Singer, songwriter and darling of the psychedelic scene;
Born: August 16, 1944; Died: February 18, 2013.
Kevin Ayers, who has died aged 68, was one of the great characters in British music, a writer who could create the catchiest of songs and yet shied away from the pop spotlight although he attracted a devoted following through his what the hell, let's drink some wine and have a good time charm.
The man who would go on to form psych-rock-jazz band The Soft Machine, introduce a young Mike Oldfield to an unsuspecting world and work with musicians including Elton John, Nico, Brian Eno and Andy Summers of the Police was born in Herne Bay in Kent and spent his early years in Malaysia. His parents – his father, Rowan Ayers was the television producer who created the Old Grey Whistle Test – divorced and Kevin moved to the Far East with his mother, returning to England when he was 12.
Back in Herne Bay he fell in with the crowd who hung out at Robert Wyatt's mother's house in Canterbury, learned to play guitar and in 1963 formed a band, the Wilde Flowers, with Wyatt, brothers Hugh and Brian Hopper and Richard Sinclair, who later formed Caravan. The 'e' in Wilde was Ayers's tribute to Oscar and another literary influence, William Burroughs, came into play when, during a sabbatical on Ibiza, Ayers and proto-hippy Daevid Allen met an American millionaire who gave them money to start a band. The Soft Machine, named after Burroughs's 1961 novel, was born.
Ayers and Allen returned to Canterbury, recruited Wyatt and keyboards player Mike Ratledge, and presently they became, alongside Pink Floyd, the darlings of the underground psychedelic scene at the UFO club in London during the 1967 Summer of Love.
Despite his later resistance to pop success, Ayers sent some songs to Chas Chandler for consideration by the New Animals. Chandler's latest protégé, Jimi Hendrix, allegedly played acoustic guitar on the Soft Machine's first single, Ayers's Love Makes Sweet Music, and the following year The Soft Machine supported Hendrix on a mammoth US tour, during which the band recorded their first album and after which Ayers, who was not at all enamoured of the touring treadmill, fled to Ibiza.
He continued to write songs, and on his return to London was signed to EMI's new progressive label Harvest, releasing Joy of a Toy, an album of wistful charm and melancholic lyricism that led to Ayers forming the Whole World with classical composer-keyboardist David Bedford, saxophonist Lol Coxhill and a teenage Mike Oldfield on bass guitar.
The elements that characterised Ayers's music – the wayward baritone voice, lyrics that might slip effortlessly between English and French, homages to fine wine and sunshine and a kind of rockin' bonhomie – were all in place and would be joined by a lilting reggae shuffle as he released a series of outstanding albums throughout the 1970s and gave performances that were invariably epic, frequently chaotic and generally infused with dipso banter.
His partnership with the brilliant but ill-starred former Patto guitarist Ollie Halsall might have rivalled David Bowie's with Mick Ronson as vehicle for success, had Ayers had any notions of being a pop tart. But despite his reputation as a ladies' man – he wrote Sweet Deceiver for Nico and made tabloid headlines for running off with Richard Branson's wife ("er, actually, she ran off with me," he later told me) – Ayers was really quite shy and full of doubts as to his musical worth.
The momentum that had produced classic songs such as Stranger in Blue Suede Shoes, Don't Let it Get You Down and I Didn't Feel Lonely Till I Thought of You only flickered back into life occasionally during the 1980s and 1990s and when I spoke to him in 1999 he was working as a chef near Toulouse with the intention of opening his own restaurant, although he was still playing music and appeared at Aberdeen Music Festival that year.
Then, in 2007, with a cast of old pals including Hugh Hopper, Phil Manzanera and Bridget St John and a Scottish coterie including Bill Wells and Teenage Fanclub's Francis MacDonald, Ayers returned with one last surge, releasing the superb The Unfairground to glowing reviews and offers of tours and concerts that he found all too easy to resist.
He was found dead in his bed in Montolieu where he lived alone. A note at his bedside read: "You can't shine if you don't burn." An alternative epitaph might reverse one of his own song titles: Finished but not Diminished.
He is survived by his daughters Rachel, Galen and Annaliese and his sister Kate.
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