One has to wonder what the producers of Vibes were thinking: a tale of two psychics, compete with a disembodied spirit guide, searching the Andes for a mystical pyramid that is the “source of all psychic energy” in the world? It sounds like Ghostbusters and Raiders of the Lost Ark were combined in a boardroom kitchen blender, and the results were about as palatable; even an affable cast headlined by Jeff Goldblum and Peter Falk couldn’t help. Ignored by 1988 moviegoers and trashed by 1988 critics, Vibes is notable today for only two reasons: it was the first of only a few scattered starring roles for 80s pop sensation Cyndi Lauper, and it featured an original score by rising Hollywood composer James Horner.
By 1988, James Horner was fast becoming an A-list composer in Hollywood, with an impressive succession of hits to his name. Following his breakout score to Star Trek II in 1982, he had successfully branched out across multiple genres, from cult drama hits like The Journey of Natty Gann to animations like An American Tail, with a strong foothold in science fiction in pictures like Aliens (nominated, along with Tail, for an Oscar in 1986). 1988 would prove to be one of his most fruitful years yet, with the animated Land Before Time, the fantasy adventure Willow, the sci-fi sequel Cocoon: The Return, and the gritty urban Red Heat. Almost lost among this impressive filmography is Vibes, which Horner was assigned largely on the strength of his existing relationship with Ron Howard, co-owner of the production company behind the ill-fated film.
Horner chose to tackle Vibes with a synthesizer score composed to picture, a Vangelis-like approach that he had adopted for a few films in the 1980s and one which he completely abandoned after Another 48 Hrs. in 1990. As a result, there are no grand themes or soaring melodies as in the best of the composer’s 1980s work; instead, his music is all about ambient New Age atmosphere. In some cases, as in “Andes Arrival” and “The Journey Begins,” Horner’s music is affable and lively, led by Andean panpipes in such a way that it’s almost indistinguishable from dozens of mood music CDs released around the same time for the same instrument.
To service the darker and more sinister aspects of Vibes, in “Opening the Pyramid” and “Sylvia’s Vision,” Horner creates a chaotic but even less melodic sound. It sounds like nothing Horner has written before or since, though it is perhaps closest to the kettle-drum parts of 48 Hrs. or Commando. One can argue about how effective it is in the film (provided you can find a copy!), but on album it is a dour experience, like a darkly inverted version of a New Age CD or perhaps one of Vangelis’s most troubled score cues.
Given the pervasive ambient atmosphere of the score, and the fact that its best parts are almost indistinguishable from cheap New Age panpipe albums, it’s hard to imagine that, for most of the 2000s, Vibes was the “holy grail” for collectors of James Horner’s music. This is wholly attributable to its scarcity on album: the movie’s dismal failure meant that no commercial album was forthcoming, so Varèse Sarabande issued it as part of their CD Club’s first iteration. Only 1000 copies were pressed, and only people who followed the invitation to write to the label included in some Varèse CD booklets even knew of the product’s existence; Cyndi Lauper fans were left out entirely, though her song contribution to the film was available as a single. So while Vibes was technically available for some time, only the most diehard collectors of the late 1980s and early 1990s even knew of the album’s existence.
None of the James Horner fans attracted by his later scores like Braveheart or Titanic had a chance to buy Vibes before it fell out of print, leaving a gaping hole in their collections. As a result, for some time, used copies of the score sold for astronomical prices as high as $500 and bootlegs of varying quality proliferated to help fill the gap. Varèse Sarabande eventually reissued the original 1988 album in 2013 as part of their “Varèse Encore” series, making an additional 2000 copies available and, at least temporarily, putting the album back in the $20 price range.
One should only seek out Vibes if building a complete James Horner collection or to hear a sound strikingly different from most of the composer’s other output–his best impression of cheap New Age panpipe CDs and Vangelis. To anyone else, the score is a curiosity, and a rare one at that–with only 3000 copies in existence, it is almost certainly cheaper to buy a genuine New Age panpipe CD and a Vangelis album.