Tag Archives: rock

Going underground behind the Iron Curtain

I recently came across the very interesting book “X-Ray Audio” – The Strange Story of Soviet Music on the Bone by Stephen Coates. Focusing on the underground culture of Roentgenizdat, also known as “music on ribs” or “jazz on bones”, it tells the fascinating story of bootleg and pirated X-ray music discs that were circulated illegally in Soviet Russia during the immediate post-war era through the 1960s.

Made from medical X-rays that were subsequently cut into 7-inch discs with the aid of special machines, these discs featured music by officially censored artists such as the “King of Russian Tango” Pyotr Leshchenko or Western jazz and rock’n’roll musicians like Bill Haley, Ella Fitzgerald, and The Beatles.

A sort of musical parallel to the samizdat (the underground publication and distribution of dissident literature), the history of these Soviet bone discs is truly incredible as well as illuminating: it reveals how far people were willing to go in order to obtain, enjoy and share the forbidden fruit of inaccessible music. The risks involved were serious: Sound engineer Ruslan Bogoslovsky (1928-2005), a true hero of Soviet underground record production, was sent to prison camps no less than three times throughout his life for cutting Western music onto records that originally contained speeches of Soviet leaders.

Eventually the X-ray record production was eclipsed by the emergence of reel-to-reel tape recorders which became available in the early 1960s and soon grew enormously popular. This in turn sparked the process known as magnitizdat, i.e. the re-copying and self-distribution of audio tape recordings that were not available commercially. According to leading Russian music journalist and critic Artemy Troitsky, “the overall quantity of X-ray records ever produced in the Soviet times would not exceed a million, whereas with reel-to-reel tapes we would be talking about tens if not hundreds of millions.”

In his book Back in the USSR: The True Story of Rock in Russia (first published in 1987, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union), Troitsky provides a compelling account of the evolution of the Soviet rock scene since its birth in the 1960s. An insider, Troitsky offers an abundance of first-hand information and anecdotes related to the foremost Soviet rock musicians and groups that are little, if at all, known in the West, such as Time Machine (the “Russian Beatles”) and their founder Andrey Makarevich, Aquarium and their leader Boris Grebenshchikov, guitarist Alexander Lyapin (“closer to Hendrix than any other Soviet rock guitarist”), or the iconic post-punk band Kino and their singer Viktor Tsoi.

Starting with the crucial influence of The Beatles on the genesis of Soviet rock, Troitsky goes on to describe key events, places and moments of its history, such as  the hippie gatherings in Tallin and Crimea (“something of a Soviet California”), the Leningrad and Moscow scenes, the “intense though fairly isolated” rock culture of Estonia, the 1980 Tbilisi festival, the emergence of home-made albums in the early 1980s, and the “Account 904” concert (organized in 1986 by Troitsky and others to raise funds for the victims of the Chernobyl disaster).

Troitsky’s commentary is at times both funny (“punk rock with us is something exotic, like an avocado – everyone has heard the name, but very few know what it actually is”) and penetrating: “Meanwhile, nothing at all was happening in Lithuania (…) nothing, that is, if we don’t count having the best jazz and the prettiest girls in the country. Perhaps these circumstances hindered the development of rock music there.”

Apart from its purely historical value, Troitsky’s account also offers some stimulating remarks on the nature of Russian culture and its differences from the West. For example, he writes: “[T]he purely literary level of our rock lyrics is higher, on the average, than in the West. Rock lyrics here have a direct tie to our poetic tradition and reflect its lexical and stylistic heritage.” I find this assertion particularly interesting in the light of the recent Nobel award to Bob Dylan and the related discussion on the relationship between music and literature.

Troitsky’s book closes with a somewhat disheartening remark: “[T]oo few rock bands dare to test glasnost (…) And this is sad. It seems that the long-awaited sunlight has blinded most of the creatures crawling out of the underground.” Thirty years on, the Iron Curtain having long been lifted, the question of cultural and political dissent remains as urgent as ever, both in Russia and the rest of the world. And music can play a crucial role in this respect. As cultural critic Edward Said once put it: “Music, in some profound way, is perhaps the final resistance to the acculturation and the commodification of everything.”

Listening to Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa (1940 – 1993) was one of these rare geniuses that are simply impossible to classify. Composer, singer, multi-instrumentalist, lyricist, producer, as well as filmmaker and actor, he switched with ease from one genre or style to another, blending various disparate influences into a highly original musical idiom.

An accomplished guitarist, Zappa also left a rich legacy of dazzling guitar work, such as his electrifying solo in Willie the Pimp from his early masterpiece Hot Rats (1969).

His virtuosity aside, it is evident that Zappa’s unique, and constantly evolving, musical language was only one part of his multifaceted artistic expression and creative vision. His often provocative stage presence, caustic -and at times censored- lyrics, as well as controversial role as a public figure were equally important aspects of his artistic persona.

Bust of Frank Zappa in Vilnius

There are, thus, various ways of listening to Frank Zappa. First, through his innovative and unconventional music. Then, through his sharp, sarcastic, and often infuriating lyrics. Last but not least, through his public commentary and interventions.

The latter is the focus of the recent documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words. Featuring numerous excerpts from interviews and TV appearances, it provides a general overview of Zappa’s ideas and views on a variety of topics such as music, politics, education, religion, drugs, censorship, and freedom of speech.

Not unlike his music, Zappa’s talk and language are playful yet always well structured; his remarks can be humorous and sarcastic, yet extremely serious.

Unsurprisingly, many of his views, such as his stance on American culture and foreign policy, ring the same as timely and poignant today.

It is perhaps no coincidence that Zappa’s influence in Europe has been arguably greater than in his native US. The subversive character of his art had a particularly big impact in the avant-garde and underground scenes of Central and Eastern Europe during the 1970s and 1980s.

Notably, Zappa went to Czechoslovakia following an invitation by president Václav Havel in January 1990. Havel was a fan of Zappa, and would later refer to him as “one of the gods of the Czech underground.” The two men developed a friendship, further consolidating the special connection between Frank Zappa and the Czech Republic that endures to this day.

Another, more tangible, testament to Zappa’s lasting and far-reaching influence can be found in downtown Vilnius, Lithuanian’s capital city. It is a bronze bust of the American musician erected in 1995, which has since become one of the city’s most visited sights (I took a photo of it myself when I visited Vilnius some years ago).

Listening to Frank Zappa, then, has been quite tricky: his attitude towards the status quo and established processes always remained critical, his iconoclastic art causing great provocation all the way from the US (where he fought a long battle against music censorship) to Soviet countries (where his music was banned and his records had to be smuggled illegally).

Be it Zappa’s groundbreaking music or thought-provoking commentary on society and culture, it is a listen most definitely worth having.

The new old sound of Greek folk rock

Into the forest

In a beautiful green setting just a couple of hours away from the hustle and bustle of Athens, a unique get together of different people, sounds, and musical styles took place around mid-August in the 4th edition of the Arvanitsa Music Forest Festival.

Nestled inside a lush landscape, the stage was surrounded by tall green firs, its powerful projectors and strong lights bringing forth a symbolism that run throughout the festival: the convergence of old and new, traditional and modern, urban and rural.

P1060038

The stage lights vanishing into the night sky above the forest in Arvanitsa

The music of uprooting

Intensified and increasingly relevant due to the ongoing socio-economic crisis in Greece, the theme of emigration and resettling was recurrent in the performances of several artists who treated it both as a vehicle for artistic expression and socio-political commentary.

A case in point is Hamayun and Wakar by Greek songwriter Thanassis Papakonstantinou. The song relates the tragic story of Hamayun Anwar and Wakar Ahmed, two young men from Pakistan who lost their lives in 2012 while trying to save an elderly Greek couple that was trapped on rail tracks.

Another highlight included the electrifying renditions of popular folk tunes by Villagers of Ioannina City (aka VIC), a Greek band that brings together folk influences with post, stoner and psychedelic rock elements. Songs such as Jiannim or Chalasia combine skilfully the traditional form and emotional undertones of Greek folk song with a contemporary sound and orchestration, thus reaching out to audiences that would otherwise have little or no interest in folk music.

Old folk, new folks

The amplified sound of clarinets, lutes and lyres next to resounding guitars, electric bass and thundering drumming. Familiar lyrics and popular tunes sung again in different ways, performed through different mediums, and heard again through different ears.

This happens when city folks gather in the forest to play, listen and sing to the the new old sound of Greek folk rock music.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Thanasis Papakonstantinou in concert (Paradiso, Amsterdam)

Who’s that again?

Born in 1959, Thanasis Papakonstantinou slowly emerged in the Greek music scene around the early 1990s. Influenced by folk and world music, he progressively developed his own style incorporating jazz, rock and electronic elements. This fusion has led to the creation of a unique and highly distinctive sound, establishing him as one of today’s most original Greek songwriters.

The prophet’s (hoarse) voice

The release of the album Vrachnos Profitis (‘Hoarse Prophet’) in 2000 was a turning point for Papakonstantinou’s career as a songwriter. Throughout the following years he turned increasingly experimental with regards to the production and orchestration of his records. Meanwhile, collaborating with major Greek musicians and singers has enabled him to enrich his sound and complement his own hoarse voice and limited vocal range.

His efforts have yielded some truly remarkable results, as testified by the aesthetic and artistic merits of albums like Agrypnia (‘Vigil’, 2002), O elachistos eaftos (‘The Minimal Self’, 2011), or his latest release Prosklisi se Deipno Kianiou (‘Invitation to Cyanide Dinner’, 2014).

Vigil in Amsterdam

Next to his low profile, modest media presence, and unpretentious nature, Thanasis is characterized by his relaxed stage presence and direct communication with his audience during his live performances.

This was also the case during his recent gig at Amsterdam’s Paradiso, which went on to last for more than 2 hours after an atmospheric opening with the highly evocative Agrypnia.

Shortly after the gig was over, Thanasis came down from the stage and performed a song by Greek composer Markos Vamvakaris (known as the “patriarch of the rebetiko”) to a small group of people that gathered around him to listen.

It was an intimate closing to a long evening full of enthusiasm, emotion and great music.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Richard Thompson in concert (Paradiso, Amsterdam)

The multi-talented mr. Thompson

British guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson started his long recording career in 1967 as a member of Fairport Convention. His exceptional guitar technique and songwriting skills soon earned him a highly acclaimed status among peer folk-rock musicians, and many of his songs have been subsequently covered by a wide range of artists (including Elvis Costello and David Gilmour).

Mostly known for his skilled acoustic playing, Thompson has deployed several styles over the years. He often plays bass notes using a pick between his thumb and first finger, adding the melody and extra ornamentation by plucking the treble strings with the rest of his fingers. Sometimes he also makes use of a thumb-pick, as in the motorcycle ballad 1952 Vincent Black Lightning.

A ‘folky’ power trio

His latest album Electric was released earlier this year, peaking at number 16 on the UK Album Chart (the highest charting album of his career so far). I recently had the chance to see Thompson perform live with his “electric trio” in Amsterdam, in one of the stops of his ongoing tour on both sides of the Atlantic.

It was interesting to watch such a revered acoustic player going electric, trying to emulate the sound of good old power trios like Cream or The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Towards the closing of the concert, however, Thompson made this telling confession: “You know, we are too folky to be a real power trio.”

With that, he grabbed his acoustic guitar and offered the audience a couple of excellent acoustic solo performances. He came back with his trio for a final tune: a magnificent, electrifying version of Hey Joe à la Hendrix.

Whether folky, acoustic, or electric, one thing about Richard Thompson is certain: He surely remains a guitar powerhouse and a great inspiration for players worldwide.

Great moments of Greek(lish) rock, pt.3: Drunken Socrates

Socrates Drank the Conium were undoubtedly the most important exponents of the Greek rock scene throughout the 1970s and up to the early 1980s. Their name has attained a somewhat legendary status and commands considerable respect among Greek rock fans and critics up to this day.

Although the name ‘Socrates Drank the Conium’ first appeared in 1969, the story of the band goes back to the time when fellow high-school students Antonis Tourkogiorgis and Yiannis Spathas formed The Persons. The impeccable synchronization and exemplary blending of Spathas’s guitar playing with Tourkogiorgis’s distinctive use of bass was evident from early on, as was the potential for the remarkable compositions that were about to emerge.

Socrates Drank the Conium (1972)

After releasing three singles and making several live appearances as Persons, they changed their name to Socrates Drank the Conium (or simply Socrates, as friends and fans would end up calling them) and made their recording debut (Socrates Drank the Conium, 1972) as a trio, with Elias Boukouvalas behind the drums. The album is characterized by an explosive mix of blues, heavy rock and psychedelic elements much akin to the sound of bands like The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream. Apart from such obvious influences, other artists that had a significant impact on Socrates included Ten Years After, Fleetwood Mac, John Mayal, Free and Led Zeppelin. Despite the rather poor production and the unhelpful recording conditions, which also concern their next album (Taste of Conium, 1972), Socrates’ powerful message got through and resulted in a warm reception from both Greek public and press of the time.

The band’s biggest asset was undeniably the astonishing technique of guitarist John Spathas whose virtuosity and musicality produced results of exceptional power and expressiveness when combined with the band’s rock-solid rhythm session. In addition, the frequent incorporation of traditional Greek elements in Spathas’s guitar passages and solos would also become one of the band’s trademarks and most significant innovations.

The introduction of Live in the Country – the very first song in Socrates’ recording career – is a brilliant demonstration of Spathas’s skillful guitar playing and highly idiomatic musical language, which arises from a combination of a Hendrix-like sound and elements of Greek folk music.

SocratesBy the time their third album (On the Wings, 1973) hit the shelves, Socrates had already attained a preeminent place amongst contemporary Greek bands. Having played at most of the major venues in Greece but also elsewhere in Europe (including club Paradiso in Amsterdam), Socrates became known for the forcefulness and electrifying atmosphere of their live performances.

The creative course of Socrates culminated in the mid-1970s, when their collaboration with keyboardist and composer Vangelis Papathanassiou (who had also been a member of Aphrodite’s Child) led to the release of Phos (1976). Vangelis’s touch gave the band a more lyrical and elegiac sound that is clearly distinguishable throughout the album. Recorded in London, Phos (“light” in Greek) stands out as the crowning achievement of not just the band, but the entire Greek progressive rock scene of the era.

The album contains pieces of profound beauty such as Queen of the Universe, as well as a popular rendition of Starvation, which had appeared on the band’s debut album. The indisputable highlight, however, is Mountains (which would be re-recorded again in 1980), where Spathas embarks on an improvisatory trip of monumental scale, showcasing his exceptional guitar technique and unique assimilation of Greek folk musical idioms.

In the early 1980s, Socrates returned with two more noteworthy attempts (Waiting for Something and Breaking Through) and a couple of years later the band released its swan song (Plaza, 1983), having a last shot at international fame. Just before the turn of the millennium Socrates came together for  a series of concerts which resulted in the release of their live album Live in Concert ’99, a record that effectively summarizes their long and remarkable career.

Great moments of Greek(lish) rock, pt.2: Reflections of Genius

Manos Hadjidakis (1925 – 1994) was arguably the greatest Greek composer of the past century. Spanning across 5 decades, his voluminous creative output touches upon many diverse genres and styles, always characterized by a high degree of originality, sensitivity and expressiveness.

Greek composer Manos Hadjidakis (1925 – 1994)

Hadjidakis achieved international fame with his Never on Sunday, which won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1960 (a first for a foreign-language picture). The song has been covered in various languages ever since (from Yiddish to Cantonese) and its popularity does not seem to be waning, as testified by more recent versions such as the one by Pink Martini.

While in New York City, where he was living since 1966, Hadjidakis recorded Reflections together with the New York Rock & Roll Ensemble. Featuring English lyrics written by the band and Hadjidakis’s highly personal and emotional melodic lines, the result was an unprecedented fusion of classical, pop, rock, and traditional Greek music.

Released in 1970, the album contains some of Hadjidakis’s most captivating music. The elaborate orchestrations, ethereal melodies and gracefulness of the tunes have raised Reflections to a unique place among the composer’s oeuvre.

A rare musical marriage of seemingly disparate elements, the music of Reflections is characterized by hauntingly beautiful and melancholic overtones, that create a distinctive atmosphere of intimacy and warmth between the work and the listener.

The album’s popularity has always remained high and in 1993 it was re-recorded with Greek lyrics written by Nikos Gatsos, with Aliki Kayaloglou on vocals. More recently, the acclaimed Greek band Raining Pleasure released its own interpretation of the work, reaffirming its status as a timeless classic of Greek art music.