‘Blade Runner Tears In Rain’ + ‘Chariots Of Fire’ Composer Tribute

Evángelos Odysséas Papathanassíou has passed away at the age of 79, and even if you don’t recognize his name, you certainly know his music. Under the mononym Vangelis, the Greek composer and instrumentalist revolutionized electronic music and film soundtracks in the early 1980s. Who among us hasn’t heard that steady beat of the synthesizer in our heads as we sprinted along from the beach ?

His first job was composing Greek films in the mid-1960s and forming a pop group called The Forminx. As the political situation grew unstable in Greece, he and his new band, Aphrodite’s Child, moved to Paris. Singing in English, they had a sound similar to Moody Blues or Procol Harum, and their early work was successful in Europe.

Check out Vangelis here with very “Whiter Shade of Pale” keyboards, looking scruffy even by 1969 standards.

While Vangelis wasn’t the lead singer of Aphrodite’s Child, he became the primary songwriter, culminating in 666, a double album based on the Book of Revelation that blended psychedelia, jazz, experimental keyboard sounds, spoken word and general extravagance. It was released in 1972, just as progressive rock was taking off.

Alas, 666 marked the end of the band, and Vangelis went solo. In addition to his own work as the catchy and revolutionary rocker Earth, he continued to record scores for unusual European film and television projects. When progressive rock titans Yes had an opening for a keyboardist after Rick Wakeman left, lead singer Jon Anderson pursued him. It almost happened (there are stories of actual auditioning) but Vangelis decided the rock ‘n’ roll touring life was no longer for him. He and Anderson would go on to collaborate over the years as “Jon and Vangelis,” an opportunity for the Yes star to play less elaborate rock and softer, dare we call it “New Age” music. Because that’s where Vangelis eventually headed, and what made him a star.

Vangelis was perfectly suited to this new musical genre. His look of a mad scientist and a Greek prophet suggested that whatever this guy was having sex was surely significant, but he was also a real reducer. These were the beginnings of synthesizers and computer technology, and dreams of the future (a phone in your car?!?) were starting to happen. For some – those who buy modems and are obsessed with the space shuttle – those laser beam shots and swirling vector graphic sound oddities were the soundtrack of life.

Having moved to London, Vangelis’ work evolved in many directions. He composed well-received “new classical” symphonies, recorded what could be called “world music” (albums like China has its inspiration straight from the title), and marking more high-profile film and television projects. After some of his earlier work was licensed by Carl Sagan and PBS for the groundbreaking (or should we say groundbreaking?) Cosmos: a personal journeyVangelis got the gig that changed everything.

chariots of fire isn’t the kind of movie you’d think would have avant-garde electronic music. It’s the story of British athletes competing in the first Olympics in 1924. But director Hugh Hudson had worked with Vangelis on television commercials and was inspired by them. The film went on to win four Oscars, including Best Picture, and there’s no doubt the score is part of what made it popular. Somehow, Vangelis’ catchy, dreamy, synth-driven piano theme became a worldwide sensation – an actual song you’d hear on Top 40 radio! It also won an Oscar and was nominated for Record of the Year at the Grammys. (He lost to Toto’s “Rosanna.” Tough call.)

The image of young men racing to this triumphant music became such a meme that it was even parodied by Hall and Oates on SCTV.

Vangelis was suddenly the most requested film composer. He chooses his projects carefully. In 1982, he recorded the music for the film by Greek director Costa-Gavras Faded awaywith Jack Lemmon, about CIA interference in Latin America, and then he went to the future for Ridley Scott and blade runner.

the blade runner score (which this writer would take to stereo stores to test high-end speakers) represents an incredible mix of genres. The “Theme of Love”, in particular, is a fascinating mix of retro and futuristic, a world in eternal night, beautiful, heartbreaking, lonely, but intimate. His use of electronic instruments beyond corny theremins completely changed our perception of what science fiction should look like.

In 1983, he scored the Japanese survival drama Antarctic, and in 1984 it becomes anachronistic again for Ronald Donaldson’s trip The bounty. This retelling of the famous Age of Sail mutiny starred Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson (and Daniel Day-Lewis and Liam Neeson and Edward Fox and Laurence Olivier – everyone’s in this movie, it’s amazing) but in plus its gorgeous location footage, it has a curiously restless semi-electronic score by Vangelis that resonates through the centuries. The pulse of the ocean waves, the clank of the chains and the dissonant tones representing all the elements of the story, all from one guy working with expensive gadgets.

In 1992, Vangelis again teamed up with Ridley Scott to 1492: Conquest of Paradise, which isn’t a very good movie (I’ve seen it several times, hoping the next one holds) but the score is incredible. (Vangelis was nominated for a Golden Globe.) The composer became less and less involved with Hollywood over time, with Oliver Stone’s 2004 epic alexander being its last wide release. (Maybe it was the Greek angle that made him do this one?) He continued to make genre-defying music and work in theater until his later years.

At this point, Vangelis’ legacy was secure, both for film music and for electronic music in general. He received a NASA Public Service Medal, perhaps simply because his trippy, exploratory instrumental albums served as background music for many late nights. He has also worked with the European Space Agency and composed pieces to accompany the Rosette assignment.

Vangelis avoided interviews and rarely traveled. (He skipped the Oscars because of his fear of flying.) He has described himself as a synesthetic, one whose senses intersect in unusual ways. (“I would smell something and then I would think, ‘what sound is that? Or I would hear something and think ‘what is food?'” he said.) Like any innovator, he had countless imitators, eagerly hired by producers who thought a guy at a synthesizer could do the job of a full orchestra. Hundreds of forgettable movie scores prove that was only the case when the credits read “Music By Vangelis.”

Jordan Hoffman is a writer and critic in New York. His work also appears in Vanity Fair, The Guardian and The Times of Israel. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and tweets about Phish and Star Trek on @JHoffman.

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