Ayers was born in Kent, but spent part of his childhood in Malaysia, where his father was a district officer. When he returned to England, his family settled in Canterbury and he met his future band-mates, Robert Wyatt at school and later Mike Ratledge, through mutual friends. Ayers used to hang out at Wyatt’s parent’s house and listen to jazz and read beat poetry. They all met Daevid Allen, an Australian beat writer and musician and decided to form a group, playing mostly jazzy jams mixed with a bit of pop music. This early incarnation eventually coalesced into The Wilde Flowers, a legendary Canterbury band which featured most of the musicians who would later make up the ‘Canterbury Scene’. After a time, the line-up of Allen on guitar, Ayers on bass, Wyatt on drums and Ratledge on keyboards changed their name from “Mr. Head” to The Soft Machine – Allen having secured permission from the author of the original novel, William S. Burroughs. A second guitarist, American Larry Nolan, augmented some early jams.
After recording some demos in early 1967, Allen decamped to Paris and Deya, in Majorca for a short time, to work on poetry and visual performance. When he decided to return to the UK, it turned out that his visa had expired and he was forced to return to France, later forming the seminal psychedelic/progressive/space-rock band, Gong. Nolan drifted away after a few gigs and The Soft Machine were left as a trio of Ayers, Wyatt and Ratledge. A single, featuring Allen, called “Love Makes Sweet Music” (and “Reelin’ Feelin’ Squealin’” on the ‘B’-side) was released in February 1967, but it flopped, unfortunately – as it’s considered the first British psychedelic record issued.
Before Allen’s departure, the band’s live sets began attracting attention and when the UFO Club opened in London, The Softs were one of the ‘house bands’ along with friends/rivals The Pink Floyd (eventually to become just ‘Pink Floyd’). The trio were offered a recording deal and flew to New York City to create their first album. It was the first LP made at the legendary Record Plant studio and Dylan/Frank Zappa producer Tom Wilson was at the control board. It was later revealed that Wilson’s input was minimal, but the album, while maybe not sounding optimal, was a cracker and has become a classic of English psychedelia. The band also undertook a couple of greuling U.S. tours with The Jimi Hendrix Experience throughout 1968, while also returning to England and playing. Ayers tired of the treadmill lifestyle quickly and The Soft Machine split just as the first album was released in December 1968.
Ayers fled to Ibiza to ostensibly “get his head together”. Wyatt was approached by the label to reconvene the group to promote the album and when he couldn’t reach Ayers, drafted in Canterbury scenester Hugh Hopper on bass. Wyatt himself would eventually leave the Softs in 1971, after differences with Ratledge over the musical direction of the band and Hopper would leave shortly after the release of the Six live/studio double-album, in 1973. Ayers started writing songs and got enough together to get signed to the new EMI ‘progressive’ label, Harvest, also home to the Floyd and their erstwhile singer/guitarist Syd Barrett.
Joy Of A Toy was released in September 1969 and it seemed like a slice of whimsical psychedelia carried over from ‘The Summer Of Love’. The singalong melody of the title track (itself a nod to both Ornette Coleman and The Softs first album, which featured an identically-named instrumental), the melancholy of The Lady Rachel and Town Feeling, the trippy Stop This Train (Again Doing It) and the folksy All This Crazy Gift Of Time, which closes the LP.
The following year Ayers formed a new group, The Whole World, to be his backing band. Most were relative unknowns – keyboardist/arranger David Bedford (who passed away a short while ago), drummer Mick Fincher, free-jazz saxophonist Lol Coxhill (we’ve lost him as well)…and a young guitarist/bass-player, fresh from a folk-duo with his sister, called Mike Oldfield. They gigged quite a bit on the festival circuit and in-between released the strange, prog-rock LP, Shooting At The Moon. Their legendary Hyde Park concert (featuring Robert Wyatt on drums) was finally released on CD in 2007. Whatevershebringwesing followed in 1972, containing one of Ayers’s best tunes, Stranger In Blue Suede Shoes (well, I think so, anyway). The Whole World split after that – Oldfield borrowing Ayers’s portable tape recorder to work on a piece of music he was calling “Opus 1”, which morphed into Tubular Bells.
Kevin returned in 1973 with Bananamour, his final LP for Harvest. He had a new backing band and some stellar guests, like Steve Hillage, then playing with Kevin’s chum Daevid Allen in Gong. Hillage adds his trademark spacey guitar to one of the highlights of the album, Decadence, allegedly written for Velvet Underground singer Nico. Oh! Wot A Dream is for his old friend Syd Barrett, who had returned to Cambridge and moved back into his parents’ house. Ayers toured a bit to promote it, but found himself still at odds with the music ‘business’. Signing to Island Records in 1974, he released the Confessions Of Dr. Dream LP, which, while having it’s moments, didn’t seem nearly as inspired as his Harvest albums. The collaboration with John Cale, Nico and Brian Eno fared a bit better and he showed he could still get a bit weird with the Lady June’s Linguistic Leprosy album, which also featured Eno.
His late 70s albums dipped quite a bit in quality, despite ex-Patto guitarist Ollie Halsall stepping into the second guitar role. Ayers seemed lost in a fug of addiction and disillusionment that carried into the 1980s, occasionally surfacing for a live gig or a forgettable record. He made a comeback of sorts in 1992, with the well-received Still Life With Guitar album. By the mid-90s, a new crop of ‘neo-psychedelic’ bands began to appear, like the Welsh group Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. The Gorkys titled one of their songs “Kevin Ayers“, on the Tatay album and covered “Why Are We Sleeping?“, from the Softs’ debut album, on the Llanfwrog EP. Other bands name-checked Ayers or The Soft Machine as an influence and the SM and Ayers back-catalogue was reissued on CD.
Kevin still played the occasional show and I nearly got to see him at Brass City Records (good to know it’s still around) in the early 90s. In the last ten years, the Soft Machine’s influence continued to grow and EMI reissued Ayers’s 1970s back catalogue on CD, this time with several bonus tracks on each disc. In 2007, Kevin released The Unfairground, which would turn out to be his final album. He was backed by several of the bands who claimed him as an influence – Gorky’s, Teenage Fanclub and others. The album was well-received and there were hopes for a follow-up. Sadly, that’s no longer a possibility.
Here’s to a true British eccentric and wonderful musician and storyteller. He never played the ‘industry game’, but has left behind an excellent bunch of music. He seemed comfortable being a ‘cult artist’ – I think if he had hit Hendrix-style stardom, he would’ve quit for good, or he may have ended up like poor Syd Barrett, a casualty of fame and expectation. As it was, we were lucky enough to have him around for quite a while.