From Radio Gnome to Infinity
daevid allen with Lars Fahlin, 2002
Gong are back again. They have a new album out and a new line-up, and still sound very much like they did when they first came about, in the 70s. The cosmic jazz-rock and the space themes haven't changed and neither has the tongue-in-cheek narrative and charisma of the band's central figure, daevid allen. With his long, grey hair, beard and his friendly brown eyes, seemingly full of ancient wisdom, he looks as much one of Planet Gong's Pixies, as he has ever done.
The new album, 'Zero To Infinity', resumes the story of the character Zero The Hero. It first appeared in the early 70s, with the classic 'Radio Gnome Invisible' trilogy, which told the story of a hippie, dropout, prodigal son, who goes on a long journey, in search of enlightenment.
In the first part, 'Flying Teapot', Zero leaves home and finds this band, with voices from another planet. He wants to follow it up and to do so, he has to perform seven initiations. These initiations take him to the Planet Gong, as revealed on the second album, 'Angel's Egg'. Finally, the third album, 'You', is about what happens when Zero comes back to Earth and wants to put what he has learned on the planet into action.
Some twenty years or so later, the trilogy expanded into four parts, with 'Shapeshifter'. On this album, Zero goes to a dance rave, where he meets an urban shaman who turns him on to a further series of initiations, whereby he has got to travel by plane, in order to eat and drink. He cannot eat and drink anywhere below seven miles high. So every time he comes down, he is fasting, which brings on some incredible hallucinations and visions ("He is a real visionary, Zero!" says daevid allen), and it's unclear whether he dies, but he does undoubtedly leave his body.
"On the new album, 'Zero To Infinity', Zero is out of his body. It's a bit like Being John Malkovich; he goes visiting people behind their eyes. Except that, unlike John Malkovich, he can't control anyone; he is just simply a watcher. But because he is a watcher, he can see the world from every point of view available, which gives him a certain breadth of wisdom. This is where the album takes us,"
"We hadn't done one for a long time, and in order that the band might continue you really need to bring a record out fairly regularly. Otherwise there isn't that sort of rejuvenation. The last album we made was 'Shapeshifter', in 1992…eight years ago. A long gap. Probably, we'll bring one out every eighteen months or so, for the next few years".
The original 70s trilogy featuring Zero seemed to be a complete piece of work. For years, Gong played a standard repertoire of 'classics' from the three albums. But with the last two additions to the story, one wonders whether it will go on growing with, or even if the two latest parts were planned from the start.
"The story is being revealed to me … I'm not in control. I am actually waiting and watching it; it's a series of visions for me, too. Every time we make an album, the music comes first … it's the way it's always been done. Once the music's been done, the lyrics come as visions, from listening to the music; it's a vision quest into the music, once it's recorded. So we don't know where it is going to finish up. Except that, hopefully, we'll get some final enlightenment, whatever that means…"
"We usually work in sevens, because seven makes the spectrum, seven makes the scale. So we have two more albums to go there. But there might be more than seven albums about Zero … you never know. Who knows when it's going to stop?"
Over the years, the original cosmically orientated Gong haven't made that many albums. daevid left in the late 70s, and that was for a long time. Apart from the classic 70s recordings, the soundtrack 'Continental Circus', 'Camembert Electrique', the 'Radio Gnome Invisible' trilogy, 'Shapeshifter' and Zero To Infinity', the main output has been in the form of live albums.
One of these was the twenty-fifth anniversary album, 'The Birthday Party', for which bass player Mike Howlett picked up his instrument and made for the concert stage for the first time in seventeen years. One reason for that lack of output was the fact that the different band members live quite some distance from one another. Not like in the old days.
"Whereas Gong used to be a community band, where we all lived in the one house, now it's a community of bands, a lot of bands in one circle: Gongmaison, Mother Gong, Gong Matrix, Planet Gong … there're many different Gong-bands." "There're also several bands without the 'Gong' prefix/suffix: Kangaroo Moon, Magick Brothers … and one is called The University Of Errors, and it's my latest, favourite impro band. It's actually a San Francisco impro band that I have abducted, and we will be touring England soon."
"All the bands have their own repertoires, totally different styles, not the same music at all. Very different but they're all related to the Gong family. So, it's become a big family of bands, whereas it used to be a big family of people. I suppose you could say that it's gone from micro-cosmos to macro-cosmos!"
daevid allen had been a member of the Soft Machine, back in the 60s. When he left that band and formed Gong, his music changed quite radically. Retaining the beatnik elements and an idea of musical variety from the previous band, Allen came to add other ideas and styles, thus reaching what became the Gong sound.
Even though Gong in many ways is a rock band, daevid allen emphasises the band's free jazz origins. He didn't like rock, originally - still doesn't, to some extent. Neither does he listen much to it, unless he is involved in it himself. So how does he describe Gong's music?
"The whole virtue of Gong is that it's a smorgasbord band …a smorgasbord of styles. It's always tried to mix up the styles, without in any way having a continuum of style running through it, like you are supposed to if you want to be commercial. What we do is offer other bands … we are like the backroom boys who say: 'Come to the feast and choose a Pavlova, or choose the vegetarian pie or the roast turkey, or something … go and specialise and make a fortune … and remember us when you're finished.' Many people have done that. This is what Gong is for."
You formed Gong in France. How important a fact is that? Could you have done the same in England?
"I don't think so because, especially at the time, England was much narrower in its stylistic preferences; France was wide open. I think in some ways France has always been an original country in the history of music. Their classical music, in the 20s, was some of the most original around - Erik Satie is a good example."
"There is something whimsical about France, which is delightful at the same time as really … fantastical. They love fantasy and whimsy. That's what I love too, and Gong was that."
"But, you know, there wasn't really a strong political aggro going on in England, either. There was a great deal of political passion in France and, of course, when I was thrown out of England and had to go to France, I ended up in the student riots. That was an initiation by fire and that influenced, enormously, the nature of Gong."
"At various times in France, Gong was a revolutionary band - a flat-out anarchist, student's revolutionary band. Then, for a while, when we did 'Continental Circus', we became a biker's band, with all the bikers coming out to see us play! That was outrageous!"
"And from there, it went on to the flower-power, hippie thing, because we brought that from England. We were the first hippie band, the most obvious example of that, and they took us as role models for the whole French hippie movement."
"It's been a very interesting history for us and it would never have happened like that in England. We would have been confined to a certain style of playing and would have stayed much less interesting, much less of a smorgasbord than it could be in France."
However, a lot of things have changed in England since the 60s, especially musically. The multi-cultural mix that is available now fits in well with daevid allen's personal views of how it should be. As a third generation Australian, spending most of his time in England, and "divorced from any cultural identity", he has always felt a need to blend as many different cultures as possible into his music. This was, in fact, a form of World Music, long before the term or tag had been coined.
"I suppose I was a walking multi-culturalist long before the European countries lost their boundaries and became flooded with lots of different cultures. Now England is wonderful, very multicultural, for all its attempts at bigotry … the current crisis - talk about race, and so on - it's very true, but…"
"There is an enormous variety here now, an enormous variety of music as a result, and so it's much more interesting. If Gong had started now, yes, it would definitely have done, in England, what it did in France then."
The typical Gong audience is still very much the same as it used to be, but it is growing. According to daevid allen, the band appeals to people with artistic tendencies, with a good sense of humour and whimsy and those who like the Goon Show and suchlike. If you don't understand the humour, you will probably think it's stupid.
"One thing we've always practised with Gong is this filtering system, whereby we don't get flooded with people who don't know what we're about. That's why we have the Inner Temple and the Outer Temple. The Inner Temple is really us, those who know what it's about … we're brothers and sisters."
"The Outer Temple is for people who come for more superficial reasons, who may not really feel part of the group … those who are interested in one little element or another - who are temporarily passing through. But I think it cuts right through every face of society; I can't think of a single category that is naturally represented. It doesn't seem to go for a specific race or type-people with imagination tend to be drawn to Gong."
"And then there is the rave scene. Gong was the first generation of what now is the rave party scene. The rave party scene is the second generation of the same type of alternative movement. Except now it's more street-wise, it's much cleverer and I think that, in many ways, much less vague. They are much more focused, actually. In the last ten years, we've had a lot of people coming over from the rave scene, and I love them!"