Kevin Ayers played an odd assortment of roles over the course of his career, from wild-eyed psychedelic provocateur with Soft Machine in the ‘60s to Bowie-esque eccentric and ladies’ man balladeer with an ocean-deep voice in the ‘70s, and walking substance-abuse cautionary tale in later years. He’s been an art-rock avatar, working with a one-off supergroup of John Cale, Brian Eno, and Nico for the concert captured on legendary live album June 1, 1974 (annoyingly underrepresented on YouTube), and a 21st century comeback king collaborating with members of Ladybug Transistor, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Teenage Fanclub on his swan song, 2007’s impressive The Unfairground, after 15 years of silence. On February 18, Ayers died in his sleep at the age of 68, leaving a vast array of remarkable music behind. Ayers was always the quintessential cult artist, beloved by his cabal but a mystery to the masses, so here are a few of his finest moments for anyone in need of a primer.
1. Soft Machine, “We Know What You Mean”
Before venturing into jazz-rock in the ‘70s, Soft Machine was one of the first and freakiest psychedelic bands to emerge from the British underground, sharing LSD-soaked evenings at small, sweaty London clubs with peers like Pink Floyd. Here’s Ayers trading vocals with drummer Robert Wyatt amid suitably trippy visuals on Dutch TV in 1967.
2. Soft Machine, Improvisation/”Hope for Happiness”
In their initial, Ayers-era incarnation, Soft Machine was among the most enchantingly eccentric occupants of the psychedelic sphere, looking and sounding like new arrivals from an uncharted galaxy. Seeing is believing, as Ayers — with sinister face paint and shiny silver sandals — engages in a full-blown freakout on a French program.
3. Kevin Ayers & The Whole World, “Clarence in Wonderland”
After splitting Soft Machine for a solo career, Ayers adopted a more accessible, yet still amiably offbeat sound. In this 1970 clip, he’s backed by his Whole World band, which included art-rock hotshots Mike Oldfield and David Bedford, delivering a more melodic version of a song he originated with Soft Machine but included on his own Shooting at the Moon album.
4. “Shouting in a Bucket Blues”
As the ‘70s progressed, with his kabuki makeup a thing of the past and his brandy-and-cigars croon coming to the fore, the photogenic Ayers became something of a Bryan Ferry-esque sex symbol (at least in the underground Britrock realm), but as this Old Grey Whistle Test appearance shows, he lost not an ounce of his artistic power.
5. “Religious Experience (Singing a Song in the Morning)”
“Singing a Song in the Morning” (initially dubbed “Religious Experience”) was Ayers’ first solo single, absent from his debut album, Joy of a Toy. But when the album was reissued over three decades later, an extended take of the tune was appended, featuring the interstellar guitar work of Ayers’ old acid-rock comrade-in-arms Syd Barrett. This oddly inspirational post-psychedelic anthem makes as appropriate an elegy for Ayers as anything.