Daevid Allen: Musician who became a founder member of Soft Machine and the visionary leader of influential space rockers Gong


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The Independent Online

In the 1960s, the Melbourne-born singer, guitarist and poet Daevid Allen travelled to Europe in search of “the hot spots of culture” and became a hugely influential figure of the rock underground in the UK, France and beyond.

He was a founder member of Soft Machine, the Canterbury group whose original line-up also comprised bassist/vocalist Kevin Ayers, drummer/vocalist Robert Wyatt and organist Mike Ratledge, but only contributed to their debut single, the heady psychedelic curio “Love Makes Sweet Music”, and half a dozen demo tracks.

Allen had met the beat writer William Burroughs when staying at the Beat Hotel in Paris and later performed with him in London. “We were doing cut-ups, still projections. It was the beginning of multi-media,” said Allen, who brought that experimental, wide-ranging approach to all his subsequent work. In 1966, he sought Burroughs’ approval when they named the new band after his novel The Soft Machine. “Can’t see why not!” was the novelist’s reply.

While his tenure with Soft Machine was brief, Allen helped shape the destiny of the group who were fellow travellers of Pink Floyd and appeared alongside them at the legendary 14 Hour Technicolor Dream concert at London’s Alexandra Palace in April 1967. Soft Machine also instigated the jazz-tinged genre of progressive music known as the Canterbury scene.

Stranded in France over visa issues after the Softs performed at various Nuits Psychédéliques on the French Riviera during the summer of 1967, Allen went on to form the eccentric, engagingly whimsical space rockers Gong, whose ever-changing line-up drew from and fed into the rich pool of Canterbury scene musicians and groups like Hatfield and the North and National Health. Gong lived communally near Sens, 75 miles from Paris, and established an alternative touring circuit in France, where they became cult favourites.

Gong played the second Glastonbury Fayre in 1971, an event Allen had foreseen while tripping in Mallorca five years earlier while staying with the poet Robert Graves in Mallorca. “It was Easter Sunday, 1966. A friend of mine came through with some particularly strong acid. I saw the whole future of myself as a rock musician. I was bathed in light on stage.”

Featured alongside David Bowie and the Dead on the Glastonbury Fayre triple album, Gong were the first band signed to Richard Branson’s Virgin label in 1973. To further raise their profile, the following year Branson issued their 1971 album Camembert Electrique at the bargain price of 59p, and they performed a free concert with Ayers in Hyde Park. Gong also made full use of the facilities at The Manor, Virgin’s residential studio in Oxfordshire where Mike Oldfield had recorded Tubular Bells to make the Radio Gnome trilogy – Flying Teapot, Angel’s Egg and You. The high watermarks of a sprawling oeuvre, these albums explore Allen’s madcap universe, his curious blend of Buddhism and “tea-drinking” metaphors over glissando guitars, a style he developed after experimenting with the composer Terry Riley, whom he had also befriended in Paris. “What he had done with tape loops fascinated me,” he recalled. “Through him, I met Chet Baker, Bud Powell, jazz musicians I adored.”

By the mid-1970s Gong, consisting of Allen’s then partner Gilli Smyth, guitarist Steve Hillage and his partner Miquette Giraudy, synthesiser player Tim Blake, saxophonist Didier Malherbe, drummer Pierre Moerlen and bassist Mike Howlett, seemed on the verge of a major breakthrough. “There was a mystical, occult agreement between us,” Allen told me in 2008. “On the You album we managed to create geometrically and mathematically perfect pieces of music that seemed to be totally improvised. 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.”

In April 1975 Gong were booked at Cheltenham Town Hall but Allen experienced another vision and realised he couldn’t go on stage. “There was an empty doorway that I couldn’t go through because I was bouncing off thin air,” said the musician, who hitch-hiked away from the gig in his stage clothes and ultraviolet make-up. “I’m a restless spirit – I always jump out when things get too successful.”

Over the next four decades Allen remained the catalyst for myriad satellite outfits orbiting his own Planet Gong, such as New York Gong, Gong maison and University of Errors. There were occasional reunions for Gong Family Unconventions at Glastonbury and Amsterdam, as well as high-profile appearances in 2008, including a concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall for a Meltdown curated by Massive Attack, one of many acts Allen inspired by Allen, along with Simple Minds, Julian Cope, The Orb and Ozric Tentacles.

“Gong never broke up,” he said. “We just sort of gravitated together by some form of osmosis and then we gravitated away... When we play Gong, unearthly things happen, emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually, the energy and the feelings make things seem a little nicer.” Last month he was given six months to live after neck cancer spread to his lungs. “I am not interested in endless surgical operations and it has come as a relief to know that the end is in sight,” he said. “I am a great believer in ‘The Will of the Way Things Are’.” 

Christopher David Allen (Daevid Allen), singer, songwriter, guitarist, poet and artist: born Melbourne 13 January 1938; died Byron Bay, New South Wales, 13 March 2015.