Obituary: Daevid Allen, musician

Daevid Allen: Counterculture poet and member of the influential Soft Machine and Gong. Picture: Getty

Daevid Allen: Counterculture poet and member of the influential Soft Machine and Gong. Picture: Getty

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Born: 13 January, 1938, in Melbourne, Australia. Died: 13 March, 2015, in Australia, aged 77

Daevid Allen was a musician, singer, songwriter and poet who was best known as a member of 1960s psychedelic rock group Soft Machine and the founder of 1970s psychedelic rock outfit Gong. A counterculture icon for a generation of free love-era music fans, hippies and contemporary listeners with a taste for the playfully out-there, his increasing age never turned him into a comfortable elder statesman of popular music. Still performing in gaudy costumes with a shamanic vigour into his seventies, he continued to embody the ideals of the counterculture long after most of his contemporaries had disavowed it.

Born Christopher David Allen (the later “e” in “David”was his own addition; other aliases included Divided Alien and Bert Camembert) in Melbourne, Australia to a middle class family. The outsider status Allen gleefully revelled in was cultivated during his education at public school, where his youthful eccentricities saw him bullied on occasion. After school he moved on to a management traineeship at huge Melbourne department store the Myer Emporium and then – via a girlfriend he met through the store – to the Melbourne University Press bookshop. It was there that he first read the work of the emerging Beat Generation of poets from America, and these inspired him to perform his own poetry in the city’s coffee shops.

Allen also played in his own jazz group and dabbled in acting at this time, moving in the same circles as a young Barry Humphries, although when he tired of the Melbourne scene he followed many young Australians of his era to Europe, spending time in Paris and London initially. Advertising for a place to stay in 1961, he received a reply from a young family near Dover named Wyatt, whom he lived with for a period; he formed a lasting friendship with their 14-year-old jazz musician prodigy son Robert, who later played with Allen in Soft Machine and earned much success as a solo artist in his own right.

Allen returned to London and played avant garde jazz venues such as the then extremely fashionable Establishment Club with the city’s musicians, among them the young Wyatt. In 1963 he moved to Paris for a period, a time which would bring him into contact with one of his Beat idols, William S Burroughs, also a transient resident there. The pair collaborated, with Allen providing music, on various avant garde “happenings”, later being joined by another acquaintance, the future composer Terry Riley.

While living in France, Allen briefly married a fellow Australian, before leaving her for Welsh poet Gilli Smyth, whom he moved with to Majorca. During this extended stay they made the acquaintance of various fellow travellers who would go on to form the core of Soft Machine (once more including Wyatt), the band being named after a Burroughs book. Settled back in England, they emerged amidst the celebrated Canterbury folk-rock scene of the time.

Although Allen only remained with the band for the first year of their existence – between 1966 and 1967, before they had even released an album – he was an integral part of the group while they achieved a significant amount of notoriety on the underground UK psychedelic circuit, playing with them at the fabled UFO Club in London and on their joyous, well-remembered 1967 debut single Love Makes Sweet Music.

It was the group’s significant immediate success on France’s own underground scene which ended Allen’s involvement with them, however, when an extended period touring across the Channel saw him denied ­re-entry to the UK.

Forced to return to life in Paris while Soft Machine went their own way, Allen and Smyth began improvising around jazz and poetry in the cafes of Paris under the name Gong, until hastily decamping to Majorca once more during Les Evenements of May ’68 – Allen had been filmed handing teddy bears to police officers during the riots, embarrassing them in the process.

Returning to the city two years later, the duo reconvened Gong in earnest, using musicians including skilled saxophonist Didier Malherbe on early album releases Magick Brother (1970) and Camembert Electrique (1971), and guitarist Steve Hillage following their signing to Virgin for the Radio Gnome Trilogy of Flying Teapot (1973), Angel’s Egg (1973) and You (1974).

Characterised by lengthy, jazz-styled experimentation, free-form poetic lyrics, early synthesiser sounds and a storytelling mythology built in by Allen, these were the purest expressions of Gong’s sound.

Allen left the group in 1975 (Smyth had already departed when she became pregnant earlier), although many of his solo experiments over the coming years bore the Gong title, including Planet Gong, New York Gong, Gongmaison and finally a reunion of the original band for the Shapeshifter album in 1992. Four more albums followed from Allen’s version of Gong, the last being 2014’s I See You, while his ever-shifting group of recording and live collaborators later included his son Orlando on drums. In 2008 they played London’s Meltdown festival at the invitation of Massive Attack, and in 2009 played Glastonbury, a festival Gong first appeared at in 1971.

In June 2014 a cyst on Allen’s neck was found to be cancerous, and in February 2015 he announced that he had been given six months to live and would be seeking no further treatment. His death was announced via Facebook by his son Orlando, with Gong’s official website bearing the message “Daevid passed peacefully in Australia today… surrounded by his boys. Everything has stopped here in a house of tears. Tears first, ­celebration later.”

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