Daevid Allen has been an institution of the progressive rock underground since playing guitar in the original lineup of the Soft Machine. Since then he's done numerous albums and tours, often as part of Gong, and in the late 1990s and early 2000s, sometimes backed by the University of Errors. Although he is not featured in Urban Spacemen & Wayfaring Strangers, he had much to say about a producer/impresario who is the subject of one of the book's chapters, Giorgio Gomelsky. Gomelsky produced some early demos for the Soft Machine, and was later involved in recordings by Gong. I also took the opportunity to ask him about his one-time associate (and fellow one-time Soft Machiner) Kevin Ayers, another guy who wasn't in Urban Spacemen & Wayfaring Strangers, but could have been.
How did the Soft Machine get involved with Giorgio for those demos he produced in 1967 [subsequently released as an album, in numerous different titles and packages]?
We had Chas Chandler [involved in our management], who'd left the Animals to become part of the management thing with Mike Jeffery. They were managing Hendrix and the Animals. Everybody was sort of in that Animals thing. Chas Chandler was looking for the right producer for Soft Machine. They didn't know what to make of Soft Machine. So they figured that Giorgio might be a good candidate. They tried Mickie Most, they tried all these other dudes.
So we were taken to this office called Paragon, which was part of Polygram, but I suppose it was like the promotional PR company. But in fact, Giorgio had sort of set the whole thing up himself with two friends. It was sort of like part promotional thing, part kind of finding girls for, like, rock executives. (laughs) But it was a magnificent office. It had an incredible theatrical effect when you walked into it. Giorgio would be sitting there...he also had a pretty healthy expense account from Polydor. Our first single, "Love Makes Sweet Music," was out on Polydor, so I think there was this connection.
Basically, he had various golden chairs in most of the main clubs around London, including particularly the Speakeasy. He would take us there and ply us with whiskeys on the expense account. We'd meet all the big stars at the time. It was like being at court, only a rock'n'roll court. 'Cause the Beatles were there, the Rolling Stones were there--everybody, all the big names, would gather at the Speakeasy at this particular time. He got us in the studio and recorded those tracks which came out as the only Soft Machine tracks that I'm actually on besides the single [the 1967 single "Love Makes Sweet Music/Feelin' Reelin' Squealin'," recorded before the Gomelsky demos].
He didn't do the single. Kim Fowley partly did the single, the B-side. The thing about Kim Fowley was, he was a complete codeine freak. So he never stopped talking. But secondly, he astonished everybody by taking the eight-track master tape, and cutting, splicing the eight-track master tape. Which nobody had ever seen done (laughs). It was really wild, to make "Feelin', Reelin', Squealin'." So he made these huge massive splices, right across all of the eight-track. Because if you fuck it up, that's it, that's the end of the master.
Anyway, Giorgio was supposed to promote us, and he also produced those tracks, Soft Machine at the Beginning I think it's called. It's out on Charly. I was always very unhappy with those myself, because I didn't like my guitar playing. It was very hard for me, because I never got good guitar playing recorded, as far as I was concerned. All my guitar solos and stuff that were recorded then were all shit. And there was Jimi Hendrix using the same studio all the time. They'd keep playing me Jimi Hendrix and saying, "come on, man, this is to inspire you." And it would, like, completely paralyze me.
Anyway, Giorgio would get us into the Speakeasy, and got Soft Machine a residency on Tuesday nights. He also got us involved in crazy promotional things for the Speakeasy. Japes, like complicated japes, featuring different people. He commissioned me to write a poem called "The Death of Rock." It's a poem that's on record. It's been printed around and so on. Essentially, I wrote it in an afternoon, at behest of Giorgio. Because Giorgio wanted it to be a central part of this thing whereby Brian Auger was brought in--or was it Zoot Money? I think Zoot Money was brought in in a coffin, carried by everybody. And then he used to spring out and be the living dead, while Brian Auger was playing music, while I was proclaiming this poem. Well ,the poem was like..."it's good night the old rock, good morning the new rock." Quite a few people got upset by this. Basically it was pro-psychedelia, anti-, sort of, traditional pop. I remember Georgie Fame in particular got very upset [with] me, and wanted to have a fight right in front of the stage. But it was good, it was fun.
What were the primary assets Giorgio gave to the acts he was involved with?
We did all this stuff. He was an incredible oiler of wheels, Giorgio. Extraordinary social genius who could sort of like really connect people up, one of the great connectors. He got me involved with doing some kind of loop project with Paul McCartney that never really finished up getting anywhere, but still it was interesting to talk to him about it. So I saw Giorgio as this marvelous, somewhat devious, brilliant, witty, charming, middle European gentleman of the type I've always loved all my life. [I've] always liked this kind of strange hybrid cultural beings that seem to be able to move easily in any circumstance, and get the best out of any circumstance. That's more or less the way I see Giorgio to this day. He's still got that ability. He's an incredible creative wheeler and dealer.
He also has ability with money, but he doesn't waste too much time with money. He mostly uses it in a good sense, in the sense of creativity, ideas, inspirations. He always seems to be able to add some kind of extra energy to any idea you've got, just in terms of the wide range of his knowledge and understanding of the entire scene. He really does deeply understand the way of money. So that's an advantage. But really, I think his true value is just creatively, in terms of creative inspiration.
But he's kind of impatient sometimes. He's driven. If his vision doesn't come through, he gets impatient with people, because he wants to see that vision, just like I do, like anyone else does who's driven by an idea and determined to see it through. He's very very passionate about all those things. To begin with, starting the club in Richmond [the Crawdaddy, in 1963], getting involved with the Rolling Stones, he had this kind of magic touch in the early days, where he got involved with almost everybody that was going to shake the system. So in a sense, he had a real natural attraction to anyone who was fundamentally revolutionary. That's what made him so interesting.
For example, later on, after Gong, he came across to France with Brian Auger and heard Magma. When he heard Magma, he thought Magma was really exactly what he wanted to do. It fitted in with all his Swiss-Italian-French cultural sophistication. He had a kind of Stravinsky aspect, he sort of had this profoundly kind of Jewish middle European deep cultural understanding that the Jewish race seem to bring to the world. They have this incredible understanding of music. I've always gone to hang out with Jewish friends to listen to music. That's how I learned about some types of music, simply by going and hanging out with these guys. So Giorgio confronted all this, saw all this in Magma. The fact that Christian Vander had swastika flags all over his bedroom and pictures of Hitler and would leap up and do kind of imitation Hitler speeches in the middle of his drum solo didn't seem to faze him all that much. It fazed everybody else. But Giorgio just loved the music, and loved the cultural impact of the music.
So he managed them and got involved with Gong again in the second time through. He really, with Bob Benamou, who was the Gong manager, who'd done all the basic spade work, was a great combination. Because Bob was one of these people with details who was a terrier, who'd go in and do all the little bits and pieces. And Giorgio was the man with the grand vision. This basically revolutionized the touring situation in France by connecting up with students and all the faculties, and teaching them how to put on gigs. Because before that, there was only what they call French variété, which was really commercial Johnny Hallyday-type stuff. Like big showband type things. But there was no genuine creativity. There was no outlet for musical creativity at all in France when Gong and Magma were born in France. We were like the alternative, had no road to follow. And they basically created this incredible network throughout the whole of France, and allowed a whole generation of very interesting bands to come up.
That whole scene is still pretty unknown to people in the States.
I think that the French bands of the seventies are probably one of the most unknown, outside of France anyway, and undocumented movements in music. I think they were fantastic. Some extraordinary bands, the like of which you could not find anywhere else in the world. One of my favorite is called Albert Marcoeur. Still existing to this day. Crium Delirium was this other one, insane bunch of guys. Brigitte Fontaine was always sort of like bridging the gap. She was always in the tradition of the theater and of the verite. She was a revolutionary, but stayed in the sort of form of the verite, didn't really abandon the form of the verite. But everything that she did inside that form was revolutionary--the words, the attitudes, the way she was when she spoke about the way she lived, the way she felt. But she stuck with that form, whereas these other bands left--they went right off, into a whole new territory. And it was because of, basically, Giorgio and Bob Benamou, who was the Gong manager.
So Magma's manager and Gong's manager combined to make this crazy combination. And two of them revolutionized the system, and created a whole new touring circuit, which they put Gong and Magma down with huge energy, and which basically put Magma and Gong in this situation of being the sort of leading new bands in France, sort of the revolutionary bands everyone followed on the coattails of. Giorgio will be able to tell you billions of names of bands that were around at that time, that he likes too.
But Giorgio was only involved with Gong for a while, right?
That was my second lot with Giorgio. That kind of faded out when I got burned out by all the touring, and by the hard work involved. The stuff that was going on in my life--I had my first son. I had no idea what this entailed until I had a son and I was touring and it was all very complicated, quite difficult. Then I went to England and met Richard Branson, and then Gong had this transfer over to England, which meant that we left Giorgio and Bob more or less behind. Because once we went to England, they were not--for some reason, Giorgio didn't really want--Giorgio was more obsessed with Magma, and he kept driving Magma along. And Bob got fed up with Gong, and he was basically an antique dealer, and he'd been an antique dealer before, and he ended up being an antique dealer again after. He's a great hustler. He's very wealthy now. As soon as he dropped Gong, he became very wealthy. Good karma, probably, but it cost him money.
How did you come to work with Giorgio again later in the States?
Gong went to England, and we didn't see Giorgio for a while. The third epoch with Giorgio was, when he'd arrived in New York and got involved with Bill Laswell's Material. We wanted to come over and tour, and he the French record companies that we had dealings with. [He] suggested that we come over and do a festival in New York, and perhaps even touring across the country. Which he did--it all came together. It was too expensive to bring the whole of Gong, but I had split from Gong by then anyway. What he suggested doing was creating an American Gong, using Laswell and the guys as musicians in the band, and having them as a sort of central group, and having sort of visiting people. We could do Gong, we could do Mother Gong, and Material, playing as Material.
And this turned out to be pretty successful, but the first one wasn't. The first one was a whole bunch of bands, it was an extraordinary range of bands he had. A lot of the hip bands in New York at that time --a whole new cycle with Giorgio, because I didn't move to the States. We did two tours right across to San Francisco, and came back again twice. That pretty much burned out the relationship with Giorgio in the process of doing it. That's the third cycle.
Then I sort of got burned out, and went back to Australia for about seven or eight years. I lost contact with him. Then the most recent cycle of me meeting Giorgio again was about four or five years ago, when suddenly I saw him in the audience at a solo gig, 'cause I was trying to invade America in my own way. I figured the only way to start in America without doing the big commercial route was just to come and do solo gigs, and then increase that to duo, and then to trio, and finally reach the point where we could bring Gong, have somebody crazy enough to bring Gong. So he'd just been around. I just reconnected with him and we reunited our friendship, just based on the years of knowing each other. So at the moment, we're not really working together on any particular projects. But we just hang out a lot together. When I'm in New York, we go and drink together and just hang out. We just enjoy each other's company, like old friends. So that's the basic parameters of my relationship with Giorgio.
When Giorgio was working with Gong in France, what was his exact role? To what extent was he involved in management as well as production?
During the period when Gong and Magma were creating the new circuits in France, you could say he was the manager, because Bob Benamou and he created a combined management team. So to that extent, he was manager at that point. He was like the grand design manager, and Bob was the details manager. And both Magma and Gong were managed by that team. So you could say he was manager then. In the early days of Soft Machine, he was more like a fairy godfather-stroke-record producer. That was his relationship to us then. It was like PR-fairy godfather-record producer. Then, the second run-through in France, he was manager. Third time through, yeah, well you could say he was manager of the Gong, he was the manager and promoter and agent and everything of the Gong maxi-mini-mega festival.
Why do you think it is that he was able to spot and work with so many interesting people in the 1960s and 1970s?
He's fundamentally a rock and roll visionary. He's a creative visionary. He can see the grand picture, and he can see where the grand picture can go. So he's very valuable to everybody in that sense. Because he can always say, "Okay, this is where you could go if you want to go. And this is the channel you'd use to go there." That's enormously valuable. It's like some kind of adviser. What do they call those financial advisor-type people, the people you go to and ask them for advice about how to do something? The guy gives them this kind of huge sort of vision of where they could go and how to get there. Well, that's what Giorgio's so good at doing. He's not all that good at getting his hands down and doing it. He needs to find people to do that for him. He needs a manager (laughs). Giorgio's one of these managers that needs a manager! [To] take care of the details.
He's tempestuous by nature, and I think quite often he got up people's noses, simply because he had this kind of impatience that wanted to keep moving on. He could see the vision, and because he could see the grand vision, he'd be impatient with people that couldn't see it in the same way that he could. I can really understand that. He had this kind of genius for the vision. But as I say, if he'd had a manager who could then take over and facilitate it for him, he'd be fine.
But very often, he got caught up in trying to actually be the facilitator, and he wasn't all that good at that. Nor did he really have a passion for it. What he had a passion for was seeing where to go and how to do it. And overseeing it, he didn't have a passion for getting on the phone and doing all the details. And he'd get sick of that, bored with that, I think, that's my feeling. And as he had minions to run around and do that with lesser visions --when he had that, he flourished. But when he didn't have people working for him, who were practical where he wasn't practical, I think that probably he gets stroppy. He's very passionate about his beliefs. And if people disagree with him, to some extent he'd go with them, but there would always be this point where he'd offend them, or he'd be offended by them, and there'd be a falling out. He's a strong character, with strong views.
I completely forget that he actually came back and there was another epoch with Giorgio, when he produced Flying Teapot. It was the first album of the Gong trilogy. Not only did he produce the Soft Machine thing, but he also produced the first album of the Gong trilogy.
As a producer, what did he add to that project?
I remember in the Gong trilogy, he was sitting in the studio with the engineer saying, "Look, look. It's the beginning of the record, right? It's dark. There's a desert. Look, over here, the sun's coming up. Here comes the sun. Okay, in comes the synthesizer. The sun's coming up, first rays of light hit the mountain. Okay, here comes the little bit of guitar there and the first cymbals." This was his thing. He's a very visual, pictorial person. The other thing was, he introduced Francis Moze, who'd been one of the Magma bass players, a complete madcap of a man. Brilliant bass player and a great musician. Sort of half-Apache, half-French. He was very warrior-like. He'd totally lose it, and explode, and throw things around. He was just completely mad. Giorgio always seemed to be associated with passions out of control. People with passions out of control, you're attracted to very passionate people who were just hanging in there, or in control by the skin of their teeth.
Going back to the Soft Machine demos that he produced, what do you recall as his specific contributions to those sessions?
I'm not 100% sure that with us, that I totally liked what he did in terms of the production, of the Soft Machine. Because I was dissatisfied with my guitar playing, and I thought a good producer might have wheedled some better guitar playing out of me, rather than--I felt sort of as if I'd been closed down when I was very dissatisfied with what I'd done. And also, maybe it's just that lack of attention to details, that he needs someone there to take care of the details for him. Again, he's the visionary. He's a true visionary.
The reason I got shut down when I did, because they were like demos. We just went in there and played, basically. We just did the tracks, and then he would say, "Okay, that's fine, now we'll put the vocal on." I think he was real limited by time. But just the same, how many demos end up on record? A lot of them do. I guess nobody really realized at that time how valuable all this stuff would be in the future. It's just a demo. It was like a one-off. I didn't get a chance to do anything [with Soft Machine] again.
Do you know why Giorgio never produced anything else with Soft Machine?
I'm the wrong person to ask, because I got thrown out of the country. I was refused re-entry, and I had to leave the band. So I don't know what happened beyond that. I think that these decisions were not in our control. The decisions were usually made by [co-managers] Mike Jeffery or Chas Chandler, neither of whom really had anything like the same vision or ability to understand what Soft Machine was, that Giorgio had. Giorgio had a real understanding of what Soft Machine was and could be. These other guys that were really in power didn't, really.
But again, it's all down to personalities, it's all down to the alchemy of relationships between individuals. And at that point, I don't know whether Giorgio really had the right relationship with the other members of the band or not. I mean, the point about Soft Machine was, there was like four real heavyweight egos there. We were all four heavyweight egos, all battling for supremacy. It wasn't an easy band to deal with. That's why it blew up and went off and became four different bands.
It's interesting to me that while he was involved with British Invasion bands that had huge hits earlier in the 1960s--the Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones--he worked with more esoteric and less commercial bands as time went on.
What fascinates him is not mainstream stuff. What fascinates him is new ideas. You gotta remember that what he saw in the Rolling Stones at that point was something radically new. It was so different from anything else that was going on. I mean it's mainstream, it's the second biggest band or whatever now. But in those days, it was radical. The very first time I ever saw Rolling Stones on television, they stood out like in five dimensions compared to everything else. They were so scary compared to everything else, all the pretty little Tin Pan Alley-controlled bullshit that was going on. These were real people. And they were like picking your nose and spitting in your lap and fighting your fights. They just didn't give a shit. They were so radical in those days.
So Giorgio always went for that thing, that was really radical. Rolling Stones were extremely radical. The Yardbirds were radical. They were the first to bring in Indian music, into the hit parade. "Still I'm Sad," I'll never forget, I heard that single called "Still I'm Sad" and I thought, "Wow! Listen to that. That's in the hit parade? Man, there's hope for us!" That's what actually made me feel that Soft Machine would be a good idea, to do Soft Machine or a band like that, gave me some thoughts that maybe I could get involved in that. That was his production of that thing.
So I think one forgets that he's always gone for the radical revolutionary things that are happening. That's his particular genius. And he's never been around when the big money came through. He's always been the one that saw it in the early days, and poured the right fuel on the flame. And gave them the vision to go on, and encouraged them. He's always there at the right spot, gives people the right encouragement, whether they remember it or not. It's happened to me so many times that he keeps catching up with me. Maybe it's a good thing. Maybe I'm always somewhere out there on the front edge, and he knows it, because that's where I keep running into him, cycle after cycle after cycle. But whenever I do run into him, he always encourages the most radical aspects of what I'm doing, and shows me how to apply it.
I'd like to ask you a few things about Kevin Ayers, whom you played with in the Soft Machine. What were his main contributions?
He had this wonderful songwriting ability. He wrote beautiful songs. He was the best songwriter in the band, in the sense of just good pop songs, interesting pop songs, that had the flavor of the time. He also had a very good rhythmic right hand. When he was playing bass, he played bass in a really interesting way. I really liked his bass playing a lot. His guitar playing--well, he's not very good at playing lead or anything like that. But he's a good right hand. He really knows how to kick out rhythms. He's got just a good old 4/4, but it swings, and has a feel to it. And of course his voice--but his voice, as all of us in Soft Machine, has this sort of organic, wobbly quality about it, sort of one too many cocktails, you know. Who gives a shit anyway, you know (laughs). That sort of thing, that endearing quality to it.
I think probably his downfall was, that somewhere along the line, someone persuaded him, or he persuaded himself, that he could be a kind of a big-scale rock star, sort of in the traditional sense. Almost like Bryan Ferry. He sort of saw himself like a possible Bryan Ferry, or Frank Sinatra, or whatever. I think this was his downfall. Because I think he had more to give than that. When he actually moved into that realm, he also started to overdo the stimuli--I mean, he's got an incredible body. I've never seen anybody take so much alcohol, so much damage. It would kill anybody else. I've never seen anyone drink like him. He's got an extraordinary ability to drink, and an extraordinary ability to rejuvenate himself. He goes right to the edge, and then he goes swimming and runs around for a week and then comes out and starts again. I've never seen such an extraordinary level of ability to drink so much, and get away with it. He's gotten away with amazing amounts of stimuli. He really put it away.
Have you worked with him at all recently?
Yeah, I did a tour with him about five years ago, where we just did two solo things. Did about ten gigs. We'd alternate--one night I'd go top he'd go second, and so on. That was probably the closest I've been to him for years. But he's kind of wobbly. You never quite know whether he's going to get through the gig. But he always gets through, one way or another, but he may not sound too good in the process.
Did you know him well before joining the Soft Machine?
He basically convinced me that it was a good idea to start a band by bringing me the Yardbirds single and all that stuff. And Revolver and Beatles albums and various tracks that were like sufficiently jazzy or interesting or unusual, or outside the parameters of the normal Tin Pan Alley thing, so that I could get interested in it. He got me enthusiastic about that. But even before that, we were pals. He would come and stay there, and we'd go out and misbehave and carry on and do stuff. This is when I was living in Spain, come stay at the house. Then, little by little, his songs grew on me, and I started writing songs, and we started thinking about starting a band.
When he left Soft Machine, we stayed friends. Also he had Lady June, who recently died, by the way. He stayed in her house, and I stayed in her house. She was like a central place where everybody stayed. It was like a doss house in the middle of London, Maida Vale. There was David Bowie living in the same building around the corner, and that's where Robert Wyatt fell out the window and broke his back. So we saw quite a lot of each other. Julie and I bought a house, and he bought a house, and we'd hang out there.
But our ways were diverting the more he became the sort of rock star, the more we were involved in different types of music. Professionally, we didn't really meet all that much. From time to time we'd be shoved together. People was always trying to bring Soft Machine back together. From time to time, he'd sort of join Gong for a few gigs and it wouldn't work out, and he'd get pissed off, because he wasn't being treated like the star, and he wasn't the boss. And he wanted to be in control, completely in control, and want us to do what he said. And that didn't work. Gong was a communal thing, and he couldn't that. It was just different. We were going on different paths.
So little by little, our paths diverged, until in recent times we don't see each other as much. But when we see each other, we have that history in common. But we don't actually seek each other out particularly any more.
I think probably Pete Jenner was the best manager he ever had. Seemed to do the right thing by him. Seemed to know more or less what to do. He appreciated his eccentricities, and they sort of waffled their way through the resistance relatively successfully for a while there, anyway. He had those two or three albums out that were really good, with Archie Leggett playing bass, when Archie was supporting him too. I think they were really funny albums. And after Soft Machine, when he had the Whole World with Lol Coxhill and Mike Oldfield and David Bedford, that was a great band.
I'm really grateful to him.
what he brought to me was the possibility to go out of rather a strict
music and poetry that I was practicing, and show me a way in that I
actually get involved in the rock scene, without really particularly
what I was doing. And he encouraged me to do that. He was
prime mover in getting me to do that, I think. It was he and I
started Soft Machine.
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