A surprising number of huge-selling, classic albums came out in March 1994: Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral, Soundgarden’s Superunknown, Pink Floyd’s The Division Bell. But the most perplexing hit, both then and now, arrived 25 years ago today. Chant was an album of Gregorian chants recorded decades earlier by Spain’s Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos.
The record was a fairly straightforward compilation of gentle, soothing, mystical chants in Latin, and somehow it became a sales juggernaut. By May, the record made it up to Number Three on the Billboard 200, and it ultimately spent 53 weeks on the chart. It was also Number One on the Classical Albums chart and Number 17 on the Christian Albums chart. The label that released Chant, Angel Records (of course), made a music video for the track “Alleluia, beatus vir qui suffert” (“Happy is the man who endures”) for MTV, though it appears not to be online. By July, the RIAA certified it double platinum; by contrast The New York Times reported at the time that a typical classical album could expect to sell only about 10,000 copies in its first year.
Maybe most perplexing is the fact that the recordings had come out years earlier, on four separate releases between 1973 and 1982. These were later packaged into a two-disc set, Las Mejores Obras del Canto Gregoriano, which was released in Spain, where it reached Number One in 1993. The Spanish label that put it out marketed it as a stress reliever. This tipped off Angel that it could be a hit, if they could figure out how to sell it.
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“We consciously decided to go for the widest possible distribution, the widest possible sales opportunity,” Steven Murphy, Angel’s president, told the Times. “So we took a very classically packaged product, with two CDs and a demure cover and lots of notes about the works, and we programmed a one-CD version of it. We called it Chant, so it would have a name the way a pop album does. And we came up with the cover as a way of appealing to a young audience.”
Improbably, the label’s marketing campaign — coupled with a general zeitgeist that propelled New Agey, Chant-adjacent ensembles like Enigma and Dead Can Dance to stardom — turned it into a hit.
“It’s hip in its own right,” Murphy said of the album to the Chicago Tribune. “It’s not unlike when you had the sound of Jimi Hendrix and the acoustic Grateful Dead. Now, you have Pearl Jam and Chant all in the same space. They are not exclusive.”
It became such a phenomenon, in fact, that the monks’ Spanish monastery, located in Burgos, became a tourist trap in the mid-Nineties. Another Angel rep told Entertainment Weekly in January 1995 that rooms in the abbey were booked through the summer — even if it wasn’t open to all. When the label was running a promotion to win a chance to spend the night there, they had to exclude women because of the monks’ rules. “If a woman wins, she’ll stay in a nearby hotel and be taken on a guided tour,” the rep told the magazine.
Angel followed up its success in subsequent years with three sequels,culled from the original recordings, Chant Noel, Chant II and Chant III; both Noel and II also made it onto the Billboard 200. The rest of the recording industry responded accordingly and flooded record stores with countless Chant rip-offs, all of which are now available for a quarter apiece at your local thrift shop. There was even a parody EP and “monkumentary,” Chantmania, by the Benzedrine Monks of Santo Domonico, on which songs like “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” and “(Theme From) The Monkees” were sung in a Chant style (“Hey, hey, we’re the monks … “). There was also a pig-themed parody CD and book, Grunt: Pigorian Chant From Snouto Domoinko de Silo.
All of the attention did not sit well with the real-life monks, who weren’t seeking so much attention. When Angel’s parent label, EMI, offered them $7.5 million to make new recordings, they turned it down, according to The Washington Post. “In our community we operate under the principle of not needing, and for that reason money does not bother us too much,” a rep (or “spokesmonk,” as WaPo called him) named Abbot Clemente Serna said in 1994. It was rumored at the time that the money they received went to charity and for upkeep around the monastery.
When the paper asked Serna about the gold and platinum plaques the monastery received, he was humble: “I would rather not be thought of as a star,” he said. “I’m just an ordinary monk.”