Kevin Ayers, John Cale, Nico, Eno & the Soporifics: The Inmates Have Taken Over
Suggested Subtitle: The Persecution and Assassination of Conventional Musical Approaches by the Inmates of Island Records Under the Supervision of Richard Williams and Brian Eno.
What It Is: John Cale, Nico, Eno and Kevin Ayers, having found themselves on the same label, decided to present a concert at London’s Rainbow Theatre.
Some First Thoughts: Island Records is now to the Esoterica wing of rock what Bearsville is to the Woodstock People, what Capricorn is to Southern boogie, what Casablanca is to desperate mutations, what Asylum is to the folkie elite. That’s good because it might establish unpredictability as a workable force in the music biz (FutureFlash: Island becomes first major label to institute automatic mental-breakdown clause in all artist contracts…). Culturally, the concert was analogous to a major Dada exhibition back in its heyday; the Academy, in peril, will ignore or scoff, but time will inevitably mold it into an Event…
Here Comes the Warm Jet or Eno Sheds Some Light: “One reason for the concert was an artistic one, which was that we all really like each other as artists, and we all feel to some extent that we’re roughly in the same area… We just had a meeting and decided it would be a nice idea, and then we rehearsed very, very hard, and that was very enjoyable. Working for just one concert is a very nice idea, ’cause you know you’re going to be able to do things that wouldn’t be feasible over thirty nights.
“…[John Cale] did a really interesting version of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, in a minor key. It’s incredibly suicidal. I mean you could never believe that that song could turn out to be such a downer as that… Nico did ‘Deutschland Uber Alles’, which was very good… and she did ‘The End’ by The Doors, which is the one they put on the album… Nico doing ‘The End’ was so chilling, it really was. It was incredible. She invests it with so many levels of meaning I didn’t hear in The Doors’ one. She underplays it… there’s just the harmonium, me playing synthesizer – almost doubling the harmonium part – and her singing… which is just like a rich, kind of non-specific miasma of sound…
“Each person [on ‘Baby’s On Fire’] had a part that was absolutely definite…Each performer had about four little parts, each of which was moved on a little bit from the previous part. When he moved to the next part wasn’t critical, but he had to stay there then for a while; he couldn’t move back to the one before, so it wasn’t like a jamming idea at all… There’s always this kind of mesh thing happening as different parts are overlaid… I did that as an encore and the instruments were incredibly out of tune, so out of tune you wouldn’t believe it. But it sounds fantastic. There’s one little bit in it where there’s a riff between the guitar and one of the bassists, and they’re so out of tune it sounds like cellos. Amazing! I mean if you tried to make that sound in the studio it would have taken you ages. You wouldn’t have thought of making it, in fact, it’s such a bizarre sound. And the piano and guitar are quite well out of tune as well. Ha!”
The Album: Both of Eno’s songs are on Here Come The Warm Jets, but these live versions are different enough to have musical as well as collectors’ value. The mix on ‘Driving Me Backwards’ gives his slithering voice due prominence, as the slippery, oozing music sucks you in like a slow, malicious undertow. It’s a somber, crazy, difficult piece of music, an unlikely album opener but, it turns out, the ideal mood-setter. ‘Baby’s On Fire’ is indeed out of tune (it really does sound like cellos, that riff – roll over, ELO), and it is fantastic. If Frogs is ever on TV again, turn down the sound and play this track over and over; Ray Milland, frogs flying into his wheelchair from every which way, would feel sorry for you.
The imaginative contemplator of suicide could utilize the rest of side one: Wire some speakers up on the inside of the oven, turn on the clean-burning natural gas, and start with ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. Elvis Presley as Venus in Furs. Cale’s fixated, possessed, nearly monotonic singing sits with disturbing calm in a boiling, dark mass of Enoise, tortured guitar riffs and the harpy chorus of Doreen and Irene Chanter and Liza Strike. It unfailingly takes you to the brink, and then comes Nico’s song.
Her ‘The End’ is the soundtrack for the free-fall to the bottom. It’s a totally mesmerizing performance by this lady hidden in musical mists, yet at the same time all too clear. If Morrison sang it as a lizard, Nico is a sightless bird, lost but ever-so-calm, somehow knowing the right direction. She is the pure, dead marble of a ruined Acropolis, a crumbling column on the subterranean bank of Morrison’s River Styx.
Kevin Ayers gets all of side two because he was more or less the headliner. Of the four, he’s the least-known in America, and his five selections comprise a good, if incomplete, introduction.
He makes you think of Elliott Murphy a little, the way he’s both derivative and distinctive. He comes off more as an individualist than an actual eccentric, and he seems to be one of the few cult-stars without an identifiable gimmick.
‘May I’ sounds like a meeting of mellow Velvet Underground and ‘Positively 4th Street’ Dylan before it slips into a jazzy Astral Weeks shuffle. It’s musically diverting, and its mood is vivid, but it doesn’t go very far as it settles for being a quick, warm, sidewalks-of-Paris sketch. From there it’s a good variety show: The Dylan-via-Murphy ‘Shouting In A Bucket Blues’, then ‘Stranger In Blue Suede Shoes’, which, with Bowie’s ‘Queen Bitch’, can sit proudly at the feet of The Velvets. ‘Everybody’s Sometime And Some People’s All The Time Blues’, an amble through old Greenwich Village folk stylings, works better as mood than philosophy. ‘Two Goes Into Four’ sounds like it was written on an acid trip with The Incredible String Band.
Ayers’ persona is sincere (and sometimes even a bit sappy), somewhat wide-eyed yet worldly-wise. His deep voice is erratic but expressive, with a roughness that will be interpreted as charm by those who want to like it. Unlike Nico, Cale or Eno, Ayers shows little avant-garde leaning, either verbally (“May I sit and stare at you for a while?” is about as offbeat as he gets) or musically. In addition to the suggestions of Dylan and the VU, there are strains of the “progressive folk” school (like John Martyn) and a Syd Barrett tenuousness.
The backing is first rate (musicians include Cale and Eno, Rabbit, Robert Wyatt) and is highlighted by the guitar solos from Ollie Halsall and Mike Oldfield.
A person like Ayers needs time to seep into the people’s consciousness and collect an audience. It sounds promising, but the sampling we get here is too small. A Volume Two album from the concert would be welcome soon, both for some more of Ayers and because there are lots of us who would kill for the chance to hear Nico sing ‘Deutschland Uber Alles’.
© Richard Cromelin, Creem, December 1974