Space rock

Let the pixie dust flow – iconic psychedelic rocker Daevid Allen is back in town with his unpredictably adventurous band University of Errors.

University of Errors 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
University of Errors 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
At age 72, Australian-born Daevid Allen can look back on his 50-year career with more than a modicum of satisfaction. After all, by the end of the 1960s, he had already co-founded two super nova groups in England that would live on in the altered consciousness of future generations hippies and musical iconoclasts. While The Soft Machine and Gong were always to esoteric to crack the mainstream, Allen’s reputation as a British sci-fi Frank Zappa was firmly established, and he’s merrily swirled along his whimsical, alternative path ever since.
“I didn’t want to have anything to do with the mainstream,” laughed Allen on the phone from his home in Berlin last week. “I used the mainstream to keep my credibility up and out there – but I never wanted to be some kind of celebrity. That’s completely the most stifling thing, it takes all the wind out of you and you can’t be yourself. I’ve always said that there’s a way to proceed in life if you want to last for a long time – it’s to never let yourself get too famous.”
Allen’s offbeat and uncompromising music he’s made throughout his career assured that he’d never wind up at number one with a bullet, but it’s also meant that he’d always have an audience at hand, ready to join him on his next atmospheric escapade.
Already sporting an unbridled spirit, Allen had fled his staid home in Australia looking for adventure and attracted to the beatnik culture sprouting in Europe, winding up in Paris playing jazz and cavorting in France with the likes of beat poet William Burroughs.
“It was 1961 and I was more than a little intimidated by him,” Allen recently told The Scotsman. “But he wanted me to play music at his poetry readings – I was a jazzer back then – so he suggested we first go up to his room where he got behind this desk like some Brooklyn insurance salesman. ‘Well, Daevid,’ he said, ‘there are two ways of doing this. One way will take ten minutes, the other will take the rest of your life.’ I assumed the first way might have involved sodomy so I opted for the latter.’”
FOLLOWING HIS Paris excursion, Allen traveled to England mid-decade at the height of the hippie era and played an integral role in forging the Canterbury music scene, a loose contingent of progressive rock, avant-garde and jazz musicians. Fueled by plenty musical and pharmaceutical experimentation, The Soft Machine emerged out of those trippy jam sessions, featuring such stalwarts as Robert Wyatt and Kevin Ayers. However, the clashing of such major talents proved to be as contentious as it was enlightening.
“The Soft Machine was a band full of leaders, as it became clear. All of us went on to do our own bands. So, it was not very comfortable that’s for sure,” said Allen with a laugh. “It was quite complicated, that’s why it didn’t last very long.”
Another reason for Allen’s departure from the band after only a year was coming back to after a tour of Europe, he was refused re-entry to the UK because he had overstayed his visa on a prior visit. Allen returned to Paris where he got swept up in the anti-government protest that were taking place. But Allen recalled that the Soft Machine – in his short tenure with them – grew legendary in hip European circles, even reaching the ears of Brigitte Bardot.
“We were invited to this weird little construct on a beach in St Tropez which was supposed to be a psychedelic club,” he told The Scotsman. “We played so loud they could hear us ten miles away and we got shut down. We had no money so Brigitte took pity on us and hired us for her party. We played one song, ‘We Did It Again’, over and over for a joke. We did it again and again for an hour and the next day we were the darlings of France’s hip set and that enabled me to go off and form Gong.”
Gong, Allen’s labor of love through the mid-1970s, was a musical commune, based in Majorca, that provided him with a platform for fantasy and music exploration. Through countless albums, offshoots and projects, Gong evolved into what their Website calls “a band which too few people love too much,” full of “buds, satellites, comet-like offshoots… but always at the heart of all these bands, musicians, poets, artists and performers lies the original seed vision of the luminous green planet Gong.”
ON TUESDAY night at the Barby Club, Allen and his American-based University of Errors will sample the entire Allen canon including Gong, his many solo album and his more recent work with U of E, but the focus of the show will be on his work with The Soft Machine. He explained that he’s been wanting to correct something for a long time.
“When I originally recorded those songs, I wasn’t very happy with my parts – my guitar playing. So I wanted to have another go,” he said. “Also, I think these songs, although they were written in the ’60s have a real evergreen quality. The arrangements work really well and everyone seems to like them, although it does seem a little strange to be singing teenage love songs when I’m 72.”
Lest one think that the retiree-aged Allen is a recalcitrant hippie sitting in his LSD-powered rocking chair, a quick description on the University of Errors Web site will dispel any notion of complacency: “University of Errors is an aggressive political, anti-capitalist rock band and does not always give out positive vibes. It is more punk than hippie and in it, I work with dissonance and shadow.”
It doesn’t sound like the words of a 72-year-old ex-hippie, and indeed, Allen still appears to be living life to its fullest. Having just returned to Berlin from headlining a festival in Norway, he set out to explore the nightlife at 11pm, forgetting that he had scheduled an interview.
“It’s really happening here, it’s probably the most exciting place in Europe,” he said. “There’s a cultural revolution here, maybe a little like Berlin in the 1920s. I find it very exciting here.
Still full of enthusiasm, a sense of wonder, and a seemingly iron constitution, Allen admitted that he was thrilled with the idea that he was still able to make a living by performing his music.
“I sometimes can’t believe it’s real. It’s like my father said – ‘don’t ever get into music – it won’t last beyond your 30s.”