Kevin Ayers

TrackAlbum / Single
Stranger In Blue Suede ShoesHarvest HAR 5107
Singing A Song In The MorningHarvest HAR 5011
There Goes JohnnyTurn The Lights Down
WhatevershebringswesingBob Harris Session 17th May 1972
Oh! Wot A DreamBananamour
Everybody's Sometime And
Some People's All The Time Blues
Zaragoza
The Lady RachelJoy Of A Toy
The Oyster And The Flying FishShooting At The Moon
Champagne Cowboy BluesWhatevershebringswesing
The Confessions Of Dr DreamThe Confessions Of Dr Dream...
May IJune 1, 1974
BlueYes We Have No Mañanas...
Super SalesmanThat's What You Get Babe
All This Crazy Gift Of TimeJoy Of A Toy
Run Run RunThe Unfairground

Kevin Ayers photo 4

Kevin Ayers, Central Park New York, 1977 (photo by Michael Putland)

 

 

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Kevin Ayers playlist

 

 

Contributor: Ian Ashleigh

I walked into this bar
And the man refused;
He said “we don’t serve strangers
In blue suede shoes”

And that was my introduction to the rich baritone voice of Kevin Ayers. I didn’t know at the time (1976) that this was a reissue of a single released some five years earlier to celebrate the coup of EMI’s Harvest record label re-signing Kevin Ayers. The single was accompanied by the album Odd Ditties, a collection of unreleased material and rarities. I bought the single because I liked the song, and also I liked the voice, warm and rich that was a contrast to others on the radio that were shrill and high, or nasal and unpleasant. Simon Reynolds in the Observer Music Monthly in 2008 described Ayers’ voice as “one of the greatest in British music” and I, for one, am not going to disagree.

I can, and will, wax lyrical about the quality of Kevin Ayers’ songwriting too; the range of his styles and the humour he injected into his lyrics. Undoubtedly, he should have been one of the biggest stars of the early to mid-1970s and beyond, but every time any form of stardom looked like knocking on his door he fled.

According to rock journalist Nick Kent: “Kevin Ayers and Syd Barrett were the two most important people in British pop music. Everything that came after came from them.” You’ll find Syd Barrett’s toppermost here. But this is all about Kevin Ayers. This is his story.

He was born in August 1944 in Herne Bay, Kent, the son of a BBC producer. Following his parents’ divorce and his mother’s subsequent marriage to a British civil servant, Ayers spent most of his childhood in Malaya, and not Majorca as some sources would have you believe.

In his early college years, he took up with the burgeoning music scene in the Canterbury area, playing both guitar and bass. He was drafted into the Wilde Flowers, a band that featured Robert Wyatt, Hugh Hopper, and Richard Sinclair who would go on to form Caravan. This prompted Ayers to start writing songs and singing as a break away from the Wilde Flowers led to the formation of Soft Machine in 1966, with Ayers taking the bass and sharing vocal duties with Wyatt. With Daevid Allen’s departure, Soft Machine became a trio and Ayers took the guitar parts as well as bass.

The band recorded a single album with this line-up released in December 1968 before Ayers left the band. The story goes that he felt burned out and sold his bass to Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Conflicting with this theory, Ayers then recorded his first solo album Joy Of A Toy which was released the following year, and he went on to pursue a solo career that produced fifteen solo albums, the amazing live album June 1, 1974 with Nico, John Cale and Brian Eno and Lady June’s Linguistic Leprosy with June Campbell Cramer and Brian Eno. Several bootlegs also circulate and I have taken a track from these as opposed to the studio originals. Ayers himself asserts he left Soft Machine because despite recording the album in a top New York studio with the assistance of famed producer Tom Wilson, no-one seemed to care. This began his love/hate relationship with the music business that continued throughout his career.

Kevin Ayers photo 2

After leaving Soft Machine, he remained friends with the musicians of the Canterbury Scene who played on several of his solo albums. It was at one of Ayers’ parties in 1973 that a very drunk Robert Wyatt fell from a fourth floor window (in the flat Ayers rented from June Campbell Cramer) and broke his back leaving him paralysed from the waist down.

John Peel wrote in his autobiography that Kevin Ayers’ talent was “so acute you could perform major eye surgery with it”. John Peel had a point; Ayers’ songs are generally witty, well-constructed and many of them very accessible and could have been hit singles. Others can be a collection of disparate noises that somehow come together as music. He had a penchant for writing short sharp songs when some of his contemporaries were filling sides of 12-inch vinyl with leviathan complex music (and yes, there is room for both in my music collection).

I reckon that Kevin Ayers is important enough to warrant a Toppermost 15 rather than a 10 and therefore I’ve taken the liberty of grabbing an extra five tracks.

In December 2008, Ayers gave an interview to Uncut magazine in which he talked about his albums. The whole article is insightful and can be found via this link, and some of what you read here is taken from that interview. My thanks also go to the Kevin Ayers Appreciation group on Facebook for some stories and influence on the list. Some of you reading this will recognise your input.

Shortly after Ayers’ death in February 2013, The Week magazine published an appreciation that included these six facts:

He was raised in Malaysia and loved the sun: Ayers’ stepfather was a civil servant and he spent most of his childhood in Malaysia acquiring a taste for “tropical climates and unpressurised lifestyles”. One of the reasons he never became a major star was 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”.

His school spawned an entire musical scene: Returning to England at the age of 12, Ayers went to Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys on the outskirts of Canterbury. The school has been described as “a hotbed for teenage avant-garderie” because its alumni include Ayers, Robert Wyatt, Mike Ratledge and Hugh and Brian Hopper who founded key underground bands of the 1960s such as the Wilde Flowers, Caravan and Soft Machine. The result was the ‘Canterbury scene’ – a loose grouping of jazz, experimental and psychedelic bands.

He made music that sounded like nothing else: Writing in Mojo, Ross Bennett says Ayers “possessed a voice like no other, intrinsically British and full of whimsy and mischief”. His bands were just as distinctive. Soft Machine’s music was a “rainbow of sounds and songs drawn from gamelan to pop, via jazz and Terry Riley’s minimalism”. “There was nothing quite like it,” wrote Jonathan Glancey in The Guardian. Soft Machine quickly became leading lights on the London underground music scene alongside bands such as Pink Floyd and The Nice.

He gave a teenager called Mike Oldfield a break: In 1970, Ayers formed an eclectic band called The Whole World that featured the soon-to-be extremely famous, Mike Oldfield. Oldfield borrowed Ayers’ tape machine to make the demos of an album he was planning called Tubular Bells.

He was a committed Francophile: Soft Machine was venerated in France where they were idolised as “Dadaist heroes”. By the 1990s, Ayers was living as a virtual recluse in southern France. He was lured back into the studio for 2007’s acclaimed album The Unfairground featuring contributions from the likes of Wyatt and Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera as well as a younger generation of artists including members of Teenage Fanclub, Neutral Milk Hotel and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci.

He thought he was too posh to be a star: “I would have made a very unlikely star with a voice like mine,” he told The Guardian. “I mean, a public school rocker with a plummy BBC accent … hardly”. In the same interview he added, “I think you have to have a bit missing upstairs, or just be hungry for fame and money, to play the industry game. I’m not very good at it”.

In November 1969, Ayers released his first solo album Joy Of A Toy that enigmatically opens with the track Joy Of A Toy Continued. The whole album is pure quality and some tracks make you sit, listen and smile – Girl On A Swing is one of these. Also, Song For Insane Times has some clever lyrics, but the popular vote went to The Lady Rachel. I have selected the version as released on the original album. The CD contains the extended first mix which is worth listening to. The split from Soft Machine had been amicable and both Robert Wyatt and Mike Ratledge played on Joy Of A Toy. Ayers describes himself as a simple songwriter and not a jazz musician which is the direction Soft Machine wanted to go. Ayers himself believes that his leaving Soft Machine worked well for all parties.

The album title is meant to be tongue in cheek and a comment on how he did not take himself, or the music business, too seriously. All This Crazy Gift Of Time closed the original vinyl release with its bittersweet lyrics and this chorus:

All my blond and twilight dreams;
All those strangled future schemes;
All those glasses drained of wines,
All this crazy gift of time.

Which could sum up Kevin Ayers in four lines.

The story behind Religious Experience (Singing A Song In The Morning) is convoluted to say the least. Harvest had asked for a (hit) single and Ayers identified this song as one that would fit the bill. On the way to the studio, Ayers says that he collected Syd Barrett to play the guitar part and the result is the take I have selected which can now also be found as a bonus track on the CD issue of Joy Of A Toy.

The record company didn’t like Barrett’s guitar part and thought the song too long. It was released as a single at roughly half the length and without Syd Barrett’s guitar.

The follow-up album, Shooting At The Moon, was credited to Kevin Ayers and The Whole World which consisted of David Bedford (organ, piano, accordion, marimbaphone, guitar), Lol Coxhil (saxophone, zoblophone), Mike Oldfield (bass, guitar, vocal), Mick Fincher (drums, percussion, bottles & ashtrays), Bridget St John (vocal) and Robert Wyatt & the Whole World Chorus.

The band had been assembled to tour to promote Joy Of A Toy. After the tour, they went into the studio to record the next album. The line-up produced a heady mixture of ideas and experimentation with two distinctive styles emerging; carefree ballads like May I and Clarence In Wonderland abutted the avant garde experimentation of songs like Reinhardt And Geraldine and Underwater. The album has since become a bestseller in Ayers’ catalogue. I found myself listening to The Oyster And The Flying Fish over and over again so it kind of chose itself in that Toppermost way that happens periodically. The song shows how Ayers’ baritone blended so well with Bridget St John’s voice. How can you resist this lyric:

An oyster was a’travelling
Along the ocean road;
He’d been some time preparing,
And now he’d left the fold.

He was sick of being oysterized,
And he wanted to explode, to explode.
Ooh la, ooh la, ooh la, ooh la,
La la la la la la la la.

Kevin Ayers photo 1

The group disbanded soon after the release of this album, although Bedford and Oldfield assisted Ayers to record the next release, Whatevershebringswesing. I’ve selected a version of the title track from a Bob Harris Session recorded for the BBC in 1972. The album itself opens in spectacular fashion with There Is Loving/Among Us/There Is Loving with David Bedford’s orchestral arrangements. This was the original home of Stranger In Blue Suede Shoes.

Ayers, himself, says of the lyric in the title track, “the most relevant line on that album is …

Let’s drink some wine
And have a good time
But if you really want to come through
Let the good times have you…

… that’s, basically, how I’ve lived my life, that’s my feeling about life. But there’s a contrast in those lines, something to think about”.

In Mike Oldfield’s autobiography, he remembers: “At one of the recording sessions at Abbey Road, I turned up a bit early, as usual. When everyone was supposed to arrive, nobody came, so it was just me and the engineer, Peter Mew, sitting there in Studio Number Two, twiddling our thumbs and waiting. I said, ‘Well, look, nobody’s going to turn up, I’ll make a track,’ and so he said, ‘All right then’. In about an hour and a half I made an entire track: all the overdubbing, the percussion, the guitar and bass – I did three harmonized electric guitars. I was really getting carried away, it was all a bit megalomaniacal. I got the entire staff of the studio in at one point to sing some lyrics I made up. I was having a ball and it sounded bloody good as well. Eventually, Kevin rolled in. I said, ‘I’ve done it, I’ve done a track!’ He was a bit put out, I think, that I had taken over his studio time, so my track was taken off the machine […] He did keep it as a backing track: he put some different words to it and it was put on the album, I think it’s called Champagne Cowboy Blues.”

May 1973 saw the last album from the first Harvest set. Bananamour contains Oh! Wot A Dream which is Kevin Ayers’ tribute to Syd Barrett so it, again, chose itself. Ayers contends the lyric contains a lot of artistic licence:

You are the most extraordinary person,
You write the most peculiar kind of tunes.
I met you floating while I was boating
One afternoon.

Decadence from the same album is Ayers’ less than flattering portrait of Nico. The rest of the album is noted for the accessibility of the music; the opening track, Don’t Let It Get You Down, is a case in point. I know some people put bids in for the inclusion of Interview, but it just missed the cut.

In 1974, Ayers began collaborating with Ollie Halsall, one that was to last for the following eighteen years until Halsall’s death. The first result of the partnership was The Confessions Of Dr Dream And Other Stories, an album produced by the legendary Rupert Hine. Everybody’s Sometime And Some People’s All The Time Blues is from this album. I have a bootleg recorded in Spain in October 1981 named Zaragoza from which I will take a live version. The centrepiece of the album is The Confessions Of Dr Dream which took up most of side two of the original album.

Ayers says of Halsall: “I think Ollie Halsall is one of the most underrated guitarists in the world – he played the shit out of people like Clapton, or Jeff Beck or whoever was the guitar hero of the time.”

Halsall had said to Ayers: “There are only two people I’d play free for; that’s you and Randy Newman.”

Despite the song Decadence, Nico appears on Dr Dream and also on June 1, 1974 recorded at the Rainbow Theatre, Finsbury Park by Kevin Ayers, John Cale, Nico and Brian Eno (the less than flattering acronym ACNE was given to the quartet). Other musicians on stage that night included Mike Oldfield, Ollie Halsall, Rabbit Bundrick and Robert Wyatt. The four were signed to Island Records at the time and the record company put the line-up together. Tensions between Cale and Ayers ran high, which is evident on the album sleeve photograph. Ayers had slept with Cale’s wife the night before the gig.

Kevin Ayers photo 3

Side one of the album has an amazing version of Heartbreak Hotel and Nico’s incredible vocal on The Doors’ The End. Side two is given over to Kevin Ayers and opens with a fine version of May I.

Kevin Ayers landlady at this time was June Campbell Cramer (aka Lady June). Lady June’s Linguistic Leprosy was recorded for £400 in Ayers’ living room with Ayers and Eno providing backing music to Lady June’s poetry.

His final album for Island was Sweet Deceiver. Ayers had been signed by John Reid, then Elton John’s manager and partner. Reid thought he could repackage Ayers as a pretty boy rock star and, with hindsight, the cover illustration is totally inappropriate. Ayers was very uncomfortable with the whole thing and felt that, alongside the likes of Queen and Elton John, he was there as a token.

“I don’t think he ever expected to make any money out of me; I think it was really a way of saying, ‘We also have this in our catalogue …” That was Ayers’ take on the whole event. It is, on listening again, a fine album musically.

There was a critical backlash against Sweet Deceiver. Ayers left Island after just three albums and re-signed for Harvest – he went home, as it were. After the release of outtakes on Odd Ditties, the next record of new material was a Muff Winwood production, the wonderfully titled Yes We Have No Mañanas (So Get Your Mañanas Today). There are songs of love and loss and some digs at the music industry. The closing track, Blue, is magnificent and showcases how Ollie Halsall’s guitar added to Kevin Ayers’ songs. It’s worth listening to Ballad Of Mr Snake; you cannot help compare Kevin Ayers to Vivian Stanshall and wonder if you’re really listening to the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band (meant as a compliment).

The same core musicians recorded Kevin Ayers’ next album Rainbow Takeaway in April 1978. The opening track, Blaming It All On Love has a bossa nova feel to it; the amalgam of styles sees Ayers move away from the prog type sound. The lyrics remain astute and clever. Beware Of The Dog II has a reggae beat to it.

Ayers had retreated to Deià on the island of Mallorca after the release of Rainbow Takeaway. He and Ollie Halsall performed to local audiences, the result of one of those shows was the bootleg Zaragoza.

February 1980 saw the release of one last album for Harvest. That’s What You Get Babe is a very good one, produced by Graham Preskett. Halsall’s guitar takes a backseat behind a more mainstream sound. Super Salesman has Ayers sounding a bit like Robert Palmer but the song has a witty, clever and typical Kevin Ayers lyric.

There was then a three-year gap before Diamond Jack And The Queen Of Pain was released by Charly records. The album was recorded in Madrid with Ayers, Halsall and a band of Spanish musicians. The sleeve shows a somewhat world-weary Ayers. This was followed by Deià…Vu, a reference to the village where Ayers lived at the time. It was recorded in 1980 in Palma but not released until 1984 following a remix. It’s another collection of clever lyrics with a more mainstream arrangement.

In June 1986, Kevin Ayers returned to London to record As Close As You Think. This has become almost impossible to get hold of. It doesn’t seem to have made it to CD and vinyl copies are few and far between.

During the summer of 1987, Ayers, Halsall and a group of Spanish musicians entered Trak Studios in Madrid to record Falling Up that would be released by Virgin records in February 1988. This could have been another start for Ayers with the backing of Mike Oldfield’s record company, but it turned out to be a one off for the record label and Ayers disappeared for another four years before releasing Still Life With Guitar. Recorded in England during 1991 it again has some very good tracks, not least of which is There Goes Johnny which appeared on another bootleg released in 1999 Turn The Lights Down credited to ‘Kevin Ayers and the Wizards of Twiddly’. The set was recorded at the Waterman’s Arts Centre in Brentford, west of London in March 1995.

In 1992, Ollie Halsall died, leaving Ayers without his friend and collaborator. There would be no new record from Kevin for fifteen years.

Then, in 2007, old friends and young musicians who were influenced by Ayers persuaded him to enter the studio once more. In Kevin’s own words: “I was greatly assisted by Tim Shepard, who pulled my socks up and said he was happy to arrange it. He found all these young guys and girls, and we talked about doing something that would revive interest in my previous work, which I think is a) good for my health, and b) hopefully will find some listeners beyond my basic fanbase. I was working in Belgium, doing a lot of live stuff, earning a living, but as you get older, it’s a bit more taxing on the body and brain. A guy called Joe had plucked me out of the depths of Deià, and inactivity, and bad health, and said ‘I’m taking you to work again’. I’d become too relaxed. I had a beautiful house, but I wasn’t making any money. I was in a bad state. Basically, he pulled me out of the pond that I’d fallen into. We made an album, but it wasn’t different enough, and that’s where Tim came in. It was good to meet up with all these people that I’d never worked with before – it was all new. I was amazed that there were people out there … Euros Childs, Candi Payne. The fact they were willing to come and play was really nice, to put it very simply. It was good to be functioning again, to feel useful, like you were doing your bit. We recorded in Arizona, in a studio which still has tubes, and I wrote a couple of songs then, but the songs had been on ice for a while. And so have I”.

The album was The Unfairground and it was to become Kevin Ayers’ last album. Released in 2007, The Unfairground returned him to the recording studio supported by a host of admiring younger musicians including Frank Reader from the Trash Can Sinatras (Toppermost #466), Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub (Toppermost #344), as well as old friends and collaborators including Bridget St John, Phil Manzanera and Robert Wyatt. Despite a good reaction from the critics the album was not a success and Ayers returned to his reclusive life in the south of France.

I reserved the final track for this final album. The voice has lost some of its gloss but none of its timbre. The album has ten fine songs on it that sit well with anything that he has recorded before. The lyrics can only have come from the pen of Kevin Ayers. My final selection is the track that closes his final album, Run Run Run.

Kevin Ayers was found on 18th February 2013 having died in his sleep at his home in Montolieu, France, aged 68. After his death, a piece of paper was found by his bedside. On it was written a note, or perhaps an idea for a song: “You can’t shine if you don’t burn.” He did both in his inimitable, and never less than charming, way.

 

Kevin Ayers book

Shooting at the Moon: The Collected Lyrics of Kevin Ayers (Faber Music, 2019) … includes all the witty and wise lyrics from his solo career alongside pages from his notebooks, exclusive photographs, collages and the occasional recipe. With introductions by Galen Ayers, John Payne and Robert Wyatt.

 

 

Kevin Ayers official site

Kevin Ayers fan site

Kevin Ayers Appreciation facebook page

Kevin Ayers & Friends (Ollie Halsall, John Cale, Andy Summers) in concert Spanish TV 1981 60 minutes

The Canterbury scene

The Ollie Halsall Archive

Soft Machine Toppermost #429

Kevin Ayers biography (Apple Music)

TopperPost #500

5 Comments

  1. Richard Penguin
    Jan 31, 2016

    Should anyone be keen to listen here is a link to a complete show that i recorded with Bridget St John in 2015 that includes a piece about working with Kevin, and much more.

  2. Peter Muir
    Jan 31, 2016

    It’s a great piece, love it. One minor thing: Turn The Lights Down! was a legit release on the Market Square label, joint-licensed by Kevin and the Wizards of Twiddly. I still have the contract!

  3. Keith Shackleton
    Feb 1, 2016

    Cheers. I will investigate this, I really don’t know much beyond Softs 1 and Joy of a Toy.

  4. Hans Peeters
    Feb 16, 2016

    Excellent article from Ian. Very precise in describing who Kevin was and what he meant for contemporary music. Well done!

  5. Nick Worrall
    Feb 17, 2016

    Very interesting. I do love what I have heard, but I’ve not heard nearly enough. Also curious to see Richard Penguin and Peter Muir commenting, one who I see regularly on the Internet and the other who was once interested in my music for Market Square. Small world. Good world. Musical world.

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