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A True Visionary: Daevid Allen of The Soft Machine and Gong

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Daevid Allen: 1938-2015

Cancer Claims One of Psychedelia’s Most Beloved Characters

Daevid Allen, circa 1974. Photo courtesy of pastdailyDaevid Allen was a renaissance man from another planet. A poet and performance artist who spearheaded The Soft Machine and Gong, Allen took his ardent fan base into other worlds with his wacky version of psychedelic rock.

Born in Melbourne, Australia in 1938, Allen was inspired by the Beats and ventured overseas to England in the early 1960s, where he immersed himself in music and literature. There he befriended William S. Burroughs and created a jazz combo, The Daevid Allen Trio, that accompanied Burroughs at live readings. The line up (featuring Robert Wyatt, Mike Ratledge and Kevin Ayers) would eventually evolve into The Soft Machine in 1966, which would become one of the leading psychedelic groups in the UK, alongside Tomorrow and Pink Floyd. Yet, Allen’s tenure in the group would be short lived: after a number of early singles, demo recordings, and a tour in France, Allen was denied re-entry into the UK due to visa issues. Allen would remain in France, where he would meet his future wife, poet Gilli Smyth, who would help him in formulating what would eventually become Gong.

Gong is one of those bands that people either love or hate, don’t understand, or simply know nothing about at all. Some love the energy of their music, while others see them as a dated hippie relic from the 1970s. Regardless, Gong was one of the most entertaining outfits in all rock music.

Gong is best known for the three albums that comprise the Radio Gnome Trilogy: Flying Teapot (1973), Angel’s Egg (1973), and You (1974). These are terrific aural mélanges of psychedelic noodling, funky jams and ethereal spacy passages that enhanced Allen’s lovably goofy sci-fi mythology set primarily on the Planet Gong, featuring characters with names such as Zero the Hero, Banana Ananda, Mista T Being, Fred the Fish, Good Witch Yoni, and Captain Capricorn. Recurring themes focused on peace, love, ecology, space travel, yoga, drinking tea and, of course, smoking pot. Who cares if the story even made sense? Here, Allen and friends created a unifying space age concept that lasted for over forty years (the albums Shapeshifter (1992), Zero to Infinity (2000) and 2032 (2009) continue the story to some extent).

Daevid Allen, early 1970s. Photo courtesy of progressiverock.comGong’s quirky sense of humor is probably what endeared them to many fans. George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic come to mind as a counterpart in their zaniness and use of mythology over the course of several concept albums, with characters like Dr. Funkenstein and Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk. While Clinton’s excursions drew from African American culture and was a killer fusion of funk and psychedelia, Gong was more Euro-centric, with seamless forays into jazz and experimental textures. Gong’s music is incredibly catchy; it often ventures from nifty, intoxicating hooks into a faint semblance of a pop structure and then into free form noise. While there is a prevalent jazz sensibility, it also foreshadows punk in that it’s extremely rebellious, exhilarating and edgy music; it assaults the senses and leaves you wanting more. The three 1970s albums that formed the original Radio Gnome Trilogy still sound as fresh and exciting as when they were first released; they honestly haven’t aged at all.

Gong had close to a gazillion members, and it’s almost impossible to keep track of who floated in and out of the band over the years. In addition to Allen and Smyth, the key 1970s members were bassist Mike Howlett, percussionist Pierre Moerlen, saxophonist Didier Malherbe, keyboardist Tim Blake and guitarist Steve Hillage. Members were known to wear bizarre costumes a la Sun Ra’s Arkestra, and the band often used pseudonyms (Allen was credited as Dingo Virgin, for example) on their album credits. When Gong initially disbanded in 1975, Moerlen was basically left to fend for himself and kept Gong going as more of a percussion based jazz-fusion group, with several enjoyable albums, such as Gazeuse! (1976) and Expresso II (1978) to their credit. Allen during this time focused on solo work and collaborative efforts with other like-minded artists in bands such as Euterpe, Planet Gong, New York Gong, and Mother Gong (yeah, it’s a bit confusing). Allen would reconvene Gong once again in the early 1990s and keep it a continuous project for the rest of his life.

As for what is the best Gong album? Well, there are some who feel that Camembert Electrique (1971) and Angels Egg are Gong’s best works, and then there are their numerous live albums, such as Gong est Mort, Vive Gong (1977) and Floating Anarchy (1978) but, personally, I think it’s an impossible task. Each album has its own charm, infused with Allen’s infectious zaniness, that provide for goofy and entertaining listens. Just pick one and go with it, because you’ll want to listen to the others afterward. Don’t believe me? Check out this live clip of Gong performing “I Never Glid Before” from Angels Egg.

And as silly as some of Allen’s concepts may seem to the uninitiated, there was clearly an audience for it. Where progressive bands like Yes and Genesis sadly turned to conventional pop in order to keep some semblance of a fan base, Allen never really went that route. Sure, the later albums have more of a modern edge, but none of the original spirit is gone, and that’s the most important thing to remember here; he kept the spirit of the 1960s and 1970s avant-garde alive. Allen was a visionary and basically worked until the very end. He wasn’t a household name, but he was loved by an endless ocean of devoted fans that greatly appreciated his wacky concepts, so that he never had to create a big pop single to sell a million records. He utilized a sense of humor and a sense of adventure into all of his music and basically just had fun. Fame and fortune were obviously not a major concern for him. The fact that Gong and Allen’s career lasted for decades, shows that he clearly left an impression on anyone who heard his music.

“Bye bye.”

Dave Bower is Co-Publisher of The Free George. Photos courtesy of pastdaily.com and progressiverock.com

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

Short URL: http://thefreegeorge.com/thefreegeorge/?p=18715

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