If it hadn’t been for British Immigration’s refusal to grant Daevid Allen a visa to enter the UK with Soft Machine in 1967 Gong may never have been born. Having been refused entry Allen and Sorbonne Professor Gilli Smyth formed the band that would go on to spend the next 40 years producing some of the most idiosyncratic and innovative music you are ever likely to hear.
Daevid Allen was born in Australia in 1938 (yes he is 72 in January!) and having been inspired by the beat generation writers he moved to Paris in 1960 where he befriended the likes of Terry Riley and William Burroughs eventually forming free form jazz group The Daevid Allen Trio. Travelling to England in 1966 Allen rented a room in Canterbury and whilst there struck up a friendship with the landlord’s 16 year old son Robert Wyatt and together they formed the first incarnation of Soft Machine. The band eventually toured Europe but it was whilst returning to England that Allen was refused entry as he had outstayed his visa on the previous visit. This refusal was in hindsight fortuitous as he became involved in the 1968 Paris student uprisings by handing out teddy bears and reciting poetry and began making music with his partner Gilli Smyth that would eventually become Gong.
Gong were a relatively loose collection of musicians with a fluid line up true to Allen’s ethos of community, alternative lifestyle and change. The band’s first breakthrough was in 1971 which saw the release of ‘Camembert Electrique’ and an appearance at the first Glastonbury Festival in 1971. The album was later re-released in the UK for the price of a single and as a result sold by the bucket load and helped bring their esoteric take on progressive music to a much wider audience. By 1973 Steve Hillage had joined the band and during this period they released their classic ‘Radio Gnome’ trilogy ((Flying Teapot, Angel’s Egg & You). This was inspired by a vision that Allen had experienced in 1966. This involved aliens, pot headed pixies and Zero the Hero. All very silly but loads of fun and actually featuring some splendid space rock and surprisingly up tempo and danceable tracks such as ‘Flying Teapot’. The albums sold well and for a time Gong were the one of the biggest leftfield ‘hippy’ bands active in Europe. However, in 1975 Allen refused to go on stage in Cheltenham claiming a wall of force was preventing him from performing. As a result he and Smyth left the band and with Hillage leaving shortly thereafter the classic Gong line up had gone.
In the subsequent years Allen pursued various solo and side projects most notably Here & Now which saw the band teaming up with punk band Alternative TV for a cross generational tour of the UK. Since 2001 there have been various reunions of the original line up in various formations. However, in 2008 the classic line up featuring Allen, Smyth & Hillage played the Festival Hall as part of Massive Attack’s Meltdown. The success of this lead to a UK tour in 2009 and critically acclaimed studio album ‘2032’.
Gong remain playful, silly and should not be taken too seriously. However, underpinning their performances and albums is some fine music. Age shall not weary them and at 72 Daevid Allen remains a gifted musician, poet and most certainly a true original.
Camembert Electrique (1971)
Flying Teapot (1973)
Angels’ Egg (1973)