Kevin Ayers: ‘I need the energy that love, sex and affection gives one’
Classic Interview: Kevin Ayers – who died on Monday aged 68 – co-founded Soft Machine, toured with Pink Floyd, shared acid trips and girlfriends with Hendrix, had Mike Oldfield as his bass player, and his baritone “Hello” caused girls to swoon. He also made some of the most wonderfully whimsical, quintessentially English albums of the early 70s.
Originally published in Classic Rock Magazine in 2008
Words: Max Bell
When we meet in his manager’s flat in West London, Kevin Ayers greets me with: “The last time we met I believe I corrupted you.” Not quite. It was in old Amsterdam, 1975. After a couple of bottles of red, Ayers had decided a trip to the fleshpots was in order, via the famous brown cafes. Two virile young Englishmen abroad with time and gilders to spare…
Today Ayers is a well-worn 64. He still has most of that long blond hair and all of that rich, deep voice. He’s wearing a hippie kaftan shirt, faded denims and Ellesse sneakers. He is bronzed from his lengthy sojourn in the South of France. Though he hasn’t lived in the UK for 35 years – “I think in French” – he’s back in Britain to promote a splendid new compilation, Songs For Insane Times, chronicling his solo career from 1969’s majestic Joy Of A Toy to his final Harvest Records album, That’s What You Get Babe, featuring his original band Soft Machine, Syd Barrett, Elton John and a host of fine English players from the ‘alternative’ scene.
Clutching a beaker of Stolichnaya vodka and pawing roll-up Gauloises, Ayers describes the four-CD set as “a history book, the story of my life. The songs are my children, sent into the world for better or worse. I’m pleased with those that pass the test of time. They convey a feeling which isn’t clichéd.”
Notoriously self-effacing, Ayers regularly gets so nervous before interviews that he throws up. On a recent visit to New York he was constantly courted by young bands, such as Arcade Fire, who revere his work, and that really flipped him over. “I had to dash,” he laughs. Strange, perhaps, because Ayers has packed his life full.
Born in Herne Bay, he was a private Catholic school boy who then moved to Malaysia and attended a Koranic Muslim school. As a teenager he spent a year busking in London, living in squats and enduring dope busts, before returning to Kent to hook up with the Canterbury folk: Robert Wyatt, Mike Ratledge, Daevid Allen, Brian and Hugh Hopper – the nucleus of Soft Machine.
An essential British psychedelic pioneer, Ayers was a close ally of Pink Floyd. “We played with them dozens of times 1966-1967 – did all the UFO on Tottenham Court Road ‘happenings’, shared acid trips, guitars and girlfriends,” he smiles.
In 1968 Soft Machine were chosen by Jimi Hendrix to accompany him on a three-legged tour of America, splitting opening status with Eric Burdon And The Animals and sharing stages with everyone from Todd Rundgren and Albert King to the Troggs and the MC5.
How great was that? “Amazing. Too amazing. My first trip to the States, and then playing with Hendrix. To have girls coming up and saying: ‘I want to fuck you,’ while they grabbed your cock. Er, that didn’t happen in England too often. Not without dinner.”
Ayers and Jimi became close. “We socialised a lot. We dined together frequently and we lived in the Chelsea Hotel in New York on the same floor. It was just glorious watching him from the wings. He liked us cos we were weird and not pop, and no threat. He was a lovely guy – much abused by management and the music business. Plus his so-called friends stole everything he had, including his soul. The tour was a guns and briefcases affair. Everything was paid in cash, which made one an instant target.”
While Soft Machine criss-crossed America on what they called the VW tour (because the itinerary looked like that logo), Ayers observed Hendrix in microcosm. “They were making him do things that had been spontaneous, like fucking his amps and masturbating the guitar. The ‘act’ became written into his contract. I could see his face, how he’d grit his teeth at the pain of what he’d become. He’d have three roadies behind the amps to hold them up, and afterwards he’d come off and say: ‘Man, this is so sick. What have I become? Why am I doing this shit?’”
After the tour’s final shows, Hendrix sacked the Experience and Ayers parted company with the Softs. “I didn’t like the mechanical aspect. It was an eye opener seeing all the money slosh around while Jimi was being ripped off. His disillusionment did me a favour. I didn’t like the party. Plus Robert and co wanted to go in a jazz direction. I was a simple pop singer. Later Robert wrote to me and said: ‘You were right.’ But it was amicable. I owe them and The Beatles for my education, since the only record I’d heard post-Malaysia was The Sound Of Music.”