Space rockers reunite on Earth

Gong were the psychedelic supergroup who wowed Glastonbury Fayre in 1971. Ahead of their Meltdown appearance, founder Daevid Allen tells Pierre Perrone how he survived the madness

In 1966, Daevid Allen, who had left Australia in search of "the hot spots of culture", had a spiritual vision in Mallorca. "It was Easter Sunday, 1966. A friend of mine came through with some particularly strong acid from the States. I took this and saw the whole future of myself as a rock musician," recalls Allen, now 70. "I was bathed in light on stage."

Five years later, when Gong played the second Glastonbury Fayre, Allen's premonition became reality. "The generator broke down, and when we started playing again, the light was changing. All the people were coming down from the camping village in a line, dancing and gathered at the front of the stage. We were lifted up by these dancers. It was an extraordinary experience."

Allen didn't predict the role Gong would play in the countercultural movement, or that in 1973 they would be the first group signed by Richard Branson. Nor did he picture Gong's appearance at this year's Meltdown. But Gong guitarist Steve Hillage, now one half of the ambient dance act System7, wasn't surprised when Massive Attack, the festival's artistic directors, called. "Gong has a really strong reputation in the dance scene. There's something about that hypnotic beat that we got going – it's been a big influence on a lot of people."

In the early Sixties, while living in Paris, Allen was a disciple of avant-garde composer Terry Riley. "What he had done with tape loops fascinated me. Through him, I met Chet Baker, Bud Powell, jazz musicians I adored." He also collaborated with William Burroughs, whose novel The Soft Machine inspired him to form a group with Kevin Ayers, Mike Ratledge and Robert Wyatt in 1966. "With Burroughs, I was doing cut-ups, still projections, it was the beginning of multimedia," says Allen. "The revolution of the Sixties was probably just as important as the Dada and Surrealist movements were in the Twenties."

Soft Machine became synonymous with London's underground scene and played at the legendary 14 Hour Technicolour Dream concert alongside The Pink Floyd in April 1967. "It was a really fun period. We wrote these songs and pretended it was pop music, but of course it was jazz," says Allen. "We ended up on the French Riviera playing for Brigitte Bardot, and instead of our normal set we did the 'Louie Louie' riff over and over again and turned it into 'We Did It Again'. The French thought this was fantastic: it made Soft Machine flavour of the month for the French glitterati."

However, when the Softs travelled back to the UK in August 1967, Allen was refused re-entry. "I wasn't that unhappy. I had the pick of musicians in Paris." Allen had met poet Gilli Smyth there in 1962. She became his lover, co-conspirator and a proto-feminist presence in Gong. A guerrilla gig staged during Les Evénements of May 1968 made the news and the couple thought it wiser to leave the French capital and go back to Mallorca for a while. In typical beat fashion, they found saxophonist Didier Malherbe playing flute in a cave on land owned by the author Robert Graves. Allen, Smyth and Malherbe formed the nucleus of the early Gong. They lived communally and recorded the albums Magick Brother, Bananamoon and Camembert Electrique. Drawing on jazz, psychedelia and introducing the Radio Gnome characters, Camembert caught the zeitgeist in France when it was released in 1971. "We talked quite seriously about there being a planet called Gong but, in fact, it doesn't really have a physical presence. It operates on a higher keynote, on a higher vibration. When we play Gong, unearthly things happen, emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually, the energy and the feelings make things seem a little nicer," he says.

Gong tapped into those vibrations when they appeared at Glastonbury in June 1971, even though their leader was still not allowed into the UK. "I came through in a van with a photo of the Buddha on my passport," he recalls. "Gilli undid the three top buttons of her blouse and that did the trick." Gong were included on the Glastonbury Fayre triple album in 1972 and went from Canterbury scene avatars to darlings of the underground. Richard Branson's fledgling Virgin label shrewdly issued Camembert in the UK at the bargain price of 49p, making the album ubiquitous.

Hillage backed Ayers on a French tour and followed his friend, the drummer Pip Pyle, into Gong's commune in Sens. "It felt really natural," Hillage says. "It osmosified. I loved it. We had a rehearsal room built in the house." He met his partner Miquette Giraudy there, and was involved in the first ever performance of Tubular Bells in 1973. "That was the last time I played the Queen Elizabeth Hall," he points out.

Gong recorded the Radio Gnome trilogy of albums – Flying Teapot, Angel's Egg and You – at the Manor in Oxfordshire, but the classic lineup – Allen, Malherbe, Smyth, Hillage, synth player Tim Blake, bassist Mike Howlett and drummer Pierre Moerlen – proved short-lived. "There was a mystical, occult agreement between us: on the You album, we managed to create geometrically and mathematically perfect pieces of music that seemed to be totally improvised," Allen says. "But Branson was trying to turn us into celebrities. I just knew that if I went any further, we'd become victims of the system." He departed in spectacular fashion in April 1975, hitchhiking away from a gig at Cheltenham Town Hall in his stage clothes and ultraviolet makeup. "I couldn't actually go on. There was an empty doorway that I couldn't go through because I was bouncing off thin air. I'm a restless spirit – I always jump out when things get too successful."

"Without Daevid, it didn't really feel like Gong," recalls Hillage. "Some over-enthusiastic Virgin press guy started to do this 'Steve Hillage: new leader' number. I felt really awkward about that, especially as I'd just come out with my solo album, Fish Rising. It looked like I'd elbowed Daevid so I could have a vehicle which was absolutely not the case."

Gong continued under the guidance of Moerlen, who turned the group into a jazz-fusion outfit. (In May 1977, a reunion in Paris featuring several Gong offshoots included Strontium 90, a project fronted by Howlett with Sting on bass, Andy Summers on guitar and Stewart Copeland on drums, which served as the springboard for The Police.) After a five-year solo career Hillage became a producer (for Simple Minds, Robyn Hitchcock, The Charlatans and Algerian singer Rachid Taha). Seeing Alex Paterson DJ at Heaven in 1989 proved something of an epiphany for him and Giraudy. "We walked into the chill-out room and he was playing Rainbow Dome Musick, our album from 1979, and mixing a beat under it. I thought, 'Here we go.' We felt completely at home, and this is where we've been since," he says, referring to the couple's enduring musical partnership as System7. "We worked on the first Orb album. The first ever Orb live show was also the first ever System7 show in 1990."

The Gong founder is already looking beyond Meltdown to an exhibition at the Centre d'Arts Plastiques Contemporains in Bordeaux at the end of the year. "We'll be able to manifest all the aspects of art that surround Gong: the poetry, the drawings, the film work, the costumes, all of the strange teapot objects." He says Gong will also be making new music. "I would say Gong never broke up anyway. We just sort of gravitated together by some form of osmosis and then we gravitated away. There's something in our DNA about Gong."

Gong play the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 14 June, and the Forum in London on 15 June. The Ungong 06 DVD is out on Voiceprint. Daevid Allen & the Magick Brothers play London's Albany Theatre on 5 June

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine