Kevin Ayers and Robert Wyatt - The Guardian
- 24 October 2007
KEVIN AYERS AND ROBERT WYATT
"I COULD HARDLY recognise him at first," says Kevin Ayers. "But there, under that great beard, was Robert and he hadn't changed a bit." The singer is recalling his reunion after over thirty years' separation, with Robert Wyatt, his former band mate in The Soft Machine. "As wonderful as it was odd", the meeting took place in the summer of 2006 while Ayers was recording his comeback album, The Unfairground, his first record since 1992. In odd, wonderful synchrony. it came out last month only weeks before Wyatt's own Comicopera.
Intense friendships always seem like they'll last forever, but time and the way of the world wears them away. Suddenly, decades have passed since you last saw that inseparable soul-mate. Wyatt and Ayers were co-founders of The Soft Machine, in their heyday second only to Pink Floyd as a psychedelic trip band at the swirling kaleidoscopic heart of Swinging' London. But after their debut album and a gruelling tour of America supporting the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Ayers went off to start a solo career. Many thought he was set to be a big star, his tousled blonde mane and debonair charm making him the missing link between Syd Barrett and Bryan Ferry. "I think Kevin got waylaid by us nutters," says Wyatt, meaning The Soft Machine and its anarcho-surrealist mish-mash of jazz and acid rock. "There was a window there, a moment when Kevin, with his songs, could have been up there in the charts, as a Donovan type figure." Ayers is bemused by this notion that he was diverted from his true destiny. "Donovan? Good heavens. I am glad that I ended up as Kevin Ayers! And the people from Soft Machine were a big part of that."
Wyatt and Ayers originally met in 1961. "Someone had told Kevin, ‘oh there's one other bloke in East Kent with long hair," says Wyatt. "You'd get on." They did. "Robert is an incredibly important figure in my life," says Ayers. "He got me started. I liked him and he was doing music so I wanted to do music too. Robert was extraordinary, full of ideas and able to talk about art and books. I had never been in that sort of atmosphere." Daevid Allen, a wandering Australian beatnik, was lodging with Robert's mother – the infinitely tolerant and artistically supportive Honor Wyatt, a journalist. He befriended the teenagers, precociously turning them on the hippie values of drugs, sex and free spirited nomadism. He whisked Ayers off to Balearic bohemian paradise of Ibiza, where "one could get by with absolutely no money." Recalls Ayers, "we hitchhiked down there and lived off fruit from the trees and fish we would catch."
Allen, Ayers, and Wyatt formed the Soft Machine with Mike Ratledge, a keyboard-playing prefect Wyatt had known at school in Canterbury. One of the great myths of The Soft Machine is that they were the product of a progressive school favored by Canterbury's artists and intellectuals. "Actually, the Simon Langton School is a totally respectable, conservative grammar school," says Wyatt, who remembers struggling academically and getting regular canings. He left at sixteen with no qualifications, having swallowed a whole bottle of his father's multiple sclerosis pills because he was "terrified of having to go back to school". Still it is true that the Soft Machine came from highbrow, arty backgrounds. "Robert was very lucky to have had parents who were interested in ideas and very open, you could talk with them about anything and they would listen," recalls Ayers, describing the Wyatt household in Lydden as "an absolute refuge." Later, after Wyatt's father died, his mother bought a small semi-detached house in West Dulwich and the entire band – plus girlfriends – lived there. "It was when the group were starting out," recalls Wyatt. "I don't how we all fitted in there. But we did and we made our racket and my mum was fine about it." Says Ayers, "There were plenty of dishes piling up in the sinks and unmade beds. But everyone was being creative in one way or another, or being intellectual or questioning and this came out in various forms such as poetry or art, but most of all music. Soft Machine was the only family I felt I ever had. We were a group of middle class boys from literate backgrounds, into jazz and beat writers, and we went off together on this incredible ride."
The Soft Machine weren't the first scions of the haute bourgeoisie to enter the rock world. But crucially, they were the first not to conceal their education or their accents. Indeed, alongside the equally well brought up Syd Barrett, Ayers was the first English rock vocalist not to sing in an American accent. Wyatt, who sang as well as drummed, followed suit on the group's second album. "At first I was all, "waaugh, bab-eee," he says, mimicking a standard American rock voice. But then Wyatt developed his own idiosyncratic style of falsetto singing, a wondrous blend of frailty and agility, melancholy and whimsy. "It sounded like me talking, only with notes."
The Soft Machine immediately became central figures on the London psychedelic scene. Yet in many ways their orientation was always jazz rather than rock. Wyatt even describes himself as a Fifties person who felt "bemused because the ‘rich flowering of culture' in the '60s was really just the mainstreaming of all these things that had been underground in the Fifties, like drugs." Beyond specific ideas to do with harmony, rhythm and improvisation, what they derived from jazz was "a kind of recklessness", a spirit of discovery captured in Miles Davis's instruction to his musicians: "play beyond what you know". This freeform approach, combined with rock-derived but unheard-of-in-proper-jazz techniques like distortion and effects, made The Soft Machine ideal for the sensory overload aesthetic of clubs like UFO, where they played seemingly every other week in 1966-67.
But Ayers's pop sensibility was increasingly at odds with where the Soft Machine's music was going, which was long, abstract pieces. ""Kevin had bravely soldiered on as bass guitarist in what had become really an instrumental band," says Wyatt. "He'd accumulated this stash of songs, but there really wasn't room for them in the band anymore." The tour of America with Hendrix divided the band further: Wyatt enjoyed going on the piss and the pull with Mitch and Noel of the Experience, Ayers found the whole rampage of buses, booze and birds a gruelling affront to his sensibilities. The group split up on its return. When they reformed, they invited Hugh Hopper, another alumnus of Simon Langton, to be the bass player. Wyatt enjoyed drumming in a wild, freeform style unsuitable for backing pop songs and happily went along with the jazz-rock direction. But after three more albums, he too was squeezed out as the Soft Machine became an increasingly uptight fusion outfit with little room for playfulness.
As important as the Soft Machine was to their development, few would disagree that Wyatt and Ayers came into their own as solo artists. Initially, Wyatt formed his own Softs in the form of Matching Mole, but after a drunken tumble from a high window left him paralysed below the waist, he had to give up drumming and the gang mindset of the performing band, and reinvent himself as a studio-bound artist. Started before the accident but finished and informed by that shattering trauma, 1973's Rock Bottom is Wyatt's masterpiece. From "Sea Song" (an oblique portrait of his new love and lifelong partner-to-be Alfreda Benge, a.k.a Alfie ) to 'Little Red Riding Hood Hit the Road' (which exorcised his post-paralysis anguish via bathos-laden turns of phrase like "oh dearie me"), the album combines experimentation, emotion and melody with an exquisite delicacy.
Meanwhile, starting with 1969's Joy of A Toy, Ayers launched an equally enthralling career, his output ranging from light-hearted ditties like 'Clarence In Wonderland' to nihilistic noise-scapes like 'Song from the Bottom of A Well'. Another highpoint was 'Decadence', a rippling, rhapsodic paean to his friend and fellow-traveler in hedonism, Nico, an ice queen "suffering from wear and tear" who perpetually slips back into "liquid night" despite the out-stretched arms of her lovers. "I never kiss and tell," he says tartly when asked if he and Nico were ever involved.
Ayers and Wyatt belonged to a milieu of English mavericks who recorded for "progressive" labels like Harvest, Island, Charisma, and Virgin. Sharing a similar sensibility of gentle humour and genteel experimentalism, this was an incestuous scene, the musicians frequently collaborating or guesting on each other's albums. The labels, similarly, exuded a longhaired, we're-only-playing-at-being-a-record-company vibe. Virgin seemed more like an arts council for weirdos than the Industry. "It wasn't really that idealistic," says Wyatt. It's just that "the Railway Enthusiast" – his nickname for Branson – "had noticed there was a market for bands who could sell albums without hit singles, based around the college gig circuit." Ironically, Virgin would later maneuver Wyatt into recording a single – a cover of the Monkees' 'I'm A Believer' – which actually did become a hit and got the wheelchair-bound singer onto Top of the Pops.
Ayers, who'd left the laidback Harvest, was facing similar pressures. His new label Island were convinced they could turn him into a big star. "It really messed me up and I lost complete confidence in what I was doing." It was the start of an unhappy period of desultory recordings and feeling disconnected from the music scene, with Ayers alternating between his houseboat in Maida Vale and long sojourns abroad.
When punk arrived, the progressive scene was deemed the domain of "boring old farts". The new dogma declared that rock had been enfeebled by its attempts at maturity and sophistication. It was time for a rejuvenating jolt of teenage proletarian energy. The Fall's Mark E. Smith singled out the Canterbury Scene – the Soft Machine and all the welter of bands and solo artists it spawned – when he declared "rock was ruined when the students took it over". Wyatt sympathizes with this attitude, which with typical kindliness he interprets as "a sincere attempt to reassert that rock music was a music whose vitality came from the bottom up in terms of social power structures". Still, there was a moment there in 1976-77 when the mellow meandering of a whole generation of artists – everyone from Brian Eno to John Martyn – was deemed irrelevant.
A few years later, the middle class cadres within punk stopped worrying so much about maintaining their fake-prole accents and hiding their Hatfield and the North albums. Punk turned into postpunk and the students took over again (had they ever really been dislodged?). Many of the new bands looked back to the music they'd been listening to before The Ramones and "Anarchy in the UK". These groups, such as Scritti Politti (whose vocalist Green was hugely indebted to Wyatt's "English soul"), wanted to move beyond straightahead punk, beyond rock itself, and the Canterbury Sound was a suggestive example of a concerted attempt to un-rock rock. Wyatt was coaxed back into recording by Geoff Travis, the boss of Rough Trade (home to Scritti). "Virgin were cross and said I couldn't do albums for another label, so we decided to do a series of singles, cover versions."
During his period of disengagement from music, Wyatt had become politically engaged: he started tuning into foreign radio stations, including Radio Moscow, and reading the Morning Star. Eventually he joined the Communist Party because its internationalism fit his own "xenophilia". He explains, "if anybody starts to build up a heat against Johnny Foreigner, sort that chap out, my instincts are to take sides with Johnny Foreigner. They used to call it being a traitor but actually I'm just a xenophile." The Rough Trade singles included versions of Latin American revolutionary songs, a pro-Stalin ditty from 1940s America, a tune called "Trade Union" by a Bengali group based in Brick Lane, and most famously, Elvis Costello and Clive Langer's anti-Falklands War ballad "Shipbuilding".
Ayers is a xenophile if anybody is. He spent his early childhood in Malaysia, "running around a beach and completely lost in my own world ". When his family returned to Herne Bay, the twin culture shock of England's grey-skied, grey-faced repression and being plunged into boarding school aged 12 was a massive trauma. Ironically, for an artist who is regarded as quintessentially English, Ayers has spent most of his life since that "homecoming" trying to escape England, traveling all over the world and eventually settling in France. "Sunnier climes have always been more compatible to me – people there are so much more relaxed and have time for the good things in life like good food and wine."
IN 1992 AYERS declared, "Between the ages of 17 and 40 I had a great time, no grounds for complaint whatsoever. My problem is just that I don't know what to do with the rest of my life." For both of the ex-Softs, the Eighties and Nineties were…. variable. Wyatt alternated between sporadic recording and periods of depression, partly induced by "the political weather… you can get a very cold draught sometimes." Both artists have had struggles with alcohol, culminating this year with Wyatt going sober and quitting the potions he'd always seen as essential to loosening his creativity. Comicopera's first "act" partly concerns the deleterious effects of his drinking on his relationship with Alfie (who wrote a lot of lyrics on the album), a syndrome she has described as "bereavement within a marriage."
Both Comicopera and The Unfairground deal with aging, that sense of twilight memorably captured by Dylan a few years ago with the lines "it's not dark yet/but it's getting there." Serenity and wisdom have eluded both artists. In one song, Wyatt sings, at once wry and deadly earnest, of envying Christians and Moslems for their certainty, their confidence that God has got their back. After the first act dealing with personal relationships, and a second moving out into the real world of politics and war, the final section sees Wyatt casting around for "solutions" via a series of cover versions that touch on spirituality, revolution, surrealism, and free improvisation. The Unfairground, meanwhile, exudes a worldweary confusion distilled in the line "I don't understand anything as I grow older/Nothing seems to be any clearer".
"When you get to a certain age the inevitable crumbling becomes very real," Ayers admits. "It's how you deal with that is the challenge. Robert said to me a very long time ago that I was the sort of person who would end up an old man on a park bench feeding ducks and wondering why people weren't nicer to each other!" Yet for all its bleakness, The Unfairground sounds sprightly and spring-heeled: falling in love was a major catalyst for Ayers even making a record again. And Comicopera's sheer delight in strange and marvellous combinations of sounds is a tonic. In the end, there aren't answers but there are consolations, the highest (and healthiest) being music and friendship. Both The Unfairground and Comicopera involved a company of musician pals: Ayers called on 26talents, among them folk singer Bridget St. John and Hugh Hopper, while Wyatt's "imaginary gang" contained such seeming incompatibles as Brian Eno and Paul Weller. "I say imaginary cos they were never in the same room at the same time," he chuckles. "I do believe in doing that, but I've found that often grumpiness ensues."
Parts of The Unfairground were recorded at the same studio, owned by Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera, where Wyatt recorded Comicopera. Hence the reunion last summer. "It was really great to see him again," says Wyatt. "He's gone through a lot of problems, battling the demons. And he's looking battered, but he's survived. And it was nice because I had the opportunity to say ‘Look, Kevin thanks very much for your tunes at the beginning'. Without his natural ability to write proper songs, The Soft Machine would have been hard pressed to cobble together much convincing original material of our own."
Wyatt actually appears briefly on his old friend's record, albeit as a disembodied vocal texture, sampled and listed in the credits as The Wyattron. "It's not Robert, but it is a memory of Robert," says Ayers. "And that makes a lot of sense to me, as that is what I have."