As the brain behind Gong and Soft Machine, Daevid Allen crafted some of the world’s most pioneering space-rock.
Taken from the February 2008 issue of Dazed & Confused:
With a restless musical legacy that spans more than four decades, the wiry, snaggle-toothed Aussie polymath Daevid Allen is one of the most under-appreciated heroes of 20th century counter culture. Nina Simone said he was the only white guy whose psychedelia she could stomach. David Bowie claimed he invented glam rock. He bamboozled London’s hipsters with a bracing amalgam of jazz and absurdist poetry recitals way back in 1963 and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop commissioned him to compose a berserk, tape-looped sound collage when the Beatles were still teeny-bopping their way up the charts.
“A lot of ideas have come through with me,” muses the 69-year-old between gulps of ale at a north London pub. “You can’t ever own ideas, but you can tune in and be aware of them, some of us just sniff them in the breeze earlier than others. You maybe get a bit of credit but you don’t really get any of the spoils – by the time they become popular, you’ve lost interest and moved onto something else.”
Allen is best known for founding Gong, a band of surrealistic space-rockers who have been demonised, satirised and worshipped in equal measure since first appearing in 1967. “There are all sorts of people in the music industry that have a great deal of time for Gong even though they don’t always admit it,” ventures Gong Appreciation Society founder Jonny Greene, citing Bjork, Damon Albarn and Mark Bowen, the head of Wichita Records, as just some of those among their rumoured fans. When contacted for comment however Bowen’s reaction was less than enthusiastic – “Bloody shite! And you can quote me on that!” Allen has, at the very least, always had a knack for leaving a lasting impression.
“I remember taking him to a rave at the height of the Manchester scene and he took over the party,” recalls Graham Massey of acid house pioneers 808 State. “He stood on this podium and made the whole party centre on him. Daevid’s got a weird energy. Some of his music is a bit like Gilbert and Sullivan, but it’s so good that it transcends all that – the dynamics are amazing; when they peak they really peak.” Boredoms main man Yamatake Eye is another paid up fan of the Gong guru who doesn’t mind people knowing it. “The music is mysterious and comfortable,” states the undisputed don of Japanese noise. “I have listened to his music since my childhood, but it took me ten years to realise it was all Gong. They are a very important band to me.”
Allen first caused a stir in the early 1960s when he wound up in Canterbury, England, an aspiring 21-year-old poet tripping on beatnik logic and jazz. He had left his hometown of Melbourne behind as soon as he found the means, and is quick to point out that there was no love lost between him and the country of his birth. “Australia was probably ten times more redneck than the most redneck place in America!” Moving into a house owned by Robert Wyatt’s mother, and taking her 14-year-old son under his wing, he virtually kick-started the whole Canterbury scene, which spawned acts such as the Allen-formed Soft Machine and Caravan.
“I was just out of an English private school, and suddenly I encountered this exotic person who said, ‘Fuck this, fuck that, smoke pot, read this’ – he actually had something to say, he actually had a viewpoint." – Soft Machine's Kevin Ayers on Daevid Allen
Soft Machine singer Kevin Ayers described the seminal impact of Allen’s arrival in the UK to the Perfect Sound Forever webzine a few years ago – “I was just out of an English private school, and suddenly I encountered this exotic person who said, ‘Fuck this, fuck that, smoke pot, read this’ – he actually had something to say, he actually had a viewpoint. All these people who had just come out of school were sort of wandering around in the job market thinking, ‘what do I do now?’ – suddenly, Daevid Allen's going, ‘smoke pot now, peace, love and fuck your neighbour’.” Before too long Allen was booted out of his adopted home for being a bad influence, mainly for inadvertently encouraging Wyatt to commit suicide. “Robert thought he’d peaked as an artist and that he was virtually at the end of his life at 15,” says Allen. “I was arguing the other way for two and half nights and then I said ‘fuck it, if you’re going to go and do it, do it then’!” Wyatt was consequently discovered zonked out in Allen’s room by a pile of jazz records having consumed too many sleeping pills.
Moving to Paris a few months later, Allen learned about tape-loops and drones from the mercurial minimalist composer and fellow Herald Tribune salesman, Terry Riley, and was hired by William Burroughs to improvise music for a theatrical performance of The Ticket That Exploded. Adopting a gruff Burroughs impersonation, Allen recalls his meeting with the legendary beat writer, “‘You can have it one of two ways... the first way takes ten minutes, the second way takes rest of your life...’ I said ‘rest of my life, Bill’ and he was cool with that!” As he finishes the anecdote, Allen suddenly pauses, glances over his shoulder and turns to me, smiling mischievously. “I’d like to get a recording of that laugh, do you hear it?” he asks breathlessly. A few seconds pass and a rattling, phlegm-coated belly laugh resounds around the room. “I’d like to use that on a record sometime,” he explains, sending me away with mini-disc recorder in hand. “I’m always hearing things I want to use,” he concedes, giving my clandestine field recording the thumbs up before lurching his narrative back to 1966 and a description of his “epiphanic” and life-changing “seed vision”.
While staying at the writer Robert Graves’s house in Deiàà, Majorca, he dropped acid and saw his entire life mapped out before him (a tale vividly recounted in Allen’s autobiography, Gong Dreaming 1). Within hours, a millionaire cowboy spectacle dealer from Oklahoma had stumped up the cash to form Soft Machine. To this day Allen claims all but one of his visions have been realised, though he’s keen to stress that drugs don’t control his art, “It’s a bit like going to the pyramids for a tourist trip for four hours, including a ride on a camel – a cheap version. But you want to go there and commune, you want to avoid the guides – dope is a great route to discovery, but you’ve got to use your own energy to chase it up!”
His Soft Machine career sparked a friendship with Jimi Hendrix and saw him ride the zeitgeist at landmark counter-cultural venues like UFO and Speakeasy, but it wasn’t to last. After returning from a brief tour of France – where they rocked parties for Brigitte Bardot and were hailed as rock’n’roll genii – Allen was refused re-admission to the UK on the grounds of an expired visa. With little to get by on except the beginnings of something like notoriety, he accepted his lot and moved on with customary, beatific fatalism and fearlessness.
Through a convoluted train of events he obtained a set of surrealistic 19th century gynaecological surgical instruments and started experimenting with them on a guitar given to him by Errol Flynn’s son, channelling spaced-out glissando drones through a state-of-the-art echo chamber. “I acted like I’d never seen a guitar before and tried to get to that innocent place, just kind of abandon myself for better or worse... sometimes you fall flat on your face,” he explains. “Making mistakes is the way to wisdom, because that way you will evolve more quickly. A fantastic error is something that is very memorable, a splendid thing. There should be monuments to errors... most monuments are errors anyway!” The Gong experiment – conceived as a fluid community of spiritual and sonic “floating anarchy” – took shape when Allen enlisted his partner, the Welsh poet Gilli Smyth (who provided eroticised incantations known as the “space whisper”) and the classically trained saxophonist, Didier Malherbe, who was discovered in a cave on Robert Graves’s estate. Without hearing a note, the band was signed to anti-establishment record company BYG by an opportunistic entrepreneur.
“It was very clear to me that laughter was a vital ingredient and could be used as camouflage – absurdity was the ideal shield” — Daevid Allen
By now Allen’s talent was auto-kinetic and the albums Magic Brother/Mystic Sister (1969), Camembert Electrique (1971) and Bananamoon (1971) – which, according to Bowie, contained the glam blueprint – followed in rapid succession. When Gong stole the show at the first ever Glastonbury Festival in 1971, Richard Branson signed them to Virgin and pumped them full of enough money to go hog-wild in the studio. Against a backdrop of sybaritic communal living and shared ideas, the band realised what must rank as one of the most quixotic flights of musical fantasy ever recorded, the Radio Gnome trilogy: Flying Teapot (1973), Angel’s Egg (1973) and You (1974) – which chronicle “Zero The Hero’s” quest for spiritual fulfilment and features an ensemble cast of Octave Doctors, Flying Teapots and, among other things, Pot Head Pixies.
A demented crystallisation of Allen’s mythic vision, Radio Gnome subsumed and distorted jazz, funk, soul and stratified electronics with an irrepressible sense of fun. In Gong Dreaming 1 Allen writes, “It was very clear to me that laughter was a vital ingredient and could be used as camouflage – absurdity was the ideal shield”. So too was sex. Allen’s eyes light up as he explains in detail how the 13th century Spanish troubadours instigated one of the most musically fecund periods of all time and are, ultimately, counted among his greatest muses.“I always use a lot of sexual imagery because it is the creative source,” he says. “There’s no reason you can’t have both the spiritual and sexual in music, unless of course you’re a Catholic!” In the mid-70s Allen abruptly quit the band at the height of its commercial power, allegedly because a “force field” prevented him from going on stage, although perhaps it is more likely that he simply felt the need to evolve elsewhere. Since then Allen’s gone on to record a string of solo albums, helmed new bands such as the University of Errors and the improvisational unit Brainville 3 (with Soft Machine’s Hugh Hopper), and fronted various incarnations of Gong (including two incredible speaker-blasting collaborations with Japanese kindred spirits Acid Mother Temple).
The legend of Gong, meanwhile, has thrived, spawning a whole family of weird offshoots, most of which are reunited at the sporadically arranged ‘Gong Unconvention’ – a mini-festival dedicated to all things Gong (the last one took place in Amsterdam in 2006).“Sometimes it bewilders me why my work is not better known, sometimes it bewilders me why it is known at all,” Allen says with a laugh, finishing his pint as his girlfriend gets out a cigarette. “The art of surviving in rock music is to never let yourself become too popular and never play for more than 1,500 people if you can avoid it, as it becomes an abstract thing within an abstract thing – it’s boring as fuck, you might as well be inside a huge contraceptive!”