BACK IN TP 16 Myron Bretholz wrote a lengthy run-down of the life and times of Kevin Ayers, English eccentric, banana artiste and wine connoisseur extraordinaire. At that time Ayers was unaffiliated with any American label and seemed destined to remain one of those “seen only in Britain, heard only on import” artists for whom we occasionally harbor a great deal of affection. Recently he had released Yes, We Have No Mananas, to me his best collection of new material since the exquisite Bananamour; though he was about to tour Britain at that time, the prospect of ever seeing Ayers stateside was indeed slim.
But things change quickly in the world of rock ‘n roll, and within a few months of our article came the announcement that Ayers had signed with ABC Records here and that Mananas was to be released in America, with another album to follow in late summer or early fall. In addition an American tour was in the works for sometime this October. With all this brewing, Ayers flew into the States on a “promotional tour,” his first visit since the Soft Machine opened an American tour for Jimi Hendrix in 1968. We decided it was time for a chat with Ayers himself.
WHAT HAS always distinguished Kevin Ayers from the rest of the musicians associated with the “Canterbury school” of progressive rock is that he alone has, for the most part, continued working steadily within the framework of the pop song. The others busied themselves with instrumental improvisation, long jams and seeing just how far away from the pop/rock traditions they could stray without abandoning the style altogether. One only need listen to post-Ayers Soft Machine, later Caravan, Gong, or Hatfield and the North to realize that most ties with “pop” have been thoroughly severed.
Not so with Ayers, who has retained comfortable ties with pop song forms while creating music no less revolutionary and “progressive” than his more avant garde contemporaries. Ayers’ first band was the Whole World, as motley a bunch of eccentric musical genii as has ever been assembled, including street saxophonist Lol Coxhill, keyboard whiz/orchestrator/arranger David Bedford and (then) 16-year-old child prodigy Mike Oldfield. The Whole World proved you can have your cake and eat it, too, with material as diverse as the highly experimental (and to me practically unlistenable) ‘Pisser dans un Violon’ and the pure pop ‘May I’ coexisting on the same LP along with, truly “progressive” music like ‘Clarence in Wonderland’ and ‘Red Green and You Blue’.
Oddly enough Ayers’ best realized album, the one on which the blend of pop and progressivism works to its best effect, is Odd Ditties, an assortment of singles, B-sides and out-takes never meant to be collected. The combination of ideas, sounds, incredible musicianship (mostly The Whole World), humor, and Ayers’ magnificently lunatic personality makes Odd Ditties a tour de force of progressive pop-rock. All without a single cut lasting over five minutes!
Which brings us, somehow, back to Kevin Ayers who, in perfect accord with his image, is sitting with a half-emptied (or half-filled, for you optimists) bottle of wine as I enter his hotel room before noon.
First, Kevin checks out a copy of TP 16 and is not only surprised to find that we’ve done an article about him, but seems utterly amazed at its length. Finally we sit down and, sipping intermittently at the glasses of wine Kevin has poured, commence the interview.
Since Ayers had written a song called ‘Interview’ (on Bananamour) which seemed relevant to our current situation, I wondered how it came about. Ayers, speaking in those bass tones (“horrible,” he says; “wonderful,” says I) that make him one of the easier voices to distinguish in rock, thought a moment.
“It was based on what anybody tries to ask anyone else, or expects from anyone else. In particular, that song had to do with performer and audience and interviewer inasmuch as all any performer does is try to rise up to a certain point where the whole possibility of failure is as great as the possibility of success. It’s the whole tension thing — like a tightrope walker. The higher you aim, the bigger the tension about the fall. Basically, when an audience sits down it’s saying, ‘OK, sock it to me. I’ve paid my dollars, now do something.’ However you handle it is up to you. If you lose credibility, if you can’t take people out of their ordinary feelings, you just don’t hold an audience.”
Did this relate directly to his own performing situation?
“Yes, because I think that now I’m beginning to enjoy live performances for the first time since the Soft Machine. I really enjoy them now, really get off on them, and this has only happened since I sorted myself out personally — when I stopped being paranoid about the position of performer and audience, and stopped being so intellectual about the whole thing. I was so intellectual about it that I reached a point where it was just stopping any effort I was putting into performing. It was like a very stoned paranoia, when you’ve smoked too many joints and are sitting in a room and just can’t communicate. You get so lost in yourself and all these terrible feelings. I used to get like that about any kind of live performance. I’d have to drink an incredible amount to get numb — in order not to think. But when you’re that drunk, you can barely hold a guitar, let alone perform.”
What kind of material would he be doing when he toured the States? I guessed he’d mostly be doing things from Mananas and the next album, but Kevin shook his head.
“No, no. I’m doing… well, I’ve made nine albums, so I’ve got a lot to choose from. I’ll probably take the best songs in terms of live performance off all the albums. Some things are nice to sit at home and listen to but don’t work in concert situations. It’s nice having such a large repertoire to choose from.”
What type of venues would he be doing?
“I think I’ll probably play universities when I come over here. I’m much more into that than show business type gigs and I’ve always enjoyed playing for students. I’m into more private kinds of atmosphere. If I had a lot of money I’d do things like give out free wine before a gig.”
Speaking of wine, one of the recurrent sentiments that has pervaded Ayers’ music since his days with the Soft Machine has been that of “Let’s drink some wine and have a good time,” a line which has appeared in many of his songs. This rampant hedonistic streak seemed to be the main thrust of all his albums up until Bananamour; his outlook then began to take on far more somber tones, with the bulk of his songs dealing with loneliness and a distant former lover. When I asked about the change in his music after Bananamour Ayers picked up on the hedonistic theme, but left the question of the transition unanswered.
“I’ve had two recurrent themes that I ever had to say to anybody,” he said. “One is the thing about sleeping and dreaming and waking, which is based on my encounter with Gurdjieff’s teachings. He was an Armenian philosopher and teacher who drew all his knowledge from Middle Eastern and Oriental teachings and tried to make it so it could be understood by the West. His main point was that we spend so much of our lives sleeping — that means sleeping while you’re walking about, as well — and missing so much of life because you’re not really aware or appreciating the moment, you’re either lost in the past or thinking of the future. That, in a way, fits in very cosily with the hedonistic thing of making the most of what is there: Drink your wine, have a good time, and if possible, let the good times have you, that is, give yourself to it and start trying to get rid of your mental baggage so you can travel light through life.
“The other theme is ‘bananas,’ which is… you see, Soft Machine was the official orchestra of the College of Pataphysics in France, which was an extension of Dada and surrealism and all that kind of stuff; basically, completely blowing out any kind of given values at any given time. So when anybody came on with a set thing, you blew it up by exploring all the other possibilities. How stupid to be so serious about everything, when in fact there’s this great big banana in the middle if you can see it. The banana was a symbol for introducing the element of absurdity into conventionally serious situations.”
So whenever you get too serious throw in a banana?
“Exactly that. And that includes, of course, yourself — taking yourself too seriously. That’s a problem I still haven’t mastered. It’s easy to start throwing bananas into society, but with yourself it’s really difficult.”
All this talk of bananas (aside from making me hungry) reminded me of the picture on the gatefold of Bananamour, which shows Kevin and bassist Archie Leggatt playing chess with banana slices instead of chessmen.
“I think that’s quite a good example of what I’m trying to say. You have a very conventional situation but there’s a slight shift. You suddenly look again and realize it’s not quite right. Ideally, it would be — and if I had the money I would have done this — you know those postcards which are plastic covered and you look at it and you see one thing and you shift it slightly and it winks an eye, or the clothes come off, or whatever? I’d have had ordinary chess pieces and when you shifted it, the bananas. A double take.
“In fact, my next album’s going to be called Slight Shift. My plan is to do songs pretty much in the melodic and simple vein I’ve been doing, but to have a slight shift in all of them; just something weird happening which isn’t obvious. I hope it’ll be subtle, but nevertheless it’ll be a double take. It’s not commercial, though. It isn’t at all.”
The subject of commercialism — and how to avoid it — seems to creep into the discussion on numerous occasions. Kevin seemed to have mixed feelings on the subject, probably due to the realization that although he thinks anti-commercially, a certain amount of same is needed to survive in the music business.
Did he think his music had gotten more and more commercial through they years?
“Yeah. I’m quite aware that I’ve been playing it a lot safer, but there has been a lot of pressure to be that way. Now it’s coming together and completing the cycle. Yes, We Have No Mananas, in fact, is probably as commercial as I want to get. I’m feeling very rebellious about the next one.
“I think that if you think too much about whether your music is commercial it’ll become like any other business enterprise. Fortunately I haven’t found a way to commercialize my music. I like that I haven’t been able to find a way and that none of my managers or record companies have ever been able to find a way.”
But how does an artist survive these days without thinking commercially?
“Well, obviously you can’t. Unless you’re someone like Mike Oldfield and are totally convinced about what you’re doing and nobody can tell you differently. I know that Mike was like that about Tubular Bells. If you told Mike Oldfield it was shit he’d say, ‘You’re a load of shit.’ He wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, really? Perhaps it is.’ I’ve done that too much. I’ve been too ready to agree, and that’s a lot to do with the double takes. In the same situation Mike would just say, ‘This is what I’ve got to do,’ and not compromise at all. That kind of conviction pays off. He’ll never be able to do another Tubular Bells, though, now that he’s subject to the whole machinery we’re all part of.”
It’s interesting to note that the Canterbury scene has never produced any act which had any measure of commercial success in America, although Kevin was at one time or another connected with the two which are probably best known here, Soft Machine and Steve Hillage (who once played in Kevin’s band for a few months). I was anxious to talk about the Canterbury scene but Ayers surprisingly didn’t seem particularly keen on discussing it at length; he preferred to talk about the Soft Machine until he decided that “it’s terrible to harp back on the past all the time.”
Did he feel that the extreme Englishness of the Canterbury groups had prevented any of them from achieving a great degree of popularity in America?
“Yes. It was a bit too English, basically. Whereas most of the other groups, the ones that come over here, have become more American. They sing with American accents, and they use ‘funk’ as opposed to the kind of English — I don’t know what you’d call it — sound.”
Was there a conscious effort among Canterbury groups to retain an English flavor?
“No, I don’t think it was conscious. There was no choice, really. That was what these people were.”
But there were plenty of English bands playing American blues…
“I guess there was a conscious decision. In the Soft Machine we deliberately avoided blues and the kind of normal riffy ‘funk’ things, the backbone of all American music and a lot of English music, too. We thought of those as clichés, not in a snobbish way but sort of saying, ‘There have to be other ways of doing it.’ So a lot of the music that came out of that is quite alien here.”
There seems to be much more mixing of English styles with American jazz styles.
“It’s much closer to jazz. I know that all the people in Soft Machine were completely brought up on American jazz, from the most classical jazz to the most avant garde. The influences were much more from that than from pop or rock or blues, whereas it’s usually the other way around with most other groups. So that probably says a lot about the music.”
Was it a very insular scene, with bands playing a lot with other bands?
“It didn’t start off like that. About the time of flower power — the great youth-energy thing — we had two places in London, one called the UFO and one called the Middle Earth. Music has never been as free since. Probably there’s been the equivalent over here — like Bill Graham’s place — but it’s never had that freedom since, it’s become such a commercial thing. At that time, lots of people played, it was quite simple to jam with other bands.
“I recall now that Steve Paul used to have a club called The Scene. We played there and I remember being there when there were people like the Velvet Underground, the Doors, Hendrix, and everybody just playing; it was really great fun. That seems to have gone. So in a sense there is an insular thing about all music these days, particularly referring to the English scene.”
Was Daevid Allen a big factor in starting the Canterbury scene?
“He was to start with, because Daevid Allen arrived from Australia in Canterbury already a full-fledged hippie when that word wasn’t even known there. Then the only thing we knew about hippieness was Kerouac, Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti; the poets that we read. Another aspect of the Soft Machine in particular was that it was quite a literary group. The name came from the Burroughs book. We were very into America, as a matter of fact, but not the pop music. It was the modern jazz, the poetry and the writing.”
Why had Kevin left the Soft Machine after just one album?
“Well, we did two American tours, one month long each. And then somehow it became so mechanized — it seemed so far away from the original spirit of things — that I got very disillusioned. I said ‘that’s it,’ sold my instruments and said, ‘Forget it. I’m going to try to do something else.’ And I went away and lived on a little island off Spain — Ibiza. I started writing again. I had to write and get a guitar. From then on, I’ve always been solo and with my own bands.
“I think Soft Machine was a very unique group in that there were three such incredibly distinct influences. There was Mike [Ratledge] who was completely modern jazz and classical; Robert [Wyatt] who was modern and very much into soul in terms of his rhythm and stuff; and I who was much more into very simple songs, early Beatles and Lovin’ Spoonful — warm songs. Between us it was a great combination. We were all strong people so instead of just compromising we actually got the best out of each other, which is a very nice situation. It wasn’t like saying, ‘Well, I don’t agree with that, but I’ll do it’; it was saying, ‘I want it to be like this and like that.’ It was a fantastic democracy for a while, but it didn’t last.
“I love that first Soft Machine album, though it’s not fantastically produced. It reminds me of the feeling I was talking about, when people just jammed and anything went. You didn’t think about whether it was going to be commercial. I suffer from that these days, and I wish I didn’t. And then maybe it was because we were a unit as opposed to being individuals; we were very brave and didn’t care at all about people and record companies or management saying it’s not commercial. We just did exactly what pleased us. It’s a great feeling for anybody to do what they feel like doing.”
After leaving the Soft Machine Ayers did what he felt like. He released Joy of a Toy before putting together the aforementioned Whole World, the first in a series of superb bands which have backed him during his solo career. He considers himself a catalyst, as far as bringing together talented folks, but feels that on occasion the challenge of dealing with the divergent personalities of these really creative individuals may have hurt his role as a bandleader. Some of the talented musicians who have passed through Ayers’s bands, in addition to Oldfield, Coxhill and Bedford, include Steve Hillage, Archie Leggatt, the magnificent Ollie Halsall, and Zoot Money. His current line-up, the one that should be touring here this fall, is Andy Summers (guitar), Charlie McCracken (bass), Rob Townsend (drums) and Billy Livsey (piano), all of whom have extensive past credentials.
I asked Ayers his feelings about the members of the Whole World, other than the already-mentioned Mike Oldfield.
“Well, Lol Coxhill is another guy like Mike who’s really good because he sticks with his convictions. I get bored by a lot of what he plays, but there are also moments of brilliance. I think what I really do like, and what would make you go and see Lol, is seeing someone who has these flashes of total commitment, forgetting everything else, forgetting that he’s there performing.
“David Bedford used to be a lot more dedicated and fanatical, but it’s like politics; there are a lot of people who go into politics with genuine ideas for the common good. What happens is that the minute they get popular, they’re absorbed into the machine and suddenly have a lot of money and comfort and are raised to a standard of living they can’t go back on because it’s too seductive. They suddenly find that they can’t say what they were saying before because they’ll lose this, that or the other.”
Had there been a particularly strong camaraderie between all the participants (Ayers, Nico, Eno, and John Cale) in the June 1, 1975 concert (captured for posterity on the record of the same name)?
“It’s weird, because there was and there wasn’t. There was, in that we all knew that we represented a certain area of music that was rapidly dying out, but personal communication was pretty low. The broader purpose was there though. I had good communication with Eno ’cause he’s quite open. He’s another kind of catalyst.”
Had he worked with or seen Nico lately?
“Not really,” he said. Adding sadly, “She’s so messed up.”
Had he enjoyed working with Ollie Halsall, who not only appeared on all the LPs from Dr. Dream through Mananas, but produced Sweet Deceiver as well?
“He’s a phenomenal guitarist. Like a lot of really good musicians he’s not nearly as creative and interesting when he’s doing his own stuff, or working in the context he thinks he’s best in — in his case, rock ‘n’ roll. From the stuff I’ve heard that he’s done in the past, I think he’s much better working on my songs than he is doing what he thinks he’s good at.”
I mentioned Halsall’s amazingly fluid and powerful guitar solo on ‘Blue’, which closes Mananas, and Ayers smiled.
“I was amazed at how sensitive he was, because I wouldn’t call him a sensitive guitarist. He’s a fantastic technician, very humorous and powerful, but I’d never seen the sensitive side before. If you set an atmosphere for him, he falls into it, but he’s not good at creating an atmosphere of his own.”
Had he come into contact with any other musicians with whom he’d like to work?
“The last interesting person I met, when we were doing a concert in Berlin, was David Bowie. We went back to this home afterwards and Iggy Pop was there, too. I think there’s a chance Bowie might be producing my next album. The reason I’d like that, aside from the fact that we did have really good communication, is that he has a really good commercial rhythmic sense. Soundwise, he’s very, very good.
“I think that’s one of the things that’s been lacking in my career. Someone to really direct me without losing the kind of English eccentricity of the actual songs. Someone who can actually produce a sound that works on its own level, so you don’t have to think about the message or anything else. If you have a basic sound that works, you have a better chance of getting to a bigger audience after the second or third listen. What I’ve been unable to get up ’til now is that solid commercial sound.”
Ayers’s sudden concern with commerciality seemed a bit odd considering his prior statements on the matter, but as noted it’s a bit hard to ignore that aspect completely. At any rate, a Bowie-Avers collaboration — Bowie being one of the few who has managed to progress while remaining commercial — does seem an interesting prospect, though whether it’ll actually happen remains to be seen.
Finally, I wondered how Ayers assessed himself at this particular time, especially in terms of songwriting, and what he would like to be doing five years hence.
“As a songwriter, I’m basically finding I have less and less to say, or less that I feel strongly about saying, which worries me. On the other hand, I have to be less serious about it. My problem is finding new ways to approach the same thing. I’m happy to carry on for the rest of my days talking about the couple of things I’ve always talked about because basically you have to say a lot about the same thing to get a small amount understood.
“Five years from now I’d like to be completely out of the cities and consequently in my house in the country in France. I think I’d feel more at peace with myself and the world. Possibly, I’d be writing. Not songs, but books. Personal evolution, I think, is the phrase.”
© Dave Schulps, Trouser Press, September 1977