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Athens: A city in music

Greek singer Demis Roussos. Picture: PA - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

He might have ended up as a byword for naffness, but Demis Roussos had taken an eventful and experimental route to get there. SOPHIA DEBOICK reports on the singer and other Greek greats.

“Angela likes Demis Roussos, Tony likes Demis Roussos, I like Demis Roussos and Sue would like to hear Demis Roussos. So do you think we could have Demis Roussos on?” And so the monstrously superficial faux-sophisticate suburbanite, Beverly, the anti-hero of Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party, made the Greek singing star forever synonymous with bad taste. While the original stage production of the play used José Feliciano’s Light My Fire, for copyright reasons the 1977 BBC version switched to Roussos’ No.1 hit of the summer of the previous year, Forever and Ever. Beverly’s long-suffering husband’s epithet “that blind Spaniard” was thus replaced with “that fat Greek”.

Roussos’ star had fallen as quickly as it rose and he had already become a byword for kitsch. But before his superstardom, Roussos (who was born in Egypt but fled to Athens as a teenager during the Suez Crisis) had been involved in some seriously avant-garde musical experiments, and his career was shaped by the fortunes of the country he came to be a symbol of, just as the music of the Ancient Greeks was often reflective of the building and fall of empires. In the last century, this 3,500-old city has produced music ranging from the most lightweight and anodyne to the most confrontational and ambitious, but the Greek love of the musical arts always shines through.

Roussos’ first band, the Athens-based The Idols, which included drummer Loukas Sideras and guitarist Silver Koulouris, became the nucleus of Aphrodite’s Child, formed in 1967 with the addition of Vangelis Papathanassiou, an Athens-raised multi-instrumentalist, later to become the king of film music.

It was the height of the psychedelic explosion and Aphrodite’s Child embraced the new zeitgeist with relish. The 1967 Greek military coup saw the band eventually end up in Paris, arriving in the midst of the chaos of the 1968 student riots, and two albums that enjoyed success on the continent followed, as well as three Italian No.1 singles which put Roussos’ unique tremulous high baritone front and centre. But those early records were far outstripped in ambition by 1972’s 666, an epic 24-track double concept album based on the Book of Revelation, written and produced by Vangelis.

666 is the kind of obscurata beloved of the muso cognoscenti, and for its 20-minute freak out All the Seats Were Occupied alone it has entered legend. Sgt. Pepper’s and The Who’s Tommy were clearly present, but parts of this record were wildly experimental. The opening chant of “We got the system to fuck the System!” was appropriate to a band in exile, and the more conventional material varied from the dreamily far out, The Four Horsemen, with its searing guitar solo, to the anthemic Hic Et Nunc. But Infinity was its craziest moment, and resulted in a delay to the album’s release due to fears of ‘obscenity’, as the remarkable Greek film star and Royal School of Dramatic Art in Athens alumnus, Irene Papas, performed a manically repetitive vocal that was by turns orgasmic and just plain stark, raving mad. Such spiciness attracted Salvador Dali into the band’s orbit, and he grandly declared that 666 reminded him both of the Sagrada Familia and Durer’s Apocalypse woodcuts.

666 made little impact in the UK, but it meant that Roussos was free of baggage as he recast himself as a balladeer and made an assault on the mid-1970s British pop charts, having already enjoyed solo success in Europe. At Christmas 1975, Roussos’ Happy to Be on an Island in the Sun was a No. 5 hit, bringing the feel of sunnier climes to the British charts (“Sitting in the sun waiting for a senorita to show/ Guitars playing melodies from Spain and Mexico”).

The triumph of Forever and Ever from his The Roussos Phenomenon EP, the title of a BBC documentary of the same year, was followed by the No. 2 When Forever Has Gone. Although he didn’t trouble the UK Top 10 again, Abigail’s Party proved he had earned iconic status, and he would go on to be featured on some of Vangelis’ most celebrated works.

Cliché also overshadowed the depth and breadth of the work of Mikis Theodorakis, one of Greece’s most revered composers. His music for Zorba the Greek (1964) would come to stand for Greece abroad, but Theodorakis’ incredible life experiences fed into a wealth of far more ambitious musical works.

He arrived in Axis-occupied Athens as an 18-year-old communist resistance fighter and later fought in the Greek Civil War, being tortured and exiled after the government victory. Still, he studied intermittently at the Athens Conservatoire in the same period when Maria Callas was studying there before her return to the US.

In the 1950s, Theodorakis would go to Paris and compose for ballet and film. Returning to Greece, he became an MP for the United Democratic Left in the year of Zorba the Greek’s success, but faced the banning of much of his work by a right-wing government about to tip over into tyranny.

The 1967 coup saw Theodorakis interned, and he was in detention when his Mauthausen Trilogy, a collaboration with camp survivor Iakovos Kambanellis, premiered in London. He went into exile in Paris in 1970 after international pressure was brought to bear, becoming a symbol of the Greek struggle for freedom, and he resumed his political career following the fall of the dictatorship in 1974 while also continuing to compose acclaimed symphonic music and opera.

Latterly, Theodorakis’ politics, declaring himself an “anti-Semite” vis-à-vis the Palestinian cause and uncritically supporting the Serbs in the Yugoslav War, has made him a controversial figure, but the place of Zorba the Greek in popular culture and the emotional ambition of the Mauthausen Trilogy has meant that his work has taken on a life separate from that of its composer.

It was the sound of the traditional eight-stringed bouzouki on Zorba the Greek that gave it its power, and the Oscar-winning title song of 1960’s Never on Sunday by Theodorakis’ fellow adopted Athenian and resistance fighter, Manos Hatzidakis, used a similar device.

Although as celebrated as Theodorakis, Hatzidakis had more involvement in the pop end of things, and he helped make 1976, the year of Roussos’ breakthrough, a vintage year for Athenians on the UK charts. Hatzidakis had been writing songs for Nana Mouskouri since the late 1950s, including her European breakthrough hit of 1961, The White Rose of Athens, and it was that song that opened her 1976 LP Passport, her highest-charting UK album ever, peaking at No. 3. The LP also featured her own recording of Never on Sunday and a wide range of covers, underscoring her essential versatility.

Cretan-born, but moving to Athens as a small child and trained at the Athens Conservatoire, the bespectacled and winsome Mouskouri was already a pan-European star by the late 1960s, competing at Eurovision and recording in over 10 languages, and she only broke through in the UK with the 1968-1970 BBC series Presenting… Nana Mouskouri.

Her first album for the British market, 1969’s Over and Over, would spend a staggering 97 weeks on the charts, and another eponymous BBC series ran
until 1976. While she was never a singles artist in Britain, she was a presence on the album charts for the next two
decades and came to stand as much for Greece to the Brits as the larger than life Roussos.

By the mid-1980s, Vangelis was representing Greek musical innovation on the world stage. Branded a “genuine eccentric” by Melody Maker shortly after the demise of Aphrodite’s Child, he remains a shadowy figure, despite Chariots of Fire (1981) and Blade Runner (1982) becoming some of the most famous film scores ever.

Demis Roussos resurfaced on the vocal adaptation of the Chariots theme, Race to the End, and Blade Runner’s Tales of the Future. The Blade Runner theme would use the Yamaha CS-80 synth to stunning effect, creating an unease that was vital to the texture of the film, while the sax-laden Love Theme evoked the film noir that Ridley Scott was trying to transpose into a futuristic setting.

Yet, this titan of cutting-edge electronic music is deeply marked by his Greek inheritance, saying back when he was rumoured to be replacing Rick Wakeman in Yes, that “When I listen to Yes’ music, I am conscious of the fact that it is Occidental music. Now I am not like that… Greece has such a rich heritage, I think it would be very difficult for me to play with any band”.

The Greek experience continues to influence its music. When the economic crisis hit, the unemployment rate peaked at 58% among the under-25s and some young Greeks turned to the protest song. Taking up the mantle of Greek rapper BD Foxmoor, Soul System, formed from previous bands Soul Nek and Dagobah System, exploded out of Athens with politically-charged songs that denounced the establishment’s perceived selling out of the people, reviving the spirit of the rembetika, the subcultural song tradition of the urban poor.

Mikis Theodorakis spoke out to criticise the EU’s bailout deal as a “national betrayal”, while Nana Mouskouri, an MEP of the centre-right New Democracy in the mid-1990s and since resident in Switzerland, announced she would no longer draw her Greek pension. Greek music is back in confrontational mode again, but underpinning it all is an artistic spirit that’s in the cultural DNA.

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