Born on August 16, 1944, in Herne Bay, Kent, United Kingdom. Addresses: Record company--Hux Records LTD, PO 12647, London SE18 8ZF, U.K., website: http://www.huxrecords.com.
While Kevin Ayers never qualified as an unadulterated "rock star," he helped found the seminal progressive rock band Soft Machine in the 1960s, and created a series of intriguing pop albums during the 1970s. His romantic and diverse musical vision has remained slightly left of center, barring the singer from mainstream acceptance. "Apt to flavor his songs with female backup choruses and exotic island rhythms," wrote Richie Unterberger in All Music Guide, "the singer/songwriter inspires the image of a sort of progressive rock beach bum, writing about life's absurdities with a celebratory, relaxed detachment." While this approach failed to produce hit records, Ayers gathered a loyal cult following and built an influential body of work. "Ayers," wrote Jonathan Glancey in the London Guardian, "is too self-deprecating, too elusive and knowing to ever have made it big."
Ayers was born on August 16, 1944, in Herne Bay, Kent, England. Between the ages of six and 12 he lived in Malaysia, where his father served as a district officer. "Ayers was to be more influenced by the spontaneity, freedom and informality of the Eastern lifestyle that surrounded him," wrote Martin Wakeling, "than by the overtones of Colonial privilege that had placed him there." Back in England, Ayers met Robert Wyatt and a clique of bohemians that gathered at Wyatt's family mansion in Canterbury. There Ayers was introduced to avant-garde jazz, Dadaist art, and poetry. Several members of the group were also interested in forming a band, though their backgrounds were noticeably different from the typical pop performers of the day. "England is so defined, the class system, your education," Ayers told Jimmy James in Perfect Sound Forever. "I think what was unique about the Canterbury scene ... these were all middle-class kids from literary backgrounds."
In June of 1963 Ayers joined his first band, The Wilde Flowers (partially a nod to Oscar Wilde), that included Wyatt, Hugh Hopper, Brian Hopper, and Richard Sinclair from the Canterbury scene, and Ayers became the band's vocalist. The band recorded several demonstration records in 1965, including the Ayers' original "She's Gone." But by the middle of 1965 he had left the band, traveling to Ibiza with Daevid Allen, a beatnik who had worked with William Burroughs in the United States. "The lure of travel, sun, sea and wine has never left Ayers--a free spirit ever tantalised by distant exotica," wrote Wakeling.
In 1966 Ayers and Allen rejoined their old friend Wyatt in the groundbreaking progressive rock band Soft Machine. Ayers and Allen had met Wes Brunson, a Texas millionaire, who bought new equipment for the band in Canterbury. "Wyatt is usually regarded as the prime mover behind the Soft Machine," wrote Unterberger, "but Ayers' contributions carried equal weight in the early days." "Soft Machine" came from Burroughs's 1961 novel of the same name, and Allen called the novelist to obtain permission to use the title. Soft Machine combined rock and pop with jazz, creating a sound that would become known as progressive rock. Along with bands like Pink Floyd, Soft Machine gained a reputation as an important innovator on the underground music scene.
In 1968 the Jimi Hendrix Experience invited Soft Machine on a six-month tour of the United States. "At its worst," Ayers recalled the tour to Glancey, "it was plane, hotel, gig, hotel, plane, hotel, gig." By the time the band had completed its first album and the tour, Ayers was worn out. He also disliked the "art for art's sake" direction the band was taking, believing it self-indulgent and inconsiderate of the audience. "They were going more in the direction of jazz and fusion," Ayers told Glancey, "which didn't interest me. I was strictly pop." Although he left the band, he remained on good terms with the members. In 1969, when Ayers signed with Harvest Records, several Soft Machine members would help him record his solo debut.
After spending more downtime in Ibiza, Ayers returned to his apartment in London, where he began writing new songs on the acoustic guitar. He constructed a small studio and recorded a series of demos, and was soon recording his first solo album, Joy of a Toy, for Harvest Records in 1969. "Wistful melody and joyous improvisation wind through a musical landscape darkened by melancholic lyricism," Wakeling noted of the album. Joy of a Toy, however, sold poorly. Ayers re-entered the studio again at the beginning of 1970 to record the single "Singing a Song in the Morning," joined by members of Caravan and Syd Barrett, the former Pink Floyd front man. The single, however, gained no more attention than the album. Searching for a new approach, Ayers formed Whole World in March of 1970, a revolving conglomerate that included saxophonist Lol Coxhill and a young guitarist named Mike Oldfield. By October the new band had joined Ayers in the studio to record Shooting at the Moon, an album with a bigger, more electric sound than its predecessor.
Although the results of Shooting the Moon were impressive, Ayers disbanded Whole World in 1971 and returned to the studio to record the eccentrically titled Whatevershebringswesing, released in 1971. This album, along with Bananamour in 1973, remain two favorites of Ayers's aficionados. By the mid-1970s, however, critical disfavor had disheartened Ayers, leading him to temporarily exit the music scene. Critics were particularly unkind to the over-produced Sweet Deceiver in 1975, a project aided by Elton John. While Ayers re-emerged with the well-received Yes We Have No Mananas in 1976, his music seemed increasingly out of sync with the emergence of Britain's punk movement.
Ayers continued to record and tour in Europe as a solo artist throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In 1983 he recorded one of his more mainstream efforts, Diamond Jack and the Queen of Pain, in Spain, and followed with the more representative effort, Falling Up, in 1988. In 1992 he issued the acoustic album Still Life With Guitar, followed by a tour of Japan.
In a number of articles, Ayers has been painted as a somewhat eccentric genius who just missed--multiple times--becoming famous. The problem, critics asserted, was his inability to stick with one band or idea for very long, leaving the impression that in the end, he had sabotaged his own career. Ayers, on the other hand, has seemed singularly unconcerned about his lack of fame. "My real records have always been messy things," he told Glancey, "but the industry doesn't like this. Nearly all best-selling albums have a consistent sound to make them easy to position and market. Well, I tried, but my heart was never in it. I think you have to have a bit missing upstairs, or just be hungry for fame and money, to play the industry game. I'm not very good at it."
by Ronnie D. Lankford Jr
Kevin Ayers's Career
Joined The Wilde Flowers with Robert Wyatt, Hugh Hopper, Brian Hopper, and Richard Sinclair, 1963; formed Soft Machine with Robert Wyatt, Larry Nolan, Daevid Allen, and Mike Ratledge, 1966; embarked on solo career, 1969, and signed with Harvest Records; released Joy of a Toy, 1969; formed Whole World and recorded Shooting the Moon, 1970; disbanded Whole World, 1971, and, on Harvest, released Whatevershebringswesing, 1971; Bananamour, 1973; Confessions of Dr. Dream and Other Stories, 1974; issued Sweet Deceiver with the help of Elton John, 1975; Yes We Have No Mananas, 1976; Rainbow Takeaway, 1978, and his last recording for Harvest Records, That's What You Get Babe, 1980; for various labels, recorded Diamond Jack and the Queen of Pain,1983, Falling Up, 1988 and Still Life With Guitar, 1992.
- Selected discography
- Joy of a Toy Harvest, 1969.
- Shooting at the Moon Harvest, 1970.
- Whatevershebringswesing Harvest, 1971.
- Bananamour Harvest, 1973.
- Confessions of Dr. Dream and Other Stories Harvest, 1974.
- Sweet Deceiver Harvest, 1975.
- Yes We Have No Mananas Harvest, 1976.
- Rainbow Takeaway Harvest, 1978.
- That's What You Get Babe Harvest, 1980.
- Diamond Jack and the Queen of Pain Charly, 1983.
- Falling Up Virgin, 1988.
- Still Life With Guitar Permanent, 1992.
- Guardian (London, England), July 4, 2003, p. 6.
- "Kevin Ayers," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (January 10, 2006).
- "Kevin Ayers Interview," Perfect Sound Forever, http://www.furious.com/perfect/kevinayers.html (January 10, 2006).
- Additional information was obtained from Martin Wakeling's biographical essay of Kevin Ayers, available at http://www.pin.be/~ping8683/bio.htm (January 10, 2006).