your heart out …
Adventures in Greek music
CHAPTER ONE It’s the inevitable cafe scene. A small group is seated at a round table in the centre of the room. There’s one older couple. There’s another younger couple. They are all related in some way. Each is elegant and insouciant. They are dressed discreetly and correctly for the evening. They sit, drinking, smoking, but hardly talking. The atmosphere is relaxed and comfortable. The waiters are politely attentive to this group. It belongs. At the far end of the cafe a small band plays. This is evidently something a bit special. A little more cosmopolitan than you might find in other cafes. The ubiquitous bouzouki players have been usurped by a solitary person with a beautiful semi-acoustic guitar. It’s played sparsely but dramatically. A trumpet can be heard. It’s muted, mournful, unobtrusive, hardly noticed. All eyes are on the singer. She commands attention. She’s wearing a simple black dress, as striking as her raven hair, offset by a white lily. And she’s lost inside her songs. The setting may be sophisticated, very jazz, but what she is conjuring up is as deep as the sea and as old as the hills. It can be no coincidence that the Greek work for songs is tragoudia. All of the country’s tragedies are tangled up in the songs being sung in this cafe. The singer may be lost, staring fixedly at a spider’s web of small cracks in the plaster wall, oblivious to the attentions of the cafe’s patrons. But all eyes are on her. There are moments when cigarettes hang, suspended, burning forgotten. Glasses are left half empty, half full, partly raised as a defence mechanism, like something to hide behind. Memories are stirred, and regrets are rattled. Partings, promises, betrayals and debts are summoned up. Ghosts are recalled to life by this effortlessly clear, cool voice. A waiter is distracted by a sudden, slight movement in the doorway. A figure stands there. The waiter looks unexpectedly uncomfortable. The new figure, a lady, stands and surveys the scene. For a few moments she watches the singer, the guitarist, the trumpet player, and half smiles before recovering a glacial composure. Purposefully she looks around the cafe, settling her gaze very deliberately on the small group at the round table in the centre of the room. Instinctively the younger of the two men senses something. He looks towards the doorway, and sees the figure, a platinum blonde he instantly recognises while doing his utmost not to register any emotion. He catches the eye of the older lady seated opposite, and indicates with just the smallest movement of his eyes that there’s something she needs to see. She turns, and for a seemingly endless second meets the gaze of the unsettling blonde in the doorway. Gently she lays a hand on the arm of the man seated next to her, and nods towards the entrance. The older man betrays no emotion, refuses to even glance in the direction of the newcomer. He focuses instead intently on the singer as though willing her never to stop singing this song. The guitarist has missed nothing. He senses trouble. But trouble’s part of a musician’s life. Dramas unfurl in front of you. So what? If there weren’t dramas in the world there’d be no songs. Well, there’d be songs, sure, but there would be none like the ones he was paid to perform. This song he was
playing, one he could sing in his sleep, was based on an ancient folk melody. It told of exile, of lost loves, of families torn apart, of strife and unrest. It was so up-to-date it hurt. It hurt inside every time he heard it sung. So he tried to play by rote, blocking out the tragedy, and concentrating instead on what was happening around him. The platinum blonde, understanding the waiterâ€™s unease, smiled. It didnâ€™t seem to reassure him. He sensed trouble too. But there was little he could do. The blonde adjusted the clasp bag under her arm, and walked towards the group seated at the round table in the centre of the room. She knew that just by walking she could command attention. It was that kind of walk. She stopped at the table, and stood there, blocking the groupâ€™s view of the band. But not for one moment did the gaze of the older man deviate from where the singer would be. The blonde spoke, but he showed no indication he was even aware of her presence. T h e s i n g e r a p p r o a c h e d The end of her song. Her voice at this time was little more than a throaty whisper, as though she was singing a lullaby for her own amusement. As the words came to an end, she visibly deflated, seeming to slump, closing her eyes, drained. The guitar player still watched what was happening at the table. But now it was the turn of the trumpet player to step forward, to raise his horn, and briefly revisit the mournful refrain in a more forceful fashion. Still the older man at the table refused to remove his gaze from the singer. The blonde, visibly frustrated, removed an envelope from her bag and slammed it down on the table before turning and walking away with her head held high. Every other set of eyes on her retreating figure. The song ended. The older man applauded, slowly, alone at first. His wife touched his arm hesitantly, again. At the far end of the cafe, the guitarist passed a lighted cigarette to the singer. The trumpet player rubbed his instrument as though it were a magic lamp. The envelope remained untouched.
CHAPTER TWO I want to read key works of critical and political theory. I love the idea of cultural studies. Yet I find myself reading chunks of text, and I recognise the words but it all begins to become a blur and I can’t grasp the intended meaning. I can’t understand what the writer is getting at. I worry about this. It bothers me. I’m not daft. I love words. I love ideas. So, why can’t I understand what these theorists are on about? Is it me? Or is it them? Are they all such terrible writers, unable to express themselves clearly? Are these arch theorists so clever after all? Not in my book, they’re not. Not if you can’t get your thoughts across. I’d rather read a good thriller. That’s my shocking confession. I own up. I have a thirst for Alan Furst’s works. His books may be entertainments, but I’ve learnt a lot more from them than from the theorists. Set in and around WW2, Furst’s European spy novels perhaps shouldn’t work. He must be perpetually haunted, and perhaps flattered, by comparisons to Eric Ambler and Graham Greene, but he’s created a series of books that add a substantial something to the genre. He’s shed light on areas which really have not been widely covered in WW2-related popular fiction. In Furst’s works things are a lot more complicated than simply Nazi-controlled mainland Europe versus the Allies. And he knows his stuff. The books are crammed with period detail that no doubt reflects his private passions. And there is a sense that this part is as vital to Furst as the plot. You sense he would be happy simply studying, trawling through records from the time, uncovering old Europe’s unexpected resistance activities. After all, some of the ‘real’ stories are far more dramatic than any author would dare to invent, such as the tales of Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz and Swedish aristocrat Raoul Wallenberg and their unlikely struggle to save the Jews of Hungary in the final days of the WW2. I like the fact that Furst is a huge fan of the espionage genre, and remains quite happy to work within that defined field. He talks well on the subject too. I’ve seen him, for example, make references to the small number of writers who have created thrillers from a left-wing perspective. He got me searching for books by Victor Serge, for example. He turned me onto Joseph Roth. He got me reading Olivia Manning’s Balkans books. I’m grateful for that. Just as I was grateful once to Greil Marcus for making such a great case for Eric Ambler’s early anti-fascist spy novels. Actually Marcus’ best writing seems to be about books and writers, but that’s another debate for another day. Furst’s books are in the anti-fascist tradition, with the heroes being ordinary people, often romantics, bravely if occasionally reluctantly doing the right thing, moral in this particular course of action if not in everything. He portrays people putting up a sane resistance to the Nazi threat and everything it stands for. There is no political dogma or theory, and the characters in his novels often make only small gestures of defiance. The gestures are nothing significant in isolation perhaps, but they all count and all add up. In Furst’s most recent novel, Spies Of The Balkans, the setting is Salonika, the northern part of Greece, where it’s 1940 and local police official Costa Zannis is facing a series of personal and national dilemmas. He joins countryman fighting successfully against invading Italian fascists, then opts to become embroiled in an international network to rescue Jews from Germany.
Life is never simple for Zannis, and he naturally gets entangled in romantic liaisons that complicate things further as the Nazis prepare to swoop on Greece. The book ends with the symbolic story of (living left-wing legend) Manolis Glezos and his friend Apostolos Santas climbing the Acropolis and tearing down the Swastika flying there. It is the type of defiant act that Furst thrives on. It would be easy to imagine Furst returning to this part of the world and weaving further tales about the resistance from what happened in Greece under Nazi occupation when local guerrilla forces worked with British troops to resist. There is certainly plenty of material for the sort of stories Furst puts together. The ensuing struggle between Greece’s communists and nationalists against the backdrop of Nazi occupation and the ransacking of the country is the sort of mess Furst is great at conjuring up, where lines are absurdly blurred and good and evil long since forgotten. In Furst’s Spies Of The Balkans there is a typical passage of local colour where he has the police ‘fixer’ Zannis taking his lover to a bar where rebetiko or rembetiko music is performed, and you get a nice little history lesson about the ‘greek blues’ which was the folk music of the gutter or the underworld, the poor, the immigrants, the prisoners, the prostitutes, the addicts, the afflicted and so on. Its lyrics seemingly the sort of thing Nick Cave could only dream of. And under the Metaxas Regime of the late ‘30s rebetiko was outlawed and heavily censored. Hence the appeal to the type of character Furst conjures up. And it is a recurring motif in Furst’s work: the good guy likes the right music, and it’s usually jazz.
CHAPTER THREE Alan Furst is refreshingly forthright about his fascination with the old Europe of the ‘30s/’40s. He has no interest in writing about other eras or places. That’s fair enough. We all have times and places that attract us. I would admit to a passion for the Paris of the late ‘40s, the London of the early ‘60s, and New York at the end of the ‘70s. I confess to spending hours studying books like Boris Vian’s Manual of Saint-Germain-Des-Pres, bewitched the photographs, enchanted by the stories of that time. Eras flit in and out of fashion. In recent years there has been a surge of interest in the New York No Wave/Downtown scene. It wasn’t always the case. For a long, long time there was a dearth of material available about the No Wave era, even on the internet. To find out more you had to hunt around and piece things together. In 2003/4, for example, one of the few places you could find enlightenment was in bb gun, the occasional magazine run by Bob Bert and Linda Wolfe. Bob with his impeccable NY pedigree (Sonic Youth etc.) was the ideal person to explore the No Wave history. And so among other great features (like JG Thirwell interviewing Jane B, Dean Wareham doing Lee Hazlewood, columns by Ian Svenonius and Mike Alway, and so on) there were some great No Wave related pieces by Bob Bert, such as a fantastic chat with James Chance and another with Jim Sclavunos. The Jim Sclavunos interview was a revelation. I knew him from the Bad Seeds. I knew he was a close comrade of Lydia Lunch as part of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Beirut Slump, Eight-Eyed Spy. I mean, that’s enough. But this is a man who has played with The Cramps, Panther Burns, Sonic Youth, and the great Lorette Velvette. He has a unique place in popular music history. But in the interview I was fascinated by the references to the various ‘lost’ groups of the No Wave era which Jim knew or played with. This was a theme Thurston Moore and Byron Coley picked up on in their own beautiful No Wave book later on. Around the same time the bb gun article appeared Jim Sclavunos wrote an article for The Guardian on rebetiko, what he described as “a sort of outlaw blues”, going on to describe how ”rebetiko typically dealt with themes of exile, loss of family, wandering the streets after dark, taking drugs and drinking to excess, unrequited love, imprisonment and death.” It is a captivating article, and one you can still find online easily enough. In this beautifully written piece about the Greek blues form you can sense the relish with which he wrote: “The songs revolve around the lifestyles of so-called ‘kousavakidhes’ or ‘manghes’ - wideboys, members of the Greek underworld. The archetypal manghe of the early days was a classic anti-establishment gadabout. Held in deep suspicion due to their abstruse gutter slang, gambling, drug habits and seedy demeanour - all the fun stuff - manghes would often be found sporting flamboyant gangster threads and packing some sort of weapon. Being a manghe implied attitude, style and a way of life.”
CHAPTER FOUR In his article on rebetiko Jim Sclavonus refers to the way the music evolved: “As rebetiko matured, poverty in Greece worsened. The Nazi occupation, followed immediately by civil war, unravelled the nation's social fabric and almost everyone in Greece, regardless of class background, was near poverty level. Rebetiko singers once again lent expression to the wretchedness of the downtrodden, only this time on a national scale. The popular, or laiko, period from 1942-1952 saw rebetiko begin to shed its underworld associations and slowly be acknowledged as the national "living" music of Greece.” He goes on to mention how new composers, like Manos Hadjidakis and Mikis Theodorakis saved the musical form by taking its classic elements, like melody and rhythm, and incorporating them in a new form of pop song and composition. As for the edgier elements, like the words, well one of the difficulties for the non-Greek speaking world is being able to appreciate the lyrical content. There is a whole debate to be had about how this may detract from the potency. But, naturally, it is still possible to be enchanted by the feel of a song even if you don’t know what’s being sung. As a young man Hadjidakis, in 1948, caused consternation in Greece by openly talking up the significance of rebetiko. This outraged the establishment. Here was this young composer aligning himself with the lowlife. It wasn’t the ‘done’ thing. And yet ironically Hadjidakis would do more than just about anyone to raise the profile of Greek popular music abroad. His wonderful soundtrack for the 1960 Jules Dassin film Never On Sunday would be where many first heard the bouzouki used. And Melina Mercouri’s smouldering performance in that movie would be one of those roles that haunt people in the same way Simone Signoret or Brigitte Bardot would do in various films.
Dassin, Mercouri, and Hadjidakis would work together again a few years later on the ‘heist’ film Topkapi, which was based on the Eric Ambler ‘entertainment’ The Light Of Day. Shortly afterwards Jules and Melina would marry. Melina herself is a fascinating figure. She left Greece and found fame in France in the ‘60s. But it’s said how her heart never left her homeland, and when the military coup took place in April 1967 she would play another important role fuelling the international opposition, forthrightly challenging what she called the fascist regime.
Her husband, a lover of Greek culture, must have found horrible echoes of his own time in America where during the McCarthy era he had been blacklisted for his Communist links and forced into exile in Paris where he struggled to find film work at first. When the military dictatorship was overthrown Melina would return to Greece and become involved with the moderate Panhellenic Socialist Movement, serving time as Minister of Culture. Dassin himself was also ‘adopted’ by Greece as one of its own. When the military coup took place Hadjidakis himself was working abroad, and I have seen references to what he considered to be the incongruity of finding himself, a Greek in exile, in Hollywood at the height of flower power working on Blue, a Mexican Western, striving to create a soundtrack that would match the beauty of leading man Terence Stamp. He succeeded at least. Around the same time the composer would work with the splendidly named New York Rock & Roll Ensemble. They recorded an imaginary soundtrack Hadjidakis composed, called Reflections. Ignored at the time, Reflections has become a cult favourite for its gorgeous, baroque arrangements, and while the Greek flavourings may seem to add a touch of exotica they also add an extraordinary amount of emotional depth when you consider the thoughts of home the composer will have had. It’s a beautiful record. In 1972 Hadjidakis did return to Greece, where he recorded the song cycle Magnus Eroticus (or O Megalos Erotikos) with his favourite singer, the elusive Fleury Dantonaki, and Dimitri Psarianos. , aFleury was a lady of extraordinary beauty with a voice to match. She had left Greece to go to college in the States, then in the early ‘60s she became involved with stage work, appearing on Broadway in musicals, and making an LP for Vanguard, the legendary American imprint where she would for a moment be label mates with Joan Baez and Phil Ochs. The gorgeous Vanguard LP, Fleury: The Isles of Greece, would feature a mix of traditional and new Greek folk songs, as well as a spellbinding interpretation of the modern popular number Manha De Carnival, from the film Black Orpheus.
Tracking information about Fleury is tricky. Finding recordings by Fleury is just as difficult. It doesn’t help that her name seems to be spelled several different ways. I’ve also seen it written as Fleury Dantonakis, Fleury Dandonaki, Flery Ntantwnakh, among others. It all gets very confusing. But that’s part of the fun of it. There is apparently a biographical/critical film about Fleury out there somewhere, but I suspect the chances of seeing/understanding that are slim. So you keep on searching around in the dark. Fine. What is known is that on 2 February 1980 Fleury was in Greece, and took part in a recording later broadcast on the radio that consisted of just Fleury and guitarist Paul Mansfield, with very little other accompaniment, improvising, singing the songs they find they both happened to know. Their common ground is pretty much every popular standard that you never want to hear again. But Fleury’s intimate delivery is astonishing. Imagine every folk singer you can think of with a voice of incredible purity and multiply the effect by one thousand. It’s a mesmerising performance, and simultaneously the saddest and most uplifting thing I’ve heard. A CD of this broadcast appeared 20 years later with a title that translates as The Eternal Adolescence of The Voice. I understand that around this time Fleury started to withdraw from public life. I’ve read that the great singer died in 1998 at the age of 60, after a long struggle with cancer, and rests in peace next to her long time friend Manos Hadjidakis in a cemetery in Athens.
CHAPTER FIVE “Look it’s no big deal. The guy just wants us to appear in his film. We’d get to play a couple of songs or something in one of the scenes, and that’s it. It’s not exactly a crime. It’s a bit of fun. Entertainment. It’s the film industry. We’d have some laughs. And we’d get heard and seen by a hell of a lot more people than we do now playing in a nightclub every now and then. “Sure it’s not ideal. It’s not exactly one of those French new wave films you go on about. So what? Okay it’s a romantic comedy. So they’re poking fun at kids like us with long hair. Does it matter? The Beatles’ films aren’t exactly high art are they but their reputation isn’t in tatters. I bet even your beloved Small Faces would take up an offer like this. “Let’s face it. We’re Greek. We play rhythm and blues. We try to play it right, but who’s listening out there in the big wide world? The guys making this film don’t give a damn about any of that. They just know we look the part and can play loud. That’s what they’re interested in. And we might as well take advantage of it before it’s too late. Who is going to be interested in Greeks playing r ‘n’ b? To kids in the States we’d be a joke. “And don’t forget we would get paid for this. That’s got to be taken into account. I know money’s not a problem for you. We all love the fact that your folks are rolling in it, and that through the company you can get hold of all the American records we need to hear. But there are times when we don’t want to rely on you and your connections. Seriously, this is a great opportunity to become better known. The more people know our name, the bigger the crowd and the bigger the fee when we play live. “It’s not as though we’re the only group to be in this situation. Most of the bigger groups have swallowed their pride, and appeared in corny scenes in films. The Forminx, Olympians, Charms, Idols. They’ve all done it. And they’re all bigger than us. Sure, sure, they’re not the Animals or the Spencer Davis Group, but nevertheless they’ve sold their souls, as you would put it, and lived! “Anyway it’s me, the singer, who’s got most to lose. I know they’re likely to insist on some pretty young thing singing a number with us, shaking her stuff like there’s no tomorrow. You may well shudder, but I’ve never known you say no to a pretty face. And who are we to look down on a young actress trading on her beauty? Despite what you say we’re not exactly creating high art. It’s rock ‘n’ roll. It’s American. It’s not even part of our culture. “So why should we mock some Brigitte Bardot lookalike shaking for the old men to drool over. Good luck to them. For all we know she may be using the money to pay her way so she can go and study law in Paris where she’ll get discovered by a film director. Imagine that? You could have the next Melina Mercouri dancing in front of your very eyes. You’d be singing a different tune yourself then.”
CHAPTER SIX I have this recurring issue. It’s something to do with when I’m fumbling and floundering around, exploring the back pages of the pop atlas, and I discover areas of activity that seem almost too good to be true. I worry about whether my imagination is taking over, playing tricks on me, and tempting me with something illusory. I get a bit concerned about whether I’ve invented it all. Then I end up wondering why, if it’s for real, I’ve not come across all this before. And so it was when I chanced upon the new wave in Greece. Ah yes, new wave. Two little words, but they are two little words that can carry so many different meanings. There’s new wave as a form of punk rock that isn’t quite that? Then new wave could be a less than literal translation of bossa nova, or in its French form it can be a collection of bossa nova type interpretations of new wave standards. Then again, new wave can be an epithet or appellation to add to just about anything, as in the new wave of this and that. In the classical Greek form, new wave (or neo kyma) is a term used to loosely describe some popular music of the mid ‘60s onwards. It seems to fit perfectly a mainly acoustic form of pop that is heavily steeped in traditional Greek/folk sounds, with pronounced elements of French pop/chanson and sometimes suggestions of psychedelia/folk rock. If like me you have for a long time been obsessed with the films of Jean-Luc Godard and the music of Françoise Hardy, and have an incurable weakness for Joan Baez and Marianne Faithful, then neo kyma will appeal endlessly. I have no wish to diminish the male of the species and the splendid recordings of the likes of Manos Loizos, Gioros Zografos, Michaelis Violaris, but it is the ladies of the new wave that have stolen my heart. I have to confess to a growing obsession with the early recordings of Arleta, Popi Asteriadi, Soula Birbili and Kaiti Homata. Beautiful acoustic numbers with the occasional adornment, but usually wonderfully stark and all the better for it. They sang the songs of the great composers and the young writers of the day, . I confess I can add little about this holy trinity of wonderful singers, but if you have a chance to hear their work from the ‘60s and ‘70s, their interpretations will enchant you. For the curious a fantastic place to start would be Arleta’s Sto Rythmo Tou Agera from the late ‘60s. It’s available in a beautiful digipak edition that reproduces the original cover which depicts the young singer, silhouetted, with her back to us, seated and playing an acoustic guitar on a hillside desolate. It is an incredible beautiful work, and I’m rather ashamed that I am not able to
read the sleevenotes and understand a little more about the record’s context. But perhaps it’s good to leave somethings shrouded in mystery? Despite the very pronounced Greek flavouring the easiest reference point in Arleta’s work and the new wave in general is Françoise Hardy, and why not? If you were a folk/pop singer in the ‘60s it seems perfectly natural to look to the French queen of pop as a role model? During our adventures travelling around the pop globe we have seen Françoise’s influence loom large in places as diverse as South Korea, Finland, and Uruguay. Similarly we have seen how Françoise was influenced by music from different parts of the world, and in particular Brazil which led to her working with the singer/guitarist Tuca, for example. At some stage there is a proper analysis to be undertaken on the impact Françoise Hardy has had around the world, and what she represents. People far better informed than me will be able to comment on the relationship between Greek and French culture. It is perhaps no coincidence that while the military junta was in power some prominent Greek artists lived in exile in Paris. Paris is, of course, the eternal refuge. Alan Furst pinpoints Paris as having been the capital of the civilised world, and naturally in his Greek novel the hero has spent a long time living there while growing up. The French influence on the Greek new wave does in fact go beyond Françoise, and it is possible at times when listening to the wonderful Arleta to hear echoes of the chanson realistes and singers such as Catherine Sauvage and Barbara. Indeed, just as the French chanson seems several degrees removed from the orthodoxies of UK/US pop so Greek sounds shake off such shackles. This may not make for comfortable listening for everybody. The phrase new wave itself seems delightfully vague. And there are all sorts of questions to be asked about whether the repressive military junta which inevitably frowned on rock ‘n’ roll (and there is one thing all repressive regimes, regardless of political colours, have in common, and that is they don’t like their rock ‘n’ roll) tolerated more folk oriented sounds. If so, that might not have been the smartest of moves, because folk music is more closely aligned to protest movements. And, of course, as the ‘60s ended and the ‘70s got going so the lines between folk and rock became blurred the world over. Mariza Koch, for example was among those who found herself singing folk songs with an electric backing group to wonderful effect, with the result that she is now referred to as the Greek Sandy Denny using the infuriating shorthand we all resort to.
CHAPTER SEVEN “Look, what I really need from you is some details about the soundtrack of the time. What would the students have been listening to? Who from the musical world was backing the protests? I’ve been scratching around, and reading about a few people and listening to a few things, but we need your help as we want to get this as accurate as possible. “I know your concerns. I understand your reservations. I realise you were there, and I’m aware how much importance you attach to those days. But trust me, we’re not going to trivialise what happened. This is a great opportunity for the story to be told. So, okay, we’re using elements of another story from another time, another place. But there are so many similarities between what happened in Paris in May 1968, and what took place in Athens in November 1973. And, of course, the point is that what happened in Athens was the real thing, not performance art.
“You’ve got to be realistic. The Lawrence Ferlinghetti story was our point of entry. The money men knew his name. One of them had even read some of his poems. He’d heard about City Lights. He hadn’t read the Paris ’68 novel, but who cares? They were interested. That was the point. They gave us the go ahead to make a film of Love In The Days Of Rage. They accepted that the whole ’68 thing had been done, so eventually they went along with the idea of transferring the story to Athens five years on. That’s what matters. Now’s the chance to tell the stories you and your colleagues have been hoarding. “And it’s such an important story. What did the students in Paris really have to protest against? While they were taking to the streets your country was living under this repressive military regime. A right-wing junta propped up by the Yankee dollar. Plus ça change. But that’s part of the attraction this story will have. People around the world will identify with your anti-American feelings. They will understand how the US was using a country for its own means. They will like how the protest movement grew from the grass roots.
“Of course, the indirect outcome of those few days of mass protests was the downfall of the military regime, though there were horrible, horrible prices to pay. I was only vaguely aware of what happened myself. I knew from family about the widespread student demonstrations, and the occupation of Athens Polytechnic. I was sort of aware of how the military moved in and brutally crushed the occupation. People the world over know about what happened in Ohio at Kent State University a few years earlier. They know the song, of course. And that brings me to what I was saying about songs. Despite antiAmerican feelings I’m guessing the American rock sounds were particularly important as symbols of protest. But what else was the soundtrack of the time? “I sort of know about Dionysis Savopoulos. I’ve been reading up on him, and I’ve seen him described as the Greek Bob Dylan and the Greek Frank Zappa rolled into one, which is going it some. I love what I’ve heard but it’s difficult to get a handle on what’s going on. I know his lyrics are meant to be something special, and that they had a go at the Junta in a particularly poetic way. What was the phrase I saw? Something about how the words couldn’t be deciphered by anyone without a heart. But even so he was still thrown into prison for his views. “And then I really want to know about Nikos Xylouris. What I’ve heard by him is really mad. All the Greek girl singers seem to sing like angels, but the guys, well, they seem to gargle with barbed wire and rusty nails. They scare the hell out of me, but maybe if I was living through those times. I dunno. I got to listen to the LP Xylouris made with Giannis Markopoulos, and my apologies if I’m getting these names wrong. It was as if they decided to sing a load of old songs as a celebration of the true Greek spirit and as a massive up yours to the dictatorship. I was reading a bit about how all the opponents of the military regime took up these songs as a rallying cry for the protests. Is it true all the students were singing these during the massive 1973 antigovernment demos? “If it’s not true please don’t tell me, but the story about how during a stand-off between students and the government’s tanks Xylouris is said to have climbed to the top of the university’s outer gate, and sat there with his lyra singing one of the songs from that album! That’s such a powerful image. We have got to include that. I wrote down a translation of the title – When Will There Be A Starlit Sky? Perfect! That’s the sort of stuff we need. People will react to that.”
CHAPTER EIGHT There’s always a point of entry, or a key that unlocks the door. The starting point for this particular Greek adventure I suspect was the Finders Keepers/BMusic compilation, Drive In, Turn On, Freak Out, where a variety of DJs and collectors chose cuts from around the globe. Top man Andy Votel among his selections included Elpida’s He Will Come, He Will Come, about which he wrote: “Over in Greece a starry eyed brunette called Elpida would represent her country (in the Eurovision Song Contest) with the victorious Socrates entry – but in previous years her LPs for Phillips and Greek independent Pan-Vox lined the record shop window displays of Athens housing moog-fuelled Funk-Rock and cinematic psychsploitation backing tracks while this wind-swept Florinda Bolkan lookalike belted out her ‘greatest misses’ such as He Will Come, He Will Come in her native Cyrillic speak!” There were a few things that struck me about those few sentences. One was the casual reference to the Brazilian-born actress Florinda Bolkan who was a great star in Italian films and an incredible beauty. Andy clearly knew how to attract the attention of the reader, and clearly knew his audience! Another was the intriguing use of language, with what were essentially tags or hipster shorthand: “moog-fuelled Funk-Rock and cinematic psychsploitation”. And then, as is so often the case, there is the irrefutable truth that the likes of Andy Votel know so much more about pop music, but to their eternal credit at least they are willing to share their knowledge and passions.
The Elpida track was one of several highlights on the B-Music collection. And I very much hoped a Finders Keepers compilation would follow to complement the Turkish collections, of which the Selda one had become a particular favourite. Sadly this wasn’t to be the case, and finding music by and information about Elpida wasn’t easy. Then eventually I happened across the excellent mail order Greek company Studio 52, from whom I was able to get what I think is a compilation of her first two LPs from 1972/1973. It is a fantastic collection, and yes Andy Votel was right – she does look like Florinda Bolkan on the cover! As for the music, well it’s ultra-pop and all the more glorious for it. Apart from the lyrics, Elpida’s early records are very much part of the wider world of pop rather than specifically Greek sounding. These may have been difficult times in Greece for many, but pop prevails. There’s still dancing to be done and people need songs that can lift the soul. And there’s much in Elpida’s music that suggests an array of influences. The Italian pop world certainly be prominent among these. And America, of course, no matter how high feelings were running, still seems to cast a magical spell over Elpida’s uptown, big band, bubblegum soul sounds. I’d love to explore the Greek soul connection further at some time. There is, for example, a glorious photo of the singer Dimitras Galani on the cover of her debut LP from the same time where she’s clutching a few LPs under her arm and Isaac Hayes’ Black Moses is distinctly visible. The closest reference point for Elpida might just be Cher. As with Françoise Hardy there is a case to be made for the impact and influence Cher had on female singers around the globe. You can trace elements of Cher in the likes of Lili Ivanova, Josipa Lisac, Marta Kubisova, and Googoosh for example. It’s something to do with stridency of the vocals, the looks, the sense of being a citizen of the world, and perhaps even Cher identifying herself with gipsies, tramps and thieves. So, Cher’s Bang Bang as the starting point for a worldwide revolution? Why not?
CHAPTER NINE I envy the experts and the specialists. I’ve said all of this before. I often wish I could restrict myself to one specific type of music. Life would be a lot simpler if, for example, I only collected information about Northern Soul related music. While there is a part of me that feels for the specialists, in the sense they are missing out on so much beyond their chosen field, I am often deeply indebted to them for the arcane knowledge they share. The internet, for all its faults and fatal distractions, is a vital and virtual encyclopaedia making available information not accessible through official outlets. That may be stating the obvious. Nevertheless we should still celebrate the time and trouble people take to share their passions and their store of knowledge on the web for no obvious return. It is fascinating how certain rather well-defined forms of music are heavily featured on the internet. Garage sounds, as in the ‘60s beat/punk variety, are among these. Numerous blogs explore the worldwide ramifications of kids kicking up a squall of noise in the ‘60s. There are plenty of compilations out there, too, officially and informally. And Greek sounds are featured among these. The widely syndicated Shakin’ In Athens compilation features some glorious primitive takes on the genre from groups including The Knacks, The Idols, The Charms, Bluebirds, Zoo and Uptight. The highlight of this particular collection is Nelli Manou’s Crazy Girl, which is like the punky yé-yé track of your dreams. I’ve seen Nelli’s name linked with the new wave, but sadly have not been able to find the recordings to back this up.
The military junta took a dim view of the Beatles/Stones, and this is I’m sure is the key reason why it’s not easy to trace easily the development in Greece from beat through psychedelia to prog in the way you can in many countries. If, however, you search the sites dedicated to psych/prog sounds there are plenty of Greek treasures to discover, despite a slightly delayed reaction.
The 1970 recordings of George Romanos, for example, on what translates as Two Little Blue Horses feature some fantastic distorted guitar work and a real sense of urgency often missing in psych sounds, while still retaining a very distinctive Greek identity. He arrived at this point from a folk background, recorded with the wonderful and rightfully well-known Aphrodite’s Child along the way, but it was an astonishing leap to the Two Little Blue Horses set, and original copies of this LP are a sort of holy grail for collectors. The other Greek psychedelic artefact which collectors get rather frenzied about is the somewhat later and distinctly heavier The Four Levels Of Existence, the sole release by the Athens group of the same name. If you’re not familiar with the group and its LP then the piece of pop trivia that you will find endlessly repeated on the internet is that their song Someday In Athens was sampled by Jay-Z (with Rihanna and Kanye West) on the track Run This Town. I don’t know about you, but for me that simple piece of information makes me believe in the magic of pop. It’s perhaps surpassed only by 50 Cent sampling Alla Pugacheva’s 1977 Soviet hit Sonet Shekspira. You couldn’t make it up. How do these things work? Have these titans of the pop industry got a worldwide network of ‘sample pimps’ who search out the sublime and ridiculous breaks and hooks for their clients to use? I’ve no idea about the processes involved, but I love it. Those guys are way ahead, in their own way. One of the great contemporary salvage operations, Lion Productions, has reissued The Four Levels of Existence CD (ironically in a limited edition). Lion Productions itself is a label that specialises in psychedelia, so it’s only appropriate it includes a Greek classic in its catalogue as the word psychedelic has Greek language roots. Rather nicely for a label specialising in psychedelic sounds Lion Productions acknowledges this is a remarkably loose term, and I would argue the label’s taste is wider than most. Those who find the hard and heavy sounds of The Four Levels Of Existence and other Greek groups of that ilk a bit unappetising may prefer the early ‘70s Greek group Poll whose debut LP, Anthrope, is an absolute classic. It’s much more in the folk rock mould, with brilliant songs and lovely harmonies. Even better is an early ‘70s LP by the BlueBirds, who did manage to survive into the new decade. Their early ‘70s sound is gorgeously simple, sunny folk rock, with the same ultra-pop infectious feel as the Farfisa-fuelled, harmony-drenched pop blasts they put out in the mid-‘60s. Psychedelic purists may find it too pop, too light, but who cares?
CHAPTER TEN In March 2010 Greece was the focus of the world’s attention when riots hit the streets of Athens following widespread protests against austerity measures being imposed to tackle the national debt. Manolis Glezos, 88, a historical figure of the Greek Left, and one of the people who dragged down the Nazi flag from the Acropolis during Athens’ German occupation, was tear-gassed by police during the protests and taken to hospital. This, symbolically, was at a time when the Greek government had gone to Germany, cap in hand, asking for more. What was happening in Greece at the time was used by politicians around the world as an excuse for introducing their own ‘drastic measures’ to avoid the sort of chaos that was said to have taken hold in Greece. Mikis Theodorakis, the legendary composer, was among those to question whether things were really as reported. He said: “The element of exaggeration in the blows dealt our country internationally; this, together with such a highly concerted action against a financially insignificant country, raises suspicions. I thus come to the conclusion that some people shamed us and scared us in order to lead us to the IMF, which is a basic element of USA expansionist policy.” There have been dozens of books written about the ‘60s, popular culture, protests and civil unrest. That’s understandable, for there are some great stories to tell. Some may mention The Beatles and The Stones. Some may go as far as the Civil Rights struggle in the US, the anti-Vietnam protests, the Black Panthers and Yippies. Some may mention Ireland and feminism and drugs. Some may cover Paris ’68 and the Prague Spring. Others may refer to Che Guevara, Victor Jara, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. From what I’ve seen few get to mention Greece and Mikis Theodorakis. And yet Theodorakis is famous. People will know the name around the world. But how much does the typically well-informed pop fan know about the man, his story and his works? The chances are the name will be familiar from the soundtracks of Serpico and Zorba The Greek. Maybe from the soundtrack of Z? From international covers of his songs? Probably. But that’s just scratching the surface. Leaving his work aside, Theodorakis’ own story is infinitely more compelling than, say, Dylan’s or Lou Reed’s. At a young age he was caught up in Resistance activity against the Nazis during the German occupation of his country, aligning himself with the left (in the resistance with the E.L.A.S. or Greek People’s Liberation Army, and then in the ensuing Civil War when the US/British-backed Greek government forces sought to quash support for the Communists). During the Civil War Theodorakis was arrested, imprisoned, exiled and tortured, while still striving to snatch a musical education. It was
during this time that Theodorakis absorbed the power of the rebetiko songs he heard from his comrades. In 1954 Theodorakis moved to Paris to study music, where his teachers would include Oliver Messiaen. During this time his astonishing canon of compositions started to take shape, including ballets and symphonies. He also put together his first international soundtrack, appropriately for the Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger Crete-based wartime drama Ill Met By Moonlight. In the early 1960s Theodorakis returned to Greece, and entered into an intense period of activity for composing. He also became involved with organised politics, representing the left-wing party EDA in Parliament. Ironically just when the Greek establishment was turned against him, Theodorakis was finding success abroad thanks to his soundtrack for Zorba The Greek, starring Anthony Quinn. When in April 1967 the right-wing military coup took place, Theodorakis was the symbolic figure of opposition to the Junta. In June of 1967 the Junta announced Army Order No.13 which stated that it was forbidden "...to reproduce or play the music and songs of the composer Mikis Theodorakis, the former leader of the now dissolved communist Organisation, the Lambrakis Youth because this music is in the service of communism ... to sing any songs used by the communist youth movement which was dissolved under Paragraph Eight of the Decree of 6 May 1967, since these songs arouse passions and cause strife among the people. Citizens who contravene this Order will be brought immediately before the military tribunal and judged under martial law." In 1969 the director Kosta-Gavras released his awardwinning film Z, featuring a Theodorakis soundtrack, about the assassination of the peace campaigner, left wing politician and symbolic figure Grigoris Lambrakis. Both the film and the soundtrack were naturally suppressed in Greece. The film ends with a list of things banned by the Junta which include the peace movement, strikes, trades unions, long hair on men, mini-skirts, the peace symbol, the Beatles, Sophocles, Tolstoy, Aeschylus, Eugene Ionesco, Sartre, Chekhov, Mark Twain, Samuel Beckett, and the letter Z as in the popular slogan (zei) which means 'he lives' and refers explicitly to Lambrakis. After Theodorakisâ€™ songs were banned, another cycle of arrest, imprisonment, torture, and exile began. This time, however, things were quite different in that there was a high-profile concerted campaign waged internationally on his behalf. The Junta therefore eventually succumbed to pressure, and Theodorakis flew to Paris, the exilesâ€™ capital, on 13 July 1970 from where he could drum up international opposition to the military regime. He would not return to Greece until 1974 when the Generals had been thrown out of power. During his exile Theodorakis would also immerse himself in the struggles of other nations against oppression and for socialism, and he composed works for Venezuela and Palestine among others. This gives a glimpse into Theodorakisâ€™ being, where he is so passionate about his homeland but very much an internationalist.
Despite the tumultuous times the 1960s were a very productive time for Theodorakis in terms of composition. He developed the idea of metasymphonic works, which would be classical music that reached out beyond the expected, incorporating popular songs and traditional Greek instrumentation. His sense of reaching out can also be seen in his musical settings of and for Brendan Behan’s The Hostage and Federico Garcia Lorca’s poetry, which are among his finest works. You sense how he will have identified with Behan’s and Lorca’s themes and struggles, realising how they reflected events in his own country. About The Hostage, for example, Theodorakis has said: “The questions about God, about existence, about loneliness, love and hate retain their fundamental significance in the human struggle for life and liberty. That applies to Northern Ireland just as much as to Greece.” There are many people who will know more about all this, but despite (or perhaps because of) all the difficulties and distractions that beset Greece and Theodorakis his works and the performances of these convey an incredible emotional force. Many, many singers around the world have sung Theodorakis’ creations, from Shirley Bassey to Milva, but no one has done so in quite such a special way as Maria Farantouri. Theodorakis seems to have been the first to realise this, telling her very early on in her career that she was born to sing his songs. The close links with Theodorakis and Maria’s own political views meant that it was necessary for her to go into exile when the military junta stole power. While living abroad she toured tirelessly spreading the word for freedom, peace and culture. She received considerable international acclaim, inevitably being called the Greek Joan Baez because of her outspokenness and astonishing voice. Appropriately while on tour in the US she made friends with Fleury Dandonaki, who was to Manos Hatsidakis what Maria was to Theodorakis. Among the recordings Maria made while in exile was an early ‘70s LP Songs Of Freedom, where she is beautifully accompanied by John Williams on guitar. These ‘songs’ included some of the Lorca poems Theodorakis adapted as his Romancero Gitano (The Gypsies’ Song) song cycle. The chillingly beautiful voice of Maria is perfectly set on this occasion against Williams’ guitar accompaniment, which adds a Spanish colouring that is perfectly fitting.
The work of Theodorakis that has struck me the most is his song cycle The Ballad of Mauthausen, which he described thus: "A good friend of mine, the poet Iacovos Kambanellis, was a prisoner in Mauthausen during World War II. At the beginning of the sixties, he wrote his memories of this time under the title of Mauthausen. In 1965, he also wrote four poems on the subject and gave me the opportunity to set them to music. I did this with much pleasure, firstly because I liked the poetry of the texts, and secondly because I was myself locked up during the Nazi occupation in Italian and German prisons, but mainly because this composition gives us the chance to remind the younger generation of history, that history must never be forgotten. “First and foremost, of course, the Mauthausen Cantata is addressed to all those who suffered under Fascism and fought against it. We must keep the Nazi crimes continually in our minds, because that is the only guarantee and the only way to assure that they are not repeated. And we can see every day that the ghost of Fascist is far from being laid. It seldom shows its real face, but Fascist cultures and mentalities exist all over the world. For us, who had to live through this time of horror, the most important task is to protect our children against this peril.” Fine words, of course, and all the more striking when you consider the incredible emotional impact the song cycle has on the listener. Theodorakis, I understand, wrote the music with Maria Farantouri specifically in mind. And her performance of these songs, on record and in concert, is astonishing. There is the issue of language, and the questions about whether a non-Greek speaking person can draw as much from the music if they don’t understand the words. Well, I’d just say that once one understands the context of, say, Asma Asmaton which portrays the anguish of a Jewish prisoner
on learning that the women he loves has just been sent to the gas chamber, and is aware that as elsewhere in occupied Europe the Nazis in Greece set out to destroy the Jewish population (in the space of just a few weeks in early 1943 the Nazis transported something like 50,000 Sephardic Jews from Salonika to concentration camps where few survived), then this song cycle will mean the world. One group that has explicitly referenced Theodorakis’ Mauthausen song cycle is the maverick American outfit Savage Republic. I have to confess to being a late convert to the Savage people’s democratic republic. I’m not sure what happened there, but I totally misjudged them and I hold the media responsible for making me miss out for so long. They seemed to portray them as industrial rockers when they must have known I would love a group with song titles like Kill The Fascists!, Film Noir, and When All Else Fails ... And then there are the covers: ATV’s eternally ambiguous anthem Vive La Rock & Roll and indeed Theodorakis’ Mauthausen composition O Andonis, which the group self-deprecatingly say they didn’t realise the significance of. They also cover his Pios Den Mila Yia Ti Lambra, and cite him as one of their early influences, along with Glenn Branca, The Ventures, Faust, Pink Floyd, Can, Throbbing Gristle, Joy Division and Ennio Morricone. Savage Republic, now that I have caught up, is infinitely more interesting than I ever imagined. Sometimes it’s fun being wrong! It’s not that daring to assume that Savage Republic would approve enthusiastically of Dick Dale’s work. And, appropriately, in his article on rebetiko Jim Sclavonus refers to Dick Dale’s legendary recording of Misirlou, and the song’s tangled vaguely rebetiko roots. Savage Republic’s roots are tangled up in the legacy of the No Wave scene Sclavonus was part of. And, oddly, when I see film clips of groups of bouzouki players all lined-up I think of those massed guitars at performances of Glenn Branca’s early symphonies. But, as far as I know, Glenn never used one of those occasions to accompany a (Theoretical) girl singer with eyes as black as the night lost inside her song as she conjures up ancient hurts and buried memories.
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