For golden oldies, nothing is likely to beat "Chant," the hit album consisting of 6th-century Gregorian chants -- austere, unaccompanied, sung in Latin and in unison.
Why, Dick Clark was still in diapers when those songs came out!
Performed by the cloistered Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de Silos in northern Spain (and actually recorded between 1973 and 1982), "Chant" has sold more than 2 million copies in the United States since its release here on March 15; worldwide, the total is approaching 4 million. "Chant" opened at No. 1 on the Billboard classical chart and seems to be reigning there forever and ever; it also went to No. 3 on the pop charts.
It's a miracle!
So much so that Angel Records in May put pressure on the RCA Victor and Delos labels to change the covers on two upcoming albums -- both inventively called "Beyond Chant" -- because they too closely resembled "Chant's" distinctive artwork and lettering. Angel didn't resort to a higher power but to a lower one, the U.S. District Court in New York, which issued cease-and-desist orders.
In June, EMI Music CEO Jim Fifield (EMI owns Angel) reportedly offered the monks $7.5 million for a follow-up album but was turned down. Seems the monks, silent except for the seven times daily that they sing, have been rather taken aback by all the media attention.
Their spokesmonk, Abbot Clemente Serna, seemed unimpressed with Fifield's offer. "In our community we operate under the principle of not needing, and for that reason money does not bother us too much."
That's apparently not true of ex-monks or performing rights organizations, particularly when album sales surpass $70 million and there are very few claims on that money. Since the chants are in the public domain, there are no authors -- or authors' royalties. The monks' performers' royalties -- rumored to be between 4 percent and 10 percent -- are spent for monastery repairs and given to charity.
In June, Teddy Bautista, head of the Spanish General Society of Authors, complained that the society "had lost a great opportunity" because had the monks registered their interpretations or arrangements with the society, they could have earned $5.2 million. Not long after, two former Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de Silos joined the society and, that same day, presented what they claimed were the arrangements used on the recordings and suggested that if they had money coming, they certainly wanted it.
Ismael Fernandez de la Cuesta (who left the order in 1973) and Francisco Javier Lara (who left in 1982) were, in fact, choir directors on the original recordings. Rafael Gil, head of EMI Spain, called them "shameless and unscrupulous," questioning why it took them 21 years to publish their arrangements of songs that have been sung daily for hundreds of years. Other musicologists noted that "arranging" Gregorian chant is impossible since the lines are sung in unison and there are no harmonies or melodies.
The ex-monks' claim against EMI, too, seems headed for a lower authority.
So how did "Chant" become an international phenomenon in a field where a recording with sales of 10,000 units is considered a hit?
It starts in Burgos, where the monks recorded four albums between 1973 and 1982; those albums cumulatively sold 160,000 copies, which caught the eye of EMI Spain, which put together a two-CD set, "Las Mejores Obras del Canto Gregoriano (The Best of Gregorian Chants)." EMI Spain marketed the album, with a demure cover, promoting it as an antidote to stress. It sold 300,000 copies in just a few months, more than half to an 18-25 demographic that seldom supports classical music and that caught the attention of EMI subsidiaries around the world.
In the United States, Angel reduced the double CD to one and reduced the title to a single buzz word, "Chant." It switched to a Pink Floyd-meets-Magritte cover by Marvin Mattelson in which hooded monks float heavenward among the clouds. It adopted a mysterious campaign motto: "Prepare for the Millennium." Angel also supported the album with a PR and marketing blitz more common to its pop counterpart, Capitol/EMI.
After EMI Spain shot a video clip and sales soared there, Angel also shot a video clip for "Alleluia, beatus vir qui suffert." The monks do not appear in it, but the clip contrasts the serenity of their singing with visual representations of the hurly-burly pace of modern life. Neither MTV or VH-1 played it (they did run ads), but "Hallelujah" did show up on The Box and other popular music services.
From there, "Chant" took off, provoking miles of print copy and hours of television stories. It has since become a hit in 20 countries and led other labels to rerelease albums of Gregorian chant that have been in their catalogues for decades (Deutsche Grammophon, for instance, has its own recording by the Silos Monks).
"Chant" went double platinum in 17 weeks, the quickest ever in classical, though still a long way from the 10 million copies "The Three Tenors" sold. However, don't look for any major television concert featuring the 35 monks: They have once again shut out the public after opening the abbey for one day of interviews and filming.
You could tell trouble was brewing when EMI Spain presented the monks with a half-dozen gold and platinum records. Abbot Serna noted then that he was "stunned and abashed. ... I would rather not be thought of as a star. I'm just an ordinary monk."
For their part, Angel and EMI have not let the monks' disinterest in a follow-up slow what has been a very profitable relationship (despite its minimal production costs, "Chant" was released at $15.98 list, like more than half of the Top 40 albums). October will bring "Chant Noel," also drawn from the four old albums, and again featuring a cover by Mattelson.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call 202-334-9000 and press 8171.)
We're No Angel
Then there's "Chantmania," a just-released EP by the Benzedrine Monks of the Monestery de Santo & Johnny in Santo Domonica, Calif. Apparently dedicated to the "sublime music of assured and serene spirits -- Muzakas Sanitus," and accompanied by 101 imaginary strings, these monks have opted for a slightly more modern repertory, hoping to salvage "the godforsaken rock'n'roll community." The EP includes "Losing My Religion," "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy," "Smells Like Teen Spirit," "We Will Rock You" and, naturally, "(Theme From) The Monkees," delivered with appropriate solemnity and modification of title.
Do we smell a Rhino?
Indeed, from the irreverent cover parody to the concept of "transforming heathen hymns into passionate plainsong," this is the work of Rhino Records, with more to come: a "Monkumentary" about the making of the album is being edited as we laugh.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call 202-334-9000 and press 8172.)