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Vangelis (1943 - 2022) - Obituary

R.I.P. Evangelos Odysséas Papathanassiou


We are sad to report the death of the Greek composer and electronic musician Evangelos Odysséas Papathanassiou, known to the world by the diminutive form of Vangelis, in Paris from a heart attack brought on by complications of Covid. A towering colossus in the transition of electronic music from the avant-garde to mainstream in both popular music and film soundtracks, Vangelis' music in popular culture, progressive rock, electronica, film scores and astronomical documentaries has a breadth few others can aspire to.

Vangelis was born in 1943 in a small village called Agria, near the second biggest Greek port of Volos (halfway between Athens and Thessaloniki), with the British co-ordinating the Greek partisans to harry the Germans out of Greece. Agria itself thankfully never saw any fighting and the infant Vangelis and the fledgling Papathanassiou family were never in any danger from the German occupiers.

Vangelis’ father worked in property but more importantly he was an amateur sprinter who competed in the same 1924 Olympics for Greece that the Chariots Of Fire story was set. At the age of four, Vangelis asked his father for a piano. The wise father thought he would see if he had a natural talent for the piano, so took him for a piano lesson first. The very fussy piano teacher accepted Vangelis with no qualms but Vangelis refused to take lessons. “Just get me a piano,” he said, “and I will teach myself!” Two weeks later as his father was coming in from a run, he said to Vangelis at his new piano, “whose music is that Vangelis? I like it a lot!” Vangelis replied that it was daddy’s running music and he always played it when daddy went running. It was an early version of what became the Chariots Of Fire main titles.

Vangelis gave his first concert age six in the local village hall, without music (as he never learnt to read conventional music but invented his own notation system). He experimented with putting paper, sticks and stones inside the piano to change the sound (when much older composers were experimenting with “prepared piano”) and at 12 he went to secondary school where he had to take music lessons. He learned to play from memory. "When the teachers asked me to play something," he said, "I would pretend that I was reading it and play from memory. I didn't fool them, but I didn't care.”

Vangelis never studied music at a conservatory, preferring instead to study painting at art college in Thessaloniki (a lifelong painter, he had many exhibitions of his paintings in Athens, South America and London). One of his final movie scores was for El Greco, a biopic of the Greek-born painter who achieved success in Spain, and this became the highest-grossing Greek film of all time (Vangelis also provided many of the paintings for it).

Forming Bands

However, it was at this time that he formed Forminx (named after an Ancient Greek wind instrument) with four friends after seeing the Beatles. They all got the same haircuts as the Beatles, but it was Vangelis who wrote all the songs (with English lyrics by their DJ/manager Nico Mastorakis), when they graduated from covering Beatles tunes. Forminx quickly became the number one group in Greece and had numerous hits which can still be found on YouTube. They changed their hairstyles as the Beatles did and had just grown beards and long hair when the military dictatorship (usually referred to as The Colonels) came to power overnight in Greece in a military coup. This was particularly unfortunate as not only did The Colonels disapprove of pop music but also beards and long hair. The Forminx was forcibly disbanded, Polydor (Greece) forbidden to sell their records and Vangelis found himself at a loose end but with the Hammond organ that he had recently acquired.

His father and he moved it back to Athens where he painted the Hammond gold and got a residency in a jazz club, putting together a jazz group called The Papathanassiou Set (from his rather long surname which is a bit of a tongue twister for English-speaking people). While the lineup changed, Vangelis began scoring Greek films and notched up half a dozen movies in two years.

The Papanathassiou Set lineup eventually settled on singer/bassist Demis Roussos (with whose falsetto vocals Vangelis would work for many years), Loukas Sideras on drums and Anargyros Koulouris, nicknamed Silver, on guitar. Frustrated by their inability to play to more than small jazz club audiences and not being allowed to release records, they decided to move to England and sold their instruments to pay for the move and to buy new instruments in London. Vangelis took a little longer to sell his Hammond as nobody wanted a gold one, so he and his father had to sand off the gold paint and revarnish it. Silver was called up for military service, Vangelis was already too old but Roussos and Sideras left for Paris by train to avoid theirs. They then headed for England but their luggage was searched by English customs and when they found song lyrics they were denied entry.

The group were reunited in Paris but without instruments and their money was fast running out. Vangelis saw that Polydor were having an international conference in Paris and talked his way in to meet the French head of Polydor (who had sold a few Forminx records to the Greek ex-pat community in Paris). Announcing this was his new group, the French president of Polydor asked if they had any new material and Vangelis lied and said "yes" but that they had no instruments to record with. The president arranged for them to record a demo in Polydor’s own studio in Paris (much like EMI’s Abbey Road in London). Here Vangelis was reunited with a Hammond organ and the others found drums and guitars. But they had to come up with some new material fast to record.

The big hit that summer was Procul Harum's 'Whiter Shade Of Pale' which Vangelis instantly recognised as being derived from JS Bach’s 'Air On A G String' and he came up with the idea of using another popular classic, Pachabel’s 'Canon', as the basis for their first single. They duly recorded it as an instrumental at Polydor’s studio and the president of Polydor France came to hear the playback. He decided it needed vocals and more importantly English lyrics and sent a German who was writing English lyrics for Michel Legrand, Boris Bergman, to the studio the next day.

Aphrodite's Child, with Vangelis top-left.Aphrodite's Child, with Vangelis top-left.After several hours they had nothing so they retired to a cafe to deliberate but found themselves in the middle of a French student riot in which the French riot police used tear gas. The band and Boris were blinded by the tears streaming down their faces but then miraculously it began to rain and turning their faces up to the sky, the rain washed the tear gas out of their eyes. Boris was inspired and they rushed back to the studio to record the vocals on 'Rain And Tears'. They played it to the president over the phone and he immediately booked the pressing plants and booked them on a TV show as Aphrodite’s Child, a name he made up on the spot referring to their Greek origins and the summer of love on which the Rolling Stones were known to be appearing, the following night to mime to the song. But France was hit by a general strike and before the Stones could sing their song, a technician cut the broadcast. As a result, 'Rain And Tears' was the last song broadcast before the shutdown. However, the radio stations included it on a tape loop they broadcast during the strike and as a result the record rocketed up the charts. The tour he had sent the band on started with very small audiences but became so successful that larger venues had to be booked and there were riots at the doors because people couldn’t get in.

The rest of Europe followed suit and the record was even a hit in the UK (which had turned them away at Dover the previous year). As a result the band was allowed in to record their second album at Trident Studios (the title was a reference to the French name for English teatime 'le Five O’Clock') and the title song 'It’s Five O’Clock' was another big hit internationally. Vangelis composed three albums full of songs with various lyricists with Aphrodite's Child but was so traumatised by the Rain And Tears tour that he refused to tour with a band ever again. A replacement keyboard player, Harris Halkiltis, was found for the tour to promote the second album (and he made contributions to the third album). As Vangelis was receiving all the royalties he became far richer than the rest of the band but invested heavily in the newly-emerging electric keyboards and even electronic keyboards.

Aphrodite’s Child’s third album, a double LP entitled 666, is about the end of the world with lyrics by film director Costas Ferris. Based on the Book Of Revelations, it was virtually a Vangelis solo album using all these new sound timbres (the band actually split during the recording as the rest of them didn’t like the concept), very similar to Genesis’ 'Supper’s Ready' recorded later but released at the same time. Greek actress Irene Papas guested on vocals on the album, screaming on the ∞ track (years before Floyd’s 'Great Gig In The Sky'). Mercury Records decided it was the sound of a woman orgasming and refused to release it. Salvador Dali heard the album and became a champion for it to be released, although a Barcelona party to promote it never happened. The record was finally released on Vertigo (a Mercury subsidiary) in June 1972. The sales were disappointing although Vangelis maintained that the sales in the US were promising as the first two albums had not done well there. Today it is hailed as an early progressive rock classic and mentioned in the same breath as contemporaries from Yes, Genesis and Emerson, Lake and Palmer and even as drawing on Sergeant Pepper as a main influence.

Scoring Films

Vangelis now began to score films in France, most notably for Henry Chapier’s Sex Power (1970), Salut, Jerusalem (1970) and Amore (1974) which were cult films exploring sex and relationships, but his most successful work was a series of animal documentaries by Frédérick Rossif and a soundtrack was released as L’Apocalypse Des Animaux. It was the first Vangelis soundtrack to chart and outperformed the documentary film sales (a real sign of things to come).

Vangelis also released a solo album in 1972 entitled Fais que ton rêve soit plus long que la nuit, French for Make Your Dream Last Longer Than the Night, which was something Vangelis saw scrawled on a wall in Paris during those 1968 riots that inspired 'Rain And Tears'. He described it as a “poéme symphonique” and this was followed by a second solo album called Earth. Both sold very gently but the word was beginning to get out that there was a new kid in electronic music town.

Vangelis in the studio with keyboards

Jon Anderson

In 1974, Rick Wakeman quit Yes over the Tales From Topographic Oceans album and tour, and so Yes needed a new keyboard player. Jon Anderson and his record company boss Phil Carson had heard about this Greek keyboard wizard in Paris but no-one could give them anything but the address of his home/studio, so they jumped on a plane to Paris and took a taxi to the address they had. A beautiful girl opened the door to them and waved them in when they said the name Vangelis. As they walked to the pile of keyboards in the distance, an arrow flew across the room and embedded itself in a bullseye target next to them.

“Is he trying to kill us?” asked Jon Anderson. Phil Carson peered at the perfectly placed arrow and replied, “I think if he wanted to kill us, we would be dead already!”

In fact, archery was one of Vangelis’ favourite hobbies and he almost represented Greece in the Olympics when he was a teenager. In every studio where Vangelis worked he would put a target so that when he was struggling to come up with the right melody, he would loose off a few arrows to help him focus.

After the initial fright they were soon able to persuade him to come to London to try out with Yes for a few weeks and Phil Carson agreed that they would ship all of Vangelis' keyboards to London and arrange his visa status.

Things were going well in rehearsal and a piece emerged which Yes fans often refer to as 'Soon' (the final quiet section of 'Gates Of Delirium' from Relayer) which featured mainly Vangelis’ keyboards over which Jon Anderson’s angelic vocals and Steve Howe’s slide guitar (bathed in echo) soar in almost painful beauty. Vangelis was in and plans started to be made. But then someone mentioned touring and Vangelis was adamant that he would never tour again. So within minutes Vangelis was out of the band he had just joined!

Vangelis didn’t care, he and his keyboards were legally in London where he had tried to come 10 years before with Aphrodite’s Child. He quickly made a deal to give Yes the copyright on ‘Soon’ in exchange for not recouping the costs of bringing him and all his equipment to London and the visa charges, plus a gentleman’s agreement that Jon would sing one song on Vangelis' next solo album (presaging an extraordinarily successful partnership).

Nemo Studios c.1984 showing Vangelis' keyboard setup.Nemo Studios c.1984 showing Vangelis' keyboard setup.Photo: Matthew Vosburgh, courtesy

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Nemo Studios

Vangelis bought an old girls' school in Hampton Gurney Street (round the back of Marble Arch), christened it Nemo (after Jules Vernes solitary hero from '20,000 Leagues Under The Sea') and filled it with the latest technology and began to work on his next solo album.

Vangelis Heaven And Hell album coverVangelis' Heaven And Hell album coverHe enlisted a London choir as well as the golden tonsils of Jon Anderson and produced his first real masterpiece Heaven And Hell (one side of the LP dedicated to the celestial and the other to the “other place!”). The song 'So Long Ago, So Clear' created a sound that would become Jon & Vangelis and in the late Seventies and early Eighties, when Jon was on a break from Yes, the duo had several hits all of which emerged from Nemo Studios (one, 'State Of Independence', was even covered in 1982 by Donna Summer attempting to get away from her raw sexuality early work and into something more cerebral).

Chariots Of Fire

But there were even greater things afoot. Film director Hugh Hudson, looking for an establishing title sequence of his new film about runners at any early Olympics, used an early piece of Vangelis music, 'L’Enfant', to cut it to. He and producer David Putnam went to show the sequence to Vangelis to ask for the rights to use it. To their amazement, Vangelis refused. “It’s not quite right,” he said, “but don’t worry, I have the perfect piece!”

Hugh Hudson looked worried but not as much as David Putnam, who said “We don’t have the money to do another cut of the film!” They went away depressed.

Two days later, Putnam was having dinner with his wife outside on the pavement at Scott’s on Mount Street in Mayfair, when Vangelis pulled up in his Rolls Royce and called to him.

“I have the right piece for the Titles!”, he shouted through the open car window!

“Go away,” Putnam retorted, “ I don’t have the money for a new cut!”

His wife however persuaded him to get in the car and listen. Putnam did so and as the piece died away, he put his head in his hands.

“What’s the matter?” asked Vangelis, “is it not perfect like I told you?”

“Yes,” groaned Putnam, “it is and now I have to find the money for a new cut!”

Chariots Of Fire movie posterVangelis said, “I will not charge you one penny for it because it is the tune I wrote for my father as a child when he had been running, which I have fitted to the ostenuto synth trigger so that it will still fit Hugh’s title sequence with no re-editing! Instead I will make an entire album to honour my father and I will release it on my record label. You get the music for free.”

“Thank God,” said Putnam, "so I only need money for a new print! I can find that!”

The rest is cinema history! Chariots Of Fire, the first true electronic original movie soundtrack (Wendy Carlos mainly used Bach and Beethoven as starting points for her soundtracks) went on to win numerous plaudits, Vangelis’ expanded soundtrack went double platinum in territories like Chile and Pakistan, and then the Oscar nomination came in.

But then Vangelis dropped another bombshell — he would not fly to Los Angeles as he had a morbid fear of flying! Even when P&O offered him a free state room on the Queen Elizabeth II liner to New York and Amtrak offered him a free scenic rail car across America to LA.

Blade Runner

But Vangelis was not interested in awards, he knew the quality of his work before he sold millions of albums worldwide, but he had an even more exciting project. He had met with Ridley Scott, rising superstar director of Alien, who had another science-fiction tale to tell. “I want a soundtrack made of sounds that no-one has ever heard before,” Ridley had told him. Vangelis had recently hired a new sound designer (Sound On Sound contributor Paul Wiffen, recently made unemployed by the bankruptcy of Electronic Dream Plant, the Wasp synth manufacturers) and was keen to get to work on Blade Runner. In fact, they were working on this groundbreaking score, heavily featuring the Yamaha CS80 polysynth and the first Emulator to modify acoustic sounds, when the call came from Hugh Hudson in Los Angeles that Vangelis had won the Oscar for Chariots. Everyone in the studio slapped Vangelis on the back in congratulations!

“That’s nice,” he said, “recognition is always nice, but it’s not important! The work we are doing tonight will become even more famous because we are pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable in a movie soundtrack!”

He was right! Blade Runner was so ahead of its time that the studio refused to release the electronic soundtrack and hired an orchestra to re-record a conventional version. Vangelis went ballistic and injuncted the release which led to a judicial dispute which delayed the release of the original electronic score for more than a decade. But the score in the movie gained BAFTA and Golden Globes nominations (always a more discerning audience) but again it was too far ahead of its time and the awards went to more conventional scores.

More Movie Scores

Undismayed, Vangelis also completed scores for both Missing and The Year Of Living Dangerously in that same year at Nemo before deciding to move his studio to the top floor of the Hotel Pierre, overlooking Central Park in New York, to work on the score for The Bounty starring Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson. Paul Wiffen brought the prototype of the Akai S900 sampler direct from its debut at the Chicago NAMM show to use to give Vangelis the extra fidelity for the shimmering seascapes in the movie.

Meanwhile, two court cases had raised their ugly heads. While Vangelis was fighting to keep the boring orchestral version of Blade Runner from being sold, he himself was being sued by a Greek composer Stavros Logarides because of the resemblance between Chariots main title and his 'City Of Violets' song. Vangelis stated he had not heard this song until after Chariots was released but when he was not believed, he moved his entire studio to the courtroom and showed how he composed to the screen showing the movie. The case was immediately dismissed with Vangelis receiving all his costs from EMI, who had brought the case against Polydor who had released Vangelis’ score.

Having won both cases, Vangelis moved to Rome where he contributed to Nosferatu A Venezia, a vampire film starring Klaus Kinski, and composed the entire score for Francesco, Liliani Cavani’s English remake of her own film about St Francis of Assisi, starring Mickey Rourke. It was not a comfortable experience and one night when attempting to score a scene of Mickey Rourke rolling naked in the snow (to mortify the flesh as he had been having lascivious thoughts), he confided to Wiffen, “Paul, sometimes this is the best job in the world, but tonight, having to watch another man’s manhood flopping about, it is definitely the worst job in history!” The movie played to modest reviews as Vangelis’ heart really was not in it.

Fortunately, better fare was waiting in the wings! First Roman Polanski hired him to score Bitter Moon (Hugh Grant’s first film also starring Kristen Scott and Emmanuelle Signer, Polanski’s wife) and then while he was on Polanski’s Jury at the 1991 Cannes Festival, he had Wiffen set up all his keyboards on the top floor of the Carlton Hotel and he would compose the score to 1492: Conquest Of Paradise, Ridley Scott’s film about the Christopher Columbus discovery and subjugation of the New World, starring Gerard Depardieu and Sigourney Weaver, when he returned from watching films in competition (another experience he hated and vowed never to repeat). The score for 1492 could not be late because the movie had to be released in 1992 to mark the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ epic voyage.

A Golden Globe nomination followed but none for the Oscars, a fact most attribute to Vangelis not showing up 10 years earlier to collect the Chariots Oscar.

Indifferent, Vangelis moved on to score a Jacques Cousteau TV Series 'Discover The World II', a Greek film Kavafis and Mythodea, a symphonic album of music for the NASA Mission to Mars in 2001. His appeal to the astronomic community was reawakened (Carl Sagan had used his early music for his 'Cosmos' TV series) and there followed a stream of space documentaries for NASA and the European Space Agency, including the 'Rosetti Mission to the Comet', and 'From The Moon To Mars'.

But Vangelis was not done with cinema yet, and in 2004 Oliver Stone asked him to score his movie of Alexander (the Great, who united all Greece). The movie spiralled out of control with costs from shooting in many different countries but Vangelis pulled it all together into a coherent narrative by providing a leitmotif throughout Alexander’s many campaigns.

Vangelis at the premiere of El Greco in 2007Vangelis at the premiere of El Greco in 2007.The last movie that Vangelis scored was in Greece, El Greco, combining Vangelis two passions, music and painting (fortunately it was free of flying arrows) and this became the highest grossing Greek film of all time.

Meanwhile, the growing association of Vangelis’s music with athletics led to him being asked to open the Athens Olympics in 2004 with a huge live concert and at the London 2012 Olympics, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performed the 'Chariots Of Fire' theme complete with Rowan Atkinson in his Mr Bean persona, playing the synth-triggered ostenuto on the single note. In 2012, Vangelis himself chose to appear atop the Marquee at the Olivier Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue (where the play of Chariots Of Fire was being performed), playing 'Chariots Of Fire' as the Olympic Torch was carried past in the weeks preceding the Games themselves.

Vangelis won three Grammies for Chariots Of Fire, Oceanic and the Rosetta project to go alongside his Oscar for Chariots and Golden Globe nominations for Blade Runner and Missing and BAFTA nomination for Blade Runner. But the greatest accolade of all is that in a recent poll, Blade Runner was voted the greatest film of all time, beating out both Citizen Kane and Star Wars into 2nd and 4th place. And Blade Runner is unthinkable without the Vangelis score, which changed movie composing for ever.

For some, Vangelis was Aphrodite’s Child, for other’s a great solo artist and sonic innovator, for many Jon Anderson’s other collaborator with 'I’ll Find My Way Home' and 'I Hear You Now'. But everyone agrees that Vangelis' scoring of the emotive scene from Blade Runner where Roy Batty saves Deckard’s life, just before losing his own, brings all the pathos to the fore. Rutger Hauer improvised the dialogue, which could have been written for this moment:

“All these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die!"

Fortunately, all of Vangelis’ marvellous music will not be lost in time as we will continue to listen to it, his immortality like all Greek heroes, is assured! RIP Vangelis.

by Paul Wiffen

Here's a wonderful Pear Films documentary from YouTube: Vangelis - The Unknown Man, which features lots of discussions with the composer, and shots of his studio gear.

Paul Wiffen (SynthGuru) will be talking about his work with Vangelis and many of the other artists he’s worked for in his '40 Years Of Sound Design' talk at SynthFest UK, 8th October 2022.

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