Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Alpha Beta—
Astral Abuse/Who Killed?


Released 1971 on Byg
The Seth Man, April 2005ce
In the wake of Aphrodite’s Child completing work on their massive “666” double album, Vangelis’ solo career had already begun when Philips released an album of material he had composed for the soundtrack of the film, “Sex Power” but oddly, he followed it up with a one-off single released in France only and credited to Alpha Beta. it came housed in a deluxe Ralph Steadman-like pen and ink illustrated picture sleeve apparently conceived and executed by Vangelis himself, and both sides are marvelously loose stupors steeped in precise rhythmic cycles that still expand beyond its tight boundaries of both rhythm and its running time of merely five minutes per side to make each sprawl like the 30 mile and/or minute-epics that they resound like, their real space and time be damned.

This single fulfills those mental requirements I had set in my mind decades ago regarding certain European Rock releases of a specific kind and then some: Namely, does it have a distinctly out-of-doors, loose, warm and Mediterranean vibe... And could it have been used in the film “More” as the soundtrack? Alpha Beta meets the criteria on every level I can think of: It’s abstract, sweet, taut and sinister all at once and best of all, sounds like no other Vangelis album I’ve ever heard (And I’ve heard many: from “L’Apocalypse des Animaux” to “Opera Sauvage” up until “See You Later” signaled I do likewise to the raging output of the fiercely bearded Mr. Papathanassiou -- helped along with one Jon & Vangelis album too many -- while simultaneously exhausting a whole lotta funds on import soundtrack albums with unpronounceable French titles and stills of animals fornicating that almost made me think that one day they might very well inch up in stature alongside “Zabriskie Point” and maybe even “More.” Maybe one day.)

One day never came. Instead, a Vangelis soundtrack for a new film called “Chariots of Fire” was released and I promptly bought it, hoping that perhaps he was back on track after “See You Later” (with its Johnny Warman-styled sleeve of borderline new wave-ish tendencies) as soundtracks seemed to be where his art hit the highest incidence rates of success. But in those pre-New Age days of 1981, it seemed only just OK -- until inescapable airplay on seemingly hundreds of successive radio stations wore out the main theme from “Chariots of Fire” on a level I had not experienced since “Nadia’s Theme” in the aftermath of the little Rumanian gymnast who could and did during the Olympics in the mid-seventies. And so, this was where Vangelis and I parted company, seemingly for keeps until the most roundabout sense of occurrences assembled into motion...

It all happened when something interesting passed squarely on my radar when -- as it so often does -- I least expected it. My memory was jogged by a warm weather trend, and led to me watching the 1969 Greek political thriller, “Z” for the first time. Partly due to the appearance in of Irene Papas in a supporting role as well as the soundtrack to the film was the first I ever owned. Although I only played the first track over and over again because it was the most exciting part, I wanted to not only hear it again in context but also to witness Irene Papas onscreen in action. Not least of all because she is one of the most respected icons of Greek cinema but also contributed vocals on Aphrodite’s Child’s “666” album with a memorably wide emotional range. And in the film she was just as intense: self-possessed to the extreme in her portrayal of a timeless woman wed to early widowhood quietly brimming with tragedy behind a pair of beautiful dark eyes was a wonder to behold.

Under the thrall of the mysterious Ms. Papas, I set about excavating my world for information on her films, her history; everything and anything I could lay my hands on. I even almost called the Greek embassy to help slake my thirst for all things Papas until I came across “Odes,” one of two collaboration albums she had recorded with (and here’s where the link comes full circle) Vangelis, along with a 1969 solo album released in Italy on RCA that was laden with a 1950’s Hellas-as-hell Tourist Board aesthetic with bouzoukis galore. But in the end, neither were half as successful as her performance in “Z” and to make up for the dearth of Irene Papas’ discography-that-could-have-been, I fantasised it was her that did the vocals on Chico Magnetic Band’s first single (It could’ve been...) I also fantasised her performing with Magma in tandem with Stella Vander at the Bataclan in 1971 with Alice Cooper ‘spider-eyes’ makeup. To make matters worse, I almost fantasised her and Cat Stevens had a love child and that it was me. I was getting desperate and out of control but only because there HAD to be a connection, especially as everything was consistently pointing in the right direction like a compass needle to magnetic North. I’ve been here before, and I know what it feels like, and I was feeling it REAL BAD. And if she didn’t appear on at least ONE Freak Rock episode recorded between 1969 and 1972 I was gonna will it into existence with a “HOOO YEAH!!!” to dwarf even Socrates Drank The Conium because...

I need a healthy outlet/for my Grecian lust.

My determination was only met with the disappointingly cold shower of reality that no such thing ever had ever materialised and never would. Damn, but that blows. A lot.
Oh, OK. It’s cool.
(Not!)

I quickly regrouped. Irene Papas on film? Outstanding. On record? Outside of “Infinity” by Aphrodite’s Child, it was nearly non-existent and when it wasn’t it was unfortunately not half the life-shaking terror I only imaged it could have been. But then I spied a 1971 single by a band called Alpha Beta, an obscure release Vangelis was involved in while still in Aphrodite’s Child, and to top it off, Argyris “Silver” Koulouris, the guitarist from Aphrodite’s Child was on it as well! And the absolute cherry on top was a double one joined at the seam: the only other member was Vilma Lado, Vangelis’ then-girlfriend. How perfect and loose can you get?! Yes, things were once more looking up for this Geek of Greek Freak Rock. Maybe it would be like the insane pyrotechnic rave-up “The Battle of The Locusts” but on pure Sandoz LSD-25. Mind-bending PSYCH wrapped in grape leaves, up in smoke and worth every drachma to boot, HOO-YEAH!!!

Even though Alpha Beta sounds nothing like the hyperbolic collector’s freak out described above, it does succeed so wildly in such an entirely different way from what I was expecting I couldn’t be disappointed in the least. Both sides were conceived in what was probably the loosest improvisational conditions Vangelis would ever place himself in, and although primarily acoustic, this 45 hints at what Aphrodite’s Child would sound like on “666” if they were stripped down to two members plus female intonation teased and treated with exquisite tape loops over a quietly pulsing rhythmic thing with the vibe of thrice as many people. It’s the most severe anomaly in Vangelis’ lengthy career and in terms of its format and how it doesn’t fits into neat categorisation, it’s comparable to Tangerine Dream’s “Ultima Thule” 45. But the major difference here is that this single was both Alpha Beta’s alpha AND omega, as Vangelis soon departed for the far milder climes of soundtracks for which his particularly dramatic style of synthesizer and percussive effects was already so well suited.

Produced by Giorgio Gomelsky and recorded at Europa Sonor Studios (possibly on leftover hours booked originally for Aphrodite’s Child) with its distinctly heavy ‘drums playing the room’ sound intact, the trance-like qualities of this single are so subtle, they don’t even reveal themselves until after several repeated listens. As if a skeletal acoustic version of “All The Seats Were Occupied” but only with a fraction of the band that forbids all but two electric instruments and within the confines of five minutes, “Astral Abuse” begins with the crash of an ill cymbal and into a near-acoustic funk piece. Tribal tom-toms and congas are beaten into reverberated submission as Silver Koulouris’ spindly wah-wah guitar and Vangelis’ soothing keyboard operations couch the whole thing in a foreboding though comfortable setting as sprinkled electronic passages float lightly upon the proceedings throughout its undying rhythm. Instrumental save for the wordless wailing of Vilma Lado, whose wordless Yoko wailing, chuckles then shrieking fits are all woven together in a tape delay dream sequence that is easy to lose yourself in entirely. Like birds calling to each other, Vilma’s hair whips into her face as if only caught glimpses of her fleeing, searching and running free to find her soul mate once again. At one point she breaks her chant to gasp with a chuckle, and even that gets picked up on the virtual conveyer belt of tape delayed looping. The pace is dead meridian with a lilt in its hips as this Peloponn-knees up quietly ignites with Vilma vocally going off like Yoko, screaming, hollering and letting the words gurgle and ooze out of her throat to die on her lips. And Koulouris’ clean and Telecaster-ing guitar lines and Vangelis’ electronics are held to the background for most of the time, allowing both Vilma and the percussion based rhythm to lead the free-form chant trance, which continue and head into far darker territory on the B-side, “Who Killed?” The pace is far slower and undulates at once into another trance-out, holding the same quietly burnt acoustic qualities as Can performing “Give Peace A Chance” in the back garden of Schloss Nörvenich in springtime, as congas hammer out against Koulouris’ tightly strummed guitar like a 2-person Plastic Ono Band transported from their Canadian hotel room to the opposite side of Aegean where they provide backing for Vilma’s many questions. Among them: “Who killed your great grandfather?” “...Your great grandmother?” in a repeating tape loop over the proto-Gospelness of Greek chorus incantations of hollering, “aaah”s, moaning and devastated cries that all deteriorate slowly and sometimes painfully from foreground into background. And as Vangelis’ keyboard contributions are reduced to sparse flurries that land here, and then there and over there the rhythm of the tape delay syncs up with the rhythm and matches it two beats to one in its full rotation of ever-cycling-ness with congas and a tapped wineglass operate as percussion and the effect is entirely mesmerising. Vilma soon is questioning in a little girl voice, “Who killed little baby?” and its accompanying “eh?” is especially disconcerting even before the whole thing is looped over and over until it gradually vanishes... And finally disintegrates into a multi-level zone-out heading directly to the land of ghosts.