5:02 PM GMT 17/05/2013
Photo: Getty Images
MOJO's Editor-In-Chief Phil Alexander pays his respects to a great English songwriter.
Kevin Ayers possessed a voice like no other, intrinsically British and full of whimsy and mischief. This latter quality animated much of his life as well as his music.
Born in Herne Bay, Kent, in 1944, Ayers was raised in Malaysia before returning to England at the age of 12 where he attended Simon Langton Grammar School For Boys, later described as "a hotbed for teenage avant-garderie". His first band, The Wilde Flowers, formed in the summer of '63 and also featured Robert Wyatt and Hugh Hopper, both of whom (along with Ayers) would have a huge effect on what became known as The Canterbury Scene.
By mid-1966 The Wilde Flowers had morphed into The Soft Machine and featured Ayers on bass and vocals, Robert Wyatt on drums and vocals, Mike Ratledge on organ and Daevid Allen on guitar - the latter, both older and wiser, and a key influence on Ayers. The band's sound evolved dramatically, as they began blending jazz influences and beat-inspired incantations to their psychedelic sound.
Appearances at London's UFO Club led to a French tour which proved hugely successful but which marked the departure of Allen who, being Australian and lacking the requisite visa, was denied entry back into the UK. He would, of course, remain in France where he formed Gong, while Ayers, Wyatt and Ratledge continued for the most part as a three-piece.
Soft Machine's upward trajectory continued when they were invited to open for Jimi Hendrix on his 1968 US Tour. Halfway through the tour, the band recorded their self-titled proto-prog debut with producers Chas Chandler and Tom Wilson (the latter having overseen five Bob Dylan albums and had just helmed The Velvet Underground's debut).
Ayers was involved with writing eight of the 14 tracks on the album, his key role being emphasized by freewheeling, romantic tunes like We Did It Again and Lullabye Letter, but it was evident that he disliked the monotony associated with touring, telling this journalist that he found the entire process "dehumanizing". Despite his later reputation as a bon viveur and a ladies' man, Ayers also expressed his dislike for the temptations of the road as well as at the prospect of the band's music becoming increasingly complex.
His exit from Soft Machine was amicable as he repaired to Ibiza with the aim to simply enjoy life. There, however, he met up with Allen again in the village of Deia and wrote much of what became his first solo album, Joy Of A Toy.
Released on the Harvest label and featuring a number of his Soft Machine friends, the album summed up Kevin's wonky view of pop music. Nevertheless, today the album has retained all of its psychedelic charm, key tracks like Lady Rachel, All This Crazy Gift Of Time and Song For Insane Times illustrating Ayers' songwriting at its most engaging. A track entitled Religious Experience was also recorded during the Joy sessions featuring Syd Barrett on guitar, but was not issued until the 2003 reissue of the album.
Blessed with good looks and natural charm, Ayers seemed set for a blossoming career, his second album Shooting At The Moon (released October 1970), building on the momentum of his debut and featuring his backing band, The Whole World, which included key players such as David Bedford, Lol Coxhill, Wyatt, Bridget St John and the young Mike Oldfield. Despite a rich run of form - which also include key albums Whatevershebringswesing (1971) , Bananamour (1973) and The Confessions Of Dr Dream And Other Stories (1974) - Ayers was ultimately beset by his own inconsistencies and appetites. As a result, a quest for greater commerciality was doomed to failure and, ultimately, led a string of patchy albums in the '80s.
His later career rarely saw him participating in music, although he did return to the stage in 1992 when he released his only album of that decade, the largely acoustic Still Life With A Guitar. Then, in 2007, he remerged with a brand new full-fledged studio album, The Unfairground, released on Bernard MccMahon's Lo-Max label. The album itself featured 10 startlingly good songs penned by the man himself and also saw a slew of artists, both his contemporaries and those he had influenced, playing on the record. Among them were Hugh Hopper, Bridget St John and Phil Manzanera, as well as members of Teenage Fanclub, Neutral Milk Hotel, Ladybig Transistor and Gorky's Zygotic Mynci.
The album received a four star review in MOJO and the magazine attempted to put together a series of shows with Kevin in order to fully support the album. The logistics of these were complicated and involved Ayers travelling to Scotland to rehearse with the Teenage Fanclub and musical director Bill Wells. Sadly Ayers felt it was a step too far and, despite his return to London for promotional interviews, the plans for his live return collapsed.
More recently, requests for him to conduct interviews were met with rebuttals and word that Ayers found the prospect of talking to the media increasingly alarming. In truth, he was also battling illness.
A man often beset by his own insecurities, Kevin passed away on February 18, seemingly in his sleep, at the age of 68 at his home in France, a country with which he had developed a deep association. He will be greatly missed by all those who knew him, and those who lost themselves in his wondrous music. Remember him by watching him at his most elegant and eloquent in this 1970 French film...
Posted by Ross_Bennett at 12:14 PM GMT 20/02/2013