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Kevin Ayers

Stemming from Canterbury Scene outfit The Wilde Flowers and their offshoot psych/jazz-fusion group, The SOFT MACHINE, the solo KEVIN AYERS was a different kettle of fish as he fermented a unique and inventive brand of Noel Coward-meets-hippie approach; much to his detriment, he seemed always on the verge of success. Not particularly enamoured with great vocals (more deadpan baritone in nature), his appeal was of the cult variety after many of his hazy albums were overlooked by the majority of the fad-induced public.
Born 16th August 1945, Herne Bay in Kent, the young Kevin was raised in Malaysia, where his step-father was commissioned as a colonial District Officer. At the age of twelve, he moved back to Canterbury in Kent. He would subsequently strike up a college friendship with ROBERT WYATT, Hugh Hopper and future members of CARAVAN: Richard Sinclair, David Sinclair, Pye Hastings and Richard Coughlan; this alumni would be the crux of seminal combo, The Wilde Flowers. With no releases forthcoming, singers AYERS (on bass) and WYATT (on drums) would team up with Mike Ratledge (keyboards) and DAEVID ALLEN (guitar) combined forces as The SOFT MACHINE. When the latter dropped out and Kevin switched to both guitar and bass, they released their only album (an eponymous one) under this triumvirate late in ‘68.
Burned out after a gruelling American tour supporting the JIMI HENDRIX EXPERIENCE, the singer-songwriter decamped to Ibiza to write material for the fledgling Harvest label, the fruits of his labour being the following years’ JOY OF A TOY (1969) {*7}; the title taken from an Ornette Coleman track. The album’s idiosyncratic flair was indicative of the direction AYERS would take in his later work and contained some of his most enduring songs. Augmented by SOFT MACHINE cohorts WYATT, Ratledge and newboy Hugh Hopper (plus DAVID BEDFORD), the Peter Jenner-produced set unearthed a couple of gems in the dreamy `Girl On A Swing’ and the oblique `The Lady Rachel’.
The start of the next decade started brightly when he hooked up with a young MIKE OLDFIELD to form KEVIN AYERS AND THE WHOLE WORLD. This free-form and freaky unit, including saxophonist Lol Coxhill, drummer Mick Fincher and the aforementioned keyboardist BEDFORD, released the experimental classic SHOOTING AT THE MOON (1970) {*6}. Critics complained that his monotone vox lay too close to SYD BARRETT, NICK DRAKE or even NICO, although he did manage to retain a distinctive character on such songs as `Clarence In Wonderland’, `Colores Para Dolores’ and the creepily-sung title track. And was PAUL WELLER subconsciously listening to the intro to `Gemini Child’ for his “Changingman”? Kevin’s most experimental and avant-garde set by far, it nevertheless garnered some nice touches such as `The Oyster And The Flying Fish’, a folky duet with BRIDGET ST. JOHN. Maintaining his exclusivity for singles (`Singing A Song In The Morning’ was released earlier in the year), `Butterfly Dance’ just might’ve given him a much-needed hit. Discarding that early-70s-styled ritual, `Stranger In Blue Suede Shoes’ was one of the many treats on the singer’s glorious third set, WHATEVERSHEBRINGSWESING (1972) {*8}, a minor classic. Exploring new boundaries with full orchestra and subtle PINK FLOYD-ian arrangements, this time his holidaying in the Med paid off, at least critically on such far-away tunes, `There Is Loving (medley)’ and the gothic `Song From The Bottom Of A Well’. It was no surprise to learn that tour-mates GONG were behind a handful of the songs.
1973’s BANANAMOUR (1973) {*7} also contained moments of inspired experimentation, while AYERS began to move towards more straightforward songwriting. Available only on the US version, his calypso/reggae-styled `Caribbean Moon’, had all the hallmarks of a hit, and had it been play-listed on certain day-time radio shows, his most commercial song to date would’ve returned a chart placing. The same couldn’t be said for the SYD BARRETT-esque `Oh! Wot A Dream’; the former PINK FLOYD acid casualty had been his chum since joining the Harvest roster. Supported by either WYATT, Ratledge and GONG hippie STEVE HILLAGE, respective songs such a `Hymn’, `Interview’ and `Shouting In A Bucket Blues’ were perfect examples of AYERS’ talents. He even let his stalwart bassist, Archie Legget, get in some tonsil practice on the soulful `When Your Parents Go To Sleep’, while the 8-minute Whole World dreamscape, `Decadence’, peeled away any musical gremlins that he’d accrued from his hazy songwriting chores; he was once quoted as saying that he only wrote music while drunk, drinking or hung over!
In an attempt at finding a mainstream audience for his now odd and conventional ditties, AYERS signed on to Island Records and enlisted the help of ELTON JOHN’s manager, John Reid. The Rupert Hine-produced THE CONFESSIONS OF DR. DREAM AND OTHER STORIES (1974) {*7} was almost soulful in its backing from The Soporifics (aka Doris Troy, Rosetta Hightower and Joanne Williams), while one of the album’s heaviest pieces, `Didn’t Feel Lonely Till I Thought Of You’, introduced guitarist Ollie Halsall (of PATTO). Made up from four segments, the near side-long title track (interpolating `Irreversible Neural Damage’ featuring the dual vox of the NICO) reunited AYERS with a bit of eclecticism.
That Velvety connection again surfaced with Island Records’ live set, “June 1, 1974”, where five AYERS tracks (`May I?’, `Shouting In A Bucket Blues’, `Stranger In Blue Suede Shoes’, `Everybody’s Sometime And Some People’s All The Times Blues’ and `Two Goes Into Four’) were flipped by tracks from NICO, JOHN CALE and former ROXY MUSIC synth-man ENO.
In the meantime, Kevin had also largely contributed to a solo album (“Linguistic Leprosy”) by poet friend and Deia neighbour, LADY JUNE (aka June Campbell Cramer).
Before crawling back to Harvest Records, AYERS completed the rather lacklustre and pedestrian SWEET DECEIVER (1975) {*5}, a record that received a pounding from many critics. While sounding like BRYAN FERRY on his day off, and enlisting the help of ELTON JOHN, the record was run-of-the-mill stuff for man who could be so witty and charming in song. 1976’s YES WE HAVE NO MANANAS {*4}, was equally uninspiring and pop-friendly, although it did feature future POLICE-man, Andy Summers, a guitarist who’d briefly replaced him in SOFT MACHINE. The opening `Star’ was more or less its only saviour. Cringe-worthy to a point of embarrassment, Kev unwisely chose to record an appalling version of `Falling In Love Again’ (a cabaret dirge made famous in the 1930s by Marlene Dietrich). At a time when punk and new wave patrons were having their heyday, RAINBOW TAKEAWAY (1978) {*4} was served up. Once again, he received a pasting from critics; only best-by-far song, `Ballad Of A Salesman Who Sold Himself’, had any heart and soul.
AYERS increasingly shied away from any publicity, and he was happy just to spend his days writing the odd tune in his Mallorca home of Deia. 1980’s THAT’S WHAT YOU GET BABE {*3} was his final for some time, and as says on the proverbial tin, extreme punishment from a man who could do so much better. The quality of his recorded output had become inconsistent and directionless throughout the rest of the 80s, although a diehard cult following still forked out the readies for albums DIAMOND JACK AND THE QUEEN OF PAIN (1983) {*3}, the punningly-titled and similar Spanish-only release DEIA… VU (1984) {*4} (both featuring his squeaky take of DYLAN’s `Lay Lady Lay’), AS CLOSE AS YOU THINK (1986) {*4} and sole Virgin release, FALLING UP (1988) {*5}; a year previously, he’d contributed vocals to a MIKE OLDFIELD song, `Flying Start’, from his “Islands” album.
Released on Permanent Records (home at the time to The FALL, et al), the session-friendly STILL LIFE WITH GUITAR (1992) {*5} was AYERS back in the saddle, although his version of LEADBELLY’s `Irene Good Night’ was a baritone too far. A brief liaison in ’95 (at Waterman’s Arts Centre in London on Friday 10th March, to be exact) with indie Scousers The Wizards Of Twiddly, resulted in the live collaborative TURN THE LIGHTS DOWN (2000) {*5}, but basically it was a re-tread of old cuts. Squeezed somewhere in between its recording and release date, AYERS got together with old muckers OLDFIELD, WYATT, BEDFORD and Coxhill, to produce a mini-set of the William Blake poem, “Garden Of Love”.
From his time in America between 1993 and 2000, ALIVE IN CALIFORNIA {*5} was finally rescued from the vaults for release in 2004; a few years later in Britain. If one hadn’t heard the delights of his best tunes, then this was an easy way to catch up.
Now a veteran of over 40 years in the music business, and nigh-on two decades since his previous studio outing, THE UNFAIRGROUND (2007) {*7} marked his comeback for Bernard MacMahon’s Lo-Max imprint. An inspiration for several indie-rock acts such as TEENAGE FANCLUB, TRASH CAN SINATRAS and GORKY’S ZYGOTIC MYNCI, the producer enticed the likes of their respective musos, Norman Blake, Frank Reader and Euros Childs, to get involved, while a busy studio schedule brought in old muckers PHIL MANZANERA, Hugh Hopper and LADYBUG TRANSISTOR’s Gary Olson. Often melancholy but somehow managing to be celebratory and uplifting (LEONARD COHEN or JOHN CALE had maintained similar results), songs such as `Shine A Light’, `Baby Come Home’ (a duet with BRIDGET ST. JOHN) and `Brainstorm’, were arguably his best on show here. This just might be AYERS’ last set, only he will know if he’s ready to escape from his home in the south of France.
© MC Strong 1994-2004/GRD // rev-up MCS Oct2012

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