Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Gong / Nik Turner’s Space Ritual @ HMV Institute, Monday 20th September 2010

After a couple of years in the dark one of Birmingham’s better live music venues, The Institute,is back in action and the old girl’s looking mighty fine. It’s a lovely old building(dating back to the turn of the last century it's one of the few that Birmingham City Council hasn’t knocked down over the years...wow...how did they miss the opportunity to build another car park or empty office block eh?) and whoever’s been in charge of the renovations deserves a huge pat on the back. I’ve yet to see a gig in The Library or The Temple (last night we were in The Institute itself) which are also part of the venue, but if the sound, lighting and general ambiance is as good as The Institute we could well have a contender for the best venue in the Midlands.

Tonight was all about equally historic treasures institutions. First up one of the founding fathers of Hawkwind, Nik Turner, with his ‘Space Ritual’ (named after Hawkwind’s 1973 live album I do believe...thank the lord for Wikipedia eh?). I can’t profess to knowing a huge amount about Hawkwind, other than the standard pub quiz stuff about Lemmy being in the band, having a hit with Silver Machine and the fact that a big breasted woman used to dance naked on stage with them (Stacia her name was...6ft 2 with a 52 inch bust...a 52 inch bust...excuse me for a moment...Google images...omg...). Mr Turner has now reached the grand old age of 70 and like fellow space cadet saxophonist Marshall Allan (of the Sun Ra Arkestra, who’s now in his 80’s) he shows absolutely no sign of leaving planet earth just yet. I can’t help feeling that free acid (or some quality weed at the very least) should be handed out to all the audience before the gig but even without mind altering drugs (unless you count a pint or two of Gaymers Cider) the band were soon whisking us away to the stars with a psychedelic cocktail of Hammond organ, soaring sax and whirling guitars. I’m guessing at some of the song titles but ‘The Real Stuff’ (their opening number), ‘Watching The Grass Grow’ (surprisingly punky in places), ‘The Ritual of the Ravaged Earth’ and ‘Sonic Savages’ all stood out as highlights. The biggest cheer of the night though was reserved for ‘Steppenwolf’ (written by Robert Calvert, ex lead singer of Hawkwind who wrote Silver Machine and passed away over 20 years ago following a heart attack), a sprawling epic full of tripped out ramblings about being a man wolf/ wolf man. There’s a lady dancer too (sadly not Stacia...or her frankly historic breasts), who did a fine job of interpreting each song whilst wearing a variety of costumes (everything from a glittery silver number to a full on Spanish Flamenco outfit). I don’t remember the 60’s (mainly ‘cos I wasn’t born then) but I imagine this is what ‘happenings’ were like. Far out. As the set finished Mr Turner wanted to do another track but he was (literally and metaphorically) out of time. As the rest of the band packed up round him he stood there a moment before picking up his sax again and giving us all an impromptu blast of Glenn Miller’s ‘In The Mood’. “I could carry on playing this stuff all night” he quipped. You know what? I reckon he could...

With minds suitably opened it was now the turn of Gong to take us all on a trip. Gong clearly live in their own distinctive universe...a place populated with flying teapots, pixies and a whole cast of weird and wonderful characters including Mista T Being, Fred the Fish and Zero the Hero. Okaaaaay. If you start looking into the whole mythology behind some of their stuff it all makes a little...just a little mind you...more sense. If you’ve not visited planet Gong before (I'm guessing most of tonight's audience had) there’s plenty to keep you entertained though. The music, a mix of jazz, rock, synth and the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop (in places recalling early Syd era Pink Floyd and what bits of Zappa that I’m familiar with) veers from the head nodding, toe tapping variety to the head scratching and toe curling. It’s rarely dull though, even in a set that stretched beyond two hours and featured enough mystical mumbo jumbo to keep a thousand hippies happy for a millennium or two. I hate to keep banging on about the age of the people in these bands but it’s enough to give us all hope. Daevid Allen (the lord of all things Gong) hopped around the place like a toddler on Sunny D, frequently changing costumes and donning a variety of ‘amusing’ t-shirts featuring such legends as ‘No, I’m not on fucking Facebook’ and ‘No one knows I’m a lesbian’. He’s 72. The band’s co-founder Gilli Smyth, the space whisperer (who provides all kinds of spooky vocals) is...wait for it...77. A little more digging reveals that Allen was mates with William Burroughs, he and Smyth were there in Paris during the student riots of the 60’s (Smyth slept under a bridge there with her young daughter for a while) and, lest we forget, Allen also formed legendary ‘60’s rock band Soft Machine. This is counter culture royalty here. Pure and simple...well okay...maybe not simple...nuts is probably a better term for it. The set featured (to the best of my knowledge...I was too busy trying not to lose grip of reality) such hits as ‘Radio Gnome’ (which sounded like the sort of thing David Bowie might have done after a particularly bad / good acid trip) and ‘Dynamite’ (which neatly blurred the lines between hippy, punk and free form beatnik jazz...a neat trick if you can do it). Much of the stuff seemed to come from the glory days of Gong but they’re still at it today. In fact some of the best tracks of the night were recent ones including ‘2032’, the year in which Mr Allen informed us all, we would all become both sexes, man and women, so we could literally “Go fuck yourselves”. Then there’s ‘Banker Wankers’ another in an increasingly long line of anti banker songs (there’s definitely an album in there somewhere “Now That’s What I Call A Complete Banker” anyone?) and ‘Dance With The Pixies’ (warbled by the lovely Gilli...just imagine your gran on acid).

This ain’t the place for two minute pop songs. In fact you could probably fly halfway to Saturn (or planet Gong for that matter) by the time some of these tracks had run their course but this is music that belongs to another, more chilled out time when there really wasn’t much else to do apart from sit around contemplating life, the universe and everything. Sounds quite inviting don’t it? After watching the whole gloriously surreal show for over two hours (complete with a suitably psychedelic backdrop projected on a giant screen at the back of the stage featuring pixies, swirling, trippy patterns and flying teapots, all mixed with live footage of Daevid doing his thang) it might not all be your...ahem... cup of tea, but there are few bands being this creative, entertaining and...okay let’s say it...nuts these days. And for that alone Gong well and truly deserve a medal.

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