Kevin Ayers: Yes, it’s make it or break it time again…

This week: well known pataphysician KEVIN AYERS — Fortune teller: MILES

BRIGHTON SEEMED the ideal place to visit with Kevin Ayers’ new band – just the right mixture of faded regency grandeur, seedy hotels, melancholy and the deep stirrings of city life.

Brighton has a tradition of drugs, the pre-war gangsters (I had just read “Brighton Rock”) and back street bars where a colonial chap might sniff the ozone, sip his gin and tonic, and where enough discreet money would buy anything you care to name.

In the private upstairs room of English’s seafood restaurant, Kevin was looking more sun-bleached and tousle-headed than usual. His impish grin betrayed the amount of Gewurztraminer he had tasted before we arrived. “Wine is a sacrament” he shouted across.

He is really pleased with the band. “I won’t break up the band at the end of the tour. I’ll try and keep them all together. I think the people in this band have more freedom than they’ve ever had…”

This was confirmed after my gig by Andy Summers when he told me. “It’s funny, there is more freedom than with Kevin. Kevin Coyne that is. Coyne dominated the stage much more, I suppose.”

There is freedom for everyone but Ayers. The band provided a discipline for him that he has long needed. They keep him tight and snappy.

He’s got Zoot Money with him, also from Kevin Coyne’s group, though he toured with Kevin in 1974. People call him George these days.

There is Rob Townsend, veteran of six years drumming with Family, and just the kind of sensitive, imaginative player Kevin needs. Rob is a very supportive player to all of the band but can lean back and sock it when he wants to.

Charlie McCracken completes the line-up on bass. A man with a very clear tone, a melodic line and who takes very seriously the function of holding the sound together.

It’s really less of a band, more like Lord Snooty and His Pals from Beano.

They are in the middle of the 21 date tour of Britain, and are going straight from here to Scandinavia, Holland, Belgium, France, arriving in Orange in late August. By then, an American tour should be on the books too.

Ayers wants to concentrate on university venues, correctly assessing that this is where his audience is. Basically he’s out paying his dues again with a hard working road band, playing in some pretty strange places of which tonight’s gig is one – Hove Town Hall – a modern concrete box with the atmosphere of a paper cup. But as he says, in his roundabout way, “I’d do everything on this tour that I’d do if I was being a prima donna.”

In other words, he’s schlepping around.

It’s good for the band, who are forging themselves into a tight unit: “We’re going to stay on the road till it makes or breaks us.” Hold you to that then – no slipping away to Mustique, Kevin.

In the concrete box it’s a student audience and they know his work. On bops Zoot Money in yellow Rasta hat. They plug in. Kevin joins them after a few bars. The familiar Ayers’ songs are transformed by this band, given zest and sparkle. They give them new dimensions of depth and colour. It’s like Dylan going electric.

Andy Summers’s slide guitar solos show his uncanny awareness of beat – he slides about all over the place like a drunken vicar but just a touch of emphasis, a swell on a note and he shows you he’s right in there on top of it. To me he is one of the great undiscovered talents of Britain – a James Burton in our midst.

What’s more, Andy can spin round and also lean back at dramatic moments. This is the first time he’s played with Kevin since they were both in the Soft Machine and toured America – and that’s a Sixties story.

Rob Townshend certainly toughens up Kevin’s sound. It shows the importance of having an actual band, rather than just carefully selected session men on albums. They keep Kevin on a tight rein and his playing and singing is all the better for it.

His guitar was particularly good as he rocked out – yes, toes could be seen tapping beneath those Englishmen abroad white baggies – on “Sometimes I get drunk.…” and the audience quietly sang too – drunk.”

Actually he doesn’t feel the need to get blind drunk to get on stage anymore, and though he had a little red wine with his meal – he changed to a Pouilly Fuisse after we arrived though sadly confided to me that the Loire was not as good as the Alsace – he’s now bright and chipper, not at all like the old days of slur and alcoholic fog.

A good example of this was ‘I’ve Been Down For Too Long’, a slow characteristic number of the type everyone used to get weepy nostalgic over as crazed Frenchmen would pass him the bottle and the whole thing would drag into a stupor. This time he caught it, moulded and shaped the brittle, evasive sentiment that he is the only person who can give musical form to and finally kicked it skyward with a lift of the knee and an exaggerated guitar stance.

His is an unlikely unclassifiable position.

He did some songs from the new album. Yes We Have No Mananas – So Get Your Mananas Today beginning with a light entertainment ‘What Ever Happened To Mr. Cool?’ He has two backing vocalists. Frankie Fish and Bill Evans to augment the lineup. He told me, “I don’t mind going into debt with having the new male vocalist. It’s worth it ” From my seat it was hard to judge their contribution because I could hardly hear them.

‘Lady Rachel’ now has a much more severe dynamic to it, and Kevin stage whispers getting all mysterious and creepy before the Townsend roll crashes in and Charlie McCracken’s bass line howls and jumps. Ayers allows himself an extended 1966 Soft Machine ending and everyone gets to do whistles squeaks and groans.

‘Didn’t Feel Lonely Till I Thought Of You’ the classic Ayers lack-love song, now has some shug-a-lug and even some Bo Diddley locks as Kevin chugged about the stage. The peak of the show came with ‘Why Are We Sleeping?’ announced as “unfortunately still relevant after ten years!” It featured a sensitive, slow, strange, arching and finally funky Zoot Money solo – tinkling and jangling before turning to the organ and smoothing things out. Even that sounded like a New England pump organ. He’s a restrained player – so many suggestions and fragments of ideas in each line. I wish he’d soloed more.

The ending of ‘Sleepy’ suddenly took an angry turn. Kevin rasping. Summers churning it up like a finger in a wound. McCracken insistent and unrelenting and Townsend filling in all the gaps to leave no escape.

Backstage afterwards George Money beamed, “I thought we chundered along quite nicely!”

© MilesNew Musical Express, 3 July 1976

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