Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Rock Against the Colonels

Never Trust A Hippy

Athens, 21 April, 1967. A serious lack of psychedelia.
Athens, 21 April 1967.

Tanks are on the streets. Soldiers guard government buildings. The Prime Minster is under arrest. The birthplace of democracy is under military rule.

Into this scene there appears a bizarre apparition. Standing six foot five and wearing a Chinese silk kaftan, a pair of gold lame flared trousers and a necklace of white plastic monkey skulls, the figure wafts past the incredulous doorman of the Hilton Hotel and heads downtown, armed only with good vibes and the power of psychedelia.

This was the future legendary NME journalist Tony Tyler, Godfather of James Bond actor Daniel Craig, then enjoying a one month residency at the Athens Hilton playing Hammond organ for an Italian based band. Called the Patrick Samson Set, they were celebrating a Number One across the Adriatic with a cover version of A Whiter Shade of Pale.

Neither the soldiers nor the citizens of Athens appear to have been much moved by Tyler's one man mission of Peace and Love. Indeed it seems only one person even noticed this dedicated follower of fashion as he strode the quiet streets. He was a Bulgarian, and for him this fine specimen of British manhood, decked out in such magnificent garments, was too much too resist. Although a barrier of language and culture divided them, he managed to make his intentions quite plain. Alas, his amour was not reciprocated and Tyler's mission ended with the lanky fashion victim fleeing back to the safety of the hotel.

So much for Flower Power then.

But at least Tyler had noticed there had been a coup. Away on the island of Crete, where hippies lived in the Matala caves, much to the amusement of local people, it all seemed to pass them by. When Life magazine dropped by a year later one Wayne Walvoord told them "I'm worried about America, worried sick about it. I heard from a girl in Tokyo that America is becoming a Police state. Can this be true?" 

Wayne was apparently oblivious to the fact he was the one living in a police state. Three years later Joni Mitchell called in, completely missed the Secret Police, torture chambers and island gulags, and instead wrote a nice little song about drinking wine under the moon.

So it would appear that if your country is taken over by a bunch of reactionary Colonels, don't expect a hippy to help you.

Sex And Drugs And Rock 'n' Roll

Or maybe not. Because it is possible that Greece may actually be the one place in the world where Rock 'n' Roll actually changed things for the better. It's a bit of a tenuous claim, but please stick with me.

Not getting any Satisfaction
Four days before the coup the Rolling Stones had played Athens in a gig which only lasted four songs. Mainly remembered for the brutality of the police, it ended during the fifth song, Satisfaction, when Mick Jagger asked his road manager to give out red carnations. This was regarded as communist agitation and six police beat the poor chap to the ground. Chaos then broke out as the band tried to help and the show came to a premature end.

After that the Animals and the Kinks cancelled planned gigs and the big bands missed Greece off their tours. Instead the Greeks had to put up with stadium shows of incredible kitsch put on by the military. Something like a bizarre cross between Ben Hur and the Edinburgh Tattoo, they started with men in skirts and chariots fighting mock battles against communists and Persians and ended with helicopters dropping Marines into the arena. Not exactly Monterey.

Socrates Drank The Conium
However this was the era of the transistor radio. All over the world teenagers were sneaking into their bedrooms to listen to music their parents disapproved of, and Greece was no different. The Colonels may have played martial music on the official channels, but there was also the American Foreign Radio Station, and clandestine stations that came and went, which played far cooler tracks.

The Junta's attempt to turn back the cultural clock might have worked though had not their economy been so reliant on tourism, and their security on the United States military. It was one thing to ban Greeks from wearing mini skirts and peace signs, but they couldn't stop the hippies who passed though on their way to Katmandu bringing with them the whole paraphernalia of sixties subculture. A handful of young Greeks had already discovered good music, and sex wasn't entirely unknown, the drugs were certainly something new.

Floating dope den the USS JFK off Corfu, July 1969
Reinforcements of good vibrations also came from, of all places, the US Sixth Fleet. Part of the huge US military presence that bolstered the Junta's legitimacy, its sailors did their bit to undermine the cultural embargo. Matt Barrett, an American teenager living in Athens at the time, remembers his school party being sold pot on the hanger deck of the aircraft carrier John F Kennedy, which is I suppose what happens when you name a warship after a President who popped more pills than Ozzy Osborne.

The police kept an eye on the clubs, so most drug use occurred elsewhere. People would arrive for an evening out totally stoned and sip a single drink for the rest of the evening, which doesn't sound very different to being a teenager in Merseyside. Otherwise people would chill out by enjoying the Acropolis at night under the influence of LSD. I've never been, but I imagine it's a deeper and more meaningful experience than viewing Southport pier in the same state of mind.

Aphrodite's Child
After the Rolling Stones fiasco Western musicians didn't visit Greece in person, but they didn't need to as the country produced more than its fair share of great bands. Some, like Aphrodite's Child, who featured one Vangelis of Chariots of Fire fame on keyboards, got famous and moved abroad.

Some, mainly the folkier ones, got political and were banned. But others stayed and rocked the Athens nightclubs.

One of those who got away with it - just - was Socrates Drank The Conium, who sound like Ritchie Blackmore doing Jimi Hendrix. They were regulars at the Kitaro Club, but alas Greece's cultural isolation meant they never made it big outside their home country. As Matt says:
"Oppression can breed great arts as an instrument of rebellion. Socrates with their long hair, beards and high-energy blues and rock and roll were a window on the world outside and the reason people crammed into the Kittaro every weekend. For that reason they belong alongside the great bands of Rock and Roll history."
Other bands played other clubs such as Poll, featuring Kostas Tournas on guitar (and a deliberately ironic name), Exadaktila, Morka and Beloma Beque.

Dionysis Savvopoulos
Rock though was not the only protest music. There was also Rembetika, an eastern orientated folk music that arrived in the Peloponnese with two million odd refugees from the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s. Music helped sustain this underclass through Nazi occupation and Civil War and it emerged into the mainstream under military rule. Rembetika singer Dionysios Savvopoulos, who gained a reputation in the sixties as the Greek Bob Dylan - if you could imagine Dylan channelling Frank Zappa and Jethro Tull - would also play the Kitaro Club, and spent time in gaol for his trouble.

The result was a strange situation where stoned westerners turned up to listen to Greek musicians playing American music in clubs where a raid by the Secret Police was a regular part of the evening.

When this happened a surprising number of ESA men would squeeze themselves out of their ridiculously undersized cars and stop the music whilst they checked everyone out. If you had a western passport you were fine, but if you were Greek you could suddenly find yourself taken away. If you were lucky you had your head shaved and found yourself in the army. If you were unlucky you could find yourself getting ten years in prison for smoking pot.

Not that most of the Secret Police, simple farm boys brutalised by a viscous training program, could always spot a joint. Indeed in their single minded search for communists, the Greek police pretty much ignored a drug culture that would eventually become quite a problem.

Call Out The Instigators

As the sixties turned into the seventies the Colonels relaxed their grip on the country slightly.

The regime had started off by banning the Beatles, Sophocles, Tolstoy, Aeschylus, Socrates, Sartre, Chekhov, Mark Twain, Samuel Beckett and the letter Z. But 1971 they allowed the film Woodstock to be shown. The audience held up thousands of lighters and candles as Hendrix played Star Spangled Banner. Matt says "It was an amazing time". The sixties were finally arriving in Greece.

Students at Athens Polytechnic, as it was then called, also felt the change in the air. Arriving at university they found overcrowded buildings and the worst student-teacher ration in Europe. They also found petty regulations, which included allowing retired army officers the right to sit in on any meetings, and repressive policing that prevented Berkeley-style rallies.

However by 1973, with the economy faltering, what little support the Junta had started to evaporate. The result was an explosion of sixties style protests. The kids who had grown up on rock 'n' roll now had a chance to do it in the streets like the Brits and the Yanks under the slogan of "Bread and education and liberty."

Wilted Flowers

Unfortunately they were not in Britain or America.

If this story was fiction it would all end here, at Athens Polytechnic, in a giant psychedelic party of sex and drugs and music and freedom.

But that was not the reality.

Tanks were sent in and when it was all over forty odd students were dead and the army was back on the streets ushering in a new military regime of such brutality that it almost made people nostalgic for the old one.

Greece had to endure eight more months of hell before a reckless war with Turkey over Cyprus finally convinced the puppet civilian government that it was all pointless.

But what happened next was a real revolution.

Greece enjoyed economic growth and democracy and Greeks ended up living, on average, both longer and happier lives than Americans on half the income, which is frankly what it's all about.

No Direction Home

Beautiful women. Riot police. Welcome to Greece.
All of which must make the subsequent fall that much harder to bear. In austerity Greece today murder, suicide and disease are up, tax dodging by millionaires with friends in power is rife and a police force with fascist sympathies controls the streets.

Rock is not austerity music. It is the expression of a hedonistic youth who know that the future belongs to them. Despite the secret police, the torture centres and internment camps, the kids in the Kitaro club in the sixties probably had more reason to think of rock as their music than the children of today's Athens.

Pavlos Fyssas , victim of Neo-Nazis
Which is perhaps why across Greece it is relatively unknown rap and hip-hop artists, not big name rockers, who are speaking up for the lost generation. And it was a rapper who last month paid the ultimate price for his music.

Under the Colonels protests were illegal. Now they are allowed but few can be bothered any more. Then the answer seemed simple. Now nobody knows what should be done.

Between 1967 and 1974 the world turned its back on the Greek Junta. Today we must not turn our back on Greece. We really are all in it together, or at least 99% of us are.

And if there is a music of hope today it must be a music that belongs to the whole world.

The Seventies Unplugged by Gerard DeGroot
I Hate Rock And Roll by Tony Tyler
Life 19 July 1968
Matt Barrett (website and personal correspondence)

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