When the classic line-up of Gong reunited in 2009 to record new album 2032 Prog sat down with Steve Hillage and Daevid Allen to unravel a complicated life from another universe and discuss an album describes how the heretofore invisible Planet Gong, home of the pot head pixies and octave doctors, will finally make contact with Earth in the year 2032. Quite! It appeared in the fourth issue of the magazine.
Let us not underestimate the revelatory nature of Steve Hillage’s return to the Gong mothership. The guitarist/vocalist last recorded with Gong founder Daveid Allen on the You album in 1974 – the year of the Watergate scandal, Harold Wilson reclaiming the keys to 10 Downing Street and the respective births of Opeth leader Mikael Åkerfeldt, Posh Spice and now-retired former England cricket captain Michael Vaughan. Yes, it really was that long ago.
Few, including Hillage, who went on to pursue a successful solo career and then vanish from rock music before reinventing himself via the ambient techno sounds of System 7, ever thought that a reunion with Gong was possible. But if the space rock group’s sprawling, often surreal four-decade lifespan taught us anything, it’s to always expect the unexpected.
So come with us to Planet Gong, a distant world inhabited by Pot Head Pixies, Flying Teapots and Octave Doctors, where the only station worth listening to is Radio Gnome. It might be a good idea to leave your preconceptions at the door.
Prog encounters the affable Hillage back in March, a familiar, slightly toothy grin welcoming us into his Ladbroke Grove studio lair during the build-up to a brand new Gong studio album called 2032.
A potted history of Gong and its offshoot acts could fill an entire issue of this esteemed organ. So let us state that Hillage, a former member of Uriel (later changed to Egg on the grounds that Uriel sounded too much like ‘urinal’), Khan and Kevin Ayers’ group, joined for the first time in January 1973, following Khan bandmate and now sadly deceased drummer Pip Pyle into the ranks. By then, former Soft Machine guitarist Daevid Allen and vocalist/space whisperer and poetess Gilli Smyth had released three albums under the Gong handle – namely, Magic Brother/Mystic Sister (1969), the film soundtrack Continental Circus (1971) and Camembert Electrique (1971).
“I was already an admirer of Gong before Pip [Pyle] introduced us,” Hillage reminisces. “They fascinated me, and we got on well when we met. It’s every fan’s dream to join their favourite band but that’s exactly what happened.”
Smyth and Melbourne-born Allen were already romantically involved when Hillage moved into the band’s farmhouse commune in Sens, Northern France (as seen in the inner gatefold of the original Camembert Electrique sleeve). Living hand to mouth, the rural existence “wasn’t always easy,” Steve reflects, “but I look back on those times with great affection. We had a great rehearsal space and, inhabiting our own reality, everything was focused on the playing of music. Had Gong been based in Paris, for instance, it might not have worked the way it did.”
Newly signed to Virgin Records, with Hillage and future Hawkwind synth wizard Tim Blake on board, 1973’s Flying Teapot was the first album to fully integrate Gong’s wildly diverse ingredients, pooling psychedelic, prog rock, jazz and trance influences with the vitriol of what would later be known as punk, their lyrics a drug-crazed, befuddled amalgam of hippie ideals and nursery rhyme lunacy.
Daevid and Gilli both quit upon the completion of Flying Teapot, only to reconsider for Angel’s Egg, also released in 1973. The final chapter of what became known as the Radio Gnome Trilogy was 1974’s You, an album that introduced keyboard player Miquette Giraudy (who remains Hillage’s partner). With Allen having abandoned drugs and attempting to persuade other members to follow suit, a rift had opened. Unsurprisingly, the line-up of Gong that is deemed classic imploded the following year, though Hillage and Giraudy guided the band through 1975’s Nick Mason-produced album Shamal. Drummer Pierre Moerlen (now also deceased) would pick up the slack when Hillage, who had released a solo album called Fish Rising in 1975, opted to go it alone (or, specifically, with Giraudy).
“Miquette and I quit six months after Daevid had left, and Gong without Daevid wasn’t Gong anymore,” explains Steve. “Virgin were also looking to turn the band into a vehicle for my solo work, which I didn’t think appropriate. It became awkward.”
Years later Allen would complain that Gong was always doomed to failure because Virgin boss Richard Branson wanted to “turn the band into celebrities”.
“That’s a complicated question,” shrugs Hillage when asked whether he concurs. “Which label doesn’t want its bands to sell as many records as possible? Part of the problem was a band as anarchic as Gong being signed to a label at all. That’s why we’re releasing this new album ourselves [via G-Wave Records].”
As well as going on to outstrip the sales of Gong with his solo career, Hillage also produced albums for It Bites, Simple Minds and The Charlatans. But it was the combination of appearing again with Allen, Smyth and Giraudy at the Gong Family Unconvention, a three-day event at the Melkweg in Amsterdam in November 2006, and the reissuing of Steve’s own eight-album solo catalogue that planted the seed of playing rock music again. At the Amsterdam show, Hillage not only returned to the boards with Gong but warmed up for the main event by performing solo material for the first time in nearly 30 years (both sets are now available on CD and DVD).
“As well as being a great event it led to a whole coming together of the central core of Gong,” explains Hillage. “There had been a certain amount of reconnecting going on between all of us in previous years, but the Unconvention was where it all really came together.”
An unexpected twist came last June when Meltdown Festival bill curators Massive Attack invited Gong – including Hillage and Giraudy – to join an eclectic gathering of Grace Jones, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Gang Of Four, Primal Scream, Tom Tom Club and more during a 10-day run at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. If, for a nano-second, it seemed like the band’s name was finally becoming – wait for it! – hip, a gushing review in The Independent which described the band’s Meltdown display an “unforgettable psychedelic experience” only accentuated the notion.
“Massive Attack revealing themselves as big Gong fans was nice,” Hillage beams. “The response to the Meltdown gig and another at the Forum [Kentish Town] made us think, ‘Okay, let’s do this again – go for broke’, which is what happened.”
Looking ahead to the 40th anniversary tour, Hillage’s first with Gong since 1975 and the group’s most recent burst of roadwork in eight years, the guitarist is keener to emphasise what he believes to be a contemporary angle than simply gush about nostalgia.
“Right now, Miquette and myself and Daevid and Gilli get on really well. The four of us sit around for hours on end and discuss music, politics, weird shit… I love the weird shit,” he enthuses with a chuckle. “But it feels like we’re doing something that’s completely current and in the present. It’s a happening thing, and we’re not doing it for any other reason than we really enjoy it.”
With 2032, Hillage predicts great things.
“It’s forward-looking, and I don’t just mean the title,” he believes. “There are good songs and melodies; it will push all of people’s buttons.”
After so many years of absence from the rock scene, Hillage is also relishing the playing of his own material once more. So much so that he doesn’t rule out the possibility of following up his seemingly final pair of studio releases, 1983’s For To Next and And Not Nor. But for the present Hillage’s focus is Gong, a group he’s extremely proud to be a part of.
“People ask whether we are connected to reality,” he muses of the music and its madcap heritage. “I think we present a nice balance between realism and escapism. Music has the power to uplift people and that’s becoming more important than ever.”
Four months later, Hillage and Gong are among the main attractions of the Lounge On The Farm Festival in Canterbury. Having long since abandoned hope of seeing Hillage onstage, your correspondent almost has to pinch himself as the guitarist, Giraudy and Gong’s rhythm section of Dave Sturt (deputising for regular bassist Mike Howlett) and drummer Chris Taylor soar divinely though 50 minutes of utterly majestic guitar rock, revisiting The Octave Doctors, Palm Trees, Searching For The Spark, a segment of Aftaglid, Hurdy Gurdy Man, The Salmon Song, It’s All Too Much and concluding with a deserved encore of Solar Musick Suite.
With the sun setting and storm clouds overhead, Gong’s performance crackles with electricity. In a nice personal touch, Daevid Allen dedicates the night to his recently deceased “musical brother” and former Soft Machine bandmate, Hugh Hopper.
A couple of songs from 2032 are previewed: Digital Girl, an ode to empowered 21st century females, and Wacky Baccy Bankers, which vilifies the greedy imbeciles that attempt to safeguard our precious cash, bolstered by a sensational glissando guitar solo. Mostly, though, Gong adhere to a crowd-pleasing selection of favourites from Camembert Electrique and the Radio Gnome Trilogy. One of the highlights comes during the Zen-like freak-out of the Angel’s Egg album selection Outer Temple as Allen, still an astonishingly sprightly frontman, woos the swaying audience with a ceremonial cry of: “Would you like some tea?” – plainly, we are not talking PG Tips here, but laced with mushrooms or acid.
To be enhanced by an array of hypnotic visual effects, and with Hillage confirmed as support act, take Prog’s word for it – the November tour will be stunning.
Allen proves fascinating company as Gong’s London-bound bus rolls back up the M2. Onstage Daevid’s long white hair might make him look like a cross between Lord Of The Rings’ Gandalf and a slimmed-down Grandpa from The Waltons but he’s such a charming and enthusiastic raconteur there’s an air of gentleman rogue actor Leslie Phillips about him.
“Gong is like a boat – people can get on and off again if they wish,” he states in response to a question about the band’s convoluted history. “It just keeps on floating down the river.”
Intriguingly, it has remained seaworthy with various different hands on the tiller. “That’s what I love about it,” Daevid agrees. “Whoever is behind the key decisions and all the phone calls becomes the leader.”
So who is the captain of HMS Gong right now?
“Oh, definitely Steve. He organises everything, it’s a massive task. I’ve tried it myself and failed dismally, actually messed up a couple of tours. But Steve’s great at it. He’s the guy that suggested taking things further [after the Unconvention]. I’d been hassling him for years and I love the fact that he’s back.”
Was there any jealousy when Hillage went onto have such a successful solo career?
“From me? None at all,” responds Allen. “I never saw myself as a guitar hero. What Steve does is a discipline, playing within certain confines. Songs have souls, too, and need respect. I’ve always been more of an explorer.”
And when it comes to this line-up, how long-term is Allen thinking? “I’m a very impatient guy,” he shrugs impassively. “If things stay the same for too long I start squiggling in my skin – I’ll leave and do something else. I’m always looking for the next exciting leap.”
That being said, Allen remains proud of the way that the Radio Gnome Trilogy has stood the test of time.
“Those records still make you feel good,” he nods. “As musicians, all of the guys – Pierre Moerlen, Steve, Mike [Howlett] on bass and Tim Blake – were reaching the peak of their powers. It was a time when Gong was not only running on all cylinders but was supercharged.”
Allen’s mythology – a series of bizarre stories that ran through the music (see side bar) – was another element of Gong’s uniqueness. Revealing that the tales of Pot Head Pixies are not necessarily to be taken seriously, Allen believes that he was merely a conduit in their evolution.
“As I listened to the music the stories came through me from Planet Gong,” he states. “I’m not opting out of all responsibility because I am a lens and my own ego would have had some bearing upon the results…” his voice trails off. Okay, so do people accuse him of insanity?
“I wouldn’t use the word ‘mad’, more just silly. The Americans really don’t get it,” he smiles dismissively. “But it’s absurdity humour, a bit like the Goon Show. It’s like a secret language about the more farcical things in life.”
Based upon the year that the Planet Gong makes full contact with the Planet Earth, the 2032 album adds a new chapter to Gong’s ever-evolving mythology.
“This album brings the story to a conclusion,” he volunteers. “I can’t give away what happens, obviously, but it ends well and I hope people will find it interesting.”
Allen agrees with my observation that there is a more significant female presence at Gong gigs than most other rock shows, the presence of Giraudy and Smyth ensuring that it is not some Boy’s Own club.
“Gilli and Miquette both make such powerful contributions,” he concurs, “which is where the whole Digital Girl thing comes in.”
We discuss Richard Branson’s influence upon Gong and for all the apparent bad blood of yore, Allen speaks with surprising fondness of the label boss turned impresario. “Richard is like a card player that just keeps on getting away with his mistakes, or a soccer player that scores miraculous goals off the post,” he chuckles. “You have to admire the freakiness of that.”
From living in the commune onwards, there are numerous apocryphal stories about Gong. For instance, the band’s saxophonist Didier Malherbe was apparently discovered whilst living in a cave?
“That’s absolutely true,” beams Allen. “I went clambering down there after hearing this beautiful flute-playing and there was Didier. We sat there, shared a pipe and watched this divine sunset together.”
As anyone who has seen Daevid Allen leaping, pogoing and careering around the stage will testify, he gives everything to the show. It’s an impressively display from a guy who no longer resembles anything spring chicken-like.
“I do yoga, I don’t fuck up my body too much and I have discipline,” he explains.
“I save up all the energy of my day and channel it into those two hours. Something takes me over. The only prerequisite is that I shape things with goodwill.”
“At the age of 71, I might die tomorrow. I’ve no clue what might happen in a month – every extra day is a bonus. But it’s fun to live in the here and now.”