Band: Soft Machine
<<go to audio control>>
Kevin Ayres died aged sixty-eight in his sleep on 18th February 2013 in Montolieu, France. Kevin was born on 16th August 1944 in Herne Bay, Kent, South East England, the son of BBC producer Rowan Ayers. Following his parents' divorce and his mother's subsequent marriage to a British civil servant, Kevin spent most of his childhood in Malaya. The tropical atmosphere and unpressured lifestyle had an impact, and one of the frustrating and endearing aspects of Ayers' career is that every time he seemed on the point of success, he would take off for some sunny spot where good wine and food were easily found.
Kevin returned to England at the age of twelve. In his early college years he took up with the burgeoning musicians' scene in the Canterbury area. He was quickly drafted into the Wilde Flowers, a band that featured Robert Wyatt and Hugh Hopper, as well as future members of Caravan. Ayers stated in interviews that the primary reason he was asked to join was that he probably had the longest hair. However, this prompted him to start writing songs and singing.
The Wilde Flowers evolved into two bands, Caravan and Soft Machine with the addition of keyboardist Mike Ratledge and guitarist Daevid Allen. Kevin switched to bass (and later both guitar and bass following Allen's departure from the group) and shared vocals with the drummer Robert Wyatt. The contrast between Ayers' baritone and Wyatt's reedy tenor, plus the freewheeling mix of rock and jazz influences, made for a memorable new sound that caught on quickly in the psychedelic 1960s. The band often shared stages (particularly at the UFO Club) with Pink Floyd. They released their debut single 'Love Makes Sweet Music'/'Feelin' Reelin' Squeelin' in February 1967, making it one of the first recordings from the new British psychedelic movement. Their debut album, The Soft Machine, was recorded in the USA for ABC/Probe and released in 1968. It is considered a classic of the genre. To many in the U.S, the Soft Machine was best known for being the opening act on the second U.S. tour by Jimi Hendrix, thus exposing them to an entire new audience .
After an extensive tour of the United States opening for Jimi Hendrix, a weary Ayers sold his white Fender Jazz Bass to Noel Redding and retreated to the beaches of Ibiza in Spain with Daevid Allen to recuperate. While there, Ayers went on a songwriting binge that resulted in the songs that would make up his first album, Joy of a Toy. The album was one of the first released on the new Harvest label, alongside Pink Floyd's Ummagumma . Joy of a Toy established Ayers as a unique talent with music that varied from the circus march of the title cut, to the pastoral "Girl on a Swing", and the ominous "Oleh Oleh Bandu Bandong", based on a Malay folksong. Ayers' colleagues from Soft Machine backed him on one track, "Song for Insane Times", and on some cuts with Rob Tait, sometime Gong drummer.
One interesting product of the sessions was the single, "Religious Experience (Singing a Song in the Morning)", early recordings of which featured Syd Barrett on guitar and backing vocals. The lead guitar that appears on the final mix was often thought to have been played by Barrett, even appearing on various Barrett bootlegs, but Ayers said that he played the solo, emulating Barrett's style. However the 2004 CD reissue of Joy of a Toy includes a mix of this song featuring Barrett's guitar as a bonus track.
Ayers was to all intents and purposes a member of Gong in 1971 when the band first toured the UK. He also played an instrumental role in Steve Hillage appearing in Gong in 1972, while Steve was touring France as a member of Ayers's band.
A second album, Shooting at the Moon, soon followed. For this, Ayers assembled a band that he called The Whole World, including a young Mike Oldfield on bass and occasionally lead guitar, avant-garde composer David Bedford on keyboards and improvising saxophonist, Lol Coxhill. Again Ayers came up with a batch of engaging songs interspersed with avant-garde instrumentals and a heavy dose of whimsy.
The Whole World was reportedly an erratic band live, and Ayers was not cut out for life on the road touring. The band broke up after a short tour, with no hard feelings, as most of the musicians guested on Ayers' next album, Whatevershebringswesing, which is regarded as one of his best, featuring the mellifluous eight-minute title track that would become Kevin's signature sound for the '70s.
Bananamour was the fourth studio album by Kevin Ayers and it featured some of his most accessible recordings, including "Shouting in a Bucket Blues" and his whimsical tribute to Syd Barrett, "Oh! Wot A Dream". After Whatevershebringswesing, Ayers assembled a new band anchored by drummer Eddie Sparrow and bassist Archie Legget and employed a more direct lyricism. The centrepiece of the album is 'Decadence', a portrait of Nico.
1974 was a watershed year for Kevin Ayers. In addition to releasing his most compelling music in this year, he helped provide other artists with access to a wider stage, most notably Lady June (June Campbell Cramer). The recording, titled Lady June's Linguistic Leprosy, made in a front room of Cramer's home in Vale Court, Maida Vale, brought Lady June's spoken word poetry together with the music and voice of Kevin Ayers, and also had contributions by Brian Eno and Pip Pyle. It was originally released on Ayers' own Banana Productions label.
The Confessions of Dr. Dream and Other Stories marked Kevin Ayers' move to the more commercial Island record label and is considered by many to be the most cohesive example of Ayersian philosophy. The production was expensive, with Ayers quoting the recording costs in a 1974 NME interview as exceeding £32,000 (a vast figure at the time). On this LP Mike Oldfield returned to the fold and guitarist Ollie Halsall from progressive rock band Patto began a twenty-year partnership with Kevin Ayers.
On 1st June 1974, Kevin Ayers headlined a heavily publicised concert at the Rainbow Theatre, London, accompanied by John Cale, Nico, Brian Eno and Mike Oldfield. The performance was released by Island Records just 27 days later on a live LP entitled June 1, 1974. Tensions were somewhat fraught at the event since the night before John Cale had caught Ayers sleeping with his wife prompting him to write the bile-soaked paean 'Guts' that would appear on his 1975 album Slow Dazzle.
In 1976 Kevin Ayers returned to his original label Harvest and released Yes We Have No Mañanas (So Get Your Mañanas Today). The album was a more commercial affair and secured Ayers a new American contract with ABC Records. The LP featured contributions from B.J. Cole and Zoot Money. That same year Harvest released a collection entitled Odd Ditties, that assembled a colourful group of songs thatKevin Ayers had consigned to single B-Sides or left unreleased.
The late 1970s and 1980s saw Kevin Ayers as a self-imposed exile in warmer climes, a fugitive from changing musical fashions, and a hostage to chemical addictions. 1983's Diamond Jack and the Queen of Pain was, perhaps, a low-point for Kevin Ayers. He was quoted in a 1992 BBC radio 1 interview as saying he had "virtually no recollection of making those records", and that living in Deià was "a very bad move on my part. The social scene was very intense, a meat market of expatriates all flaunting themselves and on display. My career was going downhill". The road back was marked with 1988's prophetically titled Falling Up, that received his first positive press notices in years. In 1988 he also recorded a vocal track for Mike Oldfield's single, "Flying Start". The lyrics of this song contains many references to Ayers' life.
Despite the positive reception Falling Up received, Kevin Ayers by this point had almost completely withdrawn from any public stage. An acoustic album Still Life with Guitar recorded with Fairground Attraction surfaced in France on the FNAC label and was subsequently released throughout Europe. After a European Tour in April/May 1992 his musical partner Ollie Halsall suddenly died of a drugs related heart attack. Some collaborations with Kevin Ayers fanatics Ultramarine and a concert tour with Liverpool's Wizards of Twiddly completed his output in the 1990s.
In 1993 Kevin Ayers toured America twice, usually performing solo with occasional guests, including Daevid Allen, who was also touring America at the same time. Aside from a few New York shows in 1980 with Ollie Halsall, these tours were Kevin Ayers' first live performances in America since 1968. In 1998 and 2000 he returned for two California mini-tours, performing in Los Angeles and San Francisco and backed by local musicians. The 2000 concerts had Ayers double-billed with Gong. Longtime friend John Altman joined the Los Angeles band in 2000.
BBC DJ John Peel wrote in his autobiography that "Kevin Ayers' talent is so acute you could perform major eye surgery with it.
In the late 1990s, Kevin Ayers was living the life of a recluse in the South of France. At the Sculpture Centre he met American artist Timothy Shepard, who had been invited to use studio space there, and the two became friends. Ayers started to show up at Shepard's house with a guitar, and by 2005 passed some new recordings on to Shepard, most taped on a cassette recorder at his kitchen table. The songs were by turns "poignant, insightful and honest", and Shepard, "deeply moved" by what he heard, encouraged Kevin Ayers to record them properly for a possible new album.
Signing with London's LO-MAX Records, Shepard found equal enthusiasm for the demos and after making some tentative enquiries, discovered a hotbed of interest for Kevin Ayers's work amongst the current generation of musicians. New York's Ladybug Transistor set up rehearsals for a possible recording organised by band leader Gary Olson, and Kevin and Shepard flew out to New York. When the rehearsals gelled, the entourage, which had now swelled to include horn and string players, flew out to Tucson, Arizona where the first sessions were recorded in a dusty hangar known as Wavelab Studios.
With the tapes from the first sessions, Shepard set about getting Ayers to complete the album in the UK, where by now word had spread, and a host of musicians started gravitating to the studio. Shepard recounted meeting Teenage Fanclub at a Go-Betweens party and hearing their passion for Ayers' music, and wrote a letter to singer, guitarist Norman Blake. Mojo magazine reported that, within a couple of weeks, Ayers was in a Glasgow studio with Teenage Fanclub and a host of their like-minded colleagues, who had all assembled to work with their hero.
Friends and peers from the past also visited the sessions. Robert Wyatt provided his eerie Wyattron in the poignant "Cold Shoulder", Phil Manzanera contributed to the brooding "Brainstorm", Hugh Hopper from Soft Machine played bass on the title track and Bridget St John, a British folk singer beloved of John Peel, duetted with Kevin on "Baby Come Home", the first time they had sung together since 1970 on Shooting at the Moon. The Unfairground was released to critical acclaim in September 2007.