Sounds interview, February 7, 1976
Ok Vangelis, level with me. Straight up. The whole story. Unabridged. No messin'. Right to the point. Why is it that for your new record, your debut RCA album 'Heaven And Hell', you've dropped your surname? Whatever happened to 'Papathanassiou'?
"Ha-ha," he chortles, deep and throatily, as only a person of his daunting stature can, "I tell you. How many inches are there to a record sleeve? 10, 12? More? We found that it was impossible to fit 'Papathanassiou' on it!
"Besides," he continues, jesting, "so many of you
English people have trouble to say it. Can you say it?"
"See, I told you!"
Vangelis, a huge, powerful Greek, late of Aphrodite's Child, with a hairy chest that should really come under protection from the Forestry Commission, has a temperament to suit his size: he's good-humoured, jubilant and often effervescent to an extreme.
And rightly so. The above album, being the culmination of various efforts, many abortive, some successful, that date back to mid-1974, is enjoying an unprecedented - and to me surprising - amount of success. It looks set to break into the BMRB Top 30 listings in the very near future.
I say 'surprising' because, much as I liked and five star rated 'Heaven And Hell', I didn't seriously think for a moment that it would be accepted to any great extent by the Great British Public. But it has been, and I'm truly glad. It's a magnificent, self-penned work, brimful of keyboard expertise, operatic chorals and pounding drums, yet at the same time is never pompous and seldom overbearing.
"I'm pleased that it is 'Heaven And Hell' that sells," Vangelis admits, "it's not a 'Top Of The Pops' album, it's not a quick, commercial product that is almost guaranteed to sell. Much of Aphrodite's Child's music was like that. This one is my album. I recorded it as I felt and to see it selling is a great pleasure."
"It was never pleasure for me to sell millions when I was with Aphrodite's Child. Then, it was a big gimmick. Now, I have recorded music that is music and I'm happy."
Born in Southern Greece, Vangelis found himself unable to return to his home country in 1968. He was in France at the time and Greece was going through political and social upheavals and became choosy as to who would be allowed in.
Undaunted, Vangelis formed the aformentioned Aphrodite's Child with then-sideman Demis Roussos. Scoring a substantial Continental hit with their first single released 'Rain and Tears', the band went on to pursue a very successful commercial career - until they split up after a completely unrepresentative and surprisingly ambitious album '666 - The Apocalypse Of St. John', very much Vangelis' brainchild.
Roussos went on to find his island in the sun, but Vangelis wanted to widen his own appeal. He began to aim for a more contemporary market. He recorded a couple of film soundtracks, played a concert in Paris, then in 1974 uprooted himself once again. He moved to London where, he hoped, the atmosphere would suit and the people would be more receptive to his music. It would seem that he was right.
Vangelis' studio has certainly come on a storm since I last visited, just before 'Heaven And Hell' was released. Then, it was sadly bare: a newly-fitted shag-pile carpet, hessian covered walls and afew tatty scatter cushions, that was virtually it.
Now, however, it looks more like some modern-day Grecian palace: the control room, if it can be truly called such, is adorned with washy watercolour paintings, Renoir style, the cushions have taken on a somewhat Persion elegance, a tiger skin is draped over a five feet high speaker cabinet, the ashtrays look more like bird-baths, plump cherubs curving upwards to support a dinner-plate size dish.
The recording room itself is chock-a-block with kettle drums, cymbals and an impressive array of customised keyboards, lined up against a formidable battery of amps. Keith Emerson, eat your heart out.
Vangelis is a compulsive musician. We do the interview onstage, enclosed by instruments, and all the while his fingers itch and inch towards the ivories. He insists on playing a brief intro to our conversion and, by the time we finish, he feels compelled to compose an outro. Both the pieces are executed with almost offhand dexterity, but are instantly memorable. Vangelis should write radio jingles.
As I mentioned before, 'Heaven And Hell' is the result of endeavours that date back to the late Summer of '74, when Vangelis arrived to take up residence in Britain. At that time, no sooner had he set foot in the country than he was confronted by a barrage of 'will he or won't he join Yes?' rumours. Rick Wakeman had just left the band y'see, and Vangelis, it was reported, was high on the list of possible replacements.
"Many people think that the best thing to do, when you arrive in this country," Vangelis realtes, "is to join a big group, become known and successful, and then leave to become a star in your own right.
"This was not for me. I wanted to start - what is the expression? - from scratch. After the joining Yes rumours had died down, I needed to get my own studio. This took a long time. I wanted to work in the city, be close to people, be involved in its hang ups, its way of life. I didn't want to work in country, is too isolated.
"Property is very difficult in London. After a lot of searching I find a place and finally begin to make myself at home. Then I get recording contract, make album."
'Heaven And Hell' being the result. Vangelis stresses that, although the LP's 'concept' may seem a trifle overblown and perhaps rather trite, it is very much open to personal opinion and interpretation.
"What I may see as heaven may be your hell, and what you think is your heaven could be my hell," he muses. "There are no rules. For me, the album is a very personal feeling. It may be that others feel this as well, but for different reasons."
Eventually and inevitably, the subject matter turns to Vangelis' upcoming concert at the Royal Albert Hall. His last live performance was in Paris, some two or three years ago. Does he feel at all apprehensive, returning to the stage?
"A little," he says. His accented voice quavering slightly, "but I am very much looking forward to it. Is a wonderful place, the Albert Hall, and I love doing concerts, love the ... intimacy, the closeness that they bring. I may have 150 people with me on-stage to perform 'Heaven And Hell', did you know that? 150.
"This is not because I cannot play the album with less people. I could play it with just myself and someone else, if I wanted. It's just the feeling of all those people, the vastness of the sound. It is something you should not miss."
Hold on ... something's just occurred to me. I have one of Vangelis' old solo albums at home, recorded in France called 'Earth'. On its cover the designer has somehow managed to fit the whole name - Vangelis O. Papathanassiou - with an important embellishment. That 'O'. What can it stand for?
"Odyssey," Vangelis reveals. "It comes from my father. Is funny, 'Vangelis' sounds like a Dutch name, the 'O' part sounds Irish and the rest is Greek. Is funny ..."
Interview by Geoffrou Aristotle Bartonopoulos