Magma live in Manchester – 23 September

A hotly anticipated gig – Magma at the Band on the Wall in Manchester, where in the last few years I’ve seen both Gong and Syd Arthur. I’d had a ticket for their seated gig at the Royal Northern of College last year, got ill at the last minute and ended up giving my ticket away to an old friend. 3 gigs in Manchester within just over a year (this was a 2-date visit to Band on the Wall) suggests an unexpectedly sharp amount of interest in the band: an unlikely  Zeuhl nirvana after so many barren years in the UK.

Having not only never seen Magma before, but also having dragged along a friend who was a complete Magma ignoramus, I was able to see the gigs as if through  the eyes of an outsider. Forget for the moment that I’d had more than a passing acquaintance with their back catalogue and imagine you’d just stumbled in on the act – the prevailing initial impression is that, on the surface, at least, this is a quite preposterous proposition:  8 doomy, intense, largely dark-clothed musicians purveying an unsmiling blend of rolling, low-end basslines, repetitive keyboard mantras and inpenetrable chants authored in a fictitious, menacing Germanic language. My friend, let’s call him Progshy D, looked on implacably at this intimidating cacophony: was he impressed? I’m not sure. Was this prog? He most definitely thought so. This music is other-worldly without being ethereal, and exploratory in its sense of stripping back perceptions of what is musically ‘normal’. And yet for all the freshness of its menace, it turned out that all music performed tonight was around 40 years old, the first and third parts of the ‘Theussz Hamtaahk’ trilogy, the first part of which, the eponymous, atonal first part I didn’t recognise for a some considerable while until it kicked into its recognisable ‘chorus’ a mere 25 minutes or so in!

The band included a bass player, electric guitar player, keyboardist, mallet player (vibes?), a lead vocalist, two backing vocalists and drummer/bandleader Christian Vander himself, an incredibly tight-knit outfit who gave little away facially whilst pounding away with their mesmeric rhythms. Rumour has it that Christian Vander keeps a close leash on his troops , and this is borne out by meticulously scored, repetitive themes which give no indication that the musicians could stretch out beyond their basic parts. But that’s rather missing the point: the effect is to draw you in hypnotically and dare I say, transport you somewhere else. There are darker rumours out there about Christian Vander’s political leanings, which Hugh Hopper alluded to during correspondence with me years back, in response to my eulogising about the (little) Magma I’d heard up to that point. Thankfully there’s no tangible evidence of this on stage, (unless you count the occasional stiff-armed gesturing by one particularly worked up fan in the front row of the audience).

A few things to note: for all the presence and impact of the lead singer  and the two female vocalists (of whom Stella Vander contributed more than one beautiful melody), the high points of both Theussz Hamtaahk and Mekanik Destructiw Kommandoh were the sections where Christian Vander downed his drum sticks and assumed lead vocals himself. Backed by starkly simple keyboard themes, he soloed almost raga style with a chilling intensity I’d not seen since some of Daevid Allen’s live performances on Gong’s ‘Selene’ .

I have to be honest, I’d not even been aware that Vander sang until the advent of Youtube – the only previous time I’d seen him live was back in the autumn of 1989, when, in something of a fried mental state, I’d set off for southern France on a cheap Interrail  ticket and quite by chance stumbled on the Christian Vander Trio gig peddling jazz standards and more in a salubrious jazz venue in Avignon. He’d totally bowled me over with his muscular, omnipresent drumming and his virtuousity is equally in evidence (almost egotistically so)  in the official Magma videos which cut backwards and forwards to the drum kit throughout. Tonight however, he was very much buried behind his drumkit, which made his vocal solos, where he stood up and brandished his mic like a wind instrument, even more striking.

Having played the grand total of 2 songs for their entire set, it seemed doubtful that any encore would be snappy. But the band re-emerged for a what was a quite uplifting reworking of a track from their debut ‘Kobaia’ album, where the idiom was much more jazz-flavoured, and vibes, guitar and keyboards were allowed to solo with a joyous freedom. And yes, they were all astonishingly gifted musicians, as I should have guessed.

Gilli Smyth RIP

(post written late August 2016, Trapezaki, Kefalonia, Greece)

In the liner notes of ‘Canterburied Sounds Vol 2’, issued around the millennium on Voiceprint Records, I  was allowed to indulge myself by talking about how I’d got into Canterbury music.. I related the story of Dave ‘Wobbler’ Watts, and how he’d sneaked on a tape of Gong’s ‘Camembert Electrique’ on the school stereo one lunchtime and inadvertently changed my life.

For all the sonic impact of the dissonant guitars,the manic tape loops, the Aussie rap/drawl and the fanfarish saxophones, perhaps the most striking element of all to an untutored ear like my own was the female ‘vocals’. I’d purchased the ‘Magick Brother/Mystic Sister’ album simultaneously and it seemed that Gilli’s impact on the sound here was equally outlandish – multi-looped laughter, orgasmic wailing, and the first elements of her patent ‘space whisper’ – this unique, semi-formed version of Gong seemed very much as much of a product of her imagination as Daevid Allen’s, even if the songwriting credits wrongly attributed to her were I suspect more of a function of avoiding Daevid’s contractual obligations.

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Gilli’s involvement in Gong was intermittent through the Seventies, but I am sure that it was as much in deference to her as to Daevid that subsequent offshoots (Paragong, New York Gong, Pierre Moerlen’s Gong) added a prefix to the mother name, and even the early 90s Gong band which held plenty of legitimacy through Daevid and Didier Malherbe’s involvement went out for a couple of years as Gong Maison. In the meantime she led Mother Gong, a very different outfit with her as the central character even if partner and multi-instrumentalist Harry Williamson appeared to pull many of the strings musically.

 

I’d had the odd letter exchange with Gilli from her Australian base – she was supportive, professional and friendly to the idea of a Gong/Canterbury fanzine but it wasn’t until 1991 that I got to meet her. I was totally mesmerised for a week or so by Mother Gong mark Z, to the extent that I followed them round various North West provincial venues, such low-key outlets as the Witchwood in Ashton Under Lyne, the Citadel in St Helens and a pub in the centre of Bolton called the Crown and Cushion where the band seemed particularly incongruously booked amongst the weekday sots.

 

My eulogy to this particular version of the band is published here and I still have a particularly well manufactured tour T-shirt, which I remember my now 24 year old stepdaughter pointing out a few year ago was the same age as her (!) but what the piece doesn’t portray is my own impressions of the interview – a frank, honest, unromantically fond depiction of events from an unassuming but clearly strong personality.

 

The interview took place after a gig in Leeds – the band were generous with their time when I am sure that talking to an unpolished Gong geek was the last thing they wanted to do in the midst of a pretty length tour. I also remember being too polite or probably too unskilled (this was probably only my second ever interview) to stop Harry Williamson often taking centre stage in the interview – it was Gilli I really wanted to converse with after all but too often the talk became bogged down in the technicalities of their ambitious touring set up. I’m not sure quite where the two were in their own  relationship at that point, but it was certainly an insight into their interpersonal dynamics. I vowed to go back and do the job properly at some point and get Gilli on her own terms, but of course never did. This version of Mother Gong was peerless and the album ‘Wild Child’ the perfect document, but having witnessed on several occasions her subsequent performances with Glo, her stunning dancebeat-based collaboration with Here and Now’s Steffe Sharpstrings, I reckon the latter was a much more harmonious musical union.

 

Whilst Daevid Allen’s passing was commented on within hours by national newspapers and music magazines alike, Gilli Smyth’s death remains less commented on and what I’ve seen often cobbled together from wikipages, her own website, or more by proxy, a paean to Daevid. And I’ve not seen a single mention of Glo…

 

Feminist, beatnik, intellectual, vocal pioneer, poetess and the glue that bound Gong together, Gilli Smyth RIP

 

 

Tomorrow Never Knows…

(post written late August 2016, Trapezaki, Kefalonia, Greece)

I’ve been at a bit of a loose end these past few days…

 

I’m currently on a package holiday in Greece – not entirely my style but after a dodgy year health-wise any plans to do something more adventurous hit the buffers a while back.  At a bit of a loose end last night, and not wishing to jump into another holiday book, imbibe some more Fix Hellenic lager or contemplate another night on a mattress on the floor next to the fridge, I let my mind drift off into half forgotten Canterbury territory.

 

The train of thought had been going like this – I’d been listening to Violeta de Outono (Gong guitarist Fabio Golfetti’s long standing Brazilian band) and in amongst the bonus track from their 1987 debut album was a version of the Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ – actually probably less ‘psychedelic’ than the original, but blessed with a fine line in glissando guitar I can guarantee was never originally contemplated by John, Paul et al.

 

A bit of idle research reveals that it’s bang on 50 years since that track was originally recorded, also 50 years since the Soft machine got going. As I turn 50 myself this year I’ve been musing more than is necessary about ages and their significance.

 

When I came across ‘Canterbury’ music in the mid 80s for the first time it’s fair to say that I thought I was looking at it entirely retrospectively – due to age I’d missed its first wave completely and many of its artists seemed to have disappeared from view. I was able to plunder the musical archives from a distance with none of the ongoing frisson of being exposed to new ideas which comes from seeing the development of a band like say, Syd Arthur, as they metamorphose from album to album. It was a distant, impersonal study of a band or bands from afar.

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In 1987 at the Band on the Wall in Manchester I saw some of these ‘distant’ musicians become flesh for the first time.  I remember being staggered by the listing of a band led by Hatfields/National Health guitarist Phil Miller called In Cahoots, and containing (for me) luminary names such as ex-Softs Hugh Hopper and Elton Dean, and Gong drummer Pip Pyle. A band and experience that did not disappoint in any way.

 

What I was musing on last night was that 3 of these musicians are now long lost to us, all 3 of whom I had the opportunity to communicate with in one way or another over the next 10 years or so.  Hugh Hopper was a total inspiration for my magazine Facelift, the  first to lend his support with so many links and encouraging words, Pip was a friendly face at so many gigs and a wry commentator on so many subjects, Elton a more distant correspondent via letter. And yet the counterpoint to being able to plunder your heroes’ back catalogue in  retrospect is that those same heroes’ fortunes wax and wane so much earlier than your own – all 3 died tragically early in their sixties, and the death of the seemIngly ageless Daevid Allen in 2015 was in some ways an even starker hammer blow – I can’t claim to have had any personal relationship with him and he reached a much grander age, but he seemed so impregnable, such a constant musical backdrop to my life from 1985 onwards in so manŷ different guises – I could selfishly pick and choose when to see him live through the Nineties,  and still rack up in excess of 40 viewings over the years. I still can’t quite believe that I’ll never hear him tap out the guitar intro to ‘You Can’t Kill Me’ again or pulverise the riff to ‘Dynamite’ and it’s one of the reasons why for all the joy of seeing a Gong renewed at Kozfest with Torabi, Golfetti and crew  that the new material was so essential, the old coming at an emotional cost.

 

These thoughts were still with me this morning when I visited the Planet Gong website, ostensibly to see if the promised Gong Autumn tour dates had popped up. And immediately I saw the news about the death of Gilli Smyth.

This is the first verse…

 

In 1989 I started up a fanzine called Facelift – it proudly trumpetted its aim to cover the ‘Canterbury scene and beyond’. Over the years myself and other like-minded writers interviewed the likes of Daevid Allen, Hugh Hopper, Steve Hillage, Dave Stewart, Phil Miller, Gilli Smyth, Jakko M Jakszyk, Tim Blake, Pip Pyle and numerous others, whilst reviewing the studio and live work of countless musicians within the ‘scene’, whatever that may be. In 1999, a bit burnt out and embarking on a new adventure in my personal life, the fanzine fizzled out. A website appeared in 2006 at http://www.faceliftmagazine.co.uk

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At Kozfest 2016

mainly to shift some back issues of the ‘zine. It never got updated, but still exists (and you can still buy back issues there).

In 2016, an unscheduled visit to Kozfest, a ‘psychedelic dream’ festival in which Gong and various related bands performed, rather blew my mind and set me thinking about writing again. I’d never intended to stop Facelift, really, it’s just that running a fanzine (or indeed a website) can become very much a full-time job (and I already have one of those). Maybe a blog would be the perfect way to start rambling on again about the music that I love. These are my first written thoughts 17 years on – please let me know if you want more…!