Monday, March 16, 2015

Soft Machine In Mallorca: Daevid Allen

In the 1960s youthful Australians gravitated to the UK in search of what didn't exist in their homeland - culture - though it is fair to say that not all went in the hope of finding intellectual or creative fulfillment. There was also the type that Barrie Humphries, one of those Aussie culture-seekers, parodied to drunken, boorish perfection in the form of his Barry McKenzie character. But of the more cerebral, there were, among others, Clive James, Germaine Greer and Richard Neville, whose greatest contribution to 1960s' counter-culture, "Oz", resulted in him getting a fifteen-month prison sentence for obscenity.

These "new" Australians had some form of association with each other. James knew Greer at Cambridge and he also knew Humphries. He had also at one time edited the University of Sydney's student newspaper, "Honi Soit". Neville knew a later editor and together they created the original "Oz". In the UK, "Oz" was the voice of revolutionary anti-establishment and thus went much further than the satirical "Private Eye", to which both Humphries and Greer contributed. And Neville was a good friend of Greer's.

But before any of them, a young musician by the name of Christopher David Allen had arrived in England. The gravitational pull that he was to experience was not one of association with his Australian contemporaries. He was drawn to Canterbury and to a musical scene whose alumni included and were to include Robert Wyatt and Mike Oldfield. The group which best represented this Canterbury scene was Soft Machine. Of its four original members, Wyatt was the drummer, and the lead guitarist was the young Australian, whose name had by now adopted a slight affectation: Daevid Allen.

If there was an association between Allen and other Australians like Neville and Greer, it was that of the counter-culture, and for Allen and members of Soft Machine that meant hippydom and psychedelia. The bass guitarist with Soft Machine was Kevin Ayers, and he and Allen were to follow paths that were to bring them into the orbit of a faux-hippy, Richard Branson, and, though not because of Branson, to the village of Deià.

The story of how Ayers and Allen both came to know Deià and eventually live there (Allen not for that long) usually points to a time after they had left Soft Machine. In fact, both Ayers and Allen had come to Deià well before Soft Machine were formed in mid-1966. And so had Robert Wyatt. In Wyatt's biography it says that in the summer of 1964 he came to stay with Robert Graves for a second time. With him on that trip was Kevin Ayers, and they were soon to be joined by Daevid Allen. It was in Deià, however, that they began to lay the foundations for what would eventually become Soft Machine: "the music really began to gel". And someone who helped to make the music gel was Graves' son-in-law, Ramón Farrán, who ran the Indigo jazz club in Palma. Farrán also had to keep an eye on two of the musicians. Wyatt could be trusted, as he refused to take drugs. Ayers and Allen on the other hand ... "Deià is a bit dangerous for a person who hasn't got a strong personality. It's really easy to lose yourself in doing nothing, in just having parties, smoking pot and things like that," Farrán is quoted in the biography.

Allen was to also visit Deià in 1966. He said that during a stay with Graves at Easter of that year he took some particularly strong LSD and had a vision of himself as a rock musician playing at what, he reckoned, was to become the Glastonbury music festival. In 1971, he did indeed appear at Glastonbury, then a very different event to now. He had long left Soft Machine by 1971 and had formed Gong, a band that was a kind of musical collective and one whose experimentation drew on the avant-garde music that had inspired him: by the likes of Terry Riley, who he knew from a time in Paris when he also got to know William Burroughs - hence, the Soft Machine name.

But before that appearance at Glastonbury, Allen had established himself in Deià, and in 1969 it was in Deià that the first Gong record was made. It featured the flautist Dider Malherbe, who supposedly had been living in a cave on the Graves' finca. In 1973 came the Branson connection. Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" was the first album to be released by Virgin; Gong's "Flying Teapot" was the second.

Allen's association with Deià was not as strong as that of Kevin Ayers, who lived there for several years and who died in 2013, but nevertheless his death last week has evoked many a memory of his time there and his role in the story of the hippy colonisation of Deià and of Soft Machine in Mallorca.

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