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80 Reasons Why John Williams Is The Man
We mark the movie maestro's 80th birthday with a celebration of his classic pieces

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Main Theme from Jaws
First heard in: Jaws (1975)

Along with Happy Birthday To You, Williams' theme for Spielberg's man-fights-fish blockbuster may be the most recognisable piece of music in the world. Yet the simple two-note alternating pattern didn't convince the director at first — his initial reaction on hearing the theme on the piano was to laugh. "At first I thought it was a little too primitive," remembered Spielberg. "I wanted something a little more melodic for the shark and then Johnny said "What you don't have here is The L Shaped Room….you have made yourself a popcorn movie." And he was absolutely right." For Williams, the mindless primal progression of the theme mirrored "the effect of grinding away at you, just as a shark would do instinctual, relentless, unstoppable." Film score theorists have suggested that the motif represents the heart rate of the shark itself, starting slow then building to a frenzy when it attacks, as if we are tuning in to the shark's psyche. As such, we only hear the theme when the shark is present; during the red herring scenes — such as The Fake Fin Incident — the absence of the theme is signalling this is a hoax.

Given the effectiveness of the two note — actually E and F — signal, it is often easy to miss the real hero of the Jaws theme: a resonant horn motif played by tuba player Tommy Johnson. Given the melody is in such a high musical register it would seem that the theme would be better suited to the French horn rather than the low-end tuba. But Williams felt the instrument gave the theme more weight, more threat. For the movie, the music does much to make us forgive the fake shark, Spielberg suggesting it accounted for around a third of the film's $470 million box office. In the wider world, it has entered the culture as a signifier of any kind of encroaching threat, turning up in the likes of Airplane!, Caddyshack, The Secret Of My Success, Top Secret and Swingers.

Listen to an excerpt:

First heard in: Black Sunday (1977)

John Frankheimer's thriller centres on a Palestinian terrorist plot to detonate a bomb in the midst of the Superbowl with the US president in attendance. To detail the bomber's rigorous preparations, Williams unleashes a steely, black-hearted fugue fused with an inexorable rhythmic progression. The theme shares musical DNA with other powerful multi-stringed Williams pieces — The Shark Cage Fugue from Jaws, In The Belly Of The Steel Beast from Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade — and has a seriousness and classical rigour that belies Williams' reputation as a purveyor of easily hummable themes. The score also served to mark the end of the Master Of Disaster phase of Williams career: next came Star Wars.

Listen to an excerpt:

End Title
First heard in: Presumed Innocent (1990)

It could be a pub quiz question: apart from Star Wars and Indiana Jones, what Harrison Ford movies has John Williams scored (alright, you might have to be drinking in a particularly nerdy pub)? Answer: 2. One is Sabrina and the other is this erotic thriller — Ford is the unlikely named Rusty Sabitch, a lawyer who finds himself in the frame for murdering his own mistress — that sees Williams balance themes of family, passion and murder, under-laying a lush romantic piano theme with sinister orchestral churning, unsettling timpani and the odd chilling synth effect. A definite change of pace from Williams' blockbuster mode, it became a staple of thriller trailers in the '90s such as The Juror.

Listen to an excerpt:

Theme from Family Plot
First heard in: Family Plot (1976)

It could not be more apt that Williams composed the music for Alfred Hitchcock's last movie. Often considered the natural successor to Hitchcock's composer Bernard Herrmann as the movie music master, Williams was the perfect choice to score a lighter Hitchcock flick, a dark comedy involving faux psychics, kidnappings and diamonds. Overflowing with musical wit, Williams score is full of satire — a parodic ethereal choir evokes sham séances, harpsichord to suggest deviousness — but also has lovely free-from melodies to boot. Later in his career, Williams would play homage to Herrmann in specific instances (as Han Solo opens the cargo hold of the Millennium Falcon, Williams works in a three note refrain from Psycho; in The Terminal, Williams gives us a quick blast of the Cape Fear theme) and as a general influence (the harried rhythms of Minority Report). Yet he made his own distinct mark in the Hitchcockverse with Family Plot.

Listen to an excerpt:

The Main Theme
First heard in: The Fury (1978)

Fitting this in between Close Encounters and Superman The Movie, Williams' music for Brian De Palma's overblown kids-with-telekinetic-powers thrillers — it's the one where Amy Irving blows up John Cassavetes with her mind — ranks among his strongest suspense scores. It contains sustained stretches of full-on horror music employing synthesisers and Theremin for added weirdness, but at its best, delivers a theme that has the feel of an otherworldly waltz, never easy to get a handle on, bewitching in its gentle iterations, thunderous in its bolder versions. De Palma has yet to work with Williams again which is a shame: his grandiose sense of the visual pulled out compelling work from the composer.

Listen to an excerpt:

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Your Comments

freaking Lapti Nek is here but no Battle of the Heroes? Can we please stop pretending that the Prequel soundtrack is no good just because RLM doesn't like the films? More

Posted by NeoBrowser on Saturday May 4, 2013, 10:57

2 RE: RE:
Thank you sir. Your kind words will keep me sane when I get locked up for libel! More

Posted by Rob on Tuesday February 14, 2012, 11:22

3 RE: RE:
L: Rob Or more likely Darth Tax-eVader * .gif]ee what I did there?! *for humorous purposes only and in no way shape or form was it meant as a slander on his character. Just mediocre wordplay is all.ote]   py07.gif]py07.gif]   ert of Mirth, I salute you More

Posted by JIm R on Tuesday February 14, 2012, 11:10

4 RE: RE:
Or more likely Darth Tax-eVader * .gif]ee what I did there?! *for humorous purposes only and in no way shape or form was it meant as a slander on his character. Just mediocre wordplay is all. More

Posted by Rob on Tuesday February 14, 2012, 10:51

5 RE:
L: howie71taylor A master composer and what a back catalogue. Did you know Tottenham Hotspur FC walk out to "Duel Of The Fates" for every home game? sp; rry dress up as Darth Maul ? More

Posted by JIm R on Tuesday February 14, 2012, 09:41

6 A true genius
Just about every film he's been involved in has been improved greatly by the soundtrack, sometimes subtle but always worthwhile. A great old fashioned genius, long may he reign as King of the soundtracks. Excellent article :) More

Posted by jamiecfc on Monday February 13, 2012, 15:13

7 Indy's Very First Adventure - The Last Crusade
Cracking cue ploughs along with the train chasing Indy all the way! More

Posted by wayne302919 on Monday February 13, 2012, 11:10

8 Departure of Boba Fett
Fantastic cue ending in four huge blasts from the whole orchestra - gob-smacking! More

Posted by wayne302919 on Monday February 13, 2012, 10:59

9 Short Round...
There's a moment in Temple of Doom's end credit music that literally has the Raiders March & Short Round's theme playing AT THE SAME TIME and perfectly complementing each other - how ingenious is that?! More

Posted by wayne302919 on Monday February 13, 2012, 10:46

10 Gasps of astonishment...
I once played Temple of Doom's Mine Car Chase to a friend of mine - a grade six flautist - she ran out of the room gasping!! More

Posted by wayne302919 on Monday February 13, 2012, 10:39

11 RE: We're gonna need a bigger list...
With any subjective list, the temptation is to point out anything that's missing, as opposed to what's there. So, let's get mine out of the way now: - Throne Room / Medal Ceremony from A New Hope? Lapti Nek from ROTJ is there but not this glorious piece of pomp and circumstance?! However, this article is one of the best that Empire has ever produced. Very deep research and clear evidence of passion and understanding of Williams' entire career. The temptation would be to go for the obvious, and I reckon I could come up with 80 highlights from Star Wars, Superman, Indiana Jones alone. Full credit for going beyond the obvious though, and here's another one - the original Lost In Space TV show had a theme tune from John Williams, although then he was still Johnny! My version of the ET soundtrack has Escape / Chase / Saying Goodbye in a beautiful 15min single track that I happened to be listening to when I started reading the Empire homepage today. I'd recommend that everyonMore

Posted by BelfastBoy on Sunday February 12, 2012, 11:19

12 We're gonna need a bigger list...
...but this is a magisterial survey. Superb work by Ian Freer and (presumably) team. I've been here hours, reliving old favourites and making a few rewarding new discoveries too. Thank you to John Williams for so many of the great tunes of my lifetime - and crucially, many happy returns! More

Posted by Dextraneous on Sunday February 12, 2012, 01:01

13 Thank You Empire
What an amazing feature, fitting tribute to someone as massively talented as John Williams More

Posted by james dean on Sunday February 12, 2012, 00:54

14 Wow
the man is amazing.....I will be testing my friends More

Posted by Paddy Kieran on Saturday February 11, 2012, 21:41

15 Thank you so much
Delighted to see The Towering Inferno titles and the Empire asteroid chase on here. Brilliant, thanks. More

Posted by Schnorbitz on Saturday February 11, 2012, 20:10

16 Amazing Feature for an Amazing Man
Ian Freer hats off to you, this is the best feature Empire's ever done, online or off, and I salute your encyclopaedic knowledge of the great man. And what a man. His music has lifted me so high, so often. Magic from start to finish. More

Posted by BondVsPredator on Saturday February 11, 2012, 14:44

17 RE: 80 Reasons Why John Williams Is The Man
Awesome feature Empire! It is a tribute to the Maestro that you can list so many great tracks and there are still bucket loads more that immediately come to mind: the main theme from "Jane Eyre" and the "Lowood" theme; "Cadillac of the Skies" from "Empire of the Sun"; "Dorinda's First Flight" from "Always"; the Main Title from "Dracula"; the "Call of the Crystal" from the last Indiana Jones monstrosity (that we shall mention no further). I bought the double cassette of Star Wars in 1977... then the double fold out LP... then I was hooked. Thanks John Williams for a lifetime of hummable tunes that work for just about every occasion in life! More

Posted by mellowwellowmann on Saturday February 11, 2012, 11:26

18 Thank You
I really enjoyed this. so many memories, so many wonderful pieces of music! More

Posted by orazzak on Saturday February 11, 2012, 10:06

19 A Humble Genius
Having had the pleasure of meeting him many years ago, he was most humble when I thanked him for the joy he he brought to my life. He said it was his pleasure. From Star Wars to War Horse, no one has brought more to the world of film music than John Williams, and may he continue to produce masterpieces for many years to come. Thank you Empire for THE BEST FEATURE EVER!! More

Posted by ddumbell on Saturday February 11, 2012, 04:26

A master composer and what a back catalogue. Did you know Tottenham Hotspur FC walk out to "Duel Of The Fates" for every home game? More

Posted by howie71taylor on Saturday February 11, 2012, 03:32

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