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Hidden Man

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Everybody knows John Altman’s music, but not so many people know his name. Yet he is one of the most prolific composers, conductors and arrangers in history and his saxophone playing has been heard live and on record with many great names. In this vivid account of over fifty years in the world of popular music, Altman explains why he is the ‘Hidden Man’, whose scores include such well-known film sequences as ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ from Life of Brian, which he arranged, conducted and whistled; the tank chase through St. Petersburg in the James Bond movie Goldeneye and the ship sinking in Titanic, with the orchestra playing on deck.

In all, he has composed the music for over 50 movies, and won most major film awards in his long and distinguished career. His orchestrations can be heard in film scores by legends like Elmer Bernstein and Jule Styne, and he was musical director for several television series, notably Miss Marple, starring Joan Hickson, as well as Peak Practice, in which his music can be heard in every episode. His television and recording work included all the arrangements for the Grammy-nominated Rutles, and there are plenty of stories of his half-century of collaboration with members of the Monty Python team, and Neil Innes. As an arranger/conductor he has worked on hit records for numerous stars, among them Rod Stewart, George Michael, Tina Turner, Barry White, Diana Ross, Björk, and Alison Moyet. As a saxophonist, flautist and clarinet player he has performed with an equally stellar list of musicians, and the book includes many tales of life on the road during his early days with Hot Chocolate and Van Morrison.

John Altman has also found time to write, produce and arrange over 4,000 commercials worldwide, and another example of his subtle influence is his theme for the ‘Sheila’s Wheels’ advertisement, which was being whistled and hummed all over Britain during its run on television, yet it’s likely nobody knew its composer. Such anonymity coupled with universally-known themes is why Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam named Altman the ‘Hidden Man’.

In this entertaining, fast-paced memoir you will discover how Ingrid Bergman smiled at his back; how a Beatle always greeted him by singing one of his musical phrases; how he tried in vain to persuade Nick Drake to continue performing in public; how he reduced Freddy Mercury to helpless laughter; how he got Pierce Brosnan his big movie break; how he sat with Charlie Chaplin watching a movie that hadn’t been seen for a quarter of a century (with a running commentary from the great man himself); how he sang over a mobile phone to James Cameron and the cast of Titanic; how he inspired a five-year-old George Michael to become a musician; how he was the Wailers’ tour guide around London, and how Tina Turner made him a cup of tea. One of the most poignant parts of the story is how he mentored the young Amy Winehouse, but she is just one of the many dazzling musicians who have worked alongside the Hidden Man.

Published: Feb 1, 2022


Section Chapter Authors
Chapter 1
All in the Family John Altman
Chapter 2
School Days John Altman
Chapter 3
We're Jamming John Altman
Chapter 4
Some Legends 1 (Peter Green, Nick Drake, John Martyn, Harry Nilsson, Tim Hardin, Tim Buckley, Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix) John Altman
Chapter 5
The London Beat John Altman
Chapter 6
Forty Eight Years (and Counting) of Python John Altman
Chapter 7
Whispering Wheels, You Sexy Thing, Muhammad Ali, and Freddie Mercury and the Sausages John Altman
Chapter 8
BBC, Early Commercials, Bowie, Dietrich, Jule Styne and Early Van John Altman
Chapter 9
Sir Van the Man John Altman
Chapter 10
Some More Legends 2 (Paul Kossoff, Bob Marley, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, John Ogdon, Spike Milligan, Mick Jagger, George Harrison) John Altman
Chapter 11
An Intrusion and an Explanation John Altman
Chapter 12
Records John Altman
Chapter 13
Television John Altman
Chapter 14
Movies (1) John Altman
Chapter 15
Some More Legends 3 (Classic Movie and Jazz Stars Including Orson Welles, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, Chet Baker) John Altman
Chapter 16
Movies (2) John Altman
Chapter 17
Commercials John Altman
Chapter 18
Going Live John Altman
Chapter 19
LA Life John Altman
Chapter 20
Amy John Altman
Chapter 21
Some More Legends 4 (Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, Prince, Mike Stoller, Mark Ronson, Sacha Baron Cohen) John Altman
Chapter 22
What Was That All About? John Altman
Chapter 23
Shanghai, Honeymoons and Chat Shows (Or How I Came to be on a Massage Table Next to Rafa Nadal), Paris and Vladivostok John Altman
Chapter 24
Awards and Recognition John Altman
Chapter 25
The Ones That Got Away John Altman
Chapter 26
Today and Beyond John Altman


Big-time love and props to my long-time brother, John Altman, on the release of Hidden Man. From meeting him through our dear friend, Benny Carter, to having him write on the Michael Caine Albert Hall show, to transcribing my score for the Italian Job live performance, I can confirm that he is a rare find! Keep on keepin' on my brother, and thank you for all you've done for me and the music community as a whole!
Quincy Jones 

This is what I have to say about John Altman: Think about it: Without exaggeration, it can be assumed that half the music of the 20th century wouldn’t exist without John’s contribution. The other half is rubbish.
Hans Zimmer

I've known John for over 25 years - a terrific musician and good guy. Always a pleasure to see him and play music with him. Love his stories.
Jeff Goldblum

John Altman is such a wonderful musician and human being!! We’ve shared the stage many times and he always brings such a high level of mastery. It’s always an honor to work together.
Jon Batiste (Golden Globe, BAFTA winning composer/bandleader)

Why does John Altman choose to be the Hidden Man? What is he ashamed of?  I always thought he was tremendously talented. A great musician and an all-round nice guy. Perhaps I was wrong.
Terry Gilliam (director, animator and Python)

I admit it, I like John Altman. Apart from being very good company, he is one of the few musicians, composers and arrangers prepared to work with people on crosses.  I’ve rung all the police stations in London, but no-one has a bad word for him.
Sir Michael Palin (Python, author and world traveller)

John has always shined ever so brightly whenever our paths have crossed, it’s hard not to notice his kind soul.
Joss Stone

  I feel that I’ve known John Altman forever. Our paths have crossed in sweaty marquees at cricket matches , at fancy film events and, of course, in jazz clubs. But I couldn’t pin down where we had first met . It was at a gig at the Pizza Express in Dean Street , John was playing, I was talking, that I found out that we have in fact known each other forever.  Almost. In the happy, hippy days of 1968 the Brighton Combination set up an alternative arts venue/ cafe/ theatre/ gig space in an old schoolhouse just off the Brighton seafront. I dropped out of Uni to join the Combination and as part of of our artistic offering to the local community we ran all night raves ( although I’m not sure we called them that at the time). John reminded me that he would blow his sax all night and on into the dawn at these bacchanalian events. It’s a wonder either of us survived. John also wrote the soundtrack to a film that I was in with Jean Claude Van Damme called Legionnaire.  But I prefer not to talk about that.
Jim Carter (star of Downton Abbey)