Vangelis: an appreciation
Posted by Paul Samael on Sunday, June 5, 2022 Under: Random thoughts
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).
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
In : Random thoughts
Tags: vangelis music synthesisers obituary
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