After Shooting At the Moon, Peter Jenner relinquished production duties on Ayers’ last two Harvest albums to his partner, Andrew King, whose tweedy bonhomie was perhaps more compatible with Ayers’ preference for good wine to hard work.
“I’d got a bit frustrated with Kevin,” Jenner admits. “I couldn’t quite see how you could make him work, how you could get through to him. I always found him very pleasant, but evasive in that wonderfully English manner. ‘Oh, yes. Jolly good idea.’ And then that was that. I can’t remember ever having a row with him. He was extraordinarily easy to get on with. I remember saying things like, ‘Come on. Pull your finger out, old boy, stiff upper lip and all that.’ But there was sometimes no getting through to him. But he was always so charming you couldn’t really be annoyed or grumpy with him. I think that was part of the trouble.”
The Whole World had split by now, but David Bedford, Robert Wyatt and Mike Oldfield were at hand in June 1971, when Ayers started the sessions for the album many regard as his masterpiece, Whatevershebringswesing.
“I don’t recall doing very much at all,” King recalls of his role as producer. “We had a great studio, a great engineer. Kevin had written some great songs and worked out all the arrangements with David Bedford. It was all pretty effortless. I’ve always said I got two points [on the album’s sales] for owning a corkscrew. All I did was keep a corkscrew handy and open a bottle of wine every now and then.”
After the sometimes brutal sounds of Shooting At The Moon, the new album was in places lushly orchestrated, as on the opening “There Is Loving/Among Us/There Is Loving”, and awash with some of Kevin’s most glorious melodies – “Margaret” was an especially honeyed love song, among Ayers’ most generously affecting. “Song From The Bottom Of A Well” explored darker recesses, but the album was on the whole aglow, nowhere brighter than on the title track, with Wyatt providing delicate wistful harmonies and Oldfield contributing a wonderfully evocative guitar solo. On the almost-hit single “Stranger In Blue Suede Shoes”, Ayers sounded like a home counties Lou Reed on a track you could put alongside David Bowie’s “Queen Bitch” and Anthony Moore’s “Time Less Strange” as among the best-ever Velvet Underground homages.
“He liked to do things in an elegant and stylish way and that can be mistaken for being casual,” says King. “But he was pretty serious and hard-working, in a way. It’s one of those popular illusions that rock stars don’t do any work, but most of them work bloody hard. It always annoys me when people talk about Syd, as if he’d roll up at lunchtime, take some acid and write a wonderful song. Of course, it’s not like that at all. He worked very hard. And I’m sure Kevin did, too.”
In September 1972, King was back in the studio, corkscrew in hand, to produce Ayers’ final album for Harvest. Released the following May, Bananamour was perhaps the most conventional of his first four solo albums, replete with robust rockers like “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” and “When Your Parents Go To Sleep” (sung by his new musical partner, bassist Archie Leggett), driven by horns and adorned with backing singers that gave the record a more determinedly commercial sound. There were quaint oddities, too, like Kevin’s touching tribute to Syd Barrett, “Oh! Wot A Dream”. The woozily atmospheric “Decadence”, a song inspired by Nico with something of the musical chill of her Marble Index or Desertshore albums, was a career highlight.
“After that,” King remarks tartly, “he signed to Island, which in those days was quite a big deal. But actually, it was downhill all the way for Kevin from that point. It’s often the case that you sign to a label and there’s great optimism and then the first single is a bit of a disappointment and doesn’t go Top 10 and after that the whole deal is seen as a bit of a failure. At Island, I think Kevin was seen as not as good as they thought he was.”
Most bizarrely, Ayers was taken on by Elton John’s manager, John Reid, for 1975’s misguided Sweet Deceiver, ending his relationship with Blackhill. It was a move Ayers subsequently regretted. “I think he took me on as a pretty young boy,” he told Uncut in December 2008, the year after his last LP, The Unfairground, was released. “I felt as if I’d been bought by this rich and powerful person as a kind of token.”
“We were furious when John Reid nicked him from us,” Peter Jenner says. “That was awful. Kevin was seduced by cocaine and champagne and the promise that John Reid would make him a star, which obviously never happened.”
“I would say signing with John Reid ruined his life,” says Andrew King. “I would say John Reid has a lot to answer for. I think he’s a wicked person.”
There is little rancour, however, when King reflects on the music Ayers made on those four Harvest albums. “They’re his best work, don’t you think?” he asks. “They’re a bit ragged at the edges, not perfect, could have done with a bit more discipline maybe. But they’re brilliant, wonderful, eccentric and full of English charm. Almost like Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony in their very English eccentricity.
“I don’t think you should look back at a career like his and say, ‘Oh, what a shame, he could have been so much bigger.’ So what if he could have been so much bigger, does it matter? I don’t think so. Kevin is what he was and those records are what they are. Love them or leave them. There’s no spilt milk to be cried over when you consider Kevin’s career and the music he made, on those first four albums especially. They’re little islands floating in the Caribbean Sea, a little belt of islands of pleasure and fun and palm trees. We need,” he says, “more Kevins.”
Additional reporting by Michael Bonner
“His role models weren’t healthy”
Robert Wyatt on Kevin Ayers’ legendary lassitude
“He was 10 years ahead of punk in seeing no particular reason why one should tune a guitar. And in retrospect, we can see, why bother sometimes? You can get wonderful records out of it. So Kevin was ahead of the curve on that one. But to a certain extent, I don’t think Kevin took himself seriously enough as a musician and songwriter. I think perhaps his role models weren’t terribly healthy. They were people like Jeffrey Bernard [writer, gambler, Soho drinking legend], you know that whole Soho scene, eccentrics who would hang around the pubs and became legendary hanger-outers. People would say, ‘He’s a writer, you know,’ or, ‘He’s a painter, you know.’ And in a way they were, but in a way you’d think, ‘Oh, when do they do that, because they seem to be spending an awful lot of time in this pub?’ But they were legendary people. In the ’50s, especially while there was still conscription, all the healthy young men were off doing National Service. So Soho became full of people who weren’t allowed in the army because they were mad, or because they were homosexual, or something or other. Soho became this gravitational place of army rejects, apart from anything else, where you saw people with very long hair doing astrology in a corner of a café or listening to strange jazz records on jukeboxes that you’d never hear anywhere else. These people were Kevin’s role models. They were his idea of how to be, which had nothing to do with a sense of industry or getting product to market. It was when the underground really was the underground, and you did art or whatever, as and when you felt like it, and not otherwise.”
How to buy…
Kevin Ayers’ Harvest Albums 1969-1973
Joy Of A Toy (1969)
Written and recorded in the aftermath of his sudden departure from Soft Machine the previous year, Ayers’ solo debut was a sly conflation of pastoral folk, jazz and avant-rock, aided by various ex-bandmates. The laissez-faire richness of his voice heightened the dream-like whimsy of two of his most celebrated tunes, “Girl On A Swing” and “The Lady Rachel”.
Shooting At The Moon (1970)
A successful tour with his new backing band, The Whole World, provided the impetus for Ayers’ return to the studio. The result was a heady rush of styles that gambolled freely between a remake of the Soft Machine reverie “Clarence In Wonderland” to the proggish cut-up experimentalism of “Rheinhardt And Geraldine/Colores Para Dolores” and comely folk duet “The Oyster And The
Flying Fish”, recorded with singer-songwriter Bridget St John.
Perhaps the pick of Ayers’ first spell with Harvest, this expansive beauty is further enhanced by Robert Wyatt’s harmonies on the eight-minute title track and the orchestral daring of David Bedford. Two other standouts highlight the dual aspect of Ayers’ best work: the forlorn, ravishing drama of “There Is Loving/Among Us/There Is Loving” and the rock’n’roll of live staple, “Stranger In Blue Suede Shoes”.
Heading up a new trio with bassist Archie Leggett and drummer Eddie Sparrow, Ayers’ Harvest swansong found him newly energised. Gong guitarist Steve Hillage does a killer turn on the explosive “Shouting In A Bucket Blues”, while Ayers provides terse six-string muscle to the terrific “Interview”, alongside pluming organ lines from the Softs’ Mike Ratledge. Also includes “Oh! Wot A Dream”, an affectionate tribute to old pal Syd Barrett.
The October 2019 issue of Uncut is on sale from August 15, and available to order online now – with Patti Smith on the cover. Inside, you’ll find Bon Iver, Robbie Robertson, Jeff Buckley, Miles Davis, Brittany Howard, The Hollies, Devendra Banhart, Neil Young and Bob Dylan and more. Our 15-track CD also showcases the best of the month’s new music, including Wilco, Oh Sees, Hiss Golden Messenger and Tinariwen.