(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.
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