London Shepherds Bush Empire
November 19 2012
Sometimes, after a while in this job, you realise how much emphasis on "industry" and "business" the music industry really places - as opposed to the creation of something beautiful and altruistic for the sake of beautiful altruism itself. There I go, sounding like a hippie. But then again, I am at a Gong concert. And if you can't be a hippie here, where can you? Other progressive and psychedelic rock giants may attract increasingly "Clive"-like audiences these days, computer programmers to a man, but the Gong gang is much more esoteric in nature, with dreadlocks, strange tribal outfits and what would have once been called "bizarre garb" aplenty, right down to the bloke in the dishevelled white dinner-jacket who looked the spitting image of Peter McEnery and asked me if I'd got any mushrooms. Like, maaan.
The other immediately noticeable difference is that the audience is now sadly smaller than it was, even a couple of years ago. And this is what I'm on about. Three years ago, at the time of the superb 2032 album, Daevid Allen and Gilli Smyth were rejoined ably by Steve Hillage, Miquette Giraudy and Mike Howlett, with Soft Machine man Theo Travis on reeds, thus revitalising a six-strong frontline which drew audiences en masse to some of their most high profile shows in over a decade. Sadly, as with all such concepts, the need for financial remonstration seems to have outweighed the desire to work together, possibly due to promoters refusing to pay the large fees required, and one by one, all the above named have drifted off, leaving founders Allen (aged 74) and Smyth (aged 79) once more as the solitary keepers of the flame, backed by a 'new generation' lineup (including Allen's son Orlando on drums) who, whilst they bring fresh enthusiasm and power to the table, don't pull in the punters. For this reason, several fans have voted with their feet by staying away in droves, which means that the venues again lose money, and next year, the tour will be on an even smaller scale, meaning...oh, you get the picture. The volatile nature of business...
None of the above, though, will EVER stop me from loving Gong's music on a very fundamental level indeed. Quite the opposite; the smaller, more intimate gathering actually makes us feel like a band of renegade brothers, inspiring much camaraderie in the process. But that's irrelevant anyway, as the sound made by the new line-up is nothing short of stupendous. Or at least it would be, if the sound wasn't, as per usual for the Empire, woefully toppy and muffled at the same time. However do they manage it? Various knock on effects of this oversight include Smyth's delicate space whisper (already at half power due to a recent cold, I'm told, and nothing to do with her age whatsoever) being drowned out on practically everything, bar 'I Am Your Pussy' (nice impromptu meowing from the audience though) and 'Dynamite/I Am Your Animal', and totally inaudible during the mid-section of 'Tropical Fish/Selene', while far too much bass drum during 'Escape Control Delete' robs the song of its inherent Kraut-mongous thrust. But any such letdowns are more than made up for by the heightened commitment of the band members themselves.
Guitarist Fabio Golfetti and bassist Dave Sturt are a tight yet freeform, locked-in yet always on-the-out rhythm section, as metal-inflected as they are jazz-tinged, and they handle the thrust and parry of 'Master Builder', 'Can't Kill Me' and the mesmeric, 11-minute thrash of 'Opium For The People' as easily as the more intricate, multi-layered, time-signature-challenging mode of 'Zero The Hero And The Witch's Spell'. Ian East, introduced as "the East Wind", is easily the most charismatic of the new bloods, even if he does look like a Trustafarian stereotype in that hat and robe combo, and makes suitable mincemeat of 'Flute Salad', which, rather than just being an intro, is now a show-stopping number in its own right. It still segues, undeniably, into 'Oily Way', with complete audience participation vocal, but the identities are no longer completely merged: ditto the following mantric tantric double-shot of 'Inner Temple' and 'Outer Temple', now just as much of a highlight as its chronological predecessor. If Richard Attenborough in 10 Rillington Place imbued the idea of being offered a cup of dried leaves in boiling water with a terrible, sinister, sickly overtone, then Gong achieved the opposite, the repeated chant of "have a cuppa tea, luvverly cuppa tea" (improvised lyrics this time include ruminations on whether certain mushroom brands are better than Twinings) almost an anthem for the turned on, tuned in, dropped-out free-festival generation. And in case you're wondering just how turned on and genuinely psychotropic Gong 2012 are, can I just point out that I hadn't imbibed anything stronger than 3 pints of bitter that night, and I was still tripping, amply aided and abetted by the cascade of swirling, twisting visuals.
Yet, unquestionably and indefatigably, the star of the show remains Daevid Allen, the Divided Alien, aka Bert Camembert, Zero The Hero, or whatever name he chooses to be known by this week. Slim, dapper (OK, maybe not when dressed as a wizard or a giant pixie, and NO, I'm not making this up- he really still does both those things), recently chopped of several inches of barnet, eloquent, theatrical, and full of boundless energy at 74 which puts me and my generation to shame, he is never so joyful as when onstage, championing the band he truly loves, and the "planet", which has been his home on and off since 1969. To this seminal, important, yet humble Aussie man - a pioneer whose contribution to the very existence of psychedelia stretches far beyond music and is as essential as that of Leary, Gysin, Owsley or Burroughs - Gong is not just a band anyway, it's a crusade, a never-ending quest to bring beauty into sharper focus and destroy the drab greyness which infects everyday existence.
Some of it is, unfortunately, misguided- while a longstanding Ozrics lover, I've never espoused travelling or communal lifestyles myself, seeing both as problematic as the very urban existence they negate- and obviously, even in the artists' utopia which they envisage, there will always be quibbles and squabbles about money, but as long as "Radio Gnome" continues to transmit, invisibly or otherwise, across the astral airwaves, the essential message will beam into the eyes and ears of all who are there to hear it. And, if all that wasn't enough to convince you in itself, how many other bands can you name who actually bibble themselves onstage? (Er, Caravan - Ed). Surely, that says everything you'll ever need to know about why Gong are still essential in your life.
Darius Drewe Shimon
Darius Drewe Shimon