Gong

Tagged: Music

Rock band, identified as French although they were founded by Australian Daevid Allen (1938-    ) and have included English and American as well as French members. Allen had been working in London in the late 1960s but, temporarily denied a visa, relocated to Paris and formed Gong with his partner, Gilli Smith (1933-    ). The group's first album Magick Brother/Mystic Sister (1970) has a rather fairy, and indeed airy-fairy, vibe, inaugurating in rudimentary form the "Gong myth": a space pixie has travelled to the earth from his home, Planet Gong, in order to sing his "green songs". Allen's voice is unexceptional, although Smith's "space whispering", a mode of rangy yet intimate vocal improvisation, is distinctive. For subsequent releases the pair recruited saxophonist Didier Malherbe (1943-    ), keyboard player Tim Blake, and drummer Pierre Moerlen (1952-2005) with various others. Their most acclaimed work remains the "Radio Gnome Trilogy" (sometimes called the "Radio Gnome Invisible Trilogy"): a sequence comprising Flying Teapot (1972), Angel's Egg (1973) and You (1974). The trilogy spells out the "pot-head pixie" story in crowded detail, and is a mixture of the goofy-fantastic and the properly science-fictional. It includes flights between Earth and Planet Gong by both spaceship and Drug-induced ecstasy (this latter involves flight on the magic "glidding" teapots of the first album's title). A bewildering array of characters come and go, and the narrative line is not of the easiest to follow, although at the centre is a figure called "Zero the Hero" whose destiny is to activate the "third eye" of every inhabitant of Earth by broadcasting the alien music of Gong via the "Invisible Opera Company of Tibet". The albums' music provides an aural equivalent of this eclectic, druggy storyline: largely instrumental and freeform, sometimes plangently evocative, sometimes little more than a meandering mélange. Some insist that the only way properly to appreciate Gong is to listen to them under the influence of drugs. The present author is not in a position either to verify or falsify this claim.

In 1974 Allen announced that "an invisible forcefield" prevented him from playing with Gong. He and Smith accordingly departed, leaving drummer Moerlen to reconstitute the group as "Pierre Moerlen's Gong", a markedly less psychedelic and self-indulgent ensemble that moved increasingly towards conventional jazz-rock. Gazeuse! (1976) – the title means, banally enough, "fizzy!" – was a hit in the USA under the title Expresso, which led to a follow-up Expresso II (1978). These releases have a family resemblance to Allen's Gong, but later albums, despite returning more obviously to "space" themes, albeit via a New Age ethos, are increasingly bland: Time is the Key (1979), Leave It Open (1980) and Breakthrough (1986) are all more or less anodyne. An exception is Downwind (1979), which has an attractive spacious, aerial quality, reminiscent of Mike Oldfield.

Meanwhile, Allen and Smith reformed their original band under a variety of monikers, including "Mother Gong", "Daevid Allen's Gong", "Classic Gong", "Acid Mothers Gong" (a hook-up with Acid Mothers Temple) and "The Invisible Opera Company of Tibet" – this latter being a name from the "Radio Gnome" trilogy. Amongst many releases, several of which are live albums, Allen's three-part expansion of his earlier trilogy has particular genre interest: Shapeshifter: Radio Gnome Part 4 (1992), in which the protagonist Zero dies; Zero to Infinity (2000), in which his spirit flies about the cosmos and transforms into "an android spheroid Zeroid" and 2032 (2009). This latter work expresses Allen's theory that its titular date will see the benignly transcendental end of the world, when Planet Gong and Earth will collide and we'll all escape into less mundane dimensions. Little of this later work is animated by the gnomic, left-field brilliance of the early releases; the music too often sounds like pastiche, the content often flabby and self-indulgent. Still, the 1970s releases, despite or perhaps because of their spirited sillinesses, endure. [AR]

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