Obituary: Gilli Smyth, poet and musician

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Gilli Smyth, English poet and musician, and co-founder of the psychedelic rock band Gong. Born: England, 1 June 1933 Died: Byron Bay, Australia, 
22 August 2016, aged 83

Gilli Smyth, also known as Shakti Yoni, was an English poet, writer, musician and academic who was best known as the co-founder of and vocalist for the psychedelic rock band Gong in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Founded between Paris, France and Deia, Mallorca between the years 1967 and 1969 with her partner Daevid Allen, Gong were the missing link between the innocent, playful hippydom of the 1960s and the more serious and musically proficient space-rock of the following decade.

Despite having a compositional style which involved liberal amounts of saxophone and a tangible free jazz influence, however, Gong were themselves never serious. Allen played the role of shamanic court jester; dressing wildly, inflicting disconcerting key changes mid-lyric upon his songs, and writing tracks called things like The Pot Head Pixies, Flute Salad and Sold to the Highest Buddha. Smythdeveloped a breathy style of singing which she named “space whispering” – described in the biography on her website as an “ethereal method of atonal singing, vocalising and musical landscaping”.

The original, Allen and Smyth-led version of Gong was together for eight years, 1967-1975, releasing six albums in that time, although it was for their Radio Gnome Invisible trilogy that they were most well-known. This incorporated the records Flying Teapot (1973), Angel’s Egg (1973) and You (1974), each of which was released on Virgin Records; in fact, Flying Teapot was the second catalogued release on Richard Branson’s then-new label, issued the same day as the first, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells.

It can be argued that the tides of hipster taste haven’t been kind to Gong over the decades, that they aren’t as well-remembered as Allen’s former Soft Machine bandmate Robert Wyatt, their spiritual contemporaries Pink Floyd, or latter-day Gong guitarist and future ambient techno innovator Steve Hillage. Yet in their music there’s a wealth of innovation, of emotive purpose, and of vivid and compulsively evocative composition. Leaving the group to spend more time with her children in 1974 didn’t curtail Smyth’s activities, with Gong’s wealth of offshoot projects; she released a dozen albums between 1978 and 2005 as leader of Mother Gong, and returned to the core group as a performer.

Born Gillian Mary Smyth in England in 1933, her family was deeply musical and Welsh going back many generations. Smyth described herself as being deeply political from a young age – she was expelled from a Catholic convent school at the age of 12 for disagreeing with its teachings. She studied at and kept going back to King’s College London, eventually earning three degrees there, and was editor of the university newspaper King’s News; through publishing then-controversial political and feminist writings in the paper, she found herself briefly – but very disconcertingly – at the centre of a moral panic in the tabloid press.

While at university in the 1960s, Smyth published books of poetry and performed her works live at venues including London’s Roundhouse, developing a real thrill at being able to captivate a crowd. She also entered into what she later called “a firm marriage with a guy with a good job” and had a baby, Tasmyn, although it was her subsequent effort to leave this marriage and her fear of losing a custody battle which caused her to flee to Paris. Here she was homeless and lived on a houseboat for a time with her daughter, before taking up teaching at the Sorbonne (and becoming a fluent French speaker).

The Australian Allen was also an exile in the city, having been denied re-entry to the UK following an overseas trip by the Soft Machine. The pair met, became lovers, and starting recording music together in a guise which Allen later referred to as “Protogong”, although the fact they both had arrest warrants attached to their names after the May 1968 riots in the city caused the pair to decamp to Mallorca. Back in Paris the year after, they reconvened with saxophonist Didier Malherbe, whom they had met in Spain, and formed a full band, playing their first live show in Belgium in October 1969. They released the albums Magick Brother (1970) and Camembert Electrique (1971), and the film soundtrack Continental Circus (1972), before coming to Branson’s attention.

Following Smyth’s departure from the band she also split up with Allen, with whom she had two sons, Taliesyn and Orlando. He produced her first solo record, Mother (1978), and she was a guest on his Planet Gong album, before she created the Mother Gong alias in 1979 with the Fairy Tales record. Over the years, players on the Mother Gong project (which at one point supported Bob Dylan on tour) included Allen and Malherbe, as well as musician Harry Williamson, whom Smyth married in 1980. She rejoined Allen’s Gong group in 1993, and her music continued to convey themes of environmentalism, feminism and pacifism, while she explored trance techno in the mid-1990s with the side-projects GLO (Goddesses Love Oranges) and Goddess Trance. She published a book of collected writings called Nitrogen Dreams in 2009.

Performing last with Gong in 2012 before retiring due to ill health, Gilli Smyth died of pneumonia in a hospital in Byron Bay – where she had lived since 1982 – surrounded by family, including son Orlando, now drummer with Gong, who cared for her. “She was 83 and also ageless,” said the remaining members of the band (Allen died in 2015). “The aim is to provoke the audience, to get them excited, to make them active rather than passive,” Smyth had previously summed up her and Gong’s work. “The main aim of our music is to immerse our audience in a state out of the daily life.”

DAVID POLLOCK