Daevid Allen, 1938-2015

Founder member of the psychedelic rock groups Soft Machine and Gong.

IF ANYBODY could be said to have defined the spirit of globalist, free-thinking hippiedom, it was Daevid Allen, who has died of cancer aged 77. As a musician, he was best known as a founder member of Soft Machine and for his work with the cosmic acid-collagists Gong, but Allen was also a poet, philosopher and performance artist. After spending years in England, France and Majorca, he moved back to his native Australia in 1981, where he worked on his poetry while becoming involved in numerous electronic and improvisatory musical projects.

His early influence on Soft Machine helped propel the group beyond their bluesy roots into a daring experimentalism, where free-form jazz and the avant garde collided. As guitarist and singer with Gong, Allen helped forge a kaleidoscopic sonic palette capable of expressing the most whimsical imaginings, which would influence later generations of rave and electronic musicians.

Born in Melbourne, son of Walter and Helen, Allen was working in a Melbourne bookshop when he discovered beat writers such as Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He became involved with the nascent Australian underground movement, known as the Push, of which he said: “That was such a great name. It meant that we were always there, pushing ahead.”

However, like his near-contemporaries Barry Humphries and Germaine Greer, Allen realised that Australia at the turn of the ’60s was not at the centre of the counterculture revolution. “I left because of the heavy materialistic aspect and a couple of friends suicided at the same time,” he recalled. “I just got this bug in my head that I should split.” He took a ship to Greece and ended up in Paris, where he stayed at the Beat hotel, in the very room previously occupied by Ginsberg and his partner Peter Orlovsky. Also in Paris, Allen met the then unknown composer Terry Riley and helped him experiment with tape loops.

In 1961, Allen travelled to London, and his advertisement for lodgings in the New Statesman brought a reply from the BBC journalist Honor Wyatt, inviting him to stay with her family in Kent. The Wyatts’ son, Robert, was another musical star in the making. “I found Robert, who was 15 at the time and a real prodigy,” said Allen. “He was a real influence to me … I’d just discovered [the avant garde saxophonist] Ornette Coleman and this whole period revolutionised me.” Allen and Wyatt made some of their first music together as the short-lived Daevid Allen Trio, with Hugh Hopper on bass. Allen then returned to the houseboat he kept at the Quai d’Orsay in Paris, where he lived with his partner, the poet Gilli Smyth. He invited Wyatt and Hopper to visit, treating them to a mind-expanding diet of LSD and mescaline (Allen being a conspicuously early adopter of psychedelics) and tapes of his own experimental music.

Allen returned to England in 1966 and resumed playing music with Wyatt and a shifting roster of Kent-based musicians. The group originally known as the Wilde Flowers morphed into Soft Machine, featuring Allen and Wyatt alongside Kevin Ayers and Mike Ratledge. They became rising stars of the burgeoning British underground scene, and signed a management deal with Chas Chandler and Mike Jeffries, who handled the Animals and Jimi Hendrix. Summer dates on the Côte d’Azur made Soft Machine a succes d’estime in France, particularly after they played at the producer Eddie Barclay’s Nuit Psychédélique. But when they returned to the UK Allen was denied entry because his passport and visa had expired.

Back in Paris, he and Smyth formed Gong, with Ziska Baum on vocals and Loren Standlee on flute. However, their progress was interrupted by the violent demonstrations of 1968, in which Allen participated, handing out teddy bears to the riot police in fine peacenik style. Smyth and Allen decamped to the isolated village of Deya in Majorca, also home to the poet Robert Graves. Legend has it that it was in a cave on Graves’s property that they found the saxophonist Didier Malherbe, whom they recruited to Gong.

They returned to Paris after being invited to record the soundtrack to the movie Continental Circus, and signed a deal with BYG records, which released Gong’s debut album, Magick Brother/Mystic Sister, in 1970, with Camembert Electrique and Allen’s solo album Banana Moon following in 1971. In 1973 Gong signed to Virgin, after BYG went bankrupt while Gong were recording at Virgin’s Manor studios. The first Virgin release was Flying Teapot (1973), a smorgasbord of jazzy rhythms, nursery-rhyme melodies and inventive electronica, and its follow-ups Angel’s Egg (1973) and You (1974) completed Gong’s so-called Radio Gnome Trilogy, featuring the concept of an imaginary planet called Gong.

The group’s capabilities had been greatly enhanced by the arrival of the guitarist Steve Hillage, but in 1975 he suddenly found himself left in charge of the band when Allen quit, having refused to go on stage for a gig in Cheltenham because he believed he was being held back by a force field.

Allen and Smyth retreated to Deya, Allen commenting: “I’ve spent far too long — in and out of Gong — blowing it in various ways, so I’ve come here to work on it.” He recorded the solo albums Good Morning (1976), Now Is the Happiest Time of Your Life (1977) and N’Existe Pas! (1979). In May 1977, Gong played a reunion gig in Paris, and Allen and Smyth also performed as Planet Gong. A 1980 collaboration with Bill Laswell was dubbed New York Gong and produced the album About Time.

By now Smyth and Allen had separated, and in 1981 Allen returned to Australia. He had had two sons, Orlando and Taliesyn, with Smyth, and now had a third, Toby, with his new partner, Maggie Brown. They moved to Byron Bay, 100 miles south of Brisbane, though Allen and Brown lived separately. Smyth had married the musician and producer Harry Williamson in the UK, the pair of them having formed Mother Gong, and they moved to Australia in 1982.

In 1988 Allen was back in the UK with a new partner, Wandana Turiya (with whom he later had a fourth son, Ynis), and various musical experiments led to the formation of Gong Maison, which also featured Williamson.

Subsequently Allen and Smyth participated in numerous Gong reunions, including a 25th birthday celebration in London in 1994. This prompted the reformation of the “classic” Gong line-up which toured internationally from 1996 until 2001. Gong played two London shows in 2008, then released the album 2032 the following year. Allen, Smyth and their son Orlando all featured on the Gong album I See You (2014). Meanwhile Allen also pursued various other musical adventures, with The Magick Brothers, Acid Mothers Gong and the University of Errors.

He is survived by his sons.

© Adam SweetingThe Guardian, 13 March 2015

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