The Daevid Allen Story, part I

Here is the first part of the Daevid Allen story. I think many of you will find it interesting. Daevid Allen has played in a number of bands, including Soft Machine and Gong.

Parts II and III are here.

The story starts in the early 50's at an expensive Australian Public School. Allen, surrounded by the sons of nouveau riche farmers, was totally out of place. They called him 'moonface' and once in a while beat him up. To combat this he tried changing his name to Sebastian Marmaduke and when that failed he started an 'under-the-desk' newspaper called 'The Gorganzola Daily'. If nothing else he achieved a degree of notoriety. As Daevid recalls, 'It included photos of nude women, which were pretty hard to find in Melbourne in the early 50's. Mostly, though, they came from those Health and Efficiency mags. that featured photos of families who looked very white and unappetising'. The peak of notoriety, however, occured when he started publishing racing results. Needless to say he left as soon as possible and was placed - nepotistically - by his father, in the Myer Emporium, the largest department store in the Southern Hemisphere. He became a 'Cadet Executive' which meant they couldn't fire him. Needless to say he was completely unsuited to a career in retailing, so he was transferred to the 'Display' department. There he encountered most of Melbourne's burgeoning gay community, who were incredibly extrovert and over-the-top.

'I was totally innocent and managed to be part of their group but continued to weave my way through without ever being felt-up or anything. I had this charmed life. There were two particular funny Czech guys who also played jazz. They invited me to their house, which in retrospect was an obvious seduction ploy, but I had no idea and my innocence carried me through. However, I learnt a lot about alternative behaviour at all levels from those guys'.

Of the seven Cadet Execs. that year, only one ended up in a retail career, the rest became jazz musicians, artists or actors. Eventually Daevid fell in love with a woman who came into the store. It turned out that her father ran the Melbourne University Press and Daevid was duly offered a post at the MU bookshop, as the chief distributor of UK and UNESCO publications. While there he discovered the wacky world of Beat Literature, since the shop stocked City Lights books and the Evergreen Review. Previously he'd only liked Dylan Thomas (and to a lesser extent John Donne), but suddenly a whole new world of poetry opened up. Daevid already had his own jazz group (with Daevid on guitar) but he took to performing his own poetry with them (usually at Melbourne's Jazz Centre 44), a decidedly radical move in late 50's Australia.

An acting career was also beckoning. Allen appeared in several reviews, including 'Fission Chips', which if nothing else demonstrated that they were already into anti-nuclear politics. Also appearing at the same theatre was a totally unknown Barry Humphries, who was just starting to incorporate Edna Everidge into his act.

The theatre group were all radical and committed, most indeed were card carrying Communist Party members. This led to them being followed by the Australian secret police, which pleased Allen senior no end, as he would frequently look out of his window to find the house being watched! It wasn't long before Daevid dropped out completely (a scandalous idea at the time) and rented a loft closer to the University, for a pound per week. He, and the other Melbourne Beats survived principally by fleecing the tourists who came to their pub to witness outrageous behaviour.

It was an exciting time - the bohemian community was small and they all knew each other - but, ultimately like most Aussies of his generation, Europe beckoned. Selling his Morgan Plus 4 (the poor man's MG) he left - with two stowaway mates - vowing never to return. The boat's passengers also included two of the 'Sydney Libertarians' - sort of pre-feminists who scandalised people by saying 'fuck' frequently. Not only did they use the word but also - shock, horror - indulged in the activity implied by the word. Presumably, therefore, the voyage included more in the way of entertainment than deck quoits.

Daevid travelled up from Greece to London, stopping off at Paris, where he saw Bud Powell at the Blue Note, very much the 'Round Midnight' era. In London he gravitated towards Soho and the Beat/Jazz/poetry fraternity, particularly The House of Sam Widges Coffee Bar (Charlie Parker on the juke box) and of course Ronnie Scott's. As he recalls though, 'English jazz wasn't very vital except for Stan Tracey, the pianist, Tubby Hayes, the sax player and Phil Seamen. One night Phil came into the club and threw his drums downstairs. He whirled in with this gaberdene coat flying behind him - cigarette in mouth. He kicked his drums down the aisle, set them up and started playing - still with his coat on and the cigarette in his mouth.'

'Later on, on another occasion I sat in at Scott's, playing guitar. I was playing with a ginger haired drummer who turned out to be Ginger Baker. I was trying to play a Thelonius Monk piece, but they didn't like it. I wasn't playing it exactly like Thelonius, which meant I wasn't hip. Which I thought was stupid, the whole idea was to make it your own'.

By now it was 1961 and despite the Soho activities, not much was happening, so he advertised in the paper for a loft or a flat. The most interesting reply came from an arty family in Lydden, near Dover. They were the Wyatts, including child prodigy Robert, then aged about 14. A mutual interest in modern jazz sparked a long term friendship between the two, a friendship that came temporarily to a halt when, somewhat later, Robert attempted suicide and the Wyatts blamed Daevid for persuading him to do so. In fact Daevid had spent three nights trying to talk him out of it. In desperation he finally said something along the lines of 'well if you're going to do it, stop talking about it and do it'. Robert tried the next day, but fortunately failed. The Wyatts got Robert's headmaster to ask Daevid to leave.

By now it was late '62 and Daevid moved back to London, initially, it seems to Chalk Farm. (This is vaguely relevant only because Hugh Hopper recalls Barry Humphries living downstairs). Afterwards he moved to Belsize Park (actually this may be the same place, come to think of it) and was joined by a restored Robert Wyatt and subsequently Hugh Hopper. Either as a solo or with Brown and Mike Horowitz. The highspot was a performance at the Marquee - Horowitz's 'The Dalai Lama Is Coming To Tea' backed by our boys 'very loose' version of Bizet's Carmen. Tapes of several of these gigs exist in the New Departures archives. Shortly after they were booked for 5 nights at the Establishment Club opposite the Dudley Moore Trio. For this prestigious affair the trio (Allen on de-tuned guitar, Hugh on electric bass and a drum-less Robert on tin cans) were augmented by fellow Canterburyian Mike Ratledge on piano. In short order they were kicked out, not just because they weren't very good (probably true) but mainly because they were too avant-garde, which was the reason they'd been booked in the first place.

At some point arount the middle of '63 Daevid decamped for Paris, living at first at the infamous 'Beat Motel', located at 9 rue Git-Le-Coeur. William Burroughs was also living there (as he had done on and off for several years). In short order, Burroughs asked Daevid to provide music for one of his 'performances', but before agreeing to work with him, Burroughs put the following question to Daevid. 'There is information I need to impart to you. You can get it in one of two ways. One takes a minute or so, the other takes several years. Which would you prefer?' Daevid recalls, 'The one minute on meant sex. The other didn't. I took the other one. I was thus commited, however, to a long saga of working with Burroughs. Anyway I did the music for that first production'.

The production in questino was a 'version' of Burroughs' novel, 'The ticket That Exploded'. It consisted of Burroughs plus two actors dressed as nuns, who spent most of the time shooting-up with gigantic syringes. 'All very stoned' as Daevid now puts it.

Terry Riley turned up during this period and got them both a job - distributing the New York Herald Tribune around Pigalle on motor-scooters! Terry turned Daevid on to the making and usage of tape loops and he too became involved with Burroughs' spectaculars. Playing in various Arts Centres (including the ICA in London) they became known as the Machine Poets and began incorporating their NY Trib. lambrettas in the performances (foreshadowing the early Soft Machine, who used a motorbike) as well as tapes.

Around this time Daevid met and married a rich Australian girl and they moved onto a houseboat (L'Atalante', named after the Jean Vigo film) on the Seine.

One big event from this perios was the 1963 Paris Biennale, as part of which Daevid, somehow or other, did a mixed-media show at the Museum of Modern Art, representing Australia! Also there for the Biennale was Pete Brown, who stayed on the boat. Apart from the usual condoms floating past, he distinctly remembers seeing a severed hand in the water!

In early '64 Hugh Hopper passed through on his way to Deya, Majorca, by which time Daevid and wife had ditched the boat in favour of a flat in the rue Beauborg, which became another centre for the international brigade of the avant-garde intellectual elite. Hugh returned around Easter (joined for a short while by Robert Wyatt) and stayed on, having become fascinated by the tape loops. In fact several of the ones he made with Daevid are still used by Daevid in his current act.

At some point Daevid broke up with his wife, having met Gilli Smyth, a Welsh poetess who had previously lived with a Dutch Buddhist. With Paris a bit too much for them, they took off - almost inevitably - to Deya. (The connection being Robert Graves, a friend of the Wyatts, who lived there). For 18 months or so they lived a pretty idyllic life, writing poetry and songs, the solitude broken only by the inevitable group of proto-hippie travellers from Canterbury and elsewhere.

Over Easter '66 two things happened almost simultaneously. Firstly, during an acid trip (Daevid, 'Could it have happened without the acid? I'm not sure') underwent a quasi-mystical experience. In it he saw his future life mapped out in detail - Soft Machine, Gong and everything else. The other thing was that Kevin Ayers appeared with the now infamous exxentric American, Wes Brunson, allegedly a millionaire spectacle manufacturer from Tulsa, Oklahoma - who had taken one trip too many. He had been told by voices to part with all his money and 'hey you guys, why don't I give it all to you to start a band?' That was about his entire role in the proceedings, except that the groups' new house in Kent, resulting in visits from the police to try to find them. Back in Canterbury, Kevin and Daevid lured Robert away from the Wilde Flowers (although I suspect he was in both bands for a while) and Ratledge re-appeared from Oxford wanting to play. Also there was the mysterious Larry Nolan (possibly Nowlan). Nolan had arrived in Majorca from California (where he'd played in various bands including one with David Lindley) and was according to Daevid, 'a typically laid-back Californian, who fancied being in the band'. So in he was. Except that he was prone to taking four hour baths before getting ready to play - for about 15 minutes. However he was in love with one Janie Alexander, who knew Mike Jeffrey, who was shortly to become Hendrix's manager (and was already Chas Chandler's manager), so inevitably he took an early interest in the band and subsequently signed them up. How long Nolan stayed with the band is a moot point. It's just conceivable that they hadn't even settle on the name Soft Machine before he departed. (The Bishops of Canterbury, Mr Head, Dingo Virgin and the Foreskins and Nova Express are but four others they tried out). No one seems to know for sure. Incidentally, Daevid reckons that he wouldn't have considered playing pop music if he hadn't heard, 'Still I'm Sad', by the Yardbirds. Previously he'd had no interest in any pop, rock and roll or even blues. It was the elements of the other musical forms in the record that made him realise that pop/rock had possibilities.

The story of the early Softs is pretty well documented (IT Launch part, UFO, 14 Hour Technicolor Dream etc. and the legendary 'Love Makes Sweet Music' single) so I won't repeat it in detail here. One aspect that's been overlooked, however, is Daevid's role in the band (aside from playing guitar). Seemingly they performed a number of his songs; like 'Fred The Fish', which resurfaced in Gong (and also recorded amongst the Gomelsky Softs demos, but never used and now lost) and others such as 'What's The Use' which was never recorded. He also remembers several songs written with Kevin and at least one with Robert. His magnum opus, though, was his poem 'Our Fathers Who Art In Power', which he recited against a very heavy improvised backing. This was performed on a number of occasions at UFO and elsewhere. Daevid is fairly certain that he once heard a recording of it, but the whereabouts of any copies are unknown.

The other point to make is that, the Softs became very big, very quickly in France and it was at the end of an extended visit across the Channel, in July '67 that Daevid was refused entry back into Britain, the circumstances surrounding which are again well known.

The band re-grouped and carried on almost as if he hadn't been there, since all of the material that he'd written was (not surprisingly) dropped from the set.

In fact, one suspects, from the comments of Daevid and some of the others, that the original line-up would not have lasted much longer anyway, since relations between all four were frequently strained. Daevid in many ways was the odd one out (he was after all 7 or 8 years older than the others); so perhaps they were, to an extent, relieved. For Daevid it was back to Paris and in due course the first stirrings of the embryonic Gong.

(Not sure what happened to Part 2 or what the exact source of this info was.)

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+  Mark Bergen                        |  Don't believe the spectacle of free. +
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