CULT CLASSIC: PIERRE MOERLEN’S GONG-DOWNWIND.
Cult Classic: Pierre Moerlen’s Gong-Downwind.
In January 1973, Daevid Allen invited drummer and percussionist Pierre Moerlen to join Gong following the departure of Laurie Allan. He agreed and became the group’s new drummer.
However, in June 1973 he was asked by Virgin Records’ founder Richard Branson to play percussion at the premier of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. When he agreed Pierre Moerlen never knew that he would spend twelve years working with the Mike Oldfield and become his percussionist of choice between 1975 and 1987.
Pierre Moerlen travelled to France in August 1973 Pierre Moerlen where Gong were recording their fourth studio album Angel’s Egg using the Manor Mobile. The album was released in to critical acclaim in December 1973 and nowadays is a regarded as a classic.
During the summer of 1974, Gong recorded You, which was the followup to Angel’s Egg at the Manor, in Oxfordshire. The album was a mixture of fusion, progressive rock, psychedelic rock and space rock and was well received upon its release. However, it was the last album by Daevid Allen’s iteration of Gong.
Having recorded You, Pierre Moerlen left Gong for the first time and joined Les Percussions de Strasbourg. They premiere Karlheinz Stockhausen composition Musik im Bauch on the ’28th’ of March 1975 as part of the Royan Festival. This was very different to music he had recorded with Gong and would go on to record in the future.
In the summer of 1975, Pierre Moerlen was asked to rejoin Gong and co-lead the band with Didier Malherbe and Steve Hillage. Having agreed to rejoin and co-lead the band, Gong began recording their next album.
Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason was drafted in to produce the album which was recorded during December 1975. However, Steve Hillage left having only played on a couple of tracks on the album. Losing one of its co-leaders and such a talented guitarist was a huge blow for Gong. Despite that, Shamal was released in February 1976 and hailed as an ambitious, experimental and sometimes beautiful album where the group flitted between and fused disparate musical genres. However, like previous albums Shamal wasn’t a particular successful album.
Despite that, Gong began work on their seventh studio album Gazeuse! It was recorded at the Manor Studio, in Oxfordshire, with Dennis MacKay producing what was a jazz-driven instrumental album where Pierre Moerlen’s vibes play a prominent part in the album’s sound. The album was released in late 1976 with the title changed to Expresso for its release in America. Just like previous albums, Gazeuse! was well received by critics but didn’t sell in vast quantities. Despite that, the group had a loyal following and were a popular draw when they played live.
Gong returns to the studio in July 1977 to begin recording their eighth studio album Expresso II. This time, the sessions took place at the Pye and Matrix Studios, in London with the group coproducing the album with John Wood. The album was completed by August 1978 and was another jazz-driven instrumental album where Pierre Moerlen’s vibes play an important part in the album’s sound. Stylistically and sonically Expresso II was similar to Gazeuse!.
When Expresso II was released in March 1978 it was the second Gong album to showcase their new sound. It was well received by many music critics despite being very different from the group’s earlier space rock sound. When critics were reviving the album they didn’t realise that it marked the end of an era.
Because of contractual reasons Virgin Records had to release Expresso II as a Gong album. However, a few months later the band became known as Pierre Moerlen’s Gong.
The newly named band entered the studio in June 1978 and began working on what was the third since Pierre Moerlen became the group’s co-leader. However, further changes weer afoot and the first album the group released as Pierre Moerlen’s Gong would be different from previous albums.
Pierre Moerlen wrote Crosscurrents, Downwind, Emotions and Xtasea. He also cowrote Aeroplane and What You Know with . The other track was a cover of Jin-go-lo-ba which was written by Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji. These seven tacks would eventually become Downwind.
When recording began, Pierre Moerlen was producing Downwind and played drums, percussion, concert toms, timpani, vibes, marimba, Fender Rhodes, organ, synths and took charge of the lead vocals. He was joined in the rhythm section by bassist Hansford Rowe and guitarist and vocalist Ross Record. They were augmented by vibraphonist Benoît Moerlen, percussionist François Causse and former Gong saxophonist Didier Malherbe who on the title-track. He was one of several musicians guesting on the album.
Making guest appearances were guitarist Mick Taylor, Steve Winwood who played synths, violinist Didier Lockwood, flautist Terry Oldfield and his brother Mike Oldfield who played bass, guitar, Irish drum and Solina strings. The guest artists and members of Pierre Moerlen’s Gong started recording Downwind in June 1978 and finished the album in September 1978.
When Pierre Moerlen’s Gong released Downwind on February the ‘9th’ 1979, it was the start of a new chapter in the Gong story. Although he had been co-leader of the band for three albums, Downwind was the first where the group was billed as Pierre Moerlen’s Gong. Downwind also saw the group change direction musically on several tracks.
This includes on Aeroplane which opens Downwind. Just like What You Know it’s a short-form pop song which feature vocals Pierre Moerlen. This was the only time the group tried this. While it’s effective on both tracks it was a short-lived experiment that they didn’t repeat.
Crosscurrents was a driving fusion track where the vibes are to the fore. As the track builds, it becomes dramatic, mesmeric, progressive and at times, funky and jazz-tinged. It’s six genre-melting minutes on what’s one of the album’s highlights.
The title-track is a twelve minute progressive rock epic where Pierre Moerlen’s Gong are joined by some familiar faces. Steve Winwood plays keyboards, Mike Oldfield guitar and Didier Malherbe saxophone as the group continue to reinvent their music.
Thunderous drums and percussion open the cover of Jin-Go-Lo-Ba before the vibes enter and are played at breakneck speed. Then there’s the chanted vocals, a myriad of percussion and a blistering, searing rocky guitar which gives way to frantic percussion, joyous harmonies and sweeping, rolling synth. It’s a stunning reinvention of the track and shows another side to the group.
Pierre Moerlen’s shimmering vibes open Emotions which is a slow, wistful and ruminative sounding track. The understated genre-melting arrangement meanders along with group combining classical, folk, jazz and rock to create a quite beautiful, sometimes haunting and filmic track that encourages the listener to reflect and ruminate.
Closing Downwind is Xtasea where drums, subtle percussion and hypnotic vibes combine as the bass prowls and a gypsy violin tugs at the heartstrings. Again, it’s a beautiful combination. Later, a blistering guitar is unleashed and the track is transformed becoming rocky and dramatic. What follows is some of the best guitar playing on the album from bandleader Pierre Moerlen as he ensures that the album closes on a high.
For anyone yet to discover Pierre Moerlen’s Gong, then Downwind is the album to begin with. It’s their most accessible album and features everything from funk, fusion, jazz, pop and progressive rock to rock. During the seven tracks the group and their friends seamlessly switch between and fuse disparate musical genres on what’s a vastly underrated album.
Sadly, Downwind didn’t chart and wasn’t a hugely successful album. The group had a loyal fanbase but some weren’t won over by the new sound. They preferred the space rock sound of Gong. With Pierre Moerlen at the helm the group initially moved in the direction of fusion and then their music continued to evolve on Downwind. The new sound should’ve introduced the band to a much wider audience but sadly, that wasn’t the case.
Downwind is an oft-overlooked album that slipped under the radar when it was released in March 1978.
Forty-three years later and this hidden gem of an album is regarded as the perfect introduction to Pierre Moerlen’s Gong. It’s the album that got away for this groundbreaking group. Sadly, Downwind was a case of what might have been for Pierre Moerlen’s Gong. This underrated genre-melting album could’ve transformed the group’s career.
Alas, commercial success eluded Downwind which nowadays is regarded as a cult classic that offers a tantalising taste of Pierre Moerlen’s Gong’s new sound when they dared to be different as their music evolved and moved in a new direction.
Cult Classic: Pierre Moerlen’s Gong-Downwind.