Melody Maker, August 10, 1974
Genuine eccentrics are a rare breed in rock these days. What with Syd Barret gone to seed, there's only Nico and Captain Beefheart left.
Jazz and free music suffer a similar dearth now Jamie Muir has opted out of playing in favour of life in a Buddhist monastery.
In fact it's mostly the leftovers of the "straight" music school who are keeping the iconoclast's flag flying, whole generations from John Cage and Harry Partch down to David Bedford, Basil Kirchin, Terry Riley, Morton Feldman and all.
And stumbling between these areas with splendid uncertainty is a hearty, backslapping Greek named Vangelis O. Papathanassiou.
Vangelis cannot read a note of music, but does not think there's an instrument in creation that he can't play adequately. His Continental reputation centres partly on his keyboard expertise, yet he'd rather play drums than anything else.
For three years a member of the Greek pop group Aphrodite's Child he describes that experience as "painful," and "dishonest."
His last French production included a 30 strong girlie chorus, all of whom doubled on orchestral percussion, and a laser beam light show.
Once Papathanassiou composed a symphonic work for the Luxembourg symphony orchestra which was written down by trained musicians as the composer sang or played each individual orchestral part.
Now Vangelis is in London, looking for a flat, negotiating a deal with Atlantic Records and chuckling about rumours that he is to join Yes as a replacement for the more conventionally-orientated Rick Wakeman.
Crashing through the doorway of a Denmark Street office, Vangelis looks an unlikely amalgam of pop star, Greek restauranteur and grizzly bear. Determinedly hirsuit and bulky in these streamlined times his face is all but totally obscured behind shades, beard and a tousled mass of jet-black ringlets. His shirt is open to the waist, creating the illusion that his beard extends to his navel, and his stomach protests visibly against his tight off-white trousers.
Hung around his neck is so great a profusion of crosses, beads and medallions that it looks as though the composer is an Indiacraft advert.
Baubles jingling and rattling, Vangelis sprawls across a desk top and gruffly demands.
"So, you wanna know my story huh?" That affirmed, the Greek launches into a long monologue...
"I was four years old when I start to play..." his English is broken but intelligible. "and nobody tell me to play piano, I just took to it naturally. My parents tried to get me the best... how do you say it... musical education, but I never responded to teachers and so I am self taught. Also, as soon as I started to play, I started to compose, and all my life I have never played anybody else's music."
At the age of 15, Vangelis, still at school, started to toy with the idea of putting bands together, not he says, to emulate any other rock, or jazz musicians, but simply to get a few people with mutual ideas together to have some fun.
But this humble ideal escalated into something of greater financial reward, and thus, after a brief spell at art college and an apprenticeship as a movie maker Vangelis found himself the leader of a commercially - slanted pop group in gay Paree in the smoke bomb bashed summer of 1968. Student demonstration time.
Having arrived in that atmosphere, says Vangelis, "I felt an obligation to remain, although I was originally headed for London when I left Greece."
So moved was Papathanassiou by the students' ideals that he composed a "poeme symphonique" to declare his solidarity with the Revolution. Called "Fais Que Ton Reve Sait Plus Long Que La Nuit" ("Let Your Dream Be Longer Than The Night ") and released on Reprise, it gave the composer an underground reputation that initially seemed at odds with the blandness of Aphrodite's Child.
Nonetheless, Aphrodite's Child, despite being exclusively a studio band, veritably took the Continent by storm. "Every record that we made went to number one. But I couldn't stand the pressure to conform to what everybody wanted the group to be. It was like being in prison."
The outcome of this mental repression was Aphrodite's final and controversial double album "666," supposedly inspired by the revelations of St. John. The album was actually banned for a year for curious censorship reasons related to one track, a vocal feature by one Irene Papas.
"This track," Vangelis explained at the time, "is meant to convey the pain of birth and the joy of intercourse." The album, again successful on the Continent, took longer to get off the ground than its predecessors and also cost 90,000 dollars to produce.
"You have no idea how hard it is to get something unusual or different to sell in France. The French people have no faith whatsoever in their own judgement. That's why there are hardly any French groups, and why American and English groups are so idolised."
But times surely seem to be changing, what with the emergence of groups like Magma, Ange, Zoe, or even the glam rock Frenchies.
Not so, says Papathanassiou. French bands tend either to be carbon copies of English or American bands, or else have to make waves outside France in order to be recognised inside it. Magma, apparently being an example of this.
After "666" and the dissolution of Aphrodite's Child, Vangelis drifted back into film work, doing innumerable soundtracks, out of which came an album entitled "L'Apocalypse Des Animaux," released only in Europe (Polydor 2393 053), and last year, this time on Vertigo (6490 693) - "Earth."
Musically, "Earth" is often interesting but is dogged by some fairly atrocious "meaningful" lyrics contributed by one R. Dassin.
Example: "We became a diaspora / An unnamed nation of bastards / We channeled our roots to the pulse of light / Deep within the galaxies of our minds."
Of course, the subject matter isn't a million miles away from the allegorical nature of "Topographic Oceans," so maybe that's what attracted the attentions of those Yes people.
Yet for a person who claims to hate showbiz, there's something that seems out of context here. In solo concerts, Vangelis comes on like the Barnum and Bailey of the avant garde flanked by more keyboards than I've ever seen anyone use, clad in spangly jacket and directing huge ensembles of pretty chorus girls who rock around sets of copper tympani.
"Ah, but I did not do this to make a spectacle, "protests Vangelis, "it's not 'hey, look at the sexy girls with the beautiful legs.' I used girls just because I wanted to hear 30 female voices singing together, and y'know, why not have them playing drums as well?"
And the multiple keyboards?
"Having so many lets me play anything I hear in my head. With my equipment, I don't need a symphony orchestra, because I can create any sound that I need just using keyboards."
To underline his point, Vangelis plays a number of tapes and videos to illustrate the range of his inventiveness. I'm impressed, though frankly some of it I don't enjoy at all. In this category are things like a Scarlatti-type electric harpsichord solo and various other pieces that sound overly "classical."
Much better are some jazz jams, including one where Vangelis on organ flies high over rhythmic propulsion by Tony Oxley (drums) and Brian Odges (bass).
On another tape, Vangelis himself switches to drums to play some attacking post-be-bop stuff with plenty of heavy cymbal work.
But best of all is some soundtrack work that Vangelis has done to accompany modern dance and Greek tragedy. Like nothing else I've heard, it's very pure and quite breathtakingly beautiful, and if circumstance ever forced the Greek eccentric to specialise, I'm sure this is the direction he'd ultimately take.
Whatever, there's certainly no way that all this diverse energy could ever be compressed into a democratic rock and roll band.
Papathanassiou is a leader, rather than a follower, and I can't visualise him politely shifting chords behind a Steve Howe guitar solo on say, "Yours Is No Disgrace."
Nonetheless, (the Greek is emphatic that he'll make an album with Yes lead singer Jon Anderson, and it won't simply be a case of Papathanassiou recording and Anderson producing.
"It will be a musical collaboration, with words by Jon and music by me. I don't know what form it will take yet."
A final candid and hypothetical question: Assuming that work permit and Musicians' Union problems didn't exist, do you, Vangelis, think that Yes' music has enough substance to sustain you?
"To me," he replies, weighing his words carefully, "there are only two types of music - honest music and dishonest music, but various truths apply to different people.
"Now, when I listen to Yes' music, I am conscious of the fact that it is Occidental music. It is very English in its nature. Now I am not like that. I'm not saying I'm an Oriental, but Greece has such a rich heritage, and there are certain similarities between some ethnic Greek music and Chinese music for example. I think it would be very difficult for me to play with any band."
"Anyway, I enjoy the freedom of being able to choose the musicians I want to play each piece that I write. I wouldn't like to have my music limited by the abilities of one particular group of people."
Interview by Steve Lake