IN A BUSINESS geared more and more towards pushing product, Kevin Ayers is a rare commodity. He’s never sold great amounts of records, but has enough of a steady cult following to enable him to release what has amounted to an album per year over the past decade.
Ayers has defied easy categorization ever since leaving the Soft Machine at the end of 1968. He eschews trends and music biz hype in favor of a uniquely personal style and vision, which largely explains his lack of commercial success to date. His early records were joyful, eclectic romps, combining a fondness for pop melodies and forms with an uncompromising experimental streak. The music ranged from accessible ditties to wild instrumental forays exploiting the abilities of the talented musicians Ayers surrounded himself with. (His first band, the Whole Wide World, included Mike Oldfield, saxophonist Lol Coxhill and progressive composer/arranger/conductor David Bedford.) The message, if any, in these album is a hedonistic one: drink some wine, enjoy yourself and don’t take anything too seriously.
Later on, however, the records grew darker, less experimental and slightly more predictable. Although proficient on both bass and rhythm guitars, Ayers now lets session players handle those chores. A hint of bitterness has crept into his lyrics and deep resonant vocals; the optimistic tone of the music occasionally seems a camouflage. Where once lighthearted humor prevailed, he now sings about being hurt in love and having to cope with the business of music.
Still, if commercial success has eluded Ayers so far, he has at least managed to make honest records of consistently high quality. He refuses to bash out “product,” although, typically, Ayers fears he has already made too many compromises: “I’ve listened too much to other people. I’ve got to start taking more control.”
Ayers recently left his home on the Spanish island of Majorca (where, he says, “it’s very easy not to do anything”) for the bustle of New York. “I hadn’t worked for two years,” he explains. “It came to a point where I needed to work and needed to take myself seriously again. I really didn’t know what I was going to do in New York. I guess I came here to see if there was any interest, if it was worth my while doing anything. I made the decision after a bad poker game where I lost a lot of money. I felt it was very symbolic of my life at the time – losing – and that it was time to take things in hand again. That night I decided and I left the next day.”
Upon arriving here he found there was indeed enough interest to warrant further action. In hopes of obtaining an American record deal – his last label was the now-defunct ABC – Ayers decided to put together a band and work the New York clubs. It would be the first time he would be playing in this country since he was in the Soft Machine, opening for the Jimi Hendrix Experience. He was more than a little nervous, even with the knowledge that he would probably be playing for hard-core fans who had been waiting a long time to see him perform. He hadn’t toured anywhere in over two years.
To help boost his confidence Ayers contacted long time friend and guitarist extraordinaire Olly Halsall, who has appeared on all his albums since 1974’s Confessions of Dr. Dream and was a member of the last touring band, the Soporifics. Halsall agreed to fly in from London; completing the band was the rhythm section of a promising New York outfit, VHF (ex-John Cale/Patti Smith keyboard player Bruce Brody, ex-Dictators drummer Ritchie Teeter and bassist Don Nossov). The first show, at Hurrah, proved to be everything Ayers’s fans could hope for. Taking the stage with a guitar in one hand and a trademark banana in the other, he began with a short “banana poem,” then launched into ‘Didn’t Feel Lonely ’til I Thought of You’ from Dr. Dream. By the third encore, the audience had been treated to a delightfully varied show which covered material from nearly all of Ayers’s albums. He exuded oodles of charm and onstage personality; Halsall played suitably gorgeous lead guitar; the VHF crew smoked, and a splendid time was had by all. The scene was repeated at four other venues over ensuing weeks.
With the reaction as good as it was, Ayers now hopes to return for more dates around the country later this year, although he confesses he’ll need record company support to do so. He even envisions an all-star group along the lines of the June 1, 1974 concert/album to tour this country – quite an undertaking for someone reluctant to get involved in the business side of music making.
Ayers’s current bout of activity corresponds with dissatisfaction with what he feels has been a diminished role over the past few years in shaping his own musical output. After producing his first four albums on his own, Ayers bowed to record company and management pressures and began working with outside producers. Although he won’t blame the producers, he has not been entirely happy with the results. “I don’t feel I’ve represented myself 100 per cent. I’ve let the whole thing slide over the past few years. I’ve been lazy.”
A recurring theme in Ayers’s music of late is the battle against the temptation to sell out – to make music solely for money. ‘The Ballad of a Salesman Who Sold Himself’ (on Rainbow Takeaway) and ‘Super Salesman’ (from That’s What You Get Babe) show an acute awareness of the musician’s role of businessman, a role Ayers is reluctant to accept for himself.
“Basically, I feel that business is dishonest, because you’re lying to someone. I’m not that pure myself, because unless you’re going to sit in a little hut on a mountain and stare at the walls you’re going to be involved in it, more or less, depending on what you need. I try to stay as far away from it as I can. The only thing I have that’s business in life is either the record company gives me money for my record or they don’t. That’s about it.” Yet he admits that as he grows older and feels a greater need for security, the temptation to sacrifice principles for easy money increases.
“I guess the salesman thing became part of my life because of that pressure. I was feeling the only way I was ever going to make money from music was to sell myself. Somewhere along the line you have to sell out, to betray yourself, but I’ve held on this long…”
He leaves the sentence unfinished, but continues. “The thought of selling out has become a bigger image in my vision at the moment. I’m thinking more about it and getting more attracted to finding a more comfortable way of making a living. Writing songs is very hard, especially after you’ve written a lot of them. You have to have causes or either emotional or intellectual stimulation that produces something that you believe in or that motivates you. I’ve been through a period of not being motivated at all for quite a while now. The pressure to write something that you actually think is worthwhile can drive you crazy – it drives me crazy. I can sit down and produce a professional song right now, but whether it will mean anything to me or anyone else is another question entirely.”
Does he find, then, that most of what he hears on the radio is what he’d call a sell-out?
“I don’t know that a lot of people do it consciously. There are people who do – who manufacture songs by the dozen and make lots of money from meaningless and shallow music. People who someone else might term a sell-out may not consciously say, ‘I’m going to sell out and write differently.’ There are times when you genuinely don’t have anything to say. When it’s your living you get driven to other things. You start drinking or doing drugs and trying to blow your brains out a bit so that it throws something back at you. When it still doesn’t happen, you get depressed and the temptation to forget about your scruples gets greater.”
How has Kevin managed to survive as a songwriter for over a decade?
“I really don’t know. I guess my albums make just enough to get me by on. I’ve managed to put a little money away which I’m spending now, so I’ll have to make some more again.” Obviously there are enough people who believe in his talent to keep him going. “Yeah,” he chuckles, “it seems like it. I’m still kicking.”
“The other night I was saying how easy it is to spot a manufactured or an inspired song. I’ve got lots of songs I would never use that have come from just sitting down and saying, ‘Now I’ve got to write another song.’ Some are even good tunes, but words have always been important to me and unless I’ve got something to say I’m bad at inventing things to say. Maybe that’s what creative writing is about. Maybe I don’t have a good imagination at all. When I’ve felt motivated it’s come easily. The best songs I’ve done are the ones that have written themselves in 15 minutes.
“One thing I should do in the future is just write a whole bunch of songs and not think in terms of albums any more. I think my last three albums [Yes, We Have No Mananas, Rainbow Takeaway, That’s What You Get Babe] especially have suffered because I’ve conceived of them as albums. It’s much better if you spend more time on one song and get it completed perfectly. The way I’ve been working, when I’ve got a whole album to do I don’t take as much care, especially in recording them, as I would if I weren’t thinking in terms of an album. If I were making 10 singles and approached each one separately, the end product would probably be stronger.”
Significantly, Ayers vows to return to the experimentation of early albums like Shooting at the Moon and Whatevershebringswesing, up through The Confessions of Dr. Dream. “That’s when I started making money. I never made a penny until then, just enough to exist on. After I started making money I became scared about not making more money, not having money, which was a dreadful thing to do. So I played it safe and listened to what other people said: ‘Bring in this producer, do so many songs of this length,’ etcetera. Record companies and managers tend to discourage me from being experimental. They say to stick to verse-chorus-verse-chorus and a solo in between. Nowadays I go: Is it commercial? Is it sound? It’s very inhibiting. It’s not working at your full potential if you deny yourself that freedom.
“There’s room for both experimentation and traditional tunes,” he concludes. “I hope my next album will have both. I’m going to take much more charge, be much more responsible for my output from now on. I’ve been very irresponsible about it. I’ve let other people do far more than I should have. I’ve made some money, but it hasn’t been as commercial as I kid myself it’s going to be or is trying to be. It’s very bad for my head to listen to stuff that isn’t 100 per cent me; it’s less than 50 per cent sometimes. Apart from the fact that I write it and sing it, I hardly ever play any instruments any more and I should.
“In the future, the albums may not sound quite as professional as these last three. I got scared because I’ve repeatedly been told I’ve got to have professional sound. I may not be the world’s greatest guitarist, but I have a certain sound and when I do it at least it’s me and no one else’s interpretation. Inevitably, my demos sound better to me than the albums. At least they’re me.”
© Dave Schulps, Trouser Press, September 1980