Along with the late Syd Barrett, Kevin Ayers is revered as one of Britain’s most admired eccentrics, a singular artist whose maverick persona has set him apart from his contemporaries and ensured his enduring influence.
To his legions of fans and followers, he represents the very essence of Englishness, his jaunty melodies, hedonistic outlook and personal platitudes expressed with rich, resonant vocals and an idyllic imagery brilliantly etched into his songs.
Nevertheless, Ayers hasn’t been the most consistent performer of late. It’s been more than 15 years since his last album, Still Life With Guitar, and in the interim, he’s been enjoying the good life in the south of France, living off the royalties from earlier albums and showing a general lack of concern about the music business or his place therein. A new effort, The Unfairground, breaks his silence while reaping some of the best reviews of his career.
Ayers’ love of exotic environs came about naturally. Growing up in Majorca, he moved to Canterbury in the early ’60s and quickly fell in with the budding progressive-music scene that was just beginning to flourish. His first band of note was the Wilde Flowers, an outfit that eventually evolved into the jazz/rock fusion group the Soft Machine.
The first incarnation of the Softs was born in 1966 with Ayers on bass and vocals, Daevid Allen playing guitar, Mike Ratledge on keys and Robert Wyatt behind the drums. True to his bohemian persona, Ayers stuck around for only one album, opting to depart when the Softs meandered into jazzier terrain clearly at odds with his penchant for pop.
“Basically, I’m a songwriter, and the Soft Machine I was part of originally evolved around that,” Ayers says. “I’m not a virtuoso musician or anything like that. It was great to do the so-called free-form stuff, but after awhile, you get the T-shirt, you know? I think that songs are more enduring and more fun to do. A lot of free-form stuff is very self-indulgent. That’s why I left, because Soft Machine was heading into 15-minute solos… and frankly, it wasn’t just Soft Machine. There was a whole era, wasn’t there? Endless guitar solos and people just banging around. It was great fun for a while, but then you just want to move on. We did have something very special which could never be repeated.”
Nevertheless, Ayers still has fond memories of those heady times.
“I was asked not so long ago to give my reminiscence of the concert we did to launch the International Times magazine, as it is supposed to have been a groundbreaking classic concert,” Ayers recalls. “Trouble was, all I could remember was what concerned me most at the time — playing the concert and then getting it on with my girlfriend of the time. That is it really. We had a lot of fun doing what we were doing… that postwar generation questioning what was going on. I always had that in me… For me at least, Soft Machine was fun, creative expression with no real agenda. As soon as it started having an agenda, I jumped and carried on in my own way.”
Indeed, for Ayers and his contemporaries, the ’60s were heady times, a perfect environment in which to launch their flights of fancy.
“It was a great time to be questioning and excited about the possibilities one could create for oneself,” he agrees. “It was innocent and therefore naturally innovative. I feel that much of what goes on today is far too knowing and self-conscious to be innovative. You can’t try to innovate any more than you can try to fall in love.”
Nevertheless, a Soft Machine tour in support of The Jimi Hendrix Experience pushed him to the point of no return. After Ayers sold his b