How thrilling it must’ve been to be a fan of progressive music in England in the early 1970s. On one hand, you had Roxy Music, welding complex arrangements to bold, sometimes ironic pop tunes about emotional vacuity. On the other, you had Pink Floyd, writing astral symphonies about mental illness. And in the middle was a lumbering, unpredictable new machine called the synthesizer, adding a whole new sonic dimension.
And then you had Gong, too.
Out of all the groups, bands, and projects to arise from the 1960s counterculture movement; none, with the possible exception of George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic project, was wackier or more inadvertently influential. If Roxy Music was from Jupiter and Pink Floyd was from Mars, then Gong was from the farthest solar system in the next galaxy over.
Here’s the setup for You, the 1974 album that has recently been reissued with remastered sound and artwork and one alternate take: 1) It’s the third in a trilogy called Radio Gnome Invisible, the first two being The Flying Teapot and Angel’s Egg, both from 1973; 2) Radio Gnome Invisible follows a human named Zero the Hero to and from a trip to Planet Gong, where he comes into contact with creatures with names like Mr. Pothead Pixie (who, in You‘s liner notes, describes himself as being “13 inches of tall and either greenish or invisible”); and 3) As part of the story, the band gave themselves nicknames like Hi T. Moonweed and Bambaloni Yoni, who is credited with “wee voices and chourousings”.
You mean there’s music to go with that, too?
Actually, you don’t need to get too involved in the backstory to appreciate You‘s music; as with most “concept” albums, the story never really pans out. The overall message and effect can be summed up by this line from “A P.H.P.’s Advice”: “. . . to relax you into the / natural high which this music / can bring you to if you want”. “Thoughts for Naught” opens the album with a couple minutes’ worth of flute and whispered voices, setting the whimsical tone. “A P.H.P.’s Advice” offers playful sax and flugelhorn; and, yes, an actual gong is struck at the end.
Tracks like these and the almost poppy “Perfect Mystery” are harmless and slight. What really makes You a relevant piece of music in 2005, though, is the set of longer space jams, much of which could sneak unnoticed onto a well-chosen contemporary “chill out” set. These pieces are held together by Peter Blake’s innovative synthesizer drones, loops, and sound effects. Blake sets the atmosphere and adds color but never goes over the top; as a result, the other players are free to make valuable contributions, and only bits and pieces of the tracks sound outdated. “Master Builder” adds primal percussion and eventually develops into a mean, Roxy-like groove. Similarly, suites like “A Sprinkling of Clouds”, “Isle of Everywhere”, and “You Never Blow Your Trip Forever” combine ambient drifting with jazz-fusion rhythms and psychedelic guitar solos. In short, You is a lot less annoying than you might think.
Large portions of the songs are instrumental, and the vocals are often muttered or spoken in bizarre accents. All this would seem a bit twee — it still might. Crucially, however, Gong embrace the humorous aspect of what they do. What they lose in kitsch value, they gain in artistic integrity. And the musicianship and execution are very good, a fact borne out by the subsequent careers of groove supplier Mike Howlett (his production work with A Flock of Seagulls and early, ethereal OMD makes perfect sense in light of You) and guitarist Steve Hillage (who produced the Charlatans and scored some British hits with his techno-themed version Gong’s spatial prog music, System 7).
After over 30 years, Gong is still providing a healthy influx of goofiness to the musical landscape. An as-always amorphous version of the band still tours and records music, and the collective’s website (planetgong.co.uk) supports an extensive online community.
Everyone from the Orb to Flaming Lips to Polyphonic Spree owe something to Gong, whether they know it or not. Now, that’s a cult band.