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Gong - Love From the Planet Gong: The Virgin Years 1973-75 Music Album Reviews

A mammoth box set of Daevid Allen’s prog-rock project makes a virtue of its excesses, capturing the band’s monumental strangeness.

If Daevid Allen’s prophecy is correct, we are a mere 13 years away from Planet Gong descending from the heavens to deliver enlightenment to all earthlings. Allen first posited his theory on a series of albums by Gong in the mid-1970s: Each LP was designed, he said, to prepare “the heads of all who hear their music for the arrival in the year 2032 of many Pot Head Pixies who will be coming to help spread of joy in the new age.” Those albums, long known among the Gong cognoscenti as The Radio Gnome Trilogy, are housed alongside a bounty of unreleased live material excavated from deep in the Virgin Records vaults in the hefty Love From the Planet Gong: The Virgin Years 1973-75, a 12-CD/1-DVD box set whose very weight may intimidate anyone who is not already a member of the band’s dedicated cult.


Gong tended to attract cultists, in every sense of the word. Freaks of all stripes flocked to Allen, hearing loopy wisdom lying underneath Gong’s cacophonic prog-funk fusion, ever-expanding space-rock, and tall tales of spliff-toking sprites. The most famous of these fans was Sherman Hemsley, who gained notoriety as George Jefferson on the Norman Lear sitcom The Jeffersons. At the height of his fame in the late 1970s, Hemsley flew Allen out to his Los Angeles home, where the Gong guitarist discovered a chamber devoted to his band. Flying Teapot—the first installment of The Radio Gnome Trilogy, released in 1973—played on a loop in a darkened room filled with naked women, and that was just the tip of the actor’s devotion. Hemsley planned to wallpaper Hollywood with billboards trumpeting Flying Teapot, in hopes of spreading the Planet Gong philosophy to the masses. Gong’s music inspires this intense dedication but also its opposite reaction: To those on the outside, the fantastical music-hall jazz sounds utterly bewildering.

If Gong seem as if they flew in from another world, there is some truth in that suspicion; they were born in the serene surroundings of the French countryside. As a member of the pioneering psych-jazz outfit Soft Machine, the Australian-born Allen was part of Canterbury’s nascent prog-rock scene in the late 1960s, but once the band’s 1967 European tour wrapped up, the UK denied him reentry due to an overextended visa. Undaunted, Allen claimed Paris as his new home, witnessing the student revolution of 1968 before eventually settling on the edge of a forest with his partner Gilli Smyth. Before long, the pair formed Gong, which from their earliest days defied anything resembling a stable lineup. Musicians would come and go, usually living in the band’s communal house in Voisines. Allen wasn’t so much the leader of the bunch as he was its shepherd, encouraging his flock to follow his path but happy to take whatever detours the pack pursued.

A few Gong records came out on the French label BYG in the early 1970s, but the three years the group spent at Virgin is where they took flight. Happily, they inked a deal with the fledgling Virgin Records when Richard Branson was flush with cash and willing to let his acts do whatever they wanted. Along with Mike Oldfield, whose “Tubular Bells” became a massive hit thanks to its prominent placement in The Exorcist, Gong were Virgin’s signature act. Flying Teapot, largely recorded prior to the Virgin deal, didn’t quite take full advantage of this freedom, yet it still shows the band taking shape. It’s a technicolor blimp that lurches and glides, cruising along on dextrous funk fusion before it descends into annoying maniacal chants. Chalk the latter up to the pothead pixies, who were central to Allens’ “Gong philosophy,” which wasn’t so much a cohesive manifesto but a feverish prankster fantasy filled with cheap puns, smutty jokes, and a fervent belief in cosmic unity.

All those elements gel on Angel’s Egg, a 1973 LP that Gong recorded at their country home, miking the woods for ambiance. The crackpot idea worked. Gong sound utterly unencumbered by gravity, floating between moments of grace and madness. Again, much of that lunacy comes from Allen’s mythology, which picked up themes and the thinnest of narrative threads from Flying Teapot, then turns it into a jumble that’s indecipherable without bushels of weed.

Paradise eventually comes to an end, and so it was with Gong. A bust—equal parts customs and drugs violations—prompted France to kick the group out of the country, so they headed to England and gathered the material for 1974’s You, which was their biggest, boldest album. Nominally the conclusion of The Radio Gnome Trilogy, You found Allen’s Gong philosophy slowly subsumed by the majestic power of the band. In a sense, they achieved an equilibrium, with the band—now featuring the liquid, startling guitar of Steve Hillage—racing along at the same speed of Allen’s mind, while his lunacy prevented the knotty extended improvisations from calcifying into egghead art.

The divide between Allen and much of the rest of Gong came to a head in 1975. At a concert, Allen claimed “a force-field stopped me taking the stage on my musical cue,” so he simply left the band he created. Some members quit in his wake, while others were relieved to see him go: Drummer Pierre Moerlen and percussionist Mireille Bauer were eager to ditch the “silly lyrics” and overhauled the group into a slick, serious outfit that could hold its own with Weather Report. That incarnation of Gong can be heard on 1976’s Shamal, the last of the four studio albums included on Love From the Planet Gong. It’s an impressive work, sharing a clear lineage with the nimble jazz-funk of the preceding three albums, but neither Shamal nor the post-Allen live concert from 1975 quite feels like Gong. Without Allen’s babble, the band lacked the means of achieving transcendence.

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Not that Gong often did that anyway. Most of the time, the band was working at cross purposes, a tension that is maddening and thrilling in equal measure. In the studio, these tendencies were gussied up, often in an appealing fashion, but the live recordings that provide the bulk of the unreleased material on Love From the Planet Gong show the band’s muscle and might at work. Stripped of the stage visuals—their act was replete with mime, sorcerer hats, ultraviolet lights, and paper plates doubling as flying saucers—the group is an unwieldy delight: a British Sun Ra Arkestra that manages to make it home in time for tea.

The live recordings are bracing and, oddly enough, they provide a better gateway to understanding Gong than the albums themselves, as the LPs often are dressed in fussy period charms. Returning to the studio trilogy after absorbing the live recordings, Flying Teapot, Angel’s Egg, and You seem like vivid snapshots of songs that are often too wild to sit still. Gong’s restlessness is integral to their appeal, since it’s what pushed them to explore the outer reaches of the universe from the confines of a French country home. The group managed to create an enduringly weird body of work whose strength is perhaps best appreciated in total, not in parts. Taken individually, or without the concert recordings, the LPs seem merely odd, but when they’re combined as they are in this box, the strangeness seems monumental. And that’s fitting a testament to Gong: They’re not a band designed for dabbling, only a full immersion will do.


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