INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Telegraph FEBRUARY 20, 2013 - by Staff Writers
Kevin Ayers, who has died aged sixty-eight, was, as a solo artist and at the helm of Soft Machine, a troubadour of pastoral psychedelic pop music.
Tall, handsome and hedonistic, he had all the attributes required of the role. He toured with Jimi Hendrix and was friends with Syd Barrett, the founder of Pink Floyd. He was even responsible for the break-up of Richard Branson's first marriage. But it was with Soft Machine, his own pioneering rock group, that he first came to attention, in 1967. Named after a book by William Burroughs, the band fused genres and maintained a lofty disdain for chart success. Yet the less they cared, the more their influence grew.
Kevin Ayers was born on August 16, 1944 in Herne Bay, Kent. His father, Rowan Ayers, was a BBC television producer and minor poet. When Kevin's parents divorced his mother remarried a civil servant who was stationed in Malaysia, and living in that environment proved an experience that, Ayers said, had a profound effect on him for the rest of his life.
At the age of twelvge he was sent back to England, where he was educated at boarding school in Canterbury. Little inclined towards academic pursuits, he was considerably more enthusiastic about music and the incipient bohemian lifestyle that would soon be described as "hippie".
He befriended like-minded young men and soon they were forming groups. In 1964 Ayers joined The Wilde Flowers, named in honour of Ayers's hero, Oscar Wilde, alongside drummer Robert Wyatt and bassist Hugh Hopper. But the following year Ayers left the group to go to live on the island of Majorca. While there he met Daevid Allen, an Australian guitarist already versed in Parisian bohemia. Together they returned to Canterbury and formed Soft Machine, Ayers adding Wyatt to the line-up.
Soft Machine were immediately hailed as one of the founders of the British psychedelic music. Playing alongside Pink Floyd, they mixed rock, folk and jazz to create a new, free-form sound that would influence jazz-rock and progressive rock in the 1970s. Signed by Jimi Hendrix's manager, Soft Machine issued their debut album, Volume One, and spent much of 1968 supporting Hendrix on an extended tour of America.
Such effort proved too much for Ayers, however, who preferred a life of Mediterranean indulgence. Once again he departed the music scene, for life in Ibiza. But his talents had marked him out as a singer and songwriter of note, and EMI's Harvest label quickly signed him as a solo artist. In 1969 he duly released his first solo album, Joy Of A Toy, on which he demonstrated his odd charm, mixing Noël Coward-esque drollery with gentle psychedelic flavours. Britain's youthful rock critics were enthusiastic, as was John Peel at the BBC, who championed Ayers on his Radio 1 show.
Flaxen haired, well-spoken and witty, Ayers quickly came to be seen as the golden boy of early-1970s British rock. His albums Shooting At The Moon (1970) and Whatevershebringswesing (1971) were well-received, and featured Ayers backed by a group of friends called The Whole World which included, among others, Robert Wyatt on drums and a teenage Mike Oldfield on guitar. Both albums contained strong, even popular, songs alongside a great deal of sonic experimenting, as Ayers veered from musical hall singalong to dissonant tape loops.
In 1973 Ayers released the album Bananamour - at the time he had a surreal enthusiasm for bananas - and the single Caribbean Moon. Finally he was making radio-friendly music, and after being signed to Chris Blackwell's influential Island Records and employing John Reid (Elton John's manager) it seemed he wanted to step beyond his comfortable niche of eccentricity.
The resulting album, The Confessions Of Dr Dream And Other Stories (1974), positioned Ayers for mainstream success, and a live album cut at London's Rainbow theatre with Brian Eno, Nico, John Cale and Mike Oldfield, suggested that Ayers was being welcomed into the pantheon of British rock royalty.
Yet with wealth and stardom within his grasp, Ayers again shied away, preferring to head back to the Balearic Islands rather than work at touring and promotion. Pursuing various vices and women in equal measure, he set about enjoying himself. His mid-1970s albums Sweet Deceiver and Yes We Have No Mañanas (So Get Your Mañanas Today) failed to produce the necessary hits and, by the late-1970s, once punk had shaken the British rock establishment, he had largely withdrawn from the spotlight to Deia, Majorca, the village made famous by Robert Graves.
By that time Ayers had met Kristin Tomassi, Richard Branson's first wife, and begun an affair with her. Though Branson's marriage was beset by infidelities on both sides, Tomassi's liaison with Ayers proved an irreparable breach. Together Ayers and Tomassi went on to have a daughter.
In the 1980s, from Deia, Ayers recorded a series of albums that entertained his most loyal followers but did little to suggest that he was anything but a man out of time. His 1992 album Still Life With Guitar was a largely acoustic affair and found him sounding extremely relaxed. It was the last Ayers recording to feature the guitar playing of his friend, Ollie Halsall who would soon die from a drug overdose. Ayers then withdrew almost completely from the world, buying a property in Montolieu, in the South of France (Majorca having become too popular and expensive). There he lived quietly, funded by the trickle of royalties.
Also living in Montolieu was the American artist Timothy Shephard, who befriended Ayers. Shephard, having listened to Ayers's home-made recordings of new songs, determined to finance an album and set about booking recording sessions with noted younger musicians (including Teenage Fanclub and Euro Child as well as Ayers's old friends Robert Wyatt and Hugh Hopper). The London label Lo-Max released these recordings as The Unfairground in September 2007, attracting enthusiastic reviews. Tour dates were offered and there was talk of Ayers recording with Blur, but it was not to be.
In an interview that year with The Daily Telegraph in Notting Hill, it was obvious that Ayers would not be taking on further commitments: drinking heavily throughout, he dismissed the idea of performing and appeared traumatised by the new attention. The golden boy of the British underground, now scarred by drink, wanted nothing more than to return to his French village. He did so and did not perform or record again.
Kevin Ayers is survived by his daughter with Kristen Tomassi and by the daughter of another relationship.
Kevin Ayers: born August 16, 1944 - died February 18, 2013