a couple of days, I found that everything had been varnished, including the floor, the walls and even the matt black grand piano! They'd coated everything they could see and it was like walking into an ice cave. Talk about sad — I couldn't believe it! The wood normally helped diffuse the sound, but now the place was unusable, so I called the cleaners back in and they spent the next two or three days using lots of wire wool to clean everything down. The piano, however, never really returned to its pristine state.”

It's lucky that no guitars had been left lying around...

A Long Time Ago...

In 1966, Eric Tomlinson left CTS to join Anvil Films of Denham in Buckinghamshire, where he accepted the challenge of reconstructing the music theatre inside the antiquated Denham Studios facility that had been founded by movie producer and director Alexander Korda back in 1936. Measuring about 65 x 80 feet, this was nearly twice the size of the room that Tomlinson had been accustomed to at CTS and could accommodate about 120 musicians. Meanwhile, the control room housed three large custom Tannoy speakers, a three-track machine that was replaced by an eight-track Studer, and an old Westrex console that, after being used to record the scores for films such as A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, eventually gave way to a 24-input Neve.

"The main area was a big, old-fashioned shooting stage, with a 50-foot-high ceiling, a catwalk up the top and a large screen at one end,” Tomlinson recalls. "I built the control room out into the studio with a separation booth alongside, and there was another area that could be curtained off. It was a massive place and that's where the Star Wars and Superman soundtracks were recorded live without any overdubs.”

The grand symphonic, neo-classical scores to the above-mentioned films were, of course, composed by John Williams with whom Eric Tomlinson says he "always got on like a house on fire”.

The score of the original 1977 Star Wars film earned Williams the most awards of his celebrated career, including an Oscar, a BAFTA, a Golden Globe and three Grammys. However, during an era of rapidly advancing studio technology, his engineer still employed a fairly straightforward approach to the recording.

"I always recorded what I considered to be the finished mix on three of the 24 tracks and spread the orchestra over the rest of the tracks,” says Tomlinson, whose other movie credits also include Alien and Raiders Of The Lost Ark. "That made things dead easy,” he continues. "I could add or subtract whatever I wanted or even start again from scratch. For that main three-track mix, the violins would be on the left with the French horns, the woodwind instruments would be in the centre, the percussion would be slightly behind them to the left, and the rest of the strings and brass would be on the right. At the same time, I'd put the first violins on a separate track, the second violins on another, woodwinds on another, trumpets on another, trombones on another, horns on another, and on and on so it could be remixed if I so wanted.

"It was a way of working that I like to say I started, and I always worked that way once the multitrack system came in. By then, film music was much more up-front and its importance was more widely appreciated by filmmakers than it had been back in the days of Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines. John Williams' colleagues such as [writer-director] George Lucas attended all of the recording sessions and always discussed the music with John and me.

"Over the course of my career the advances in technology definitely improved the finished product. In fact, I think it's now reached the point where it won't get any better for the foreseeable future. Surround-sound actually drives me mad when I go to the cinema; I don't like things coming at me from all angles, but I suppose that's just my preference.”  

Artist: Shirley Bassey Track: 'Goldfinger'

Label: Capitol. Released: 1964. Producers: John Barry, George Martin. Engineer: Eric Tomlinson. Studio: CTS