Kevin Ayers: a chronological playlist (part 1)
Published on March 1st, 2013 | Jonny Abrams
Kevin Ayers is one of Rocksucker’s all-time favourite songwriters and performers, so news of his recent passing had us scrabbling back through his back catalogue in what has proven to be a sad yet ultimately celebratory confirmation of his unique genius.
Here, then, is our hand-picked Kevin Ayers playlist, presented chronologically to chart his progression from Soft Machine prodigy right through his glittering solo career. You might be a newcomer looking for guidance or an existing fan browsing out of curiosity, but either way we’d like to know what you think of our choices – and, indeed, which songs you’d have picked – so drop us a line in the comments section below.
In the meantime, feast your ears on this lot…
Soft Machine – “Why Are We Sleeping?” (from 1968 LP The Soft Machine)
A number that Ayers would revisit with added poise and drama on his 1974 album The Confessions of Dr. Dream and Other Stories, this was used as the grand finale to Soft Machine’s seminal debut and hints at the eccentrically English psychedelia that would leap so colourfully to life from the group’s rolling space jams. This berserk cover by Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci is also well worth your time and amazement.
Soft Machine – “Soon, Soon Soon”
Ayers would pull this off with far more elan a couple of years later, but this tumbling, addled prototype is also rich in charm.
Kevin Ayers – “Town Feeling” (from 1969 LP Joy of a Toy)
After the joyous lunatic march of “Joy of a Toy Continued”, this lysergic English countryside stroll signals the kind of astonishing change of pace that is but one gleeful characteristic of an utterly perfect album. Ayers’s dozy baritone is the ideal mouthpiece for his own effortlessly embracing acid lyricism (“Today the town seems like a tomb / Everyone is locked up in his room / Making love / Or taking love / Who cares?”), and everywhere you look there are ingenious applications of something: Paul Buckmaster’s psychedelically slurring cello, Paul Minns’s ornate flutters of oboe, Robert Wyatt’s sublimely understated drum fills, Ayers’s own absorbing bass hammer-ons, his sudden and unexpected interjection of “banana” in the second of the vocalless chorus sections, you name it.
Like “Girl on a Swing” just two tracks later, “Town Feeling” is a supremely characterful and colourful still life portrait, bold pastel textures invested with psychedelically goofy warmth. Kevin Ayers has truly arrived.
Kevin Ayers – “Song for Insane Times” (from 1969 LP Joy of a Toy)
For starters, the piano motif could conceivably have invented acid house, so groovy and jazzily dissonant they are in these still captifying surroundings. Wyatt’s flurries of firecracker drums interject a vocal that could not be more perfect if it tried, one which makes lines like “His brave new girl stops feeding the ants / And looks at him with her septic pants / She still knows how to make him dance / And forget about emancipation, it’s just imagination” sound positively romantic, and there are berserk proggy breakdowns that work to devastating effect amidst the pervading psychedelic soul/soulful psychedelia. Just ever so incredibly good.
Kevin Ayers – “Singing a Song in the Morning”
“Singing a Song in the Morning” is the eventual single version of a song that had featured Syd Barrett on guitar and been titled “Religious Experience”. The fact that Gruff Rhys has seen fit to perform this live is all the recommendation you should need for just how elatingly adorable and just a little bit daft this song is. It’s “Kelly’s Heroes” by Black Grape but twenty-five-odd years earlier, and wrapped around a simple singalong refrain of “Singing a song in the morning / Singing it again at night / I don’t even know what I’m singing about / But it makes me feel I feel alright”. It’s a winner all ends up.
Kevin Ayers and the Whole World – “May I” (from 1970 LP Shooting at the Moon)
Almost unbearably exquisite, Rocksucker just wants this to go on forever whenever we hear it. Fortunately it leads into an album of sprawling, soundscape-infused psych-pop that points the way forward to The Olivia Tremor Control, but so enrichingly swoonsome is the balance it strikes between sweetness and sophistication – the way it registers as a simple little love song despite being, upon closer inspection, really quite complicatedly jazz-informed – it’s all too much, it really is. In fact, if “It’s All Too Much” happens to be one of your favourite Beatles songs, then Kevin Ayers is for you, for he was beamed down from the very same kind of heaven.
Kevin Ayers and the Whole World – “Oyster & The Fling Fish” (from 1970 LP Shooting at the Moon)
The ‘folky Nico’ voice of Bridget St John is such an ideal accompaniment to – perhaps even mirror of – Ayers’s own singing style that this ridiculously charming duet was written in the stars, pure and simple. It’s a magically surreal and richly melodic sort-of sea shanty that could conceivably have featured in either the original Disney animation of Alice in Wonderland or on Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci’s 1997 album Barafundle.
There are lyrics like “The flying fish came down to see / Just who had made this plea / And seeing the poor oyster / Said this cannot be / An oyster has to stay inside / And a flying fish must flee, all the time”, a grin-inducingly brilliant vocal tango of “ooh la, ooh la, ooh la, ooh la, ooh la la, ooh la la, ooh la ooh la ooh la la”, thrillingly unexpected chord changes: the works.
Kevin Ayers – “Whatevershebringswesing” (from 1971 LP Whatevershebringswesing)
A blissful submergence, an alluringly languid deep sea dive among gently swaying mermaid gardens, breezily carefree yet somehow intensely soulful at the same time: this title track is all things to all things to all people, especially if you’re the kind of people who’d appreciate wondering if Ayers is singing “you’re such a fine lady” or “you’re such a fat lady”, and then googling it to discover that it is in fact “fat lady”. It’s eight minutes long and flat-out refuses to outstay its welcome. Oh, and it’s got Mike Oldfield on guitar. And it was recorded at Abbey Road.
What’s more, it leads straight into…
Kevin Ayers – “Stranger in Blue Suede Shoes” (from 1971 LP Whatevershebringswesing)
Holy crap. Okay look, Rocksucker could probably talk all day long about how great “Stranger in Blue Suede Shoes” is, so it feels like a bit of a cop-out that we won’t. Suffice it to say, if you’re uninitiated and are scrolling down looking for a good one to start with – in which case, tut tut for flouting the ‘chronological’ aspect – start with this one. Then come back and tell us why you love it so much, and of course to say – as yer man does here – “thank you very much”.
Kevin Ayers – “Shouting in a Bucket Blues” (from 1973 LP Bananamour)
“Sometimes I get too drunk and feel so god damn low / I have no place to go, no-one to turn to” represents arguably Ayers’s first real venture into confessional lyricism, “So I sing for everyone who feels there’s no way out / Maybe if you all shout, someone will hear you” perhaps his first into inclusive empathy. Moreover, “Shouting in a Bucket Blues” is laid-back pop songwriting of the very highest calibre, boasting a ’70s guitar line that reminds of The Beach Boys’ version of “Bluebirds Over the Mountain” and more ingenious chord progressions than you could shake a banana at. On another gem-packed album – including, notably, the Syd Barrett tribute “Oh! What a Dream” – this represents its most disarming moment, Ayers sounding cracked, beaten but still utterly imperious.
Oh, and “there’s a whole mountain range of misunderstanding” feels like a Stephen Malkmus lyric twenty years too early. Which is cool.
Kevin Ayers – “Decadence” (from 1973 LP Bananamour)
Eight minutes long and based around a looped motif, “Decadence” is a bit like “Whatevershebringswesing” reimagined as a psychedelic march through Pepperland, one that also seems to fly by in half the time by dint of its entrancing, hallucinogenic properties. Rocksucker wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that Primal Scream and/or Cornershop sourced their respective majesties in part from this.
Kevin Ayers – “Didn’t Feel Lonely Till I Thought of You” (from 1974 LP The Confessions of Dr. Dream and Other Stories)
Ayers got his groove on for his first album for Island having left Harvest, roping in a gospel choir that renders this one a clear forebear to Cornershop’s “Lessons Learned From Rocky I ro Rocky III”. The funk-tinged air of revelry doesn’t sit entirely comfortably at first, but it proves itself to be pretty darn irresistible after a few plays. Fortunately, The Confessions of Dr. Dream and Other Stories takes a turn for the idiosyncratic from thereon in, not least on…
Kevin Ayers – “Irreversible Neural Damage” (from 1974 LP The Confessions of Dr. Dream and Other Stories)
This time it actually is Nico on vocals, her voice (and Ayers’s) phased nightmarishly as if calling out from another dimension. Quite what state of mind you’d have to be in to write something like this is anyone’s guess, but we can only be grateful that someone did because it really is unique. The sense of trepidation and paranoia here is so palpable that you might forget it’s just a song, rather than a film, book and art installation all rolled into one – and the way it slips into the feel-good riffery of “Invitation” is nothing short of masterful.
Kevin Ayers – “City Waltz” (from 1975 LP Sweet Deceiver)
Speaking of trepidation, the opening lines of this sweet and ornately daft sort-of sea shanty/drinking song run: “Living in the city seems to fill me with trepidation / Fills me with trepidation inside / Too much big business and too little celebration”. That pretty much lays bare the reclusive tendencies that led Ayers to isolate himself in Mallorca after the first Soft Machine album, eating only the fish he caught and the fruit he picked, and of course the detachment of his later years.
In 2011, Rocksucker sent an interview request to Ayers’s manager Timothy Shepard in the hope of setting up something to accompany that year’s reissues of the Rainbow Takeaway and That’s What You Get Babe albums, and received back a very politely worded reply explaining that Ayers was “completely disengaged to everything connected to when he did music” and that he did not even know about those latest reissues.
Back to “City Waltz”, though, and its deceptively playful nature conceals one of his most overtly politicised lyrics in “Too many reassuring lies to lullaby the population / Lullaby the population to sleep” – it all comes across as Ayers throwing up his hands in despair and washing them of the world around him, but not without leaving behind some exquisite and timeless pop music first. Come to think of it, that sentiment is neatly encapsulated by the title of our following pick…
Kevin Ayers – “Diminished but Not Finished” (from 1975 LP Sweet Deceiver)
“Never knew how to write a love song / Always seem to get the words wrong / Always trying to say what can’t be said” could be construed as Ayers confronting his own prior reluctance to bare his soul in his lyrics, not that that ever even came close to holding him back as an artist. It’s easy to imagine such an evidently sensitive soul seeing it that way, though, and if self-laceration was indeed the motivation for this beautiful little piano ballad then it only proved that Ayers was still capable at that point of wringing something truly great out of most anything he felt or perceived.
Kevin Ayers – “Yes I Do” (from 1976 LP Yes We Have No Mañanas [So Get Your Mañanas Today])
By now Ayers has fully embraced the confessional, throwing lines like “Tonight I’m full of doubts and fears / Looks like another night of tears / You’re not here so I can’t turn to you” over classically melancholic piano like a lonely wolf howling at the moon. “Now I know what loving someone really means” might feel like empty love song cliché in the hands of another, but coming from Ayers here – especially tagged onto the end of an album largely comprised of effervescent pop songs – it feels crushingly genuine.
Kevin Ayers – “Blue” (from 1976 LP Yes We Have No Mañanas [So Get Your Mañanas Today])
If your jaw isn’t on the floor by the end of this epic closing track, then you really should be asking yourself why. Gobsmacking doesn’t even begin to describe the sheer awesome power of this baroque-rock power ballad, back when that term mightn’t have conveyed quite the same horror as it has done since the ’80s. Made all the more affecting by the notion of it bringing the curtain down on Ayers’s golden era, not that there wasn’t still some great stuff to come – this article would be ending here otherwise. In any case, Rocksucker would argue the inclusion of Rainbow Takeaway in any such exalted succession…
Kevin Ayers – “Ballad of a Salesman Who Sold Himself” (from 1978 LP Rainbow Takeaway)
…and here’s a compelling example of why. Swooping in benevolently after the luxuriously loungey calypso-pop of “Blaming It All on Love”, “Ballad of a Salesman” shows Ayers still chock-full of brilliant ideas and a willingness to string seemingly disparate ones together with astoundingly seamless ease. This is as beautiful as it is tangential, and there’s not many songs you can say that about.
Kevin Ayers – “Goodnight Goodnight” (from 1978 LP Rainbow Takeaway)
See, Kevin Ayers could take on ska and lead it in more interesting directions, within just three minutes, than many artists could even conceive of. “You’re in dreamland” we are informed, and it “Goodnight Goodnight” is just about otherworldly and psychedelically enriching enough to have you pinching yourself out of uncertainty. Bloody brilliant, and what’s more it leads straight into the deliriously joyous group singalong of “Hat Song”.