‘It Was A Combustible Mix Of People’: Steve Hillage Talks Life On Planet Gong

Steve Hillage was part of Gong’s formative years, recording the ‘Radio Gnome Trilogy’ with Daevid Allen. “It left an indelible mark on me,” he says.

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Gong Witney Tea Party photo 1000
Guitarist Steve Hillage, far left, in the first incarnation of Gong. Photo: Virgin Records Archives

Over fifty years after their formation on October 27, 1969, the still-active Gong collective celebrated their pioneering space-rock legacy with the release of Love From The Planet Gong, a 13-disc box set that charts the first two years of their tenure with Virgin Records. It’s a period that saw founder Daevid Allen’s merry men deliver arguably their greatest work: the Radio Gnome Invisible trilogy. “I’d say it was the best band I was ever in,” said Steve Hillage, the legendary guitarist who was at the heart of the band during this time.

Though Gong has gone through numerous iterations over the years, both with and without their singular founder, Allen’s early tenure as leader is undoubtedly the most celebrated, if perhaps misunderstood, period in Gong’s history. Dressed in outlandish costumes, recounting tales of pot-headed pixies and playing music that seemingly pranced and cantered at will, Gong reveled in their sense of otherness and unabashed silliness. Yet beneath the slapstick there lay some of the most ceaselessly inventive, and often plain-damn-funky music of the 70s, played by some of the era’s greatest musicians.

Listen to Love From The Planet Gong on Apple Music and Spotify.

‘Daevid had this big vision’

Melbourne-born Daevid Allen had spent his early career flitting between France, where he befriended Beat writer William Burroughs and participated in the 1968 Paris riots, and England, where he formed Soft Machine alongside Kevin Ayers and Robert Wyatt. Visa problems after a tour with the band in France meant he was denied re-entry to the UK, and he settled once more in Paris alongside girlfriend Gilli Smyth, who would become his key musical collaborator and with whom he’d form Gong, alongside assorted French musical acolytes.

“Daevid and Gilli had their own unique style and way of doing things which they’d developed after Daevid left Soft Machine,” says Hillage “There was quite a long gestation period for Gong before it started as a fully functioning band.” Key to the complex mythology that ensued was an experience Allen had while staying in Deia, in Mallorca, Spain. “Daevid maintained that he had his big vision from the octave doctors to do with the planet Gong and the Pot Headed Pixies in 1966,” Hillage says.

After their psych-leaning debut album, Magick Brother, released on French label BYG Actuel, that mythology was given its first outing on 1972’s follow-up, Camembert Electrique. Allen’s cover illustration introduced the cartoonish pixies, whose adventures would be detailed amid a brilliantly creative barrage of psych rock, jazz, and musique concrète. “Daevid developed the drawings in France,” says Hillage. “There’s a much stronger culture of graphic novels and cartoons there. Like Manga’s a big thing in Japan, there’s a parallel to that in France. It’s much more developed than in the UK. And he was quite plugged into that.”

‘It ended up with the band disintegrating’

By this point, Allen and his band were living the communal life in an abandoned hunting lodge 120 kilometers south-east of Paris. Joined by English keyboardist Tim Blake and guitarist Steve Hillage (the latter arriving late on in the recording), they began work on 1973’s Flying Teapot, the first album in the Radio Gnome Invisible trilogy. Recorded at Manor studios in Oxfordshire, it fully introduced the space-set, Eastern-religion-referencing mythological parable of The Pot Headed Pixies, with the likes of “Radio Gnome Invisible” and the title track providing shimmering examples of Gong’s music: a style defined by playful rhythmic timbres, Didier Malherbe’s jazz-tinged sax bursts, Allen and Hillage’s otherworldly glissando guitar swirls, Gilli Smyth’s ethereal space whispers and Tim Blake’s cosmic synth bleeps, all abetted by bursts of Allen’s earthy vaudeville humor.

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Towards the end of the recording, however, disaster struck. “Flying Teapot was going pretty well,” Hillage says, “but then there was a crisis when Daevid Allen’s French record label [BYG Actuel] collapsed. So we had no record company and here we were marooned at the studio trying to finish an album. It ended up with the band more or less disintegrating. Daevid and Gilli went away on an extended sabbatical and we started again more or less from scratch with just myself and Tim Blake, who were new members, and Didier Malherbe and our sound engineer Venux Deluxe. We very luckily put together a new lineup quite rapidly and it became really good. And then Daevid and Gilli re-joined – by then we’d already written a lot of new material.”

‘I was so happy to be a part of that’

That material became the basis for the second installment in the trilogy, Angels Egg, with new members Mike Howlett and drummer Pierre Moerlen adding a jazz- and funk-tinged rhythmic backbone.

“That album was recorded in France with a new Virgin mobile studio at our house in a wood, which was absolutely magical,” Hillage says. The guitarist exerted his increasing influence on the sound, with sublime solos and hard rock-inflected guitar interjections on the likes of “I Never Glid Before” and “Sold To The Highest Buddha.” The following year’s You was recorded back in Oxfordshire and expands on the riotous clash of styles of its predecessors: “Master Blaster” flits between jazz fusion and prog as drummer Moerlen deals out jaw-dropping drum blasts over Didier Malherbe’s free jazz sax skronks, Tim Blake’s space synth swirls and Hillage’s furious rock guitar assaults. “You Never Blow Yr Trip Forever,” meanwhile, finds Allen at his most majestically unhinged.

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‘It was always a combustible mix of people’

Asked what each member brought to the band, Hillage says: “Tim Blake was a pioneer in psychedelic synthesizers. Pierre Moerlen as a drummer was really special. He was classically trained as a percussionist, so he was an expert at getting a really great tone out of the drums and hitting them very precisely. As we worked more and more together he got more and more funky. Mike was a fantastic bass player, also very clued in on funk. If you listen to the rhythms on “Isle Of Everywhere” on the You album – that’s really funky. I was starting to listen to Funkadelic and Eddie Hazel, too, and they were quite a big influence on me even though my primary influences were still people like Jimi Hendrix. But, certainly, Funkadelic was an influence on Gong and we gradually noted the parallels between Parliament, Funkadelic and Gong.”

Sadly, after the triumph of You, the band started to fall apart as Allen, Smyth, and Tim Blake departed in quick succession. “It was always a combustible mixture of people. And, fuelled by all sorts of chemicals, it was somewhat fragile. That line-up started to really disintegrate at the beginning of ’75. It was very frustrating for me because I was trying to keep a functioning unity between the various different factions, but at the time I was locked away in the studio finishing my solo album Fish Rising (an album recorded with various Gong members). I think if I hadn’t been doing that and I had been around more I could have helped to contain the disruption and the stuff that led to the break-up. But that was just not meant to be.”

After Allen’s departure, drummer Moerlen’s influence on Gong became more pronounced. With the band following an increasingly jazz fusion-influenced path, Hillage left early in the recording of 1976’s follow-up album, Shamal, an excellent, if stylistically different, work.

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‘It left an indelible mark on me’

“I just wanted to keep psychedelic in what I was doing,” Hillage says. “And I felt it was moving away from that after Daevid left. And it just stopped floating my boat, basically. I’d already had a solo career before I joined Gong, with my band Khan, which was basically my solo contract. And so I just decided that, hey, destiny is leading me to resume my solo career… it wasn’t like a big painful break-up. We had some really friendly and deep discussions about it and I just felt that it wasn’t a comfortable fit.”

Alongside these early Gong albums, the Love From The Planet Gong box set also comes with a slew of outtakes and a number of live gigs that reveal the type of raucous, snarlingly energetic performances that later found the group in favor with punks. Hillage has fond memories of the French shows (recorded in Paris’ Bataclan and Roanne), in particular.

“I was just so happy to be a part of that. For the Bataclan gig, Daevid and Gilli had only been back from their sabbatical for a couple of weeks, so they were very fresh. The Club Arc En Ciel, Roanne, gig is very special, too. A lot of the French hippies lived there and a lot of LSD was taken… both by the band and the audience! We were very lucky because we’d had The Manor mobile [studio] recording the Angels Egg album at the Gong house in France.

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“We had the gig coming up at the Roan Club and we said, ‘Let’s take the mobile down there and record it,’ so we got a really good recording that’s been mixed by Mike Howlett for the box set and mastered by Simon Haworth, who was our original engineer and co-producer. He worked on the Flying Teapot, Angels Egg, and You albums. That’s a real coup getting Simon to do the mastering, because he’s now a noted mastering engineer.”

Reflecting on the impact that Gong has had on his subsequent career, Hillage says: “The experience of being in Gong for those three years has left an absolutely indelible mark on me. And I just pay tribute to Daevid and Gilli. They’ve been a primary influence on my artistic life.”

The 13-disc Love From The Planet Gong box set can be bought here.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Geoffrey Mason

    October 27, 2019 at 10:57 pm

    Wonderful interview! Thank you!

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