Writing about the talented, if wayward, singer-songwriter Kevin Ayers six years ago, I described him as the nearly man of British psychedelia. The journalistic shorthand didn't exactly do justice to his groundbreaking work with Soft Machine, the group who put Canterbury on the musical map and defined British psychedelia as much as Pink Floyd, nor to the delightful, if occasionally uneven, 17 solo albums he made after leaving them in 1969.
Ayers had a knack for dreaming up unusual characters, like "The Lady Rachel" or "Girl on a Swing" on his Joy of a Toy 1969 debut, or "Clarence in Wonderland" on Shooting at the Moon, his 1970 follow-up, and was rightly compared to Syd Barrett, a fellow traveller he paid homage to with the whimsical "Oh! Wot a Dream" in 1972. But there was a touch of the Noël Coward about him, too, when he did a French version of the carefree ballad "May I?" – retitled "Puis-je?" – in 1970, penned a ditty called "Caribbean Moon" in 1973, or covered "Falling in Love Again", a song most commonly associated with Marlene Dietrich, in 1976.
Ultimately, despite surrounding himself with excellent musicians, including a 17-year-old Mike Oldfield in 1970, three years before Tubular Bells, and Andy Summers, before the guitarist joined The Police in 1977, Ayers never broke away from his cult status and didn't fulfil his potential as a British Lou Reed or a more louche Nick Drake. His undeniable charm and angelic blond looks made women in the Seventies swoon – and he romanced Richard Branson's first wife, Kristen, and subsequently married and divorced her, but he lacked the confidence and huge ego so prevalent in most rock stars, and tended to disappear to the Mediterranean when the pressure got to him. "I lost it years ago. A long, long time ago," he told me in 2007, before adding, "But, in a way, I don't think I've ever had it."
However, he was a hugely influential figure on subsequent generations of musicians, including Blur, Julian Cope and Super Furry Animals as well as Teenage Fanclub, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci and Ladybug Transistor, three groups who helped him complete his swansong album, The Unfairground, in 2007.
Born in Kent in 1944, he was the son of Rowan Ayers, the BBC producer behind the launch of The Old Grey Whistle Test, but spent part of his formative years in Malaysia after his parents divorced and his mother remarried a civil servant. He was sent to various boarding schools back in the UK, and hated the experience. "It was sheer hell. I just felt like a complete stranger," he recalled. In the early 1960s, he was busted for possession of illegal drugs, but avoided being sent to a remand centre on condition that he returned to live with his mother near Canterbury. There, he was befriended by several jazz buffs, chief among them Robert Wyatt – a drummer and vocalist – and Hugh Hopper – a bassist – with whom he eventually formed a group called The Wilde Flowers. "It was like the first family I ever had. I had to be with these people, who were articulate and intellectually curious," said Ayers.
The Wilde Flowers constantly changed line-up, and included various musicians who went on to form Caravan and the roots of the Canterbury scene, while Ayers dropped out, yet continued to write the idiosyncratic songs that would become his trademark. By the summer of 1966, Ayers, who had picked up the bass, Wyatt, the keyboard-player Mike Ratledge and the Australian guitarist Daevid Allen had come together as Soft Machine after backing William Burroughs at a poetry reading in London and securing his permission to use the title of his novel for their name.
Soft Machine became darlings of the British underground with their Ayers-penned "Love Makes Sweet Music" single, and appearances at the Roundhouse, UFO and the biggest happening of them all, the 14 Hour Technicolor Dream at Alexandra Palace in April 1967. They also took their blend of Dadaism, pataphysics, jazz and pop to continental Europe, and found a simpatico audience in France. "We weren't mainstream rock'n'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 the UK," recalled Ayers whose love of France endured until his death. He lived near Carcassonne, in the medieval village of Montolieu.
The summer of 1967 ended on a sour note when Allen was prevented from re-entering the UK because his visa had run out, but the other three continued. 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'n'roll," Ayers recalled. "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." He quit in the autumn of 1968 before the album even came out and sold his white Fender Jazz bass to Hendrix bassist Noel Redding.
He went to Ibiza, where he reconnected with Allen, and returned to the UK in 1969. He made the the first of four experimental, critically acclaimed albums for Harvest, EMI's progressive rock imprint, and crossed paths with Barrett again. "He was gone, he'd lost it. I just really identified with him, his songwriting and his spirit," said Ayers. He felt his first four albums for Harvest, which also include 1971's Whatevershebringswesing and 1973's Bananamour, "were the most original ones. That's before I was infected by the music business."
In 1974, he signed to Chris Blackwell's Island Records, issued The Confessions of Dr Dream and Other Stories and headlined the Rainbow Theatre in London with fellow mavericks Brian Eno as well as John Cale and Nico of Velvet Underground fame. June 1st 1974, the live album of the event, touted the foursome as the "decadent, alternative" Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, but Ayers had little time for it. "That's what I call my middle-of-the-road period, when Island were trying to make me into a rock star with silver suits... It was a bad idea."
Being managed by John Reid didn't seem to help his career either, though it led to unlikely appearances on TV shows like Supersonic in the mid-Seventies. "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... And he proceeded to totally destroy my career. 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."
Ayers could be scathing in his criticims, especially when his fondness for red wine got the better of him, but he was a compelling performer when I saw him in this Seventies pomp, and his baritone developed a touching quality in his later years. He spent most of the Nineties in exile, interrupted by the occasional short tour. In the Noughties, he met the American artist Tim Shepard, who helped organise the recording of The Unfairground, a fitting epitaph, with its big themes of love, loss and death. "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?" Ayers told me in 2007. "You try to avoid clichés... What I hate is lazy language. I'm not really a good musician at all, but I know when to avoid a rock'n'roll cliché."
Friends found a note by his bedside. It read, "You can't shine if you don't burn."
Kevin Cawley Ayers, singer, songwriter, guitarist: born Herne Bay, Kent 15 August 1944; twice married (three daughters); died Montolieu, France 18 February 2013.