TO SPEND TIME with Daevid Allen was to enjoy a conversation full of discursive ideas and to leave buoyed by the encounter. A hugely energetic and benign presence, the Melbourne-born poet and musician was blessed with a fine sense of mischief and a distinctly libertarian view of the world. Weaned on a mixture of jazz and Beat poetry, Allen arrived in England in the early ’60s and eventually rented a room from the Wyatt family in Kent whose teenage son, Robert, was a keen drummer. The pair first played in the Daevid Allen Trio along with bassist Hugh Hopper. Then, in 1966, after a number of embryonic line-ups, Allen and Wyatt teamed-up with Kevin Ayers (a former bandmate of Robert’s in The Wilde Flowers) and Cecil Taylor devotee Mike Ratledge on keyboards to form Soft Machine. The band’s free-jazz-inspired approach is captured on early demo recordings that, even now, remain startling in their arrangements.
“A hugely energetic and benign presence blessed with a fine sense of mischief.”
Following a set of European dates, Allen’s stint in Soft Machine was cut short when he was refused entry back into the UK in August 1967. Staying in Paris, he immersed himself in the insurrectionary spirit of the age and participated in the 1968 student protests that swept the city. He also met Gilli Smyth who became his partner and collaborator, the pair holding down a residency at the bohemian ‘café-théâtre’ La Vieille Grille where he refined his glissando guitar style and she perfected her vocal whisper as they sought to create what they dubbed “total space music”.
Eventually receiving undue attention from the authorities, the pair fled to Deià on Mallorca, where they met flautist Didier Malherbe. The Frenchman was then living in a cave and herding goats for author Robert Graves, but joined Allen and Smyth as they cut their first album, Magick Brother, Mystick Sister, and adopted the name Gong. The LP itself was issued on French free-jazz label, BYG Actuel alongside albums by Archie Shepp and Arthur Jones.
Musically, Gong were drawing on Soft Machine’s initial fusion of jazz freak-ery, Beat influences, psychedelia and their early dream-state Parisian jams, but Allen was also fine-tuning a notion he’d received during an out-of-body experience a few years earlier: that the human race was being watched over by a superior intelligence. This vision would inspire Gong’s mythology on albums such as 1971’s Camembert Electrique as well as the Radio Gnome trilogy (Flying Teapot, Angel’s Egg and You), all of which boast a set of extraordinary characters and an even more fantastic narrative.
Gong’s reputation as heroes of the underground was further cemented by their appearance at the Glastonbury Festival in 1971 and their signing in the UK to the fledgling Virgin Records – then a bastion of alternative cool. Despite the camaraderie they’d developed through communal living, Allen’s leadership of the band came to an abrupt halt in 1975 when he refused to go onstage at a gig in Cheltenham, claiming that external forces were preventing him.
"I couldn't actually get on stage. It was as though there was an invisible curtain of force that was stopping me from going through the door,” he commented years later. “I threw myself at the open door and bounced back off nothing. This blew my mind so thoroughly that I just ran out of the theatre into the rain and started hitch-hiking on the road in my stage clothes and face painted with fluorescent colours. Finally, I got picked up by somebody who had left the concert, was taken home, and then realised I had to leave Gong, so that's the way it all ended."
“Allen was forging links between hippie culture and punk’s new invective.”
But Allen found it impossible to abandon Gong entirely, and assembled affiliated acts that continued to draw on his original vision, Planet Gong and New York Gong among them. The former saw him team up with space rockers Here & Now and cut the 1977 album Floating Anarchy, while New York Gong saw him join No Wavers Bill Laswell, Michael Beinhorn, Cliff Cultreri, Fred Maher and Bill Bacon – the core of whom would become Material – to record About Time.
Allen was forging links between hippie culture and punk’s new invective, confirming his status as a provocateur of the first order. Gong, meanwhile, had continued without him in various incarnations, and he finally rejoined the group in the early '90s and celebrated their 25th anniversary.
From 1994 onwards, Allen continued to embellish Gong’s mythology and record several albums with innumerable collaborators ranging from Japanese psych adventurers Acid Mothers Temple to San Francisco avant-garde outfit the University Of Errors and on to Brainville (which saw him reunited with old friend Hugh Hopper).
Gong’s most recent album, I See You, emerged last year and saw Allen tap into contemporary dissent on tracks such as Occupy and This Revolution. Equally present was his unique sense of whimsy (Pixielation) and wit (Zion My T-Shirt). Sadly, Allen was unable to play the late-2014 shows to promote the album due to his cancer treatment. While he remained positive and his cancer subsequently seemed in remission, it returned and led to Allen releasing a statement in February, in which he wrote: “Thank you for starting the process of letting go of me.” His death was reported earlier today (March 13, 2015) on Gong's website, which simply stated “Daevid passed peacefully in Australia today... surrounded by his boys. Everything has stopped here in a house of tears. Tears first, celebration later.”
On February 27, two weeks before his passing, Allen gave his last performance at Pizza Paradiso in Suffolk Park, Byron Bay, during an evening dedicated to the poetry he and Gilli Smyth had written. His own reading consisted of the final section of Kahlil Gibran’s On Death and revealed a man at peace with himself, genial until the very end.
For more visit www.planetgong.co.uk.
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