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."
Enjoy unlimited access to 70 million ad-free songs and podcasts with Amazon Music Sign up now for a 30-day free trialSign up
"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
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies