It is not easy to appreciate the interest – the fervour even – generated by Erich von Däniken’s book Chariots of the Gods? when it was published in 1969 (the year after the original German publication).
Without doubt the excitement was fuelled by the Apollo 11 moon landing in July of that year. Anything seemed possible: Men on the moon! Men in space! Men from space!
We were a less travelled, less informed, more credulous society back then and our imaginations – sparked by flickering black and white TV images of astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin – were fertile ground for stories of interstellar visitors and alien presences on earth.
So it came to pass that a poorly researched, unscientific collection of tall tales and doctored images by a self-educated Swiss convicted of fraud became an international best-seller.
It’s such a delicious concept. Emissaries from distant stars visit earth to kick-start primitive humanity’s scramble towards civilization. In von Däniken’s universe everything from Stonehenge to Macchu-Picchu points towards ‘contact’ with god-beings from space.
The Daily Mail (UK) was convinced:
Powerful stuff which, no matter how one tries, cannot be discarded as crackpot theories.
A brief Vinyl Connection textual analysis demonstrates that we are not, perhaps, in the zone of hard science. The count is the number of times each word (or derivative) appears in the first four pages of Chariots of the Gods?
Assume / assumption — 7
Estimate — 7
Suppose / supposition — 2
Speculate — 2
Suspect (verb) — 1
Surmise — 1
That’s a stretch-your-credulity rating of 20, suggesting that you have to work pretty damn hard to avoid a one-way trip to Planet Crackpot.
Many of von Däniken’s claims had already appeared in print elsewhere though there are few references to this in his book. (Wikipedia contains significant detail of inaccuracies or fraudulent claims; see below). Critics lined up to decry the Swiss autodidact, with a book-length rebuttal called Crash go the Chariots selling very well itself. This slight publication was by Clifford Wilson MA, BD, PhD. That middle qualification is Divinity. Dr Wilson was a bible scholar and archaeologist, thus rather undermining his own scientific credentials I would have thought. My favourite comment was by astronomer Carl Sagan in the introduction to another book, where he hopes
…for the continuing popularity of books like Chariots of the Gods? in high school and college logic courses, as object lessons in sloppy thinking. I know of no recent books so riddled with logical and factual errors as the works of von Däniken.
But Herr von Däniken is not easily dissuaded. Even into the 21st century the author and former Hotel Manager was simply claiming that science remains unready for his ideas. In 2003 he designed a ‘mysteries of the world’ theme park in his home country. It’s a matter of belief.
Despite the fanciful nature of his claims the popular imagination remained stimulated and funding was secured for a film. Astonishingly, this film was nominated for an Academy Award in 1971, not in the Science Fiction category, but in Documentaries. Of more relevance to us here at Vinyl Connection, however, is the fact that the film had a soundtrack.
One theory that is testable is that the soundtrack of the film, composed by Peter Thomas, is great fun. Although open to the criticism of being a disjointed patchwork, if you think of it as a carousel of styles, sounds and ideas then it is a wonderfully entertaining ride.
Let me try to give an idea of the first side of the album Chariots of the Gods:
Electronic industrial space noise,
Main Theme – stirring strings that evoke Star Trek with only a hint of plagiarism,
Mysterious sounds – Musique concrete,
Cool jazz bass with echoing Germanic countdown,
Jump cut to…
Brass Fanfare with rattlesnake!
Exotica: all strings and Ah-Ah female voices but,
There’s that snake again!
Reprise of the exotic theme.
Sunny pop theme, swingin’!
Frenetic 60s big band freakout.
Main Theme restated; a stately procession of brass and toga-clad maidens,
Interfered with by…
Celestial radio static over bass riff.
Baroque theme: brass and harpsichord with an added shiver of sinister.
Ominous rattlesnake motif in exotic jungle setting
Variation on the Main Theme: imagine Hitchcock in a Mayan Temple.
Big Band Lounge Jazz chart,
An even bigger rattlesnake!
Big Band beats on,
Second Theme (the Sunny Pop one). Could be the soundtrack for a 60s road movie starring Audrey Hepburn,
Ending with a…
Rising string sequence that chills the Mediterranean sunshine.
[end of side one]
Of course, a much simpler way to dip into the album would be to listen to it.
FOOTNOTE OF THE GODS
Herr von Däniken’s second book, Gods from Outer Space, was written in prison where he was serving time for fraud. If you want more of the man himself, he has a web site.
Erich von Däniken (1969) Chariots of the Gods? [Sourvenir Press, UK]
Erich von Däniken (1970) Return to the Stars [Corgi Books, Melbourne]
Wikipedia: Erich von Däniken
Clifford Wilson (1972) Crash go the Chariots [Word of Truth Productions, Melbourne]
The Peter Thomas Sound [Polydor 1970] Chariots of the Gods