Founder member of Soft Machine and sometime member of Gong, Kevin Ayers’ career is a snapshot of the English underground across four decades. Patchy, erratic and often unclassifiably brilliant, his solo work remains a strange catalogue of delights.
John Peel wrote in his autobiography that “Kevin Ayers’ talent is so acute you could perform major eye surgery with it”.
Ayers’ childhood was posh, lonely and miserable. His father was Rowan Ayers, the BBC broadcaster and creator of The Open Door and co-creator of The Old Grey Whistle Test, and when his parents’ marriage ended he was farmed out to live with his grandmother.
His mother – “a cold woman with a fierce Catholic guilt complex and a desire for self-improvement” – set up home in Malaysia with a new husband, an army officer, and when they eventually sent for Kevin he made the journey alone, at the age of six – a three-day trek to the Far East with a stopover at Bangkok.
He was sent to a boarding school “full of homosexual priests who were always trying to get into my pants because I was blonde and looked like an angel”.
Back in England, Ayers was sent to a succession of schools. Some expelled him. Some he escaped from. One of them was the Simon Langton Grammar School in Canterbury, where he met future Soft Machine members Robert Wyatt and Mike Ratledge, whose friendship represented the first experience of family-like intimacy he had ever had.
His first solo album Joy Of A Toy (1969) established Ayers as a uniquely simplistic and effortlessly mercurial solo artist. The tracks on the album were playfully moody, half silly and never pompous.
In 1970, Ayers formed The Whole World, which included a young Mike Oldfield on bass and avant-garde composer David Bedford on keyboards. A difficult second album, Shooting At The Moon (1970), resulted.
Moonlighting in Gong as well, Ayers brought members of both bands into the studio for his third and perhaps best album, Whatevershebringswesing (1971). Here Ayers pinned down all the fragmentary elements he had been harbouring since his Soft Machine days.
The title track, with some stunning guitar work from Oldfield, was a clear highlight, but in the Stockhausen-likeSong From The Bottom Of A Well, Ayers reached into truly groundbreaking territory, influential on such luminaries as the great Brian Eno himself, who had clearly listened to a lot of Ayers before embarking on Here Come The Warm Jets (1974).
Ayers slept with countless women – from Lady Aspinall to Nico, from the wife of John Cale to the girlfriend of Lou Reed and the ex-wife of Richard Branson. He lived with Eno in Maida Vale, and it was at one of Ayers’ famous house parties in July 1973 that Robert Wyatt – drunk and caught with the wrong girl – fell out of an upstairs window and was paralysed permanently from the waist down.
Bananamour (1973) was deliciously kooky, while The Confessions Of Dr Dream & Other Stories (1974) is arguably Ayers’ strangest record.
Ayers once more headed off in search of the sun, setting up home in Provence, Majorca and Minorca, and by the close of the 1970s he had gone to ground completely.
Throughout the 1980s Kevin Ayers was a heroin addict. He once received an entire portable recording studio as a gift from Mike Oldfield and sold it to support his habit.
His musical partner at the time, Ollie Halsall of Patto, was his drug buddy – until he died from an overdose in 1992. His death weaned Ayers off the stuff.
In 2007 he released a new album, The Unfairground, which reunited him with many from the old scene, including Wyatt, who he hadn’t seen for 30 years.