MIMO - When Music is Your Fix

Why I Had to Hit Sir Ridley Scott (He Asked Me To!)

No this isn’t some tabloid ‘kiss and tell’ revelation – sorry to disappoint you all. I’ve had the good fortune to work on over 4,000 TV, cinema and radio commercials over the last 35 years, and in the process collaborate with some extraordinary (and sometimes very unlikely) talents. My lyricist at one time was no less a figure than eminent novelist Sir Salman Rushdie. But he never asked me to hit him – unlike Sir Ridley Scott. I’ve worked on many commercials with Sir Ridley over the years but none was as complicated an idea as the spot for a British bank in the early 90s. The bank’s motto was ‘the listening bank’ and the creative team at Saatchi and Saatchi had come up with the idea of a 90 second TV and cinema spot that would trace the history of music through a series of vignettes, from a caveman banging two rocks together, through ancient Rome and medieval music, culminating in a full symphony orchestra and choir performing Beethoven’s Ode To Joy. The problem was, all the vignettes were to be filmed to playback in the Mojave Desert in mid summer!

I recorded a guide track in London using synthesized music for timings that could later be stretched or shrunk depending on what transpired during filming and editing, and then re-recorded with full orchestra and choir. It was shaping to become, as indeed it did, the most expensive commercial ever shot.

I flew down to the desert from Los Angeles in a six seater plane with Sir Ridley and the creative team – we were due to stay for several days shooting. The daytime temperature was expected to hit 50 centigrade, but I was warned to expect the night temperature to drop to freezing. And in addition to expect desert snakes! I travelled well prepared with layers of clothing to warm me at night, and brand new cowboy boots to protect me from the venom. First morning on set I rather stood out amidst the throng in T shirts shorts and flip flops – more fool them I thought as I sweltered safe in the thought that the snakes weren’t going to get me! At least I wasn’t in full evening dress like the poor symphony players stuck out in the relentless hot sun. I soon discovered that there was some amazing talent in the ranks of our miming orchestra. The bass section alone contained Al McKibbon, who pioneered Afro Cuban jazz in the Dizzy Gillespie band of the 40s, Eugene Wright, the mainstay of the Dave Brubeck Quartet through its great years, and Harvey Newmark who has played with all the jazz giants.

I survived the first day of filming by constantly replenishing with water, although my dress code now seemed totally ludicrous, particularly as the snakes seemed to have got wind of our presence, and taken a vacation. Nevertheless by 1am the temperature had dropped to an icy 40 degrees centigrade as I surveyed my totally useless bag full of thermal underwear.
The next morning was to provide my real test. Sir Ridley had set up some amazing breathtaking shots, and I could only marvel at his artistry. He likes to operate the camera himself on advertising shoots, so he set up the first shot, and then turned to me. ‘You’ll direct this shot.’ ‘I’m sorry, I thought you said I will be directing?’ ‘Yes that’s right. I can’t operate the camera and direct, so you take the megaphone and shout “action”, then give me a countdown for when the music starts, then thump me on the back when I need to start my pan, then thump me again when I stop panning, then shout “cut”.’

I carefully digested this information, and first runthrough managed to co-ordinate my actions. Was Ridley happy? No. ‘You’ll have to hit me harder than that, I didn’t feel anything!’ So this is how it’s done, I thought to myself as I yelled action and walloped the Oscar winning director between the shoulder blades, again and again.
The commercial went on to win several awards but I’ve always regretted not being nominated for best director. And Ridley still hires me from time to time so I can’t have hurt him that much!

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About the Author


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!

Posted in: Music History 101


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