Jim Motz had been the only one of the original Zoo lineup I had utterly lost touch with since about 1968, when he was sent to Vietnam, if I recall correctly. In the photo, that’s him in the red hat. I believe the band was called The Intruders, who were the Zoo’s main rivals in 1966. They were pretty good. That could be Perry Mackereth on the drums. The two guitarists I don’t really recognize. There were two named Tom Hallam and Ian Henderson, but they probably left Greece the previous year.
Heather writes to me that Jim Motz raised in Japan and Greece for most of his childhood. He continued in music for much of his life, and passed away in 2006.
The Persons formed in Piraeus, a port city by Athens in 1966. They released three singles, but I’ve only ever heard this, their first, from 1966.
“Drive My Mustang” is a kind of incoherent take on Wilson Pickett. Some listeners consider “Drive My Mustang” to be the best or among the best of all Greek garage singles. I don’t disagree with that assessment, but I prefer the flip side even more.
“All the World Is Mine” would make my top ten of all garage songs from any country, any year. From the moment the chiming distorted guitar begins this song is perfect to me. The jumping bass line and fleet drum work, falsetto background vocals and nasal lead vocal are all great, but most of all I love the dissonance of the slightly out of tune lead guitar against the bass and rhythm guitars. The high mark comes during the excellent guitar break after singer Ilias Asvestopoulos shouts “all the world is mine” a couple times when the band really hits a groove.
“Drive My Mustang” was written by Ilias Asvestopoulous and rhythm guitarist Antonis Tourkogiortis (rendered on the label as E. Asvestopoulos and A. Tourkogeorgis). “All the World Is Mine” was written by bassist Antonis Pitsolantis and lead guitarist John Spathas.
Their second release, in 1968, has “John’s Flight” / “Young Girl” (Olympic OE74 004), while their last record covered two Zombies’ songs: “Time of the Season” (titled “Eisai to koritsi p’agapo”) and “Friends of Mine” titled (“Mono mia fora”) (PAN VOX 6146), released in 1969. Anyone have good scans of these 45s?
After their third single, the Persons evolved into Socrates Drank the Conium, one of the major Greek progressive bands of the ’70s.
Sources include: Greek listing of members from Music Heaven.
What follows are fifteen excerpts from “Drums Under The Sun,” an account of how rock and roll got transplanted to Greece in the early and mid-1960s, and the short but turbulent career of The Zoo, a British-American outfit that left its mark on the budding scene.
Johnny Carr, drummer of The Zoo
For years I wished I knew the name of Peppino di Capri’s drummer. He explodes into action in the intro to the Italian pop singer’s 1962 hit “Daniela,” thudding rim shots and tom beats into an ostinato 12/8 pattern for four bars in a classic twist, blending flawlessly into the body of the song: “Oh, Daniela, tu sei la piu bella…” The drum pattern perfectly bridges the transition from jazz to rock, combining the artistry of the former with the exuberance of the latter.
When, much later, the internet entered our lives, an initial search for the drummer’s identity turned up nothing. The closest I could get was a tiny, grainy photo on the back cover of the extended-play 45rpm disc, “Peppino By Night,” where he stands with the other band members. His face is half hidden by the bouffant hairdo of a dancer contorting herself in the foreground. Then a received an e-mail from a Peppino fan in Italy telling me that the drummer was Bebe Falconieri, and that he was retired and living in Capri. May he enjoy his retirement in peace. He doesn’t know that a long time ago those four bars of his changed my young life.
My mother bought the record (also featuring the better known “Saint Tropez Twist”) in a Rome store around Christmas of 1962. The glossy, full-colour sleeve shows Peppino di Capri pounding a piano and singing into a microphone over a sea of admiring dancers in some summer nightclub. It was about the time he was making the transition from nasal Neapolitan warbler into Italy’s version of Buddy Holly, decked out in black shirt and black horn-rimmed glasses and with a goofy smile to match. When my mother placed the record on the turntable, it was the drums that grabbed me.
In his memoir of The Shadows (“Rock ‘n’ Roll: I Gave You The Best Years of My Life,” London 1989), guitarist Bruce Welch describes with touching simplicity the first time he heard the echoing, knife-edge lead guitar intro to Buddy Holly’s inimitable “That’ll Be The Day.” His spine is still tingling from it. That’s how I felt with the slam-bam opening of “Daniela.” I was fourteen years old.
I had been on holiday in Greece twice before. This time, thanks to a continuing turbulent family life, this third Greek holiday promised to be rather a long one. In fact, it was the start of a confused and unsettled period which saw me enrolled first in the American School of Athens and then, when the stiff fees could no longer be met, in the Third Boys’ High School, a free state school in Athens, with the intention of my learning better Greek.
This was the situation in June 1962 when my mother got a job in the wardrobe department on the set of “Summer Holiday,” where Cliff Richard gets into his red London RT bus and drives all the way to Greece, with The Shadows and flouncy-skirted girls in tow. I got to meet the great man himself while he was rehearsing a dance act under the Washingtonia robusta palms of Athens’ National Garden. He was wearing a white string vest – the very one in which he is seen as singing “The Next Time” with the sunlit Acropolis in the background – and his hand was slightly sweaty when I shook it. It was a hot day and he’d been jumping around a lot.
There was an old mansion on Amalias Street (now long since replaced by a concrete monster) where the wardrobe department was being run by the cheerily efficient Rebecca Breed. I’d sometimes pop in to see how Mum was doing. One afternoon I found the door locked. I peeped through the keyhole and a curious sight met my eye. A group of men were changing into what looked like Greek evzone gear – the pleated tunic skirts, white leggings and pom-pom shoes of the elite Greek palace guard. I moved away from the door and strolled the hundred metres or so to Syntagma Square, where the red bus was parked (to the Athenians’ enduring fascination) and shooting was in progress. Mum and Rebecca Breed were busy with their tasks and so I hung around on the sidelines. Shortly afterwards a group of what looked like evzones emerged from a minibus. They held bouzoukia, the twangy traditional Greek stringed instrument, and lined up in front of the camera. One of them was wearing thick horn-rimmed specs. It was The Shadows! They’d just changed into their ethnic gear and were being shepherded up for a publicity shoot. I wandered in front of Hank Marvin, to be shooed out of camera range by Mum. If I’d been a Cliff Richard and Shadows fan before, I was doubly so now.
By July “Summer Holiday” had wound up, but 1962 hadn’t finished with me. Mum decided not to return to Britain but to stay on in the sunny land of her birth by working on another film. This was a frothy Hollywood holiday-romance idyll called “Island of Love,” with rugged Robert Preston and foppish Tony Randall in the lead roles, and Italian starlet Georgia Moll as the romantic foil. Thus in July I found myself living the carefree life on the island of Hydra, already the home of the likes of Leonard Cohen and gaining fame (or notoriety) as a trendy artists’ colony.
Mum and I were ensconced in a spartan but clean room in one of the rickety houses climbing the bare slope above the waterfront. The owner of the house was an old widow forever lamenting the death of her royalist husband in the political turmoil of the 1920s. She lived with what I believe was her mother, a bedridden and blind wreck hidden in a corner downstairs, the glimpse of which made me shudder.
I shuddered because sun-drenched Hydra was about life, and abundant young life at that. Every day was drenched in sun. On days when Mum wasn’t needed on the set we’d walk over the crags to a beach, philosophizing about life, in the varied company of perhaps a Swiss air hostess or a family of Oxford dons with peeling red faces. The blessed Greek summer air would caress our bare limbs. One day I obtained my first-ever employment as an extra a waterfront crowd scene, with 30 drachmas and a tub of the most delicious Russian salad I have ever eaten as my daily wage. Thirty drachmas corresponded exactly to one US dollar, which for a fourteen-year-old in 1962, and in Greece at that, wasn’t bad money at all. Especially after a couple of weeks of such scenes.
In Island of Love there’s a bit where a Greek professor boasts of the sexual capacities of island men even into old age. One morning I wandered down to the waterfront where they were doing a scene in front of a small white church. As the camera rolled, a bride and groom emerged. The groom looked to be about seventy and his bride about half a century younger. The actress-bride looked very familiar… Good lord, it was Mum! The scene was over in a moment. Mum doffed her wedding dress prop and laughed about it. Still, it felt weird.
With her shapely body and dark compact hair, my mother certainly looked as if she had just stepped out of some Italian film set. She was a favourite among the boisterous Italians who made up most of the camera crew, and was promptly taken under the wing of one of the older technicians, Elio, who took a fatherly care for her welfare. The others called him “Uncle Elio,” though he can barely have been past forty.
Sex, of course, was never far from the surface in a place like Hydra in the summer. Not that I had even a slight taste of it. Mentally I was still in damp and repressed England. One morning a Greek model in a skimpy bikini was hired to slink provocatively along the waterfront past the yachts for a certain scene. Before the camera rolled, a makeup man daubed pink cream over her shoulders and perfectly-formed breasts. My eyes widened as the man’s fingers invaded the model’s bikini-top, rubbing the stuff almost down to the nipples. She gave no sign even of noticing his existence. It was all a burst of life as I had never known before. There’s a photo somewhere of Mum and me with a bunch of Italian cameramen seated at the old dark red-fronted Skouna fish taverna where Franco, the fattest and funniest, has just shown the cooks how to make proper spaghetti. Our faces are sun-browned and smiling. And I’m growing up.
In September 1962 the drums hit me again. While the weather was still warm Major Joe Lepczyk, the American assistant military attaché, and his family took me to the American School for an amateur show night. After the Shakespearean skits and halting classical piano recitals, the last act was a school combo called The Black Cats. They were: Jeff Aston (guitar), Harry Anestos (guitar), Dave Brewster (guitar), Dickie Barham (bass) and Manos Kayopoulos (drums).
Sticking in my memory is an instrumental called “Ramrod,” clearly modelled on The Rockin’ Rebels’ “Wild Weekend,” bursting with sawing chords and pounding bass lines. In the school’s tiny first-floor auditorium the buttoned-down audience of mostly US State Department and military parents clapped and stamped and cheered. In a total trance I kept my eyes glued to drummer Manos Kayopoulos. In technical terms he was a mere time-keeper, playing simple off-beats. More impressive was his dazzling white drum kit. The beats may have been basic, but to me they were mighty hammer-strokes of power. What he had, I wanted, and everything connected with it. The drums were the sound of power and strength – things I had always conspicuously lacked.
A few months later Bebe Falconieri’s thumping intro to “Daniela” hooked me once and for all. A critical mass had been reached. In early 1963, as my days were spent in the grit and classics of the Third Boys’ High School, I grabbed every drummy record I could afford, from Sandy Nelson’s seminal classic “Let There Be Drums” to Cliff Richard’s “It’ll Be Me,” where I first heard the unique driving beat of Brian Bennett and became a dedicated fan for life. Costas and Nick Daperis, a pair of Greek-Canadian brothers who lived nearby and went to the same school, shared my enthusiasms, as did the Lepczyk girls. In our semi-basement flat behind the American Embassy, where the Attic sun streamed in on weekend mornings, I’d put the records on the turntable, pick up a couple of pencils, and whack away, oblivious.
The rock gospel was spreading. On my mother’s side I had a cousin, Ismene, a year or two younger than me, who took to Western rock in a big way. She made sure to attend every party in the neighbourhood where there was a portable record player. She had a friend named Hara, a saucy young thing in a grey skirt, cheeky breasts pointing outwards through her sweater, in whose room we would all grind and twist away for hours at a time. All, that is, except me, sitting most of the time tuned intensely into the drums, imagining myself producing that hypnotic beat. Even then, I didn’t want to merely dance to the music – I wanted to be it.
It was at once such session at Ismene’s house at one such session where I first heard “Let There Be Drums” and became totally oblivious to everything else around me, having ears only for that superb sixteen bars towards the end where Nelson unadornedly hammers it home with a hefty echo and bass to underpin the message.
The summer of 1963 was an idyll. When school broke up Mum and I would join Ismene, the Daperis boys and Elpida, a tall, bob-haired girl of whom I was becoming anxiously fond, and crowd onto the sweltering number 89 bus to Vouliagmeni beach – a half-hour jolting ride with all the windows open. Between dipping in the blue sea and lounging on a towel on the sand, I’d play Sandy Nelson riffs in my head, unable to wait to get home to play the records again.
That was the time in which the American political, military and cultural influence in Greece reached its apogee. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that Greece, a key member of Nato with communist states on its northern borders, was essentially an American protectorate. It was the height of the early Cold War, a mere fifteen years after the failure of a bloody communist-led attempt to seize power. Conservative Greek governments and King Paul (to be succeeded by his son Constantine II in early 1964) clung to American protection and aid. Not that there was much opposition to this state of affairs; the period of America-bashing was yet to come. Most Athenians, settling into modern and airy apartment buildings after migrating into the city from the impoverished and war-torn islands and villages in search of jobs and stability, were glad of a chance to enjoy something resembling a Western middle-class life in an enviable climate providing free scope for an outdoor night life, with movies and bars and restaurants and, for a fortunate few, private cars. It was common at the time to see enormous finned Chevrolet Impalas and Ford Edsels in the grey livery of Athens taxis. The term Amerikaniko, applied to anything from vacuum cleaners and refrigerators to fountain pens, was a source of pride for the possessor.
In Athens the Americans maintained a large military, diplomatic and business community. The centres of physical power were the American embassy on Vassilissis Sophias Avenue, abutting the smart Kolonaki district (of which much more later) and the US Air Force base next to Athens International Airport by the sea at Hellenikon. This military base, of all places, had an incalculable influence on the birth of rock and roll in Greece.
The offspring of the vast majority of Americans and other non-Greeks attended the expensive college-prep American Community School where I had sat entranced by the Black Cats a year earlier. The Daperis brothers and I, keeping up a close friendship with the Lepczyks, managed to get decked out in Levi’s blue jeans with white stars sewn on the back pockets, plaid shirts and US Keds sneakers bought for us at the Americans’ PX. The rest of the boys in the Third could only gaze enviously at us.
I had long since lost my north-country English accent, to blend in with the Daperis’ Canadian twang. Often the Lepczyks would take us driving in their immense white open Chevrolet Impala convertible, sometimes to the leafy suburb of Kifissia, sometimes to a movie in the Hellenikon base. I absorbed their polished East Coast accents, too. I have always been a linguistic chameleon, unthinkingly slipping into the intonations of my interlocutor, whether it’s my Aunt Christine in Staffordshire, a London news executive or a Texas farm boy. Less than three years after leaving England’s shores, to all intents and purposes I had become transmogrified into an American.
“Hi, John. Have a seat.” The American School’s academic counsellor, Philip Pappas, exuded the welcome informality of a Hollywood sitcom. Barely into his thirties himself, he was into the Buddy Holly look with fashionable black specs and unruly hair. His office was small and untidy enough not to arouse foreboding.
It was a hot day towards the end of August 1964. I had got off the X bus at its terminus at the newly-renamed Platia Kennedy in Halandri and trudged a few hundred yards up the potholed tarmac ribbon of Aghias Pareskevis Street to the school for my “placement” interview. I was going back to the American School.
After working out my eleventh-grade curriculum schedule, he handed me a sheet of paper marked “Electives.” These were courses, I was amazed to learn, that you could actually choose! Four items on the list leapt out at me straightaway: Band I, Band II, Band III, Varsity Band. The very words set my pulse quickening.
“Er,” I began, hardly believing my luck, “I think I’d rather like to try Band I, Mr Pappas.” Band I sounded just about right for drumming lessons, and who knows, someday I might even move up to Band II!
“Mm-hm,” the counsellor remarked casually. “Do you play an instrument?”
“I play the drums.”
People who know me say I’m not given to overstatement or hyperbole of any kind. Rather the opposite. My audacious claim to be a drummer, without having yet lifted a stick or sat on a drum stool, was an act of sheer gall that I have never since approached. Yet inside myself I knew it was true. Up to that point my “playing” had been limited to hours of air drums, tapping books and pots with pencils and knitting needles, as well-worn 45s of The Shadows and my all-time idol, Sandy Nelson, trundled on the turntable. But I had done a lot of it. In my mind I was already up there with the best.
“You do?” Mr Pappas replied airily, one eyebrow raised. “Okay, then I’ll put you in Varsity Band.”
If I had been told that I had just landed a contract to record with The Beatles, I could not have been more whacked. I floated rather than walked out of the counsellor’s office and down the hot and dusty road to the X bus terminus, dreaming of future glories just handed to me on a platter. The very term Varsity Band had an incredible pizzazz about it. It conjured up a slick, college-type ensemble of teenage jazz geniuses — and there I would be, at the top of the pyramid on the glittering drums! It was just two years since my experiences on the set of “Summer Holiday.” And now here I was, up there with Brian Bennett!
I could hardly bear to sit through the first day of classes; my suspense mounted until the three o’clock bell heralding the last class of the day — Varsity Band! Then reality struck. No glittering drum kit awaited me. The music teacher and band conductor, Marshall Dahneke, assigned me the most junior of percussionist roles, that of bass drum. Oh, it was that kind of band! The hulking dark blue instrument, mounted on a folding stand and almost as tall as I was, was to be my musical companion for the next six months.
In between studying the American Civil War – which was to have a weirdly obsessive effect on the rest of my life – and getting round quadratic equations, I was inducted into Southern California-style beach parties at Glyfada and Asteria, burger and hot dog barbecues in stylish gardens in Psychiko and Kifissia and even the occasional open-air cinema date with the American girls in their flouncy, pastel-coloured dresses and impeccably permed hair that looked as if they’d just stepped out of the ads in Life magazine.
Most of Varsity Bands’s repertoire was march music, with some mainstream jazz pieces for variety. The discipline of learning to read drum music did me good. Manhandling the bass drum beater was humbling and healthy. For an occasional diversion Mr Dahneke would switch me to the cymbals, teaching me how to glance them off each other for the most satisfying crash, as the horns and woodwinds blared away in front. I especially liked forging the great shimmers of sound in the band’s big majestic classic, Modest Mussorgsky’s “The Great Gates Of Kiev.”
From my lowly position in the Varsity Band, I became acutely aware of the other teen drummers kicking around the American School. One in particular I regarded with awe. Perry Mackereth, a Canadian, was the band’s “first drummer,” meaning that he monopolized the lead snare drum, a magnificent dark blue eight-inch-deep Ludwig that gave out the kind of full-bodied sound you heard in surf music of the time.
To my immeasurable envy, Perry had a complete champagne-glitter Premier set of his own. One afternoon after practice, as I was heading for the school bus, the piercing echo of a Fender Telecaster guitar filled the auditorium. I looked in to see a twelfth-grader up on the stage practicing the immortal reverberating opening riff to The Ventures’ “Out Of Limits.” Perry was setting up his kit. They were preparing for one of those “hops” that Americans still called their high school dances in those days. Living a long way away and having homework to catch up on, I couldn’t stay. But that particular riff wasn’t finished with me.
On weekends I left the American youth environment and entered the Greek. I was already fragmented enough for it not to be a problem. I drank in British, American, Greek and Italian musical culture in one long, continuous draught. I absorbed The Rolling Stones and The Ventures, The Beatles and Buck Owens, Mussorgsky and Mina, The Animals and Adriano Celentano, even the hypnotic 5/8 and 7/8 time signatures of the Greek bouzouki hits of the time. I found nothing incongruous in becoming nostalgic over the Liverpool accents emanating from my transistor on a sun-baked Mediterranean balcony, followed perhaps by the visceral punch of Celentano’s “Ciao Ragazzi.”
My Greek friends, plus cousin Ismene who by now had developed into a serious rock fan, were all concentrated in upscale Kolonaki, a district of quality apartment blocks and dignified neoclassical mansions clinging to the eastern and southern slopes of Lykavittos Hill, the conical sentinel that rises out of the city centre. Kolonaki was the birthplace of indigenous Greek rock. The early 1960s were a time in which young urban Greeks began to take to Western rock in a big way. Electric guitars and drums in saleable quantities began to appear in music shop windows. But in the Greece of that time only the offspring of the well-to-do could afford such things. One of them was the thirteen-year-old son of a centrist parliamentary deputy living near Kolonaki Square. Yianni Kiurktsoglou was a cousin of the Daperis brothers, a dedicated fan of the AFRS American air base station that, it is no exaggeration to say, was the midwife of Greek rock.
“I’m going to get an electric guitar,” Yianni said out of the blue one evening after an afternoon of gluing our ears to AFRS.
It was a warm autumn weekend. Yianni, Nick Daperis and I were on our way to an outdoor cinema.
“Why not form a band?” Nick said. The fact that he couldn’t play anything somehow didn’t seem to matter.
For the next few months that’s as far as it went. Schoolwork left little time for extracurricular activities. I thought no more of the band idea, but hadn’t counted on Yianni’s determination. Of proud Asia Minor Greek stock, fairly well off, with his father in politics, Yianni Kiurktsoglou was well-placed to eventually grow into one of Greece’s acclaimed rock ballad composers. Just thirteen but with a seriousness beyond his years, he set about musicalizing himself.
My maiden public performance on a percussion instrument of any kind was at a basketball game in one of the air base hangars on 20 October 1964. The teams were the school versus USAF air police and postal personnel. To get the cheerleaders going, Perry Mackereth whacked out the deathless syncopated opening sequence of The Rooters’ “Let’s Go” while I backed him up with a steady boom. Later I tucked into massive 25-cent hamburgers at Cokes at the base cafeteria – out of bounds to Greeks who wouldn’t get Big Macs and Cokes for another quarter of a century. On 3 November my bass drumming prowess was called upon again, for a basketball game in the school auditorium. The school team was playing a US Navy lineup from a visiting warship.
Perry was about the best drummer who had ever gone through the school, and he knew it. His forearms could sweep around a drum set with astounding ease. With his talent, understandably Varsity Band wasn’t sexy enough. He soon formed his own rock band and became a supercool figure at school, tall and wide-shouldered, with Ricky Nelsonesque slicked back hair, skin-tight dungarees, Beatle boots and college windjammers with big numbers on them. He began to skip Varsity Band rehearsals. When he failed to show up for our next air base basketball gig on 15 November, his neglect became my chance. I stood in for Perry as “first drummer” and remained in that exalted post for the rest of the school year. Yet it was typical of Perry that he took his demotion in stride, with Canadian unflappability. In the months to come he and I would be the school’s main drumming rivals. But it never dented our friendship. He was just not into competitive mode.
November 1964 saw the first cross-pollination between the American and Greek rock scenes. The young Americans lived in their own upscale world of sleek Buicks and Oldsmobiles under bougainvillea-shaded driveways, iced beer and Cokes on demand, summer barbecues ad infinitum, Beach Boys albums and Archie comics, and for entertainment, the air base cinema. For Athenian kids wanting to form a band the conditions were hugely different. They were mostly crammed into flats in Kolonaki and other inner-city districts, having to share living space with an extended family that often included old yiayia from the village. It wasn’t quite the ideal environment for letting fly with electric guitars and drums, assuming any room could be found for them. And only the better-off could afford such instruments at all. Yet in those tightly-massed flats something was being born. And on 1 November I believe I helped in the birth.
It was a warmish Sunday afternoon. Yianni, Nick and I gathered at Nick’s house to test our yet-untried musical skills. Nick had bought a second-hand acoustic guitar and was mastering elementary chords. For my benefit Yianni had borrowed a couple of tatty drums and a bent little cymbal whose sound compared unfavourably with a dustbin lid. Nick flicked the switch on his new Grundig tape recorder, and we were off. With Yianni doing some creditable riffs we ranged through a good deal of the Beatles and Rolling Stones repertoire of the time, plus Dave Clark Five and a sprinkling of Shadows. I was in rock heaven, hammering and rolling away. Then came playback time…
We were so excited we couldn’t stay indoors. We walked down Deinokratous Street and downhill through the thickening maze of new apartment blocks and into lively Kolonaki Square. Threading our way through the packed pavement cafes and brightly-lit kiosks laden with cigarettes, chocolate bars and magazines, we turned into Tskalof Street heading for Mitso’s cheese pie shop.
Most of the talk on the way down was what we would call ourselves. We were a band. We needed a name. We wanted something that smacked of top groups and big time, so by the time we descended the few steps into Mitso’s pie shop we had tentatively settled on The Rolling Beatle Three. It didn’t take many mouthfuls of Mitso’s succulent feta pies newly emerged from the oven to convince us that for originality we rated a zero. For our embryonic period we remained nameless.
Three more weekends passed before we had time for another session. On Sunday 21 November a few wide-eyed Athenian lads joined us in Nick’s room. Out of them Yianni had picked our fourth member, a shy and gangling boy with a lopsided grin named Dimitris Katakouzinos, or Mimis for short. Judging by his name, he would well have been a descendant of the Byzantine imperial line of Cantacuzenus. Of more importance to us, he could play basic guitar chords reasonably well. Nick was switched to rudimentary bass.
Yianni got himself a cheap cherry-red electric guitar. Some electrician friend had made him a crude “amplifier” about the size of a large shoebox, with all the tubes and wiring sticking out unprotected from the top. It needed treating with extreme respect. I never went within three yards of it. Mimis Katakouzinos played safe and stuck to his acoustic. And that’s about the time Yianni and Nick came up with the name Raving Rhythms.
In the early spring of 1965, like mushrooms after a rain, Athenian rock bands began to sprout in appreciable numbers. They were not terribly competent. Their raucous efforts in murdered English were hilarious.
The earliest known Greek rock band of any importance was The Juniors, assembled in 1962. They enjoyed a three-year career until a car crash killed its lead singer in October 1965. The Idols and The Forminx (named after an ancient Greek stringed instrument) emerged in early 1964. Their music had an organ-heavy sound, not surprising as their first keyboardist was Vangelis. The Idols’ slavish attempt to mimic The Animals was more than faintly ludicrous. The flaws, real and exaggerated, of these ensembles were a spur to Yianni Kiurktsoglou, Nick Daperis and other Kolonaki kids to do better.
Early Greek rock was edging towards the soft melodic French and Italian style. Because Greek pop music had no “black” experience comparable to the West, and had yet to achieve the artistic and technical excellence of the Italians, its output was too often unimaginative and twee. Outfits such as The Charms, The Idols and The Olympians stuck largely to plodding, formulaic material.
The Raving Rhythms attempted to breach this invisible cultural frontier. All of us remained faithful devotees of AFRS. My British and Nick’s Canadian origins came out in our music. Nick had been playing rhythm guitar for less than a year, but already his strumming wrist was trained into that subtle easy accenting technique, especially on the upstroke, that marks a good rhythm guitarist, and which Greek guitarists seemed to have a hard time developing.
We were finally let loose on an unsuspecting Athenian public on the evening of 27 February 1965, the height of the carnival season. Mimis, who alternated on rhythm and bass guitar, threw a party at his and his parents’ ground-floor flat near Alexandras Avenue. It was cold and the rain was coming down in windswept sheets. Mimis, the resourceful descendant of the emperors, had fitted a pick-up onto his acoustic guitar and wired it into the family radio, which thus became a second amplifier. I sat behind my snare drum and tinny cymbal, all I had at the time.
Tuned up and ready, we waited for the guests to arrive. Eyes popped when they saw a live band waiting for them. Yianni started us on a few slow warm-up instrumentals such as “Peace Pipe” and “Theme For Young Lovers,” until the house was full. Then, when all attention was concentrated on us, he swung round to me and called for “The Savage.”
This tight, nervy Shadows instrumental was considered to be our best number. It was also a drummer’s challenge, with its demanding two-bar intro on the floor tom and snappy pace. Handling it with a single snare drum and cymbal turned out to be my baptism of fire. My hands were shaking as countless pairs of eyes locked on to me. It was after I had banged out the intro and settled into the regular beat that I found confidence returning. I carried off the concluding snare drum breaks as if I’d been playing for years.
In those months I spent more time in and around Kolonaki than in any other place except school. We could stroll down to the music and record shops, where we could sit in a soundproofed booth listening to a newly-released hit before deciding (or not) to buy it. After that, we would saunter back uphill to Kolonaki Square and buy our souvlakia at a hole in the wall called Themis. At a mere two drachmas each, these would be bursting with gyro, wrapped in grease paper with the top of the coiled pitta and the meat and tomato and tzatziki peeping temptingly out of the top. Many are the Themis souvlakia that provided the energy for my early drumming. Besides, a film of souvlaki grease on the grip of my unvarnished plain-wood Meazzi drumsticks lubricated the finger action…
Such was our exalted opinion of ourselves that we believed we had already crossed the boundary from amateur to semi-professional. Yianni, ever the most serious of us, was already dreaming of real nightclub gigs. Among us, we probably had the combined talent to bring it off. But once Yianni communicated his desire to his conservative parents, they promptly pulled the plug, figuratively speaking, on his amplifier. They had set high goals for their undoubtedly intelligent and capable son and they did not include a career as a strumming club junkie at an early age (he was all of fourteen years old). So on the evening of 7 April Nick telephoned me to tell me that the band had broken up.
On 7 May Varsity Band was finally let loose onto the Greek rural environment. On a Saturday morning as we piled into a couple of buses for the ninety-kilometre trip to Kiato, a placid little town on the Gulf of Corinth. Our driver, picking his way out of the city, regarded us in his rear-view mirror with some curiosity. We weren’t the usual bumptious school lot. “Why are these paidia so quiet?” he asked a teacher sitting up front.
“They’re musicians,” the teacher replied, “members of the school band.”
The driver rolled his eyes in admiration. “Ah,” he said, smiling into the mirror. “Calm spirits.”
He might have changed his mind had he known who was riding in the bus with us. Pete Lazides, a Greek-American twelfth-grader with a sizeable chip on his shoulder and a trademark sneer, revelled in his role as school rebel. Sometimes after school hours he would weave recklessly through the central Athens traffic on a red Honda bike, his blond hair streaming back like an early Katzenjammer Kids cartoon, a scowl darkening his features. Oddly enough he belonged to the school choir that was coming along with us.
The trip’s main purpose was to deliver an American aid package to a primary school in Sikyon, a poor inland Peloponnesian village, and add to America’s prestige by providing entertainment afterwards. In classical times it had been a thriving city-state; now it was a squalid little village with nothing except a few mules and donkeys, and not even a paved road – a powerful lesson in the rise and fall of civilizations.
An astonishing sight greeted us as we drove into Sikyon. Lining both sides of the main street up to the schoolhouse were schoolchildren decked out in their best blue tunics. As we filed off the bus and walked up the street, the children began to clap and wave. Ahead walked school staff carrying packages of notebooks, paper and pencils for the school. As we proceeded we noticed that the children were holding out their hands to us. The next minute they were throwing little fistfuls of rose petals into our path and over us. (I picked up a few petals and have them still.)
Ambling up front, even gritty Pete Lazides was awed into silence. But one of his cronies, unable to stay serious, gave a whoop and kicked a few of the petals with his boot. Lazides turned on him, glaring. “What the f— do you think you’re doing?” he snarled, in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear. “Where do you think you are? Back in Manhattan? This ain’t Manhattan. Show some respect for these poor kids, you f—er!” The children, oblivious to the import of the exchange, smiled up at them and showered more petals in their path.
To the awed locals we were The Americans in the flesh, cocky, youthful representatives of the munificent great power. This was the Cold War front. Varsity Band, though we hardly realized it, was in the front line of a campaign by Washington to cultivate hearts and minds.
We got to Kiato late in the afternoon. The small town by the sea seemed to be still having its siesta under a leaden sky. We unloaded our gear in a small tree-lined square by the sea, ringed on three sides by humble houses and tavernas. That’s where we were scheduled to play.
As it got dark, the little coast town came to life. We took our places, arranged in a semicircle facing the sea. The lights around the square shone on hundreds of expectant faces. Our bass drummer, a twelve-year-old prodigy named Pat Longo Jr., was an object of especial interest. Barely as tall as the bass drum itself, he confidently gave the great thing a few expert test beats, drawing ahhs from the spectators immediately behind the percussion row.
Little Pat came into his own in the percussion intros to our marching numbers, where bass drum and snare drums and cymbals in smashing unison hammered out the two-bar intro from the 20th Century Fox opening piece: Boom-boom, boom-boom, brrrr-brrrr, boom-boom! It was the bold, aggressive sound of us, the young gods.
Yet the clouds were gathering. Bob Thornton, Varsity Band’s lead trumpeter, couldn’t have known it, but the dark angel’s wings were already hovering over him; in a few years he would be killed in Vietnam. The same fate, I am told (but cannot confirm), awaited Pete Lazides. The shadow of Vietnam was beginning to cast its ominous pall. The local PX, for example, refused to carry Barry McGuire’s “Eve Of Destruction,” which was also banned on AFRS, much to the disgust of some of my American friends who simply asked me and others to get the record for them from downtown Athens.
In March 1965, when the Raving Rhythms were still riding high in Kolonaki, I was given the drum part in a school musical, Lerner and Loewe’s “Brigadoon.” Made up mostly of band personnel, the orchestra was stiffened by professionals from the Greek State Radio Orchestra.
On the two performance nights I sat behind the Varsity Band bass drum, two snare drums including the deep Ludwig, and one of a pair of marching band cymbals hanging very precariously by its strap from a makeshift stand. A determined smash would likely have sent it flying, so I had to be careful.
The percussion part for “Brigadoon” required no exceptional skills – except in one place, the entr’acte, consisting of a five-minute bagpipes-and-drums duet. And that’s all. The specific drum part was a series of continuous dotted and syncopated triplets with a nine-stroke roll rounding off every bar. (Only drummers need understand this; it reads worse than it sounds.) Playing the bagpipes was an American of Scottish descent, Andrew Sinclair, who sported the whole Scots kit and caboodle — Black Watch kilt, silver-buttoned doublet, horsehair sporran and all the rest of it. I tried to keep up the dotted triplets as best as I could. It required tight stick control, and my wrists were aching at the end. But I couldn’t help sharing in the awe, and enjoying a secret bit of British pride, at the stirring sounds of the highlands. You didn’t get too much of that in Athens.
I didn’t know it at the time, but two members of the audience were scrutinizing my every note. They were Paul Velletri and Jim Motz, the latter in my class, the former a year younger, both sons of American diplomats. They had a band of their own called The Auroras. On 10 April, a Saturday, I tuned into the AFRS Stateside Top 15: Del Shannon’s “Keep Searchin'”, The Beatles’ “Eight Days A Week”, Jan and Dean’s “Sidewalk Surfing,” and a whole lot of other songs that have since become a permanent part of me. The phone rang. It was Paul Velletri. He was in the middle of a practice with The Auroras, and hey, hadn’t I said the other day that the Raving Rhythms were history? How about if I came to their practice? Right now?
A confident-sounding voice came on the line. “Hi, John, George Alexander here.” I knew him, but not well. Our contacts had been confined to the school corridors between classes, where he was almost always in the company of Paul. I knew him as a gangling, slightly effete chap in expensive clothes. When he talked to you he would squint keenly at you through thick-lensed glasses. Now, in brisk and businesslike tones George was giving me the directions to his home in Psychiko. “Don’t worry about finding the house,” he said, “you’ll hear us.” I put on my jacket, grabbed a pair of sticks and caught the 38 bus into the city and then the 47 to Old Psychiko.
The rattling, exhaust-belching blue and cream Mercedes bus threaded its way through the leafy suburb before turning into Diamantidou Street, a straight tree-lined uphill thoroughfare. I got off the 47 at the stop George had mentioned. Clutching my well-worn Meazzi drumsticks, I looked up and down the deserted street. The strident sound of an electric guitar sawed the tranquil air. I at once recognized the riff — it was the haunting three-note intro to The Ventures’ “Out Of Limits.” Then it stopped, gave way to a few ragged chords… It wasn’t a record; it was a band, and it sounded like a good one at that! I located the house it was coming from, bounded up the front steps and pressed the doorbell.
A maid opened the door and directed me to a semi-basement practice room, the door of which seemed about to fly from its hinges owing to the sheer pressure of sound within. After a couple of polite knocks, which no-one inside could possibly have heard, I opened the door and walked in, to be greeted by a collective yell of recognition. George Alexander, an electric guitar hanging from his shoulders, extended his hand. Somehow I never had been able to imagine this geeky type capable of producing a competent twang. That outward impression, though, masked a formidable intellect and artistic ability that emerged in his tight Pittsburgh accents and purposeful manner of speech beyond his years. Paul Velletri, also bespectacled, was altogether more bohemian, or aspired to be. At the time he cultivated a classic early-Beatles pudding basin haircut, sorely testing the school’s tonsorial rules. Paul’s way of masking his own mental acuity was to play the benevolent rebel with a touch of the clown to ease tensions. Jim Motz, closer to my age, was an adopted boy, and suffered from the emotional hang-ups of that state. Diffident yet eager to make friends, he was prone to moodiness. At nearly six feet, Jim Motz was the tallest of us. He kept his black hair slicked back Elvis style, with a lock dangling over his forehead. He could, moreover, do a remarkable Elvis imitation.
That day we practiced for four hours. Our repertoire was almost completely instrumental, Shadows and Ventures and the like. There was only one break when the maid opened the door bearing a tray laden high with thick peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and lemonade in tall glasses. George and Paul seemed to like what I was doing. As I sat on the drum stool munching a sandwich, George turned to me. “Well, John,” he began in the slight excess of formality that was his personality trademark, “we’d be very glad if you’d be our drummer.” I eagerly snapped up the invitation. Yianni and Nick were already history. The massed flats of Kolonaki and the Greek rock scene were forgotten as I immersed myself in Little America again.
As soon as I became an Aurora, I realized with a thrill that three of us bore the Beatles’ names! If that wasn’t an omen, what was? In fact, The Zoo had just been born.
There is something masochistic about a drum. It invites violence. To be hit is its purpose in the world. It’s the only musical instrument that has to be beaten into submission. No doubt there is a lot to explore in the psyche of a young drummer. The phallic symbolism of a drumstick might seem to be one obvious starting-point. More convincing would be a theory of accumulated repressed aggression. As I never was much of a “jock” in the classic sense, such disguised aggression had its role.
The Auroras’ first performance took place on 14 April 1965 at the Athens USO. Those who have seen the World War II Hollywood patriotic classic “USO” will have some idea of the atmosphere inside the cramped first-floor premises over a clothes shop near central Omonia Square.
“Hey, guys!” The American service policeman at the USO door took one look at bass drum I was carrying and raised a shout through the crowded club. “What’s this, a rock band?”
We began setting up our equipment in a space cleared for us near the window. As we did, Sixth Fleet sailors in dark blue and Marines in impeccably-pressed olive drab with black insignia and the occasional Vietnam ribbon formed a half-circle around us.
“They’re from the local American school,” I heard one say.
“No shit!” All doubts about our youth were removed. If we were from the American school, we were the right stuff.
Outside, the pavements of Panepistimiou Street were packed with Friday evening strollers enjoying the bright lights and shop windows. The U.S. Sixth Fleet was ashore in force, with trios of grim-jawed service police marching in leisurely lockstep among the crowds, swinging their billy clubs discreetly behind their backs on the lookout for inebriated swabbies and leathernecks, not to mention promising specimens of Athenian maidenhood.
Helping out at the USO was a bevy of Greek girl volunteers in flared dresses. As in the classic film, they were available also for dancing and mild flirtation at an acceptable level of decency. The servicemen were of every type and colour, from loud and towering Texan marines to shy, bespectacled navy clerks blinking at the girls and us. As I already considered myself a veteran, I wasn’t nervous. The same couldn’t be said for the other three.
When we were set up, the cards were stacked and put away, and by the time we were ready for action a sizeable portion of the United States Navy was standing around us, waiting.
We started out with the piercing “Out Of Limits,” the riff which, like the biblical pillar of flame, had guided me along that quiet street in Psychiko. At the conclusion of the number there was a smattering of applause. On we proceeded with a few more instrumentals. Half an hour into the performance, the fleet was still standing there, gawking at us. But no-one was dancing.
So, Custer to the rescue! Like all bands, The Auroras had their roadies. One of them was a classmate named Pete Custer. Pete, a professor’s son, had lived in Greece long enough to spout Greek like a cab driver, though you’d never know it by looking at him; his slicked-back blond hair and PX clothing marked him as an obvious American. He sprang to his feet, grabbed an astonished volunteer girl and began wild gyrations in the middle of the floor. It was as if he’d pulled the pin on a grenade. Sailors and marines grabbed feminine waists and exploded from all sides. This fired us up to hammer out some sizzling slabs of rock and roll. Here came the first intimations of stardom. A couple of sailors unravelled yards of strobe light cable and began to film us. Flash bulbs went off in our faces. The showbiz addiction was beginning.
Of course, in a three-hour performance there were the bungled bits. When George started out fingering the “James Bond Theme” (yes, we did things like that then) we glanced at one another in puzzlement. It sounded weird but not unpleasant, a bit avant-garde maybe. Only at the end did George realize he’d actually been playing the theme a half-tone too high. And there was the moment when the others strummed the final chord to “Road Runner” but I, eyes glued to the skins, bashed on oblivious. I’d thought the chord was the signal for a brilliant drum break. A collective shout made me realize my mistake.
Carlo Maletti, the Italian air attache’s son, was a cheery chap and Auroras fan. Ten days after the USO gig, he threw a party. No question about who should play! There was an added inducement: 50 drachmas each ($1.60 at the exchange rate of the time). Our first money. We were becoming pros already.
Our equipment was evolving. George had replaced his locally-made guitar with a sleek red Hofner sporting a surprisingly long fingerboard, complemented by a Fenton-Weill amplifier and a foot-powered echo and reverb unit. I’d just acquired a moderately-priced cream pearl finish Hollywood Meazzi set that I was eager to show off.
The Maletti house stood on a street corner in the suburb of Psychiko, opposite a church. We began playing while it was still light, following a formula of slow instrumentals followed by a few ballads sung by Jim Motz, then warming up to some steaming fast numbers as the evening proceeded. The night was warm and the windows were open. It was after midnight when we took a break and strolled out onto the front porch, to be confronted with a disconcerting sight.
In the courtyard of the church, about fifty yards away on the other side of the intersection, stood a crowd of people led by a black-robed priest, all staring in our direction. Some of them were gesticulating, some shouting. It was George who first realized what was happening. It was Greek Orthodox Easter Saturday, and our amplified row must have cut through the Resurrection service liturgy. Religious mores were pretty strict in Greece, and a heathen rock band had just drowned out the holiest mass in the Greek religious calendar. As the congregation dispersed, muttering, the bearded priest suddenly turned and flung out his black-robed arm in our direction, uttering something loud but unintelligible. “Man, he’s put a curse on us,” George chuckled. Paul, a Catholic, wasn’t quite so amused.
Between the end of May and early July the Auroras played ten gigs. Six were upper-crust American kids’ pool parties, where each of us was paid 100 drachmas ($3.30). Two were appearances at American teen clubs, and that’s where the “priest’s curse” took its first crack at us.
The first occasion was on 5 June at the Base Teen Club where a few indifferent kids showed up and then promptly left. Paul’s guitar inexplicably dropped out of tune. We slunk out early, unnoticed and unlamented. Some air force officer was kind enough to detail a staff car to take us back to Psychiko.
The second time the curse struck was at a poolside gig at the American Youth Association on the hot evening of 23 June. The humidity was overpowering, with hordes of mosquitoes. Trying to beat the zinging little horrors from my face I badly bungled the drum intro to “Road Runner.” This unnerved George who started the number on the wrong note. We actually had to stop and begin again. (We did earn $2 each, though, as well as faces and arms covered with mosquito bites.)
By the end of May, though, about the time Perry and I led the Varsity Band drum corps around the Athens College track, we were school celebrities. A tall, blonde eleventh-grade girl named Jani Dales, invited us one hot Sunday to a beach party at Glyfada. The four of us showed up very rock star-like, in sunglasses and sandals and eccentric tee shirts, noses in the air. The memorable part came at the end of the day. As the shadows lengthened, we walked over the sand to Jani’s house nearby. While there, some of the gang reported hearing electric guitar sounds on the other side of the coast road. Crossing the road to investigate, we found a three-member combo playing in the small terrace of the Sivilla Hotel.
The musicians turned out to be Americans, two guitarists and a stand-up drummer with a couple of drums. Until then they hadn’t had much of an audience, so their spirits perked when a horde of high-schoolers descended on them. During a break George asked them if we could have a go.
“Sure,” one of the guitarists replied, smiling his condescension, and retired with his mates to the hotel bar.
There was no bass guitar, so unfortunately Jim couldn’t join in. George, Paul and I started off with a few medium-tempo instrumentals like “Surf Rider”. In the crowd Jim overheard admiring comments. “Boy, I didn’t know that punk Velletri could play like that…” was a typical one. After a half dozen or so numbers we politely handed back over to the American trio who had meanwhile returned from the bar and were keenly observing us, beers in hand. The guitarist shook his head. “Boys, you’re great,” he said. “Keep playing till you’re tired.” The sentiment may have been genuine. Or they may merely have been lazy. We didn’t care — we let it rip.
I charged off with what by now was my trademark, the adrenalin-pumping intro to “The Savage.” It was a combination of USO and Surf Beach. The kids paired off and within seconds the small hotel terrace was jam-packed with a writhing mass of bodies. Traffic on the Apollo Coast at Glyfada came to a halt as people driving home from the beach stopped to see what the excitement was about. I even saw Nick Daperis, ex-Raving Rhythms, in the crowd, grinning and waving at me. Everybody who was anybody, it seemed, had spent that day at Glyfada Beach. Cars were backed up for hundreds of yards. We jacked up the volume to overcome the jets screaming over our heads to land at the adjacent airport. For two hours we gave it all we had. My fingers were sore and peeling from the sweaty and none-too-clean drumsticks I had to handle, so I spent the last half hour holding the right stick claw-like, between my first two fingers. Jim, so he wouldn’t feel left out, managed to get in a few vocals. When we decided to call it quits the man who had told us to keep playing till we were tired came up to us. I remember these words:
“Guys, I never imagined you’d be that good. Your instrumental skills are outstanding. If you continue, if you really are serious about music, then you’ll reach the top.” It was good being a young god under the Greek sun.
But the priest’s curse hadn’t finished with me. One morning I woke up with a sharp pain in my genitals to find to my horror that I had been stung by a centipede. A doctor gave me such a huge shot of antihistamine that I made my way to school in a semi-conscious state. How I avoided getting knocked down was a miracle. Staggering into school, I sat through the final classes –- it was the last day of school – like a zombie, pupils dilated, head lolling.
At the exclusive Asteria Beach a few days later, I was back in top form. It was understood that if we were really good we might be offered a weekly gig there. As we played, happy holiday sounds filled the warm air. Of course there were some American school kids there as well. During our break a few came up to us, breathless. “Hey, guess who’s here!” one said.
“Who?” George said.
“Keith Richard!” We almost dropped our bottles of Tam Tam.
“He’s down by the water, over there!” one girl gasped, pointing away over the mass of baking bodies. “It’s him, I’m sure it’s him.” They ran off to get Keith Richard’s autograph.
We decided to do “The Last Time” for Keith Richard to hear. Within minutes our friends were back, looking crestfallen. “I walked up to him as he was lying there,” a girl said, her features contorted by bitterness, “and I asked him for his autograph, and you know what he said?”
“That if we didn’t go away he’d spit in our little faces!”
We were deemed too young to get a weekly gig at Asteria Beach. But that venue hadn’t seen the last of us. The scorching hot day of 5 July was a fitting finale for The Auroras. The American Embassy and Air Base decided to hold their Fourth of July Independence Day bash at Asteria, and we were picked to do the musical honours. So crowded was the tiny dancing space in front of the grandstand that bikini-clad flesh kept bumping my cymbals. More than once did I have to prod a gyrating bottom with a drumstick to keep it away.
I didn’t know it, but once more my playing was being keenly watched. Standing by the bandstand and slightly behind me was a black boy of not more than about seven, and not much taller than my floor tom. He was taking in every single sticking I made. When I got up to take a break I felt a tug on my jeans. It was the black kid, with an imploring look on his face. “Hey, man,” he pleaded, “kin ah play?”
I looked down at this diminutive Lionel Hampton. “Can you play the drums?” I asked.
The boy glared at me. “Ah kin play cooool drums, man!” he replied with passion. I was willing to let him have a go, but his parents intervened and he was led away. I’m sure he grew up to be a cooool drummer.
At the end of the gig our tambourine was passed around the beach for contributions to the band. When it got back to us it contained the amazing sum of $56. As darkness fell a strange sadness took hold of me. In a few days I would leave Greece to join my mother in Rome. Very likely I might not see any of these friends – even the band – again.
Five days later an Alitalia Caravelle with me in it lifted off from Athens airport. As the plane banked over the shoreline, and the golden expanse of Asteria Beach stretched away under the port wing, I thought back to the day before, when I’d walked out of George’s front door. “Man,” he concluded as we said goodbye, “it was a blast!” The “blast,” it turned out, was only just beginning.
Five months later I found myself back in Athens and ready to rejoin the old crowd at the American school. What I had left as The Auroras I came back to find as The Zoo.
The name was the brainchild of our new member, Nick Jameson. Of American-British parentage, Nick was a lanky, nervy and pimply chap whose wavy blond tresses curled over his forehead and ears. He had the keenest of musical ears and was au courant with everything going on.
Jim Motz was still with the band, but George saw him as an anachronism with his Elvisesque looks and sound. During my absence he had handled the drums. Now he had nothing to do. I felt for Jim Motz. Like him, I would have been blissfully happy playing Beach Boys, Elvis and old rock. I cared for neither overlong hair nor kinky clothes, neither subversive lyrics nor anything to do with drugs. I kept my hair decent and my politics conservative. When others lost themselves in Norwegian woods, I hankered after the California sun. When others turned left, I turned right.
In almost all music ensembles, from duets to symphony orchestras, a leader figure inevitably emerges. Some kind of defining, agenda-setting voice must sooner or later come out. I call it the Lennon Figure. He is the band member whose musical tastes, drive and sheer ego end up shaping the band’s final identity and determining its fate. The Zoo’s Lennon Figure was George Alexander.
Buoyed by early musical success, George had begun to cast his net wider. His father bought him a Farfisa portable organ, as keyboards had by now become part of a group’s necessary hardware. Nick Jameson chafed at being a mere bass player, so he was given the chance to curl a few riffs on his shiny new red Gibson. The more accommodating Paul was gradually relegated to bass.
As for me, I had to grapple with a perennially accident-prone drum set that set its snares (pun intended) for me at every turn. The priest’s curse was turning into a scourge. My first performance with The Zoo was a college dance in the auditorium of the Hellenic American Union in Athens on 18 December 1965. That afternoon the snare head on my drum had split and all the shops were closed, so I couldn’t get a new one. I stretched swathes of sticky tape over the six-inch gash, hoping it would remedy the problem. It didn’t. Miserably I began to play, knowing that I was not exactly making the best of impressions. Worse was to come.
Midway through the dance, George whirled round to me and yelled: “Hullaballoo!” A jolt of horror ran through me. “Hullaballoo” was a fast twelve-bar instrumental that George and Paul had lifted from The Hullaballoos, a British band. It had a long and involved drum solo in it.
“No way, man!” I tried to yell back. But George had already turned round and was spitting out the opening guitar riffs.
During my solo I tried every trick in the book to reduce the horrible clonking effect, mainly with rim shots. Sixteen, thirty-two bars, I got them out of the way quick. Sweating, I retreated thankfully into the cascade of guitar sound — and heard myself applauded! Some people just don’t know bad music when they hear it.
If my snare drum was in poor shape, my snare drum stand was even worse. Without warning, in the middle of a fast number it buckled and collapsed, sending the drum rolling across the stage like a wheel after a movie car crash. In full view of the amused audience, I got up and lunged after it, only just stopping it from careering over the edge and into the dancers below. I sensed rather than saw George, Paul, Nick and Jim doubled up. For the rest of the dance I kept the snare drum tightly gripped between my knees. That cramped my bass drum style to no small degree. Every last cent of what I received that night was especially well-earned.
That was Jim’s final fling with the band. Tensions with Nick Jameson came to a head soon afterwards. It was Nick who was the “in” figure now. He was a very good lead guitarist in the rhythm and blues style, and claimed to be a better R&B singer than Jim.
The year 1966 opened on me playing at the American Youth Association in Kefalari, north of Athens, cramped in a corner of a tiny bandstand and belting out “I Wanna Be Your Man.” (Naturally, I was getting the Ringo vocals!) Instruments and amps and mikes and cymbals were choked in streamers.
On 4 January I unexpectedly heard from Yianni Kiurktsoglou and Nick Daperis. In tune with the changing times they had rechristened themselves The Loubogg (from “loo” and “bog,” British vernacular synonyms for toilet). Yianni had his eyes on a certain Kolonaki girl who was throwing a birthday party, so with remarkable chivalry he offered his band’s services for free. Upon which Renos Gossevitch, his Yugoslav drummer, threw a fit and went on strike. Ever eager for a bash, and glad to help out old friends, I took over — the Raving Rhythms momentarily revived. Yianni was actually so good as to pay me a symbolic 100 drachmas ($3.30) after asking his hosts for “transportation costs.”
The following morning, 5 January, saw a quantum leap in The Zoo’s career.
Resting at Nick Daperis’s home the following morning, I dialled George’s number. His mother picked up the phone. George wasn’t at home, she said; he was downtown signing a record deal! I put down the phone and immediately took the 47 bus to Old Psychiko. When I got there George had returned from signing the contract with the Philips record label and was already deep into a songwriting session with Nick.
A record deal! For this we had to thank a fellow twelfth-grader, a Dutch boy named Ben Kooistra who was a Zoo fan and occasional roadie. His father was a Philips electrical appliance executive stationed in Athens. It seems he had enough corporate clout within the Philips conglomerate to penetrate to its music division, represented in Greece by a company called Helladisc. Ben’s descriptions of our prowess must have been glowing indeed.
We had just eight days to come up with two sides of a single. George and Nick worked on a moderate-tempo original called “I Cry,” with a slow, teary ballad, “Forget Today,” for the B side.
Where any of us found time for our schoolwork is a mystery. George was, in fact, a brilliant student, and would later distinguish himself in the academic world. I was doing reasonably well and could hope to finish the American school in the top quarter of my class. Much as rock dominated our lives, neither we nor our parents seriously considered it as our future life’s work. But that didn’t register with us then. Being young meant that the sense of limited time had yet to get its clammy hold around our throats. Mortality was a fiction. Life was vast and limitless enough for postponing decisions. There was more than enough energy to go round for music and study and romance and growing up and whatever.
In the morning of 13 January we set up our equipment in the new wing of Columbia Studios, in the working-class suburb of Perissos. But if I thought the day would pass without the usual drum jinx, I was wrong. During a warm-up my snare drum throw-off disintegrated. The only thing I could do was stick the snares to the snare head with tape.
Maybe that’s what gives “I Cry” its rolling, driving beat, overlaid by lashings of ride cymbal from a heavy 40cm Zanchi I’d bought in Rome. Ben Kooistra — by now our manager — waved us up to the control room to hear the instrumental playback before tracking over the vocal. The engineer flipped the switch and we were in rock heaven. Man, we couldn’t be that good! Roll over, Beatles. We did four instrumental takes of “I Cry” and five of “Forget Today.” Then came the vocal tracking. Nick soloed on both. His breathy, lost-boy voice came over well.
Three hours later, with both songs in the can, we looked for a place to eat. The Perissos district in those days was a scene of fallow fields and small factories interspersed with humble workers’ dwellings. A short walk in the drizzle brought us to a dilapidated little taverna. “Oh, God, I can’t eat this!” gasped Paul, gazing in disbelief at the oily contents of the food vats on display under a grimy clear plastic counter.
“I’m just having chips,” Nick said. “At least they look clean.” He tried to ignore the snickers of amusement that his hair was provoking among the grizzled factory workers sitting at the few tables. Chips and bread, in fact, it was for all of us, bunched up at a little corner table and washing it all down with Fix beer.
A week later came the first of our publicity shows to fuel hoped-for record sales. This was at the Whisky-a-Gogo, an Athens nightspot on the edge of the Areos park. Our school following was there in force, plus a few proud parents, my mother among them. By now I was becoming used to my perennial percussion problems, but it didn’t help my performance when my bass drum developed a severe case of the creeps. The club floor was highly polished, and the drum spurs couldn’t grip. With each beat of the pedal the drum would skid forward by at least an inch. That meant that every minute or so my bass drum leg would be stretched out taut, so I was always momentarily interrupting my stickwork to yank the drum back to its place. But that was nothing compared to a more serious problem — Nick.
He hadn’t looked well all evening, and during the final numbers he seemed to be getting sicker. We closed on a painfully long rendition of “Gates Of Eden.” Throughout the song he sat motionless, his eyes closed, plunking the bass strings like an automaton. At its conclusion he didn’t move but remained seated, guitar in hand, semi-conscious. His parents were called. When they arrived Nick had revived but his eyes were open wide and he was babbling.
No-one quite knew what was wrong. His parents called it sinus trouble, though I’m inclined to think he may been experimenting with some substance. (I was going to ask him about it when we met up again in 1997, but couldn’t bring myself to.)
Nick Jameson, in fact, was an unhappy boy in the wrong country. Whenever he took a walk in the neighbourhood he would have to put up with snide remarks and giggles about his effeminate hair, as in the taverna at Perissos. “Bitlies, Bitlies,” they would chuckle as he walked by. It was a corruption of Beatles, then the generic name the Greeks had for any long-haired foreign type. One day he sat down and wrote a poem, appropriately titled Bitlies. His crie de coeur began something like this:
They point, they stare, they laugh “Bitlies, Bitlies!” How ignorant, how petty they are…
So we were “Bitlies” and local recording stars. Where would it go from here? Helladisc, like any record company, wanted to spend the least money for the most gain. We were easily manipulable. We did promotional gigs for free. Our heads got appreciably larger when we were asked to type up or bios for the local media. I had the thrill of hearing “I Cry” on the same transistor radio on which I’d listened to all my idols.
A second Whisky-a-Gogo stunt was scheduled for 10 February. The club was twice as full as before. The school crowd, of course, was there, and spirits were high. Before we made our acclaimed entrance Jacques Menahem, an ex-classical guitarist and jazz record collector who was Helladisc’s public relations manager at the time, walked in. In his hands was the first promo copy of “I Cry/Forget Today.” We mobbed him, drooling at the sight of the magic black disc.
A glittering avenue was opening up to us if we cared to take it. But the more serious side of maturity also beckoned. All four of us expected to go on to university after school. So what would it be? We were too young to face that question squarely, but subconsciously it festered. The tension came out in various ways. During one practice George flew into a monster rage at some percussive sin I had committed. Yet within a few minutes he was laughing and friendly again. A Lennon Figure could do that and get away with it.
In February we got a contract to play for four nights at an exclusive Kolonaki Square club, the AA64. On the first night, natty in Beatle boots, corduroys and lengthening hair, we clowned very rockstar-like around downtown Athens before going on. It proved to be a disastrous waste of energy. Our performance was execrable. I had to keep the percussion low, as the space was small and the amplification weak. Paul wavered off-key in too many vocals. George abounded in sour keyboard chords. Small wonder that we got seriously on the nerves of some of the customers, who wanted bouzouki stuff to calm them down. We didn’t do bouzouki stuff, so we called it a night. In George’s nasal Pittsburgh twang: “We laid an egg.”
The following night an awful feedback popped out from somebody’s amp and wouldn’t go away whichever way we turned the mikes. Nerves frayed again. On the third day I’d napped in the afternoon to be fresh for the night. But not a single customer stepped through the doors. We sat around for two hours eating and getting drunk, and toddled off home. For our fourth and final AA64 gig, people showed up in satisfactory numbers. We played the midnight-to-3am set with few glitches, and even had some on-site record sales. Most satisfactorily, each of us went home with 2,185 drachmas (about $73) in his pocket. For our ages and the time and place, it was wealth indeed.
Three days later, on 22 February, we were back in Columbia Studios to forge our second single. George and Nick had worked out a moderate-beat little number called “Go.” The flip side featured my own songwriting debut in E minor, “Six Miles From The Cage.” Its main motif was frankly lifted from Rita Pavone’s “Lui.” Paul shared the songwriting credits with me and I did the singing.The session lasted more than six hours, winding up at about three in the morning. Around midnight Paul developed a sudden inability to play the guitar intro to “Six Miles From The Cage.” George had to take over on the keyboard. Then the tracking was interrupted by a shout from Ben in the control room: “John, what’s happening?”
I couldn’t see either Ben or the recording engineers, as I was almost completely enclosed in portable sound baffles. “What are you talking about?” I shot back, dog-tired and wanting to go home.
“You’re out of beat!” Ben’s voice echoed through the cavernous studio. I heard some faint comments by the engineers in the background. “Okay, take it from the top.”
Wearily, I waited for the others to get through the intro and began playing, very carefully. Almost at once the buzzer sounded. “John!” Ben shouted. “You’re doing it again! What the hell’s the matter with you?”
“Shit, doing what again?” I cried, my patience thinning.
“You’re still out of beat, that’s what!”
I wanted to hurl my sticks across the studio. I looked at George, Paul and Nick, visible through an opening in the cubicle. They looked puzzled and tired. We’d done seventeen takes of the instrumental track to my precious song and it still wasn’t right. And I appeared to be the culprit.
“Take eighteen,” came Ben’s weary voice. “Er — hold it, wait…”
A technician entered the studio and began to manhandle the baffles, pulling them away until they splayed outwards, giving me a fuller view of the other band members and the control room. What had happened was that the baffles had isolated me from the amplifiers, with the result that my beats had lagged a half-second behind everyone else. The take went perfectly.
By the end of February 1966 The Zoo had settled into a musical routine straddling the American expat community and Greek society in about equal measure. That month we were billed as a “special attraction” at the Rex theatre in downtown Athens, along with an Italian group, I Grilli, and a Spanish outfit whose name I have forgotten. First on were a motley collection of Greek groups, whose abysmal showing had to be seen and heard to be disbelieved. The gig was the first of several, replete with screaming kids and blinding lights, we would play in that same venue. Hardly a week would pass without some glowing review in a Greek newspaper or magazine.
For some time Menahem had been talking of promoting us outside the Athens area. Apart from the Athens-Piraeus conurbation, there was only one other major city in Greece able to sustain its own cultural scene, and that was Thessaloniki in the north. We were billed to open a matinee rock concert at the city’s Avlaia theatre on Sunday, 6 March, for two Greek bands, The Bluebirds and The Olympians, which we correctly suspected were higher in the company’s priorities, as their records were notching up higher sales.
The Bluebirds were already ensconced in the back of the coach when it drew up outside the Alexander home to take us on the overnight trip to Thessaloniki. We (including Ben, our manager, and my mother, who unlike most parents never failed to encourage my musical efforts) and our equipment took some fitting in, but in the end we made it. George’s parents took the overnight sleeper train. The bus droned on through the night, but none of us felt like sleeping. Paul and I sat together, singing off-key Beach Boys songs.
The Avlaia takes up one wing of the ornate, Moorish-style YMCA building behind the White Tower in Thessaloniki. We got there next afternoon to find The Olympians in the middle of their rehearsal. After our own run-through, the cabbie who drove us back to our hotel paid us the ultimate compliment of recognizing us. The publicity machine, it seemed, was doing its job.
On the Sunday morning of the show, spruce in corduroy jackets and ties, we took up our positions behind the Avlaia curtain. The noise of the vast unseen audience pouring in sounded like Niagara Falls and set my heart pounding. I heard the emcee step across the stage and commence his patter. Seated at the drums, adrenalin surging, I was well on the way to a stage fright attack when George looked round and nodded for the opening number, a cover of The Animals’ “Ain’t That Just Like Me.” Paul stepped up to his mike and mouthed the slow intro: “Mary had a little lamb…” The kids screamed, the birthing cry of Balkan Beatlemania. As always, fear soon vanished, to be replaced by that top-of-the-world exhilaration common to concert performers and perhaps astronauts.
One song the Greeks loved was The Rolling Stones’ slam-bam classic “Satisfaction.” A thunderous, foot-stamping, collective scream accompanied our rendition of this until, right at the start of my first two-bar drum break, the amps whined away to silence, leaving just the drums echoing emptily. At the same time the theatre was plunged into utter darkness. The poor old fuses couldn’t stand up to a rock concert’s demand for juice.
For a few moments there was a stunned silence. Then a cacophony of protests rippled through the blackness, punctuated by the occasional cry of “solo drums!” But how could I do a solo when I couldn’t even see the tips of my drumsticks? Some of the more impatient characters lobbed plastic lemonade bottles in the general direction of the stage; one of them bounced off my floor tom with a startling boom. Tony Jameson, Nick’s younger brother who acted as our amateur photographer, somehow found his way to me and let go with a flashbulb in my face, almost giving me heart failure. (The photo shows me slumped glumly on my stool, cradling my sticks in my hands, waiting for light.)
Minutes later the power came on again. What more natural than to complete “Satisfaction” where we left off? “Hey, hey, heeeyyy…” Nick and Paul yelled, and the audience went wild. We wound up our set with a long and involved instrumental with the now-obligatory drum solo.
George felt, with some justice, that The Zoo deserved better than to open for bands that were, in our honest judgement, musically inferior. But it was more than just Anglo-American snobbishness. It was becoming obvious that Helladisc was doing more to promote its Greek groups than us. On language grounds alone, they had a bigger local market. Fronting The Olympians was singer Paschalis, taking the first steps towards the later pop prominence he would achieve.
Another Greek band was The Forminx, whose quirky 1965 hit “Geronimo Yanka” racked up huge sales. The chief claim to fame of this band is that it was the springboard for keyboardist/composer Vangelis. Spruce in a Beatles hairdo and goatee, Vangelis would stand deadpan and motionless behind his Hammond organ while the others did their thing.
There might be as many as a dozen garage bands pounding away in any given district of Athens. The few who managed to see the inside of a recording studio sported names such as The Knacks, The Crowns, The Vikings, Phoenix and Uptight. All of them had dedicated followings. As few rural Greeks understood English, Greek lyrics were considered indispensable for Greek bands. Our Greek-speaking competition had the market edge at the outset. As for a bunch of young foreigners such as The Zoo, why buy their records when genuine British and American hits were flooding the market?
None of this was, of course, apparent to us as we made our way out of the Avlaia theatre, pushing our way through legions of wide-eyed fans. We scrawled countless autographs. George and Paul had to pull me from the clutches of a gaggle of girls who were trying to tear strips off my new olive green Italian corduroy jacket.I’d bought that jacket at Rome’s big department store, La Rinascente. It was immensely fashionable for the time, with its twin vents at the back, which is why I saved it for special occasions such as prestige performances. My old Italian class in the Overseas School of Rome, in fact, has just sent me a manila envelope full of fan mail. I read the letters with more than a touch of nostalgia. One came with a sketch of two lips filled in with red ink. It was from Judith Franks, a dark-haired beauty I’d often admired from afar. I’d no inkling she actually felt anything for me. Ah, well, it was too late now. The class wanted a copy of “I Cry,” which I duly mailed off. I often wonder who got to keep it.
The adulation in Thessaloniki was the pinnacle, the topmost point that could have been expected from a group of talented schoolboys-in-exile, in a small market and in many ways alien cultural environment. Where could we go from here? Short of being transplanted to Britain or the United States, The Zoo would remain essentially a hobby. True, we were making records, but the sales were nothing to get excited about. After our return from Thessaloniki a strange ennui set in. The first symptom was a serious squabble over finances.
During a practice Nick’s amp speaker gave out with an awful crackle. Nick threw down his guitar.
“Man, I’m sick of this piece of shit!” he groaned, blinking in double time. “I’ve been telling you, George, I need a new amp!”
George cleared his throat, lawyer-like. He, for his part, felt uncomfortable relying on his well-to-do father to automatically replace worn equipment. It had been different back in the days of The Auroras, when our youthful enthusiasms had been contagious. Now we were settling into serious music-making. From now on The Zoo would have to finance its own acquisitions.
I knew what was coming next. “What if we all pitched in for a new one?” George said. I had been depending on the Zoo gigs not only for spending money but also to accumulate some capital for college. This prospect seemed to be going up in the smoke of the burned-out speaker. George briskly picked up his guitar. “Okay, that’s settled. Now, let’s run through ‘Get Off My Cloud’ again, and by the way, John, you’re crapping around with too many drum rolls.” Our Lennon Figure had spoken.
On 12 March we played a dance at the Omonia Hotel organized by the American School of Classical Studies. The event was deader than a chunk of Parthenon marble. Few people bothered to show up. As for me, knowing that two-thirds of my pay would be docked for Nick’s new amp speaker didn’t give me much of a will to play. I wasn’t proud of my sound that night.
In the spring of 1966 an unspoken cold war seemed to be splitting The Zoo down the middle: Paul and myself versus George and Nick, who had assumed a joint dominant role. My worsening mood was reflected in silly pranks at school. One morning I got kicked out of German class for what I thought were rock star high jinks but was simply infantilism writ large. And inevitably, The Zoo’s popularity had triggered an anti-Zoo reaction. We were panned in the latest edition of the school paper. That evening Paul and I tried writing a few new songs. We soon gave up, sunk in despondency.
The next evening witnessed an amazing change. Playing at the private party of a wealthy American girl, we hammered away in top form. Three days later we played a packed two-hour matinee at the Terpsithea cinema in Piraeus, and, with no chance to rest, did an afternoon spot at the Coronet club in the King’s Palace Hotel. Before March was out our second single, “Go”/”Six Miles From the Cage,” was released on the Philips label.
Helladisc signed us up matinee shows for meagre pay. The main point of the exercise appeared to be to spice up the indifferent local band output with an “American special attraction,” as the posters inevitably put it. We only had one job during April, on the third of the month at the Rex theatre, as a “special attraction” (as if we were dancing bears or something) to elevate the execrable quality of the local lineups. We were the bait to get the unlistenable listened to.
The weekly native garage rock concerts at the Rex theatre, a neon-lit art deco edifice on power Panepistimiou Street, developed into a major national institution. Hordes of screaming teens crowded the theatre and the pavement on Sunday afternoons. The Greek media called them “Yeh-Yeh” concerts.
We didn’t neglect the American school community which had initially nurtured us. We played at the American Youth Centre where we scored a hit with what I believe was the first use of the fuzzbox in Greece. George had bought one, an early foot-operated model, on a trip to London. On 11 June we had an exhausting, night-long job at the American Navy base at Nea Makri, where we seized the opportunity to stuff ourselves with hard-to-find American burgers and frankfurters, and received $15 each for our pains.
It was a portentous time for me. The previous evening, I had graduated from school in full cap and gown. The school yearbook for 1966 left no doubt about the symbolic importance of the occasion. It was even explicitly likened to a death of sorts. One yearbook section was whimsically titled “Murmurs From The Elysian Fields.” In it, employing the bell-tolling language of a last will and testament, each of us graduates willed something to those we left behind. My bequest was a few arcane guitar chords to George, Paul and Nick.
Other talent had been emerging at school. One of the class of ’66 was Stan Oberst, a quick-witted native of Missouri who had been the only one on the school bus when I boarded on the first day of school in September 1964, and hence had become my very first school friend. To say that Stan was an Elvis Presley fanatic would be a dire understatement. He lived and breathed Elvis – as he still does! (He’s the author of Elvis Presley: Rockin’ Across Texas, Follow That Dream Records/BMG, 2005.)
Stan had a good Presleyesque baritone which eventually came to the attention of Mimis Plessas, a leading Greek composer and jazzman. Plessas penned for him two sides of a 45, “Why, Tell Me Why”/”Miracles Can Happen,” with lyrics by Stan’s sister Diane. The songs are smooth, slick night-clubby numbers with what would now be considered excessive reverb. The record was released on the Lyra label, and remains a sought-after rarity. (The following year Stan joined Loubogg briefly to record a cover of Cliff Richard’s “Blue Turns to Grey,” and seemed set on a youthful music career. He remained in Greece for a few years more, got married and returned to America. He now lives in Waco, Texas.)
In June to our frank surprise, given our indifferent record sales, we were booked into Columbia Studios again. Probably it was the frenzied fans at the Rex, and the lavish praise in the music sections of the Monday papers that convinced Jacques Menahem that we still had some market potential left in us. On 16 June we recorded four tracks for two new singles: “Who’s Who”/”Let’s Make It Baby”, and “You’re Crazy Man”/”Something’s Got Ahold On Me.” “You’re Crazy Man” was essentially an extended frantic drum solo to boost my flagging morale.
During the recording session we abounded in mistakes. Take after take was scrapped before something listenable emerged. After my hurried drum solo in “You’re Crazy Man” I picked up my sticks without bothering to listen to the playback and walked the short distance to Perissos station to get the downtown train.
Twenty-four hours later we lined up on the spacious patio of a wealthy American to provide the entertainment for a lavish party. We clambered off our hired van sweaty and unwashed. One of the few instrumental numbers that had lingered in our repertoire was The Ventures’ “Slaughter On Tenth Avenue.” It almost slaughtered our reputation. I had just started the drum intro when my cymbal stand suddenly veered over and collapsed with a tremendous crash. Panicking, I fumbled the intro and speeded up the tempo, which in turn made Nick screw up his opening guitar riff.
“You’re makin’ me look like a lousy guitarist, man!” he snarled at me, desperately picking at his strings.
“Don’t blame me!” I shouted above the amp noise. “I’m paying for your equipment, while my own’s falling to bits!”
Then Nick’s new speaker, for which I had sacrificed hard-won cash, gave up the ghost. There was no point in continuing to play. We quit early and slunk out like thieves.
The following evening, 18 June, the US Navy at Nea Makri again employed our services. With the broken joint on my cymbal held together with wire, and Nick’s amp speaker somehow back in shape again, we managed another gig. But we were getting tired. Foul chords and harmonies abounded. George and Paul, convulsed with laughter, staggered about the stage. Had burnout arrived?
In the early hours we were driven back to Athens. As the old Navy bus wound up the narrow mountain road above Nea Makri, a breathtaking dawn broke over the Bay of Marathon. The morning sky was that brilliant blend of light blue and orange that occurs only in Greece. Collapsing near-naked onto my bed as the hot sun rose in the Athenian sky, I reflected that there is nothing like the warm summer air of Greece, which envelops your body like an amniotic fluid, wrapping you in a comforting yet liberating layer of warmth. Perhaps, I thought as I drifted into sleep, I might take up The Loubogg’s offer to play on an island. The chance came unexpectedly quickly.
Hours after I got home in the early hours from the Nea Makri base gig, Nick Daperis stopped by. Though our paths had diverged, we had stayed in touch. He and Yianni Kiurktsoglou, the creators of The Loubogg, had been progressing in the Kolonaki garage rock scene.
“We’ve just made a record, actually,” Nick said with a self-effacing, snag-toothed smile which, together with his lean face, gave him a passing resemblance to George Harrison. “She’s Cool” (Music Box label) was, in fact, a Harrisonesque number dominated by Nick’s infectious rhythm guitar and plain, unadorned vocal.
“We’ve got an offer to go to Spetses, long-term,” Nick said. “And we’d like you on drums.” The Loubogg’s drummer, Renos Gossevich of Yugoslavia, was temporarily out of action, having to study for college entrance exams.
Spetses! In the mid-sixties the Greek islands were just beginning to attract big-time jetsetting attention. I remembered my own modest movie debut on Hydra four years before, and looked forward to another island showbiz stint. I needed no prompting.
So just after dawn on 1 July The Loubogg loaded ourselves and our equipment onto a slow passenger boat at Piraeus, along with a new keyboardist named Niko Roumbos. We’d rented a Japanese orange-sparkle drum set. The voyage to Spetses took an excruciating five hours. Ashore, we climbed into two decrepit horse-drawn carriages which sped us along the narrow, crooked strip of concrete that served as the main waterfront road. Perched precariously on the rickety seat next to the driver, I hung on as the horse clattered and slipped on the smooth-worn concrete at deadly speed around house corners and past crumbling, oleander-covered orchard walls. Our destination was the Blueberry Hill, an open-air club overlooking the sea on a bluff about a mile west of the town.
The word “club,” we saw, was a gross overstatement. A cracked circle of dusty cement was supposed to be the dance floor. A raised platform at one end, made up of weather-beaten planks with a coat of paint slapped on them, would be our bandstand. Alongside this stood a clapboard hut that would house the bar. And that was it.
Across the road, which by now had become a gravel track, and up the hill among the sheep droppings and the scrawny pines, stood a tiny shepherd’s hovel. Out of this waddled a fat and porcine individual with a permanently sour expression – the club operator. After grunting his acknowledgement of our arrival he pointed to some cans of black and silver paint standing in the yard.
“Hm, good, you’re here just in time,” he said, yawning and scratching himself. “The place still needs a bit of work, as you see.”
We didn’t immediately get the point.
“Is there a place to store our equipment till tomorrow,?” Yianni asked. Club opening night was twenty-four hours away.
Our employer regarded Yianni through puffy eyebrows. “There isn’t going to be a tomorrow, mate, unless you help out a bit,” he drawled. “Those bar stools need a coat of paint for one thing, and then there’s the tables…”
Our bass player, a tall, russet-haired Athenian boy quick of temper named Niko Yannoulopoulos, bristled. “But sir, we’re here to play, not to–” The man cut him off, tossing a cigarette butt on the hot gravel. “You want this job or don’t you?” he growled. “You came here to work, or am I mistaken? Now, like I said, you’d better get to it.”
“Shitface,” Nick said under his breath.
“Let’s quit this and go home,” Niko the bass player muttered.
Yianni shook his head. “No. We came here to play and we’ll play. Think of the money we’ll make and the fun we’ll have.” He surveyed the unpainted stools and tables. “There are six of us, after all. We can get the painting done pretty quick. Let’s not ruin our summer just for this.” I got silver paint on my new sunglasses and holiday shirt. It never came off.
On 2 July we opened our nightly gigs. From the first night the Blueberry Hill was packed. Out in front, microphone in hand, stood our vocalist Laki Papadakis, a good-natured chap with a bubbling sense of humour. Yianni on lead guitar, Nick on rhythm guitar and Niko on bass made up the front line. Behind were me and keyboardist Niko Roumbos. Roumbos was an intense, portly fellow who not only had a high regard for Japanese musical instruments, but a veritable mania for everything Japanese. One morning, while he was still asleep, Niko the bass player removed the name tag from Roumbos’s suitcase and replaced it with a slip of paper with fake Japanese characters on it. Another of Roumbos’s nicknames was “Old Porn,” as he had a habit of ostentatiously ogling every female on the dance floor.
In the mornings we would sleep late in our camp beds in the crumbling, disused vermin-infested ex-telephone exchange which our rat of a manager had secured for us. Such was the state of the building that any moderate earth tremor would have brought it down. I would inevitably be the early riser, slipping out first, to sip a refreshing cold coffee frappe at the Dapia waterfront and watch the yachts of the rich and famous bobbing at anchor offshore.
Early in July who would show up but Nick Jameson, bewitched by the proto-hippy character of life on Spetses. He stood in for Yianni a couple of times when Yianni was absent in Athens. At crowded weekend nights the waterfront at the Dapia would rival Times Square. One Saturday evening I saw a vaguely familiar lumbering figure in tight white denims stroll into the Blueberry Hill. Perry Mackereth sauntered up to the bandstand and waved. “Heard you were doing good stuff out here, and came to have a look,” he said. He introduced his girlfriend, a saucy blonde American girl. “The kids from school, everybody’s saying Spetses is the place to be,” Perry said. His girlfriend was looking at my orange glitter drum set with a calculating expression. The place was filling up fast. Perry gave me a thumbs-up and took a low table near the bar.
It was a typical evening, repertoire-wise. We’d start off with several slow Italian numbers, the specialty of our vocalist Lakis. His Italian was less than perfect, though I had to admit he could do a flawless imitation of Peppino di Capri — as long as you didn’t try to decipher what he was saying. Later, to raise the revs, I’d swing round to the floor tom to start the famous jack-hammer intro to “Wipe Out.” After an instrumental interlude Nick Daperis would step up to the mike and began his Beatles and Rolling Stones vocals. Even now, whenever I hear the plaintive sevenths in the guitar intro to “The Last Time,” I’m carried back to those carefree, moonlit, dancing nights. There was rarely a night when the dance floor was not crammed to the very edge of the bluff over the sea.
Though I had set sail for Spetses in the hope of some sexual as well as musical success, the former eluded me. There was no lack of available female flesh on Spetses, some of it flaunted in our faces very provocatively. Perry, for one, was absolutely convinced that I and every member of The Loubogg were having it off almost nightly with the most obvious specimens. I honestly don’t know about the others, though I suspect Nick and Yianni might have been as chaste as I.
The dance floor was full, the dancers happy. But was I? Our employment conditions were far from ideal. We knew we were getting nothing like the portion of the club’s nightly take that we had been promised. Yianni’s relations with the club operator were often frosty. But there was no way any of us could check the takings or prove any deception. Night after night, the long playing hours began to tell. Early one morning I had to be carried back to my camp bed doubled up with severe abdominal pain that turned out to have no apparent cause.
One morning I joined Perry at the Dapia cafe. “Want a job?” I said. “You can have mine.”
Perry’s eyebrows shot up, which was about the limit of his displays of emotion. I’d decided to quit. My relations with Yianni were coming under strain. I wasn’t really cut out for night after night of hammering away for peanuts. Perry drained his frappe. “Sure, man,” he said. His girlfriend could barely suppress a smile of triumph. My job was now his.
I was happy for Nick and the others. Sales of “She’s Cool” were racking up. But I’d been playing almost without interruption for nearly eight months. I needed a breather. On the last evening of July I played my set, handed over the sticks to Perry and sat at a cafe for the rest of the night drinking beer with Laki and Niko, my folded-up camp bed and bag at my feet. When the Piraeus boat drew in at dawn I fell asleep on the deck.
The first thing I did at home was call my old buddy Stan Oberst. I took my well-used Di Angelo guitar and we hit the benches in the downtown National Park strumming and singing Elvis songs. Passers-by stopped to watch while Stan fantasized he was in an Elvis movie.
“O to live on Sugar Mountain,” Neil Young sang back in 1972, in a plaintive lament for fleeting youth. Blueberry Hill had been my own Sugar Mountain. But like all mountains, it had a summit after which you must go back down. On the slow boat to Piraeus I left my teenage innocence behind. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my dissatisfaction had been an inward call for me to grow up. Decisions were looming. Studies and adulthood lay just ahead.
But how to grow up, in a country that positively discouraged one from doing so? I spent August in the grandiose fir-clad mountains of northwest Greece. They were a true balm after the noise and madness of Spetses. With my books and a battered old guitar I’d sit under the fir trees and gaze down the river valleys for miles and miles, picking songs and thinking thoughts.
Not yet eighteen, I couldn’t bear the thought of going back to dank and drizzly England. Why should I leave Sugar Mountain? George Alexander and Paul Velletri were planning to re-start The Zoo in September, when the pair of singles we had recorded in June were due for release. I decided to stay on.
For several years the University of Maryland had been raising the educational level of America’s far-flung military establishment by operating branches at overseas military bases. One of them was located at Hellenikon US Air Force base, the home of the seminal AFRS radio station. In September 1966, after scraping together the fees for the first term, I registered for classes.
I walked into my first course to find Stan Oberst sitting in a back row. The course was taught by a grizzled, card-carrying Democrat, Mr Darby. This man had something of a fearsome reputation in the University of Maryland after administering one test to a group of USAF officers in South Korea and receiving shocking results. “If the Russians knew,” he had said through clenched teeth, “how many idiots wore the uniform of the United States Air Force they’d attack at dawn!”
The Zoo was about to start anew, but record sales were turning out to be a laugh. Three months of royalties from “Six Miles From The Cage” rendered me precisely 174 drachmas ($5.75). Nick Jameson had gone, but the tangled financial issue of his speaker still hung over the band like a bad dream. I believed I was owed money that I urgently needed for tuition. Acrimonious arguments arose again. And before September was out I decided to go on strike.
The night that I telephoned my decision in curt terms to George, he couldn’t sleep. His mother, in her dressing gown, tried to comfort him.
“How has this friendship come to an end like this?” he agonized. “John and I have been such great buddies, I mean, why should he be doing this over a lousy speaker?”
The next thing I heard, The Zoo had a new drummer, a fellow named Lyle Miller. I telephoned George to demand an explanation, and to stress that I was on strike, I hadn’t quit. During the explosive exchange that followed, though, the distinction became academic. The release of our third single, “Who’s Who”/”Let’s Make It Baby,” didn’t help my morale. I thought it sounded lousy and told everybody. Lyle Miller, though, got his baptism of the “yeh-yeh” festivals and his face in a couple of magazines. Then “You’re Crazy, Man!”/”Something’s Got Ahold On Me” was released. People who heard the A side said it wasn’t bad.
My tough stance eventually paid off. On the evening of 2 November my doorbell rang. I opened the door to find George and a chap I hadn’t seen before. George had contorted his features into what he called his “trapezoid face” — a grotesque combination of cross eyes and protruding lower teeth — so I knew he was coming with an olive branch. Putting a normal face back on, he extended his hand in his old expansive manner as if nothing had happened.
I put down my political science notes and pulled out a couple of chairs.
“This is Willie Parquette,” George said, “our new lead guitarist.” Willie was a likeable and unassuming blond Connecticut lad.
I was wondering when the vexed issue of the speaker would come in when George sheepishly admitted that none of us had handled the matter very well and he was willing to forget the whole thing. “I’d like to start afresh, so we’d appreciate it if you came back to the band. Let bygones be bygones, you know.”
“But you’ve got a drummer,” I said, staying deliberately nonchalant. “That Miller guy.”
George made a disparaging motion. “We, er, let him go. He’s not up to it.” George, I was willing to bet, hadn’t found that hard at all.
“You know what my financial situation is,” I said. “If you can guarantee that there will be no more collective equipment purchases–”
“Done!” George said.
I hate holding grudges for very long. So I agreed to return to Zoo. We celebrated the event with glasses of Tam Tam, the sugary local cola.
Checking the meagre inflow of record royalties that month, I found to my horror that the band had a $21 debt hanging over its head. George, it transpired, had a box of unsold discs forgotten somewhere in his house, and Helladisc was charging us for them. Luckily, I located the box and took it back, but there was still $3.50 unaccounted for. George had taken a few discs out and framed them…
Willie Parquette turned out to be a highly competent guitarist for his age. His fingers were some of the swiftest I have ever seen and could master rhythm and blues and country with Chet Atkins-like dexterity. Regular playing resumed on Saturday 12 November at the American Youth Association. Willie was an instant hit with the school crowd. My diary records the night as a success, with $7.70 going into my pocket. That night I spent sleepless on George’s living room couch, devoured by what must have been the last of the year’s mosquitoes. The following morning we had two matinee performances scheduled.
The Splendid was an old, peeling cinema fronting Pasalimani, the crescent-shaped yachting port of Piraeus. Under a leaden sky we jumped off our hired truck and looked around us. The street and waterfront were totally deserted. The cinema itself was shuttered. At length someone appeared and showed us to the rear entrance. To get ourselves and our equipment onto what passed for a stage we had to crawl through a tiny hole knocked into the back wall. The “stage” was barely three feet wide, so there could be only one playing formation — stretched out in a line. My bass drum supports pushed right up against the edge. The audience, when it did turn up, consisted of not more than a couple of dozen of what looked like burly young dockworkers in boots and turtleneck sweaters.
After a forty-five-minute set we piled back into the truck for our next job — a matinee in the working-class suburb of Aigaleo, about five miles away. The Adams cinema stood on the Sacred Way, the road over which the Eleusinian mystery religion processions moved in classical times. But there was nothing religious about our reception. We pulled up at the Adams to find a small crowd around the entrance. In the middle was a man with a heavy dark moustache striding back and forth, cursing and gesticulating. This man, it turned out, was the cinema manager. His barely-coherent roars told us we were more than an hour late. Obviously, whoever organized this double bill had blundered somewhere. The manager was not the only irate person in the cinema. As we walked inside, equipment in hand, the fury of at least five hundred unsatisfied rock fans on the verge of a riot assailed our ears.
“Hey — had trouble getting up?” one yob shouted amid a cacophony of disrespectful noises. Some of the audience folded their programmes into paper rockets and hurled them at us. As I nervously lugged my bass drum down the aisle I glanced at Willie; this was the clean-cut New England lad’s first taste of Balkan turmoil, and he was taking it well. From the rear rows arose a chant: “Ta lefta mas piso! Ta lefta mas piso!” (We want our money back!) taken up by boy and girl voices in gleeful unison.
The uproar gradually faded as we self-consciously set up on stage. When we began to play, the audience’s mood changed dramatically and we soon had the place in thrall. It must have been the first time that any of those kids in the working-class Athens neighbourhoods had the opportunity to hear a good rock band live, especially laced with Willie’s amazing guitar riffs.
This was the era of the Athenian rock matinees, where hopeful local ensembles could test their mettle and Mick Jagger wannabees could try out their dubious skills on stage. The yeyedes were becoming a social phenomenon and a lot of small-time impresarios were making a lot of money out of them.
Even the unlikeliest districts had to have their yeye concerts. On the cold and blustery morning of 8 January 1967 we climbed into George’s family car and, with the equipment truck following, clanked onto a ferry for the short crossing to the island of Salamis, the site of the famous naval battle of antiquity. We were billed to play at the Saronis cinema, one of the few on the island. Four posters flanking its entrance proclaimed our coming. We played two solid hours before a packed auditorium for a paltry $8 each, the rest, of course, going to the larcenous organizer. For other revenue, we had an agreement with the American Youth Association, which ran the teen club in Kefalari, to receive one-quarter of any night’s take.
The Zoo was not exactly enriching itself for its pains. All four of us were coming to practices with longer and longer faces. Some of us at times would be just too lazy, and stay away on the flimsiest of pretexts. Record sales were down the coal mine; only about five copies a month — mainly “I Cry” and “You’re Crazy, Man!” (I like to think for its slapdash drum solo). An embarrassing moment occurred at the British ambassador’s residence, where Simon Murray, the ambassador’s son and a Zoo fan, had invited us all to a party. In my pocket I had our royalties for the first quarter of 1967. Suffice it to say than when Paul got the few paltry coins (not notes) in his hand, he held them up for all to see, laughing. I laughed, too, but inside I was miserable.
Pieces of equipment would break down and we wouldn’t bother to get them repaired. Too often we would borrow items such as whole amplifiers from The Loubogg, which had by now become our main rival on the Athenian scene. By mid-April I was itching to expand my own personal musical horizons. But none of us was prepared for the blow that fell from a most unexpected quarter.
Some had seen it coming for months, but the chattering classes didn’t believe it could happen. The sixties were a decade of high political passions dating from the Civil War era. We teenagers, especially those behind the protective walls of expat society, hadn’t really been exposed to the sometimes quite extraordinary bitterness that those passions could arouse.
At the height of the Cold War Greece was thoroughly dependent for its survival on American aid and military support. The conservative establishment knew this, and was becoming alarmed at the electoral advances made by the left. So it was only a matter of time before a short and stocky artillery colonel named George Papadopoulos decided that his hour had come to save the nation from the red menace. In the early hours of 21 April 1967 he pulled off a coup d’etat that was impressive by its very bloodlessness and speed. The insouciant and sunny Greece we all thought we knew changed quite literally overnight.
That day dawned warm and sunny. After hearing the news of the coup on the radio, I walked through the streets behind the American Embassy. People looked stunned. Roads and pavements were a mass of confused pedestrians trying to get things done before a nightfall curfew after which, we were all solemnly assured by new and unfamiliar stentorian voices on the radio, anyone outdoors would be “shot on sight.”
At one intersection I came on the lanky figure of Simon Murray, the British ambassador’s son, stuck in traffic in his Land Rover. I called out to him but he seemed neither to hear nor see me. No doubt he, like me, was out to assess the situation. Simon was gripping the wheel, scanning the honking traffic for a gap through which he could escape. My mind went back to one night just a few weeks before, when assorted Zoo and Loubogg members had piled into Simon’s battered jeep. We had careered madly around the streets of Psychiko, bawling out the harmonics from “Land Of A Thousand Dances” in utter and carefree abandon. Already that seemed an age ago. I realized we wouldn’t be doing anything like that again for some time, if ever.
In the northern suburb of Kalogreza Willie Parquette ventured out of his front door to find himself staring into the muzzle of an assault weapon and the face of a nervous soldier. Back into the house he went, and stayed there. His parents had been prisoners in the hands of the Japanese during World War Two and weren’t taking any chances.
It was a strange and unsettling feeling that night to look out of the window at the eerily quiet streets, knowing that to step out of your own front door could be inviting a bullet. Families gathered around the only source of information they had, the radio. Not that you could learn very much from it. In between patriotic speeches were Greek folk music and stirring marches telling us about Leonidas and his 300 at Themopylae. This went on uninterruptedly for hours. No-one could call anyone because the phones had been cut.
After the first few anxious days the new regime relaxed its initial harsh measures. You could go to the cinema or a taverna again, but gatherings of more than five people were theoretically banned. Telephone service was reinstated, but expats and anyone with the slightest reputation of not being a one hundred percent patriot had to assume that their phones were being tapped. All mail was censored. Nonetheless, a good many Americans in Greece received the news of the coup with relief. At last all those pesky lefties and commies were being rounded up and packed off to island prison camps. I, too, was at first sympathetic to the Colonels’ regime, believing that a dose of law and order would give the country a new spurt of much-needed development.
It has been claimed that the junta banned rock and roll, but it’s not true. Bands could and did flourish as long as their lyrics steered clear of anything that could be construed by the paranoid censors as even vaguely political.
In May the ban on assembly was rescinded, and the yeye matinees could go on as before, as long as you could ignore the platoons of grey-uniformed police flanking the theatre doors. You could still buy practically any record you wanted in the shops, except works by blackballed Greek leftist artists such as Mikis Theodorakis of “Zorba the Greek” fame. As we waited for the concerts to resume, I decided to set in motion an idea I’d been toying with for some time. I longed to record my own drum solos like my all-time idol, Sandy Nelson. The other Zoo members shook their heads. Sandy Nelson might be out, but a Sandy Nelson I yet wanted to be.
In an indirect way the Colonels’ regime helped me achieve my goal. On 9 May, less than three weeks after the coup, I got the green light from Helladisc to record a drum solo single on the Zoo contract for the Philips label. Giving the project a powerful push in the right direction was that as a politically harmless instrumental it wouldn’t have to go through the censorship process before recording!
When I first had the idea of “Drums On The Road” little could I know how apt the title would be to the circumstances attending its birth. Slavishly keeping to the old Sandy Nelson formula, I kept the basic guitar part to an absolute minimum, based on a 12/8 blues E progression that any moderately competent guitarist could handle. The bulk of the drum solo I pretty much left to the studio inspiration of the moment. George, Paul and Willie began rehearsing, and then the producer’s wife decided to have a baby. The recording session was postponed eight days, to 26 May. By this time, George and Paul had gone away on trips, so I had just two days in which to find a rhythm guitarist and bass player! Jim Jackson, a quiet Greek-Australian from the American school, agreed to the former, and none other than Yianni Kiurktsoglou promised to do the honours on bass. Though he tried not to show it, playing bass for me was a bit of a come-down for him. I couldn’t really blame him. Mere weeks before, he and Nick Daperis had achieved the supreme recognition of opening for The Rolling Stones’ first Athens concert.
Never have the Greek fates – or was it that old priest’s curse? – so conspired against me as on the day of my first solo recording. I’d borrowed a lovely $600 set of Ludwigs for the occasion. I stuffed them in an ancient taxi together with Yianni and Jim. Following behind was a small white Fiat containing Wille and his dad, with the speakers tied to the roof by a bungee. I knew of only one recording studio, and that of course was Columbia where The Zoo had recorded before. In the early afternoon the two cars swerved smartly into the Columbia parking lot. I bounded up the front steps to a waiting security guard, breezily announcing that I had a recording session.
The guard consulted his register. After perusing the page several times, he looked up and shook his head. “Nope,” he said, “we’ve got nobody named Johnny Carr doing any recording here today.”
A cold wind blew through me. “But that’s not possible,” I stammered. “Helladisc — the record company, you know — they’ve booked the studio for this afternoon. For me.” I had a flash of hope. “What about Zoo? Maybe it’s under Zoo. Look again.”
The guard scanned the register again. “Zoo…Zoo… Sorry, no Zoo either,” he said. He fingered his toothbrush moustache, eyeing me with the beginnings of distrust.
Stunned, I slunk down the front steps wondering what to tell the others who were waiting to unload. For weeks I’d been looking forward to this day.
“Wait,” came the guard’s voice. I turned round. The guard spread his hands in the classic Greek gesture of sympathy. “There’s obviously been a misunderstanding,” he said. “You’re probably booked at Alpha Studio. Why not try there?” I’d never heard of the place. The guard pointed north. “Up in Melissia,” he said. “Don’t worry, your cab driver will know the way.”
Melissia! That was at least six miles away. But, if I was going to make my coveted drum solo record, then Melissia it would have to be. During the trip, I tried not to listen to the taxi meter clicking relentlessly away. Alpha Studio was a large, barn-like edifice surrounded by open fields on the lower slopes of Mount Pendeli, the triangular height that overlooks Athens from the north. My spirits sank anew as my enquiry at the front office resulted in more blank looks.
“Who told you to come here?” one chap asked me. “This is a film, not a recording studio.” Oh, no. I wanted to cry in sheer frustration. What could I tell the others waiting outside? My ambition to be a Sandy Nelson, a Gene Krupa, was disintegrating in this mad, sultry Athenian afternoon.
“You say you’re a rock act?” another man asked. I nodded dumbly. “And you’re not booked at Columbia.” I shook my head. He opened what looked like a small and grubby directory. “There’s only one other recording studio I can think of,” he mused, flipping through the pages. “You know,” he said, addressing a colleague, “where we get our soundtracks done…”
“You mean Sifis Siganos?” the other man said.
“That’s the one,” the first man said. He put a finger on a scrawled line. “Here it is.” He dialled a number. He flinched as he listened. “They say you should have been there an hour ago,” he whispered to me, covering the mouthpiece.
“Give me the phone,” I said. It was a good thing my producer, Spiro Rallis, was a patient and easygoing man. He had, of course, fully explained to me about the studio arrangements, but I’d had my head in the clouds with dreams of fame, and no time for mundane details. My record was again within the realm of possibility. But now my big concern was the taxi bill, which by now had gone well over the pair of grubby red 100 drachma notes I had scrunched up in my pocket. “You’ll have to pay for my taxi!” I heard myself blurting into the phone.
“Yes, yes, Johnny, I’ll pay the taxi,” Rallis said soothingly. “Just get down here.”
“Down here” involved an eight-mile trip from Melissia back into the centre of Athens. Sifis Siganos studio was located in a cul-de-sac off Patission Street opposite the National Archaeological Museum. I, the band and the drums had travelled at least twenty miles to get to our destination which turned out to be barely three miles from home! Drums on the road indeed. With what energy I had left, while Rallis settled accounts with the bemused cabbie, I set up the Ludwigs while the excellent and uncomplaining Willie Parquette wired up the guitars and amps. I must have appeared a complete nitwit.
Fatigued or no, there were two percussion tracks to record. I don’t remember a great deal about the session, except that Willie did a more than creditable job on lead guitar. As the guitar part was wholly his, I gave him a co-writing credit. The drum part itself came out as a melange of Sandy Nelson, Cozy Cole and Gene Krupa techniques. By the seventh take it was in the can.
The flip side, “Four Point Landing,” was more awkward to put together. It was essentially an experiment in building an extended solo on a slow 4/4 tempo. As an experiment, I believe it failed. Either the tempo was inherently unsuited to solo percussion work or I just hadn’t yet acquired the degree of competence to make one credible. A very basic three-note guitar solo adorns the beginning and end. The first couple of takes didn’t satisfy me; they sounded vacant and contrived. But Rallis was looking at the studio clock. He naturally wanted to wind up as soon as possible; my absent-mindedness had already overburdened his production budget. During the playback of the final take Rallis kept talking to me to divert my attention from all the flaws in the track.
Nonetheless, a particularly clumsy sequence made me wince. Jim Jackson stifled a giggle. “I’ve got to do another take,” I said. But Rallis had had severely enough of my monotonous snare-tom poundings. He paternalistically patted me on the back. “Er, no, John, I don’t think so,” he said. “It’s only the B side. And we’re out of time, anyway.”
“Drums On The Road”/”Four Point Landing” (Philips label) by Johnny Carr (hoo boy!) was released to the world a couple of weeks later. It didn’t do very well. I wasn’t surprised. As for The Zoo, it still had some fight left in it.
It didn’t take long for the Colonels’ regime to conclude that panem et circenses, in the time-honoured formula, would be enough to keep the masses contented and apolitical. Rock bands were viewed as harmless diversions rather than exercises in subversion, while a business and consumer boom enabled many ordinary Greeks to buy such things as cars and television sets for the first time.
The Zoo resumed rehearsals on 9 September 1967. After a year with us, including his inimitable contribution to “Drums On The Road,” Willie Parquette had returned to America. Jim Jackson, the taciturn rhythm guitarist on the track, was the natural choice to take his place. But psychedelia and “inner space” were breaking full upon us, bands were becoming bigger, their music more complex. George brought in a vocalist frontman, Rick Cocorelis, a Greek-American school wit with an infectious laugh.
George was soaring. He continued to be an effortless overachiever and was well on the way to becoming class valedictorian, making his way ruthlessly through a succession of girlfriends and gaining weight. In his spare time he took up the bouzouki and saxophone. In any school activity, even in amateur dramatics, he was the star.
On Saturday nights it was the American schoolkids crowding the AYA club in Kefalari in their lengthening hair, floral shirts and bell bottoms. On Sunday mornings it was the Greek kids with their lengthening hair, mini skirts, boots and bell-bottoms in a variety of working-class suburbs. Colonels or no, they were valiantly trying to keep up with the trends. As far as The Zoo was concerned, it meant that we would have to update our repertoire. We moved beyond material from The Beatles’ “Rubber Soul” album and began to mimic such ensembles as The Lovin’ Spoonful and some black blues acts.
I used every performance to hone my own percussive skills. One Sunday morning at the Neraida cinema in Kallithea I was seized by an irresistible temptation to show off. I was now a drum solo artist in my own right, remember? My glance fell on a couple of lads in the front row keenly observing my playing. Okay, I said to myself, show them what an ace you are. My chance came during “Satisfaction,” an old standard we had decided to keep. What were supposed to have been Charlie Watts’ simple two-bar drum breaks before the hey-hey-heys became terribly avant-garde permutations of toms, snare rim shots and cymbal smashes. I slammed the sticks everywhere I could. “Crappin’ around,” Nick Jameson would have called it, but no-one was complaining now. Open-mouthed, those boys would wait for each multi-drum roll and cymbal smash, and when I duly provided it, they would spring almost to their feet, arms raised and eyes popping, and then fall back into their seats as if dazed. I often wonder if either of them later became drummers.
In November my much-worn Hollyood Meazzi Italian drum set, never very robust to begin with, began showing serious signs of decay. In nearly three years of almost continuous playing it had been knocked about in countless vans, car boots and backstage areas. It was during a dance at the air base that my bass drum pedal developed an appalling squeak that sounded like I was treading on Mickey Mouse’s tail. The squeak persisted, no matter how much oil I applied. My hi-hat sounded like a pair of dustbin lids. Drum heads were wearing out. And so were other things.
Jim Jackson had become a resolute foe of the Greek junta, and never shrank from showing it. This was brave of him, if somewhat naive. On our way back from the air base performance with the squeaky bass drum pedal, our van drove past the Royal Palace on Herod Atticus Street where the skirted evzone guards stood stiffly before the gates. Before we realized what he was doing, Jim wound down the van window and roared “Dimokratia!” (“Democracy!”) at the startled evzones. George and I shushed him into silence, looking nervously back. As far as we know, no-one took down the van number.
King Constantine II, just twenty-seven years old, was in a quandary. He despised the colonels but had too few loyal military units to try and unseat them. As The Zoo practiced literally across the road, the king and Colonel Joe Lepczyk of the US Embassy would huddle in the colonel’s study out of earshot (or so they thought) and decide the fate of a country. Lepczyk tried to talk the king out of his counter-coup plan, on 13 December Constantine launched his attempt anyway. The colonels were too quick and smart for him. The king’s own few loyal units quickly disintegrated and he was forced to flee Greece with his family, ending up in Rome. Never again would he sit on the Greek throne.
For a few days it was April all over again. Armoured personnel carriers rumbled through the streets full of trigger-happy soldiers in their new American-supplied helmets. Radio commentators aired their endless patriotic harangues again. But life soon got back to normal. The colonels, now with the last vestige of opposition dealt with, confidently doffed their uniforms and became benevolent civilian dictators.
And the Sunday matinees resumed. After one of them at the Terpsithea cinema in Piraeus, while the audience was filing out, George’s impish younger brother Victor showered publicity leaflets down from the balcony. This angered a cleaning woman who brandished her broom at Victor. George saw it and exploded. “You will not lay a finger on my little brother — do you hear?” he roared so that the entire cinema could hear, wagging a furious finger in the cleaning woman’s face.
The mood in the American School, too, had changed a lot since the innocent Auroras days. Students facing graduation came to the weekend dances with tense, worried looks. The Vietnam War was heating up and sucking more young Americans into its hell. The draft was the terror of every graduation-age boy. As if to compensate, some clung frenziedly to flower-power adolescence before having to go back to America and possibly worse. A few elected to do what I did — stay in the Greek playground as long as possible thanks to the facilities offered by the University of Maryland. Stan Oberst, the Presleyesque singer, was one of them.
A saxophonist in the school band called Aris Taflambas had the idea of organizing an elaborate school event called the “Four-Ring Circus” on 6 January 1968. The main attraction, the climactic event, was to be “The Battle Of The Bands.” By now The Zoo had a formidable rival called Blues Period, made up of younger boys more into the purple haze style than we were. There was also the John Gertos Ragtime Band. Gertos, it will be recalled, was the trumpeter who made the acid comment about my noisy walk to the timpani across the auditorium stage nearly three years before. The Zoo would go on last, and then the audience would vote for the best band.
We hadn’t played for a month, partly because of the crisis following the abortive royal coup. Nonetheless, George saw The Battle Of The Bands as a chance to renew our flagging zest and reputation. Rick Cocorelis, with the enthusiasm of the newcomer, had polished his vocal act. Jim, too, was willing enough, but Paul and I felt jaded. The two of us loitered at the back of the crowd as the two competing bands did their bits on stage. The Gertos band was good, but the kids of 1968 simply weren’t turned on to Dixieland and ragtime. We threw all our energy into our own hour-long set. The psychedelic age was here. A projector cast swirling, kaleidoscopic images onto the wall behind us. About an hour before midnight, The Zoo hit its last chord.
None of us stayed around to hear the results of the vote. George believed we had it all sewn up, anyway. And we had, getting almost three times the number of votes that either of the other bands earned. George seemed to be right — we still had a school following. But I profoundly didn’t care. I was in my second year of college and entering the twentieth year of my life. What, I asked myself, was I doing with these kids? You can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain, Neil Young sang.
There was, as far as I can recall, no specific moment when The Zoo decided to disband. After the Battle Of The Bands, we merely downed our instruments for a break of indefinite duration. New music was in vogue now, hippiedom was invading youth culture. Politicized music was waiting around the corner. I had never been either a hippie or a politicized musician, and wasn’t about to become one now.
George and Paul would finish school in a few months. Their parents had already lined up choice stateside universities for them; mentally, they were already half across the Atlantic. Like any organism, our band had grown, matured and declined. From the distant strains of “Outer Limits” echoing down the deserted street in Psychiko to the crashing finale of the Battle Of The Bands, The Zoo had given a lot to each of us. The financial rewards had been meagre, but the less tangible rewards of human growth and self-actualization had been immense.
The Zoo’s career spanned a key period in the growth of Greece’s own society and rock music scene. I like to think we influenced early Greek rockers by our example. No doubt some of those teenagers who cheered us in the suburban cinemas grew up to become worthy performers in their own right. I’m glad that in some small measure I helped showed them the way.
We are the music makers, We are the dreamers of dreams…
— Arthur O’Shaughnessy
So what happened to everybody afterwards?
While The Zoo wound down, its main Athenian rival Loubogg, continued to flourish. Yianni Kiurktsoglou and Nick Daperis took their budding career seriously. After two singles issued in 1966 (one with Stan Oberst), Loubogg took on new talent, subtly changing direction along with the times. By about 1970 they had mutated into Peloma Bokiou, a seven-man lineup that bid fair to becoming Greece’s version of Santana, replete with conga drums, flowing hair, headbands and beads and all the rest of the post-Woodstock imagery and paraphernalia.
Around 1973, after producing an acclaimed album (still available on CD: Lyra records 0644), Peloma Bokiou broke up. Yianni had been the first to leave, turned off by the hard drug habit of a leading member who he claimed tried to steal his songs. Some years later Yianni composed and produced an album for Yovana, a middle-of-the-road balladeuse. The following decade he was asked to do a solo album which did not do well. Thereafter he abandoned professional music to take on a job as computer science teacher at Deree College, an American-run institution of higher learning in Athens, where he still is.
Nick Daperis after Peloma Bokiou relocated to London. He took a computer course, married and settled down to suburban life in South Woodford. He now develops software projects. At least two of his grown children are following in his musical footsteps.
George Alexander’s later career mirrored his mercurial character. He went to college in Amherst, Massachusetts, and of course did brilliantly. We met up for a few months in spring 1973, when I was in Athens doing work for ABC Radio News. We formed a trio with his younger brother Victor on lead guitar – the short-lived Zoo II – for a few college gigs, with Victor’s phenomenal ability on lead guitar. Sporting a beard and moustache, George had morphed into the archetypal shaggy campus activist. Then he started postgraduate study at London University in the Modern Greek History department and published his doctoral dissertation as a book.
But it seems George could not be satisfied with any routine for long. He abruptly wearied of the impecunious academic life and returned to America. There was a wife somewhere, plus children. One day around 1980 Rick Cocorelis was walking down a New York street when he heard someone calling his name. He turned to see the familiar slight stoop, the wavy hair, the glasses. George was waving at him from the other side of the street. They greeted each other like the long-lost band members they were. George said he’d become a salesman for Amway.
Then around the end of the 1990s when we all got clicked onto the Internet and started looking for old friends, I relocated George. He was in New York doing word processing for a law firm. Through 2000 and into 2001 we exchanged e-mails, but then the e-mails started bouncing back and I haven’t heard from him since.
Paul Velletri, after graduating with George in 1968, returned to America to study at Carleton College. Later his unconventional mind became interested in the effects of drugs on the human organism. Graduating in pharmacology, he much later rose to a senior position in the United States federal health sector. He lives with his family in Bethesda, Maryland.
“Whenever I go and see him,” says Rick Cocorelis, who has evolved as a sort of Zoo connecting link, “we just get out the guitars and go crazy.”
One day early in 1997 I received a fax with a bold letterhead that jumped out at me. Nick Jameson! The “Bitlie” was alive and well. He had come across a byline of mine in Billboard and had traced me from that. Nick was in California — it was hard to imagine him anywhere else — making a living as an actor, voice-over specialist and occasional musician. In the early summer of that year he flew over to Athens for a few days.
I met him at a Metro station in Maroussi, near the Olympic Stadium. He was still beanpole-thin, though a bit more gaunt and stooped. His hair was still about the same length, though the acne was gone. I took him home for tea and played the old Zoo 45s. Nick just sat there shaking his head slowly in disbelief. He related how he had done some playing around America, including a stint in the band Foghat, before ending up in California as an entertainment effects specialist. Nick Jameson maintains an active website.
Willie Parquette lives in his native Connecticut with a grown-up family. A computer networking specialist, he continues to play and compose in his spare time.
Jim Jackson decided against going back to his native Australia and enrolled in the Athens University medical school. He then moved to New York for postgraduate study, specializing in psychiatry. He now has a thriving psychoanalytic practice in Athens in the suburb of Halandri, just a couple of miles from the American school. When I told him that “Drums On The Road” had been reissued on CD he just smiled. I think he preferred it kept in the past. “They were good days in a way, but I wouldn’t want to go back to them,” Jim told me over a beer. “All those youthful hangups and insecurities.”
As for myself, after university I started a career in international journalism and broadcasting, which included writing for Billboard, to keep my hand in the music. I was thus present at the unveiling of digitally-recorded music and the birth of the compact disc at the Billboard Music Industry Convention in Athens in May 1982, themed “Audio Strikes Back.” A few hundred of us gathered in one of the halls of the Astir Palace Hotel to hear the new secret weapon. I gazed out of the windows at the winding Attica coastline. Beyond those green and ochre hills lay Asteria Beach, memories of The Auroras, twanging chords, Martha…
Jan Timmer, a Dutchman and head of Philips, walked confidently up to the rostrum. “What you are about to hear,” Timmer announced, his bald pate shiny under the lights, “is a digital recording, the purest sound that technology can devise.” What came blasting out of the speakers was Abba’s “One Of Us,” heavy on bass and synthesizer effects. I had been commissioned to write a glowing account of the whole conference, but not for ten more years did I actually acquire a CD player. My trusty Shadows vinyl LPs are still my main solace, especially now in my semi-retirement.
It feels good to know that the sounds of The Zoo are still out there – especially the older you get. You still need to live with music, perhaps join a church choir or strum a few chords in a pub or at a party (“Oh God, is he carting that guitar of his here again? He’s becoming a bit of a bore with those mouldy oldies, isn’t he? Keeps forgetting the words, as well.”)
Nick Hornby, reminiscing about the 1960s, recently wrote: “I’m talking about the energy, the wistful yearning, the inexplicable exhilaration, the sporadic sense of invincibility, the hope that stings like chlorine… I run the risk of being seen as yet another nostalgic old codger…” And then you get a phone call. Rick Cocorelis has been browsing in a CD store. By the way, he says matter-of-factly, in the cut-price oldies section there’s a compilation with your recording — and your name — on it. This happened to me in March 2003. I leapt into my car and ran yellow lights all the way to the store. The bored young salesgirl in jeans two sizes too small and a bulging midriff led me to the oldie compilations section. There at the front of the stack was a Greek-produced CD titled Ilektrika Oneira (Electric Dreams.) And on the back, Track 15: “Drums On The Road” by Johnny Carr! My heart gave a great bump.
I could dramatize the moment and say that I mentally thrust my fist into the air at having left some enduring monument, however small, to my earthly existence. Trying to hide my glee I paid the cashier the €6.50 for the remaindered disc, thus contributing infinitesimally to my total composer’s royalty payment of some €50 that no-one would ever have told me about if Rick, bless him, hadn’t made his lucky discovery.
Ilektrika Oneira, I saw, had been issued as early as 1995. I trawled the web and discovered that Polygram in 1996 had issued another oldie compilation with no fewer than five Zoo tracks on it! I also found two clearly pirate collections featuring other Zoo material, including “I Cry” and “Six Miles From The Cage.” I purchased both over the Internet at grossly inflated prices. One CD called “Shakin’ In Athens” had a post office box number in Evanston, Illinois, printed on the artwork. I wrote to the address; my letter came back. Pirates cover their tracks.
Michalis Nezis, a Greek rock history researcher, assured me in 2004 that pirated tapes with Zoo material on them circulated among a select circle of aficionados throughout the 1970s and 1980s. He himself trawled garage sales and the Athens flea market for our old 45s. “I Cry,” he claimed, had actually become a cult song. He’d liked “Four Point Landing” — what I considered my failed drum solo B-side — so much that he formed a band called Point Four in my honour! As I said before, some people just don’t know bad music when they hear it. And on it goes.
I still have and use my old white pearl drum set that has seen me through The Zoo and beyond. With their repairs and additions, they’re the same old trusty tubs, and they appreciate getting out once in a while to make their music.
Johnny Carr, 2010
Vinyl singles: I Cry / Forget Today (Philips 6066, 1966, view A / B) Go / Six Miles From The Cage (Philips 6072, 1966, view A / B) Who’s Who / Let’s Make It Baby (Philips 6102, 1966, view A / B) You’re Crazy Man / Something’s Got a Hold On Me (Philips 6103, 1966, view A / B) Drums On The Road / Four Point Landing (Artist: Johnny Carr and his group, Philips 6163, 1967, view A / B)
CDs: Greek Rock Scene No. 2 (Elliniki Rock Skini No. 2), (Polygram 1996) Five Zoo tracks Electric Dreams (Ilektrika Oneira), (Polygram 1995) Johnny Carr’s “Drums On The Road” Shakin’ In Athens (Sound Stories, undated) Two Zoo tracks.
Other Zoo tracks can be found on Nos. 20, 27, 29, 31 and 36 of the “Moderni Rythmi” compilations series issued in 2009 by Music Box.
Thanks to Erik Meinen for the scans of “I Cry” / “Forget Today”.
I highly recommend Johnny Carr’s CD Zoo Drummer, available through www.studio52.gr.
I can’t find much info on this Greek band. The Hippy’s had two 45s. “Perigiali”, their first on the Astron label, is supposed to be their best. They’re actually only on one side of this record, the other is a dire pop song by some other artist.
I presume their name is derived from “hip” and not “hippies.”
The Stormies formed in Athens in 1964, releasing three 45s, two of which have killer garage songs sung in English.
All their members played in other bands from the time: Alekos Glykas in the Charms; Cemos Petros in the Minis and the Forminx; Makis Saliaris in the We Five; Spyros Metaxas in the Sounds, We Five and maybe Cinquetti, and second drummer Loukas Sideris played with the Mini’s and later Aphrodite’s Child.
The group wails away on “Dilly-Dilly” in finest beat style. The flip is the poppier “Teenager’s Love”; both were written by Spryos Metaxas and Nick Mastorakis. Mastorakis wrote dozens of songs for the Charms, Forminx and others.
Spyros breaks out the fuzztone for their next record, the rare “Try Try Try,” and delivers an astounding solo. The instrumental on the flip, “Drums in the Storm” has a Bo Diddley beat and a good drum solo by Loukas Sideris.
The third 45 features a singer named Zoe singing an English adaption of France Gall’s “Laissez Tombez Les Filles” and the somewhat silly “Girl of Ye Ye”.
There is an interview with Nikos Mastorakis on a Greek website that I tried running through an auto translation with only partial success. Info on these groups in English is very limited at this point.
The Blue Birds formed in the port town of Piraeus, near Athens. They were one of the first Greek garage bands, releasing a national hit “Julie” in 1965 on Philips. The flip, “Way to Heaven” is supposed to be a good, moody song, but I haven’t heard it because I have the ROL release, in which Julie is backed with an instrumental number by different band. The ROL label 45s were given away to promote ROL laundry detergent!
Their next 45 was also released on both Philips and ROL, both sides included this time. Sweet “Polly” / “Just Remember” are both excellent garage numbers, with fantastic farfisa organ playing and good harmonies.
Two other early singles are highly rated, but with a change in lineup in 1967, their music developed with psychedelic and folk influences. They stopped singing in English and wrote songs with Christian themes to the lyrics. In total the Bluebirds released thirteen 45s and one fine album, Xylinos Stavros (Wooden Cross).
The Athens group Cinquetti were together from 1967 until about 1969. Here are two excellent versions of ’60s hits. On one side is a fuzz version of Jackie Lomax’s “You Better Get Going”, sung in greek as “Panta Konta Mou” (Always Near To Me).
The A-side is actually a cover of Brazilian Roberto Carlos’ “Namoradinha de um amico meu” (rendered in italian on the label “L’innamorada de un amico mio”). The original had been a big hit in Greece, and this version is just as good.