There is a moment halfway through “Mystic Sister/Magick Brother,” the opening track on Gong’s 1969 debut album Magick Brother, in which the band members all seem to forget what they’re doing all at once and drift out of the mix. They take a few seconds to reorganize and remember what they were supposed to be doing, and they all start up again. The moment is both charming and frustrating. Even mid-song, the band wasn’t quite sure what they were going for. At this stage in their career, Gong was a soon-to-be great band stumbling toward a breakthrough and knocking over a lot of stuff on the way. For a fledgling free jazz label like BYG/Actuel, it’s an unfortunate first excursion beyond its established jazz framework.
Gong was formed in Paris in 1967 by Australian guitarist Daevid Allen after British customs denied him reentry into England at the end of a tour of France with Soft Machine, the band Allen cofounded with Robert Wyatt. He apparently wasn’t too discouraged by the British government essentially kicking him out of Soft Machine because he quickly pulled together the first incarnation of Gong. Unfortunately, tensions during the 1968 student protests caused the group to fracture, and Allen and “space whisperer” Gilli Smyth decamped to Deia on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca without the rest of their band. While in Deia, the two attracted a few new musicians and began honing their psychedelic sound. Jerome Laperrousaz, a director based in Paris, reached out to the band in 1969 to record the soundtrack for his second film Continental Circus. While there, BYG/Actuel executive Jean Karakos saw them perform and signed them. They ultimately released three albums on the label, including the Daevid Allen solo album Bananamoon, that tracked their progression from embryonic psych rock band to prog/psych powerhouse.
Magick Brother is the weakest of those three albums. It starts out promisingly enough with an intro that gives the impression that it will be a fairly standard BYG/Actuel record. The freeform improvisation and ghostly, slightly sexual moaning provided by Gilli Smyth and then run through an echo machine sound not unlike something that could be found on a mid-sixties AACM project or an obscure ESP-Disk. In what is to be a very common happening on Magick Brother, the band shifts gears suddenly into a very pleasant lightly psychedelic acoustic rock song with flute accompaniment. The tune wouldn’t be out of place on an early Soft Machine album, but some odd effects help set it apart from Allen’s original band a bit. They also make canny use of stereophonic sound, using the separation to prevent the listener from fully gaining a foothold in the song.
Two pretty good songs, the unsettling and repetitive “Glad to Say to Say” and “Rational Anthem,” which sounds like it was heavily inspired by Pink Floyd’s post-Syd Barrett transitional period, follow but things begin to go off the rails immediately after. The “Chainstore Chant” is more Syd Barrett aping, and “Pretty Miss Titty” could pass for a bawdy Kinks song played by a band that’s a bit too acid fried to remember how it goes. “Fable of a Fredfish” is a waste of a minute, a glorified skit before “Hope You Feel OK,” which starts out well enough with an interesting guitar tone, but it quickly becomes interminable as at lumbers on.
“Ego” is a bit better. The songwriting is still pretty weak, but it sounds like an intoxicated first take, which suits Gong well. Still, the song lasts for much too long, and good work by guest pianist Burton Greene and contrabassist Earl Freeman (both of whom are regular figures in the BYG/Actuel catalog) aren’t enough to keep the song from growing taxing quickly. “Gongsong,” with its opening narration about an alien from the Planet Gong and impressive soprano saxophone work by Didier Malherbe, is better, especially when it gets significantly heavier around two minutes in, but it is certainly nothing groundbreaking.
“Gongsong” bodes well for the rest of Magick Brother, and the band displays steady improvement across the last three songs. Malherbe’s saxophone at the beginning of “Princess Dreaming” sounds like an unearthly, possibly not entirely human baby crying, and dissonant violins and more crying come in soon after, making for the most unsettling, nightmarish tune on the record. Vocally, “5 & 20 Schoolgirls” is also a bit too close to Syd Barrett for my liking, but Malherbe again proves himself to be the star of the record, soloing indiscriminately over the choruses and most of the verses. Allen also tries to play his guitar without any vocals for a bit after the third chorus, but Malherbe steamrolls over that as well. Closing track “Cos You Got Green Hair” opens with a spooky ambient guitar and flute intro, and Allen sings low in the mix on what sounds to be a very cheap microphone. It’s a dark, evocative end to the album. Most importantly, “Green Hair” and “Schoolgirls” illustrate the two primary musical styles that Gong could be effective in. They would deliver on that promise toward the end of BYG/Actuel’s run.
For a label that is most remembered as a free jazz concern, about a fifth of Actuel’s output consists of records that do not fit into that category. Daevid Allen and Gong, along with the Italian experimental electronic collective Musica Elettronica Viva, are the most important non-free jazz members of the BYG/Actuel stable. Like MEV, Allen’s work is every bit as exploratory and groundbreaking as the best Actuel free jazz. On Magick Brother, Allen and his Gong cohorts were still hammering out their path into the psychedelic cosmos. It’s unfortunate that this collection of musical experiments is so unsatisfying when taken as a whole.
Coming up in the weeks ahead:
Actuel 06: Claude Delcloo & Arthur Jones – Africanasia
Actuel 07: Michel Puig – Stigmates
Actuel 08: Burton Greene - Aquariana
Actuel 09: Jimmy Lyons – Other Afternoons
Actuel 10: Alan Jack Civilization – Bluesy Mind