Friday, April 25, 2008

Album project: 666

Aphrodite's Child, 666 (1972): Calm down, everybody, this one's not nearly as scary as its ominous title suggests. Although 666 stirred its fair share of controversy at the time, today it stands as a relic of the tail end of European psychedelia.

Aphrodite's Child founders Vangelis Papathanassiou and Demis Roussos were veterans of successful Greek pop-rock outfits of the mid-60's. They recruited Lucas Sideras and Argyris Koulouris to complete the new band's lineup. When political unrest broke out in Greece in 1967, the band decided to leave their home country in search of a more hospitable creative environment. Kouloris chose to stay in Greece and join the military; the other three group members set out with intent to settle in London. Problems with obtaining British work permits combined with a French transportation strike left them stranded in Paris, which they decided to make their home base for the remainder of their existence.

Having settled down in Paris, the group recorded "Rain And Tears", a reworking of Pachelbel's "Canon In D Major". The song became a sizable hit in many European countries, and reached the Top 30 in the UK. Aphrodite's Child remained on the European charts through 1969 with a series of hits, including "I Want To Live", the country-rockish "It's Five O'Clock", and the French #1 "Let Me Love, Let Me Live". Despite their sudden success, the band feared being pigeonholed as a pop act, and sought to record more adventurous material. Vangelis wished to record a rock opera in the vein of The Who's Tommy. Roussos and Sideras, on the other hand, felt such a move would endanger the band's commercial standing. The differences of opinion were already threatening to break up the group when Vangelis began working with lyricist Costas Ferris on a concept loosely based on the Book of Revelation, the inspiration for numerous works of avant-garde art and bad horror movies. Roussos and Sideras were far from enthusiastic about recording a concept LP, but agree to work on 666 in order to fulfill the band's recording contract obligations. Guitarist Kouloris returned from military service in time to work on the album as well. 666 takes over a year to record and produce, and by the time the LP is ready for release, the members of Aphrodite's Child had gone their separate ways.

A website detailing the making of 666 summarizes the concept of the LP, since I still haven't quite figured it all out:

A big circus Troupe, giving a big circus Show, based on the Apocalypse. Acrobats, dancers, tumbelines, elephants, tigers and horses. Of course, the reference to the "Beatles" "Sgt Peppers" is obvious.

While the show goes on, light and sound effects in all their glory, something is happening outside the circus tent. It is the real revelation disaster going on, staged by God himself.

The audience believes that what is happening outside, is part of the show. But the narrator, who understands that something strange is happening, gets hysterical.

At the end the big tent disappears. and the two "shows" unite, in a great battle between Good and Evil, between the real Revelation-End-of the-World, and the its staged representation.

In other words, about what you'd expect from Eurohippies interpreting the Bible.

666 was originally released as a double LP, and the first disc holds up surprisingly well. Starting with a chorus of voices chanting "Fuck the system", the album segues into the propulsive "Babylon" (Fallen fallen fallen is Babylon The Great!") A child's voice recites the lyrics to "Loud, Loud, Loud", a hippie's vision of the apocalypse:

The day the cars will lay in heaps
their wheels turning in vain
we'll run along the empty highways
shouting, screaming, singing
loud, loud, loud, loud.

This fades into the album's best-known track, "The Four Horsemen", featuring Demis Roussos' operatic range describing the bearers of disease, war, famine, and death, as well as some amazing guitar playing by Kouloris during the coda. "Four Horsemen" became an underground FM radio classic, and is the Aphrodite's Child track most familiar to US rock listeners. (The Verve's eclectic Richard Ashcroft quotes "Four Horsemen" at the end of his group's "The Rolling People".) The remainder of the first disc continues in the same vein, with more of Roussos' colorful singing, Kouloris' fine guitar work, Vangelis' agile keyboard improvisations, and lyrics that get stranger and stranger.

Unfortunately, the concept runs out of steam on the second disc. Most of the second half of 666 is dominated by Vangelis' keyboard noodling, punctuated in the middle of side three by a track denoted by the infinity symbol, which consists of five minutes of suggestive chanting and orgasmic moaning contributed by actress Irene Papas. Side four consists of "All The Seats Were Occupied", a nineteen-minute recap of everything on the first three sides reminiscent of The Beatles' "Revolution #9", before concluding with "Break", a seemingly out-of-place ballad which gave Aphrodite's Child their final European hit single.

The release of 666 was delayed for months while Vangelis haggled with record company officials over the LP's content. The label was uncomfortable marketing a project prominently featuring the Biblical Mark Of The Beast, and the execs were outraged by Papas' sensual performance. Vangelis agreed to edit the infinity track, but refused to delete it altogether. Fundamentalist religious groups were predictably up in arms as well, particularly noting a phrase in the liner notes, "This work was recorded under the influence of Sahlep". Religious groups claimed that "Sahlep" was some sort of Satanic ritual; in actuality it is a hot drink popular in Greece and some Middle Eastern countries. By the time the problems with the record label had been ironed out and 666 finally released, Aphrodite's Child had long since ceased to exist, and Vangelis, Roussos, and Sideras were all at work on solo projects.

Demis Roussos enjoyed a fair amount of pop chart success as a solo artist in Europe during the 70's and 80's. Roussos also became famous for his struggles with his weight; at one point he ballooned to 350 pounds. He dramatically lost weight in the early 80's. In Europe, Roussos' saga is as well known as Oprah Winfrey's and Kirstie Alley's weight-loss battles are to Americans. Vangelis moved to London, and was offered a job with Yes, which he declined. He would record several albums with Yes vocalist Jon Anderson in the 70's and 80's, as well as recording a diverse body of solo work. Vangelis' big moment would finally come in 1982, when his soundtrack to the movie Chariots Of Fire became a huge worldwide success, winning an Oscar for Best Original Score, and gaining an international #1 hit with the main title theme.