A new boxed set titled Love From The Planet Gong: The Virgin Years 1973-75 will be available on September 27, 2019. From that we’ve listened to so far, the remastered versions are outstanding. We spoke with progressive music and electric guitar innovator Steve Hillage, who was a member of Gong during the early 1970s.
Q. The original Gong is described as a Franco-British or international band. How did the French, British, Australian and Fijian musicians meet each other?
Daevid Allen always used to refer these magical meetings a “by chance and by trance”. But the basic story is that Daevid, as a young aspiring poet and musician, left Australia in the early 60s and wanted to come to London and Paris, which he saw as epicenters of the Beatnik movement. After various adventures he eventually formed a band with some other quirky and experimental musicians, based in Canterbury, UK. They became the Soft Machine, and they quickly developed into one of the two (along with the Pink Floyd) top psychedelic bands in the UK in the heady years of 1966 and 67.
Later, in 67, after an extended tour in France, where they became highly acclaimed in the French underground arts scene, the Soft Machine returned to the UK but Daevid was stopped at the UK border and was refused entry, having an incorrect visa. He stayed on in France and formed an initial experimental collective, also with Gilli Smyth who was living in France, and later met up with French saxophone and flute player Didier Malherbe who was to become a hugely important part in what eventually became Gong.
The band’s first official gig was in October 1969, which makes this year the 50th Anniversary! Gong went through various line-up changes, and after the recording the Flying Teapot album went into a state of dissolution, with an entirely new line-up formed, initially without Daevid and Gilli. Starting with myself, Tim Blake and Didier we were approached by an amazing drummer Pierre Moerlen, from a classical percussion background. Daevid met a bass player, Mike Howlett, who was born in Fiji and had been in bands in Australia, and he recommended him to us. And so was born the so called “classic” line-up that recorded the Angel’s Egg and You albums, as featured on this box set.
Q. What spoken language did you use to communicate?
French and English, often mixed together in what we call “Franglais”…
Q. Gong became a breeding ground for various musicians who moved on to make progressive rock, jazz-rock, electronic music and other musical forms. How was the music making process and was there a lot of experimentation in terms of music and musical instruments?
I can only really speak of the period 1973-75, when I was in the band, in particular on the Angel’s Egg and You albums. We had a fantastic mixture of musical personalities with different styles and we succeeded in making a whole that was definitely greater than the sum of the parts, but with a strong Gong sonic identity. We used to jam a lot and developed shared skills in going on musical journeys. It was a wonderful time, but it was a combustible mix as we each had strong personalities and it became difficult to sustain for more than a couple of intense years.
Q. What did you enjoy the most during those early Gong years?
Creativity, fun and psychedelic adventures. And we had a lot of laughs too.
Q. Tell us about your favorite performance venues in the 1970s.
Hard to say, but one club we played at several times, in central France, was the Club Arc En Ciel (in translation “The Rainbow Club”). This was a very free place with a great crowd and we loved playing there. Luckily, we got the Manor Mobile studio to come down and record a whole show there in 1973, and we have included it in the new box set.
Q. The new boxed set “Love From The Planet Gong: The Virgin Years 1973-75” includes the first original albums. Are these reissue remasters and was there any remixing as well? Were any original members of Gong involved in the process?
The key thing about this box set release is that we, the surviving members of the 1973-75 line-up, have been able to examine all the master tapes in the Virgin Records archive, and most importantly we have for the very first time a CD release of the Flying Teapot album from the original masters used for the original vinyl release.
We had access to all the multi-tracks, but we weren’t particularly interested in making new mixes. We just wanted to make the original mixes from the original masters sound great. And here we have the second key thing, in that the original engineer from the Manor Studios, who engineered these albums and was our co-producer, was Simon Heyworth, who is now a noted mastering engineer! So we got Simon to master or re-master everything, which goes right back to the roots of the sound we were making then, and making it sound good and pristine for now! Also Simon is experienced in 5.1 surround sound, and after some searching we located the original tapes of the quad mixes of the You album, that he was involved in at the time, and these have also been re-mastered for contemporary digital surround.
Q. The boxed set also contains a lot of other material. Tell us about the bonus tracks and previously unreleased material contained in this anthology.
Some of the album bonus tracks have been released before but some, including various different mixes of the title track of Flying Teapot, and the Shamal alternative mixes, have never been released before. Apart from the Bataclan live show, which was only partially released before, all the other live gig recordings have been mixed from multi-track by our former bass player Mike Howlett, and only some tracks from these shows have ever been out before. And, like the studio albums, the bonus tracks, radio recordings, and live show recordings have all had the meticulous mastering attention of Simon Heyworth.
We feel we’ve extracted all the best stuff from the Virgin tape archives. There’s nothing really left now – it’s all here – with Love from the Planet Gong!
Q. Gong continued with newer musicians after Daevid Allen died. A new upcoming tour was announced featuring yourself. What is the line-up and what songs will you perform live?
Gong’s story has continued right up to the present day. It was Daevid’s adamant dying wish that the final line-up he had assembled should carry on as Gong. They’ve now released two successful and brilliantly received new albums since Daevid passed away and they are a brilliant band with their own sound, but one that is still fully imbued with the unique vibrations of Daevid and Gong. So they continue to fulfill Daevid’s wish, and also I’ve collaborated on some of their recordings and have played a number of shows guesting with them.
When I was offered the perfect opportunity to play some Steve Hillage Band shows earlier this year, the obvious choice was to invite the guys from the current Gong line-up to play with me as the Steve Hillage Band. It worked out great, and now we have a substantial UK and Europe tour coming up in November. On this tour the Gong guys will also play their own Gong set, featuring high energy Gong classics and tracks from their acclaimed new album The Universe Also Collapses. The Steve Hillage Band set features tracks from my 70s albums Green, Fish Rising, L and Motivation Radio. We see our November/December tour as a great way to celebrate the release of this box set and Gong’s 50th anniversary!
Q In addition to the boxed set and the live concerts, are there any activities planned, such as new studio or live albums?
There are all kind of thing on the front burner, the back burner, the side burner. We move forward “by chance and by trance”…..
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