Vangelis: an appreciation

June 5, 2022

This rather long post is about Greek musician Vangelis, who died last month.  I’m writing it partly because, having read a reasonable number of the obituaries, I felt that there were some things that they missed (although who knows if anyone else will read this.… ). I should also point out that I’m not a fan of everything he’s ever done - all told, I reckon that I only really like about 20-25% of his total output (in particular, I’m not keen on his more bombastic material, especially the choral/symphonic stuff).   But some of his music from the 70s and 80s in particular was important to me when I was growing up and I still listen to it reasonably often today - which is the other reason for writing this.  So what do I think other obituarists have missed?

A change in attitudes over time

Understandably, much reference was made to Vangelis’ soundtrack work, particularly the “Blade Runner” score, for which he is now perhaps best regarded.  But the music from “Blade Runner” wasn’t made available until 1994 (and even then, we didn’t get all of it).  Over time, that piece of work has lent him a degree of musical cachet which - unless my memory is deceiving me - I don’t feel he possessed in the early 1980s, which was when I first started listening to his material.  At that point, he was better known for “Chariots of Fire” and his partnership with Jon Anderson of Yes.  That particular material (though only a small part of his total output) was generally seen as a bit middle-of-the-road - and certainly not anything to brag about liking if you were trying to impress the cool kids.  Whereas now, there is reams of stuff about how cool and ahead-of-its-time the music for “Blade Runner” is, which has rather eclipsed everything else.

In part, I think this is because in the 80s, in the UK at least, attitudes to music were often rather more tribal/ideological than they are now. Vangelis started off making sixties pop and then became associated with prog rock (e.g. the album 666 with Aphrodite’s Child, his auditioning to replace Rick Wakeman in Yes and a somewhat ambitious 1976 concert in the Albert Hall, complete with a large choir).  In the wake of punk, none of this was particularly “cool” - it was, after all, what punk was supposed to be rebelling against.  And punk was all about a back-to-basics simple guitar chords and drums approach - the polar opposite of banks of expensive synthesisers and grandiose live shows.  So at that point in time, I often felt that liking Vangelis was a dirty little secret which was best kept to myself - although I dare say it also had a fair bit to do with being a rather self-conscious and insecure teenager.  These days, thankfully, no one seems to have a problem if you like a more eclectic range of stuff, prog rock has (to some extent at least) been rehabilitated and punk is seen as part of the ebb and flow of musical styles (rather than an all-encompassing ideology demanding total rejection of everything went before).

So, pleased as I am that Vangelis has since received the kind of recognition that I always thought he deserved, it’s worth pointing out that not everyone saw it that way at the time.  And it’s a credit to him that he just carried on making the music he wanted to make, not really caring what the cool kids at the time thought - he was quite prepared to wait that one out.

The pantheon of Synth Gods

I also didn’t see that much discussion of where Vangelis sits in what you might call (appropriately enough for a Greek musician) the “pantheon of Synth Gods”.  For me, what always marked him out was his ability - even in non-soundtrack work - to evoke mood and atmosphere.  For example, if I cast my mind back to pieces like Oxygene or Equinoxe by fellow synth enthusiast Jean-Michel Jarre, they don’t really make me think of anything in particular - I just remember them sounding vaguely futuristic because of the almost exclusive use of synths, but that’s about it.  Whereas many of the Vangelis pieces that I particularly like evoke something rather more specific - whether it’s an icy mountainscape in Himalaya  (from the album China) or micro-organisms in some kind of imaginary BBC nature documentary in Soil Festivities.  

The other contrast I would draw is by comparison with an outfit like Kraftwerk.  It seems to me that Kraftwerk are all about taking the emotion out of music (and whilst this clearly works for some people, I'm afraid I find that whole "cool ironic detachment" kind of thing rather soulless).  As noted above, Vangelis’ use of electronics was usually aiming in the opposite direction - and although synthesisers are very much to the fore, they’re often accompanied by extensive use of contrasting acoustic instruments, especially percussion (and for me it’s often the combination of the two that really marks him out from other synth musicians).  

All of the above is, of course, what made him such a good soundtrack composer - and so in that respect, the obituarists were right to focus on that.  But in doing so, they’ve rather obscured the vast range of styles he worked in - from pop through to neo-classical and avant garde experimentation.  For my money, this is also something that marks him out from other synth artists from around the same period (although to be fair, not all the obituaries missed this - see this one from The Guardian).  


Anecdotes also seemed to be in short supply in most of the obits - which was disappointing because they paint a picture of Vangelis as a somewhat eccentric, larger than life personality.  Here’s a slightly wonky video of Jon Anderson recounting his first meeting with Vangelis, who was wearing a full length kaftan and wielding a bow and arrow.  This is followed by another anecdote about an unintentionally hilarious audition with Yes.  We then fast forward to the early eighties and the barely imaginable horror of being forced by the record company to write a hit single and promote it on Top of the Pops…. 

There are some more anecdotes here - including a slightly different version of the bow and arrow incident (I dare say these things get embellished over the years, but apparently it’s true that he liked archery).

Unreleased tracks

Finally, rumour has it that there is a lot of unreleased material - but again, this didn’t get much of a mention in most of the obituaries I read.  The obvious dilemma here is that, if he didn’t want this material to be released, why should it be released now?  For example, two early albums - The Dragon and Hypothesis - were apparently released without his permission.  Having listened to them, I can see why he didn’t want them released….  On the other hand, some of the unreleased material has been aired publicly, just not released on record (e.g. certain film scores and music for ballet/dance performances etc).  So you could argue that this material is in a different category.   We’ll just have to wait and see.

So farewell Vangelis - the world won’t sound the same without you (and it will also be less safe, because there will be one fewer Lord of Synth to protect us all from wayward comets).
Most underrated albums: See You Later, Earth, China, Soil Festivities 

Other favourites:  666 (with Aphrodite’s Child), Apocalypse des Animaux, Albedo 0.39, Spiral, Opera Sauvage, Blade Runner, The City


What does the Draft2Digital / Smashwords merger mean for authors?

February 13, 2022

What are we to make of the recent announcement that Draft2Digital is acquiring competing self-publishing outfit Smashwords?  Initially, I was a bit concerned because as an author, Smashwords has been the best performing platform for me over the years - and I wouldn't want to see it go the way of others which have closed down (like Feedbooks, BookieJar and Bibliotastic).

But as I understand it, Draft2Digital primarily competes with Smashwords when it comes to helping authors create ebooks and d...
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Yard Sale by Charles Hibbard

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This beautifully written book - available for free on Smashwords - occupies a not particularly well-colonised fictional space somewhere between a novel and a collection of short stories.  

It’s like a novel in the sense that it depicts various episodes in the life of one character, Ruth, who was born - I am guessing - at some point in the first two decades of the twentieth century.  We first meet Ruth in (late) middle age, having gone on a solo road trip to escape marital difficulties - but ...

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Micro reviews (October 2021)

October 6, 2021

China Mountain Zhang, All That Man Is, The Vanishing Half

China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh

This book is set in a world where China is the dominant power, both economically and culturally.  The US, meanwhile, is subservient to China, having apparently undergone a protracted and violent Communist revolution, followed by something similar to China’s cultural revolution known as the “Cleansing Winds Campaign.”  Slightly frustratingly perhaps, we don’t find out too much about this hist...

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Free library and secret garden at London Bridge

August 28, 2021

On my hunt for little free libraries, I came across this rather impressive specimen in Gibbon's Rent SE1, just off Holyrood Street, right next door to London Bridge station.  It's in a pedestrian alleyway which has been turned into a secret garden:

I say "secret" because unless you knew it was there, you probably wouldn't think to bother walking down it because the entrance just looks like an access way to various flats/offices - but it is a public thoroughfare, so it's fine to enter and have ...
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Little free library in Cambria Road SE5

August 15, 2021

Just secreted a paperback copy of my novel in the little free library on Cambria Road SE5, which is the nearest one to where I live in Herne Hill (SE24).  I'm not sure the library's been there that long.  But maybe I just didn't notice it before - it certainly wasn't there in 2018, which is when Google seem to have done their last StreetView survey of the area.  

For anyone looking for it, it's on the left just before you enter the underpass below the railway bridge that crosses the road (this...
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Book promo services: do they work?

July 12, 2021

Book promo services are outfits which offer to promote your self-published book to readers, mostly via mailing lists. Do they work?  In brief - yes, some of them are pretty effective (in my view) but the downsides are: (i) you will have to part with a modest amount of cash; and (ii) you can waste a lot of time (and money) on sites which are not much good (although the good news is you can easily avoid that by just focussing on more effective ones - see below).  

What’s the cost?  Well, I hav...

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Publishing a paperback with Amazon KDP

June 30, 2021

At long last I have got around to doing a paperback version of my novel using Amazon KDP (formerly CreateSpace).  I’m not expecting to sell many copies, but if anyone prefers to read it in hard copy - well, now you can (and the price is reasonable - £5.30 in the UK, $6.40 in the US).  I may also attempt to persuade some local bookshops to stock it and will probably release a few copies “into the wild” via some nearby street libraries.  But the main point of this post is to provide a re...

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Sci-fi, litfic and AI

May 28, 2021

Reviews of: Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan, Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, Speak by Louisa Hall and The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang

I’ve been thinking about genres lately because I’ve been trying to get more downloads of my novel on Amazon - and if you’re using various book promo services, as I am doing right now, you usually need to tell them what genre it’s in.  The trouble is, the novel effectively straddles 2 genres which publishers and platforms don’t usual...

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Making your ebook free on Amazon

March 30, 2021

As I've mentioned in previous posts, downloads of my novel on Smashwords seem to be tailing off.  I can hardly complain, because it's been up on there almost 9 years now and I've had a pretty good run - but it has made me look at various ways I can make it available to readers who don't frequent Smashwords or the other platforms it's on (e.g. see this post).  I put it up on Amazon as an ebook in late 2018, since when it appears to have had very few downloads.  No doubt this is due to being vi...
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About Me

Paul Samael Welcome to my blog, "Publishing Waste" which will either (a) chronicle my heroic efforts to self-publish my own fiction; or (b) demonstrate beyond a scintilla of doubt the utter futility of (a). And along the way, I will also be doing some reviews of other people's books and occasionally blogging about other stuff.
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