Just about three months ago a sixty eight year old man died in his sleep at home in the south of France. Not a particularly remarkable event in the grand scheme of things. In fact I discovered it only by accident late last week. I had missed the obituary in the New York Times.
But when I read the news I felt a familiar sensation, like a piece of the ground beneath my feet had been pulled away. Something that took me back to the 1980s and the deaths of John Lennon and Philip K. Dick. The strange feeling that someone that I never met could affect me that strongly simply by not being there anymore. Kevin Ayers had left this world.
Ayers was British musician, part of the explosion of creativity from that country in the 1960s and 70s. But in many ways he was an anachronistic figure. His stepfather was a civil servant and young Ayers spent almost his entire childhood in Malaysia, at that time still part of the British Empire. Most of his adult life was spent in the sunny climes of southern Europe, in France and Spain. His life was a state of almost continuous exile, more reminiscent of James Joyce or Graham Greene rather than his fellow rock musicians.
This song, written early in his career when he was still in the Soft Machine, one of the first British Art Rock bands, demonstrates his whimsy and ambivalence. The trademarks of an outsider, but one who is not altogether unhappy with that state of affairs. His best music hints at an enormous talent masked by ambivalence and not taking himself quite seriously enough to try quite hard enough.
His musical career began in the early 1960s when he encountered like-minded souls in Canterbury, in southeastern England. Teenagers like Ayers who were 'into jazz and very weird compared to everyone else". This was the beginning of the "Canterbury Scene" a collection of bands and musicians with some unifying characteristics and a diversity of styles who recorded a lot of music in the late 1960s through the 1970s with only the most modest commercial success. The most notable of Ayer's musical colleagues were Robert Wyatt, Wyatt's school friend Hugh Hopper, and Hugh's older brother Brian.
In 1964 they formed a band, the Wilde Flowers, which played R&B and pop covers as well as original pop material. They didn't release any recordings during the their 3 year existence but a large number were later released in the 1990s. The one above features Ayers on lead vocal.
Ayers only stayed in the Wilde Flowers for a fairly short time and then, in 1965, peregrinated, for what would be the first of many times in his career, to the sunny shores of the Mediterranean. There he hung out with Daevid Allen, an Australian beatnik who had earlier encountered the Canterburians and been a major stimulus in both music and lifestyle. Pete Frame, in his excellent book, Rock Family Trees, points out that Allen must have seemed like some sort of space alien when he arrived in Canterbury in 1961. He had long hair, knew avant garde cultural figures like William Burroughs, and had taken acid. All before the Beatles recorded their first single. Allen comments in an interview with the BBC many decades later that the parents of these young lads were a bit uncertain about the propriety of their sons hanging out with him.
But back to our story. Allen and Ayers met a millionaire from Iowa named Wes who gave them a large amount of money to allow them to start their own band. So back to England they went. The band was initially called Mr. Head but was soon renamed Soft Machine, after the William Burroughs novel. The members were Allen, Ayers, Robert Wyatt, and Mike Ratledge.
Ayers played bass and was second lead vocalist in the band. His deep, powerful voice was a striking contrast to Wyatt's high-pitched vocals. Ayers was also apparently the only member of the band who knew how to write songs. Wyatt has commented that a lot of unconventional structure of Soft Machine music was not purposeful but generated from ignorance.
Ayers wrote both the A side (Love Makes Sweet Music - sung by Wyatt) and B side (Feelin, Reelin, Squealin - sung by Ayers) of the band's first and only single. It was a complete commercial flop but the recording led to an encounter that was key to the band's fate over the next two years.. Jimi Hendrix was also recording his first single in the same studio at the same time and became a friend of the band. The rest of Ayers' time with the Soft Machine was a period of astonishing creativity, rock star excess, and disillusionment. The band rapidly became one of the most prominent acts in the London underground scene, travelled to France for the summer of love, lost Daevid Allen when they returned to Britain, and spent all of 1968 touring the U.S.A. supporting Hendrix. Ayers, completely burned out, left the band at the end of '68 just as their first album was released.
Below is the only live performance I can find by Soft Machine in which Kevin sings lead vocal. The song 'Clarence in Wonderland' appears on his second LP three years later. It segues into 'We Did It Again' which is from the first Soft Machine LP.
Ayers vanished off to the south of France and Soft Machine reformed a few months later with Hugh Hopper replacing him on bass. The split had dramatic consequences on both sides. The Soft Machine rapidly moved in a more instrumental, jazzier direction. Ayers blossomed as a solo artist. In an interview he states that he was not as technically proficient a musician as the other Softs so he felt he to make up for it by being creative. Now he was in charge and that role was explicit. And Ayers stepped up in a big way. His next two LPs are among my all time favorites - some of the greatest music in my collection.
'Joy of Toy' was released in 1969. The title gives a hint of what to expect. It is a childlike collection of songs in the best possible sense of the word.
From the gentle and whimsical
To the dark and sinister
To this avant garde version of a Malaysian folk song sung by some 'Scots lasses'
Ayers combined a mature psychedelia with his own unique whimsical eccentricity to produce a genuine masterpiece.
How did he follow up on this. Watch below and brush up on your French.
This is performance by Ayers' new band The Whole World. And what a band it was. Ayers' had hired classically trained musician David Bedford to play keyboards and orchestrate on Joy of a Toy. Bedford was now brought in as keyboardist in the new band. Jazz and blues musician Lol Coxhill was brought in to play reeds. Both were older than Ayers and older than most rock musicians of the era (Coxhill was almost 40!). At the opposite extreme was 17 year old bass player Mike Oldfield. The band's drummer was Mike Fincher.
The band only lasted a year but the members continued collaboration after they split. Bedford became a noted classical composer, Coxhill a prominent free jazz musician. Mike Oldfield of course rose to fame as the composer and multi-instrumentalist performer of Tubular Bells. Mike Fincher in marked contrast to the others seems to have vanished without a trace. Sadly Bedford, Coxhill, and Ayers all died with 16 months of one another over the last two years.
The one album produced by this unusual band was Ayers' second post Soft Machine LP, Shooting at the Moon. This combines a series of whimsical ballads with much stranger compositions. In addition to a vastly improved version of Clarence in Wonderland the ballads include one of Ayers' most well known songs.
As well as a personal favourite of mine - a wondrous duet with folk singer Bridget St John.
And then there were the stranger tracks.
And I'm going to leave off the detailed history here. Ayers did record another 13 albums over the next 35 years. I'm not familiar with all of them. When I first became aware of him in the early 1980s there was no youtube, no itunes, not even an Amazon to order music from. I had to grab whatever import LPs happened to end up in the stores in my small working class home town. His output was uneven. Record companies tried to make a star out of him to disastrous effect. Substance abuse took its toll as well. Still he produced a lot of good music.
His next LP was one I missed completely but is described frequently as one of his best. The title track is more 'mainstream' than before but is definitely sublime.
And a great light-hearted piece of rock n' roll.
His later LPs were often pretty uneven but they included some gems. The track below was recorded when Andy Summers, later of Police fame, was in his band (Summers had also briefly been in the Soft Machine in 1968).
Ayers released his penultimate LP in 1992. Fifteen years he released the last one. 'The Unfairground' supported by younger musicians who had long been admirers as well a guest appearance by his former bandmate Robert Wyatt (they had apparently not seen one another for many years). Here they are together on the sublime 'Cold Shoulder'. A good final note from Kevin for this diary. But not quite the end.
But even if he had never released another song, those first two LPs would make him one of the greatest artists ever to me. Someone who deserves to be remembered.
Some words from Robert Wyatt
About 50 years ago, someone said to me that there was another bloke with long hair in east Kent, so I should meet him because we'd be sure to get on. I did, and we did.
and he finishes
Playing with Kevin was like basking in sunshine. He was funny, wise and unhurried. I am very lucky to have worked with him all those years ago. Goodbye Kevin.
Wyatt sings about Ayers in the Soft Machine some 44 years before he wrote the words above.
And Wyatt and Daevid Allen affectionately parody Ayers style (Liner Notes: Written in evocation of Kevin in Ayerland).
And decades later a quirky Welsh band names a song after him.
His words and the words of his friends are his legacy. So three months late it is farewell to Kevin Ayers from one fan.