Greece’s prog-rock keyboard king has left us at the age of 79
When the world lost Vangelis on May 17, it lost a multitude.
He was an architect of ‘60s pop classics, a psychedelic adventurer, a prog rock keyboard wizard, an electronic auteur, a pioneer of ambient music, a synth-pop trickster, a soundtrack pioneer, and more.
Whether working on his own, with Aphrodite’s Child, Yes’s Jon Anderson, or any of his other collaborators, the man born Evangelos Papathanassiou on March 29, 1943, in Agria, Greece, brought an uncompromising, completely original vision into being. An unlikely rock star, Vangelis was reclusive, disinclined to publicity, abstained from drugs and drink, and rarely performed live, partly due to chronic aerophobia. But he was the most internationally influential musical figure ever to emerge from Greece.
Though Vangelis’s first major band, mid-’60s pop-rockers The Forminx, made a name for themselves in his homeland, he actually fled Greece before any of his best-known projects came about, due to the 1967 coup of right-wing extremists in the country. From his new home base in Paris, he partnered with a new crew of gifted Greek musicians to form Aphrodite’s Child that same year. They began in a psych-pop mode and, buoyed by Demis Roussos’s sweeping, cinematic vocal style and Vangelis’s keyboard tapestries, they scored international hits including the achingly bittersweet ballad “Rain and Tears.”
AUDIO: Aphrodite’s Child “Rain and Tears”
Their third and final album, the double-length 666, was an ambitious, sprawling, completely bonkers prog-rock tour de force destined to become a cult classic. But by the time it came out in 1972, Aphrodite’s Child was no more.
Vangelis had already scored several films by this point, having started composing for movies back in 1963. During the production of 666, he found time to record the prescient, proto-ambient soundtrack for French film L’Apocalypse des Animaux. It was this work that drew the attention of Jon Anderson, who sought out and befriended Vangelis and invited him to join Yes after Rick Wakeman left. Vangelis had other fish to fry.
By that time, he’d released two quirky, eclectic solo albums. But his third, 1975’s Heaven and Hell, was a proggy multi-keyboard masterpiece that really put him on the map as a solo artist. Classics like Albedo 0.39 and Beauborg were soon to follow. But the tireless Vangelis also spent part of the mid-to-late ‘70s in fruitful collaborations. He helped Greek rockers Socrates reach prog glory by partnering with them on 1976’s Phos, created some trailblazing New Wave synth pop with Italy’s Krisma in ‘77 while Gary Numan was still pounding out punk power chords, and crafted exotic electro-acoustic backdrops for Greek actress/singer Irene Papas on 1979’s evocative Odes, all in between his soundtrack work.
VIDEO: Vangelis “Chariots Of Fire”
Vangelis rose to another level in the ‘80s. After finally getting around to a duo album with Anderson and scoring a major UK hit in the process, he cut the most renowned record of his entire career: the elegant-but-accessible, synth-laced soundtrack to 1981’s Chariots of Fire. The album and its main theme both topped the U.S. charts, giving Vangelis a Platinum record and an Oscar for Best Score. When his music for Blade Runner appeared the following year, his immortality in the soundtrack world was assured.
His second album with Anderson, 1981’s synth-poppy The Friends of Mr. Cairo, earned international success under its own steam, but its sphere of influence grew wider when Donna Summer covered it the following year. In the years to come, the prolific keyboardist/composer would keep the solo albums, film soundtracks and collaborations flowing, working with everyone from American electronic artist Suzanne Ciani to old Aphrodite’s Child pal Demis Roussos, freely crossing the borders of pop, classical composition, world music, electronic experimentation, and more, with the impunity of an artist on a mission.
Vangelis kept working right up to the end, releasing his final album, Juno to Jupiter, in late 2021. When he passed away in Paris the following spring at the age of 79, he undoubtedly had countless projects still to come. But he left behind enough triumphs for a hundred artists.
VIDEO: Vangelis “Improvisation” on Musical Express 10/10/82
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