Salvador Dalí was no stranger to the bizarre. The Spanish painter and self-appointed genius once appeared on the Tonight Show carrying a leather rhinoceros.
Grasshoppers terrified the hell out of him. He routinely lugged around a piece of ‘lucky driftwood’ to ward off evil spirits. At a party in New York, he offered to pleasure Cher with an oddly shaped dildo. Yet all of this seems like Surrealist foreplay compared to his grand scheme to accompany the release of 666, the 1972 album from Greek quartet, Aphrodite’s Child.
Dalí’s plan was to stage a ‘happening’ in Barcelona, witnessed only by a couple of local shepherds, who would later relay the wonder of it all to the people. There were to be loudspeakers in the streets, blaring out 666 for 24 hours, accompanied by marching soldiers in Nazi uniforms.
Hundreds of live swans were to flock before Gaudi’s famous Sagrada Familia, sticks of dynamite sewn into their bellies, set to explode in ‘slow motion by special effects’. Navy planes were to roar overhead, their pilots instructed to dump their munitions on the great cathedral. No bombs, though. Instead they were to bombard the building with elephants, hippos, whales and, yes, archbishops carrying umbrellas.
“It’s about time to finish with the church!” declared Dalí.
Needless to say, and much to the undoubted relief of said groups of wildlife and clergy, all this never happened. But it was a measure of the extreme response that 666 could elicit. This was, after all, no regular rock opus. The album was an archly ambitious concept piece based on the New Testament, whereby good and evil do battle as the Book Of Revelations is played out through the prism of the 60s. Or something like that.
The brainchild of composer Vangelis Papathanassiou and lyricist Costas Ferris, it was a startling mix of proto-metal, Aquarian freakout and the avant-garde. Progressive rock as Marcel Duchamp might have imagined it. Dalí himself called it “a music of stone”, stating that, had he himself been a musician and lyricist, it would have qualified as one of his greatest works.
“It was a prophetic album,” explains ex-drummer Lucas Sideras. “In the Bible, St John talked about 666 to prevent this kind of thing [the Apocalypse]. Many people thought we made this record because we believed in 666, but it was the opposite.”
But where exactly did 666 come from? There was, after all, little in Aphrodite’s Child’s history to suggest such a lofty statement.
The band had initially grown from the Greek beat scene of the early 60s. Vangelis delivered zippy pop songs as part of The Forminx, soon followed by copyists like The Idols and We Five. Egyptian-born Demis Roussos had sung and played bass in both of those, and by the autumn of 1967, he and Vangelis were recording demos for Philips as The Papathanassiou Set.
The other two members were drummer Sideras and guitarist Anargyros ‘Silver’ Koulouris. Like many of their peers, they caught the scent of psychedelia and began pollinating their folk-rock tunes with The Beatles and Procol Harum, albeit via traditional Byzantine instruments. They renamed themselves Aphrodite’s Child and holed themselves up in Paris in 1968.
Debut 45 Rain And Tears went Top 30 in Blighty, but was a bigger hit throughout the rest of Europe. First LP End Of The World arrived in October 1968, followed a year later by its lysergic follow-up, It’s Five O’Clock. Both were sizeable successes on the continent. Aphrodite’s Child were now established as the Med’s pre-eminent furry freak brothers.
“Rain And Tears had been No.1 in Europe and sold over 20 million records worldwide,” says Sideras. “Then we had the opportunity to do the album we’d always wanted to do. And that became 666.”
The return of Silver Koulouris, who had missed the first two Aphrodite’s Child LPs because of national service, shifted the dynamic somewhat. But nobody could have foreseen the radical departure that was 666.
Vangelis’ chief co-conspirator was Greco-Egyptian writer and film director Costas Ferris. Then in exile in Paris, Ferris devised a concept for 666 in the form of a self- styled ‘Rock Oratorio’ called Revelation. He then began writing lyrics based on what he called the “time-puzzle” narration of films like Citizen Kane and Intolerance.
The motif itself was a circus, in which acrobats and animals are engaged in an Apocalypse-themed night of entertainment. Outside the tent, however, Armageddon is raging in earnest, though the audience believes it’s all part of the show. The narrator knows otherwise and becomes increasingly hysterical. At the climax, the two events converge onto the mother of all battlegrounds. It’s like Billy Smart meets War Of The Worlds. Vangelis duly took Ferris’ lyrical endgame and set it to music.
Sessions began in Paris in late 1970. “We were in the studio for nine or 10 months and didn’t let anybody in from the record company,” Sideras recalls. “Vangelis, Demis and me were jamming a lot; we could play for three hours non-stop. We had the studio in the evening from 10 o’clock until the morning, so we’d just play. After a month or two, we’d play back what we did and decide what to keep.”
Various guests slid by, including starchy English narrator John Forst, Greek actress Irene Papas and Giorgio Gomelsky, the entrepreneur and sometime manager of The Yardbirds, who’d most recently been involved with Soft Machine and Gong. It’s unclear exactly what Gomelsky’s role was, though he’s credited on the final sleeve, somewhat curiously, for “passing by”.
Despite its weighty premise, 666 wasn’t all plague and portent. There was plenty of mischief too. Twenty- three second opener The System, inspired by 60s activist Abbie Hoffmann, consists of a congregation chanting: ‘We’ve got the system/To fuck The System.’ A statement bearing no ideological sense, it was anything but revolutionary. Rather, it was a direct precursor of Pete Townshend’s reactionary refrain in Won’t Get Fooled Again: ‘Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss.’
Loud Loud Loud has an emotionless voice intoning over a somber piano line, joined by a children’s chorus that sounds like the wiped-out remains of the cast of Hair. Or at least Lord Of The Flies. It’s part liberation, part hysteria: ‘The day the walls of the cities will crumble away/ Uncovering our naked souls/We’ll all start singing/Shouting, screaming.’
The Battle Of The Locusts is a full-on electric dust-up that melts into the funky wah-wah of Do It, a tune so breathlessly rammed with breakbeats it could be Ash Ra Tempel going jungle.
But the killer tunes on the first two sides of 666, both of which depict the descent from Babylon, are The Four Horsemen and Aegian Sea. The former is Aphrodite’s Child at full tilt, Koulouris charging his guitar over an army of congas and woodwinds. Roussos is at his imperious best, his high vocals rushing forth like a cherubic Robert Plant.
“It wasn’t like we sat down and decided to play something,” insists Sideras. “It was just through jamming. Then something honest came out of it.”
Contrastingly, Aegian Sea is a mood piece of epic girth, soulful guitar lines adding undercurrent to great washes of ambient noise. It could be Pink Floyd in their Vesuvian pomp. In fact, Sideras has an interesting story about that: “In May ’68 in Paris, when there were riots going on, we were playing at a club there called Psychedelic. We’d always played as a trio and Vangelis had this huge sound.
"This was the time that Pink Floyd came to France to record the soundtrack to the film More. They hadn’t made the record yet though. One night they came to the Psychedelic Club. We met them and they were amazed at the sound we made. They didn’t believe this sound was coming from just three people in the group. They thought we had backing tapes.”
The second disc seems to search for some kind of spiritual resolution to all this worldly hoo-ha. Spoken- word snippet Seven Trumpets gives way to Altamont, in which the event often credited with finally packing off the hippie dream is viewed from the gods atop a mountain: ‘We saw a lamb with seven eyes/We saw a beast with seven horns/And a book sealed with seven seals.’
Chances are they never saw the bad acid sneaking through the gate. For all the mightiness of the music, Ferris’ lyrics are painfully self-conscious. Though they’re nothing compared to Infinity, a 39-minute outpouring – part-terror, part-ecstasy – eventually edited down to a mere five minutes.
Over an ominous swell of noise, actress Irene Papas builds from a whisper to a banshee scream as she spurts forth the ultimate cosmic orgasm, repeating ‘I am/To come /I am to come at once’ until all that’s left is a spent yelp. Vangelis is her musical playmate, improvising an orgiastic Sensurround to fit the mood. It makes Serge Gainsbourg sound like Cliff Richard.
There’s good reason for that too, as Sideras candidly explains: “Was she happy to do it? Very, very much! It was real, you know? (Laughs.) She was alone in her own cabin and no one was allowed to look at her. It was all dark in the room and that’s how she did it. It wasn’t a theatrical thing, it was a real orgasm.”
Then comes Hic And Nunc, a big, piano-led pop song with a communal choir. Its words – ‘I got a feeling/ Somebody’s missing/Sing it again!’ – suggest a world without leaders, without ego, stirring from the gloom.
As if to reinforce journey’s end, the epic 20-minute jam All The Seats Were Occupied overdubs frantic sax, congas and Koulouris’ burning guitar with blasts from all the songs we’ve heard thus far.
Closing track Break is the comedown, sung by Sideras. It’s a beautifully weary ballad, the kind you might find on a turn-of-the-70s Beach Boys LP.
Intellectual joke, overarching concept folly, or prog rock masterpiece? 666 is probably all three. “When the record label heard the record, they weren’t pleased,” remembers Sideras. “They were only interested in money and trying to find a hit. In Italy, Austria, Belgium and Germany this record wasn’t even allowed to be released, because of the Irene Papas song.”
Mercury sat on the album for nearly two years (Vangelis resolutely refusing to snip Infinity from the final cut), before finally relenting in 1972. But it was too late. “After this album,” says Sideras, “the US record company asked us to go over there to play. But we were in difficulty because Vangelis didn’t travel at all.
"He didn’t take the plane, he didn’t take this, he didn’t take that. It was a huge opportunity for us, because at that time we were No.1 on FM radio over there. FM was the station that played all the underground music in the States. But Vangelis didn’t want to travel, so it never happened.”
Aphrodite’s Child split. Jon Anderson invited Vangelis to join Yes (though he politely refused), and Sideras and Roussos set about solo careers. The latter soon became an international superstar of kaftan-sized kitsch and Vangelis an award-winning soundtrack composer.
666, meanwhile, was released the same day as Jesus Christ Superstar. After all, every yin must have its yang
Originally published in Prog magazine, issue 10. Subscribe to Prog to never miss an issue. (opens in new tab)