Interview in "Oor" magazine, February 25 1976
Article by Harry van Nieuwenhoven
"As you know my first LP is called Heaven and Hell.(1) When I got the trial-pressing from RCA Records a few weeks ago, I discovered the technician at the pressing-plant had carved the sentence ‘And It Was’ in the part of the vinyl closest to the label. Professionally (to check the sound) he’d had to listen to Heaven and Hell and from that reached his to me valuable conclusion. In a way the man is completely correct. The music on Heaven and Hell drags you through a number of pretty intense heavenly and hellish experiences."
Speaking is Vangalis (sic) Papathanassiou. But please say Vangelis. Not 12 hours after a sold-out Royal Albert Hall in London heard the last note of his spectacular "Heaven and Hell" performance die away, I again find myself in the company of the master himself. I’m sitting in Vangelis’ luxurious apartment at London’s Queen’s Gate.
Wherever I look, my eyes are treated to expensive antique accessories. Utterly suited to those luxurious surroundings is Vangelis’ wife of French origin, with whom I have a friendly chat before Vangelis makes his entrance. Dressed in an almost see-through morning robe, Veronique proves quite an unsettling experience for your reporter. In her disarming English accent Veronique makes excuses for Vangelis’ turning up late and for the fact she’s afraid she can’t offer me anything to drink. "The rehearsals for the performance of Heaven and Hell have taken up all our time for the past days and disrupted our whole house-hold," she whispers quietly, after she’s given orders to a helpful young man from the record-company to get some coffee etc. at the local groceries-store. After a good half-hour Vangalis (sic) literally storms into the room. Just the way he looks on my publicity pictures. A heavy (but what’s heavy) Greek. His crystal-white shirt falls open down to his navel and thus offers us a look at his lavishly hairy upper-torso. The generous crop of hair on his head is as usual in complete disarray. After he has introduced himself to me, he sits down on the arm of the sofa, clearly over-exhausted, firmly shakes his head a number of times, emits a deep sigh, breaks the silence with the words "I’ve got the feeling of a man who’s just delivered 20,000 tons of coal" and starts walking about restlessly inside the ball-room turned living-room.
"What an awful day it is today. I mean, look outside! Again that typically English, depressing weather. Doesn’t that make you want to cry?" ‘Rain and Tears’ I laugh. The Papathanassious join in whole-heartedly. Because ‘Rain and Tears’ happens to be the title of one of the hits that took Greek formation Aphrodite’s Child, which apart from Vangelis had his brother Leo(2) and Demis Roussos as members, to the top of various European hit-parades.
Vangelis considers Aphrodite’s Child, most of whose material he wrote, to be a closed chapter in his life. The band was formed in 1968 by Vangelis in Paris.(3) Scored a reasonable number of hits, but fell apart after the controversial double-LP "666". After Aphrodite’s Child Vangelis mostly worked on composing music for films (L’Apocalypse des Animaux). In 1974 he departed Paris for London where he immediately fell victim to some wild speculations. He was going to replace Rick Wakeman as keyboard-man for Yes. How much of that is true? Vangelis: "Jon Anderson indeed asked me to play with Yes. I gave it a try. It didn’t work out. You know, I’m an individualist. As a band-member you have to commit yourself to the common task. I cannot do that. I live from day to day. Can’t stand the strict timelines that happen to be part and parcel of being in a band. Furthermore I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on playing the same keyboard-parts time and again. I want to constantly work creatively. To write film music one moment. To write arrangements for Patty Pravo’s music another moment.(4) Reshape Heaven and Hell a little more..... I’m a soloist through and through. But still not an ego-tripper. I like working with others, as long as I can provide the basic ideas."
So Vangelis didn’t say yes to Yes. Instead (to be able to continue his luxurious lifestyle) he felt forced to sign a contract with RCA Records. From the very first beginnings RCA saw in Vangelis a big star. They might just turn out to be right. No costs or effort were spared in order to fulfil the wishes of the Greek desperado, who by the way doesn’t want anything to do with politics. Funds were raised that enabled Vangelis to build a 24-track studio near London’s Marble Arch. There he recorded "Heaven and Hell". In principle a non-commercial record which - also due to the promotional activities by BBC’s Radio One DJ Alan Freeman - reached the top-30 list of best-sold records in England. No small feat, if you happen to know this list is mostly filled with compilation-albums. Therefore many copies of "Heaven and Hell" must have crossed the counter. Rightly so, because artistically "Heaven and Hell" is a sublime record, filled with beautiful sequences of sounds, dominated by keyboard and percussion instruments. The adventure-filled music on "Heaven and Hell" doesn’t obviously divide into segments, but flows from one sound-scape into another. The A-side depicts ‘Heaven’. Its striking material - vaguely reminiscent of the work of classical composer Janaçek - is not only beautiful, pastoral but also fierce in character and carries powerful outbursts of the English Chamber Choir plus a great contrast between light and dark in it. Side A ends with the ethereal vocal sound of Jon Anderson in the dreamy ‘So Long Ago, So Clear’. The B-side depicts ‘Hell’ and is dominated by lots of percussion. Evil, ominous rhythms of drums and gong-like sounds are showered and surrounded by the sounds of synthesizers that roar like furious devils.
The use of percussion instruments in this sort of lyrical and symphonic music is relatively unique. Vangelis: "That’s correct. Although what’s on Heaven and Hell might sound quite complex at times, my basic contributions on the keyboards, not in any way bounded by strict rules, are usually as simple as one plus one equals two. In the domain of the more or less symphonic sound-progressions, brought about in the spirit of the moment, the contributions of the percussion instruments bring power, energy and positive vibrations that are strictly necessary to avoid making the total result a tedious ego-trip." The performance of "Heaven and Hell" at the Royal Albert Hall was a real tour de force and a strange experience which turned into a complete triumph for Vangelis. Assisted by no less than two sidemen, among whom renowned conductor David Bedford(5), Vangelis played a large number of keyboard and percussion instruments. Also making their appearance was an African (percussion-) group. Some 20 girls of London’s Queens College took place behind an equal number of ‘Timpanis’ (a sort of drums). Roughly the same number of ladies in red dresses stood surrounding two enormous drums which they played in a sort of ritual round dance. The 40-odd strong English Chamber Choir plus Greek singer Vana Veroutis completed the cast. Vana didn’t actually use any words when singing. It was rather a case of her emitting sounds. Just like on the last record by the way. Does Vangelis not believe in the power of speech? "The voice (and not the word) is the expression of the body. If you can only say something with words, it cannot really be sincere. Words are insensitive. Outbursts of formalism. The sounds made by the voice are sincere expressions of feelings or emotions circulating within the body." As a musician Vangelis is self-taught. Which you can hardly imagine when you see him in action. He’s in the possession of a fluid, sensitive style on the keyboard instruments. When he plays them he shows a technical craft normally only encountered among classical musicians. The list of keyboard instruments he plays is equally impressive. A Bosendorfer grand piano, a Hohner Clavinet, a Hammond B3 organ, a Fender 88 electric piano, an Elka Rhapsody ‘String’ Machine, a Tornado ‘reed’ organ, a Farfisa organ, an ARP Prosolist, a Crumar compact piano, two Mini-Korg 700, two Roland synthesizers, two Clavioli and two stylophone 350S mini-synthesizers. And that’s enough of that.
How does Vangelis view the musical changes he has gone through since Aphrodite’s Child and his solo-LP "Earth"? Vangelis: "Three years ago already I could have made a record like Heaven and Hell. Technically speaking I was ready for it. Why I didn’t do it back then? Because the pop-market wasn’t ready for it at that moment. Some of the recordings I made 10 years ago are musically and technically speaking more complex than Heaven and Hell. The problem you have to deal with as a musician and creator of music is that you have to fight against a market, a record-company and a world for brainwashed people. As creator or performer of pop-music in 1976 you very quickly become the victim of the economic powers of this world who have meanwhile also taken over pop-music. In the sixties the creation and performance of pop-music was a form of (social) protest. Now the creation and performance of pop-music have become big business and most pop-musicians are photo-models in disguise who behave like mindless marionettes in the service of the public and the record-companies."
Vangelis doesn’t think highly of today’s pop-music. In that he is not alone. In today’s pop-music he at least is a somewhat non-conformist but very striking and talented presence, who in the form of "Heaven and Hell" has delivered a worthy masterpiece within the sector of symphonically oriented pop-music. Vangelis is a clear challenger to Rick Wakeman. An artist with a unique style and way of approach.
While our pleasantly conducted interview continues, the next journalists already step inside. Four Italians flanked by an official of the Italian branch of RCA. From that moment onwards I can forget about my (further) interview. One of the Italians speaks French and starts conversing with Vangelis, who speaks French fluently. The other Italian journalists too start asking questions in Italian which are answered by Vangelis, after having been translated by the RCA official. After 15 minutes Vangelis becomes very angry. One of the Italians hands him the Italian pressing of "Heaven and Hell". The gatefold sleeve has been replaced by a single one.... Vangelis emphatically indicates his discontent.
When I ask him whether he would take his almost 100-strong company on tour through Europe with "Heaven and Hell", he reacts irritated but shrewdly: "The possibility is there. We just have to figure out the financial side of it. On the other hand...if I look at the Italian pressing of Heaven and Hell, it will probably be a mini-tour with at most four people or something...."
Interview by Harry van Nieuwenhoven
Transcribed and translated from Dutch by Ivar de Vries