MIMO - When Music is Your Fix

My Heart Will Go On (And On) – Part 1

As Titanic 3D sails (sorry about that but hard to avoid – oops there we go again) past the $2 billion mark to become almost certainly once again the highest grossing movie in history, I thought you may be interested in how I came to work on this blockbuster, how I got stuck in a Swiss field full of inquisitive cattle at 4am, and how I sang into an amplified Mexican mobile phone to James Cameron and the assembled cast and crew at 8am on a UK Saturday morning. (And how I came to co-produce the Titanic 3D Anniversary Soundtrack 2CD and 4CD box sets.)

The truth is, no one had the remotest idea that Titanic would become the phenomenon it has, and that holds true right up to the original release date. I had been approached by my agent to see if I was interested in acting as the historical (or should that be hysterical) musical advisor for James Cameron’s version of the story. I had the script and the playlist of the White Star Line sent through to me, and once I had agreed to take on the job it was ‘over to me’ while the filmmakers got on with the task of bringing Cameron’s vision to the screen. I was pointed in the direction of I Salonisti, a Swiss ensemble who specialized in performing salon music of the turn of the 20th Century. Once I had made my own choice of the material (that would have been learnt by heart by the 5 piece band led by Wallace Hartley in First Class), my next job was to arrange the pieces I had chosen and head to Zurich to record an hour and a half of music for use in the film.

We recorded in a wonderful residential studio just outside Zurich in the picturesque village of Maur. After about 5 days of solid recording I was becoming a little ‘stir crazy’ and jumped at the opportunity to head into Zurich with the studio manager to hear some jazz. As we arrived at the jazz club the band hit a chord and the leader announced ‘goodnight and get home safely!’ We hung around for a couple of drinks then I was put into a cab back to the studio as the manager headed off in the other direction. I arrived in the village at about 2am to find it in pitch darkness. The cab driver, who spoke neither English nor indeed any variant of Swiss (he was from the Balkans) gestured to me – ‘where?’ As I’d seen the exterior of the studio once, in broad daylight and five days previously, I was hardly the best person to ask for directions. We cruised up and down the street and found a telephone box (mobiles in those days had no roaming capabilities which meant my London phone was useless.) I rang the studio, and got the answering machine. I rang the studio manager at home – and got the answering machine. I gestured to a bench in the main square – leave me here till daylight. The cab driver vigorously shook his head – it was his duty to deliver me safe and sound. Off we set again – then my luck was in – I’d spotted a gap between two houses. Off we went through the gap – into a field by a stream! As the driver tried to turn around I heard shuffling noises outside. Sure enough we were the objects of interest for a herd of cattle grazing (or whatever they get up to at 3am), and the car was soon surrounded in a menacing ambush. The driver revved enough to free the wheels and usher some of the cows away and we regained the road after about 15 minutes. I was wary of testing out any other gaps, but after about 90 minutes our options were few. I gestured towards the open road beyond the village. My driver gestured back that there was absolutely nothing there but I insisted. I was right – a sign pointed towards the studio! I paid off the relieved driver but then found myself once again in pitch darkness ringing a doorbell that probably connected to an office that had long been locked up for the night.

Only one thing for it – I started to edge my way along the wall of the building in total blackness, figuring that if I was lucky I might find an open window or the bedroom of one of the band (luckily we were all on the ground floor). I had no idea if the studio had a moat or barbed wire round it, but this was my last chance to get at least 3 hours in a warm bed. This night my luck was in – as I rounded the third corner of the building after about another hour or so, a door opened as one of I Salonisti made his way to the bathroom. How he didn’t get the shock of his life from this sudden eruption of tapping on the outside window at 4am I have no idea but he ran to the front of the building and managed to open the door for me – a fitting end to a ‘relaxing evening out’.


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About the Author

on MUSIC IS MY OXYGEN WEEKLY.

John Altman is a BAFTA and Emmy award winning composer, musician and conductor and was recently made Doctor of Music at the University of Sussex, School of Media, Film and Music. John has a long and distinguished career in music, including performing with Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Sting. His film credits include period music for Titanic and Shall We Dance. In addition, John has scored over 5,000 TV commercials and is cited as among the top composers in British advertising.

A brief look at who John Altman has shared the stage with or worked with since the 1950s:


  • the 50s - appeared with Judy Garland onstage at the London Palladium
  • the 60s - played with Jimi Hendrix, Fleetwood Mac, Muddy Waters
  • the 70s - played with Bob Marley, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Elton John. Wrote for Monty Python and the Rutles
  • the 80s - wrote for Simple Minds, George Michael. Played with Slim Gaillard, Chet Baker. Sting, Phil Collins, Jeff Beck
  • the 90s - wrote for Bjork, Tina Turner, Barry White, Diana Ross, James Bond, Titanic. Played with Chaka Khan, Lionel Richie, Bill Wyman
  • the 00s - played with Prince, Amy Winehouse, Pharrell, Black Eye Peas, Jessie J, Joss Stone
  • the 10s - still standing!

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Posted in: Featured, Music History 101


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