When Soft Machine toured France in 1967, Australian guitarist Daevid Allen (pictured below left) was refused re-entry to the UK due to a visa complication. Staying in Paris, he saw the riots of May 1968 first hand and an insurrectionist spirit infused his new band, Gong.
Born in Melbourne in 1938 as David Allen (he added the ‘e’ which he claimed stood for ‘ego’) he was part of a generation of post-war Aussies who fled to Europe in search of culture.
He arrived in Paris in 1960 and was drawn to the Beat Hotel, a run-down joint favoured by the likes of Allen Ginsberg. Allen got to know William Burroughs, sold hash and flirted with tape loops.
Finding himself back in Paris in 1967 after being thrown out of England, Allen hooked up with Gilli Smyth.
They married and formed the first incarnation of the band with Ziska Baum on vocals and Loren Standlee on flute.
Gilli and Ziska developed a form of breathy singing (“it comes from trying to calm animals down by whispering”, explained Gilli) that they called “space whisper”.
Finding themselves smack in the middle of the 1968 student revolution, Allen and Smyth fled France for an artistic commune in Majorca. It was there that they met Didier Malherbe, who was living in a goat herder’s cave on the island.
Malherbe was a jazz saxophonist who had also learned the bamboo flute in India and spent time in Tunisia learning North African instruments.
Allen, Smyth and Malherbe returned to France in 1969 to form the next incarnation of Gong, but by 1975 Allen and Smyth had jumped ship for Spain.
Gong continued for a while with Steve Hillage and Miquette Giraudy fronting Shamal (1975), produced by Pink Floyd‘s Nick Mason, before finally settling in jazz-rock territory as Pierre Moerlen’s Gong, with Moerlen and Malherbe alone remaining from previous incarnations.
Their albums Gazeuse/Expresso (1977) and Expresso II (1978) were Gong in name alone.
The spirit was kept alive more by Steve Hillage, whose spaced-out solo albums were marketed successfully by Virgin alongside The Sex Pistols. Oddly, Allen and Smyth returned to England much more in key with the times, re-forming as Planet Gong and enlisting musicians from punk-hippie hybrid Here & Now.
Allen moved to New York around 1978, made a few solo albums, and instigated a New York Gong project before returning to Australia, where he wound up driving taxis.
Gilli Smyth, meanwhile, recorded and toured as Mother Gong, producing a trilogy of cosmic feminist tracts, often accompanied by Malherbe. Tim Blake briefly joined Hawkwind before basing himself in France and recording and performing as Crystal Machine.
In 1988 Allen returned to England, settling in Glastonbury. He was a largely forgotten figure, but Gong material was beginning to be sampled by acid house producers, and he reclaimed sufficient momentum to get a band together again, touring in 1992 as Gongmaison, with Malherbe back on reeds and with tabla percussion and techno-esque electronics reflecting how many of the original musical tenets of golden period Gong had come back into play.
In October 1994, Allen hosted a 25th birthday party for Gong at London’s Forum, headlining a bill featuring some of the many spin-offs that had continued through the years.
A 1997 release, Shapeshifter, brought a lot of graduates from Allen’s university back to the alma mater to show what they’d learned along the way.
Daevid Allen died of cancer in March 2015.
Piano, piano harp
Glockenspiel, vibraphone, marimba