Kevin Ayers was a founding member of Soft Machine, but gave up the rock'n'roll lifestyle to live in the Med. Now he's back
"I lost it years ago. A long, long time ago. But, in a way, I don't think I've ever had it," says Kevin Ayers. He's talking about the confidence, self-belief and huge ego so intrinsic to most rock stars, and so lacking in him, but he might as well be talking about his career and his tendency to vanish to the Med when the pressure got too much.
"I've always been something weird, that you must be able to sell somewhere. I got caught up in the game really badly, people didn't have my best interests at heart. They really didn't know what to do with me. They saw me as an oddball, a pretty young boy who wrote odd songs," muses the singer-songwriter and nearly man of British psychedelia who is now 63 but, despite the stubble he sports today, retains some of the angelic blond looks that made women in the early Seventies swoon at his feet.
In the late Sixties, Ayers walked away from Soft Machine, the groundbreaking group who put Canterbury on the musical map, at around the same time as Syd Barrett was exiting Pink Floyd, the other leading light of the British underground scene. Indeed, Ayers briefly worked with Barrett before embarking on a solo career that has had more creative highs than lows and marked him out as a maverick talent. He also had an unlikely knack for surrounding himself with simpatico musicians who went on to greater things, most notoriously hiring a 17-year-old Mike Oldfield in 1970, three years before Tubular Bells, and also working with Andy Summers before the guitarist joined The Police in 1977.
Not that Ayers is feeling sorry for himself, even if he's taking painkillers after hurting his back lifting a container of Butane gas in his French home near Carcassonne. That's not his style. "I really want to avoid this self-pity thing. And saying 'poor me' and 'what a bad time I've had'," he stresses. And he's painfully aware that he could have become another rock casualty. "A lot of people I grew up with musically, who were also friends because we went on the road together, are dead," he agrees, when I mention not only Barrett, but also Jimi Hendrix with whom Ayers toured in the Sixties, as well as the guitarist Ollie Halsall, his right-hand man between 1974 and 1992. "And you can't make friends that easily again."
Mind you, while recording The Unfairground, his first album for 15 years, Ayers made a whole new bunch of friends. Working with Teenage Fanclub, Euros Childs of Gorky's Zygotic Mynci and Candie Payne in the UK, and indie groups like The Ladybug Transistor and Neutral Milk Hotel in the US, he also realised that he wasn't quite as forgotten as he thought. "It was a really nice surprise to meet young, intelligent musicians who relate to things that I do. A lot of people listen back to the records. Perhaps they're finding the music a bit square, but they're picking up on the words, the thoughts, the sentiments."
At first, though, he's not quite as forthcoming about his days with Soft Machine. "Neither Robert [Wyatt, the drummer] nor Mike [Ratledge, the band's keyboard player] want to talk about it and I kind of feel the same way. It was great while it was there, especially for me. It was like the first family I ever had."
Ayers was born in Kent in 1944, but spent his formative years in Malaysia after his parents divorced – his father Rowan Ayers was a BBC producer and went on to launch The Old Grey Whistle Test – and his mother remarried a civil servant. Stints in boarding schools back in the UK didn't help. "It was sheer hell. I just felt like a complete stranger here. And suddenly, coming to Canterbury and meeting these people, who seemed to be open to ideas, read books, and listened to music. And they were articulate! I didn't really have any choice. I had to be with these people that I liked, who were intellectually curious. I could relate to them and not get hit in the face for being posh," says Ayers.
He met Wyatt, Ratledge and the Australian-born Daevid Allen in the early Sixties, though they only came together as Soft Machine in the summer of 1966. "We backed William Burroughs at a poetry reading, at the ICA. We asked if we could use [the title of his novel] 'The Soft Machine' as a name for our band and he said: 'Who cares?'"
Soft Machine became darlings of the British underground and played alongside Pink Floyd at the Roundhouse, the UFO Club, and the biggest happening of them all, the 14 Hour Technicolor Dream at Alexandra Palace in April 1967. By the summer, their blend of Dadaism, pataphysics, jazz and pop was the hippest thing on the Riviera. "The French always like the arty side of things. We weren't mainstream rock'*'roll. We were asked to do the music for this Picasso play, Le Désir Attrapé Par la Queue. We played nude in Saint Tropez. We performed at little cliquey, arty theatres in Paris. Oh, c'est chic, ça. We were much more popular there than in England," recalls the singer.
When Allen was prevented from re-entering the UK at the end of August 1967 because his visa had run out, Ayers, Ratledge and Wyatt carried on as a trio. The following year, they recorded their debut album, simply entitled The Soft Machine, and toured the US with Hendrix twice. "It was very extreme. They were two-month tours. The first one, we were three young English boys hitting America, so we did everything – sex, drugs, rock'*'roll. The second one, I went totally macrobiotic. I didn't drink, I didn't go out. I was cooking my brown rice in my hotel room and I was so weak, I had to be pushed on stage to play." Ayers quit in the autumn of 1968 before the album even came out. "It was becoming too jazzy for me. I like songs, I like to hear people sing. I just wanted to be able to express myself."
Not for the first time, Ayers went to the Mediterranean, before coming back to the UK to make several critically acclaimed albums for Harvest, later moving to Island Records. "The most original ones are obviously the first ones, before I was infected by the music business," he says. "I had total control over Joy of a Toy. I did everything myself."
It was a time of experimentation, explains the singer: he asked Syd Barrett to play on an early version of 'Singing a Song in the Morning' entitled 'Religious Experience', and later paid homage to him on 'Oh! Wot a Dream!' from 1973's Bananamour. "By the time I actually met Syd socially, he was gone, he'd lost it. I just really identified with him, his songwriting and his spirit and stuff. What more can you do than write a song for somebody?"
Somewhere after this, though, Ayers lost his direction and belief: "From Joy of a Toy to Dr Dream [1974's The Confessions of Dr Dream and Other Stories, his first album for Island], there's a huge leap in terms of sound change, attitude change, from the young innocent to the rather messed-up rock musician. That's what I call my middle-of-the-road period, when Island was trying to make me into a rock star with silver suits and high-heeled shoes." He bristles at the mention of June 1st 1974, the live album he recorded at the Rainbow Theatre in London with John Cale, Brian Eno and Nico, then touted as the "decadent, alternative" Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
"It was a bad idea, that's all I'm going to say. John Reid wanted someone odd in his management stable, there was some kudos in it for him. I mean, he had Elton John, he had Queen, the last thing he needed was money, for Christ's sake. I was just a toy for a rich man, another little charm on his bracelet. And he proceeded to totally destroy my career."
Until recently, Ayers had only come out from his self-imposed exile for the occasional short tour. When he met the American artist Tim Shepard, he didn't tell him he'd been a recording artist until quite a few months into their friendship. "He gave me a gentle shove. Having someone believe in you when you've stopped believing in yourself was fantastic," he confesses. "The older you get, the less you feel the need to communicate. 'Reflective' is the key word. What else can you do when you're 63, except reflect?"
He continues: "I always say: new girlfriend, new album. And she's gone as well, so you have the hello and the goodbye songs. 'Wide Awake' [from 'The Unfairground'] was the hello song but I threw away a lot. You try to avoid clichés, avoid feeling sorry for yourself, avoid repetition. I've always tried to work like that. What I hate is lazy language. I'm not really a good musician at all, but I know when to avoid a blues thing or a rock'*'roll cliché.
"I wouldn't put an album out if I didn't think there was still something sharp there," he says, bringing to mind the late John Peel, who once said: "Kevin Ayers' talent is so acute, you could perform major eye surgery with it."
Kevin Ayers' 'The Unfairground' is out today on LO-MAX Records