Even if you knew nothing about Kevin Ayers, a glance at a career that included co-founding Soft Machine, and then recording for Harvest, Island and Virgin, would tell you that this was a very important progressive rock musician.
The pre-eminence of the English singer, songwriter and guitarist can’t really be measured in chart books. Ayers never made the UK bestsellers during his days with Soft Machine or as a solo artist, but the scope of his work paved the way for many other psych-rock musicians, much as his contemporary Syd Barrett did to wider recognition, both in and out of Pink Floyd.
Born on August 16, 1944 in Herne Bay, England, Ayers was key to the development of the Canterbury scene of the 1960s which spawned Soft Machine. Their first album, recorded for ABC/Probe in the US, made a minor chart impression there, and they opened for Jimi Hendrix on his second American tour. They’re also, of course, fondly remembered as the starting ground for another great British individual, Robert Wyatt.
Leaving Soft Machine, Ayers signed with Harvest and started his solo career with the album Joy Of A Toy late in 1969. He released music for them regularly for several years and then moving to Island. The early bassist in Kevin’s band the Whole World was none other than a young and ambitious Mike Oldfield.
In 1974, Ayers collaborated twice on disc with Brian Eno, as the latter artist looked beyond Roxy Music for his inspiration: on Island with June 1, 1974, which also featured Nico and John Cale, and on Caroline/Virgin with Lady June’s Linguistic Leprosy.
Championed by a select band of tastemakers including BBC broadcaster John Peel, Ayers continued to make albums throughout the 1980s for a variety of labels. He returned to Virgin in 1988 for Falling Up, but then became something of a recluse, living in the south of France.
He made one further appearance as a frontman with the 2007 album for the LO-MAX label, The Unfairground, which featured friends from days past such as Phil Manzanera, Bridget St. John and Hugh Hopper, as well as modern-day admirers from such bands as Teenage Fanclub and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. Kevin features in the Really Sayin’ Somethin’ story and playlist of the best spoken word tracks, which you can find here, with his great “Stranger In Blue Suede Shoes.” Kevin died in France at the age of 68 on February 18, 2013.
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