An Excerpt from Unusual Sounds: The Hidden History of Library Music, a Book by David Hollander

In which composers John Cameron and Peter Cox discuss Cameron's writing process for his film and TV scores.

Library Music is music that was pre-made for use in budget-conscious film, television, and radio. It was made primarily in Europe and never commercially released and some of the best examples occur in the 1970s and ’80s. This short excerpt from my book Unusual Sounds: The Hidden History of Library Music discusses the work of British Library composer John Cameron. His work on KPM is some of the finest in the genre, and his unique approach to composition, informed by his ability to improvise jazz, has produced some of the most recognizable tracks in all of Library Music.

—David Hollander


A composer and producer who began as an arranger and music director for Donovan, John Cameron soon transitioned into film scoring (most notably for Ken Loach’s seminal 1969 film Kes) and library music. Cameron’s library credits include the enormously influential 1972 KPM record Jazzrock, as well as 1973’s Afro Rock with Alan Parker and Voices in Harmony with Keith Mansfield, from the same year. Cameron was also musical director of the 1970s band Collective Consciousness Society, or CCS, whose version of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” served as the theme for Top of the Pops throughout that decade.

Peter Cox: John Cameron came up through CCS—that’s where I knew him, through the reputation he built up with them. And he just wrote some wonderful stuff… A great writer, with a unique style, no doubt about it.

John Cameron: Quincy Jones was my favorite composer. “In the Heat of the Night,” you know, I still listen to it. For me there are sort of iconic figures from the ’60s and ’70s. Oliver Nelson’s work on television was something that I would listen to avidly; I mean, I fancied doing that. The whole Motown thing, actually, we’d go, “One minute, that bass line that they use in the second inversion…” or “What were they doing with the kick drum?” And every time a Stevie Wonder record came out, you’d go, “Hey, what’s he doing there?” That was where my sources came from. I mean, during my degree in Cambridge, I used to sit with John Coltrane playing until four in the morning, that kind of album. And my roommate is in the next room going off with it (laughs). Or I had the Moanin’ album [by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers]; that’s been imbued in me right from the early days. So when it came to something like that… it was a question of just dragging ideas out of my psyche, you know? I came out of Cambridge not knowing what I was going to do, except I wanted to be in the music business. And library was quite a way down the road, you know. I actually signed [at KPM] with Robin’s dad, Jimmy, as a songwriter first.

John Cameron. Badlands. Bruton Music (UK): BRJ 28, 1984.

Peter Cox: I think the first time I really became aware of John was a track called “49th Street Shakedown” [from Jazzrock, KPM 1097, 1972], which he recorded in the old KPM Studios, down in the basement of KPM. And when I heard this, I was in a session that John was doing. It was so exciting; he had a driving energy. Taken straight from that CCS sort of vibe. And of course it was brilliant, and it went on and made shitloads of money, and quite rightly too. It was brilliant for sports, for action; it was so exciting, and so different from anything else that we produced.

Voices in Harmony (KPM 1125, 1973)

John Cameron: I was back and forth to L.A. during the early ’70s; I suppose that [this record] was slightly homage to some of the music over there. In a way, “Half-Forgotten Daydreams” is an homage to Francis Lai. And, you know, the mix of Californian nice funk and country rhythm sections and strings, because I was working with Bobbie Gentry, and she had great arrangements by Jimmy Haskell—the arrangement on “Ode to Billy Joe” is a masterpiece. And a good friend of mine at the time was Perry Botkin, who was Nilsson’s manager for some time; he wrote the arrangement on [Simon and Garfunkel’s] “49th Bridge Street Song,” you know, “Feeling Groovy.” So I was very taken by this Californian gloss with strings, funky, nice, and I suppose that’s what I tried to put into it.

“Swamp Fever” (from Afro Rock, KPM 1130, 1973)

I’ve always had an ability to write very fast. It’s just why I’ve got a lot of work in movies and TV, where you have to produce stuff each week for each episode. And I tend to write as a jazz musician would write. So I’ll think it, write it. I didn’t—in those days especially—tend to sit down and hone and perfect, whatever. What came out first, then I’d get in the studio and then we would hone it. But I tended to go with gut reaction right from the start. You know, you could go and write a symphony; you can go write a string quartet. But even those, I tend to end up writing it with a program or a poem—context is everything… When I put together a [library] project, I would sit down and write twenty titles that might apply to it, basically imagining situations that could be in a film or a TV series of that sort. And then I’d kind of think, OK, what would I write for that situation? Just a general idea. Because if you’re too specific then it doesn’t have the library use. You need something that can be applicable to this, applicable to that.

But, something like “Swamp Fever,” I’d say, “I like that idea. Now, how’s it going to feel?” Yeah, it’s got to be steamy, it’s got to
be hot, it’s got to be free, loose. It’s got to have some of those elements of some of those scenes in In the Heat of the Night. You can actually feel the sweat on your arms. Just to convey that kind of atmosphere. Not specifically, Guy goes into a bar, this happens, this happens. But more, What’s that situation going to be? Like the top of a screenplay where [it says] there’s a bar in Havana, Cuba. It’s late at night; it’s heavy-duty drum-and-bass salsa music. There is a whole mess of different characters in there, some legal, most not. You know, so you build up the picture. And then you think, OK, write some music to go with it.

Unusual Sounds: The Hidden History of Library Music and its accompanying vinyl are available via

David Hollander is an artist, filmmaker and collector of artist-made films and library music. He is a co-founder of CineMarfa, a film festival dedicated to showcasing rare and unseen films in Marfa, Texas. He lives in San Antonio.

(Photo Credit: Vincent Dilio)