There’s a million ways to laugh. Sometimes absurdism can be subversive. Sometimes it’s necessary to look further, beyond the Pot-Head Pixies and Flying Teapots and see what’s on the other side. In a sense Daevid Allen is no longer with us, in another he’ll always be here so long as we play the records, he’s just evolved to another form, transmuted into the music. This sounds frivolous. It’s not. It’s part of the magic he deals with, part illusory, part dexterity. Jazzer Sun Ra claimed to be from Saturn. His cosmic philosophy was ludicrous, his avant-garde improvisations could be breathtaking. When Christopher David Allen (as he was then) fetched up in Dover, from his native Australia, via a stint at 9 Rue Git-le-Coeur, the Paris ‘Beat Hotel’, he was listening to the endless pulse of Sun Ra. This was around 1961, and jazz was the cool underground. The drummer in Daevid’s first free-Bop trio was a young Robert Wyatt, with Hugh Hopper on bass. When the group eventually evolved into Soft Machine it took its name from the ‘Beat’ junk-mythologies of William S Burroughs too. Daevid had discovered the Beats back home in Melbourne while working a scuffed bookshop. Poetry can be spontaneous Bop jazzetry. It takes your head into places straight ‘serious’ art cannot. It can be the jolt that tips you over into altered states. All this was alchemy for the soul. From Charlie Mingus to Robert Graves. Accident, chance and serendipity were part of its strategy. So when, after playing Côte d’Azur dates with the Softs, Daevid was refused re-entry to the UK due to visa problems, he gravitates to Paris in time for ‘les évènements’, which was the place to be. ‘Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité!’ is another mythic-layer occupying the zone between prankster insurgency and subtle brain-games. He recites Beatnik poetry in fractured Franglaise which is also an assault on the senses.
A lot of music critics who reviewed ‘The Radio Gnome Trilogy’ of albums ‘Flying Teapot’ (May 1973), ‘Angel’s Egg’ (August 1973) and ‘You’ (October 1974) dismiss it as acid-frazzled hippie fantasia. Those same critics who laud Frank Zappa’s wonderful cut-up lunacy, Marc Bolan’s bopping elves or the Incredible String Band’s misty Celtic mythos. Or Syd Barrett. Whether metaphor, fey allegory, sub-Tolkien whimsy or stoned out-of-body tripping, it was space-rock, but too far beyond the outer rim of prog, and too freighted with over-complex silliness. Even the cartoon-simple naïf sleeve-art has a throwaway hand-drawn quality. If – say, the Fool had been let loose on the Planet Gong concept, or maybe Hipgnosis? There are albums you ostentatiously carry through the mall, ‘Forever Changes’, ‘5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion’, ‘Ptoof!’ or ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’. But ‘Flying Teapot’ was never that kind of album, more the kind of thing you discover by happenstance stashed in a friend’s vinyl collection and it connects you as Gong-heads. It was part of the in-house community ethos that those sleeve-pixies were sketched by ‘Dingo Virgin’ – a Daevid Allen alias.
While it would be disingenuous to claim that drugs were not an ingredient, it’s equally obvious that hallucinogenics were part of an arsenal of tools sizzling in a cunning crucible. Any idiot can smoke a joint, any fool can drop LSD. It takes something unique to flux that into Gong’s mesh of surreal weirdness, experimental innovation, nursery-rhyme chant choruses, taped concrete-sounds, unsettling time-changes and sudden bursts of spacey sinuous horn improvisation. Gong had come together in the commune spirit in France where Daevid’s glissando guitar and vocals allied with life-partner Gilli Smyth’s sensuous space whisper, reinforced by Didier ‘Bloomdido’ Malherbe – who they found in a cave in Deià, Mallorca, on flute and soprano sax. After ‘improvising around nothing for hours on end, completely stoned’ they recorded an album for esoteric French BYG Actuel jazz label (‘Magick Brother, Mystick Sister’, March 1970). By the time they’d played the 1971 Glastonbury Festival, and Virgin came up with the wizard wheeze of re-marketing their ‘Camembert Electrique’ (October 1971) at just 59-pence, the ‘Radio Gnome Invisible’ was part of the cerebral cartography of hip. With co-conspirators Steve Hillage and Pierre Moerien the deliberate stumblestrum shamblings of spermguitars, orgone-box and moonweed were plotted by unobtrusive grid-lines of musical coherence.
Daevid’s discography is dazzlingly hard to map. By 1976 he’d already gone beyond the limits of a fixed-if-fluid line-up, prevented from going onstage with Gong at a Cheltenham gig by a ‘force-screen’, he’d gone on to further adventures. There’d been solo projects since ‘Banana Moon’ (1970) with Robert Wyatt and bassist Archie Legget, now he was globe-hopping and igniting Gong-cells wherever he went – New York Gong (with Bill Laswell), El Planet Gong, Gong Maison, Mother Gong and others, while sporadically reuniting with various Gong-elements at intervals for continuity. If, like a pre-electric camembert cheese, it constitutes a rare acquired taste, it was one that took him across decades of inspired albums and unpredictable performance. And if costume polyhedral helmet and theatrics were part of it, that was integral too as the raiments of a trickster troubadour, nomad of nonsense or jester of misrule. Hawkwind had the hit single to signpost direction. Gong never had that “Silver Machine” ‘Top Of The Pops’ moment. Although Daevid plays on Soft Machine’s highly-valued debut 45-rpm – “Love Makes Sweet Music”, Gong remained cult. If he’s a mischievous visionary, he’s a star very much in his own constellation.
For a while, following separation from Gilli and his return to Australia in 1981, he even drove cabs in Melbourne to stay afloat. I recall a 1977 Sheffield Daevid Allen gig. ‘I think I can do without money’ he informs the audience, ‘yes, I’m quite sure I don’t need money.’ Instead, he advocates Floating Anarchy – ‘There’s No Government Like No Government’, that was enough. ‘The news is that politics has been abolished’ he goes on, referencing the old tribal left-right allegiances, the new arena, he says, will be the consciousness, Burroughs’ ‘breakthrough in the grey room’. The Triumph of Capitalism during the 1980s and 1990s agitates against that, but there are still those amongst us who believe that if the human race is to survive it will do so better by adopting something closer to Daevid’s frugal art-vision. There’s a million ways to laugh. The best art unsettles. Tilts preconceptions. It’s impossible to bottle. ‘The laws of the universe are the laws of music’ he explained. Art can be transcendental, beyond the corporeal. That’s what he was aiming at.
Daevid Allen had surgery for the removal of a cyst in June 2014, and subsequently underwent radiotherapy for skin cancer. In February 2015 he announced he was no longer ‘interested in endless surgical operations’ and was ‘starting the process of letting go’, until the Planet Gong website announced he’d ‘left the blue planet’, from Australia, on 13 March. If you don’t know the key albums, or only know them through reputation, you could do a lot worse than sample them for free on YouTube. His spirit is there, and free music is very close to Daevid Allen’s philosophy…