The Inspiration: “Wargasm” by Daevid Allen
Each episode we take someone else’s music as the starting point for writing our own music. This time we’ve chosen Wargasm by the wonderful Daevid Allen.
The early nineties was an exciting time for me musically. My first album purchases in the mid 80s had comprised Phil Collins‘ No Jacket Required and Peter Gabriel‘s So. These quickly led to the completely different world of Genesis‘ 1973 album Genesis Live. A world where Gabriel, as singer, wore strange costumes and sang songs about the supernatural, giant carniverous plants and old men being beheaded with croquet mallets. I became hooked on prog and went to see my first gig in Stoke at The Wheatsheaf after seeing a poster for reformed local heroes Grace in Lotus Records. I managed to persuade a few friends who liked Marillion to come along and we became regulars there as a mini prog revival happened with bands and artists such as Ark, Pendragon, Galahad, Jadis, Geoff Mann, Citizen Cain, Poisoned Electrick Head, Blyndsyde, Primitive Instinct, The Enid and Mentaur all visiting.
At the time I loved prog and, pretty much, only prog. Together with Jon Goodwin, an old school friend, I put together prog fanzine, ‘A Flower?’. I even ended up playing at the Wheatsheaf many times as part of prog band, Epilogue. The highlight, a few years later, was supporting The Enid there on a number of occasions.
I was, however, increasingly aware of that there was a world outside prog and the Wheatsheaf provided the opportunity to explore that world. I proceeded to do a bit of genre hopping and through experimental trips to The Wheatsheaf in the pre-internet world discovered such luminaries as Nick Harper, Christine Collister, a very young Eliza Carthy, John Martyn, Sam Brown, Asparagus Pie, Pulp, The Tansads (now Merry Hell), John Otway, Noel Redding, Hugh Cornwell, The Alarm, Spear of Destiny, The Damned, Sham 69 and Daevid Allen.
I must have been drawn in by an interesting looking poster or flyer and a vague awareness that there was a band called Gong that I’d never heard but were quite famous. I think the year was 1994. Daevid was playing upstairs. I’m not sure if I’d been upstairs at that point. To me it was just the home of Buffs Rock Disco which we never went to as it would have meant us missing our last bus home. If seeing someone downstairs at the Wheatsheaf was like seeing someone in your own living room then upstairs was something like seeing someone live in your own bedroom. It was a very small room which itself played host to acts who went to on to become big bands. I later found out that Green Day had played there and that Ocean Colour Scene did their first ever gig there.
So, probably after a chat with manager Geoff Davies I made the trip up to the 1st floor on my own. I never persuaded anyone to come to those Daevid Allen gigs. I’m not sure I even tried. I found that sometimes it was better to go to gigs alone. That way there was no one to tell you it wasn’t the best gig in the world ever. I was greeted at the top of the stairs with a fog of smoke and a strange aroma I wasn’t familiar with. Below the fog were many figures seated on the floor. Many were wearing tie-dye t-shirts, had long hair and beards. Daevid’s poetry and music was original, magical and full of emotion and humour.
Daevid made everyone feel like they were a part of the performance. I remember at one point us all sitting round cross-legged in a circle chanting ‘Fly Like an Eagle‘, a native american song with Daevid leading in the centre of the room.
This was the start of a long relationship with the music of Allen and Gong. He returned many times to The Wheatsheaf in the years that followed, bringing with him a plethora of different line-ups. I got the above poster signed at a later visit of his Brainville trio. Unfortunately since then all three members, Daevid, Pip Pyle and Hugh Hopper have all passed away.
I was lucky enough to catch Daevid with the Magick Brothers at a gig in Hebden Bridge in 2013 and he was as inspirational as ever. Daevid passed away on 13th March 2015. I’m going to miss his performances.
The Dream Circuit are regulars on the UK prog and psychedelic festival circuit. They have also collaborated with Gong/Hawkwind alumnus Tim Blake. Their web site describes them as:
The Dream Circuit
…take you on a journey to the edge of space & time through madness & twisted genius! A cosmic feast of live songs &
textural instrumentals fused with video projections.
I was introduced to Andy a couple of years back at a Public Service Broadcasting gig and quickly realised I’d seen him live in the early nineties in one of his former bands. From his write up it sounds like we’ve both been to many of the same gigs over the years.
We have three very different compositions this time. I hope you enjoy some or all of them.
Sons of Timberhonger’s take
Ahh Daevid, what great times we shared over the years. Sometimes you were there in person, sometimes you came through the speakers but either way, you created a magical air unlike any other. I think my favourite memories of Daevid Allen are the solo gigs he did at the Wheatsheaf in Stoke in the mid to late 90s. They were small and intimate and the audience all sat on the floor, captivated by the wizard like creature before them who danced and pranced and called us all “twinklies”, pulling us together as children of the universe. Everybody smiled. He always made me smile. He’s making me do it now when I think of those times. I think he’d rather like that as a legacy.
So, the song. Well there is plenty of largely uninteresting detail below this for those that like such things. In short, Mr Frost and I have been talking about me doing something for the project for some time and with Daevid’s passing it seemed appropriate to make this that time. I thoroughly enjoyed doing it and pulling in a couple of good friends to assist perhaps makes us all a little part of the mystery and the history. I hope you like it.
Although this took a while to piece together, the actual idea of what I wanted to do happened pretty quickly. Taking ‘Wargasm’ as a starting point, I knew straight away that to try and produce a drone effect track would be quite limiting and besides which, it isn’t really what I do! It’s perhaps worth mentioning that due to small people in my house that partake of slumber early, all of the guitar and bass parts were recorded digitally using Guitar Rig with Reaper as the DAW. A couple of parts were enhanced with ‘real’ effects pedals.
The music started with the repetitive guitar riff with some acoustic drum loops. I added bass and a drone keyboard to fill it out a little. Then I had the idea to add an intro with a Gong feel and added that, which then necessitated a transition to the riff, which is where the glissando came in. I’ve never tried that technique before so it was an interesting hour or so spent messing with delay pedals, different kinds of distortion and various metal objects to get the sound I wanted. The blunt side of a steel knife produced the best results in the end.
I had the idea to try and put different elements of Daevid’s work into the track, so a little bit of Gong at the start, followed by some glissando guitar, which was something of a trademark for him and then a repetitive riff that would lend itself nicely to some form of spoken word voiceover. I initially used a saxophone vst for the sax parts but as my keyboard skills are fairly limited, it became clear very quickly that I couldn’t replicate that sort of avant garde sax sound that Gong have.
Fortunately one of my oldest friends (Chris Moss) is a great sax player and plays in Babyhead, King Walrus and Bad Manners. So I asked him to do some sax parts using Gong’s ‘Master Builder’ as an inspiration. He sent me two parts and I ended up using both.
I didn’t think I had the right kind of voice for the spoken word so I called on another friend, Roz Bruce (of the Roz Bruce Infusion) to provide those parts. This was partly because I knew Roz wrote and performed a lot of poetry, so was likely to be a rich source and partly because I thought her accent would bring something different to the track. I intended to give her a brief originally but then thought it would be more in the spirit of things to give her the freedom to do whatever she wanted about whatever she wanted and what you hear is the result of that.
When I had the main riff down I thought it went on too long and needed something to break it up. It needed to be something unexpected, short and spontaneous, again something that Gong or maybe Zappa would do. So I only spent a few minutes on that, going with the first thing that I came up with that I thought sounded half decent. I was undecided about this part for quite a while but when Chris added the sax to it, it made all the difference and in it stayed.
Towards the end I felt it needed something extra again and had in mind a fabulous Steve Hillage type guitar solo. The only problem being that I am not he. Again I was going to call on another friend to do that solo but the more I thought about it, the more I thought that to make it too busy sounding would detract from the overall feel and in some ways make it feel less personal. In the end I did it myself and it sounds nothing like Hillage but I think it works in the context of the song. You may beg to differ.
Frosty 1973’s Take
My starting point for this episode was to find some poetry to put to music. At first I thought that I might be able to craft some words in the same vein as Daevid’s original with a few updated references in there about the internet age but then I thought it might be more interesting to find some words from Daevid that I could use. Sadly Daevid passed away in early March and in amongst many posts made on social media was a clip of one of Daevid’s final performances which was with friends at Pizza Paradiso, a bar and restaurant close to where he lived in Botany Bay, Australia.
The reading was a poem by Khalil Gibran, a Lebanese poet who died in 1931 and spent most of his life living in the US. This set me off on a path that had little to do with the original song but was at least triggered by it. I came up with piano accompaniment to the poem as read by Daevid very quickly, made a few embellishments and was quite happy with the results. To me it had a bit of a, much simplified, Matching Mole feel to it. It was less than two minutes long. I probably should have left it there but on further research of Gibran’s work I discovered that the lines Daevid had performed were just part of a longer piece.
It was part of the ‘On Death‘ section of Gibran’s book, ‘The Prophet‘. I then took on the, perhaps, over-ambitious task of writing more music for the rest of the poem. This turned a two minute song into an eight minute epic and the varied instrumentation brought many mixing challenges. In the end I managed to get a mix I was reasonably happy with and that’s the one published here.
Another major challenge with this project was fitting music to lyrics which had varying line lengths. At first I liked the idea of having a set length musical section repeating with the spoken/sung vocals constantly evolving and becoming out of synch with the underlying music but although this was something I could imagine working in my head, in practice it sounded terrible so I ended up repeating segments of music to incorporate the excess line lengths where necessary and an interspersed alternative musical section gave the piece a bit more atmosphere and variety which was definitely needed for a piece eight minutes in length. I’m happy with some of the results but I’m not sure the music really matches the mood of the words. I’m a bit happier with the end section which I think stands up as a short song in its own right.
The lyrics to aid those stumped by my inexpert delivery are:
You would know the secret of death.
But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?
The owl whose night-bound eyes are blind unto the day cannot unveil the mystery of light.
If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life.
For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.
In the depth of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond;
And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring.
Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity.
Your fear of death is but the trembling of the shepherd when he stands before the king whose hand is to be laid upon him in honour.
Is the shepherd not joyful beneath his trembling, that he shall wear the mark of the king?
Yet is he not more mindful of his trembling?
For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?
And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?
Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.
The name of my song came from Andy’s observation that it sounded a bit like the band Air.
The Parsnip’s Take
This one was a struggle. I confess that Daevid Allen had completely eluded me until Frosty 1973 chose the track for this episode. Wargasm made quite an impression. I can’t say that I’d have it on repeat too often from a melodic point of view but it’s a powerful piece. I had lots of false starts trying to get going with an idea. Many seemed great to start with and then I’d lose confidence in the concept and rapidly run out of steam. Sometimes, that’s just how it goes. Eventually, one idea will click and everything will flow.
Wargasm brought to mind a wet but profound night at a live performance of As The World Tipped by Wired Aerial Theatre in Hanley Central Forest Park, Stoke-on-Trent. We turned up for the free event armed with camping chairs, a bit of food and ponchos in anticipation of the forecast thundery showers. The clouds rolled in ominously before the performance, darkness descended and the heavens opened. The suitably apocalyptic torrential downpours that followed in waves saw the departure of half of the audience and threatened to prevent the performance. Eventually, after long hours of delay, the soggy crowd was treated to a profound performance. The subject was the failure of the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen to reach a binding agreement on climate change mitigation targets. Quotes from participants in the climate change talks, showing their frustration at the lack of progress were played as the world (and the stage) tipped to the vertical and the actors were plunged into the maelstrom. “We need to act together and act now.” It was a moving experience. A strange mix of fantastic dynamic art, melancholy message and call to act and the audience seemed of one mind as we wandered home to dry our pants. If you get a chance to see it, make sure you go.
As The World Tipped set the tone for my take but that didn’t make it easy to find a musical hook to hang the concept on. Several abortive ideas followed including
- quotes from interviews and lectures on climate change, species extinction, biodiversity loss, overpopulation etc, set against a musical background. The quotes were great but setting them to music seemed to detract from the message rather than add to it
- a hip hop take which spontaneously developed it’s own Welsh accent
- an indie guitar pop number that turned into a rant about The Apprentice
All these ideas ran out of steam. I was back at square one. Enter the Tardigrade. Tardigrades, a.k.a. water bears or moss piglets are microscopic animals that can survive extremes of temperature, pressure and radiation. They inhabit mosses and lichens and feed on algae. They can dry out and survive in a dessicated state for almost 10 years, like Keith Richards. So no matter what trouble homo sapiens causes, the moss piglet will probably still be around to witness it.
Onto the track…
Tuvan throat singers give an ethnic moss piglet vibe.
Floating Omnisphere synths convey the calm and the beauty of the garden on a sunny day.
A diminutive narrator with laryngitis starts the tale.
The short-sighted creatures arrive and bring a minor tone with them. All is not well.
“The infestation of short-sighted creatures spread across the whole garden…” – a repeating deep bass note sounds – a rumble of disquiet.
“Some of the short-sighted creatures were possessed of remarkable sight…” – minor becomes major. Maybe there is hope after all?
“But the short-sighted creatures prized strength in their leaders above wit and wisdom…” – no, it was a vain hope hope. We’re back to minor. Dischordant strings introduce disease. The mix becomes narrow.
Things get worse. More dischordant strings highlight the sickness.
“And the short-sighted creatures all became sick and died” – a single choral note denotes the extinction of a species. Only low notes remain.
“And life returned to the garden” – the calm synth returns. Stereo width returns. Beauty returns.
“Life then flourished in the garden. And the moss piglet ate green soup in the moist niches…” – The narrator departs to suck on a lozenge. And the moss piglet bids us farewell.