On March 13, the world lost one of its most high-flying cultural cosmonauts with the passing of 77-year-old Australian poet, musician, and composer Daevid Allen.
Best known as the guitarist and co-founder of influential psychedelic rock bands Soft Machine and Gong, Allen’s carefree wanderlust led him into a body of work that fused the jazz influences of post-Beat culture and Sun Ra’s intergalactic philosophies of harmony and dissonance with then-burgeoning psych-rock and pop sounds at the tail end of the 1960s. His travels from Australia to London, Paris, Mallorca, and New York City over the course of his career set his music into often surprising new contexts, with his trademark ‘glissando guitar’ sound being one of the lone consistent elements as he explored beat-group pop, loose and improvisatory acid rock, Mediterranean folk, musique concrète, and ambient New Age soundscapes.
While Allen could in many ways be considered the quintessential hippy, pushing a peace, love, and pot platform through to his last days, his work was infused with a wry, biting wit and a perverse sensuality that made it sharp around the edges despite its psychotropic weightlessness. Many of his best albums were also anchored by heavy and hypnotic grooves, displaying his love of modern jazz and soul music; as any seasoned head will tell you, psych music has always been a goldmine for sampling, and prospective diggers ocan pull nearly any Gong album out of a bin and find themselves working with a treasure box of textures and beats.
The following is less an “essential guide” and more an introduction to Allen’s key sounds; his discography is intimidatingly vast, spanning large numbers of collaborations and one-off bands, as well as long-running projects and solo albums. These eight albums all stand tall in Allen’s ouvre as key releases, and offer an easy entry point into his various guises as well as having heavy replay value and historical importance. To quote Allen himself on his view of Gong’s place in the grand scheme of music history, “Gong is not something from a past time. Gong was originally created as a vehicle for new ideas, ideas which were ahead of the time. I think it can be seen [that] Gong brought through ideas that were not mainstreamed until five, even 15 years later.”
There is considerably more of merit and importance in Allen’s giant discography to explore, but if you’re new to his universe, these albums will assist in backing his claims, and should send you into instantly the stratosphere.
The Soft Machine
Faces And Places Vol 7 [aka Jet Propelled Photographs]
(BYG, Recorded 1967, released circa 1972/73)
Described by Allen as “four very strong young egos struggling for ascendency,” The Soft Machine began as a quartet of talented young musicians and songwriters cutting their teeth in the same circles as early Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. The group’s early incarnation featured Allen’s guitar work alongside the widely known trio of bassist, guitarist and vocalist Kevin Ayers, organist Mike Ratledge and drummer and vocalist Robert Wyatt. Though he would only appear on the group’s debut single before immigration problems forced him out of the band, Allen’s influence was undeniable in moving the group toward a complex blend of flared paisley-print psychedelic pop, modern jazz swing, and fat-bottomed Northern soul groove.
Teenage drummer Wyatt’s lead vocals are a wonder here, as he sings in a more gutsy cadence mostly unexplored throughout the rest of his career, while Ratledge’s dexterous melodic touch flexes hard even in these early sessions. The more primal arrangements of these tunes, recorded by French producer Giorgio Gomelsky as songwriter demos and standing as the only other professionally recorded document of Soft Machine’s initial lineup, would become staples in the catalogues of the early Softs as well as Allen and Ayers’ solo careers.
They’re both a charming curio of the times and a solidly grooving shindig; Allen himself would later come to disown the recordings, claiming that his playing on these sessions was subpar, and he’d go on to re-record them with his late-period band University Of Errors decades later. Despite Allen’s protestations and the existence of more “definitive” versions of many of these songs, it’s an impressive start for all involved and of great historical importance.
After having to leave The Soft Machine on the eve of a tour with his friend Jimi Hendrix due to visa issues, Allen relocated to Paris. His prior associations with Giorgio Gomelsky led him to sign a deal with the producer’s new BYG/Actuel imprint for both his new collective Gong – who’d record a scorching 7″ and two stellar albums for BYG – and Banana Moon, Allen’s solo debut.
This album is mostly a high-energy affair, filled with freewheeling, devil-may-care rockers and lopsided hash-smoked grooves that lean toward a more blues-rooted sound than nearly anything else Allen would record during this era. The album’s iconic highpoint is a haunting ballad entitled ‘Memories’ that dates back to the Soft Machine days, featuring gorgeous lead vocals by Robert Wyatt (who also plays drums on the album), delivering one of his most heartfelt performances and crafting one of the most memorable tunes of the Canterbury prog canon. Allen’s own vocals on the rest of the album are some of his most charismatic and eclectic, moving from gutbucket growls to a laconic jab at former Softs bandmate Kevin Ayers’ dandyish seaside drawl.
Of further historical importance is the introduction of engineer Tim Blake, who would later be drafted into the Gong roster for the band’s ambitious Radio Gnome album trilogy. Blake’s prowess and talents as a synth and keyboard player would lead him to be one of the group’s most prominent co-composers, and provide some of the group’s most engrossing sonic alchemy. Both Banana Moon and Gong’s 1971 Camembert Electrique albums offer up some of the most cheerful and messy fun of Allen’s pre-Gnome early years, and are tailor-made for bong rips and acid trips.
‘Memories’ would become a rather iconic tune amongst counterculture prog and Canterbury heads, and spawn a number of cover versions, including one by NYC art-funkers Material, who got their start backing Allen for an album and tour in the late 1970s (more on that later); in 1982, the group drafted a young vocalist by the name of Whitney Houston for their version, which also features free jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp and would become Houston’s first lead vocal performance on record prior to her subsequent megastardom. Allen’s influence rolls deep.
1972’s Continental Circus was the score for a motorcycle racing documentary recorded with a stripped-down lineup of what would be Allen’s most beloved project: the pothead pixies and interstellar rockers of Gong. Where the majority of Gong’s Allen-led ouvre was an unpredictable mélange of free jazz skronk, echo-soaked orgasmic sensuality, quirky pop hooks and lightfooted funk, Continental Circus is an altogether unique affair. The album offers up a looser, more jamming strain of acid rock built on lumbering rhythms and metronomic bass lines, with Allen’s guitar work pushed to the forefront of these more exploratory tunes, each stretching past the 10-minute mark.
Of note is an embryonic version of Camembert Electrique highlight ‘Fohat Digs Holes in Space’, here entitled ‘What Do You Want?’, while elsewhere Allen explores lunkheaded biker blues and musique concrète tape collage, inspired by friend and fellow expat Paris colleague Terry Riley, whom Allen has called his “loop guru.” Listeners who find themselves hesitant to explore the more prog-rooted sides of the era can find much to dig into here as the group chugs along with more of an appropriately gnarly biker-psych vibe that smells of nicotine, leather, and sweat. While lean and somewhat slight when viewed next to Gong’s other work of the period, Continental Circus is nevertheless a banger of an album, and a solid exploration of a sound that the band would otherwise seldom explore, for better or worse.
In 1972, Gong were one of the first acts to sign with Richard Branson’s fledgling Virgin Records, and they kicked off their time on the label with the epic Radio Gnome Trilogy, an ambitious trio of concept albums revolving around the intergalactic travels of an alien named Zero and his interactions with Pot Head Pixies from a distant planet. Zero does drugs, has loads of sex, and basically samples the gamut of Earthly delights in order to ascertain the purpose of human existence. In other words, it’s a hot-boxed hippy philosophy session inspired by Bertrand Russell’s “cosmic teapot” with a killer soundtrack. Upon deeper investigation, though, Gong’s ‘Pot Head Pixie’ universe has deeper ties to the self-constructed mythologies of artists like Sun Ra and Magma, created in reaction to the stresses of revolutionary sociopolitical change occurring throughout the end of the 1960s.
Angel’s Egg was the second LP of the trilogy (as well as the second Gong album to be released in 1973), and for my money the most rewarding and ambitious of the three; in many ways, it serves as the quintessential Gong album, serving up hefty doses of everything that made the band so great. Stratospheric expanses of instrumental cosmic ambience are anchored by drummer Pierre Moerlin’s blistering funk breaks, interwoven with wild yet tuneful horn arrangements inspired by Allen’s beloved modern jazz and an orgiastic tangle of blissed-out female voices. Allen holds court as both narrator and jester throughout, infusing the potentially lofty and oppressive story themes with an overflow of personality and character, while Tim Blake’s synth textures lift these tunes beyond basic psych-rock into realms still being freshly explored among the progressive set. Angel’s Egg (and the Radio Gnome trilogy as a whole) succeeds where so many other prog albums go horribly wrong – it never takes itself too seriously while simultaneously showing off instrumental chops for days.
After his willing departure from Gong, Allen relocated to the Balearic island of Mallorca, where he befriended a band of progressive folk musicians calling themselves Euterpe. The first fruit of their collaboration was Allen’s 1976 sophomore solo album Good Morning, a largely DIY recording made in Allen’s Spanish home which recast the Pot Head Pixie’s cosmic rock in more beachy, bucolic, and largely drumless expanses.
The album is peppered with field recordings of Mediterranean country life, and features arrangements centered upon minimalist cyclical fulcrums of acoustic guitar, charango, harp, and soft ambient synth work. It’s a quiet, mesmerizing record with deep contextual ties to the work of Spanish folkies like Pep Laguarda, Pau Riba, and Joan Bibiloni (perhaps better known to FACT readers via his recent synth compilation on Music From Memory), all of whom were frequent contributors to Allen’s assorted Mallorca-era recordings, and whose respective works are all worth deeper investigation.
While many heads tend to recommend 1977’s Now Is The Happiest Time Of Your Life from this era, I prefer Good Morning‘s melancholic sunset atmospheres over the more sprightly tunes on its follow-up. This album is unlike anything else in Allen’s canon, even amongst his other collaborations with Euterpe’s players; its loose, slowly unwinding structures and dreamlike meanderings evoke a relative calm that was altogether unheard in Allen’s work up to this point, fusing traditional Mallorcan folk with the rambling troubadour tendencies of post-Dylan songcraft. It’s perhaps not lightning in a bottle, but more like catching a cloud in a butterfly net, and provides an example of the English recontextualization of what would become known as Balearic music viewed through a countercultural lens.
By 1975, Gong’s ranks had fully splintered. Synthesist Tim Blake left to pursue solo endeavors, Allen himself had split due to metaphysical and spiritual unease and headed to Spain, and co-founder Gilli Smyth departed to focus on raising children, leaving drummer Pierre Moerlin to take over the band and usher it into a more blatant instrumental jazz-fusion context until its dissolution. Smyth was an integral component in Gong’s early sound, as her trademark echoplexed “space whisper” vocal murmurs provided much of the group’s plentiful sensuality, and she and Allen would continue to explore and develop the group’s core sonic and philosophical principles via their respective solo releases from the tail end of the 1970s into the present.
Smyth and Allen were not only creative partners but romantic ones as well, who continued to nourish a rewarding working relationship after their separation. Produced by Allen and featuring a number of Smyth’s former Gong bandmates as well as a number of Allen’s new Spanish compatriots, 1978’s Mother was Smyth’s first solo album, and her first major post-Gong project. It’s a heady, uncompromising manifesto on the simultaneous powers and struggles of matriarchy, with Smyth cooing, murmuring, and storytelling throughout as a siren of psychedelia. She contrasts charming psych-pop throwbacks to Gong’s Radio Gnome sound with a number of disorienting tape collage pieces over which her space whispers vibrate and shimmer, while unflinching spoken monologues make clear that there’s a darker undercurrent to the peace-and-love hippy operandi.
Amidst the quiet atmospheres in which its songs are cloaked, Mother stands as one of the first and most uncompromising feminist dispatches from the progressive rock universe (a realm overpopulated by regressive and rather misogynistic views toward women) and while some of the content is very much of its era, the album’s explorations of gender roles, cosmic consciousness, and domesticity remain vital and rewarding.
Divided Alien Playbax 80
Allen relocated to New York City around 1978, where he once again reconnected with Giorgio Gomelsky, who was looking to break acts like Henry Cow, Magma, and Gong to NYC’s hip and relatively omnivorous art and music connoisseurs. Gomelsky had opened a club/performance space called Zu in downtown NYC during this period, and held the Zu Manifestival in October of 1978. It was by and large the first prog rock festival to be held on American soil, featuring debut American appearances by Chris Cutler, John Greaves, and Fred Frith of Henry Cow, Magma’s Yoch’ko Seffer, and Gong’s Daevid Allen and Gilli Smyth. A band was needed to back Allen and Smyth for the festival, and Gomelsky encouraged a young NYC bassist by the name of Bill Laswell to start a group for the purpose. Originally dubbed the Zu Band, that group would soon go on to become the influential post punk/art-funk ensemble Material, but not before recording a number of raw sessions with Allen under the name New York Gong.
New York Gong’s lone 1978 album About Time was a scrappy affair that blended a rough punk energy and kinetic funk influences, with Allen reciting somewhat ironic half-sung, half-spoken proto-rap poetry overtop. While that album hasn’t aged particularly well, Allen took a number of the New York Gong instrumental sessions and began playing solo gigs around NYC where he’d play guitar over loops of Material’s tough avant rhythms. In 1982, he released a brutal solo album of this material entitled Divided Alien Playbax 80, which plays less like anything either Gong or Material have recorded, instead sounding more like the work of Wire offshoot groups Dome and Po had they actually crafted the punk miniatures of Pink Flag or Chairs Missing.
Though bookended by two nine-minute extended industrial-psych freakouts, much of the record is comprised of short, agitated bursts of droning, squealing guitar textures anchored by Bill Laswell and Fred Maher’s grooves and the discordant synth tones of Michael Beinhorn. The album’s murky, greyscale palette makes for a lost chapter in post-punk experimentalism that’s not far removed from the no-wave scene happening in NYC at the time, but actually manages to interweave the post-prog sophistication that Brian Eno hoped to extract from bands like DNA and Mars with a highly kinetic rhythmic base. Listeners who thrive on the sounds of early industrial and leftfield synthwave would be wise to investigate this album, as it’s seldom spoken of even among Allen’s fans, perhaps because of its more aggressive and confrontational stance.
Daevid Allen, Gilli Smyth, & Harry Williamson
Stroking The Tail Of The Bird
Originally released in 1990, Stroking The Tail Of The Bird is a compilation of slow-moving, longform instrumental ambient pieces recorded in 1976, 1987, and 1998, crafted with Daevid Allen’s guitar, Gilli Smyth’s voice, the synthesizer work of Harry Williamson, and environmental recordings of lyrebird song. It’s one of Allen’s most aesthetically beautiful and engrossing albums, tailor-made for meditative relaxation, at times stratospherically cosmic, then suddenly aquatic, with a fluidity and consistency that masks the large gaps in recording eras.
Amidst the Asian-inspired harmonic templates, one hears variations and echoes of themes also explored by Fripp + Eno circa their Evening Star album, Ashra’s ‘Ocean Of Tenderness’, or Steve Roach’s epic Quiet Music trilogy, painted with a lush and vibrant palette of color. This is ambient psych in its most tranquil state, simultaneously mesmerizing and menacing. Smyth’s wordless vocals dance with the lyrebird song, while Williamson’s deceptively simple synth work slowly arpeggiates, drones, and gurgles underneath it all. While Allen would occasionally dip into making music for spiritual healing and meditative purposes while also continuing his travels as a rock bandleader via collabs with Acid Mothers Temple, Soft Machine alum Hugh Hopper and Henry Cow/Art Bears drummer Chris Cutler, and a reunited Gong lineup, Stroking The Tail is perhaps his finest offering in the ambient zone.
Regardless of your aesthetic tastes and preferences, there’s something to be plundered from Daevid Allen’s ouvre for nearly any listener with an ear for the esoteric. Allen himself said it best when inviting you into his universe, so we’ll leave the last words to him:
“I left my body on my bed / I flew away inside my head / To dive right through the moon and find / A perfect world inside my mind / I want to take you there / Smiling through your hair / That is why I sing this song / And why there is a band called Gong / Voices in our heads are calling / Ringing bells and singing tales / Of how this world could be / If only we could learn to melt together / Make such lovely weather… Give a little wink, and have a little drink…”