It’s fitting that a Greek band composed 1972’s swirling concept album 666, a musical kaleidoscope about the St. John’s vision of the Apocalypse in the Book of Revelations. After all, the mystic saint composed the nightmarish prediction that concludes the New Testament in a cave on the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea, and he wrote it down in Greek.
We’ve discussed concept albums here previously, in our Easter post on Jethro Tull’s Passion Play. Think of 666 as a prelude and bookend to that record. Concept records are scarce these days in the era of single song digital downloads, but they still exist—see Sufjan Stevens as a prime example.
While Sergeant Peppers.. is frequently cited as the first concept album in rock and roll, the Beatles actually abandoned the “concept” halfway through in favor of a bunch of really good songs. For me the first true, successful rock concept album has to be King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King, which marries both a cryptic but sustained narrative and a symphonic, musically connected, coherent tonal structure from beginning to end, replete with refrains, echoes and sweeping crescendos.
Aphrodite’s Child began life in 1967 as a psychedelic rock band composed of singer/bassist Demis Roussos, drummer Loukas Sideras, guitarist Silver Koulouris, and keyboard player/composer Vangelis Papathanassiou (yes, THAT Vangelis). Leaving Greece for London, the band seemed destined to become just another group of run of the mill wannabes with beads and thick beards.
In fact, they never even made it to London. They got as far as Paris when one of the members had work permit issues. They signed to Mercury Records in Paris, and recorded a single, “Rain and Tears,” a rock reworking of Pachabel’s famous Canon in D. Unaccountably, the song became an instant smash hit in France even though it was sung in English.
In October, 1968, Aphrodite’s Child released their first album, End of the World, a mix of scary, dystopian psychedelia and romantic ballads, tinged througout by Roussos’ impassioned, rasping vocals. With songs like the title cut and “Valley of Sadness,” it remains to this day one of the most ambitious and interesting (not to mention hard to find) psych LPs of the ‘60s.
As the band toured, Vangelis increasingly focused on studio work, staying behind in Paris to record a film soundtrack and envision the band’s third LP, his magnum opus. By this time the 70’s were in full swing and with them the psychedelic experimentation of the 60s had shifted to dramatic, complex, operatic theme records of the progressive rock movement. Singles were out; the LP was king, and with it, massive, elaborate live stage shows to entertain and mystify drug-fueled, open-minded international audiences.
The rest of the members resisted the pull towards this experimental direction, preferring a straight pop style highlighting traditional vocal arrangements and power ballads to fit Demis Roussos’ dramatic, emotive singing style. But Vangelis won out, temporarily, and assumed near total creative control over 666, employing an outside lyricist to put words to his vision, much as King Crimson used Robert Sinclair or the Dead used Robert Hunter.
It’s safe to say 666 is a forgotten classic. Surely one of the best concept records ever made; at least one of the most adventurous and, ultimately, satisfying. The music is a blend of muscular, hairy-armed testosterone rock (sax, thick guitar riffs, military percussion) with psychedelic flourishes and mystical lyrical references both Biblical and fascinatingly contemporary.
It is this alternating setting—ancient and timely—that gives the record its tension and fascination. The story of the Apocalypse is revealed not merely as a fanciful myth but as a modern nightmare, the just desserts of the hippie generation from the perspective of Greeks with a cultural finger on classical, mystical themes. The result is an explosive blend of exoticism, ancient sounds, chaotic energy, and oracular doom.
We hear this most clearly in the cut, “Altamont,” (clearly referencing the Rolling Stones’ California concert which became a one-word catchphrase for the death of the Summer of Love). We first hear percussive flourish—an egg cracking—then a growling sax solo with fuzz guitar and an insistent tinkling steel pipe—a newborn reptilian beast asserting itself beneath an angry moon. Then the howling mantra of a mad priest in full ritual, ecstatic, hypnotized, beautiful gibberish leaping over bonfires and sacrificial carcasses--an annunciation that the Dark Lord has come.
Then a pause as a slinky sax solo rolls out the black carpet, then the fusillade begins again as the Beast is presented to his distracted disciples, too busy looking the other way to notice the Terror in their midst, the new king they’ve unwittingly anointed.
Three minutes in the vocals begin, a litany coolly narrated by a effete hipster with a vague posh accent. The words key the connection between the title, the Biblical myth and the Sixties/Seventies youth culture, weaving literal lines from Revelations with a modern satiric assessment of the groovy set:
This is the sight we had one day on the High Mountain: we saw a Lamb with seven eyes, we saw a Beast with seven horns, and a Book sealed with seven seals. Seven Angels with seven trumpets and seven Bowls filled with Anger. Those are the pictures of what was, of what is and what is to come. We’re the People— the rolling people, the why people, the waiting people, the wanting people, the tambourine people, the alternative people, the angel people…
Nowadays most critics like to call 666 bombastic or complex, neither very much a compliment. It’s easier to dismiss it than sit through two records—who has the time?—of complex, shifting, stylistically unique but tonally and thematically connected songs. But 666 is more than inventive. It’s brash, clever and it rocks like all get out.
From the brooding “Aegian Sea,” which foretells in miniature all of Vangelis’ later brilliant Bladerunner soundtrack, to the fiery “The Four Horsemen” to the forgotten near-hit single “Break,” one of the most unexpectedly poignant album closers ever, there is no end to the delights this Apocalypse brings.
Think of it as a Christmas present from the Devil (or St. John) himself.
APHRODITE'S CHILD 666, 1972, Vertigo