Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Gong - Flying Teapot

Flying Teapot

Released 1973 on Virgin
Reviewed by Fitter Stoke, 12/07/2002ce

I will always be grateful to the early Virgin label for bringing me some of the most left-field, mesmeric and life changing music I had (and have) ever heard, especially at a time when pocket money limitations restricted my record buying. The 45p miracle that was 1973's 'The Faust Tapes', for example, has been justifiably praised to the skies by Julian in his addictive 'Krautrocksampler'. I assume Virgin must have made a profit on that admirable enterprise because one year later they gave a similar dirt-cheap release to Gong's 1971 classic 'Camembert Electrique', an album which, even more than 'Tapes', turned me away from my teenage Marc and Ziggy obsessions and towards higher (and man, do I mean HIGHER) things. A week in its constant company had me pawning my T. Rex and Bowie albums in order to afford anything else I could find by this out-of-ths-world Anglo/Aussie/French conglomerate. And 'Radio Gnome Invisible Part One - The Flying Teapot' thus entered my world.

Some records have an undeniable knack of drawing you into their soundworld from their very opening seconds, even before the first song gets underway. I think of such examples as the tinkling of glasses and conversing crowd at the beginning of 'Roxy Music', the storm at the start of the first Sabbath album, or the tuning radio that gets the classic first Dexys LP underway. 'Flying Teapot' has a similar non-musical opening that I'd recognise from the first nano-second. Well-weird gurgling and burbling noises from synths and mouths (in perfect stereo) precede the sarcastic and spooky plodding bassline at the start of 'Radio Gnome Invisible', a song which seems to have been constructed entirely out of odd verses, choruses and middle eights that didn't fit anywhere else, yet which combine gloriously here. Some parts are so catchy they bring me out in spots, particularly that "Banana, nirvana, manyana" chant two minutes in; other parts are just scary, like the part a minute later where Gilli Smyth's patent and terrifying "space whisper" (actually more like a scream) floats over more of the barmy gurgling vocalisations that started the track. Then, classically, the whole strange mix is reprised in its entirety, and by the song's end it's all as familiar as a Mungo Jerry chorus.

But as 'Radio Gnome Invisible' ends, 'Flying Teapot' begins. And here we're brought right into the heart of Planet Gong, by the duelling glissando guitars of Daevid Allen and the newly-recruited guitar god Steve Hillage. The sound is like nothing on this world nor any other, the sound of astral vaccuum cleaners careering in a black hole of grass gas. Tim Blake's masterful, 'Alpha Centauri'-like synth and more space whispers add to the effect. It's just awesome. But just as you're beginning to float away with it, in fades the baddest bass riff this side of Funkadelic, and the song proper gets underway. Try to keep your ass still to this one: it's funky with a capital F and is crying out for a modern dance mix. Allen's mixed-down vocals predate eighties rap, and Hillage's subtle wah-wah obligati add colour before that space-vac reemerges and the song becomes a jazz feast for multitracked sax. Then it all falls to pieces, only to be resurrected with a mockney "Have a cuppa tea" chant giving way to the second half of the track, which boasts an even funkier bass lick than the first half. Again, that glissando background keeps the space factor at a maximum, while the irresistable refrain of "Flying saucer/Flying teacup/From outer space/Flying teapot"is repeated as insistently as that wonderful "Chet vah-Buddha" chant on the aforesaid Faust classic.
The intensity rises as the refrain is repeated, over and over again, until it becomes almost unbearable. Then, when the tension and the volume is at its peak, it all falls to bits again, and the song ends on a frankly silly, wretched vocal and drum sequence (which to be honest I always prefer to skip, but never mind).

'Pot Head Pixies' is the single that never was. Its insanely addictive "I am/You are/We are/Crazy" line would have graced every playground in Britain in 1973, had Virgin been so commercially-minded then as to release the song as a 45. (I am assuming of course that no-one at wonderful Radio One would have known what a "Pot Head" was, bearing in mind the constant airplay that "Walk On The Wild Side" got that year.) I loved this song as a thirteen year old, and I love it even more now. Dig.

Next comes Tim Blake's solo synth showcase, 'The Octave Doctors And The Crystal Machine', a masterpiece of taste and space without a hint of Jarre/Vangelis muso-bollocks. Think of some of Brian Eno's later ambient doodlings, add melody, and you're somewhere near this, but this is SO much better. (In a wiser world Tim Blake would be a star, instead of merely "ex-Gong" or "ex-Hawkwind".) As Blake's synth blows away, a quiet, two note guitar lick (halfway between 'Boredom' and 'For What It's Worth') takes you into 'Zero The Hero And The Witch's Spell' , the album's other centrepiece epic after the title track. A deliciously fluid bass line, accompanied note for note by Didier Malherbe's flute, creates a mood of expectation, and a sound not a million miles away from early Traffic. Then massive, crashing, alternate minor and major chords push you into the witch's lair. Allen comes in with a vocal that is dynamic in the extreme, bringing what is an all-to-brief but incredibly tuneful and dramatic sequence to life. Then, typically with Gong, the drama subsides into foot-tapping whimsy with a wordless bass and bongo-accompanied oriental mantra, before another great jazzy sequence where Malherbe becomes Coltrane atop more understated wah-wah work from Hillage. Another brief snatch of song, minor-keyed and magic, understays its welcome, then Gilli Smyth's witch takes over the room. Her tone is unclassifiable, sort of a friendlier Yoko Ono, but all the more terrifying for that. There are moments on Gong's albums where I simply can't bear the sound she makes, but I see it through anyway, just for the relief of hearing it pass. The eerie atmosphere grows gradually and decisively as the band takes over, and the fast, rhythmic climax is an absolute treat, leading straight into the album's final track.

'Witch's Song (I Am Your Pussy)' is another Gilli Smyth showcase, this time sung in a Nico-like, half-spoken manner. Here our witch sounds petulant, mocking, and undeniably sexy, but she offers no relief. Try to listen to the deafening cackle that accompanies the chromatic up-and-down sax lick at the end of both verses without flinching. It's one of the scariest sounds ever recorded, and even if the overall tone is ironic, that awful laugh stays with you after the record has ended. Ugh.

And that's it: a varied and fascinating album that thrills, frightens, annoys and moves your ass all within less than forty minutes. I've deliberately avoided any lyrical analysis of Daevid Allen's Planet Gong creation, because in three decades of trying I've never managed to suss a syllable of sense from it. Best to just wallow in the wild ambience of it all, and simply groove to this amazing head music. Then, move on to 'Angels Egg' and 'You', which deliver even more than 'Flying Teapot'. But that's another review.

(Available on CD from a variety of labels (not Virgin), none of which have Gong's approval nor earn any royalties for the band. Moreover, the album seems to have been subjected to an inferior and radically different, safer mix down the years, and the redesigned cover sucks. Best to track down an original Virgin V2002 vinyl issue - second hand copies turn up often, and the original Allen-designed sleeve (pictured above) is a gas. Pay no more than £10 though.)

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