Kevin Ayers: Invisible Jukebox

KEVIN AYERS was one of many curious teenagers who gravitated towards Wellington House at Lydden, near Canterbury, in the early ’60s. The house was owned by Robert Wyatt’s parents and was a focal point for artistic activity. An itinerant Australian beatnik, Daevid Allen (later of Gong), was one of the many lodgers.

The Wilde Flowers were formed from out of this scene. Ayers was vocalist and songwriter in their earliest incarnation, but finally left in 1965. Ayers and Allen then travelled to Ibiza, where they met an American millionaire who gave them money to form a group. On returning to Canterbury in late ’66 they started the Soft Machine with keyboard player Mike Ratledge and Wyatt on drums and vocals. After undertaking two American tours supporting Jimi Hendrix in early ’68, the group recorded their debut album, after which Ayers left.

Joy Of A Toy was released on Harvest in 1969 and was a template, of sorts, for his eclectic approach as a solo artist. These beguiling, idiosyncratic songs were played acoustically, set to a chamber ensemble arranged by composer David Bedford, or mixed with rock, jazz and avant-garde elements. Bedford stayed on for the next release, Shooting At the Moon (1970), recorded as Kevin Ayers And The Whole World, a group that included saxophonist Lol Coxhill and the teenage Mike Oldfield on guitar. After the group split, Ayers continued putting out some of his strongest work on Whatevershebringswesing (1971), Bananamour (1973) and The Confessions Of Doctor Dream (1974). June 1 1974 was a document of a live concert with Ayers, John Cale, Brian Eno and Nico.

Always on the brink of a commercial breakthrough, or so it seemed, Ayers appeared to lose his way by the early ’80s and ended up recording the poorly received That’s What You Get Babe (1980) and Diamond Jack And The Queen Of Pain (1983) in Spain. Living out in the Balearics, Ayers seemed an increasingly peripheral figure but returned in style with Falling Up (1988) and Still Life With Guitar (1992). After a long period of silence broken by the occasional tour, Ayers has become active once more: having just finished a UK tour, he is due to start work on a new album in early 2003. Ayers’s first four solo albums are due to be reissued in Spring 2003 and the long-deleted Still Life With Guitar is available again on Market Square Records. The Jukebox took place in London.




Well, I’d say they are white.

They aren’t, actually. It’s the Skatalites.

Sounds a bit muddy for it to be a proper black recording.

You’ve often used elements of reggae in your songs. Were you a big fan of Jamaican music?

I still am, everything from calypso back to ska and the origins of reggae. But I usually use it in a quite tongue-in-cheek way because I know I’m a white man trying to sing black music, which rarely comes off. I spent quite a bit of time in Jamaica and other islands. I loved it, but I wouldn’t even try to pretend I’m good at it, I just use it as one uses a particular paint on a palette. I use South American things too and jazz things; I pick from the fruit bowl.

When did you live in Jamaica?

About 25 years ago, something like that; maybe a bit more. You can tell when it was because I think I was just joining Island Records and they were just bringing out the first Bob Marley album. Reggae wasn’t really big in the islands when I was there, it was much more calypso, so I’m not actually very knowledgeable about it. Don’t ask me anything hard about reggae music!

It’s interesting that you mention the Island connection, as some of your contemporaries on the label were also obviously interested in incorporating reggae into their music; John Cale, for instance. Was it anything to do with being on a label that had begun its life promoting black music?

It could well be [but] on the island is more to the point. I didn’t actually do any recordings when I was there [in Jamaica] but I did play with a little beach band doing calypso. That was fun. There were some excellent steel bands, too, but they played mostly for white tourists in the hotels.

I used to go to a lot of clubs and listen to local bands – big bass-heavy groups, dub and stuff. I love to listen to it in its pure form, especially over there. There were really wild bands; these were pre-reggae success, playing for their own amusement and own people. It used to be very potent music, especially with all the rum and grass around.




Terry Riley? [Vocal starts] Nico, OK. It’s her harmonium isn’t it? I remember once Nico was on tour with me – I think she was supporting me, actually – in a weird situation in France and at this particular time she sung ‘Deutschland Über Alles’ and the crowd were going really wild, saying ‘Get off, we don’t want to hear that’. And she said [adopts slow, severe German accent]: ‘I am going to play this anyway. To the end.’ And she did [laughs]. It didn’t always cause such a reaction. A lot of people didn’t mind at all.

How did the idea for the Ayers, Cale, Nico and Eno tour in 1974 take shape?

We were all on Island at the time and I think it was all Island’s idea. They were trying to launch me as a superstar in those days… totally unsuccessfully [laughs]. And they thought this was going to be the big one. We all knew each other vaguely, or more than vaguely and we were all on the same record label.

You and Nico duetted on a song on The Confessions Of Doctor Dream. Did you consider working together after that?

I didn’t do anything else with her. I never really got that close to her. She was pretty distant, pretty somewhere else most of the time for one reason or another.

Is it true that ‘Decadence’ from Bananamour, which appears to be a paean to Marlene Dietrich, was actually about Nico?

It wasn’t so much about Nico as inspired by her. It has this line about the desert shore which was [the title of] one of her albums – it was kind of based on her. It’s more about a type of woman, a type of love if you like, a level of love, than it was particularly about Nico. I think I dedicated it to her, in fact. She was obviously an influence because she was quite the strangest woman I’ve met.

I hadn’t met someone like that in those days; such an independent and at the same time spacey, distant, druggy woman. And yet she has this kind of charm. I find her music still has a charm and has something… I don’t know about mystical but something special, something unique in the way she sings and her funny little quirky backing tracks.

This is from the late ’60s and yet it sounds like it could be 200 years old.

It could be medieval, even further back. It’s that old Teutonic, going way back into the Black Forest. I don’t know… I really know nothing about Nico and I’m kind of embarrassed to say that I can’t really answer any questions on her. We did have a sort of a brief liaison, but she was quite difficult to know if one should be interested. I wasn’t particularly interested. She was definitely someone who had an effect on me and quite a number of other people, and in those days one was very impressionable. The best thing I can say about her is that she had a very strong effect. Her aura was particularly strong and weird and there weren’t many people around like that, especially women.

Going back to what you said about Island wanting to launch you as a superstar, I’ve read a number of articles over the years which suggested that as soon as you were in danger of becoming successful you would disappear off to the Mediterranean, as if you were avoiding it, either consciously or subconsciously. Do you think that’s fair?

I know it isn’t fair because it’s not true. What I used to do was when nothing was happening I’d say, ‘I’m not going to hang around, I’m going to go sit in the sun and write some more songs’. Mostly it was because people – I actually resent this – particularly Blackhill Enterprises, always used to say, ‘He’s never around to work’, and it’s absolute bullshit. I was always prepared to go out and work, it’s just that there were long gaps of doing nothing.

I was very involved in enjoying my youth. And in between working, I never liked hanging around the rock ‘n’ roll scene going to the right parties and talking to the right people. So there was an element of that which was slightly self-defeating, but I was always prepared to work as long as it was there. Also, I suppose I’ve always been a reluctant… star. I found the whole thing quite unreal and I couldn’t relate to it. I found people’s adulation somewhat embarrassing and disproportionate to what one is doing.




I have to admit that I rarely listen to my own records, or those of my contemporaries. The stuff I used to listen to was jazz mostly and ethnic music – almost anything except for what was going on at the time – so I’m afraid I’m not very knowledgeable.

This is someone you once worked with, albeit briefly. This was unearthed about ten years ago.

Syd Barrett? I recognise the guitar playing. You can always tell from the chaotic rhythm sections he has, because he’s all over the place and no one can keep up with him.

He contributed to sessions for your single ‘Singing A Song In The Morning’, although his playing was left off the released version. How did you get him to work with you?

I just went around to his flat and asked him. I wrote a song about him, a tribute song if you like, called ‘O! Wot A Dream’ and I was using a lot of musicians at the time, people who were interesting, and Syd Barrett was obviously a major interest in his prime. So I went and asked him to come and do it. He couldn’t really get it together.

Did you tour with Pink Floyd when you were playing with Soft Machine?

We didn’t actually tour with them, but we did end up playing a lot of gigs together, especially in London, the two big places like the UFO and the Roundhouse. The only time we played with anybody else were the two tours of America with Hendrix.

I thought they were very much more interesting than we were at the time. Maybe that’s the wrong thing to say; they were certainly better at playing than we were. They seemed to have it much more together and they had a much better sense of theatrical presentation. I always remember our first single, ‘Love Makes Sweet Music’, came out at the same time as ‘Arnold Layne’, which was such a stunning song – I loved it. We were all really jealous that it was doing so well and ours wasn’t doing anything. The production was so much better, everything was so much better about it, we were really pissed off [laughs].

There seems to be an almost obsessive interest in Syd Barrett still, with a fourth biography just published and a TV documentary earlier this year.

I think it was because he became such a casualty of the rock business, one of the early ones of the ’60s generation. His initial output was quite unique and very special and then he suddenly faded away and people said, ‘Why?’ And no one really understood, everybody thought, including myself, that he’d been fired. Which he had effectively because he just lost his mind, basically. He couldn’t stay on one song. I remember live seeing him just changing into another song, which isn’t bad in its own way as long as everyone else is prepared to do it with you [laughs]. Everybody got very annoyed and upset.

They were nicer to him than the general public seems to think. I was among the people who said, ‘Why did you get rid of Syd? He was the original idea and he wrote the best songs’. I think it was just when Dave Gilmour took over, I asked him about it and said, ‘How could you do that?’ He said, ‘Oh, you don’t understand, he couldn’t play any more or keep it together’. I can see that now.




That’s Daevid Allen, ‘White Neck Blooze’.

Is it true that this song was an intentional parody of your vocal style?

It might be a parody. I thought it was a dedication record, but maybe I’m wrong.

Perhaps “parody” is a little strong. But do you think he was close?

Yeah, there’s some similarity, I like this song. Daevid and I were pretty close at one time. He was definitely an inspiration, more as a person than musically. He was almost a father figure and he wrote very good words, which affected us all. In fact, Soft Machine started off doing poetry and jazz… which I hate. But it was just his general being – he was influential even before Soft Machine because he was better informed than us. He was one of the original hippies, he’d worked out a philosophy, whereas we were still beginners. It was definitely a learning experience meeting up with Daevid. He was the teacher, the guru, and he was totally eccentric, and we were struggling from leaving school and we didn’t even know how to be eccentric at that point [laughs].

What did you think of his music with Gong?

I liked a lot of it. I actually played with Gong on one of their tours as a guest and I lived in the little community they were trying to form. Gong was more of a community than anything else, a community that played music and very much into the hippy philosophy. Daevid wrote some really good songs, they had some excellent musicians, but it was all a bit too wacko for me.

What did you play with Gong?

I don’t think I ever played any of their stuff, I think it was me and Gong as an accompanying band – they would slot me into a part of their set and say, ‘This is also a part of the Gong experience’. But I always thought that Gong was much more a show, a theatrical experience, than a recording group, but then that’s my opinion; a lot of people would disagree totally.




Could be anyone. Could it be Lol Coxhill?

He’s not on this, but you have played with some of these musicians. This album also came out on Island, rather anomalously. The group featured Evan Parker and John Stevens among others.

Oh, John Stevens is a name I remember.

You played with Parker and Stevens, together with Robert Wyatt and a number of others, as an “unnamed collective” at the Destruction In Contemporary Art Symposium at the ICA in 1967.

Oh, really?

Here is a picture as proof.

[Looks at photo] I can’t remember that far back. But yes, we used to do a lot of stuff like that. I can tell by the shirts what era it was. There were quite few gigs like this. Unfortunately not much really happened in the alleged happenings. It was a nice idea but basically it would be a bunch of musicians doing something with an audience. Mostly I think they were very self-indulgent, not terribly creative and not very interesting [laughs].

More interesting for the performers than the audience, do you think?

So much of the music was like that. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I didn’t pursue my career with Soft Machine. Not just Soft Machine, perhaps that’s unfair. But after Robert left it became the kind of group I dislike along with a whole bunch of things like fusion jazz, where people just seemed to be playing for themselves, saying aren’t we clever, let’s see how fast we can play, how many influences and how many different time signatures we can throw into an hour.

You did use free improvisation on Shooting At The Moon.

Yes, there were a few of those and we used to do a few of them live too, but they would always lead to something, it would go back to a song or it would be a break. It was just something you threw in. As I said, another colour.




Oh, it’s Robert [Wyatt] in one of his incarnations.

Yes, he’s singing on this track, but do you know who the group is backing him?


It’s Ultramarine.

Oh, I recorded a song called ‘Hymn’ with them. I just stuck the vocal on top, they did all the backing. They’d done this with Robert already, so they were just going around people they fancied to get them on their album. They were nice guys, actually. They had a really nice producer too.

Were you pleased with the way it came out?

I can’t remember it. I have a totally non-retentive memory concerning any work I’ve done over the years. It’s like, in one ear and out the other.

Do you like the group’s music on this track?

To a certain extent – that’s another colour you can use. I have a particular antipathy towards drum machines, although you can get a very good sound. A lot of the electronic effects – I don’t mind them in very small doses. I’m not a big fan of electronic music. Along the line there has been exceptional stuff, but, as a genre, I wouldn’t buy it. I’m a song man – I like good melodic music and melodic jazz.




Well, she’s Portuguese… Spanish?

She is Spanish, but she might have a particular accent.

I’ve no idea.

It’s María Del Mar Bonet. She was born on Mallorca but then moved to Barcelona in the late 60s.

Oh, she’s singing in Mallorquín, that’s what’s confusing me. Catalan.

In the ’60s she was known for singing political songs in the Cançó Catalana style, which annoyed Franco.

Good for her. I do remember the name now. I’m not aware of coming across her, but I lived up in the mountains [in Mallorca], and it was quite a long schlep to Palma where the concerts happened. I played with a few people from the island, and there were three main musical areas: one was this kind of music which is traditional music, and also rock versions in their own language, and there were others playing Western style rock ‘n’ roll and cover songs. And then there were the very strict folkies who played on original instruments.

How did you hook up with the Spanish musicians you played with in the ’80s?

It just happened organically. I had a whole Spanish band at one point. They were really good musicians but unfortunately we did some rather badly produced albums together [That’s What You Get Babe and Diamond Jack And The Queen Of Pain]. The recording was horrible and the people who produced us were not listening to my songs at all, but something which they had in their head already. They don’t really sound like me, quite honestly. It became a much more commercially normal rock sound and I was just pushed into that. Obviously I let myself go into it, but I was never happy with it at all.

I mistakenly followed people’s advice, especially from the record company and managers. It’s just like girlfriends who are attracted to you for one reason and then they start trying to change you immediately into something more that they can handle, or more the way they think you should be. And you think: “Why fucking pick me in the first place?” And unfortunately, you do tend to change, either because you like them or, in the case of record companies, because that’s your bread and butter. So you find yourself adapting and becoming less what you are supposed to be and more like everybody else. It was a very weird time of my life. I was totally under other people’s influence, I was just doing it to get paid and not paying much attention to what came out.



FROM LIVE 69 (Mercury) 1969

Sounds like Lou Reed, early Velvet Underground. I recognise the guitar playing more than I recognise the voice. He’s done some really good rhythm stuff.

I read an interview with Brian Eno where he talked about the concept of ‘snake guitar’, where the instrument is played in a way that exploits its percussive and noise qualities. In this respect, he suggested that your solo on ‘Song From The Bottom Of A Well’ followed on in spirit from Reed’s on ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’.

I hadn’t even heard that then. It was just a spur of the moment sound, I hadn’t thought about it at all. I turned a Vox AC50 [amp] up to distortion point and just whacked away. The only person I acknowledge using some stuff from is Hendrix; some of his rhythmic link ups. I never consciously tried to sound like Lou Reed. I think there were accidental parallels.

We were also interested in the idea of extreme monotony, of which this track is a prime example, and something you explored on the Soft Machine song, ‘We Did It Again’.

My philosophy behind it is that when you play something on a regular basis, a bit like a mantra, you go through a period of boredom and then it becomes interesting again as you get into it, if you get into it – especially if you’re stoned, I suppose. Basically just repetitive things. It soon became too repetitive and I went off the idea.

I remember doing ‘We Did It Again’ at a rather smart St Tropez party [with Soft Machine in 1967] that was given by Eddie Barclay. Brigitte Bardot was there and all these French stars. They sent us off in the end. It was just pushing our luck really. It’s actually hard to play the same thing over and over again. Your brain doesn’t want to do it. It’s more exercise than anything else.

I’ve heard a version of the song with The Whole World on a BBC radio session where Lol Coxhill starts reciting his ‘Murder In The Air’ playlet and the track ends up as an atonal mash-up after almost 14 minutes. It seemed that The Whole World could either be brilliant or total chaos.

That’s exactly right. A lot of it was chaos, very often too much wine was consumed – not just by myself. But there were some blissfully inspired moments, some of which I think have been recorded. Certainly there were times when I finished a gig, when I thought: ‘Wow, that was so good. It’s not going to get much better than that in terms of inspired lunacy and people picking up on each other.’

I listen to live stuff that I did way back then which sounds incredibly monotonous now, but at the time everybody seemed to enjoy it. We [The Whole World] had moments of great self-indulgence and in Soft Machine, too. It wasn’t so much free improvisation as [laughs] noise – playing around with noise. But there was some structure to it. I’ve heard some stuff, especially from those big love-in festivals in Holland, when we would play outrageously monotonous and – at the time – interesting stuff. Upon listening back to it about once every ten years, with a wry smile I think: “How did we get away with that?”

© Mike BarnesThe Wire, December 2002

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