Latterday Ayers polishes up pretty well, providing a rare treat.
Re-release Date: 25th August 2023
Label: Esoteric Recordings (Cherry Red)
The story generally goes that Kevin Ayers, erstwhile one of the brightest sparks in the Canterbury firmament, was washed up come the 80’s, adrift and alone in Mallorca, awash with the local vinous produce. And, whilst some of that might ring true, the actual story is way more complex.
As the title of this 1988 recording might suggest, Ayers himself was not unaware of his fading fortunes, sticking, actually, to the same modus operandi he had used all along. That had seen him as a founding father of Soft Machine, before jumping ship into his solo career, initially finding his sometimes beguiling and baffling muse to public taste. Beguiling? Baffling? Well, few others were putting together records that could include acoustic ballads of wistful whimsy and avant garde musique concrete experimentation side by side. But that run of records, from 1969’s Joy Of A Toy to 1975’s Sweet Deceiver, was exceptional. He was still worth a listen thereafter, for a while, holding on to a major label contract a further 5 years. His problem was, as he later said: “I don’t think I’ll ever make an album that you’ll be able to say, I like all of it. Because I won’t be able to say I like all of it for a start.” His already vicarious tendency to mix and match styles and textures became ever more unpredictable, and relying on fans to hope they might like the next track was becoming too big a risk for his earlier homes of Harvest and Island.
After a few years on smaller labels, Virgin suddenly offered him a deal, by which time Ayers had switched countries to his farmhouse in Deia, on the largest of the Balearic islands. Working mainly with Spanish musicians, one constant was Ollie Halsall, the prodigiously talented guitarist who had graced his work, from The Confessions of Dr Dream, in 1974, onward. The ex-Patto man and Ayers had hit it off bigtime, arguably drawn together as much for their waywardness as their peculiar vision. Hiring producer Colin Fairley, erstwhile drummer for Beggar’s Opera and String Driven Thing, the album was recorded in Madrid, after some months of ‘preparation’ on Majorca. Galen Ayers, now herself a performer, remembers her father at that time: “There was a lot of Ollie and, unfortunately, a lot of drugs.”
Nonetheless, it was perceived a good time, musically for Ayers and the album was a seen as a bit of a bounce back to his glory days. But, with neither the money to tour it: Virgin soon dropped him, nor the discipline, it became a brief respite in his gradual commercial decline. Whilst he continued to, sporadically, play and perform, the sudden death of Halsall, in 1992, likely put much of a spanner in the chance of any great return. His last record came out in 2007 and he died in 2013.
One thing Ayers always knew was the need to open proceedings with a commercial lift, with opening track ( Just Another) Saturday Night (In Deya), being a distant relative of Day By Day, from Dr Dream. With distinct Caribbean inflections and a girly chorus, all it lacks are steel drums, which, whilst arguably a step to far, might have seen it become a summer hit single. The bass and his laconic drawl of a vocal drag it back to prime Ayers territory, with shards of Halsall guitar slotting in an around the fairly generic rhythm track and keys. It is a better song than it plays. As is Flying Time, actually written by his old protege, Mike Oldfield, which, over a slow bubbling synth melody, sees the singer intoning a pretty good self-description of his way of life at the time: “Two dark eyes from the doorway shine, so you lost your dream in a bottle of wine……”. It is possible you are familiar with the version, again sung by Ayers, on Oldfield’s own contemporaneous release, Islands.
That same sort of synthesized bass line follows into The Best We Have, think Robert Palmer’s Johnny And Mary, both as a sonic reference and of the prevalent 1980s fashion. Ayers and Halsall sing in a harmony that mixes his warmth with Halsall’s brittler tones, and it is ridiculously catchy, with disco guitars adding to the smile it unconsciously brings. Another chartbuster in a parallel universe, the chorus made for a Radio One Roadshow, on a rickety pier in North Norfolk. A step down in mood then, for Another Rolling Stone, a more thoughtful song, again projecting some self-awareness. Did this sound better in the year of release, I wonder, the dual keyboards now irredeemably naff and dated. However, it is lifted by a terrific Halsall solo.
Those seeking something a bit more difficult might feel relieved by the starting segment of Do You Believe, which threatens, momentarily, to be a flashback to the more impenetrable of his milieu, with a neatly rippling bass line and shards of guitar then eventually revealing itself to be a funky little number, with the repeated question. In love, were you wondering. It shouldn’t work, but, oddly, it does, becoming one of the more lingering tracks, however much the autopilot vocal. Javier Paxariño offers some suitably Coxhill-ian sax, and it’s all good. That’s What We Did (Today) is a classic Ayers ballad, Ayers singing breezily over a piano, before an almost Beach Boys vocal refrain. It also carries one his more endearingly gauche lyrics, betraying his innate Englishness: “Running around in the nude, making the neighbours feel rude”.
Night Fighters, with some brief found radio sound, and treated vocals, sounds like a discarded Rolling Stones track, or Diamond Dogs Bowie, from the brash chorus, to some slide guitar, creeping in from another song. Again, I blame the production as there are the bones of a better song within it, it getting you drawn in by repetition, if by nothing else. Which leaves perhaps the best rack for last. Am I Really Marcel, contructed in the same sort of Gallic nuance as May I/Puis Je, and is a(nother) wistful look back over, possibly, a life, his life, thus far. Lighters in the air, it is one to gently sway to, in a Mediterranean seafront cafe, as the sun goes slowly down over a turquoise sea. Halsall adds a further display of his finesse that could, you know, even find you with something suddenly in your eye. A lonesome harmonica to close seals that likelihood.
Decidely patchy, almost defiantly so, this is nonetheless an essential release for the Ayers completist, even if it has you cursing as to how these songs may have been put together better. This is, yes, a re-mix, but the component parts remain clearly of their time and budget. Indeed, until his swansong, The Unfairground, in 2007, itself 15 years after its predecessor, it was probably much the last reliable sighting of this fading star. I look forward to Esoteric and Cherry Red giving also that release a new lease of life.
As ever, for this label, there is the bonus of a well penned essay, by Mike Barnes, author of the book, A New Day Yesterday: UK Progressive Rock And The 1970’s. It also features several insightful observations, of the time, made by Ayers’ daughter, Galen.
Here’s that closer, Am I Really Marcel: