In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
At this point, it exists more as parody than as actual song. Kids seem to know it from birth. Gym teachers must be sick to death of it. The Olympics have adapted the song as a sort of unofficial anthem — a transcultural and language-free hymn to human achievement. And yet this thing was a song — and, against all odds, a hit.
Chariots Of Fire, one of the highest-grossing films of 1981, opens with a speech at a funeral. On old man sincerely rhapsodizes about what it was once like to run “with hope in our hearts and wings on our heels.” Then the image dissolves, and we see these young men as they were — clad in deeply uncomfortable-looking all-white situations, looks of exhausted ecstasy plastered across their big faces, running in slow motion across a grey British beach. Over the course of my life, I’ve made a few good-faith attempts to watch Chariots Of Fire, and I’ve never made it past that opening scene. It just looks boring. I see those guys running, and I get bored. The rest of the world apparently disagreed.
Chariots Of Fire, a G-rated British sports movie with no stars and a whole lot of talk about the glory of God, earned more than $60 million at the US box office. It outgrossed The Cannonball Run and For Your Eyes Only and The Fox And The Hound. Chariots Of Fire also dominated at the Oscars, winning the Best Picture Oscar that should’ve rightfully gone to Raiders Of The Lost Ark by far the year’s highest-grossing film. (I know I just said that I’ve never watched Chariots Of Fire, but there is no way in tarnation Chariots Of Fire is a better movie than Raiders.) The Greek composer Vangelis also won Best Original Score, beating out John Williams for Raiders. Williams didn’t hold a grudge; a year later, along with the Boston Pops Orchestra, Williams recorded his own take on the Chariots main-title theme.
Before he won that Oscar, Vangelis was not exactly a Hollywood insider. He was more of a mysterious Greek new-age prog-rock wizard who recorded expansively synthy meditations, sometimes for nature films. Born Evángelos Odysséas Papathanassíou and raised mostly in Athens, Vangelis had formed a rock band called the Forminx in 1963. That same year, he also scored his first movie, a Greek film called My Brother, The Traffic Policeman. After a military coup had turned Greece into a right-wing dictatorship in 1967, Vangelis fled the country, settling in Paris and getting together with some other Greek ex-pats to form a prog band called Aphrodite’s Child.
Aphrodite’s Child had some success around Europe with their 1968 single “Rain And Tears,” and they remained huge in Italy for a few years, but they broke up in 1971 while working on a double album called 666. Vangelis moved to London, started making solo albums and documentary scores, and turned down an invitation to replace the departing Rick Wakeman in Yes. Later on, starting in 1980, Vangelis and Yes frontman Jon Anderson made a bunch of records together. (Yes will eventually appear in this column.)
In 1980, Carl Sagan used a piece of Vangelis’ slow and overwhelmed synth-and-piano music as the opening theme for Cosmos: A Personal Journey, his much-loved isn’t-science-cool PBS series. That same year, Vangelis agreed to score Chariots Of Fire. He was an unconventional choice. Electronic film scores were still pretty new, and they seemed to imply a sort of futurism. There’s nothing futuristic about Chariots Of Fire. But producer David Puttnam had used Vangelis’ music in his 1978 movie Midnight Express, and Giorgio Moroder had won an Oscar for that film’s score. Director Hugh Hudson had worked with Vangelis on documentaries and commercials. And Vangelis liked the idea of composing something that could pay tribute to his father, an amateur sprinter.
As film scores go, the Chariots Of Fire opening theme is awfully memorable. There’s a sort of artful juxtaposition between all the electronic elements — the echoing drum clap, the oscillating drone, the obviously-not-real horns — and the florid piano that plays the main melody. More importantly, the melody itself is warm and pretty and instantly identifiable. With those six notes, Vangelis gets across a combination of exhilaration and contemplation. If those runners hadn’t been moving in slow motion, it never would’ve worked. But combined with those images, the music evokes a feeling of achievement and glory, of time slowing down when you’re doing something great.
Of course, film scores tend to run into a problem when you remove them from the context of their films. They’re pieces of music built to play in the background, to highlight and ornament images, not to stand on their own. If you don’t have much affection for the films that the music soundtracks — and I obviously have no affection for Chariots Of Fire — then they can seem pointless. With “Chariots Of Fire,” that’s not really a problem. As a song, it’s short and stirring and generally pretty interesting. It keeps that big central melody coming back again and again, and it keeps changing and developing, layering on bigger and bigger fake-orchestra crescendoes. As a piece of pop music, I don’t find it terribly compelling. But I don’t really get bored, either.
Vangelis was afraid of flying, so he didn’t attend the Academy Awards in 1982. (He’s still only ever played one show in America.) That means he didn’t get to see an extremely sparkly Liberace play his song when introducing the nominees. Kathleen Turner and William Hurt were given the awkward job of explaining that Vangelis wasn’t there to accept his award. Vangelis later said that he’d been out drinking in London the night before and that he’d been woken up by a phone call telling him that he’d won. A month and a half later, “Chariots Of Fire” finished a long 21-week climb to #1.
Vangelis wasn’t a pop musician, and he won’t be in this column again. In fact, Vangelis has only charted on the Hot 100 once more. In 1987, for reasons that I can’t figure out, his 1979 documentary-soundtrack instrumental “Opera Sauvage” peaked at #42. So “Chariots Of Fire” was a fluke — one of those fun and weird little stories that occasionally crops up in pop-chart history.
Vangelis stayed busy after his pop-chart moment. In 1982, Vangelis did the haunted, rain-swept score for Blade Runner; it remains his best-loved work among dorks like me. He scored Missing and The Bounty and Oliver Stone’s misbegotten Alexander. He made more records with Jon Anderson. France made him a knight in 2017, and he just put out an album last year. Vangelis has said that Chariots Of Fire isn’t his best score, and he’s right about that. But the Chariots Of Fire score is the one that crossed over, went pop, and became a part of the shared cultural experience.
BONUS BEATS: Over the years, “Chariots Of Fire” has showed up in many, many comedies, soundtracking moments of slow-motion running. In 1983 alone, there were two big ones. First, a “Chariots Of Fire” soundalike scored a scene of Michael Keaton intentionally losing a race at his wife’s office picnic in Mr. Mom:
Then, a week later, the real Chariots Of Fire theme soundtracked the superior scene where Chevy Chase and his family run up to the close Wally World entrance in National Lampoon’s Vacation, a movie that opened only a week after Mr. Mom:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: When Steve Jobs introduced the first Macintosh computer in 1984, he set the presentation to “Chariots Of Fire.” Here’s the brain-melting time-capsule video:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: At the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, Rowan Atkinson, in character as Mr. Bean, joined the London Symphony Orchestra to play “Chariots Of Fire.” Atkinson played the keyboard. It’s a great bit. Here it is: