INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Uncut DECEMBER 2008 - by John Robinson
ALBUM BY ALBUM: KEVIN AYERS
THE ECLECTIC LANDLADY ALBUM
LADY JUNE Lady June's Linguistic Leprosy - Kevin and Brian Eno collaborate on a project that's very much of the era, but very interesting: a set of songs by Ayers' landlady, "Lady" June Campbell Cramer. Initially a limited edition, it was reissued in 2007.
She was my landlady when I was living in Maida Vale, and she wrote these very odd songs. She was an art groupie. She painted, she made things, and she never really got to where she wanted to be, but was very happy to be around people who were doing things in the biz, as it were, and she was happy to have us around. She gave us very good rates... the whole place, there was always something going on with musicians and painters and writers coming in.
She couldn't sing to save her life, but it was that time of weirdness so myself and Brian Eno and several others took her in hand, basically, and produced her album. I even wrote quite a lot of it in the end, the melodies, anyway, and Brian Eno did his things.
Even the fact of calling herself "Lady June" is a fair indicator of her eccentricity, shall we say. I can't tell you much more about her without being kiss and tell, which I don't do. Not that she was actually involved with me - but I don't like to give other people's secrets away.
She obviously had private money, had a very large flat in Maida Vale - my poor dead bass player Archie Leggett lived there at the same time, and Robert Wyatt fell out of the window in that place, and various other things.
As I say, it was a labour of love doing the album. I wrote half a side of an album in her bathroom, which I called The Confessions Of Dr Dream... I used to drag my tape machine and guitar in there. It was the only place that had any soundproofing.
THE 'TOO MANY COOKS' ALBUM
KEVIN AYERS - JOHN CALE - NICO - BRIAN ENO June 1, 1974 - A record company-conceived live performance. Events that occurred around the show allegedly later lead Cale to write Guts ("The bugger in the short sleeves fucked my wife...) about Ayers.
Yes, A.C.N.E. They were all kindred spirits, but in very different directions. Personally, I would never have put that together: given the choice, they were not the people I'd have chosen to do a concert with, due to the dissimilarity of our work and what we did. The only thing we really had in common was being from the same era, and being associated with the so-called underground. I don't think it was the best decision in the world. I prefer the idea of "peripheral" to "underground" - the kind of people who were never going to make middle of the road music or be on AM radio. We were always going to be on late-night FM programmes. We were never going to be pop stars. It was conceived entirely by Island, because we all happened to be on the label at the time. They thought it would be a kind of launch for me as a megastar: they dressed me in silk suits and silver shoes, but I wasn't going to be that, and so I was dropped. There was a great guy there, Richard Williams, who gave me a lot of support [and who produced the album]. [Island boss] Chris Blackwell was, I think, bemused, but they couldn't find a category, or an image that was saleable. They couldn't fit me in, so that stopped. I only had curio value.
THE ROUGH DIAMOND
THE SOFT MACHINE The Soft Machine - The debut LP by one of the most influential groups of the "underground" era. After several demo sessions in London, the album is recorded in New York during a break in the band's tour supporting The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Begins Ayers love/hate relationship with the music business.
We did demos in London with Joe Boyd, and Kim Fowley... a lot of weirdos. I think the reason Jimi Hendrix liked us as a band was that we were weirdos. We had a very strange combination of people if you think of the backgrounds, and also different musical and literary influences. We were never going to be a hit band... I think we knew that and other people knew it, too. We were sort of curios: all English, middle-class, myself a colonial boy from Malaysia. There was this alleged Canterbury sound, which consisted of about seven people: Mike [Ratledge, organ] and Robert [Wyatt, drums] went to the same school, and I went to a ghastly boarding school after coming back from Malaysia. There was a real kindred spirit - Canterbury wasn't a big town, we shared interests in jazz, in art, literature, all that stuff. We had a group called The Wilde Flowers, where we learned the basics, then gravitated towards my writing songs and [roadie, later bass player] Hugh Hopper writing songs. Daevid Allen [founder member, who later formed Gong], who was a big influence on all our lives, wasn't allowed back into the country because he was Australian, so we became the Soft Machine trio, and we did all the road work, up and down the M1, the M4, for nothing. But we did get the basis of a sound and an idea. A lot of people hated it at the time, the early Soft Machine [laughs]. It wasn't yer pub band - you couldn't dance around with your girlfriend. But it was the beginning of a movement which came to include Pink Floyd and the whole underground. It was totally unfamiliar ground. There wasn't really a category for us, this bunch of weirdos. The Soft Machine had a certain power, it didn't fit in any slot. We ended up recording it in New York. And what a let-down that was. We had the guy [Tom Wilson] who did Dylan, and all he did was sit on the telephone and talk to his girlfriend while we played a live set. So there was no production whatsoever. It was one of the reasons I got out of Soft Machine. A top producer, a top studio... but no one seemed to give a fuck.
THE ONE WITH ELTON JOHN
KEVIN AYERS Sweet Deceiver - perhaps surprisingly, Ayers is taken on by the management company of John Reid, then custodian of Elton John. Elton plays on the album, a bizarre cover drawing is commissioned, but a critical backlash inexorably begins
This had a very gay weighting, which isn't me at all. Well, it was great that Elton played on the album. John Reid was a sweetie, really, but I think he just took me on as a pretty young boy, and totally missed the point of what I was doing, or just didn't give a fuck. He farmed me out with this personal manager from one of his stock, and they were all sweet people, but they were all much more interested in being gay than getting on with the music or marketing me. I felt as if I'd been bought by this very rich and very powerful person in the business as a kind of token: he had Elton, he had Queen and he had many others. I don't think he ever expected to make any money out of me; I think it was really a way of saying, "We also have this in our catalogue..."
THE COLLABORATIVE COMEBACK
KEVIN AYERS The Unfairground - Ayers' first album for fifteen years - since the 1992 death of his guitarist and frequent collaborator Ollie Halsall. Alternative greats - Norman Blake, Euros Child - join Robert Wyatt and Phil Manzanera in helping revive Ayers' fortunes.
I was greatly assisted by [current manager] Tim Shepard, who pulled my socks up and said he was happy to arrange it. He found all these young guys and girls, and we talked about doing something that would revive interest in my previous work, which I think is a) good for my health, and b) hopefully will find some listeners beyond my basic fanbase. I was working in Belgium, doing a lot of live stuff, earning a living, but as you get older, it's a bit more taxing on the body and brain. A guy called Joe had plucked me out of the depths of Deià, Mallorca, and inactivity, and bad health, and said, "I'm taking you to work again." I'd become too relaxed. I had a beautiful house, but I wasn't making any money. I was in a bad state. basically, he pulled me out of the pond that I'd fallen into. We made an album, but it wasn't different enough, and that's where Tim came in. It was good to meet up with all these people that I'd never worked with before - Teenage Fanclub, Euros Child, Candi Payne. It was good to be functioning again, to feel useful, like you were doing your bit. We recorded in Arizona, in a studio which still has tubes, and I wrote a couple of songs then, but the songs had been on ice for a while. And so have I.
THE SOLO DEBUT
KEVIN AYERS Joy Of A Toy - After his return from the Hendrix/Soft Machine tour in 1968, Ayers decides enough is enough with the band's "pseudo jazz" and falls into a solo career. No hard feelings, though: both Wyatt and Ratledge show up to play on Ayers' solo debut.
There was no plan when I joined The Soft Machine, I just fell in with these people. And when I left, it wasn't a bad break-up, just a parting of the ways. Basically, I'm a simple songwriter. I'm not a jazz musician, and the way they were going didn't interest me - but it was an amicable parting. The songs had been written for The Soft Machine, but really the title says it all: it was just fun to be able to work on my own thing, in my own way, without other people's advice. It was something I had to do, to make a living because I had my own ideas, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn't. It's mostly tongue-in-cheek - I never took myself or the business too seriously, but there's a dark side as well as a light side, which is evident in the body of work. there are a lot of areas which go into the depths, and there are some very silly songs. At that time Harvest was unique, because they were a separate body from the massive EMI machine. They were a great team, keen and encouraging, and they basically reported back to the people in suits and said, "This is worth putting out..."
THE 'HIT' ALBUM, OF SORTS...
KEVIN AYERS Whatevershebringswesing - Ayers' most commercially successful record. Contains the fine joy-waded-in-tears feel of the title track, and O! What A Dream, his portrait of Syd Barrett.
Well, the most relevant line on the album is "Let's drink some wine / And have a good time / But if you really want to come through / Let the good times have you..." That's how I've lived my life, basically. But there's a contrast in those lines to think about. There's wonderful bass playing, and wonderful guitar playing on that record by Mike Oldfield. Syd Barrett was on one of the takes of a song called Singing A Song In The Morning (Religious Experience). Whether he's there on the record, I don't know, but he was on the session, though he was losing it fast even by then. I'd never been any kind of close friend, but we'd played at so many gigs in an era, the underground thing: I especially liked the first [Pink Floyd] album, which was basically just Syd. O! What A Dream isn't catering to anyone's ideas, it's my fantasy, mostly dedicated to Syd, but also about the epoch: "I met you floating when I was boating..." that was very much of that time. You don't have to make a big complicated song about it. The sandwich [O! What A Dream suggests that when Barrett met Ayers the former offered the latter a sandwich]? The sandwich is poetic licence.
A MUSICAL PARTNERSHIP BEGINS
KEVIN AYERS The Confessions Of Dr Dream And Other Stories - Part written in Lady June's bathroom, this sees the beginning of Ayers' collaboration with Patto guitarist Ollie Halsall, a partnership which Ayers describes as "like having a lover, musically speaking". The collaboration endures until Halsall's drug-related death in 1992.
Ollie Halsall is one of the most underrated guitarists in the world - he played the shit out of people like Clapton, or jeff Beck. He was really adaptable and could go from the gentlest song, really listen to the song, not just like a guitar player, but be sensitive to a piece of music. But he could also be as hard a rocker as anyone. My favourite Ollie quote is: "There are only two people I'd play free for: that's you and Randy Newman." It was an enduring collaboration: it was love at first solo. At the time, I had a nice big house in Mallorca, and he and his girlfriend moved in - and we did a lot of work in and around Spain. We'd started collaborating and writing songs. It was like the musical equivalent of having a partner. I don't want to give anything away, really, but he started working with Spanish Bands, as I didn't have enough going on, and they were paying him loads. And he hated it, and he fell into bad ways... and died of it. It was a massive loss of a friend and a great talent.