Kevin Ayers: Keeping the ’67 faith

It begins with a blessing (but ends with a curse)
Making life easy (but making it worse)…

ON THE BACK of the first Soft Machine album Kevin Ayers is the one in the middle. Stirring a cup of tea and full of hope ‘cos the Soft Machine were the British Group of 1967. The psychedelic dream. Free-form electronics, improvised instrumentals, lights, freaks; the details were less important than the shared assumptions of a drug culture — about freedom and wisdom and space and time and yer mind, man. Woolly words for woolly heads but for a while, stretched out on the floor, we were on the same trip and Soft Machine clarified it more than anyone else (more than the Floyd even).

Two points. The Softs were the first English intellectuals to get into rock. Even as late as ’67 pop music was yob culture. Paul and John had O-levels, the Zombies A-levels, Mick Jagger a place at the LSE, Paul Jones at Oxford — but all this was the stuff of tittering headlines and fancy that’s. Rock was for dimmos and bright bourgeois boys dropped into it. There was an increasing respectable audience for pop but it was slumming — uncovering the unconscious art and naïve genius of the Beatles, wallowing in the earthy, prole primitivism of the Stones. The Softs were different. Their bourgeois, backgrounds were impeccable — Kevin’s father in the BBC, Mike Ratledge’s Oxford degree, Robert Wyatt’s family friendship with Robert Graves — but their respect for rock was genuine. No snapshots of the local colour. No charming melodies, no poetics. The Softs were serious about the music; they combined rock’s rhythms and sounds with elements of jazz, with electronics — they wanted to create avant garde art.

Soft Machine made their first big noise providing music for the production of a Picasso play in St. Tropez. English drop-outs met French bohemians, prole rock made a pact with the bourgeois fringe. Back in London the Softs (name courtesy of William Burroughs) became, inevitably, the band of the emerging hippy scene, that fusion of high and low culture described in Jeff Nuttall’s Bomb Culture. Because the second point about the Softs was their acceptance of the hippy ideology; if their respect for pop music was genuine, so was their contempt for pop commerce. They operated without the usual trappings of management and agency and record company; they played for free and for hours and for freaks; they didn’t give their audiences what they wanted, didn’t know and didn’t care; they weren’t predictable pro’s, but con men who believed.

We can be cynical and rude about 1967 now because we know what didn’t happen but, la la, those smiling faces were RIGHT! The Soft Machine, Pink Floyd and their people were fighting at real barricades — the ones bourgeois culture drops between art and entertainment, between creativity and consumption. Six years later and they’re still firmly in place. The heir of the once progressive movement to combine different musics — pop and jazz and art — is Keith Emerson, forever frozen in the spotlight, supertechnique meets superapparatus and we’re humble. The anti-consumer movement has all but vanished — these days even the Soft Machine are content to give their fans exactly what they want, just that, nothing more. But the struggle has gone on and where it has there’s been Kevin. Still playing, still serious, still winking.

He hasn’t had it easy. Six years ago he was the golden hippy: stoned, sun-tanned, arrogant. This year was different: Kevin in the bog at Warwick University, shaking, drunk, paler than his white suit; Kevin creeping on stage at the Tubular Bells show, crouched down behind the amps; Kevin breaking strings, missing notes, screaming at Archie Leggatt, comforter always at hand:

Sometimes I get too drunk
I feel so godamned low..

He’s been strugglin’ since ’67. For a while he stayed with the Softs, as they went legitimate, cut a single (B side, ‘Feelin Reelin Squeelin’, written by Kevin, produced by Kim Fowley!), got a manager (Mike Jeffreys), went on tour with Jimi Hendrix, made an album. Soft Machine was recorded in New York in 1968 (produced by Chas Chandler) and didn’t reach England (except as an import) even then but Kevin’s songs retained the spirit of ’67: ‘We Did It Again’, a serious musical joke — jokey because that’s it, that phrase endlessly repeated; serious because, in Kevin’s words (in Zigzag 28) “the repetition of a straight rhythmic figure promotes release from all the things that one finds difficulty in releasing normally.” And ‘Why Are We Sleeping’ the hippy question. Normal vs freak, convention vs creation: “my first joint literally turned me upside down physically and left me in a daze from which I don’t think I’ve recovered…”

By the end of 1968 the life of a touring minor rock star was imposing its own constraints and Kevin left to live the free life of bass-player as gadfly. In formal terms we’ve had an annual album or so (Joy of a Toy — 1969, Shooting at the Moon — 1970, Whatevershebringswesing — 1972, Bananamour — 1973) a few singles and two groups (The Whole World — 1970-1, Banana Follies — 1973) but Kevin’s real importance has been as a focus (source of employment) for other musical eccentrics — eccentric because, like him (and despite everything) they keep the faith, still believe that it’s fun to be unpredictable and that rock isn’t just album sales and the cover of the Rolling Stone. I remember seeing the Whole World in Hyde Park in 1970. On voice and guitars, Kevin at his most awkward, back to the audience, inaudible. On piano, David Bedford, well respected avant garde composer, obsessed with one tinkling phrase. On saxes, Lol Coxhil, exbluesman, ex-Delivery, ex-busker, ex-everything, only one thing for sure — he doesn’t take the sax out of his mouth even to pee. On drums, Robert Wyatt, old mate, wrong gig. On bass, Mike Oldfield, very young, very earnest and this was even before he knew that Tubular Bells was a twentieth century masterpiece. The set was long, dischordant, occasional snatches of familiar tunes — most people slept.

And that was Kevin’s problem. The generation that woke up in the ‘60’s fell asleep again in 1970; mind expansion became nodding off. Kevin was pushed, resisting, down previously spurned paths. He had to become a star, had to perform, had to leap out of the audience so they could lie and watch:

I play before an audience
I make them laugh and shout
And when they’ve laughed for quite a while
The door man lets them out.
You ask me how I do my act
This is my reply
I climb up on a ladder
And announce that I will fly

The constant gig pressure was to do the ‘easy’ numbers, the rockers and jokes and parodies and nonsense. All of which Kevin could do excellently but it didn’t help when someone shouted for the ‘Hat Song’ in the middle of a Coxhill grunt or a Bedford build and if a false nose got more appreciation than any musical structure, however witty or beautiful, then why bother? Shooting at the moon. Kevin’s Whole World fell apart. For a while he tried merging himself into another myth, Gong, the group led by his original mentor and Soft colleague Daevid Allan, but that was someone else’s dream and by 1972 Kevin was on his own again, messin, guesting with kindred spirits like Henry Cow, the center of a network of progressive rockers, old and new.

His own next partners were also ex-Gong; Archie Leggatt (bass) and Eddie Sparrow (drums) joined him (and a variety of guitarists) for live gigs. This was a harder band than the Whole World, more rocking; without the Bedford/Coxhill improvisations Kevin could concentrate on rhythm and harmony, make his music more accessible. But. The gig I saw them do was typical. The guitarist of the night broke a string with such regularity that Kevin had to be restrained from breaking the whole guitar round his neck; meanwhile, Archie swung the mike, hit a glass lampshade and was silenced as a girl in the third row was carried out, streaming blood. As a rock star Kevin never really made it.

On record it’s different. He hasn’t had to control himself or his musicians or an audience, just the music and as a composer he’s neat, precise, fluent. He works on a small scale, acoustic as often as electric, real songs. His talent is getting new sounds from old pop means (Mike Oldfield learned a lot), he can construct complicated moods from minimal resources — brief phrases, brief solos, brief visions. Joy of a Toy is just that, joy at having a whole record to play with. The record trips among piccolos and Lambretta; ELO cello riffs, Dylan’s mouth organ; a chorus singing in Malay; echoing bass, the Soft Machine; Eleanor’s cake (which ate her):

And you and I we sit and hum
We know something’s got to come
And get us off our endless bum…

Joy is a kindly album, romantic, optimistic, relaxed; Shooting At The Moon revealed the cloudy side of Kevin’s dreams. It was made with the Whole World, dominated by Lol Coxhill’s nagging saxes and there are still flashes of acid joy: “Let’s go to my chateau…” But the key song is the duet Kevin sings with Bridget St John, ‘The Oyster and the Flying Fish’: the oyster is sick of being an oyster and wants to explore, the flying fish is looking for a place to stay. Kevin wants to explore: “Everything you do is true as long as you believe it/Everything you say is play and that’s how you should feel it.” But he needs a place to stay: “I just came in off the street… may I sit and stare at you for a while?”

The trouble with mind expansion is other people — get off my cloud. At the beginning, on his first big trip, Kevin assumed a community but got pissed off with dependents: “Now you come and tell me that you’re sad, you never come and tell me that you’re glad.” Anyway, he was a discoverer, awake, free. Don’t bother me. But by 1970 all was revealed and it wasn’t much:

I don’t know any more than you do
In fact I don’t know anything at all

In fact it was all a bit awkward. Having not let lovers get involved with him, Kevin couldn’t be certain they’d let him get involved with them: “I’d like to kiss you but I know I’m going to miss you.” Shooting At The Moon has sudden intimations of loneliness, “drunk on despair”, and even Kevin’s songs to his daughter Rachel (a feature of all his albums) celebrate her innocence and imagination with regret: she can trust her dreams and her loved ones, but he can’t trust either. “How far can anyone go and to where?”

Whatevershebringswesing is the answer and is Kevin’s masterpiece, a subtle and moving statement of hippie survival. The drug promise is now ironic, the stranger in blue suede shoes who’ll release you from the Com-pany-y with one puff, one mad solo. The cosmic search is abandoned: “You won’t find the answer in the way the wind blows, ‘cos the answer is right there in front of your nose.” The message now is acceptance — of ups (“Oh my!”) and downs (“This is a song from the bottom of a well/There are things down here I’m going to try to tell”). The music is lyrical (with Mike Oldfield’s guitar outstanding) but anger and gloom are never denied:

So let’s drink some wine and have a good time
But if you really want to come through let the
Good time have you
(It’s what you’ve got to do)
You said it was foolish for me to be sad
But I’m very hungry and you’re very well fed
(You’re such a fat lady…)

The message is personal, Kevin to his women and children. But the communal movement of which the Softs were once part has become shaky and so has Kevin in front of it, bottle in hand. His next album, Bananamour, was an attempt to do something about that, to face himself as rock-singer, his audience as audience. It’s his most depressing album. Rocking, flashy, desperate. Kevin runs through his star licks, pays brilliant tribute to Nico and Syd Barrett (and what happened to them?), plays the blues. The audience is caught, pays their money and gets? Old vogues: “Why do we waste our lives, why do we stay asleep?” New urgency:

So I sing for everyone
Who feels there’s no way out
Maybe if you all shout
Someone will hear you
(Now listen to them shout).

It seemed that Kevin wouldn’t go on. The bottle was getting bigger, the audiences smaller. But he signed with island, cut an album and now it looks like he’s going to fight his way up again. The new album is much heavier than anything he’s done before, aggression with a soul chorus. He’s admitted cynicism (“Get your loving while you can, or she’ll find another man”) and bitterness (“How will you see me later when you can’t see me now?”). He’s remade ‘Why Are We Sleeping’, got a track called ‘Doctor Dream’. The implications are different than they once were: sleep is now the necessary way out. So is music, and that’s Kevin’s hope and his magic. He once told Zigzag: “I never really believe that anybody else is going to like the things that I do and I can’t get over it. I just don’t have the conviction.” But he’s gone on playing. 1967 isn’t all over.

© Simon FrithLet It Rock, February 1974

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