Pierre Moerlen, a native of the Alsace-Lorraine region in France, studied at the Conservatoire Régional de Strasbourg between 1967 and 1971. In 1973, after the departure of Laurie Allen, he joined Gong. In fact he invited himself to the band. Daevid Allen writes in his book 'Gong Dreaming 2' about Pierre Moerlen: 'Pierre seemed perfectly tailored for the music of Gong. He was an equal talent in classical jazz and rock drumming; he had a passionate and economical precision and power that no other Gong batteur had ever equaled.' No small praise since amongst his predecessors were Laurie Allen, Pip Pyle, Bill Bruford and Chris Cutler.
When Pierre Moerlen joined Gong, the band was on its artistic pinnacle with the trilogy Radio Gnome Invisible. The first part, Flying Teapot (1973) was about to be released, but Moerlen's drumming can already be heard on the second part of the trilogy Angel's Egg (1973) and on the last part You (1974). Daevid Allen left the band in 1975. The remaining members recorded one more album Shamal (1975). This album showed already a transition from spaced-out progressive rock to jazz-rock. One by one band members as Steve Hillage and Didier Malherbe left the band to embark upon a solo career. They eventually left Pierre Moerlen behind to put out the light, but he didn't. Instead he recruited new musicians and revived the band, taking the leadership and directed the band to his own artistic direction. They released another three albums on Virgin Records: Gazeuse! (1976), Expresso I (1977) and Expresso II (1978), before signing for Arista Records in 1978.
Downwind (1979) was the first album for Arista. They got complete artistic freedom and they afforded to record their interpretation of a progressive rock album, but still with a lot of jazz-rock elements. Pierre Moerlen even sings on two tracks. At the time, the band consisted of Pierre Moerlen (drums, organ, piano, synthesizer, vocals), Benoit Moerlen (vibraphone), Hansford Rowe (bass, vocals), Ross Record (guitar, backing vocals) and Francois Causse (xylo-marimba, congas). Furthermore there are guest appearances of Didier Lockwood (violin, Magma), Mike Oldfield (guitar on the title track), Steve Winwood (keyboards on the title track), Didier Malherbe (saxophones) and Mick Taylor, former member of The Rolling Stones, who plays lead guitar on What You Know. The title track very much reminds of Oldfield's Tubular Bells, including a repetitive melody and Mike Oldfield's typical guitar playing.
The next album Time Is The Key was also recorded in 1979. For this album the band had been reduced to a trio with Pierre Moerlen, Hansford Rowe and guitarist Bon Logaza with guest appearances from Darryl Way (violin, ex-Curved Air), Peter Lemer (keyboards, Mike Oldfield) and Alan Holdsworth. Compared to Downwind, Time Is The Key is an instrumental musical journey, quieter and minimal, tending towards a new age style ambience. However, it has some elements of funk and even disco in it as well. The band would release another two albums Pierre Moerlen's Gong Live (1980, see review) and Leave It Open (1981, see review) before they disbanded. Moerlen returned to Strasbourg where he started to teach drumming. Meanwhile he was a short-lived member of the French band Magma and the Swedish band Tribute. In 1987 he restarted Pierre Moerlen's Gong which resulted in the release of Second Wind (1989). Due to financial problems the band quitted and Pierre Moerlen again returned to his teaching job, as well as participating in some musicals throughout the nineties. In 1997 he rejoined the original Gong, that was reformed by Daevid Allen in the early nineties, to replace Pip Pyle, but after a disagreement he left in 1999. In the same year he formed another incarnation of Pierre Moerlen's Gong, but after a few performances he was unsatisfied with the result and he quitted again. In 2005 he made yet another restart with, amongst others, his brother Benoit, but this attempt failed as well. Pierre Moerlen sadly passed away on May 3, 2005.
Both Downwind and Time Is The Key are the pinnacles of his musical legacy. Where the first albums were more of a group effort, on these albums most songwriting was done by Pierre Moerlen. It's quite remarkable that the drumming on both albums is very sober, tight and functional. Being the artistic leader of the band one would expect Moerlen to give himself full room to show his capabilities as a drummer with complex rhythms and lots of changes and drum solos. But he didn't. He just sets a simple and tight rhythm thus giving lots of room for the other instruments. Downwind is the most accessible of the two and a good starting point for people unknown with his music. Both albums are now reissued by Esoteric Recordings. They are straight reissues from the master tapes giving them a fresh and dynamic sound again and with the original artwork, but without bonus tracks.
**** Erik Gibbels (edited by Peter Willemsen)
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