Let me wax lyrical about the two bands I probably love most of all in the world. (Apart, of course, from the Beatles, who are a band apart. And the Penguin Café Orchestra. If there is a god, the Penguin Café Orchestra is God’s house band.)
Gong picture: Pequod76 (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
The two bands I love are Gong and the Soft Machine. (Always the Soft Machine- I wonder why?) They have some points in common, which I want to explore here. (I told you this would be a self-indulgent blog. I would be interested to know if anybody cares about some of this stuff even half as much as I do.)
Both bands had an Australian called Daevid Allen as a founding member; in fact, the founding member in the case of Gong. I want to keep most of my ramblings about him and the Gong story to a later blog post. Over the years, the bands have shared other members.
A strong common theme has been a high standard of musicianship, with backgrounds ranging from classically trained to self-taught. Better known names who have played with either or both include Steve Hillage, Bill Bruford, Andy Summers (later of the Police), Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers and Karl Jenkins. (Yes, that Karl Jenkins. No, his music with the Soft Machine is nothing like what he is doing now. No, if you like what he is doing now you probably won’t like the Soft Machine. But try it anyway.) Mick Taylor and Mike Oldfield have been guests with Gong.
(A very small prize to the first person to identify the musician who is in both photos.)
What do they sound like? Rock/ jazz/ minimalist/ avant garde/ pop/ electronica/ psychedelia. Often all at the same time. They have often had a strong helping of English whimsy, with titles such as ‘Eat That Phonebook’ (Gong) and ‘Esther’s Nose Job’ (Soft Machine.)
They do, it must be said, usually sound very different and it’s not hard to imagine that some people like one and hate the other. Or hate both. But I LOVE THEM. (Whoops, those capitals were accidental by-products of my apalling typing. But I’m going to keep them.) So, I hear you pleading, explain why.
The musicianship. The whimsy. The cheese. (If anybody can explain that one, you can have a merit.) The sheer joy of the playing- even for late 1970s Soft Machine, who have been accused of ‘monumental coldness’ (Joachim Berendt). The visceral pleasure of the rockier styles. The intellectual pleasure of the more complex stuff. In the case of Gong, the spiritual aspects. Seriously. Did I mention the musicianship?
Both bands are, after nearly 50 years, still playing. In both cases- thrillingly wonderful to me- they have none of the original members. In fact, founder member Daevid Allen died this year. Don’t get the impression that they are like the tribute bands. They are still very much creating. Both have regular album releases of new material. Gong do play some older material, but reworked and fresh, always with new songs, exploring new fields. I haven’t seen Soft Machine- they are, excitingly, playing at Talking Heads next year- but I know they have moved on considerably.
Soft Machine (Legacy): Photo by Mike Judd, from http://www.johnetheridge.com/ Please let me know of any copyright issues.
Both bands have had some name changes, but now retain their original titles, very deservedly. That wise woman, Mrs Oblique, summed this all up very well, comparing the bands to a human body. Your body has none of the cells it had when you were born; but you are the same person, albeit extensively evolved. I’m eagerly awaiting what they do next