Evángelos Odysséas Papathanassíou has passed away at the age of 79, and even if you don’t recognize that name, you definitely know his music. Under the mononym Vangelis, the Greek composer and instrumentalist revolutionized electronic music and movie soundtracks in the early 1980s. Who among us hasn’t heard this steady synthesizer pulse in our heads as we’ve sprinted along the beach?
His earliest work was scoring 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, relocated to Paris. Singing in English, they had a sound similar to the Moody Blues or Procol Harum, and their early work was successful in Europe.
Check out Vangelis here with some very “Whiter Shade of Pale”-esque keyboards, looking scruffy even by 1969 standards.
While Vangelis was not the singer in Aphrodite’s Child, he emerged as the principal songwriter, culminating in 666, a double-album based on the Book of Revelation that mixed psychedelia, jazz, experimental keyboard sounds, spoken word, and general far-out-ness. It was released in 1972, just as progressive rock was in its ascendancy.
Alas, 666 marked the end of the group, and Vangelis went solo. In addition to his own work, like the driving, genre-smashing rocker Earth, he continued to record scores for unusual European film and television projects. When the prog rock titans Yes had an opening for a keyboard player after Rick Wakeman’s departure, lead singer Jon Anderson pursued him. It came close to happening (there are stories of an actual audition) but Vangelis decided the touring rock ‘n’ roll life was no longer for him. He and Anderson would continue 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 was eventually headed, and what made him a star.
Vangelis was perfectly suited for this new musical genre. His mad-scientist-meets-Greek-prophet look suggested that whatever this guy was laying down was surely meaningful, but he also was a total gearhead. These were early days for synthesizers and computer technology, and the dreams of the future (a telephone in your car?!?) were starting to come true. For some—the ones buying modems and obsessing about the Space Shuttle—these laser beam swoops and swirling vector graphic aural oddities represented the soundtrack to life.
Having relocated to London, Vangelis’s work was moving in many directions. He was composing well-received “new classical” symphonies, recording what could be described as “world music” (albums like China has its inspiration right on the title), and scoring some higher 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 spacebreaking?) series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, Vangelis got the gig that changed everything.
Chariots of Fire is not the type of movie you’d think would have cutting-edge electronic music. It’s a story about British athletes competing at the first Olympics in 1924. But director Hugh Hudson had worked with Vangelis on some television commercials and was inspired. The movie went on to win four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and there is no doubt that the score is part of what made it pop. Somehow, the Vangelis’s driving, dreamy, synth-led piano theme became a worldwide sensation—an actual song you would hear on Top 40 radio! It also won an Oscar, and was nominated for Record of the Year at the Grammys. (It lost to “Rosanna” by Toto. Tough call.)
The image of young men racing to this triumphant music became such a meme it was even parodied by Hall and Oates on SCTV.
Vangelis was suddenly the most in-demand film composer around. He chose his projects carefully. In 1982 he recorded music for Greek director Costa-Gavras’s Missing, starring Jack Lemmon, about CIA meddling in Latin America, and then he went into the future for Ridley Scott and Blade Runner.
The Blade Runner score (the CD of which this writer would bring to stereo shops when testing out high-end speakers) represents an incredible mix of genres. The “Love Theme,” in particular, is a mesmerizing blend of retro and futuristic, a world in eternal night, gorgeous, harrowing, lonely, yet intimate. Its use of electronic instruments beyond corny theremins changed our entire perception of what science fiction should sound like.
In 1983 he scored the Japanese survival-drama Antartica, and in 1984 he once again got anachronistic for Ronald Donaldson’s voyage The Bounty. This re-telling 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 is in this movie, it’s incredible) but in addition to its gorgeous location footage, it boasts a curiously uneasy half-electronic score from Vangelis echoing across the centuries. The pulse of the ocean waves, clang of chains, and the dissonant tones representing all the elements of the story, all from one guy working with some expensive gizmos.
In 1992 Vangelis teamed up with Ridley Scott again for 1492: Conquest of Paradise, which is not a very good movie (I’ve seen it multiple times, hoping the next one will stick) but the score is incredible. (Vangelis was nominated for a Golden Globe.) The composer involved himself less and less with Hollywood as time moved on, with Oliver Stone’s 2004 epic Alexander being his final wide release. (Maybe it was the Greek angle that lured him to do that one?) He continued to make genre-defying music and working in theater until his final years.
By this point, Vangelis’s legacy was secure, both for film scoring and for electronic music in general. He received a public service medal from NASA, maybe just because his trippy, exploratory instrumental albums served as background music during many late nights. He also worked with the European Space Agency and composed pieces to accompany the Rosetta mission.
Vangelis avoided interviews and seldom traveled. (He skipped the Academy Awards because of a fear of flying.) He described himself as a synesthetic, one whose senses intersect in unusual ways. (“I would smell something and then think, ‘what sound is this? Or I would hear something and think ‘what is the food?’” he said.) Like any innovator he had innumerable copycats, eagerly hired by producers who thought one guy at a synthesizer could do the job of a full orchestra. Hundreds of forgettable film scores prove that was only the case when the credits read “Music By Vangelis.”
Jordan Hoffman is a writer and critic in New York City. 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 at @JHoffman.