It’s pretty obvious that the GP in ‘Badger GP’ stands for Grand Prix. And while this usually means Formula 1, occasionally we look at other types of Grands Prix, and this week the focus falls on 1960s/1970s 500cc bike racing. And in particular, the career of a privateer rider, Jack Findlay.
Serendipity is a wonderful being, and when she comes knocking. it is wise to listen. The knock in this case came in the shape of an email, informing that, for those so inclined, Gong , a 1970s “progressive” band, are playing a local venue in the not too-distant future. The question was, how many tickets to buy? 1970s prog-rock is not the favoured listening of many people but there is always an angle.
Back in 1972, Jérôme Laperrousaz released a documentary film about 500cc bike racing, the Moto GP of the time. The film was called Continental Circus, and the soundtrack was recorded by Gong.
Now Gong aren’t your usual rock band that simply record albums and play them. Nor would they be content with simply making a concept album like Tommy or Sgt. Pepper. Instead, they have their own planet (Planet Gong) and an entire philosophy which was mapped out to the band leader, Daevid Allen, in a vision one Easter when there was a full moon. Drugs may have been involved – but that would have to be conjecture.
To give you an idea of what Planet Gong is all about, here’s a précis of the myth as told by the band’s first three albums. Incidentally, the first of these albums was released in the first batch of four albums ever produced by the newly-formed Virgin Records label, back in the early 70s. I certainly didn’t expect when I bought them that I would end up being involved in an F1 venture with the man that started the record company! If you are short on time, or just want to avoid weirdness, feel free to skip the italic section…
The myth of Planet Gong begins when a pig-farming Egyptologist called Mista T Being is sold a “magick ear ring” by an “antique teapot street vendor and tea label collector” called Fred the Fish. The ear ring is capable of receiving messages from the Planet Gong via a pirate radio station called Radio Gnome Invisible. Being and Fish head off to the hymnalayas (sic) of Tibet where they meet the “great beer yogi” Banana Ananda , who chants a lot and gets drunk on Foster’s. Meanwhile, the mythology’s central character, Zero the Hero, is going about his everyday life when he suddenly has a vision in Charing Cross Road. He is compelled to seek heroes and starts worshipping the Cock Pot Pixie, one of a number of Pot Head Pixies from the Planet Gong. These pixies are green with propellers on their heads, and they fly around in teapots. Zero is soon distracted by a cat (they use the word “Pussy”) which he offers his fish and chips to. The cat is actually the Good Witch Yoni, who gives Zero a potion. He falls asleep under the influences of the potion and finds himself floating through space. After accidentally scaring a space pilot called Captain Capricorn, Zero locates the Planet Gong, and spends some time with a prostitute who introduces him to the moon goddess Selene. The Pot Head Pixies explain to him how their flying teapots fly. He is then taken to the One Invisible Temple of Gong. Inside the temple, Zero is shown the Angel’s Egg—the physical embodiment of the 32 Octave Doctors (descendants of the Great God Cell). The Angel’s Egg is the magic-eye mandala that features on much of the band’s sleeve-art. It is also a sort of recycling plant for Pot Head Pixies. A grand plan is revealed to Zero. There will be a Great Melting Feast of Freeks which Zero must organize on Earth (Gong used to appear at Glastonbury…). When everyone is enjoying the Feast, a huge global concert, the Switch Doctor will turn everybody’s third eye on, ushering in a New Age on Earth. The Switch Doctor is the Earth’s resident Octave Doctor, who lives near Banana Ananda’s cave, in a “potheadquarters” called the Invisible Opera Company of Tibet (C.O.I.T.) and transmits all the details to the Gong Band via Bananamoon Observatory. Zero must first return from his trip. He asks Hiram the Master Builder how to structure his vision and build his own Invisible Temple. Having done this, Zero establishes that he must organize the Great Melting Feast of Freeks on the Isle of Everywhere: Bali. The event is going well, and the Switch Doctor switches on everyone’s third eyes except for Zero’s. For Zero is out the back, indulging in Earthly pleasures (fruitcake). Zero has missed out on the whole third eye revelation experience and is forced to continue his existence spinning around on the wheel of births and deaths and slowly converging on the Angel’s Egg in a way consistent with Buddhist re-incarnation. Quite simple and normal really.
Bearing that in mind, it’s hard to imagine there would be racing of any kind on Planet Gong, so why would Laperrousaz choose them for the soundtrack? Well, Jack Findlay was an Australian rider, and Daevid Allen was also Australian. And Gong were French-based. Maybe that was enough?
And indeed, why make a film about Jack Findlay at all? He never won the World Championship, generally riding bikes that he’d prepared for himself, and his only victories came after the film was released. But he was quick, and he lived – no mean feat in those days, as the original opening to the film shows.
Jack moved from Australia to England when he was 23, getting a job at the BSA factory to support his racing. His first race in Europe was at the Isle of Man, the first race of the 1958 season, which must have been a bit of a baptism of fire. He’d been racing since he was 15, like many people using a different name to get round the lack of a licence. He simply registered as his father (Jack) but looking back, “Cyril” might not have sounded so good anyway.
He was racing at a time of change for the motorcycle industry; he started his career riding British bikes: Norton and Matchless, but by the time his career finished, some 20 years later, it was Japanese machinery that were the bikes of choice. Like now, Italy was also well represented, with Count Agusta’s MV machinery perhaps the fastest on the grid. Certainly, coupled with the legendary Giacomo Agostini’s talents, they were very difficult to beat. A parallel with Schumacher’s championship years at Ferrari would not be unreasonable.
Continental Circus is a strange film. At least I think it is, because although I bought the soundtrack well over 30 years ago, I have never seen it in its entirety. It was never going to be on release in the cinemas of Surrey, and I suspect it would have been hard to find on VHS or DVD had I actively looked. I would have bought it if I’d seen it, probably discounted in a pile of videos at the bookshops at Brands Hatch or Silverstone, but I never came across it.
But now there is YouTube, the site to which all film gradually migrates. And I think most of the footage is there, albeit hacked about a bit, some versions have extra titles and music (not Gong! – Although I can certainly see why people would change that) while others just focus on the accident footage.
The film is a bit like Senna, in that there is no voiceover. One is left to follow the action through the commentary from the loudspeakers at the events themselves. A bit like the first 30 minutes of Le Mans (which I believe is the longest time in a mainstream film before there is any dialogue between characters). The film is definitely of its time, with “experimental” effects: having two pieces of footage overeach other seems to be a particular favourite, and some parts are definitely reminiscent of Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix, but that had a story, and this is more of a fly-on-the-windshield documentary.
There are interviews with riders, and those at the beginning are particularly inciteful. There is some particularly tragic footage of the grilfriend or wife of one of the riders, filmed just as her beloved has an accident in front of her. Values were different in the 1970s and that was pretty much the opening sequence of the film. I think Laperrousaz was intending to show the stoicism and character of the riders, but to me it now feels inappropriate. I’ve edited the various parts of the film back together to make a single, if much shorter, film, but moved the difficult parts to the end. More as an epilogue – a tribute rather than a confrontation.
Some tough moments must remain where they are though. Bill Ivy, a British rider, enticed back to racing bikes after retiring to switch to Formula 2, was killed at the Sachsenring (interesting that 500cc racing went to East Germany in those days, way before F1 went to Hungary) during practice. He was touring back to the paddock and had removed his helmet. When his engine seized he was thrown from the bike and suffered massive head injuries. The film shows the riders on the following day, observing a minute’s silence before the start of their race. It’s impossible to imagine how that must have felt. It’s also impossible to imagine that Jack’s battered helmet with its kangaroo motif could possibly have offered any protection in a crash.
I suspect that not many people will be interested in watching the whole film. But it does contain some great footage. The title sequence was shot at a deserted chicane-less Monza and there is some great footage of the original (long) circuit at Spa Francorchamps – including push-starting the bikes on the way down to Eau Rouge, as well as the large house on the exit of the very fast Masta kink. Getting it wrong there would be your final mistake. And the Isle of Man is also covered very well – looking at that, 1970 seems a long, long time ago.
Here’s a shorter version of the film to give a taster of its style, although in retrospect I should have cut more out of the title sequence. The music for example – it’s not going to be to many people’s taste. If you’d be interested in the whole thing, let us know and I’ll find some way of posting it.
And Jack? He beat Barry Sheene to the Formula 750 European title, and went on to win the 500cc Austrian GP in 1977. He retired in 1978 as a result of an accident – he’d fractured his skull, so that was probably a smart move. But 20-odd years in top-line sport is no mean feat, and it’s probably only because of Laperrousaz and Gong that I ever heard of him. He kept riding bikes until he was in his fifties, if Wikipedia is to be believed, when he had another high-speed accident and presumably came to his senses. He stayed involved with bikes and racing though, as GP Technical Director for the FIM, until he retired in 2001.
A statue to him was erected near his home town in 2006, shortly before he died at the age of 72. Next time I’m in Melbourne I’ll probably go to see it.