Lena Platonos: Mother of Greek Electronica

Most people familiar with the underground electronic music scene might know Lena Platonos through the Red Axes Remixes EP that got released in 2015 on Dark Entries Records. For Greeks like myself, her name might remind you of Edo Lillipoupoli (Lillipoupoli Here, Minos 1980), a kid’s radio show that aired from 1976–1980, for which Lena Platonos composed some of the music. My mom had the entire show on cassette tapes and sometimes I would listen to it before I went to sleep. It’s only later, to my surprise, that I realized not only did Platonos compose music for my then favorite radio show but also some of the most progressive and cutting-edge electronica to ever come out of Greece.

In 1981, she released Sabotage, her first full-length album; a musical landmark and precursor of Greek electronic music, a work that would inspire many later electronic and non-electronic musicians alike and would lead many to call her the “Greek Laurie Anderson” or “mother of Greek electronica”. Aside from her electronic work, she has also set to music poetry by Costas Karyotakis (Karyotakis – 13 songs, Lyra 1982) and C.P. Kavafis (Constantinos Kavafis – 13 Songs, Inner Ear Records 2010) but the “triptych” Sun Masks (1984), Gallop (1985), and Lepidoptera (1985) remains her most famous and recognized electronic work in Greece and abroad.

Her work is surreal, abstract, in places futuristic but always full of unpretentious honesty and tenderness. Through complex imagery, telegraphic lyrics, and analog synths accompanied by the Roland TR-808 drum machine, she paints an intergalactic and elusive soundscape capable of transforming punchy and haunting basslines into cryptic messages.

She emerged as an electronic music artist in the early 1980s; a transitional and crucial decade – socio-politically and culturally – for Greece, where the Greek military junta of 1967–1974 had just only recently been replaced by a presidential parliamentary republic and Greece had entered what was known as Metapolitefsi (i.e. polity/regime change). The country entered an era of mass culture, consumerism, and modernization. Political populism was still prevalent while Greece tried opening up to the world and follow the global trends of the time. This superficial prosperity and growth based on loans – which would later be proven catastrophic – was also accompanied by empty and unfounded societal ideals and values. During this period of lighthearted, disposable culture, Lena Platonos produced avant-garde tracks diametrically opposite to the mainstream that dealt with themes such as free will, ownership (“Markos” from Gallop, 1985), the decadence of the political Left (“What’s New Pussy Cat?”), immigration (“Rumanian Immigrants” from Gallop, 1985), the presence of computers in our daily lives (“An Unsolved Exercise In Physics”), but also more personal ones such as a reply to a friend’s letter in a form of “Bloody Shadows From Afar” (Gallop, 1985). The depth and complexity of her work stands as a fierce resistance against the shallow and kitsch culture of the time and it is as relevant today as it was back in 1985.

I selected some of my favorite tracks from Gallop and tried to do justice to the lyrics, preserving the poetic elements as much as possible, and translating them in the same telegraphic manner they were originally written. This is by no means the only possible way to interpret them, but one of many; the abstract nature of her words makes it difficult to distill down to a single interpretation while still allowing the listener to get lost in this poetic maze that she has carefully constructed around her basslines.

Lena Platonos – “What’s New Pussy Cat?” (1985)

The title of the track is not important; it serves only as a closing statement for each stanza. The focus is in its chorus. Red is a recurring symbol throughout; the red paint of the railings, the red pin, the Swiss flag. Possibly a symbol for the political left and how its ups and downs and its instability (“the expansion and contraction of the System”) has betrayed the people; my personal interpretation would be the failing system of the Soviet Union. The track closes with a true story of the kiosk lady’s sick husband who had to go through an operation last summer but it was unclear what the outcome would be; her fragility is underlined through her mourning of the stowaways who were thrown overboard into shark-infested waters; the uncertainty of their fate reminds her of her husband but at the same time making a connection with the uncertainty and instability of the political system above.

 

(Lyrics Translated from Greek)

 

Calm winds forecasted for today

Have you been self-preserving at all?

I’ve been painting the balcony railings with this material

which turns from bloody-oil paint to broken-vein paint

A marker-pen, satellite to the firmament

true witness, insubordinate to surveillance

What’s new, pussycat?

 

The contraction and expansion of the system

Has abandoned us at the station, many times

Holding a suitcase

Within it lies a red pin

With which the inflatable space suit of the universe

Will soon be popped

 

Today the TV aired intelligent human beings

Who preserve Hindu philosophers in Switzerland

Their goal is secret, maybe next month or maybe tomorrow,

Just before they sleep, they say

“I am going to take control of my life, starting tomorrow”

Thus, they deal with their insomnia and their wealth.

What’s new, pussycat?

 

Today I saw the lady of the newspaper kiosk crying for the stowaways

Who were thrown overboard and were eaten by the sharks

She was crying once again last summer

Her husband was being operated on

And she did not know what was wrong

What’s new, pussycat?

Lena Platonos – “Markos” (1985)

Low tempo, melancholic, heartbreaking, angry, bitter with an eerie bassline. An ode to a lost friend: the neighbors’ dog, doomed by negligence and human cruelty. Poisoned by the hands of cowards and lightly mourned by his bipolar owners. Platonos creates a long metaphor on ownership and power, and the bipolar behavior characteristics of the good cop/bad cop paradigm that extends to parents, bosses, and governments. She once said that she felt his death as an extrasensory experience and upon hearing the news, she immediately recorded the music and lyrics.

 

(Lyrics Translated from Greek)

 

We are talking about Markos, he’d never bitten anyone

His eyes…his eyes were loving but fearful

His owners used to have him half the time chained, half the time free

They never knew what they were asking of him

They were feeding him stale food – he turned into a thief

The nights he tore into garbage bags

Once they would have sent him to the asylum,

We cried, they changed their mind

Once again Markos was chained/loose

Often I fed him, I even thought of taking him from them

But I wasn’t sure if I could take care of him

Once I needed his company, we went for a long stroll

We communicated through the language of the dogs

The eyes, we are talking about Marko’s eyes, Marko’s eyes…

“The hands that poisoned him, should get cancer” Marko’s owners said

We talk about Marko’s eyes which that morning, even though dead, were still loving but fearful

Why? Why does the Sun shine today as a hedonist god, glistening on the fallen leaves on top of the benches…

Why? Shouldn’t Markos be here? Shouldn’t he be alive?

Lies… his owners cry easily

The summers they suck these same tears as refreshments – they use them as ice cubes in our refreshments, the same tears make summers unpleasant

The tears of the owners who don’t know what they want, they play their role well

That’s how they trick us, that’s how they fight us

They play their role well, and this is how they trick us and this is how they fight us

Lena Platonos – “An Unsolved Exercise In Physics” (1985)

The invasion of computers in our daily lives delivered through a quasi-psychedelic deluge of seemingly unconnected imagery; imagery so absurd that it seems almost Gοd-sent. Platonos once said that she can’t explain some of the lyrics, as it felt at the time that they were written by someone else.

 

(Lyrics Translated from Greek)

 

Now, rended (uprooted) hair above the ears

The rest thorny crowns

Bitten toasties in hand

Fresh from communion, useful for digestion

Uncomplaining tongues without taste

Uniform waterproof voices

In a medley of a million hits

On the same beat

Bony legs in a race of halt

In an athletic shop display

There, every morning, every morning

 

5 to 14.00 on small weeks

5 to 15.00 on Saturdays

Unmarried mothers

Unknown stewardess

With their gaze stuck on an unknown roof

Or a motorbike stuck on the button of a total war

Inside colorful dials

Inside us

Inside cheap, fast-food restaurants

Precise denture dismembers something important of us

An exercise in physics, unsolved

 

And we, behind a folding screen on top of a placard

Paralyzed geniuses

A wild heritage of Ararat’s Ark

Our dear god-computer,

We still wait for the communion

In a definite, intergalactic, even elusive orbit.

Lena Platonos – “Bloody Shadows From Afar” (1985)

When she received a letter from a friend of hers who was very confused and of low morale, she decided to wait before responding and instead she wrote this song for him. When we are confronted with advising friends it is sometimes necessary to adopt an objective approach, take a step back, put some distance between us, try to reach that very first pain with long, stretched fingers, see and feel things from afar. The “bloody shadows” are the faces, the people, the rhythms that move us all, sometimes through the same repetitive chords, directing us, like maestros, through the tangled, stochastic paths of life; “a big board game that some people call history and some call history of lust”.

 

(Lyrics Translated from Greek)

 

I often respond to the storytelling of your life

With chills down my spine

I cover myself in an orange blanket

I become a blind rabble that ends up

At the edge of the bed of a cliff

Unable of tears or poetry

Seeking another type of seeing

Now we are grown-up kids

That need a lot of fingers to count the time past

To drown long fingers to touch the very first pain

So they can maintain happiness

Here I go again…

[previous stanza is repeated]

 

It’s only then, suddenly and fiercely

That survival comes

And puts me in an emergency take-off

In a defense speed, almost light speed

I move away in a blur of infinite iridescence

So I see you, my friend, as a shade of blood

Of a rhythm

Whether you agree or disagree or find yourself in mutism

As a playmate on the same chord as us

A famous composer of a big board game

That some people call history

And some call history of lust

Lena Platonos – “Rumanian Immigrants (1985)

The song tells the story of the Romanians immigrants that recently moved in above her friend’s apartment close to the neighborhood of the American Embassy in Athens. She was so attracted by the Romanian language that she decided to write this song. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, husbands/wives of political refugees that had moved to Romania, and their children or husbands/wives of Greek citizens were part of the first wave of Romanian immigration to Greece and most likely the protagonists of this song were part of it too.

 

(Lyrics Translated from Greek)

 

One afternoon the son of the Rumanian

Lost his chick

He knocked on all the doors

His eyes huge

As he sought it in vain

They looked to me like funnels

Where from within

Anyone could

Declare human rights

 

How I like

To hear the people

Climbing with the elevator

Speak Rumanian

 

And one night

As I was looking the archery balconies

Of the maternity hospital “Helena”

I heard a piano sound

One of the Romanians

Played habitually the same piano piece

And transformed, again, the headsmen

Of the American embassy

He transformed them, again, into a caress

 

How I like

To hear the people

Climbing with the elevator

Speak Rumanian

 

One noon, bowed and anonymous

Through the dark corridors

Of an apartment building

I heard them speak Rumanian

As I was ascending with the elevator…

Speak Rumanian.

And then I sang:

How I like

To hear the people

Climbing with the elevator

Speak Rumanian

 

Rumanian immigrants

Chances of happiness

In the neighborhood of the American embassy