thu 18/07/2024

‘Every woman in the building wanted a bit of his arse': Kevin Ayers, 1944-2013 | reviews, news & interviews

‘Every woman in the building wanted a bit of his arse': Kevin Ayers, 1944-2013

‘Every woman in the building wanted a bit of his arse': Kevin Ayers, 1944-2013

Fond memories of the pyschedelic beat balladeer who never quite got it together

No airs: Kevin Ayers

Whenever the words English and whimsy come together in relation to rock, writes Mark Hudson, the name Kevin Ayers is invariably invoked – not least by Ayers himself. The notably erratic, but gifted singer-songwriter and Soft Machine founder was hardly on the face of it notably English, having spent much of his childhood in Malaysia and most of his adult life lounging by the Mediterranean.

But he consciously incorporated the gently surreal nonsense tradition of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear into his own brand of moon-gazing, slacker cool.

The fact that the fetchingly tousled, psychedelic beat-balladeer would never quite get it together on the scale his formidable legion of admirers believed him capable of was apparent even four decades ago. The Ayers of myth preferred lounging in beach cafes, surveying the local talent through the bottom of a wine glass, to hustling in studios and concert halls. And the Ayers of fact was, by all accounts, little different. Yet a degree of ruminative, procrastinating languor was all part of his appeal – a quality that permeated a unique if sometimes frustrating body of music.

Ayers’ quirky experimental chansonnerie got its first recorded airing on the album The Soft Machine, teamed with Robert Wyatt’s airy post-bop singing and drumming and Mike Ratledge’s wayward fusion keyboards – a brilliantly mercurial formation that didn’t make it to a second album since none of them, least of all Ayers, could hack it in full-time rock’n’roll. Yet the promise of darkly surreal musings such as the exquisite "Lullabye Letter" (“If you’ve got something to sing me, four o'clock’s the best time to ring me”) – which was never fulfilled by the group itself – worked its way into the consciousness of a generation, manifesting itself in surprising ways. “Would the first Roxy Music album ever have been recorded if it wasn’t for Kevin Ayers’ avant garde balladry?’ wondered the Melody Maker in 1974.

The mid-Seventies was Ayers’ heyday, when he headlined a free concert in Hyde Park, graced a number of NME covers and played the Rainbow Theatre Finsbury Park in the company of Nico, Brian Eno and John Cale – a line-up described at the time as "the CSN&Y of decadence"). The occasion was preserved for posterity on the album June 1, 1974. Ayers' deceptively simple guitar-based ballads might have felt a touch light-weight beside the others’ more left-field, if not downright sinister contributions. Yet his husky mumble and stoner beach-boy sex appeal (he was wearing a silver suit) dominated the occasion. "Every woman in the building wanted a bit of his arse," noted the NME’s Nick Kent.

He never feigned a transatlantic accent or pretended he’d been drawing inspiration from the Chicago blues

Mark Kidel writes: There is a strain of British music, whimsical, iconoclastic, tinged with fantasy and humour, that has no equivalent anywhere else in the world. Kevin Ayers was a fine example of the genre. He was the son of a BBC TV producer, Rowan Ayers, the genial and civilised overlord of a bunch of intelligent and iconoclastic programmes, including Late Line Up. There was always something irrepressibly upper middle-class about Kevin Ayers: he drank red wine, not beer and never feigned a transatlantic accent or pretended he’d been drawn inspiration from the Chicago blues. I first saw Ayers playing with Soft Machine in 1966, along with Robert Wyatt (whose mother was also a BBC producer) and Mike Ratledge, all of them graduates of the “Canterbury scene”. 

Their unique mix of gentle pop, Dada humour, beatnik cool, early psychedelia and free jazz was immensely refreshing. I sat at their feet at a mega-event at Olympia, “Christmas on Earth Revisited” – which featured The Who, Jimi Hendrix, The Move and many others.

A few years later, when he had gone solo, I caught up with Ayers at the Hampstead Theatre Club where he presented a weird and wonderful stage show, “Bananamour”. He sipped red wine and chatted to the audience with tipsy wit. He was joined by a group of similarly individualistic and madcap musicians: the poet and muse Lady June, the brilliant saxophonist Lol Coxhill and pianist and composer David Bedford. It was chaotic but creative. There was a melancholy sense of taking life as it came, with a gentle smile and without taking airs.

If you have a spare hour: Soft Machine live in concert in Paris

Their unique mix of gentle pop, Dada humour, beatnik cool, early psychedelia and free jazz was immensely refreshing

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Was sad to hear about old K.A. Remember ‘Bananamour’ very well. Saw him doing it at the QEH in 1973 – having gone there on the strength of a melody maker ad with little idea who he was. I was most impressed, not least by his white suit. Trying for the same effect I went to Take 6 in Carnaby St and bought a hideous cream, medallion man blazer which was a million miles wide of the mark. My mum made me take it back. I thought they’d throw me out of the shop, but the manager was sympathetic: ‘I wondered when a young lad like you would wear that.’ The following year my mate from school went to Eric Clapton's come-back concert at the Rainbow. 'It was brilliant,' he said. 'They were all wearing... white suits.' I said, 'Don't even think about it.'

I loved him in my teens. Went to the -June 1st - concert at the Rainbow - Ayers, Nico, Eno, John Cale, Robert Wyatt. Ayers sang the little known - I've got a hard on for you baby. Great gig and then the next day bumped into him in the street outside my house (a few doors down from his record label) and discussed the gig with him. And that was the last time I saw him on or off stage.

Alas the clip you feature does not include our man Kevin, this one in contrast does, most noticeably

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