The success of Manos Hadjidakis’ soundtrack for the Jules Dassin film Never On Sunday made people pay attention to popular music of Greek origin. There were five hit versions of the film’s theme in the UK alone in 1960.
Manos had more success with the soundtrack he composed for the 1964 film Topkapi, a caper based on Eric Ambler’s great novel The Light of Day, which again was directed by Jules Dassin and starred those greats Peter Ustinov and Robert Morley, along with the director’s wife Melina Mercouri who had given such a memorable performance in Never On Sunday.
Melina was early on associated with singing ‘Hartino To Feggaraki’ in the context of a Greek adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire which Hadjidakis and Gatsos wrote the score for. In the original play there is a scene where Blanche DuBois sings ‘It’s Only A Paper Moon’, the Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen song Ella sang with such ease.
The Hadjidakis song appears again on a glorious 1969 collection, of the young singer Arleta performing a set of Manos’ compositions. Arleta is among the Greek singers of the 1960s who can be classed as being part of the ‘neo kyma’ (or new wave, like the film form, like bossa nova in Brazil) movement, which dovetails with aspects of the pop side ( e.g. Vashti) of what Rob Young calls English Eden visionary music, Cuba’s Nueva Trova, the wider Latin American La Nueva Canción folk song movement, aspects of the French chanson tradition, and the folk side of the yé- yé sound, fitting well with things like Marianne Faithful singing ‘As Tears Go By’ and Mary Hopkin’s ‘Those Were The Days’.
It is a style, neo kyma, that will appeal enormously to those that love Abba’s ballads and Françoise Hardy’s soft murmurings (very Vic Godard circa late 1978 that pairing), and those who adore Nico’s Chelsea Girl with Larry Fallon’s gorgeous orchestral arrangements being as glorious as those he did for Astral Weeks, and with such great songs too, like Tim Hardin’s ‘Eulogy To Lenny Bruce’, Bob Dylan’s ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’, those early Jackson Browne songs, and Lou Reed’s ‘Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams’ which dovetails with the one Sinatra sang in 1954 for Swing Easy. And there was certainly a Tin Pan Alley aspect to Lou’s songwriting, as in the Velvets’ ‘Beginning To See The Light’ fitting perfectly with the one Ella et al sang.
There are great examples of the 1960s and very early 1970s neo kyma form which it is easy to become obsessed with, like Soula Birbili singing the songs of Mikis Theodorakis (the other great Greek composer), and recordings by Arleta, Kaiti Homata, and in particular Popi Asteriadi, with her Jean Seberg or Julie Driscoll style gamine mod crop, on her own and on the remarkable 1971 record she made with Lakis Pappas, Paei Ki Ayti, which features the incredibly beautiful and uplifting ‘Αγριο πουλί’ or ‘Wild Bird’.
The great neo kyma recordings tend to feature traditional instrumentation (the bouzouki and lute), with acoustic guitars, flutes, harpsichords, violins, cellos, harps, pianos, vibes, and so on, mixing international pop elements with folk music forms, folkloric themes, and echoes of the Greek myths and taverns.
The records Arleta made in the 1960s are extraordinary, dramatically stark and beautiful, and it helps that she is there in photos, which seem suitably grainy, in a black polo-neck and with a messy moptop, looking like the sweetest beat angel whose eye one tried and failed to catch in 1985 at Dan Dan the TVPs man’s Room at the Top club night at The Enterprise, Chalk Farm, just opposite the ice cream parlour which featured in those great Vic Godard and Dave McCullough interviews.
As Arleta’s 1969 set suggests, Manos Hadjidakis’ songs were pretty central to the neo kyma boom, and his own compositions have the same elegant elements John Cameron brought to Donovan’s recordings, and which Robert Kirby added to Nick Drake’s work.
A little earlier, in 1965, Manos was in the States to make his great orchestral work Gioconda’s Smile, with Quincy Jones, and the best New York session men. Billy Byers was credited with doing the arrangements on what is a stunning piece of composition, one which simultaneously sounds ancient, with its Grecian elements and instrumentation, and thoroughly contemporary with a feel that put the work firmly in the cosmopolitan mid-1960s New York milieu.
Manos would say about this beautiful work: “These ten songs were composed with a blend of despair and reminiscences. The theme is a solitary woman in the big city. Each song is a monologue of hers and all the songs together compose her story which is modern and yet, at the same time, old.” When released the LP was pitched as “more exotic new musical impressions by the world famous cinema composer.”
That same year Hadjidakis with Nikos Gatsos made the incredibly beautiful work Mythology, featuring the angelic singing of Yorgos Romanos, or George Romanos, who later sang with Aphrodite’s Child and in 1970 made the wonderfully wild (and very rare in its original form) Dyo mikra galazia aloga (or Two Little Blue Horses) which features some fantastic distorted guitar work and a real sense of urgency often missing in psych sounds, while still retaining a very distinctive Greek identity.
In his own words, as featured in an EMI Greek classics edition which, like a similar presentation of Gioconda’s Smile, is beautifully presented in a hardback book format like the Blood & Fire reissue of Heart of the Congos, Manos explains the “unexpected shaping of a ‘mythology’ two years prior to the dictatorship”.
He states: “Like a trueborn general, in 1965 I wanted to bring about a revolution. In lieu of tanks, I selected a teenager from the Royal Palace Children’s Choir – dark and handsome – and asked him to sing. He said: ‘To sing, I need new myths’.
“Together with Gatsos, we started to fabricate one myth after another: girls from Thebes losing their keys; Irish and Jews searching in the wilds for marriage and joy; sensitive robbers breathing their last; a lad who kills friends and brothers, because no one ever paid him due attention; Orestes who turned into a bird in the woods to escape what fate had in store for him, a child that resembled Christ, etc., etc.
“And one myth was added to the other, and they became so many and so powerful, the adolescent took fright, the world took fright, and so did the record company. Everyone was scared but for Gatsos and myself, who continued to make up and produce myths with greater fervour, completely forgetting the revolution I had planned.”