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Hidden Man

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Nominated for the 2023 Association for Recorded Sound Collections Awards for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research

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 or on record with many great artists. This vivid account of over fifty years in the world of popular music spans the worlds of live performance, recording and composing. His 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 was one of the whistlers; James Bond’s tank chase through St. Petersburg in Goldeneye and the ship sinking in Titanic, as the orchestra plays.

In all, he has composed the music for over fifty 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 every episode of Peak Practice. His television and recording work included all the arrangements for the Grammy-nominated Rutles, and he recounts his lively 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 stars including 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 this entertaining, fast-paced memoir includes many tales of life on the road with, among others, Hot Chocolate and Van Morrison.

John Altman has also written, produced and arranged over 4,000 commercials worldwide, many of which have been whistled and hummed by those who had no idea of the composer. Such anonymity coupled with universally-known themes is why Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam named Altman the ‘Hidden Man’.

Published: Feb 21, 2022


Section Chapter Authors
Acknowledgements John Altman
Testimonials John Altman
Introduction John Altman
Chapter 1
All in the Family John Altman
Chapter 2
School Days John Altman
Chapter 3
We're Jamming John Altman
Chapter 4
Legends 1 (Peter Green, Nick Drake, John Martyn, Harry Nilsson, Tim Hardin, Tim Buckley, Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix ... and Robert Duvall) 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
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
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
More Legends 4 (Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, Prince, Mark Ronson, Sacha Baron Cohen, Mike Stoller) John Altman
Chapter 22
What Was That All About? John Altman
Chapter 23
Shanghai, Honeymoons and Chat Shows, 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
End Matter
Index John Altman


BBC Music Magazine, Best Books about Jazz, 25 October 2022

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)

The jolliest book of rock'n'roll tales in a long time....A terrific read from start to finish.
Record Collector