Welcome back to Noisegate’s special series Behind The Score. We are very excited to present these investigative articles, which will explore all the nerdy details and behind-the-scenes secrets of synthesised film soundtracks. We’ve already covered the infamously intricate Wendy Carlos Moog’s score for A Clockwork Orange and David Lynch’s score for Twin Peaks, so once you’ve read this edition, make sure to catch up on those and other Behind the Score articles. This time we are run with the 1981 British historical drama, Chariots of Fire, and its memorable electronic theme tune by Vangelis.
The soundtrack to Chariots of Fire has become so iconic it feels almost detached from the movie that it scores; depicting two runners training for the 1924 Olympics. The eponymy title track, with the main characters running on the beach, has taken on a life of its own, often used and parodied in various television programs, adverts, and sporting events, including, of course, the Olympics. Winning four Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. The film is also notable for its memorable electronic theme tune by Vangelis, who won the Academy Award for Best Original Score. Perhaps most notably, it was the choice of music used when Steve Jobs introduced the first Macintosh computer in 1984. Other songs from the film are equally sweeping, stressing the Olympian grandeur of sporting prowess.
Although the film is a period piece set in the 1920s, the original soundtrack composed by Vangelis uses a modern 1980’s electronic sound and while the piano plays the main theme with swirling arpeggios to trigger a strong emotional response of triumph, Vangelis used his Yamaha CS-80 Polyphonic synthesiser extensively on this production. This was a bold and significant departure from earlier period films, which employed sweeping orchestral instrumentals.
Chariots of Fire captured composer Vangelis at the peak of his early sound. While no one will have escaped the catchy main theme, there is a lot of other music on Chariots of Fire that is not as well known, but that holds up well after all these years. The first five tracks introduce the main themes that were used in the film. After the ‘Titles’, ‘Five Circles’ is a quiet, pensive theme; it’s played with a synthesised brass sound that’s vaguely like a french horn. ‘Abraham’s Theme’ is another reflective song; it’s played with the bell-like tone of a Fender Rhodes piano. The main theme is simple and folk-like with Vangelis creating tension by adding a variety of strange synth sounds in the background.
It’s a classy production from the peak of the analogue subtractive synthesiser era, with its lush strings, deep bass, cutting synth brass and cracking noise percussion. Although being synthesiser dominated, it is actually a mix of synth and acoustic instruments.
Vangelis has been quoted as saying that he shares the ancient Greek idea that music is a science rather than an art. All of which might explain why he was called “the godfather of new age music”, although he believes it is a style that “gave the opportunity for untalented people to make very boring music”.
In spite of his parents’ urging, he didn’t go to music school: “I was lucky not to go because music schools close doors rather than open them.” Instead, he took another tack and became a rock musician. “I was a classical musician, and I’m still not sure whether this was a mistake.”
In the 80’s he established himself as a wizard on the new-fangled synthesisers that were then coming to the fore, working on films and befriending Jon Anderson, the singer with rock band Yes, who collaborated with him on hits including I’ll Find My Way Home.
Here Vangelis talks about scoring Chariots of Fire, and how one of the most memorable themes in the history of music almost never came to be.