An unexpected and very welcome addition to the Gong catalogue has emerged from the Demi-Monde label since Facelift was last with you. It shouldn't be at surprising if you've missed it: no word from GAS on its release and it's proving difficult to locate it in record shop--. What is surprising is that it made it to the review sections of one or two music papers, although I still came away with the impression that 'The Mystery' is in fact a retrospective collection of released material.
The fact that it isn't is a credit to Demi-Monde for uncovering such a vast range of material - enough to fill a double album. Some of the stuff here may have been previously available within the massive catalogue of GAS tapes, but none has ever made it to vinyl before now. Albums of this nature tend to normally be bitty and generally unsatisfactory, but this one is different, probably due to the fact that Gong albums have always thrown up oddities, and also given that the overall time-span here is 25 years.
Side One covers the early Soft Machine period through to the Camembert Electrique band, although inevitably the album starts with the tape-loop which preceded that album as well as most concerts. The highlight of side one must be 'Dreaming It', credited as Gong's first ever live recording in 1969: a piece of real atmosphere - comforting bass, all sorts of ambient noises and gloriously disturbing vocals. Why this hasn't surfaced before I'll never know, but the combination of seductive rhythms and the discordancy in vocals and lead guitar Is superb. The two pieces that follow It: 'I Feel So Lazy' and 'And I Tried So Hard', both taken from a 1972 concert in Angers are a little disappointing: the latter track was never really typical of the band and thus made it a curious choice for the 1971 Glastonbury film, and this version is never more than par for the course. 'I Feel So Lazy', another track new to me, is in much the same vein. The rest of the side is a mixed bag of goodies: a brief glimpse of the Softs' only single with Daevid Allen 'Love Makes Sweet Nusic' as heard through the ears of a DJ - great stuff whilst it lasts (which isn't long); a poem by Daevid that first saw the light of day in 1969 ('Captain Shaw and Mr Gilbert') and has recently re-surfaced in live shows; an interview (on Radio l), given by Daevid and the Softs to Dave Lee Travis, who even then had the capacity to make a complete prat of himself; and my own particular favourite, which is of the Soft Machine manager trying to appease an audience at an aborted Softs gig in France and getting completely wound up about the whole thing.
Side Two for me is the real centrepiece of the album and the one that makes this record a must. It revolves around a 1973 radio session from which two tracks were taken, although there might well have been more, complete with John Peel's introduction, made notable by his inability to come to terms with the line-up. The personnel involved here were Daevid Allen, Gilli Smyth, Christian Tritsch, Pip Pyle and Didier Malherbe: basically the Camembert Electrique band, with Kevin Ayers adding vocals and guitar to great effect. Of course, the line-up doesn't read like this on the piece of paper that John Peel bas, pseudonyms abound and Daevid Allen gets two for good measure.
The first track from the session is 'Magick Brother', a rather different version from the album cut of four years earlier, complete with a crooned and nonsensical introduction, and within the piece proper, some gloriously dated use of flute (little excuse for this really, it was 1973 by then, after all) and wahwah (has anyone else noticed the wah wah on the theme music to the 'Young Doctors'?) A superb performance, very lively, and one that had me scurrying around to find the original to see if it was as good.
'Clarence in Wonderland', a track new to me, is the other session track here and is a revelation. Kevin Ayers meets Bad Manners! A real feast of ska, with Didler Malherbe adding calypso-style sax all the way through (is there any style he can't play?) amidst general mayhem around his. This is what Gong records are all about - Kevin Ayers is having such a good time he's trying desperately not to laugh. But the side doesn't end here: a truncated and very live version of 'Pot Head Pixies' is another treat - the only real concession to the music of the Trilogy era, although it Is preceded by a track called 'Radio Gnome Pre-Mix', in which a tape from the start of 'Flying Teapot' the track forms the musical backdrop to a typical piece of Gong mythology, 13 inch luminous green gentlemen and all. This is listed as a studio out-take and would have dune very nicely in the original.
Finally, to round the side off, a Clive Williamson interview from god knows where, proving that Daevid Allen was no ordinary interviewee. Any doubts that this might be your stereotypical informative interview are soon dispelled as Daevid takes us into the underwater world 'Submarine Captain Spillage' and after that the interview never really recovers. The latter part of the interview, with Clive Williamson trying to steer matters towards Tim Blake, is conducted against the tantalizing backdrop of 'A Sprinkling of Clouds', possibly the best Gong track ever.
On to side three and Into the 'Good Morning'/'Now Is The Happiest Time Of Your Life' era. The first track is a confusing amalgam of several more recognisable tracks: the superb guitar and vocal accompaniment is more readily associated with 'Poet For Sale', but the chorus Is the one which turns up both on 'Where Have All The Flowers Gone', the odd track out on the 'Gong Live etc' double album, and on 'Hours Gone' from the New York Gong album. Chorus apart, the lyrics are new, although the poem in the middle of the track is familiar from somewhere. Just to make things more confusing, the track here is listed as 'Where Have All The Hours Gone' and features some very nice synth. By contrast, 'Deya Goddess', better known as the final track from 'Happiest Time' is much more straight forward: there's not a lot of difference here from the original, although glissando guitar shines through and there's some nice violin work towards the end. In between these tracks Is a short poem, expressing similar sentiments to those on 'Negotiate', set against the background of 'I Am.
The last track on the side is a version of 'Opium For The People' complete with lead vocals sung in French. Personally I prefer Here and Now's material from 'Give and Take' to their collaboration with Daevid Allen, but that's probably due to the fact that Here and Now wheel out Planet Gong tracks at every gig they do these days. If you like the 'Floating Anarchy' material, you'll probably enjoy this. Conducted in an authentic Austallan French accent!
A time-gap and a good deal of difference in style separates the third side from the fourth. Side four features Mother Gong and starts with a coarse version of 'Red Alert' with grunge guitar and militaristic drums and flute sounds, although no vocals on this occasion. Tracks two and three are much better, with Didier Malherbe prominent on 'Gliss-U-Well' and Guy Evans and Dave Sawyer on '13/8'. The latter falls somewhere between the Long Hello and Didier's 'Melodic Destiny' album: all acoustic sounds, hushed vocals and novel percussive sounds.
'Gliss-U-Well' puts me in mind of something from Didier's 'Bloom' album, although I can't think what. It's rather too short to get your teeth into. I'm still not totally convinced
about a lot of the Mother Gong material: the fact that I prefer the instrumental numbers doesn't really compliment Gilli Smyth, 1 fear. Two poems follow featuring Tom the Poet, both taken from the GAS tape 'Living On The Brink'. 'The Dream', with contributions from Gilli Smyth is backed by some very sensitive piano, whilst the much sborter 'Future' is much more of a rant. Can't say I'm much of a poetry buff, but there you go. Then it's right up to date with the Invisible Opera Company's contribution to the record: 'Chernobyl Rain', very much in the Mother Gong vein (surely that can't be Daevid Allen on vocals, though?), And finally the sounds of chanting that characterised the gigs of Spring '88: plenty of audience participation and harmonium as 'Let Me Be One' brings the album to a close.
Accompanying the album is a small booklet called 'What's Gong On'. Contained within is by far the best attempt yet to chronicle the confusing path that Daevid and friends have taken since those early Soft Machine days. Not only is there an excellent biography written by Lady Babs, but the centrespread is given over to an Illuminating chart of the various Gong permutations and the musicians involved. Both the biography and the back cover of the album feature a pictorial history of Gong, Daevid, Gilli and Harry Williamson, and there is an equally large smattering of pixies. Yet another reason, as if you needed one, to buy it.
The incomparable GAS has since turned itself into an equally unparalleled website, which can be found here