Discover more from The French Dispatch
Aphrodite’s Child - From “Revolution” to Revolutions…
How a Greek military coup set the soundtrack of the May '68 protests in Paris
The French Dispatch is a reader-supported publication. If you enjoy reading this, like, subscribe, share it with your friends and colleagues, and consider taking a paid subscription.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. The main driver for me writing this article is the fact that I’m Greek and I am currently living in France. Nevertheless, I wanted to understand the sociopolitical elements that influenced a band like Aphrodite’s Child to leave Greece in 1967 and settle down in France and create a song that is considered a “soundtrack” of the May 1968 riots.
Aphrodite’s Child were not the only ones to leave Greece at the time. When the colonels seized power in Greece in 1967 many artists fled and found refuge in Paris. Painter Yannis Tsarouchis, director and writer Costas Ferris (who later worked with Aphrodite’s Child in the album 666), singer Maria Farantouri and many more.
I was curious to research and find out the reasons why the artists decided to leave Greece, besides the obvious Junta = Bad. Also, I wanted to know how the cultural and political environment in France played a role in these artists' success and evolution.
Aphrodite's Child was formed in Greece by Vangelis Papathanasiou and Demis Roussos, (who were already relatively successful) Lucas Sideras and Anargyros Koulouris. They formed in Athens during a period of great political instability in the country. Even though the civil war was long over, there was still a great divide within the country.
The conservative right, supported by the military, was opposed to the center-left that was gaining in popularity. Of course the mention of anything remotely left, or communist was considered extremely dangerous at the time of the Cold War, especially in Greece which was very much under the influence of the US. These factors (and many events that are not really the subject of this article), led to the military coup d’etat on the 21st of April 1967.
It is hard to imagine how anyone could have felt that day. Growing up in Greece we’ve heard stories from our parents and grandparents about that period, but it’s still hard to imagine, especially if you work as an artist where your job requires you to freely express yourself. Eleni Ganiti, an Art historian at the National Museum of Contemporary Art offered some insight into how artists reacted to the military coup.[source]
The initial reaction of the community was silence, trying to not legitimise the new regime. Which only lasted for around 2 years. In the visual arts scene some exhibitions had implied political messages but generally speaking, the dictatorship had exiled political opponents and stifled artistic expression.
Music-wise, as military regimes do, they made extensive use of mass media with radios playing songs all of the time, even holding song contests with folk songs being the main genre chosen by the dictatorship.
Aphrodite’s Child, wanting more opportunities, greater exposure to new artistic waves and probably not feeling very safe artistically in Greece, decided to leave and set up shop in London. That initial plan didn’t really work out, since Anargyros Koulouris couldn’t leave the country as he had received his conscription papers.
The band left Greece without their guitarist and then they found themselves not able to enter England for work due to visa issues. That’s how the band ended up in Paris and signed a contract with the Philips record label.
Paris was a vibrant hub of artistic and cultural exchange during the 1960s. It attracted artists, musicians, and intellectuals from all over the world, creating a rich and diverse creative atmosphere. Aphrodite's Child found themselves immersed in this thriving cultural scene, which provided them with the ideal platform to explore their musical boundaries and collaborate with like-minded artists.
Aphrodite’s Child had the unique opportunity to explore different musical landscapes, absorb musical influences from bands like Procol Harum and the Moody Blues, all while retaining the aspects of their Greek personality in their music.
After all, Demis Roussos studied music in the Greek church in Alexandria and was influenced by Arab and Greek Orthodox music. Vangelis didn’t have any formal training (he later said that he is grateful he didn’t) but was influenced by traditional Greek music as well as jazz in his youth.
The music in France at the time was experiencing a transformation as well. It was the decade when Johnny Hallyday was starting up his influential career and Ye-Ye songs were becoming more popular. In Greek, we used the term “γιεγιεδες” (yeyedes) and I was amused when I realised that this term was more or less “official” across the world to describe the music that was popularised by rock bands like The Beatles.
The overall socio-political environment at the time saw a general reaction towards “the system” which in France is, of course, intricately linked with the events of May 1968 that targeted Charles de Gaulle’s leadership. These events, marked by student uprisings and labour strikes, had a profound impact on the cultural and political landscape of France.
Bands started to gain recognition as they performed in small venues within the underground music scene of Paris. Many bands were created and became more well-known at that time. Ame Son, Ange, Red Noise, Gong ( or ProtoGong) and many more started their careers and eventually created a cult following.
Speaking of cults, let’s talk about Rain and Tears which, as Demis Roussos said, might not have been the most successful song he ever made, but due to the reality in France at the time, it became a “cult” hit nonetheless.
Of course, many artists at the time were affected by the spirit of rebellion and desire for social change. Rain and Tears captures that mood of uncertainty and unrest, reflecting the zeitgeist of the era. These events influenced the song so much that the single was even made on artisanal presses because the factories were on strike.[source].
As Demis Roussos mentions, the “tears” part of the song has to do with the teargas that was used during the riots in Paris. Boris Bergman on the other hand, the person who wrote the lyrics of the song, will say that he came up with the idea for the lyrics when he saw a funeral on a rainy day. Musically, the song is a very melodic ballad with contrasting and dissonant choirs a subtle organ and violin that are very well led by the unique vocals of Demis Roussos.
The song became a hit across Europe. It became the song of the summer for France which after the riots, maybe saw this new pop song as a promise for a brighter future. It reached number 1 in France, Belgium and Italy, and number 2 in Norway, The Netherlands and Switzerland.
I was surprised to find out however that in November of that year, it was one of the suggested songs by the editors of Aktuil magazine in Indonesia(!!). Of course, it didn’t reach Greece at the time, at least not in any meaningful way.
Would Aphrodite’s Child be able to write Rain and Tears if they had stayed in Greece? And even if they did, would it have a similar cultural significance as it had in France at that time? Maybe or maybe not. There was no revolution at the time in Greece (although the Colonels did call their coup a “revolution”). Maybe the lyrics “When you cry in winter time, you can pretend it's nothing, but the rain” would have hit differently for the people of Greece at the time.
At the same time, would the band be able to write the song if they had never left Greece? Would their music have evolved as it did with a mix of traditional Greek music, rock and psychedelia and ended up creating 666 the album which for many (including myself) is the best and most influential album released by a Greek Artist?
No one knows what would have happened. Yet, Vangelis, Demis and Lukas travelled from unstable Greece to unstable France, and, in the process, managed to capture within their music a unique set of cultural and political circumstances.
Their individual talent, hard work and background led them to have very successful careers and be part of a musical movement that inspired generations of musicians. Furthermore, they connected two cultures in a unique way that wouldn’t be easily connected otherwise. Who could have told me that discovering a Greek artist at 18 years old, would help me integrate in a country that might not be so much different in the end?