The beginnings of Gong can be traced back to several years before the band actually started to exist as such. Easter 1966, to be more specific. In the Gong mythology, this was the point when Daevid Allen had his ‘seed vision’, during which, legend has it, he foresaw his future career with both Soft Machine and Gong. This subject is largely covered by Allen himself in his recent autobiography, ‘Gong Dreaming’.
Following his forced departure from Soft Machine in 1967, Daevid Allen settled in Paris with his partner Gilli Smyth, and for the next couple of years worked with several different line-ups, the most stable of which was Bananamoon (whose recordings, unreleased at the time, were published by Legend Music in 1993). The name Gong was first used in 1969, by which time the group of musicians gathered around Allen included former free-jazz saxophone player Didier Malherbe (nicknamed ‘Bloomdido’ after the famous Charlie Parker composition), and session musicians Christian Tritsch (guitar/bass) and Rachid Houari (drums/percussion), previously in the backing band of variety star Claude François. Together, they recorded the first Gong album (although the initial pressing was apparently credited to Allen and Smyth alone), “Magick Brother/Mystick Sister”. The music was still very raw compared to the classic mid-70’s albums, but Allen ‘s typical style and sense of humour were already well at the fore.
1970 was again a year of mostly confidential activity. The tapes recorded during that period were only released in 1994 on the “Camembert Eclectique” CD. Gong was still not a stable, regularly gigging unit. This only became true after the arrival of Pip Pyle in early 1971. Pyle had been introduced to Allen by Robert Wyatt during the recording of Allen’s solo album, “Banana Moon”, and ended up playing on one track of that album. With the now settled line-up of Allen, Smyth, Malherbe, Tritsch and Pyle, the band retired to the Château d’Hérouville (near Pontoise) to record “Camembert Electrique”, which was only released in France (by Byg). This was the first classic album of Gong, with songs like “You Can’t Kill Me”, “Dynamite/I Am Your Animal” or “Fohat Digs Holes In Space” which have remained in the band’s setlists to this day.
In the autumn of 1971, Gong toured France and England extensively, reinforced by Kevin Ayers, Allen’s old pal from the Soft Machine days, who had his solo section in each concert (Robert Wyatt, having just left the Softs, also appeared at selected gigs). Again, following “Camembert Electrique”‘s confidential release, more than a year would pass before Gong made it back to the recording studios, so this period is not well-documented, with the exception of a couple of BBC sessions. By December 1971, Pyle had gone back to England and had been replaced by Laurie Allan, who by coincidence had already been his successor in Delivery the previous year!
Later in 1972, major changes affected Gong’s line-up. Christian Tritsch decided to concentrate on guitar; Bill MacCormick of Matching Mole was added briefly, then replaced by ex-Magma Frenchman Francis Moze following Giorgio Gomelsky’s suggestion. Meanwhile, Tim Blake was added on synthesizer, which brought a whole new dimension to the band’s sound. Following a jam in Fontaineblau with Kevin Ayers’ band, which then included Steve Hillage as lead guitarist, Didier Malherbe offered the latter to join, which he did in replacement of Tritsch. With this new line-up (reinforced by Rachid Houari on percussion), Gong recorded what was the be the first instalment of the ‘Radio Gnome Invisible’ trilogy for which Gong is most fondly remembered by its fans. “Flying Teapot” introduced the characters of the Planet Gong (Zero The Hero and The Yoni Witch, aliasses for Allen and Smyth, The Pot-Head Pixies and The Octave Doctors) as well as the various devices used by its inhabitants to travel and communicate (Radio Gnome Invisible, the Flying Teapots and the Crystal Machine) and, musically speaking, marked a transition to the fuller and more sophisticated sound of the next albums.
The sessions were almost immediately followed by a new split. Moze and Allan left, the first to do session work in Paris and the second to go back to England (where he briefly rejoined Steve Miller’s Delivery). A new rhythm section of Didier Thibault (formerly of Moving Gelatine Plates, a very good Soft Machine-influenced band) and Pierre Moerlen (straight out of the Strasbourg conservatory where he’d studied classical percussion extensively) was recruited. This was the time Allen and Smyth chose to temporarily leave the band, presumably to leave them rehearse on their own and feel comfortable together, which they eventually did thanks to a French tour under the name of ParaGong, in the spring of 1973. Meanwhile, Thibault was replaced by yet another British exile, Mike Howlett.
“Flying Teapot” was among the first batch of releases on the new Virgin label, with which Gong had just signed, and coincided with Allen and Smyth returning for a headlining UK tour. Work soon started on the second trilogy album, Angel’s Egg. A musically more mature and consistent work, Angel’s Egg was successful in mixing together all the innovative musical elements brought by both the new recruits and the old members, from Blake’s synthesizer bubbles to Moerlen’s tight and sophisticated drumming (with occasional use of tuned percussion), from Malherbe’s multicoloured sax and flute leads, displaying influences from both jazz and ethnic idioms, to Hillage’s wild cosmic guitar soloing, not forgetting Allen’s typical vocal delivery and superior glissando guitar layers, and Smyth’s evocative space whispers.
There were however problems of a more social nature within the band, which led to the first of several departures of Pierre Moerlen, still hesitant whether to carry on with Gong or resume his classical activities. From late 1973, he was replaced by a variety of temporary drummers including Laurie Allan, Rob Tait and Diane Stewart (Graham Bond’s wife, also a vocalist). By now, Gong was starting to enjoy a high level of popularity in France, and gigged constantly. Recordings of these later resurfaced as the “Live At The Bataclan” and “Live At Sheffield” CD’s, not to mention those used on the double live set, “Live Etc.” from 1977.
With Moerlen eventually back in the line-up, Gong recorded what is considered as one of the ultimate space-rock classics, You (spawning such live favourties as “Master Builder” and “Isle Of Everywhere”) which, although initially conceived as the third volume of the ‘Radio Gnome Trilogy’, took an unexpected instrumental dimension, with Allen’s vocals confined to a minority of tracks. At that point, there was a growing conflict between Daevid Allen and the instrumentalists, which would eventually lead to Allen’s departure the following spring, two dates into a major UK tour with Global Village Trucking Company. Meanwhile, Moerlen left again and was replaced in September 1974 by Laurie Allan, then Bill Bruford (jobless following the breakup of King Crimson) and eventually (in February 1975) Brian Davison, formerly of The Nice and Refugee.
With Gong developing to an instrumental band, not only Allen but also Smyth and Blake grew dissatisfied and left as well. Smyth was replaced by Miquette Giraudy, Hillage’s girlfriend. The position of keyboard player remained vacant for a while although Dave Stewart of Hatfield and the North (which broke up in June, 1975) helped out for a few gigs. The Virgin staff, meanwhile, was worried at the turn of events and demanded that a stable line-up and a new band concept be chosen. To this end, they asked Pierre Moerlen (who had signed with Virgin as a solo artist, for an album of percussion music) to rejoin and take over from Allen as the band’s leader with Didier Malherbe, which he did. Still, there was hesitation as to whether the new band should abandon the Allen-era material. At first, Hillage and Giraudy wanted to take over from Allen and Smyth, but their attempts proved unsuccessful and all references to the myths of stories of the Planet Gong were abandoned.
A new line-up of Gong resurfaced in the autumn of 1975, with Malherbe, Hillage, Moerlen, Howlett, and new recruits Mireille Bauer (percussion, Moerlen’s girlfriend at the time) and Patrice Lemoine (keyboards, an acquaintance of Moerlen’s from his Strasbourg days). The repertoire was mostly instrumental-based. By the year’s end, though, Hillage had lost faith in the band and, encouraged by the success of his first solo album “Fish Rising”, decided to leave and embark on a solo career. He nevertheless took part in the sessions for the new album in December 1975. Also featured on “Shamal” were Jorge Pinchevksy, an Argentinian violin player who was previously in Clearlight, the French opening band for the autumn tour, and Sandy Colley (Lemoine’s girlfriend), on vocals. Both were then added to the line-up, although Colley stayed only for a few gigs.
“Shamal” was a superb album, which was quite successful in forgeing a completely new musical direction for Gong. As a result of Allen and Blake leaving, it was predominantly instrumental (thankfully, considering the weakness of Mike Howlett’s vocals) and left behind the band’s previous ‘spacy’ leanings. Stylistically, it was a mixture of sophisticated rock (“Wingful Of Eyes”), complex progressive (“Chandra”, “Shamal”), ethnic/world experiments (“Bambooji” and “Cat In Clark’s Shoes”) and the percussion-based music (“Mandrake”) which later became Moerlen’s trademark. The band’s sound was more based on rhythm than ever (the Howlett-Moerlen pair was indeed very solid), and made more frequent use of keyboards (Lemoine’s style was close to jazz-rock, which made this line-up possibly the most ‘Canterbury’-sounding) and tuned percussion. Surprisingly, “Shamal” was an unexpected commercial success (well over 100,000 copies sold), which makes it probably the biggest-selling Gong album ever.
By mid-1976, Malherbe and Moerlen were the only members of the ‘classic’ line-up still in the band. Under their influence, Gong’s music became even more complex and jazz-oriented than previously, with new recruits like Allan Holdsworth, Francis Moze (already a member at the time of “Flying Teapot” – remember?), Mino Cinelu (a good friend of Moze’s whom the latter brought into the band, later a sideman for Miles Davis) and Benoît Moerlen all primarily jazz players. They recorded “Gazeuse!” (1977), a less consistent album than “Shamal”, relying more on the participants’ chops than melodies or contrasts. Surprisingly, Malherbe didn’t contribute to the writing, the compositions being shared among Moerlen, Holdsworth and Moze.
The line-up was shortlived, breaking up immediately after the sessions, in late 1976. Moerlen and Moze couldn’t get along together, which caused conflicts inside the band, leading to its breakup, with Moerlen ultimately going back to Strasbourg, forming a new line-up there with Mireille Bauer and his brother Benoît. At that point, we are already in the Pierre Moerlen’s Gong story, but during the period 1977-78, the band was still officially called Gong, or sometimes Gong-Expresso, referring to the title of the US release of “Gazeuse!”.
In the 80’s the Gong name was not used as such, although Pierre Moerlen’s Gong, Daevid Allen’s Planet Gong, New York Gong and Gongmaison, and Gilli Smyth’s Mother Gong were active at various times. Although a one-off reunion took place in 1990 as part of the Bedrock TV concert series (with Daevid Allen, Gilli Smyth, Didier Malherbe, Pip Pyle, and Here & Now members Steffi Sharpstrings, Keith Missile and Twink Electron Flo appearing), it was during the sessions of Gongmaison’s second album that Gong was effectively reborn when Pip Pyle, the original drummer in the band (1971), was asked to overdub drum parts to the recordings made by Gongmaison, which at the time included Daevid Allen (guitar/vocals), Didier Malherbe (sax/flute), Graham Clark (violin/guitar), Keith Bailey (bass) and Shyamal Maitra (percussion). The result was the album “Shapeshifter” (released only in Europe at the time, should come out in the US in late 1996 in a slightly different version) in September 1992. This was followed by a tour, the setlist of which included some Gong classics from as far back as “Camembert Electrique”.
In October, 1994, Gong celebrated its 25th Birthday with an event of giant proportions, which not only saw most of the ‘classic’ line-up of the band (Daevid Allen, Gilli Smyth, Didier Malherbe, Tim Blake, Mike Howlett, with Pip Pyle and Steffi Sharpstrings replacing Pierre Moerlen and Steve Hillage respectively) together playing the whole ‘Radio Gnome’ trilogy, but also countless Gong-related groups and artists performing one after the other on the same stage. This ‘festival’ was documented on the Voiceprint/GAS release, “The Birthday Concert” (1995).
It was thereafter decided that Mike Howlett would rejoin the band on a permanent basis, and subsequent tours (also involving Allen, Smyth, Malherbe, Pyle and Sharpstrings), saw them perform their ‘classic’ material. Notable was Gong’s first proper tour of the US, in March 1996, followed by yet another one to celebrate the American release of Shapeshifter. In November, Gong was back touring Europe. After a pause of a few months, a slightly altered line-up (with Pierre Moerlen returning to the fold), Gong hit the road again in August 1997 for a tour of Japan, North America and Britain. A French tour followed in May 1998.
With a view to releasing a new studio album in the year 2000, a new line-up of Gong hit the road in June 1999. Joining Daevid Allen, Gilli Smyth, Mike Howlett and Pierre Moerlen were new recruits Mark Hewins (guitars) and Theo Travis (sax/flute). Moerlen quit only two dates into the European tour and was replaced by Chris Taylor, and Didier Malherbe rejoined for the subsequent American tour, including appearances at prog festivals in San Francisco and Mexico City. By the time Gong entered the studio in September 1999, it was decided that Malherbe would only join Gong for special occasions, and both Travis and Taylor were confirmed as new members. The band premiered material from the upcoming album at a couple of gigs in October, most notably an appearance at the Nancy Jazz Pulsations festival with Magma and Soup Songs.
“Zero To Infinity”, presented as the fifth installment of the ‘Radio Gnome Invisible’ saga, was released in March 2000, followed by the band’s most intensive touring schedule for many years. A new member, keyboardist Gwyo Zepix from the electronic trio Zorch, joined the group in time for a release party at London’s Subterranea Club (later released on DVD and forming the basis of the Live 2 Infinitea CD). This line-up toured throughout 2000 and 2001. Since then ‘Classic Gong’ has been inactive as Daevid Allen concentrates on University Of Errors and the latest incarnation of Gong is Acid Mothers Gong, involving Allen (and, occasionally, Gilli Smyth and Didier Malherbe) in conjunction with members of the Japanese band Acid Mothers Temple.
Magick Brother Mystick Sister (1970)
Continental Circus (1971)
Banana Moon (1971)
Camembert Electrique (1971)
Flying Teapot – Radio Gnome Invisible (1973)
Angel’s Egg (1973)
Expresso II (1978)
Time is the Key (1979)
Leave It Open (1981)
Brainville 3: Trial by Headline (2008)
Various Live Videos of Gong
Gong – Paris 1971, Part 1 of 2 Video
Wiki info can be found here –> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gong
Have a groovy day :)
Peace and Love,
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