Past Bands : Les Dauphins (1968-70), Hasm Congélateur (1970-72), Gong (1973-78, 1997-99), Pierre Moerlen's Gong (1978-89), Mike Oldfield Band (1979-83), Magma (1981), Faton Bloom (1983-84), Tribute (1985-87), Biréli Lagrène Trio (1988), various musicals (1990-), Brand X (1997), Gongzilla (2002)
One of the most accomplished musicians of the whole Canterbury scene, Pierre Moerlen, who died on May 3rd 2005 aged only 52, was certainly a world-class drummer, whose work with Gong and Mike Oldfield, not to mention his 'solo' albums as Pierre Moerlen's Gong, has attracted wide critical praise.
Pierre Moerlen was born in Colmar into a very musical family, his father being the resident organist of the Strasbourg cathedral as well as a piano and organ teacher, and his mother a school piano teacher. His three sisters and his brother Benoît are also musicians, although not all play music professionally. Moerlen started playing piano until he turned to percussion while a teenager. In 1967, he entered the Conservatoire Régional in Strasbourg to learn classical percussion under the guidance of Jean Batigne, founder of the famed Percussions de Strasbourg.
While studying strictly classical music at the Conservatoire, Moerlen also developed an interest for more contemporary musical genres, and soon found himself involved in rock and fusion groups. The most notable was called Hasm Congélateur and featured future Magma guitarist Gabriel Fédérow, and its main claim to fame was appearing on a regional television programme alongside Belfort progressive rockers Ange and an even more obscure band featuring the Lemoine brothers, Jean-Sébastien and Patrice. The latter joined Moerlen in Gong around the time of Shamal.
Around that time, Moerlen began to feel the urge to write and perform his own music, based on the use of the various tuned and untuned percussion instruments at his disposal. He rehearsed his pieces with Mireille Bauer, a fellow Conservatoire student and his girlfriend at the time (and coincidentally a cousin of Jean Batigne). One interesting anecdote on this period is that sometime in 1972, Moerlen and Bauer both attended a Gong concert in Strasbourg, and neither was too enthused about the gig. Certainly not the shape of things to come!
As a matter of fact, while on a visit to Paris to try and find work in classical music, an idea he was not too keen on, he met Patrice Lemoine on the station platform where he was waiting for his train back to Strasbourg. Lemoine told him that Gong were looking for a drummer after the band had broken up during the tumultuous sessions for Flying Teapot. Although reluctant at the start, one listen to the just completed record convinced him that there was potential in the band and Daevid Allen's musical concept. After attending a Gong in Malakoff (a suburb of Paris), he joined the band in its Voisines headquarters.
In the Spring of 1973, with Allen and Gilli Smyth resting in Mallorca, the rest of Gong toured under the name of Paragong in French youth centres, and when the pair came back, the new consolidated line-up went into the studio to record the second volume of Allen's Radio Gnome trilogy, Angels Egg. In the meantime, Moerlen had been recruited by Mike Oldfield to appear, alongside an impressive cast of Canterbury scene musicians like Steve Hillage, Mike Ratledge, Fred Frith, Kevin Ayers, John Greaves and David Bedford, at a live performance of Oldfield's just-released Tubular Bells at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.
Moerlen's time in Gong was one of repeatedly leaving the band, then joining in again, which led to using a lot of replacement drummers. But he was unsure whether this was the right place for him to be, and he kept returning to Strasbourg to work and tour with the Percussions de Strasbourg, as well as continuing work on his own percussion music. He came back to the Gong fold in April 1974 to work on the You album, but left again once it was completed. It was in the subsequent period that he wrote pieces like "Mandrake" and "Expresso".
Then in July 1975, Moerlen received a phonecall from Virgin, asking him if he would agree to rejoin Gong and lead the band with Didier Malherbe : Allen, Smyth and Tim Blake had all left the previous Spring. This offer came as a replacement for the solo project that Virgin had accepted to release, so it was a tough decision to take, but finally Moerlen agreed and brought with him both Mireille Bauer (who in the meantime had guested on both Angels Egg and You) and Patrice Lemoine (who had jammed with members of Gong when they'd played in Strasbourg in 1974). At first, the new Gong tried to maintain a continuity with the concepts created by Daevid Allen, with Hillage and his girlfriend Miquette Giraudy taking on Allen and Smyth's roles, but this approach proved a failure.
By the time work started on Shamal in November 1975, after an extensive British tour with Clearlight supporting, a new direction had been defined, and Steve Hillage was not too enthusiastic about it. Having enjoyed reasonable success with his first solo album, Fish Rising, he decided to concentrate on a solo career. Recruiting Clearlight violinist Jorge Pinchevsky as replacement, Gong finished the album and embarked on a long European tour. But the line-up didn't last long, and by the Summer of 1976 only Moerlen, Bauer and Malherbe were left. The latter recruited guitarist Allan Holdsworth, while Moerlen decided to further increase the percussive dimension of Gong, adding his brother Benoît to the line-up. Bassist Francis Moze, late of the Flying Teapot line-up, came back to the fold, alongside his friend Mino Cinélu, a promising young conga player. This new team toured Europe in the Autumn of 1976, then headed to the studio, recording Gazeuse! before splitting up again soon after its completion.
Following the split, Pierre Moerlen went to live in New York for a few weeks and met bass player Hansford Rowe, aged 22. 'Hanny' was involved in a band whose drummer had to leave to join the army, so Pierre replaced him for a few weeks and the pair forged a very special musical relationship. Back in his hometown of Strasbourg, France, in early 1977, Moerlen decided to form a new line-up of Gong with Rowe, and recruited former members Mireille Bauer (vibes and percussion), Jorge Pinchevsky (violin) and Benoit Moerlen (vibes), his younger brother, along with a youthful newcomer, François Causse (on percussion also).
During the following months, this line-up often toured under the name Gong-Expresso, making its début performance at the Gong family gathering of Paris, Porte de Pantin, May 1977, which witnessed the reformation of the 'classic' Gong line-up. Following Pinchevsky's departure, several lead players guested on album and gigs (although at times only the basic percussion-led quintet performed), including Didier Malherbe, Darryl Way (violin player of Curved Air), Bon Lozaga, Allan Holdsworth and Mick Taylor. The last four guested on the Expresso II album, which was recorded in the summer of 1977 and released early in 1978. This was the band's final release for Virgin and its release coincided with the name change to Pierre Moerlen's Gong.
This period saw the departure of Mireille Bauer to the jazz-rock band Edition Speciale. Her relationship with Moerlen had by then become a purely musical one (she now lived with ex-Gong bass player Francis Moze while Moerlen was married with a child) and she felt she needed a bit of fresh air. She was not replaced. Moerlen took the Spring off to write new material, record drum and percussion tracks for Mike Oldfield's Incantations, and record the title-track of his next album, "Downwind" (with contributions by Oldfield, Steve Winwood, Mick Taylor and Didier Malherbe), at Oldfield's studio. In the Summer, band rehearsals resumed with a permanent guitarist, Ross Record, and the remainder of Downwind was recorded in September with major contributions by Didier Lockwood (of the French bands Magma, Zao and Clearlight, not to mention his own Surya),.
It soon became apparent that Ross Record was suffering from severe stagefright, and he left following completion of an Italian tour in late 1978 for which Lockwood reinforced the line-up. In early 1979, Moerlen summoned back Bon Lozaga, who in the meantime had gone back to live in the US. The trio of Lozaga, Rowe and Moerlen would be the mainstay of PMG until its demise in 1981. The band kept touring, but it had to be put on hold for a couple of months while the Moerlen brothers were touring Europe with Mike Oldfield. This marked the end of Benoït's involvement in the band, and for subsequent tours François Causse came back.
Exhausted from incessant touring, Moerlen rented a house in Ireland with his wife and son, and wrote a complete album there, which would surface as Time Is The Key, considered by Pierre to be his best. It was recorded by Moerlen, Bon and Hanny with help from Peter Lemer on keyboards and various guests (Allan Holdsworth, Darryl Way, Nico Ramsden). This effort highlighted Moerlen's talents on a variety of tuned percussion instruments, making good use of overdubbing facilities. Of particular note was the superb introduction, "Ard Na Greine", with its intertwined vibraphone, glockenspiel, marimba and tympani over layers of synthesizers. During the following months, both Moerlen and Hansford were employed by Mike Oldfield for session work and touring, so there was no new album from Pierre Moerlen's Gong until 1981's Leave It Open. This final effort carried on in a similar vein to its predecessor. Following a change in the management of the band's label, Arista, PMG were dropped and split up following tours of the USA and Europe in late 1980.
There followed a period of uncertainty for Moerlen. After failing auditions for a couple of French pop singers, he briefly joined Magma but didn't get on well with Christian Vander and opted to return to Strasbourg, where he taught drums. In 1982 and 1983, he worked again with Mike Oldfield, mainly in a live setting (although he does appear in the video of "Moonlight Shadow", miming to Simon Phillips' drum parts!).
Then in the spring of 1985, Moerlen received a call from Tribute, a Swedish band he'd already been in touch with three years previously. At the time, the band wanted to hire him to play drums on an album but had to give up the idea. Now Tribute was a well-established gigging band and had both a Swedish and European tour in sight. This sounded good to Moerlen who joined Tribute, ultimately staying for two years and playing on two albums : the studio effort Breaking Barriers (1986), to which he contributed the beautiful closing piece "I Felt Like It"; and the live album Live - The Melody, The Beat, The Heart (1987). While in Sweden, he also recorded an album of his own compositions (one of which, "Far East", was played live at Tribute gigs) with the help of Tribute musicians. However, he asked Hansford Rowe to add bass parts to the tapes, and thus released the album under the Pierre Moerlen's Gong name.
In 1987, Tribute ground to a halt (it later reformed under Gideon Andersson's sole guidance) and Moerlen formed a new PMG line-up back in France, with Hansford Rowe, Benoît Moerlen, ex-Tribute guitarist Ake Zieden and new members Frank Fischer (keyboards) and Stefan Traub (vibraphone). That line-up would tour Germany twice between 1987-89 (as documented on a forthcoming live CD), and record yet another album, Second Wind (1989), the band's most democratic effort to date, and one of their best. Unfortunately, things weren't as great from a financial point of view, and PMG broke up for good during 1989.
Both Moerlen and his brother Benoît returned to teaching, while Rowe crossed the Atlantic again to settle in Montréal. Eventually, Moerlen began to work as resident drummer in several big musicals (Evita, Les Misérables, West Side Story) and toured in Europe and the US with them, while Rowe formed Bon with Bon Lozaga, who in the meantime had quit the music scene to run a restaurant. There was talking of reviving PMG in 1994, but eventually the project became Gongzilla, a band featuring Lozaga, Rowe and Benoit Moerlen, but not Pierre, who would however join the band on a temporary basis for a German tour in 2002.
In March 1997 it was announced that Moerlen was joining Brand X for a tour of Japan, which regular drummer Frank Katz had declined to do. This series of gigs proved successful and he stayed for a further tour of Europe in May and June. In the meantime, he had also agreed to rejoin Gong following Pip Pyle's departure, in August 1997. He stayed on for a further French tour in 1998, but left two dates into the spring 1999 European tour, never to return.
After leaving Gong, Moerlen resumed teaching and worked on compositions for a new album and a new incarnation of PMG. Spring 2000 saw a couple of live appearances (with a quartet line-up including his brother Benoît) which proved unsatisfactory. In 2001, he performed in St.Petersburg, with a line-up of Russian musicians, recording the live album Pentatine (2005). He had just begun rehearsing a new incarnation of Pierre Moerlen's Gong when he suddenly died on 3 May 2005, aged 52, of natural causes.