by Allister Thompson
It was announced quite recently that truly legendary musical icon Daevid Allen was going to be leaving this world soon due to incurable illness, a brave announcement that was the cause of much sorrow to his dedicated fanbase. I am one of those people. I listen to Gong a lot, but this news really put Allen’s music back in my spotlight for a while. Unfortunately, Allen died not very long after that announcement.
While I’m sure tribute articles have abounded since his death, in the spirit of celebration of an incredible life such as few get to live, I too want to talk about some albums that have helped pull this particular unenlightened carcass (mine) through his life, on the way to gradual illumination. And yes, despite the constant silliness of Gong’s vibe, that’s the effect it has on the listener’s soul: illumination. So let’s not mourn. Let’s groove instead, and few bands in the history of rock have been as groovy as Gong.
Daevid Allen, a hippie traveller from Australia, hooked up with some blokes from Canterbury to form the truly iconic Soft Machine, which in 1968 was just as important as “the” Pink Floyd and Tyrannosaurus (later T.) Rex on the London underground scene. A frenetic mix of pop with fuzzy jazz influences (it would become super jazzy after Allen’s departure), it was groundbreaking stuff. However, it also contained a number of enormous talents that couldn’t be contained by one group alone. Already the band’s progenitor, The Wilde Flowers, had spun off the magnificent Caravan, whose In the Land of Grey and Pink is one of the greatest albums of the classic progressive rock era. Soft Machine also once contained such luminaries as Kevin Ayers and Robert Wyatt. But Daevid Allen’s mercurial talents were at least the equal of theirs. After departing and mucking about musically with his partner, Welsh poetess Gilli Smyth, developing a style and musical philosophy, he formed cosmic jazzy space-rock band Gong in Paris, to which he had decamped, with a group of primarily continental musicians. The group went through a number of members, including late drummer Laurie Allan, but in its classic lineup it included Smyth, legendary guitar voyager Steve Hillage, bassist Mike Howlett, synth pioneer Tim Blake, saxman Didier Malherbe and mega-drummer Pierre Moerlen, one of the finest sticksmen of all time. Gong’s music, directed by Allen, contains a number of immediately identifiable hallmarks. Just as important as the musical chops on display and the group’s contributions to the development of space-rock, prog-rock and jazz-rock is the conceptual framework Allen constructed.
Over time, a mythological theme developed using the imagery of pot-smoking pixies who travel around in flying teapots! All of this, however, is a humorous ruse used to impart mystical ideas derived from Eastern religions; rather than hit us over the head with it and thus sound twee and overly earnest, Allen uses humour and fun (much like the greatest YA author in history, Daniel Pinkwater) to make his points about our potential for enlightenment. Secondly, Allen invented a style of guitar called “glissando”, which basically involves a lot of reverb, echo (probably Echoplex back then) and a slide (Hillage, though a nifty- and fleet-fingered jazzy player, also became enamoured of this style and has employed it ever since). And lastly, there are the contributions of Smyth, whose experimental vocals, often moaning and cooing and other avant-garde touches, added to the mix was termed the “space whisper”. Allen’s own voice was the “aluminum croon”, which is a pretty good descriptor for his reediness, more charismatic than melodic. The musicians involved were always crack ones, but particularly during the era when Hillage and Malherbe were in the group; there’s some truly mind-blowing musicianship mixed in with the fun on those albums. Allen and Smyth provided the concepts but also the earthiness and fun, while the instrumental superstars added the instrumental firepower.
Gong and Allen’s discographies are massive; I can’t cover even a fraction of it here. Gong recorded and toured right up to Allen’s illness (and the later albums are also very good), and apparently some form of it is still going to go on. So I’m going to just focus on some favourites of mine, which are mostly from the seventies and are basically the best-known ones. If you have never listened to Gong, then you are in for a treat, and I suggest you start by sampling these wares first. Mr. Allen, thank you for playing a part in saving this sad-sack’s soul, both musically and spiritually. You defined “free spirit” in the most positive way. Your music will always be with me.
This has been packaged as a Gong album, but it’s really a set of low-fi recordings Allen and Smyth made in Paris during turbulent times all around, and it’s quite fascinating to hear the tenets of the Gong sound being developed as a response to the changes in society. It’s a very, very experimental pop album, in which pretty melodies and conventional song structures are subverted and perverted with twisted humour (“Chainstore Chant/Pretty Miss Titty“) and sonic experimentation (the spooky, echoey and mournful acid folk of “Glad to Sad to Say” and the ultra-spacy ambient psych of “Coz You Got Green Hair”). There’s even some lyrical inspiration for the modern activist on the cheery “Gong Song” and “Rational Song”. For an album apparently recorded into the mic of a movie camera or something, it sounds pretty spectacular; sometimes limitations create the best art, as the artist uses the tools at hand rather than the limitless possibilities offered by today’s recording technology. Far from being a psych-era artifact, this album still sounds ahead of our time to me.
The first proper Gong album is one of the great avant-garde psych albums, and it’s also the band’s hardest-edged platter. While spacy elements abound, Allen in this rougher pre-Hillage era, pounded the heck out of riffs in a rather unhinged way on slightly angry-sounding songs like “You Can’t Kill Me” and “Dynamite/I Am Your Animal”. Smyth throws in some pretty demented vocals as well, cackling and cooing like the Welsh witch she was. We also get some humour, though, in the sloppy organ anthem “I’ve Been Stoned Before”, which makes a slight mockery of sixties earnestness, and there’s even a bit of a catchy pop song, “And You Tried So Hard.” On the whole, though, there’s definitely a confrontational gauntlet being thrown down here; this is the new art, breaking all the rules of what songs should say and do, very Paris of the time in that regard. This is definitely ART rock, meant to make us think — but not in an onerous way. Probably most people’s favourite track, however, is the way-out space rock instrumental, “Fohat Digs Holes in Space“, wherein Allen truly takes us on galactic glissando journey of epic proportions. The Gong mythology was still in development, but the experimentation was in full force on this legendary album. I still have my glow-in-the-dark t-shirt with the album cover on it!
This is where Allen codified and unified his “pothead pixie” philosophy into a set of tunes and characters meant to express his Eastern-influenced spiritual principles, which are the standard all us hippies love; we are all one, part of a big whole, reality is what you make of it, people gotta be free, etc. But by dressing it up in this way, Allen made learning fun! This particular album is not, however, as successful artistically as subsequent albums. An essential part of the trilogy, still, though, and you gotta have it. The album’s production retains the rough and ready sound of Camembert Electrique, and the songs are long and bizarre. “Flying Teapot” introduces us to our central pixie protagonists in a very psychedelic way, a cheeky little bass riff, some jazz-rock jamming, and some vocal sound effects. In fact, this album is probably Gilli Smyth’s finest hour as a vocalist. More aggressive rock returns on “The Pot Head Pixies”, while “Zero the Hero and the Witch’s Spell” is a glissando tour de force. The totally bizarre “Witch’s Song/I Am Your Pussy” wraps things up convincingly in a vocal performance by Smyth that drips with sinister character. You could not mistake this band for any other!
This, to me, is easily the finest Gong album, wherein the superlative skills of the musicians, some of whom, like Moerlen, had just joined, perfectly blend with Allen’s avant-garde sensibilities and epic storytelling abilities, not to mention his insanely zany sense of humour. There are so many classics on this incredible album, from the hard rock riffing of “Sold to the Highest Buddha” to the insanely jazzy, swinging “Oily Way” to the driving space-rock and clever vocal exchanges between Hillage and Allen of “I Never Glid Before“. Along the way, Allen and Smyth expertly spin stories and vignettes from the PHP universe in fun, weird tracks like “Selene” and “Prostitute Poem”. Other band members like Malherbe and Blake shine on instrumentals like “Outer Temple” and “Flute Salad”. And it all wraps up with a final dose of crazy humour in the finely titled “Eat that Phonebook Coda”. It’s a mystical, magical experience, with earworm melodies, dollops of larger-than-life personality, and career-defining performances all around, from Pierre Moerlen’s energetic, complex drumming, which may be the finest I’ve heard on a rock album, to Allen’s magisterially eccentric vocals, to Hillage’s cosmic soloing (the solo on “I Never Glid Before” is mind-blowing). If you like creative rock music, and this doesn’t grab ya … I don’t know, there might not be a future for you as a music listener.
By this point, other strong personalities in the band were pushing for a more streamlined, smoother and jazzier sound, in keeping with life in a post Mahavishu/Return to Forever world. And after Allen and Smyth quit, that’s exactly what they would go on to do. On this one last Allen-led album, however, his zanier and earthier inclinations actually meld together very well with Moerlen and Hillage’s prog/jazz stylings to create one of space-rock’s finest moments. It’s actually much shorter on pothead pixie plotlines because so much of it is instrumental, a mix of repetitive space funk and synthy interludes. There’s a lot of glissando guitar, and this album does contain the legendary Eastern “om” riff in “Master Builder,” which Acid Mothers Temple likes to kick around to this day. While Allen and Smyth, aside from the occasional shorter, angular song and echoey space whisper, are not as dominant as they had been, there’s an elegant spaciness to ethereal tracks like “The Isle of Everywhere” that is most appealing. And Tim Blake’s synth skills really help create drama during the final PHP missive, “You Never Blow Yr Trip Forever.” As the album concludes, we do feel a little sense of sorrow that the PHPs’ stories are at an end. Certainly, fans of incredible drumming and lead guitar playing will get plenty out of this album as well.
In 1971, Allen got together some of his pals in the nascent British prog/psych scene to record what is probably one of the zaniest albums ever made; Beefheart ain’t got nothing on this. It appears that Allen and his chums just got super stoned and recorded the nuttiest things they could think of into an old ear trumpet, for the sonic quality is crummy. But that just sort of adds to the appeal! Among the usual suspects to be found here are Robert Wyatt (who does lead vocals on the olde Wilde Flowers chestnut, “Memories”), Gary Wright (“Dreaaaaaamweaver”), Maggie Bell, and Pip Pyle. All of Allen’s experimental tendencies are on display, such as sound collage, musique concrète on tracks like the hilarious ode to Soft Machine’s former American svengali, “Stoned Innocent Frankenstein“, and the aggressive proto-hard rock jamming on “Time of Your Life”. Not to mention the unhinged blues parody, “White Neck Blooze”. But it’s the humorous moments that really stand out, particularly the absolutely classic “Fred the Fish“, which features a kazoo solo punctuated by someone yelling “It’s Coltrane!” and lyrics about enjoying eating chips and parsley. Genuinely zany surrealist fun abounds on this album.
Haven’t listened to much Gong since I immersed myself in their music soon after the announcement of Daevid Allen’s terminal illness. The piece I wrote (“Gong est mort”) was posted just before his death. It’s a poignant process, isn’t it?
Thanks for a thorough and thoughtful summary of the catalogue.
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I liked your post a lot. I listened to Gong pretty heavily in my late twenties and have been reimmersing myself in these old albums again.
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I really enjoyed this article immensely ( not keen on the description of Prof Gylli.Smyth’s vocal contribution ,from a woman’s point of view I feel he r contribution was worth a bit more than that) lol
I too have had my life enormously enriched by exploring Gong & tbe Canterbury set ,wonder how many bands today will have a fan in 38 yrs ti.e say ‘ this is my favourite band’ & for me since the age of 15 or 16 thats when Gong & Hawkwind ( & in those days with the help of some rather good mushrooms & peyote I used to steal from the hot house of a certain park in south Liverpool 😉 😂…yeah Gong well & truly opened the door & really helped me inspiration wise in my artwork too …Somehow I think on that little green Planet Gong Daevid ,Gylli ,,Kevin Ayers & Robert Wyatt are have a jam session as I type 😉
PS..I read an incredible article with David Bowie in an interview with BBC Music not long before he died & he said that Banana 🍌Moon 🌙 was in his top 3 albums of all time & had greatly inspired his incarnation of Ziggy Stardust & Aladdin Sane 🙂
Thanks for the comment! Good to know this article is still being read. I am going to revisit my take on Smyth. I agree she was an important talent in her own right (I have and love her first solo album), so downplaying her talents was not my intent.