Steve Hillage is remembering Daevid Allen, the man who helped shape the Canterbury scene of the early 70s thanks to the role he played in Soft Machine and Gong, and who sadly died on March 13 after a battle with cancer. “I was just 21 when I met Daevid for the first time back in September 1972, and it was like coming face-to-face with a long-lost elder brother,” says Hillage of the man who enlisted him in Gong. “I had massive respect for him, and seeing how he did things was a real learning experience for me.”
Born on January 13, 1938 in Melbourne, Australia, Christopher David (Daevid) Allen was a cosmopolitan soul, arriving in England in late 1960 via Greece and Paris. As a co-founder of the psychedelic act Soft Machine he went on to form the band Gong amid the political riots of ’68 with a rotating cast that included the space-whisperer Gillie Smyth, a long-term romantic partner. Among their best-known recordings was Camembert Electrique, released in 1971.
A massive fan of the group, guitarist Hillage joined in late 1972. Keeping track of Gong members over time was a mystery requiring the talents of Hercule Poirot. Daevid and Gilli both quit upon the completion of 1973’s Flying Teapot, only to return, while Hillage and his own partner keyboard player Miquette Giraudy guided the band through 1975’s Nick Mason-produced album Shamal. Drummer Pierre Moerlen later took up the tiller when Hillage went solo.
The unusual tale of Allen’s departure from the group, immediately prior to a gig in Cheltenham on April 10, 1975, remains among Hillage’s most treasured memories.
“We began playing the first track, but Daevid didn’t materialise on stage,” he recalls, trying – and failing – to control a laugh. “He’d disappeared. Later on he informed us that a cosmic force field had prevented him from going on stage, dictating to him that he had to leave the band and start something new. So he hitched a lift away from the site, still in full stage costume and make-up. It sounds amusing now, but it was a challenging moment. It wasn’t the first of Gong’s such trials, or indeed the last.”
Gong have continued to exist in various guises from 1967 to the present day. Released in 2009, the 2032 album reunited key personnel including Allen and Smyth, Hillage and Giraudy, Mike Howlett and Didier Malherbe. But already Allen had itchy feet. That same year, CR’s Dave Ling asked how long the reconvened group might last.
“I’m an impatient guy,” Allen shrugged. “If things stay the same for too long, I start squiggling in my skin. I’m always looking for the next exciting leap.”
With the serenity of a man who knew true inner peace, he added: “At the age of 71, I might die tomorrow. I’ve no clue what might happen in a month’s time – every extra day is a bonus. But it’s fun to live in the here and now.”
In early February 2015, aged 77, Allen announced that untreatable cancer had taken root in his neck. Unwilling to endure further chemotherapy, he had six months to live. “The time has come to stop resisting and denying, and to surrender to the way it is,” said a moving, dignified statement. Just six weeks later he was gone.
Allen was too unwell to perform live for Gong’s most recent album, I See You, so Knifeworld’s Kavus Torabi fronted the band on the last tour. It was Allen’s final wish that Gong should carry on without him. In an email sent to the rest of the group he wrote: “You are all equally on the brink of a whole new era of Gong, musically, lyrically and spiritually. I am a hundred per cent behind you and I wish you huge success in every way.” The post-Allen Gong, featuring Torabi on guitar and vocals, will tour mainland Europe and the UK in October and November.
Allen’s body was laid to rest in an emotional ceremony in Byron Bay, Australia, with all four of his sons paddling out to sea on surfboards to scatter his ashes.
“I’m told that dolphins appeared,” Hillage adds, before offering a final fond farewell: “Sayonara, Mr Camembert.”
Daevid Allen: 13 January, 1938 – 13 March 2015