Forever No. 1 is a Billboard series that pays special tribute to the recently deceased artists who achieved the highest honor our charts have to offer — a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single — by taking an extended look at the chart-topping songs that made them part of this exclusive club. Here, we honor the late Vangelis with a flashback to his lone Hot 100-topper, the perennially rousing and graceful early-’80s athletics anthem “Chariots of Fire.”
A wonderful irony of American sports – jingoistic during Olympic season, mostly provincial otherwise – is that so much of it has a European soundtrack: the English grandiosity of “Heavy Action” and “We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions”; Zombie Nation and Darude’s hard trance chant-alongs; the Low Country hip-house that’s stlil synonymous with jock jams. By contrast, “Chariots of Fire” – the surprise Hot 100-topping single by Greek musician/composer Vangelis, who died last week (May 17) at the age of 79 – is much less energetic. But its slo-mo triumphalism, made for TV replays rather than in-arena hype, made it a staple of highlights packages for decades afterward.
Unlike, say, “Sandstorm,” “Chariots” was composed specifically with athletics in mind, and not the charts. Vangelis, the self-taught keyboardist born Evángelos Papathanassíou in the coastal town of Agria, had tried his hand at pop stardom in the ‘60s, forming a couple of rock bands while also composing for the odd film. After the dissolution of his popular prog/psych act Aphrodite’s Child in the early 1970s, Vangelis moved to England, where he picked up a regular set of collaborators, both musical (Jon Anderson of Yes) and visual (commercial and film director Hugh Hudson). At the close of the the decade, Hudson was directing a modestly budgeted period film about two British Olympic athletes titled Chariots of Fire; Vangelis had agreed to score the film.
One key scene, featuring actors and local runners running on a Scottish beach, was filmed with Vangelis’ “L’enfant” (from a previous soundtrack, 1979’s Opéra Sauvage) booming out over the sands. Hudson and producer David Puttnam (The Duellists, Midnight Express) planned to add “L’enfant” to the final edit, but Vangelis maintained that he could write something even better, while maintaining the same tempo. “My father is a runner,” Hudson recalled to Runner’s World of Vangelis saying at the time, “and this is an anthem to him.”
After completing the theme, Vangelis hopped into his Rolls-Royce and drove to a London restaurant, where Puttnam and his wife were dining. Vangelis urged them outside, then pumped hs new composition through the car speakers. His audience was suitably impressed. It made no difference that the theme, like “L’enfant,” was composed on Vangelis’ beloved Yamaha CS-80 polyphonic synthesizer, which provided him with rich timbral possibilities and the feel of an acoustic keyboard. Though filmed historical fiction typically eschewed modern instrumentation – especially synths – Vangelis had concocted something suitably neoclassical, with a stately melody introduced on piano, then ported to a variety of synthesized voicings.
On the Chariots of Fire soundtrack album, the composition was listed as “Titles”; as a single, it was alternately called “Chariots of Fire – Titles” or just “Chariots of Fire”. No matter the name, the song made an instant impression in Great Britain, where the film saw first release. The opening scene – a contemporary memorial service for gold-medal sprinter Harold Abrahams – dissolves to that beach-set shot: a couple dozen young men running down that St. Andrews seaside, in matching white togs and clashing expressions of determination, effort and ecstasy. The playback is slowed to meet the theme’s tempo; the theme, in turn, grants these runners both a reliable cadence (that one-note synth pulse, the percussive footfalls) and a commemorative flourish (that two-note, anticipatory French horn approximation).
The result was a sort of love theme for the then-nascent MTV Age: an easy-listening earworm given an indelible visual dimension. (And that’s leaving aside the iconic-in-its-own-way music video, which featured Vangelis playing the entire arrangement while a cigarette smolders on his piano.) As the movie opened in North America, the beach scene reached untold numbers of parodists: Chevy Chase, Michael Keaton, Hall and Oates. In no time at all, “Chariots of Fire” and a footrace became comedy shorthand, a sardonic way to play up small stakes.
It didn’t hurt the film’s performance, as Chariots of Fire ended its theatrical run as the highest-grossing foreign film ever. (It was also fortuitous that Chariots, released after the heavily boycotted 1980 Moscow Games, depicted the triumph of Anglophonic Olympians.) The film cleaned up at the 1982 Academy Awards, winning four Oscars, including best picture – and best original score. Vangelis’ win only goosed the already-impressive chart performance of “Chariots of Fire,” which had been hanging around the Hot 100 since the middle of winter. When the song hit the number-one spot on the chart dated May 8th (ending the seven-week reign of “I Love Rock & Roll” by Joan Jett & The Blackhearts), it was its 22nd week on the chart, at the time one of the longest climbs ever to pole position.
“Chariots of Fire” was a rare Hot 100 No. 1 in several respects. It was the first instrumental No. 1 of the post-disco era – the previous one being Herb Alpert’s 1979 slow-groover “Rise” – and it would be the next-to-last one of the century alongside Jan Hammer’s “Miami Vice Theme.” It was the first (and to date, only) Hot 100-topper by a Greek artist – though George Michael, a Londoner of Greek-English heritage, would visit the top spot several times later that decade. And it’s arguably the only No. 1 that could be classified as new-age. (The closest anyone’s gotten since were Enigma’s two top five singles in the ‘90s, depending on how prominent you feel Enya’s contribution is to Mario’s 2004 No. 2 hit “I Don’t Want to Know”.)
Along with fellow turn-of-the-’80s soundtracks to Thief (Tangerine Dream), The Shining (Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind), and Midnight Express (Giorgio Moroder, who also won an Oscar for his score), the success of Chariots of Fire’s accompanying LP pointed to the synth’s viability as a primary compositional instrument. Vangelis was now scoring with house money. His next soundtrack assignment — Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner — wouldn’t sell nearly as well as Chariots, but its skewed-neon ambience would prove massively influential to generations of producers making everything from techno to synthwave. For the rest of his life, he would produce great work – at turns cosmic, operatic, melodic, irruptive – for a variety of media, but the relatively straightforward and bell-clear Chariots remained his high-water chart mark. (His only other entry on the Billboard 200 albums chart would be a 1987 CD reissue of Opéra Sauvage.)
No matter: his “Chariots” theme had legs. It has remained a sitcom go-to, recently making appearances on Fresh Off the Boat, Young Sheldon, and 2 Broke Girls. It accompanied the introduction of the Macintosh and batted middle of the order on the blockbuster new-age compilation Pure Moods. And, of course, Olympic telecast producers proved powerless before its romantic determinism. “Chariots” became a perennial staple of highlights and medal presentations, both in America and its native Britain. Three decades on, Chariots of Fire’s story of English determination and triumph was familiar enough that the signature composition was tabbed the official theme of the 2012 London Games. (The theme’s comedic potential had not dimmed either; a Rowan Atkinson sendup was prominently featured in the opening ceremony.) Vangelis’ time atop the Hot 100 was brief but spectacular: a podium stand on some bygone, golden afternoon.