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Off the Beaten Tracks: We need to talk about Kevin Ayers

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THIS week another of British rock music’s true originals, Kevin Ayers. Along with Syd Barrett, Kevin was one of the first to sing in an English accent rather than pretend to be American. Unlike many middle-class musicians keen to be accepted as proles, he was happy to sound like a toff. And his prodigious alcohol consumption was a comfort to those of us who feel a twinge of guilt at blurring the edges of the Government’s ‘healthy’ drinking targets.

Kevin Ayers was born in 1944 in Herne Bay, Kent. His father Rowan was a BBC producer who would become the editor of Late Night Line-Up and co-create the rock programme The Old Grey Whistle Test. Following the break-up of his parents’ marriage, Kevin went to live with his grandmother while his mother wed an Army officer and decamped to Malaya. At the age of six, the lad was summoned to join them and, amazingly, made the three-day journey alone with a stop in Bangkok. Obviously he would have had some adult help but it must have been an overwhelming experience. I’m surprised they didn’t just wrap him up and send him parcel post.

At his first school in the Far East, he recalled, he was the only white boy and did not speak a word of Malayan. He was subsequently sent to a Catholic boarding school. Aged twelve, he returned to England where his father sent him to ‘any school that would have me’. One such was Simon Langton Grammar in Canterbury, where he met Robert Wyatt and Mike Ratledge. Some years later the three of them, with Daevid Allen, formed the Soft Machine, who were at the centre of the psychedelic music explosion and were key members of what became known as the Canterbury Scene.

(Incidentally, my good lady wife Margaret was at the University of Kent in the late sixties, heyday of said Canterbury Scene. As a fan of pop groups such as the Searchers and the Merseybeats, her indoors blithely admits to have been totally unaware of the progressive musical cataclysm happening around her.)

The Soft Machine released their eponymous debut album in 1968 and travelled the USA supporting the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Here’s some interesting concert footage from that year.

The excesses of the tour left Ayers worn out and vowing to retire at the age of 24. He quit the band and sold his bass guitar to Hendrix sideman Noel Redding, but Jimi presented Kevin with an acoustic Gibson J-200 and persuaded him to follow his songwriting talent. The result was his first solo album, 1969’s Joy of a Toy, released on the new Harvest label at the same time as Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma. Probably my favourite track is the lovely Eleanor’s Cake (Which Ate Her)

although The Lady Rachel comes close.

His second solo album, Shooting at the Moon (1970), featured the backing group The Whole World, including a teenage Mike Oldfield on bass and lead guitar, David Bedford (not the moustachioed runner) on keyboards and the jovial nutcase Lol Coxhill on saxophone. (Coxhill, an avid busker, is said to be the inspiration for Joni Mitchell’s song For Free after she saw him playing in a London park. I met him in 1974 when he was a member of a bizarre Leftie performance-arts outfit called the Welfare State and couldn’t get a sensible word out of him.)

The first track is May I?, the quintessential Ayers song. In his uppercrust slightly bored baritone he declaims:

I just came in off the street
Looking for somewhere to eat
I find a small cafe
I see a girl and then I say

May I, sit and stare at you for a while?
I’d like the company of your smile

He would subsequently record the song in schoolboy French.

Since I never pass up a chance to mention Bridget St John, I would add that she duets with Ayers on The Oyster and the Flying Fish.

Album number three, 1971’s Whatevershebringswesing, is seen by some as Kevin’s best. Not just out of loyalty to Mrs Ashworth, I select Margaret as my favourite song although Stranger in Blue Suede Shoes is a doozie.

And the final track, Lullaby, is beautiful although you wouldn’t actually want to play it last thing at night. The sound of running water throughout is guaranteed to have you scuttling to the bog.

The fourth LP, Bananamour (1973), is pretty patchy but includes the excellent Shouting in a Bucket Blues and a delightfully wacky tribute to Syd Barrett, Oh! Wot a Dream (please give this one a try).

In 1974 Kevin moved from Harvest to Island Records and released The Confessions of Dr Dream and Other Stories. I confess I find this uninspired, apart from the contributions of the brilliant former Patto guitarist Ollie Halsall on tracks such as Didn’t Feel Lonely Till I Thought of You.

That same year, Halsall transformed Ayers’s contribution to the live album June 1 1974 with some unforgettable work on May I? and Shouting in a Bucket Blues. Apparently the concert, a showcase which included other Island performers John Cale, Nico and Brian Eno, was a pretty tense affair because Cale had caught his wife in flagrante with Ayers the previous night. The Welsh former Velvet Undergrounder certainly doesn’t look well disposed to the English swordsman in the cover photo.

I might add that Kevin’s first five solo albums are available in a bargain box set for as little as a tenner.

By 1976’s Yes We Have No Mananas, I had lost interest in Ayers and he was losing interest in reality. He and Halsall developed catastrophic heroin habits which endured through the 1980s. It is said that Mike Oldfield presented Kevin with a complete mobile recording studio but he sold it to fuel his addiction.

Ollie died of an overdose in 1992. Kevin lived for many years in Deia, Majorca, before moving to France where he became a virtual recluse.

In 2007 he attempted a comeback with the album The Unfairground, which includes Baby Come Home, another sweet duet with Bridget.

To coincide with it, a fascinating interview was published in the now-defunct magazine The Word, which detailed how Ayers constantly popped pills, swilled two bottles of wine, returned home for ‘emergency supplies’ of a further seven bottles, and later shared confidences over a pint of neat Pernod.

It’s a miracle, really, that he survived as long as he did. Kevin Ayers was 68 when he died. A talent somewhat unfulfilled, but a talent all the same.

alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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