Love from the Planet Gong – the Virgin Years 1973-75 – 13 disc box set (Universal)

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I’ve resisted the lure of the box set for years.  But it’s fair to say that as a regular peruser of the various social media platforms covering Canterbury scene music I’ve rarely seen a level of excitement to parallel the arrival of ‘Love from the Planet Gong’. This 13 disc box set is the baby of Jonny Greene, custodian for practically as long as I can remember of the Gong Appreciation Society and responsible at www.planetgong.co.uk for the hub which perpetuates the wider Gong global family story even beyond Daevid Allen and Gilli Smyth’s physically departure from the Planet. This box set concentrates on a particular slice of Gong history, namely the classic Trilogy era, as well as ‘Shamal’, the album which immediately followed Daevid Allen’s departure.

I’d possibly not realised that this 4 album cycle, which most regard as containing the highpoints of Gong’s career (although that does a disservice to the wonderful ‘Camembert Electrique’) was completed in less than 3 years. It is published courtesy of Universal, or more accurately Virgin, whose confusing tussle for Gong recording rights with Byg/Charly has baffled Gong fans for generations. It’s a massive undertaking, to the extent that this box set is so stuffed with extras that even the ‘core’ albums are padded out with bonuses to reach their digital limits enabling the extra albums to be purely devoted to live performances.

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As my own copy arrived rather late in the day, at the tail end of a gargantuan effort at GAS HQ to mail out individual copies of what appears to be a rather popular release, I was already hearing whispers as to what the highlights might be. Chronologically first, but at the same time hard to top, is the remastered version of ‘Flying Teapot’. It’s not putting too much of a gloss on this to say that on first play I was literally hearing elements I’d not been aware of before. Hand drums, female backing vocals, piano are previously unheralded elements of the trilogy album which often receives the least play: if ‘You’ has always been the pinnacle of the Trilogy era to me, and ‘Angel’s Egg’ its swirling predecessor, then ‘Teapot’ often gets overlooked. Where ‘Camembert Electrique’ was punky, and ‘You’ psychedelic, then ‘Teapot’ is very much the jazzy one: Didier Malherbe’s fluent saxophone work is extraordinary, Daevid Allen’s vocals roll along sleazily but at the same time Tim Blake’s ‘Octave Doctors’ reveals itself in a new sonic glory – with genuinely innovative sounds, let’s not also forget that this predates ‘Flute Salad’ as the first solo piece from an individual band member.

Whilst ‘Angel’s Egg’ and ‘You’ also are remastered, there is less of a marked distance from the originals, and so the magic bullets are elsewhere – on ‘You’ it’s an extraordinary demo of ‘A PHP’s advice’ which stopped me in my tracks – this intricate trio version of guitar, bass and vocals is a sonically cut down version of relative complexity which without doubt tops the original which I’ve always regarded as somewhat throwaway. Similarly ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’, possibly superior to its later New York Gong incarnation ‘Hours gone’, is a rousing piece dominated by Tim Blake’s unexpected and cacophonous harmonica.

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On ‘Angel’s Egg’ it is ‘Ooby Scooby Doomsday’, previously buried for me on a taped version of the ‘Live Etc’ album, but actually a quite remarkable track in its own right, lyrically closer to Magick Brother/Mystic Sister -style anti-system posturing, and musically to ‘Camembert’, but benefitting from the Trilogy line-up for its full-blown instrumentation. It’s a lost Gong classic which is at the same time catchy, sophisticated and rather silly. Another highlight is a bonus on ‘Flying Teapot’, the ‘Radio Gnome Premix – Story Narration’ – a self-explanatory spoken word introduction to the gnomic cosmology which previously appeared on the ‘Mystery and History’ double CD of oddities, complete with a brief snippet of verse which I’d previously failed to identify as being from the voice of the much beloved oddball Lady June.

‘Shamal’ has always been the odd one out in terms of Gong albums for me. Whilst ‘Gazeuse!’ And ‘Expresso II’ are not everyone’s cup of tea (although I love them both) they are at least homogenous percussion-dominated jazz-rock of the highest order. ‘Shamal’ on the other hand sits somewhere between this and the ‘Trilogy’ material, complete its own whimsical (but not entirely successful) lyrics. It was really nice to hear this again but testament to the fact that it doesn’t quite match other Gong albums in that it had been so long since the previous time. Highlights are the funk bass of Mike Howlett on ‘Cat in Clark’s Shoes’ and the title track; some very Gallic jazz-rock which gives a hint of where ‘Bloom’ himself might be heading on ‘Chandra’; whilst ‘Mandrake’ serves as a taste of what was to come with later Pierre Moerlen-led projects.

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We’re then into confusing territory for Disc 5 onwards in that parts to me were instantly familiar but I couldn’t always put my fingers on from quite where. The previously mentioned ‘Flowers’ and ‘Ooby Scooby’ were, for the unitiated, ‘lost’ studio tracks which had previously appeared on Virgin’s double ‘Gong Live Etc’ compilation, alongside various snippets of live gigs from, amongst others, the Bataclan, Roanne, Edinburgh, the Marquee and a BBC radio session. What discs 5-12 largely do is source the original concerts for each of these and reproduce them in their entirety, with added tweaking and compiling. Disc 5 is predominantly BBC Radio sessions, the first of which appeared on the ‘Pre Modernist Wireless Radio’ release from 1997, although the better half of that particular CD (with Kevin Ayers as guest) predates the Virgin years and so is not present here. In fact the highlights on this disc are the early January 74 session, with excellent clarity and fine performances, particularly on the jazzy ‘6/8 Tune’.

‘Live au Bataclan’ of course appeared in the first wave of CD releases on Mantra in the Nineties, but even that was truncated – this version is much expanded across a couple of disks. There are high points here, but as they are generally trumped by the next concert document I’ll neatly skip to ‘Roanne’. At this point you might, like me,  have been starting to get a touch of Gong-fatigue. But I have to say that the ‘Roanne’ gig is something else. Although sampled briefly on ‘Live Etc’, this did not include the ‘Other Side/Dynamite’ medley which represents amongst the most extraordinary 20 minutes I have heard Gong perform. Apparently captured at a small intimate venue on the Manor Mobile’s first outing, this feels almost like a ‘live in the studio’ project, announced exultantly with a ‘Hare Ganja’ shout by Daevid Allen before morphing into a quasi-religious incantation which is quite remarkable. All the other classic elements are here: swirling keyboards, ethereal space whisper, soaring saxophone, acute guitar interjections, all-encompassing drumming and warm, shifting bass. It all feels somewhat otherworldly as the piece morphs into ‘Dynamite’, with Didier Malherbe’s repetitive sax response to the main chant taking us almost back to the Soft Machine’s ‘We Did It Again’ mantra. More familiar ground elsewhere after this initial peak, but mention for the ‘Ooby Scooby’/’Est-ce que je Suis?’ segment, which stands up well against a particularly approximate version on ‘Bataclan’ which was rather spoiled by Daevid Allen’s jarring French accent. Interesting that the latter track was resurrected wholeheartedly for this live band having been initially aired in the very early 70s (and captured several times on the ‘Eclectique’ album), another punky dispensation.

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The Hyde Park live CD is rather nifty as it features the band in full promotional glory – a precious document of the full ‘You’ band playing ‘You’ material. Particularly excellent here is ‘A Sprinkling of Clouds’ – largely absent from the band’s set list when I eventually got to see them in the Nineties (unlike practically any other Trilogy track), presumably because Tim Blake’s involvement was essential for any authentic performance. This airing is a masterpiece.

The penultimate discs are the one which catches the band in a brief moment of time between ‘You’ and ‘Shamal’ with Steve Hillage centrestage – this is not only an opportunity for the band to air those ‘Shamal’ tunes, but is almost a double header as the band work their way through a significant part of ‘Fish Rising’. Given that the band is clearly in transition, it is the ‘Fish Rising’ pieces which seem more coherent in a band context, and highlights the fact that perversely there was probably a shorter hop to this Steve Hillage solo album (which of course included many ‘You’ members) to ‘Shamal’. It also feels particularly relevant at present – as I write, the current Gong band are backing Steve in his first major tour as the Steve Hillage Band since the Seventies, themselves playing many tracks from ‘Fish Rising’. Disc 13 is, of course a DVD of Quad mixes of seminal album ‘You’ which will unfortunately require far more sophisticated equipment than I can do it justice with.

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Now: the paraphernalia – the box set comes in, well a box, about 10 inches square, containing 4 separate inserts. Two house the various discs, both in  cardboard trifolds, the first containing discs 1-6 (essentially the four studio albums, the BBC live sessions and the first Bataclan disc), encased in the a reproduction of Daevid’s Flying Teapot Spotters Scroll, the second containing the remaining live CDs, plus the ‘You’ Quad mix DVD in a backpocket, these encased within various artwork including the ‘You’ cover, a Virgin press release circa ‘Angel’s Egg’ and a reproduction of Daevid Allen’s conviction certificate for dope possession in Oxford from September 1974. A further 36-page paper booklet entitled ‘lyric booklets and lyric sheets’ contains not just full lyrics but what I believe are most of the original inserts, including character casts and stories and the pink Pocket Introduction to the Planet Gong A6 booklet which you are encouraged to cut out, fold and staple! You’ll hopefully forgive me if I can’t pinpoint the exact origins of everything within this and the main booklet – everything within here has weaved its way to me at some point in assembling my Gong and Canterbury archive (for which I am indeed grateful) but as I do not have any of the original vinyl LPs I can’t tell what comes from where. No matter, for it is all now generally available to you via the box set.

The main 68 page hardbacked book is the chief exhibit, however. Starting with an extraordinary quote from Daevid Allen which I’ve not seen before essentially pinpointing the start of the Gong vision to him smoking ‘West Indian grass’ in 1961, rather than the oft-mentioned ‘seed vision’ chronicled in his first ‘autobiography’ ‘Gong Dreaming 1’, it continues with considerable commentary from Jonny Greene, much from a personal perspective, both initially as a fan, then from the viewpoint of a life fully invested in the Gong story; some splendid photos I’d not seen before; all of the original album front and back covers in full colour; and particularly valuably, contemporary thoughts from principally Mike Howlett, Tim Blake and Steve Hillage, (and also from the ‘switch doctor’ himself Venux de Luxe). Most startling is the account (from both sides) of the events which led to Tim Blake’s departure from the band which is disarming in its honesty.

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The tracklistings detailed both on the back of the entire box set and within each CD trifold are reprised in much more detail within the hardbacked book, including writing and performing credits and in particular some fabulous commentary from Mike Howlett, who not only reflects on the origins of each recording and gives anecdotal detail about their circumstances, but how he has painstakingly remixed many of the performances to balance out the sound levels, alongside remastering by original producer Simon Heyworth. This is possibly the crowning achievement of the box set, in providing clear sonic improvements to even ears as untutored as my own.

You’ll hopefully forgive the fact that this review not only does not dissect each CD on display in its full minutae – whilst I’ve been listening to all parts of it in varying amounts for a month or so, I know that I will only truly get to know it well over time. It’s an exhaustive and often exhausting chronology, with enough subtle differences as it progresses to start to get a handle on the staged (but in reality relative rapid) transition from Teapot to post-Trilogy eras, with changing personnel, sounds and ultimately styles. Those of you buying it direct from Planet Gong/GAS are rewarded with a few rather nice extras: a full-size teaspotters scroll poster, a reproduction of the ‘You’ mandala in colour, some promotional stuff for both SHB/Gong and Utopia Strong tours, and 3 rather nice stickers for your collection. And the knowledge that in buying directly from the Planet Gong you have in some small way helped to support the surviving musicians from this most extraordinary musical era.

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