Fireworks Magazine Online 39 - Gong

To say that Gong, over the years, have been perceived by the majority of rock fan as strange is probably an understatement. Since the late sixties, Daevid Allen, the driving force behind the band, has been purveying his pixie rock and flying teapots to anyone who is prepared to listen, and there are many who are prepared to listen. How else could a band survive for so long were that not the case? Their new album ‘2032’ sees the return to the fold of guitar wizard Steve Hillage, which has resulted in this latest work having a more structured feel. And in support of the album the band ventured out onto the road again, playing various cities up and down the country, all of the shows well attended and some selling out. Andy Brailsford managed to get to speak to both Daevid Allen and Steve Hillage prior to the band coming to the UK, and asked about how the album, and the re-union, came about.

The impression I get when I listen to the new album is that it’s less progressive and more melody orientated. Would you agree with that?

“Yeah, it’s more rock and roll for sure and it’s definitely got songs and melodies, yeah. That’s the result of Steve and I working together I think - we do trade each other off in a really good way. He’s been away doing other stuff and it’s so lovely to have him back. We’d been hanging out socially but he’s had a real career path there with System 7, and he’s made it in many ways in that scene, and has been flying around the world like a crazy man. So it’s really nice that he would come back and bring a bit of the energy back to us, it’s really, really sweet of him.”

So what’s was the mechanics behind Steve coming back?

“It really started because we did the concert. We had this thing about two years ago called The Unconvention. It was in Amsterdam and all of the musicians came, all the musicians in the gang and their families gathered together for the whole weekend, and we went three days, two theatres and just ran non-stop Gong: all the different Gongs and bands associated with Gong, and just had this fantastic weekend. And as a result of this, Steve – who played with System 7 and Gong that weekend – had such a ball and enjoyed it so much, it brought back to him how the family never went away – the family is still big and strong, is multi-national, very friendly, very supportive and very loving. Over the years that’s what Gong has created – this great group of people. So when he tasted that again, he wanted to get back in because he had so much fun – both of them, Miquette (Giraudy), and he. They wouldn’t be doing it if they were bored by it, they’re doing it because they’re really getting turned on by it again.”

Many people call your music ‘weird’, but in the context of your songs you have some fairly strong messages there. My favourite has to be ‘Wacky Baccy Banker’ cos I thought that is bang on the nail. And there’s also ‘Guitar Zero’ when you’re on about war. But with the banks, that’s something we all know that’s happened quite recently, so was that song something you’ve written lately, or something you’d already written before all these problems came out in the press?

“No, I wrote it on the spot, literally writing it just before the recording started – it was really hot off the press, that one. I mean, most of this album was written this year. There’s a couple of things that weren’t but 90% of it was.”

Speaking of that track, do you think it’s essential to have a sense of humour in your music?

“Totally. You know, if everything is going bad around you, if you can find something to laugh about, it’s a healing thing, it lifts you and takes away some of the pain. I don’t really imagine it’s possible in the human condition to spend more than 50% of the time in a positive state, but it would be nice to think we could be happy half the time.”

I’ve seen the promo vid on YouTube, which is pretty good. That was done in Japan for you, and based on your artwork. How did you feel when you saw it, because it’s like your artwork come to life.

“You know what? I’ve always been dreaming about that and I never thought it would happen, and it sort of happened by surprise. I just suddenly saw it and I was speechless for a couple of days. And then I was at a gig and I ran into John Cooper Clark and I was so happy to see him I completely forgot about it [laughs]. But it really did have a huge effect on me ... but so does John Cooper Clark [laughs]. You know, life’s full of lovely surprises.”

My favourite song title has got to be ‘Pinkle Ponkle’. Where the Hell did that come from?

“[laughs] A girlfriend of mine in Australia, that I haven’t heard from in a long time, used that term to describe duff music – all that party music, ‘pinkle ponkle’ music. It was such a funny term, and the way she said it and the crazy look she had in her eye and the smile on her face, it sounded very endearing and always stayed with me. And when I heard that piece I just thought, ‘Oh, pinkle ponkle.’ So I rang up and said you’ve been saying pinkle ponkle for years, do you mind if I use the title? And she loved it, so there it was.”


Going back to the promo video for ‘How to Stay Alive’ there’s a very basic Eye of Horus in there, the eye in the pyramid. Was that meant to symbolise the Eye of Horus, or was that not really your intention?

“Well essentially the central design is the Gong mandala. We just did the book launch last night of Gong Dreaming 2 and the story of how that all happened is in there, but it was revealed to me by the guy who designed the first pyramid stage for Glastonbury, because he was building that stage according to laws of proportion, not mathematical calculations, and he showed me how to make, with just a compass and a straight ruler without any markings, how to make a cross, how to make a triangle, then a four, and a five sided star and then a seven sided star. And he said ‘I don’t know why I’m showing you this because I was told not to give it to anyone’ and I told him it’s going to a good cause, don’t worry. And that solved the problem I’d been working on for about 2 years at that time, and I suddenly realised I could create the Gong mandala and I did it in 32 moves and it’s all done from proportional geometry. And it actually resolves 22 over 7; it resolves the 7 and 22, (that’s pi to those not of a mathematical bent), which you can’t do mathematically. And we’ve used that as a sort of power symbol, a power driver and source for lifting people up and making people feel more positive.”

So from the new album, which are your personal favourites?

“I really like ‘Escape Control Delete’ but I also like ‘Wacky Baccy Banker’. I really enjoy singing ‘Escape Control Delete’ most of all. With ‘Wacky Baccy’ I just get puffed, because I dance too much and by the time the second verse comes around I haven’t got any breath to sing [laughs].”

Have you had any reviews back yet?

“Yeah, the reviews are amazingly positive. It’s even getting reviewed in the weirdest session magazines and all kinds of stuff. “
Which is great because it gets you to a wider audience.
“It does, but again, I’m not that keen on having the audience at any cost, you know what I mean? It just says if you can hack this, if you like this, then here it is. I’m not trying to force anything down anyone’s throat. I’m not in the ‘big sell’ in other words.”
That’s probably the best situation to be in, making music. Money isn’t the all important factor, it’s the creative aspect and getting the message out.
“Yeah, I hesitate to advise it, but I usually find that I’m right on the edge of destitution almost all the time – I don’t get any royalties from the old records. But I’m never short either. I met this record company guy who owed me a lot of money. He took me out to dinner and I said to him, ‘You know what? You owe me over a million pounds, yet I’m actually glad you’ve got it because I don’t think I could bear the responsibility of having it.’ But I live like a millionaire because I don’t actually want for anything. I don’t have very expensive tastes and I get around all over the world doing a job which I love doing. I’m very happy the way things are.”


I was talking to Daevid and commented how I thought the new album was more melody orientated rather than progressive rock, and he attributed a lot of that to you.

“Well I’d attribute a lot to Daevid as well. His vocal melodies are fantastic – listen to a song like ‘The Gris Gris Girl’ the vocal melodies are all him, and they’re brilliant. I come up with the chord sequence, but he came up with the melodies. I mean, it was a joint effort – let’s say it like that. We co-wrote a lot of the stuff and it was very enjoyable to work together.”

Your guitar work has been missing from Gong for many years, but the album sounds like you’ve never been away. How easy was it for you to get back into the Gong mindset.

“Well it’s all based around the live experience. Having done the Amsterdam show, then the 2 shows we did in London in 2008, which was also part of the process ... so having got the chemistry firing live it was just a question of transferring that to the recording environment which I think we successfully did.”
So is the live side of things your main objective?
“I think with regards to the Gong project, the impetus is on the live side, yes. But I think we’ve made a cracking album and it’s a studio-made album but it’s based around the live sound of the band.”

‘Escape Control Delete’ is quite a heavy song for Gong.

“Well I think it’s a strong nod to what you might call the Kraut Rock beat, and it’s something I’m particularly keen on – making a nod to our German compatriots from that period: Can, Neu!,Ash Ra Tempel, because the 70’s psychedelic movement was essentially what Gong was a part of, although David and Gilli, (Smyth), their project started in the 60’s. But the thing we were all involved with – the so called trilogy – was a 70s thing, and we felt quite a strong affinity with our German colleagues. So I was feeling that while creating the music for ‘Escape Control Delete’. But the melody is a typical Gong melody.”

Talking about the 70s they had a week on BBC to do with progressive music, and I was quite surprised not to see Gong featured, although you did appear on a studio recording of ‘Tubular Bells’ with Mike Oldfield.

“To be quite honest, David and I use the word ‘progressive’ in the context of Gong with great caution. A lot of progressive rock fans don’t like Gong – we’re far too wild and wacky for them, you know. Also we’re quite funky, and for some strange reason progressive rock fans don’t like funk, they don’t like black music ... they hate techno. The fact that I’ve done the System 7 project means I’m on the black list, you know. So if you analyse our music, there’s certainly a strong, what you might call progressive element in Gong because obviously we’re very much part of the Canterbury scene and we use odd time signatures and we have a strong influence of early 20th century French music in the chords and melodies, which is an important component of the Canterbury and progressive musical style, but we’ve also got the funkiness, the wacky electronics and of course, all the humour and comedy and spirituality of the lyrics that a lot of real progressive fans don’t like. So it doesn’t upset us not to have been included in that specific progressive rock programme.”

So does modern technology allow you to do much more when recording, that you maybe couldn’t have done back in the 70s?

“I don’t think it’s made an absolutely total difference to the way the Gong sound is made, but it’s made some things easier. It’s made making this album easier because although we did the main writing and some of the recording with Miquette, myself, Daevid and Gilli in one place – that was Australia – we recorded the rhythm tracks in London. So quite a lot of the record was made by actually swapping files over the internet. You couldn’t do that in the 70s! [laughs]”



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