By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Kevin Ayers is a rather cultivated, somewhat self-effacing British man somewhere in his 50s. He is by occupation . . . call him a singer-songwriter. Which is to say, he does do that if pushed, but he'd much prefer to snorkel in the Mediterranean, sip a glass of sangria, read a good book. And who wouldn't, as you might say. The difference is: Ayers does it.
Back in the late '60s he was a founding member of the Soft Machine, the fertile and humorous pop/jazz/odd-ditty group whose ranks included the now-esteemed Robert Wyatt on drums and pithy organ stylist Mike Ratledge, as well as fuzz-bass maestro Hugh Hopper and, in the band's early stages, Daevid Allen, the Australian who has been called the world's first hippie and who went on to form the cultish pothead-pixie space-jazz-rock band Gong.
Ayers grew up in Malaysia, "the last of the colonial kids," as he puts it. Dad was a district officer there, sort of like a mayor. Kevin felt a kinship with the place and the populace, still does. "Being brought up with people who're very open and very sort of warm," he says, "and then coming back to the West, where people weren't either one or the other, it was quite a shock."
After returning to England, Ayers spent a few years in boarding schools, which he found a hideous experience. He declines to detail this period, but does, with a palpable shudder, indicate his conviction that the English are - very generally speaking - a deeply constipated people. This being the '60s, he sought an alternative.
The Georgian mansion belonging to Robert Wyatt's mother was a gathering place for Canterbury bohemians who dug avant-garde jazz, Dadaist art and poetry. Here the two began jamming, banging pots and pans together, and this was the origin of their first band, Wilde Flowers. Ayers had been teaching himself basic chords on the guitar, just enough to write songs, prototypes of which - "Love Makes Sweet Music" and "Feelin', Reelin', Squealin'" - wound up as minor hits for their next band, the Soft Machine.
Ayers' bent was primarily literary rather than musical, though he developed an interest in jazz from his Canterbury chums. "We were basically all middle-class kids," says Ayers, "postwar, asking questions intellectually and musically. And, basically, we found that that's what we should try and do as a living, 'cause no one wanted to have a proper job."
Ironically, the Soft Machine, which had begun as a loopy mishmash of heartfelt pop, edgy jazz noodling and surreal pop-culture collages, ended up as a super-competent, faceless jazz-rock band, all of the original members except Ratledge eventually being replaced by heavy-duty "players." The band's arrival in London in early 1967 had coincided with the flowering of psychedelia and all things alternative, and they got a residency at the UFO Club in Tottenham Court Road. Pink Floyd were the club's resident stars, yet word about the Softs spread. Today, they loom large in the annals of European progressive, psychedelic and jazz music - hugely influential.
But Ayers was unhappy. The Softs had toured America, opening for Jimi Hendrix, and the brutish routine permanently turned him off the music industry. "That was my first real brush with show business and the music industry, and I didn't like it at all. I still don't. I liked Jimi Hendrix and the other musicians, I just didn't like the record executives. I saw Hendrix getting ripped off like mad, and I just didn't like it. It didn't go with the artistry of the people involved." Ayers thus excused himself from the Soft Machine, to write songs, and to further lark about down in Majorca and Ibiza and little port towns in Spain.
He did have to earn a living, though, and he did have songs. So he embarked upon a solo career, and it was apparent that his songs were bright, observant and different somehow. He attracted several of the more adventurous British musicians to his recording sessions, including future Tubular Bells man Mike Oldfield, new music composer David Bedford, and the uncompromising sax player/ busker Lol Coxhill.
This comprised the core unit for Ayers' first solo album, Joy of a Toy, a whimsical collection of songs marked by strong melodies, colorful improvisation and moody lyricism. Ayers named his band The Whole World, a group of disparate styles and backgrounds that wove an enchanted, shrewd chaos around Ayers' songs. Shooting at the Moon, released in October 1970, combines the melodic and lyrical stretches of its predecessor with an electric ambience, along with pretty, lush vignettes such as "May I?" and several hair-raising Oldfield guitar solos.
A series of solo Ayers albums throughout the '70s - Whatevershebringswesing, Bananamour, The Confessions of Dr. Dream and June 1st, 1974 (his collaboration with Brian Eno, John Cale and Nico) - chart a wildly uneven course of pop songs characterized by daring orchestration and structure, and lyrics of both keen wit and intense introspection; he'd veer from a nine-minute, eerie epic like "The Confessions of Dr. Dream," a duet with Nico) to wrapping his mellow baritone around lilting, sunny tunes like "Caribbean Moon" and the Dietrich signature, "Falling in Love Again." Taken altogether, it was a somewhat schizo approach, guaranteeing Ayers a reputation as a musical chameleon. Was he art-rock or the new Elton John?