Born in in the 1940s in Herne Bay, Kent, Kevin Ayers had become a cult figure on the UK music scene by his twenties when, via a Canterbury based band called The Wylde Flowers, he founded (The) Soft Machine. While never as commercially successful as Pink Floyd’s ‘Piper At The Gates of Dawn’, their self-titled debut album is now considered a cornerstone of psychedelic music.
In 1969, Ayers departed Soft Machine, leaving the band in the capable hands of Wyatt – who by 1970 had turned Soft Machine from psych rockers to full-on jazz fusionists. Although he had planned to retire from music, Ayers pursued a solo career which began with the wonderfully British ‘Joy of a Toy’, released on Harvest Records. The album pitched his distinctive, plummy voice against various complicated tunes, part psych, part lounge jazz, part folk, part baroque pop. It did not sell in huge numbers at the time, but like that first Soft Machine release, over the course of several years has gradually gained a loving and loyal cult audience as well as glowing retrospective praise.
Continuing to record throughout the 70s and 80s, Ayres recorded another thirteen albums and also collaborated with Brian Eno, Mike Oldfield, John Cale and Nico (the results of a live performance were captured for posterity on the 1974 release ‘June 1, 1974’). After a sole album release in the early 90s, Ayres retreated from the public eye. Although he played sporadic gigs (including two at London’s Astoria in November 2003, the second of which was as last minute replacement for Carl Palmer), no new studio material appeared from Ayers until 2007. That resulting album – his last work – captured collaborations with musicians who’d cited Ayers as an important influence, including Teenage Fanclub, Gorkys Zygotic Mynci and the Trash Can Sinatras. Also appearing on the recordings were Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera and Ayers’s old Soft Machine bandmates Robert Wyatt and Hugh Hopper. His recording career had come full circle.
Kevin Ayers passed away on February 18th, 2013 at the age of 68. He may not ever gain the kind of (seemingly constant) praise awarded to Syd Barrett, but his pivotal role in shaping the Canterbury scene led to a world of equally groundbreaking work. He leaves behind a legacy of music so many people have never heard…and he will be missed.