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The story of '666', a progressive rock classic

Greek psychedelic rock band Aphrodite’s Child was ahead of its time. In particular, it was the double album '666' that gave the band its mythical aura

Aphrodite’s Child was a band ahead of its time
Aphrodite’s Child was a band ahead of its time

To say that 666, a double album by the Greek band Aphrodite’s Child, turns 50 this year may not entirely be accurate. Because technically, it was released in June 1972. But if you consider that the album was recorded and completed between 1969-70, then at least its making has crossed the half-century mark. If not that, there is another landmark that can be pulled out: Its main creator, bandleader, composer, keyboardist and flautist, Vangelis Papathanassiou, turned 78 in the last week of March.

Formed in 1967, Aphrodite’s Child was a band quite ahead of its time. And, because of many contributing factors, it was a band that never quite got the recognition it deserved. It was a progressive psychedelic rock band. A band which is viewed, among successive generations of progressive rock fans, as one that is near mythical. In particular, it was the double album, 666, which gave the band the mythical aura.

To be sure, 666 wasn’t the first album Aphrodite’s Child released. It was their third. Their first, End Of The World, came out in 1968, and the second, It’s Five O’Clock, in 1970. Those two albums (suffice it to say that copies of both are hard to come by), with songs that sound like early-era psychedelic rock (think Pink Floyd, circa 1967-68, with albums such as The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn or A Saucerful Of Secrets), didn’t really bring the band much recognition. The little notice Aphrodite’s Child received came only after 666.

Ironically, 666 was an album that almost never got released. What is more, the band was no longer in existence by the time it finally came out—the members (besides Papathanassiou, Demis Roussos on vocals and bass, Loukas Sideras on drums, and Silver Koulouris on guitar) fell out. Band members had differences with Papathanassiou, who is better known by his first name, Vangelis.

Also read: The uniquely psychedelic Ripley Johnson

It was over 666 that the band broke up. Vangelis, who was already a sort of progressive/psychedelic rock pioneer in Greece and had worked with various bands, was an innovative, experimental composer. With 666—the number of the beast, referred to in the Book of Revelation in the New Testament of the Bible—Vangelis wanted to make a sprawling, deeply psychedelic concept album themed on the Apocalypse, one that would use passages from the Book of Revelation as its inspiration. His band members, particularly Roussos and Sideras, wanted the band to stick more to a pop idiom that would be more accessible to a wider audience.

As it happened, Vangelis got his way and 666, as we know it, got recorded and made in Paris, in a process that was marked by acrimony and tension. There were other problems ahead. Mercury Records, then the band’s label, initially refused to release the album. It didn’t find it commercially viable and had particular objection to the song depicted by the infinity symbol. For that song, Vangelis had enlisted the Greek actor Irene Papas on vocals. Papas sings the words “I am to come” and “I was to come” continuously, till the phrases envelop into each other and her utterances resemble a graphic orgasm. It was too much for the label.

Eventually, 666 came out on a Mercury subsidiary label. But Aphrodite’s Child had disbanded by then and the nearly 80-minute record was nearly forgotten, except in rarefied circles where it was celebrated as an obscure gem. Till many years later, when the psychedelic prog-rock community rediscovered it. By then, Vangelis had moved on to explore other genres and make memorable soundtracks for films such as Chariots Of Fire and Blade Runner. Fans acclaimed 666’s abstract explorations into psychedelic music as pioneering but the album remained a cult favourite, never getting a mainstream following. Vangelis’ compositions meandered into and melded classical, rock, jazz and Indian ragas to create a soundscape that was pretty unique for 1972.

Half a century after it was made, 666 can still sound contemporary. The Moog synth lines, guitar solos and vocals are top notch. One of its most engrossing songs is The Four Horsemen, its lyrics drawn from a chapter of The Revelation, memorable for its keyboard riff and a prolonged guitar solo with wah-wah, which is accompanied by Roussos’ vocals.

To many people, Vangelis is known more for his Blade Runner soundtrack, the 1982 film by Ridley Scott based on Philip K. Dick’s book Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? Vangelis composed the music meticulously and the soundtrack works excellently as a stand-alone album, a format in which it was released after the film came out. Before that, Vangelis won an Oscar for his soundtrack for Chariots Of Fire. That is what brought him fame and recognition.

But his short-lived band, Aphrodite’s Child, deserves rediscovery. Some critics have called 666 an album too overwhelming to listen to in one sitting. There is so much happening on it that it isn’t like a normal rock album. Hit concept albums of that era, such as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles or The Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd, can pale in comparison to 666, whose true genius unveils itself on multiple listenings. The album is in a class by itself.

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.


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