Monthly Archives: February 2013

All This Crazy Gift Of Time: R.I.P. Kevin Ayers


I found out Wednesday evening that one of the founder members of the UK psychedelic band The Soft Machine, Kevin Ayers, had passed away in his sleep. He was living in alone in an apartment in France.

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.

Film As Language? Kubrick’s “The Shining”


My first year of high school was spent in a Catholic one. I had attended a Catholic middle school and some of my good friends were opting to go to a Romish institution, rather than a public high school (that some other of my friends had chosen to do). I took the entrance exam and was accepted. Most of my classes were in the second-tier strata. The top level classes were called the ‘Honors’ cirriculum. I was only placed in one ‘Honors’ course, called “Literary Arts”.

The course was taught by a white-haired and goateed rotund man called “Allen”. Come to think of it, he looked a bit like Robert Anton Wilson‘s evil twin. He seemed quite pompous and pretentious, too. Our first day in class, he had us write down a speech that started “You are the salt of the earth….” – I wish I could remember the rest and I don’t have my old notebook anymore. It’d be hilarious to read it now….some ghastly prose. Apparently, he had a thing for the young ladies, too. Allegedly, he would get a bit chummy with some of them and there were rumours that he touched the legs of a few (skirts were required uniform for girls – I don’t think trousers were allowed) to make sure they were wearing tights/nylons (I can’t remember if they were required as part of the girl’s uniforms as well). I suspect that was an urban legend amongst the students, though – I can’t imagine that would’ve been tolerated, even in a creepy Catholic school.

I found the course pretty dull, and Allen’s jibes at the counter-culture (though, to be honest, I didn’t know all that much about the late 60s at the time) and his utmost allegiance to “tradition” rankled me at the time, even if I wasn’t quite sure why that bothered me. He would bleat on about people getting married “under porches” (hey???) and jumping out of planes and coruscate them for not following tradition. I got the feeling he didn’t like me much, either. I didn’t raise my hand a lot and didn’t chuckle at a lot of his cheesy put-downs of people not like him. As such, I got a lot of “C”s and “C+”s on assignments. I’m not saying he graded me low because he didn’t like me – if I’m honest, I just didn’t get enthusiastic about a lot of the coursework.

The one part of the course I did really enjoy was the bit about ‘Literary Archetypes‘. I can’t remember if he went into anything about Carl Jung and psychological insights – but I do remember him briefly discussing that there’s only ‘x’-number of stories/myths and they are continually being re-told, but in different ways. If you learn to recognise certain ‘clues’ in a story, you can figure out which original story/myth the new writing alludes to. He then led us through analysing a few different short stories and novels – such as Shirley Jackson‘s The Lottery and John Knowles‘s A Separate Peace.

I can’t quite recall which myth Jackson’s story covers – but it’s definitely on the ‘harvest-sacrifice’ tip. He told us that the colour black almost always signifies death (the black dot found on the ‘chosen one’s card). The names conjure up symbols, too – ‘Mr. Graves’ and ‘Mr. Summers’ and ‘Mr. Warner’ (geddit?). There’s more, but those are all the ones I can recall and I don’t have my notes anymore. “A Separate Peace” ‘is’, according to the archetypal analysis, a re-telling of the Jason & The Golden Fleece myth, set on a boarding-school campus. Some of the clues are a bit obvious (“The Golden Fleece Debating Society”), but there’s loads more that are well-hidden. “Phineas” represents Poseidon (his nickname is “Finny”), or something like that. I’ll really have to see if I’ve kept my notes – I don’t think I have.

That stuff seemed pretty cool – I liked the way the ‘clues’ added up to show the myth buried under Knowles’s novel and Jackson’s short story. As I say, the rest of the course seemed pretty dull – other than when we were learning about poetry rhythms and we read some rock song lyrics as poetry (even old Allen had to admit the rhymes were clever), like Eleanor Rigby and The 59th Street Bridge Song. I left the school at the end of the year, for various reasons, and finished the rest of my high school days at the public one.

Where is all this leading, you ask? I’ll tell ya’s! A friend posted a link on FaceBook about a cinema in New York City showing Stanley Kubrick‘s The Shining, both forwards and backwards at the same time. The cinema staff decided to do so based on a comment from a site run by someone called The Mastermind. The comment was that “The Shining” should be viewed both forward and backward. The Mastermind studied the film and picked out ‘clues’ to it’s hidden narrative – in a similar way to Archetypal Literary Criticism, with dollops of Jungian symbolism thrown in. The theory is that written language is coming to an end, and a visual language, particularly via film and video games, “is” the future of communication. Now, I’m not quite sure about that, but who knows? He or she may be correct.

You can read the original post here. It is quite long, but fascinating. Each scene is inspected, with possible motives for camera angles and placements of objects. “Is” it what Kubrick had in mind? I don’t really know and I don’t think Stanley ever revealed his true intention for the film. Still, as an interpretation, The Mastermind certainly did his/her research!

Here’s a clip of the forwards/backwards showing of “The Shining” – pretty trippy:

The Shining Forwards And Backwards, Simultaneously, Superimposed (Excerpt) from KDK12 on Vimeo.

My Bloody Valentine release new album! Mind = blown!


Twenty-two years after their psychedelic shoegaze masterpiece, Loveless was dropped – My Bloody Valentine have followed it up with a record, called simply mbv. Holy shit, dudes!!!

Kevin Shields, the nominal leader of the group for it’s entire history, mentioned at a show in London a few days ago that the new record would be out soon. Everyone in the crowd thought it was a joke, seeing as how the fabled follow-up was almost approaching “SMiLE” for a legendary lost album.

“Loveless” was released in 1991 on Alan McGee‘s Creation label, after two years of recording in several different studios with an array of recording engineers. The studio bill nearly bankrupted the label and tensions were high. The album failed to recoup it’s costs at first, but word-of-mouth and favourable reviews helped it to become a high-water mark of the shoegaze genre and one of the albums from the 90s to own.

After that, it seemed that they couldn’t possibly surpass “Loveless” and so they didn’t. Aside from a fairly tame cover of We Have All The Time In The World (released on the “Peace Together” compilation album) and a very trippy cover of Wire‘s Map Ref 41 degrees N 93 degrees W (featured on the Wire tribute album, “Whore”) – nothing was heard from the band. There were rumours that Shields had gone mad, that their own studio (set up with advance money from Island Records) was largely unfinished, Shields was working on a jungle/drum-n-bass record, etc. He surfaced, sanity intact (it seemed), to provide remixes for Yo La Tengo, Mogwai and Primal Scream. In fact, he joined the ‘Scream for a short while – helping out on their XTRMNTR record and playing some shows with them. I saw them in 2003 at the Reading Festival and Kevin was onstage, though he looked to be having amp problems, as he would constantly fiddle with the control buttons throughout the set.

My Bloody Valentine in 2009

The others had scattered – drummer Colm O’Ciosoig headed for the States and worked with Mazzy Star singer Hope Sandoval and even got a band going with his sister, Fionnuala, called The Tigerbeat. Singer/guitarist Bilinda Butcher was rumoured to be taking flamenco dancing lessons and bassist Deb Goodge was allegedly spotted driving a cab in London at one point.

The eventually reconvened for some live gigs, including some shows in Japan, playing mostly tunes off of “Loveless” and Isn’t Anything (their breakthrough 1988 album, also on Creation). Shields was constantly asked about a follow-up to “Loveless”, but remained non-committal. Then, as he had said (promised?) – “mbv” hit the internet….and the demand crashed the band’s official website. It was working again and you can purchase the album from the site.

Is it good? To me, yes. While it doesn’t break any new ground after “Loveless” (how could anything do that, really?), it follows it up quite nicely. All the hallmarks are there: swampy, swirling guitars, nearly whispered vocals, the clockwork drumming. I think it was wise, for this record, to stay in that general area. Too much of a stylistic lurch would seem to be trying hard to keep up with new styles. The latter half of the album does veer a certain distance from MBV’s past, especially the album closer, Wonder 2. That track, with it’s phased guitars resembling jet engines warming up for take-off and clattering drum-n-bass beat, does seem to point to the future of their music. Who can say, for sure, though? Only Kevin Shields & Co., and they’re not talking. I mean, you’re lucky you got a new record from them, buster.

Here’s the album opener, She Found Now: