Pierre Moerlen’s Gong: Supermarket
Great, another opportunity for me to reach into my pretentious prog rock collection and dredge up another long-winded suite. Well, I sort of went there, but not exactly. Bear with me for a bit, for some exposition/history about some obscure, but interesting music. I’ll keep it short, because you can easily find more detail on the Internet if you want—especially because this is the kind of music that has long fascinated rock snobs and obsessives.
We start with the “Canterbury Scene” of the late 1960’s-70’s, centered around a group of musicians with some connection to Canterbury, England. The music is a mix of jazz, rock, prog rock, and general spaciness, and the musicians seem to create new bands, with different combinations, on a daily basis. I’d hazard a guess that various mind expanding substances were also involved.
Probably the most famous band to be considered part of the scene is Soft Machine. A founding member of that band, Daevid Allen, an Australian, and early “hippy”, is refused reentry to England in 1967 due to a visa issue, so he stays in France and forms a band called Gong. (Aside--and there are many to be had with this crowd—one brief replacement for Allen in Soft Machine is Andy Summers, who later becomes the guitarist for a somewhat popular band, The Police).
Gong is, basically, insane. Spacy, jazzy, crazy music, the band members adopt pseudonyms like Bloomdido Bad de Grasse and create a band mythology with characters named Zero the Hero, the Octave Doctors, and Flying Teapots. Remember, this was the 1970’s.
The band is a revolving door of musicians, including a brilliant, classically trained French drummer and percussionist named Pierre Moerlen, who joins, leaves, returns, ultimately takes over leadership of the band and moves it toward somewhat more conventional jazz-rock. Over time, the various members of Gong create a series of ever shifting spinoff bands, usually with the word “Gong” in the name; the one led by Moerlen becomes known, cleverly, as Pierre Morelen’s Gong. If you are interested in more detail on the Gong family tree and their inspired looniness, there is way more information than you need at this website: [Planet Gong]
As I said, Moerlen is an incredible percussionist, and his version of the band focuses on more conventional late ‘70s fusion, but with an emphasis on mallet percussion (vibraphone, xylophone, marimba, etc.). In my book, as a drummer, he is in the same league as Bruford, a subject of an earlier post, and who also spent a brief period in Gong. Alan Holdsworth, who played guitar in Bruford’s bands, also played with Moerlen.
The subject of this post is supposed to be Suites or Medleys, and the Pierre Moerlen’s Gong album “Time is the Key,” opens with a four track suite. At WPRB in 1980, we were big fans of these guys, and arranged to bring them to campus for a concert that was pretty amazing. My daughter still wears the t-shirt. We got to interview the band, which included guitarist Bon Lozaga, a very talented player, who was a Holdsworth disciple, and strong bassist Hansford Rowe. One or both of them lived in New Jersey, and would call the station occasionally, and we supported one of Lozaga’s projects, Boji. (Another aside—I just found a download of a Boji gig from 1981 at Trenton’s City Gardens. Here’s the opening song, and I’m pretty sure that is me doing the intro. Which shocked the hell out of me.) Boji: Katalpan Rise
I think during the interview, Moerlen said that he wrote the first side of the album on the vibraphone, and the other on the drums. Or maybe I read that somewhere, but the sound of the two sides is very different. I have linked to the third track from the suite on side one, “Supermarket,” which is fun, and playful, and has a great vibe solo. It is a little New Age-ish and sounds a little like Mike Oldfield (the “Tubular Bells” guy), which is not surprising, since Moerlen toured regularly with Oldfield. If you can track down a copy of “Time is the Key,” I think you will enjoy it. It isn’t the best Gong album, or even the best of the Pierre Moelen led Gong albums (I’m a fan of “Expresso II,” but a case could be made for “Gazeuse” a/k/a “Expresso”), but I still like it.
Moerlen retired his version of Gong not too long after they appeared at Princeton, but tried to revive it later, with other musicians and little success. Lozaga and Rowe performed and recorded for a while as Gongzilla, creating another branch on the Gong tree. Unfortunately, Moerlen died in 2005, in his 50’s, of natural causes, ending the career of an unappreciated artist.