John Altman (Class of 1967)
The acclaimed composer, musician and arranger John Altman (Class of 1967) has worked with a Who’s Who of the music and film world during his prolific 50-year career. Most recently, John worked on the soundtrack to No Time to Die, the current James Bond film (his many other film credits include Titanic and Little Voice) but he has also collaborated with everyone from Chet Baker to Hot Chocolate, Bjork to Amy Winehouse, Rod Stewart to Diana Ross and the Monty Python team, for whom he arranged ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.’ John has also written the music for 4000 commercials. His autobiography ‘Hidden Man: My Many Musical Lives’ will be published in February 2022.
Do you have a different impression of your life now you’ve written it down in your autobiography?
It’s interesting. I never had the intention of doing what I have done for a career. It all fell into my lap. Now, I lecture at the National Film School and various other universities and music colleges, and I get people telling me they are desperate to be film composers, or something else within music. But, for me, it just happened. Right place, right time. Things fell into place and here I am now. I’ve sat in a room with Charlie Chaplin and Frank Sinatra but then I’ve also played with John Legend and Amy Winehouse. My book is a cornucopia of name-dropping!
But you are from a musical family. You’d seen successful music careers at first hand…
Totally. My father was a social worker and was very active in the Labour Party – he was a fascinating guy – but my mother’s family were all in music. She was very close to her four brothers who were bandleaders and arrangers, working with many of the big names of the day. So as a kid, we would have Danny Kaye, Jack Benny and the Andrews Sisters – whom my uncle Woolf conducted for – coming to our flat. My uncle Sid played with Louis Armstrong and was pals with Puccini.
So there was no mystery about what music was in my family. I was listening to records and analysing them without realising when I was three years old! Music was all one to me. Borodin followed by Duke Ellington followed by Elvis Presley. At that age, you just respond to music and you like it and it’s only later that someone says, ‘That’s 19th Century romantic classical music’ and ‘This is rock and roll’. I didn’t know.
At what age did you start to get actively involved?
I got a saxophone for my 13th birthday. I’d had piano lessons from seven to 11 then gave up because it got too academic for me. I just wanted to play. So that was really the last music lesson I had. I didn’t do music O-Level.
So, when you work with someone like Quincy Jones, do you feel like you are busking it?
Well, some people are like me. I’ve worked with very schooled musicians – writers, players – and I just do what feels natural to me and they are completely classically trained and then sometimes I show them something they don’t know and it’s quite interesting to have people I idolise, turning to me and asking for my opinion. I mean, I say I am intuitive… I can write for orchestra just sat at a table, without a piano, just hearing the parts in my head. So I can do all the stuff that you go to college to learn how to do.
Was that a gift you had from the start or did it come with experience?
I could do it from the start. It just seems so bizarre. When I was seven years old, I would say, ‘That’s interesting how the bassoon is playing with the cellos’. I would hear a clarinet and flute in octave unisons. Things that a normal seven year old wouldn’t notice!
How did you manage to be so prolific in your work? Were you not sleeping?
Music was always and still is my hobby. And if your hobby is also your job, you’ve got every waking hour of every day to do it. It’s not like at the weekend, I would say, ‘Thank God, I don’t have to work.’ For me, the weekend was a chance to do even more work without being distracted by phone calls!
I can’t believe how many different things I did. For example, I was on tour with Van Morrison in the late 70s, but I was also writing TV commercials and writing for TV dramas, arranging for other people, doing movies and doing Life of Brian with Monty Python and working on the [Python spin-off Beatles spoof] The Rutles. This is all at the same time. Now, I can barely do one thing at the same time!
How did you first meet Amy Winehouse?
I was working a lot in Los Angeles and I missed playing, so, with a friend, I started a jamming night in London in the 90s, where musicians could just drop in and play. It was really hard getting it going and getting a crowd. Then, on my birthday, Lionel Richie and Chaka Khan happened to be in town and they dropped in and they both sang – and then the word got out and suddenly our night was a hot spot.
Amy Winehouse was this 16-17-year-old who just came along and sat in the audience and occasionally got up to sing. Joss Stone too, singing on the same night. But you never think when you first meet people, ‘Oh this person is going to be someone legendary.’
We had people dropping in and playing 40-minute sets. Will Smith. Pharrell Williams. Macy Gray. We never paid any of them! Unbelievable. Can you imagine? We were very lucky. Top of the Pops would fly all the American artists over on a Monday for the show on Wednesday, so these Americans were sitting around in London doing nothing.
How did your involvement with Always Look on the Bright Side of Life begin?
On a cassette from Eric Idle. I was at the Monty Python script meetings, which was bizarre: I had been kind-of conscripted into their inner circle. I played on an album of theirs and became one of the music guys they went to when they needed someone. And they didn’t have an ending for The Life of Brian. They thought maybe he would escape or be cut down from the cross and released.
They were worried that they couldn’t sustain the fun of the film right to the end. Eric went away and wrote the song and said, ‘What do you think?’ And I said we could do it like a Hollywood musical number.
I have to say the other guys weren’t bowled over by the song. They just couldn’t think of anything better to end the film. But I think once we’d done the full orchestral arrangement with the whistling and everything, they thought, ‘Oh, ok this could work’.
If you weren’t going to do music as a career initially, what were you going to do?
I intended to become an academic, I think. An English master called Chris Terry had come in at City and ignited my interest. I’d always thought I would like to study English Literature but the curriculum was all geared up to the Classics – Shakespeare, Beowolf, Chaucer. I wanted to read modern novels and Chris Terry ignited my passion for that – he suggested I do English at University, and I applied to and was accepted by Sussex.
I did my English degree and came back to London – to Birkbeck - to do a PhD in Victorian Literature. At that time, music was really my hobby. My big mistake was doing my PhD in London, the centre of the music world, so instead of getting to play a gig a week, I could go out and play in clubs every night. So that kick-started me into the business. And then in 1975, while I was still doing my PhD and working as a supply teacher, I got asked to join [70s pop-funk hitmakers] Hot Chocolate! And that was it. Suddenly, I was in the music business full time.
What was your first experience of work as a teenager?
I had a holiday job at the AA in Stanmore, filing cards for £10 a week. But I had some work as a musician while I was at City too. I remember playing in a 2nd XI cricket match – the only time I ever played for the 2nd XI – and I had a gig in Surrey that night, paying £80. This is 1967, so that was a lot of money! And I was standing in the drizzling rain, fielding at Grove Park, thinking, ‘What on earth am I doing? I need to get to the gig.’ But I think we got them all out just in time and I charged off and did the gig.
What were your other extra-curricular activities?
I wound up running the Jazz Society and the Film Society – and also the Golf Society, although I’ve no idea why. I sort-of played golf but not all that well and I think it was just that no-one else wanted to do the admin.
If you didn’t do music at school, which subjects did you enjoy?
Mainly English, but I also enjoyed History. Going up in the A stream, we did Greek and Latin which I sort of regret now. Russian and German would have had more use for my later working life. But I did work a lot in Paris in the early 90s and I found that my O-Level French, remembered from school 25 years earlier, came in incredibly useful. French musicians appreciated me making the effort.
How did you come to be a pupil at City?
I was a Middlesex County Council scholar. Somehow, which I still can’t work out, I came top of the 11-plus exam for Middlesex! I had an interview at City and got in. I remember my first day very well. I was in New 2A with 29 other scholarship boys who, I quickly realised, were far cleverer than me, so I soon fell back into the middle of the pack.
But I was lucky. I got on well with most masters and I learned lot from them. I found a lot of them very interesting. As well as Chris Terry, Chris Dixon was a really inspiring form teacher and English master in 4A before he moved on to Eton. I enjoyed everything about City, even the Cadet force!
Which visiting speakers did you see when you were at City?
Two come to mind. When I was chairman of the Jazz Society, [Godfather of British jazz] Chris Barber came in and gave a talk and afterwards gave me a lift home in his sports car! Which for a 14-year old kid was a huge wow. I had been into jazz from the age of seven and as soon as I got to City and saw they had a Jazz Society I rushed to join – it was all pipe-smoking 18-year-olds and in comes this whelk in short trousers asking to join their club!
Also [cabinet minister in Harold Wilson’s 1960s government] Tony Greenwood came to talk and I went up to him afterwards and mentioned my dad and he looked at me and said, ‘Your dad is the best of us’. I’ll never forget that. To hear that from a government minister as a teenager was really something.
What qualities would a teenager in 2021 need to follow in your footsteps as a composer and arranger?
First of all, listen to every type of music, become familiar with it…and listen behind the music too. My training in literature taught me to look for symbolism and imagery and structure. One of the most important things in music is understanding the structure of what you’re listening to and analysing what it is you like about a particular piece of music. It’s about critically and analytically listening to everything, including your own playing. And when you’re playing, you should try to tell a story – it’s not just reeling off musical exercises and being able to play fast.
Looking back, do you think City shaped you?
I think it did. It gave me an overview… I don’t think it shaped my specific career direction but it prepared me intellectually for a lot of things I’ve done: for collaborating with people from different backgrounds, for fitting into different creative environments - for fitting in with people, generally.
The only downside of apparently being easy to work with was that I got to work with a lot of difficult clients who had already been through plenty of less amenable people before they got to me!
Photo © Danny Clifford
Second Photo: John playing the saxophone whilst at School.
Third Photo: CCF band with John on saxophone