Founder member of Soft Machine and a key figure in British psychedelic rock.
KEVIN AYERS’S DEBUT solo album Joy of a Toy, released in 1969, concluded with a song called ‘All This Crazy Gift of Time’. “All my blond and twilight dreams,” sang Ayers in his signature, slightly wayward baritone, “all those strangled future schemes, all those glasses drained of wine …”
In retrospect, it sounds like a statement of intent, though intent is perhaps too strong a word to apply to Ayers, whose singular songwriting talent was matched by a sometimes startling lack of ambition. “I lost it years ago; a long, long time ago,” he told one interviewer in 2007, referring to his lack of ego and self-belief. “But, in a way, I don’t think I’ve ever had it.”
Ayers, who has been found dead at the age of 68 at his home in the medieval village of Montolieu in south-west France, was one of the great almost-stars of British rock. A founding member of Soft Machine, he was a key figure in the birth of British pastoral psychedelia, and then went on to enjoy cult status as a singer-songwriter in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Among his champions were the late John Peel and the influential British rock journalist Nick Kent, who later wrote: “Kevin Ayers and Syd Barrett were the two most important people in British pop music. Everything that came after came from them.”
Ayers was born in Herne Bay, Kent, the son of the journalist, poet and BBC producer Rowan Ayers, who later originated the BBC2 rock music programme The Old Grey Whistle Test. After his parents divorced and his mother married a civil servant, Ayers spent most of his childhood in Malaysia, where, he would later admit, he discovered a fondness for the slow and easy life.
At 12, he returned to Britain and settled in Canterbury. There, he became a fledgling musician and founder of the “Canterbury sound”, an often-whimsical English take on American psychedelia that merged jazz, folk, pop and nascent progressive rock.
Ayers’s first band was the Wilde Flowers, whose line-up included various future members of Caravan as well as Robert Wyatt and Hugh Hopper, with whom he would go on to form Soft Machine in 1966. Alongside Pink Floyd, Soft Machine played regularly at the UFO club in London, becoming one of the key underground groups of the time.
In 1968, the group toured the US in support of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, a brush with rock stardom and relentless gigging that left the laid-back Ayers weary and disillusioned. He sold his Fender bass guitar to Hendrix’s sideman Noel Redding, and fled to Ibiza with fellow Soft Machine maverick Daevid Allen. There he wrote the songs that would make up Joy of a Toy. It set the tone for much of what was to follow: Ayers’s sonorous voice enunciating songs that ran the gamut from wilfully weird to oddly catchy, the whole not quite transcending the sum of the many varied and musically adventurous parts.
Ayers recorded four critically well-received albums for the British progressive rock label Harvest, the third of which, Whatevershebringswesing(1972), featured musical contributions from Robert Wyatt and Mike Oldfield and the orchestral arrangements of David Bedford. It included the dramatically melancholy ‘Song from the Bottom of a Well’ and the catchy, more-roll-than-rock swagger of ‘Stranger in Blue Suede Shoes’, which became, if not quite a hit, a signature song of sorts in his subsequent live shows.
In his 2008 memoir, Changeling, Oldfield recalled the anarchic atmosphere of the recording sessions at Abbey Road, where, on a day that no other musician bothered to turn up, he more or less cut the backing track for ‘Champagne Cowboy Blues’ single-handedly. “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 … He did keep it as a backing track: he put some different words to it and it was put on the album.”
Ayers signed to Chris Blackwell’s Island label. The resulting album, The Confessions of Dr Dream and Other Stories (1974), was more focused by his standards, and marked the beginning of a creative partnership with guitarist Ollie Halsall. The following year, Ayers’s appearance at the Rainbow Theatre in London alongside John Cale, Brian Eno and Nico was recorded for a subsequent live album entitled June 1, 1974.
In the late 1970s, as punk took hold in Britain, Ayers seemed to disappear from view, dogged by addiction and what often seemed like a general lack of interest in his own career. He made the lacklustre Diamond Jack and the Queen of Pain (1983) with a group of musicians he befriended in Spain, and the well-received Falling Up (1988) in Madrid.
For a while, he lived a reclusive life in the south of France, before being tempted back to the studio for an album,The Unfairground (2007), featuring contributions from a new generation of musician-fans that included members of Teenage Fanclub, Neutral Milk Hotel and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci.
“I think you have to have a bit missing upstairs,” he once said, “or just be hungry for fame and money, to play the industry game. I’m not very good at it.” That, of course, was part of his charm. He was a true bohemian and a fitfully brilliant musical drifter. 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.
He is survived by three daughters, Rachel, Galen and Annaliese, and his sister, Kate.
• Kevin Ayers, singer-songwriter and guitarist, born 16 August 1944; found dead 20 February 2013
© Sean O’Hagan, The Guardian, 20 February 2013