Kevin Ayers: Singer, guitarist and pioneer of British psychedelic rock


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."

Pierre Perrone

Kevin Cawley Ayers, singer, songwriter, guitarist: born Herne Bay, Kent 15 August 1944; twice married (three daughters); died Montolieu, France 18 February 2013.

Arts and Entertainment
'A voice untroubled by time': Kate Bush
musicReview: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Life and Style
Cooked up: reducing dietary animal fat might not be as healthy as government advice has led millions of people to believe
healthA look at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
Life and Style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Oppressive atmosphere: the cast of 'Tyrant'
tvIntroducing Tyrant, one of the most hotly anticipated dramas of the year
Ukrainian Leonid Stadnik, 37, 2.59 meter (8,5 feet) tall, the world's tallest living man, waves as he poses for the media by the Chevrolet Tacuma car presented to him by President of Ukraine Viktor Yushchenko in Kiev on March 24, 2008.
newsPeasant farmer towered at almost 8'5'' - but shunned the limelight
Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in ‘The Front Page’, using an old tech typewriter
Life and Style
Could a robot sheepdog find itself working at Skipton Auction Mart?
techModel would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian
Angel Di Maria poses with Louis van Gaal after signing for Manchester United
sportWinger arrives from Real Madrid and could make debut on Saturday
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Hooked on classical: cellist Rachael Lander began drinking to combat panic attacks
musicThe cellist Rachael Lander’s career was almost destroyed by alcohol she drank to fight stage fright. Now she’s playing with Elbow...
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Nursery Assistant/Nurse all cheshire areas

£7 per hour: Randstad Education Cheshire: We are a large and successful recrui...

Year 2 Teachers needed for day to day supply

£110 - £130 per day + Competitve rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Yea...

Digital Marketing Manager, Womens Fashion, London

£50-£60K Plus Benefits: Charter Selection: Highly successful leading women’s l...

Year 6 Teachers needed for day to day supply roles

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Ye...

Day In a Page

Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?
Rachael Lander interview: From strung out to playing strings

From strung out to playing strings

Award-winning cellist Rachael Lander’s career was almost destroyed by the alcohol she drank to fight stage fright. Now she’s playing with Elbow and Ellie Goulding
The science of saturated fat: A big fat surprise about nutrition?

A big fat surprise about nutrition?

The science linking saturated fats to heart disease and other health issues has never been sound. Nina Teicholz looks at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
Emmys 2014 review: Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars

Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars?

The recent Emmy Awards are certainly glamorous, but they can't beat their movie cousins
On the road to nowhere: A Routemaster trip to remember

On the road to nowhere

A Routemaster trip to remember
Hotel India: Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind

Hotel India

Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind
10 best pencil cases

Back to school: 10 best pencil cases

Whether it’s their first day at school, uni or a new project, treat the student in your life to some smart stationery
Arsenal vs Besiktas Champions League qualifier: Gunners know battle with Turks is a season-defining fixture

Arsenal know battle with Besiktas is a season-defining fixture

Arsene Wenger admits his below-strength side will have to improve on last week’s show to pass tough test
Pete Jenson: Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought

Pete Jenson: A Different League

Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought
This guitar riff has been voted greatest of all time

The Greatest Guitar Riff of all time

Whole Lotta Votes from Radio 2 listeners
Britain’s superstar ballerina

Britain’s superstar ballerina

Alicia Markova danced... every night of the week and twice on Saturdays
Berlin's Furrie invasion

Berlin's Furrie invasion

2000 fans attended Eurofeurence
‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

Driven to the edge by postpartum psychosis