kevin ayers and the great marketplace mystery
by Martin Wakeling

this article first appeared in issue 8 in February 1992

Or the story of one man's ill-fated affair with the music industry

'I've got a beautiful rap to sell this crap, it's music to the ears - I'm a super salesman". This refrain from Kevin Ayers' somewhat unloved 'That's What You Get Babe' LP of 1980 is amongst the more bitter evaluations of rock music culture that exist on vinyl. It would be kinder to think that the words emerged from one of Ayers' inspirational observations of lesser talents than his own being lauded and hyped by the Business, but one can speculate that most observations have some element of either active or passive experience and the remark would not have been made had Ayers not felt same facet of the pressure to 'sell yourself'.

Ayers had somehow seemed to miss out on promotion and the myth of Stardom was to be a sword of Damocles that, cruelly or mercifully depending on your viewpoint, receded like the tortures of Tantalus rather than draw nearer. He left the Soft Machine before the first album was released; 'Joy Of A Toy' was released via adverts in only a handful of underground magazines and four months before the Whole World would be formed with any chance of promoting it. 'Shooting At The Moon' seemed to miss out on Harvest's expensive gatefold packaging and was never really consolidated as Whole Worlders came and went and finally fizzled.

Harvest, with by now characteristically impeccable timing, released the single 'Stranger In Blue Suede Shoes' to coincide with the band's ultimate collapse in August 1971 and Ayers' subsequent departure for France and old pal Daevid Allen.
'Whatevershebringswesing' was released into a murky English winter as Ayers was bandless and dispirited having just left Gong. Interest in the innovative Banana Follies in the autumn of 1972 was marked only by the release of the single 'Oh! Wot A Dream', whilst the release of 'Bananamour' was inexplicably delayed from its publicised release date of January 1973 until May of that year. Whilst Ayers had then acquired 747 and a reasonably well-publicised 14-date UK tour to promote the. album, it did not contain the recently released 'Caribbean Moon' (which looked to have a good chance of making the charts, whilst the American version of Bananamour did. Confused?

"Aha!", the unconverted and faithless will say, "you can't blame the poor old record company! Everyone knows Ayers was an idle sod, permanently blitzed on booze and narcotics, always running away to go swimming!" Peter Jenner of management team Blackhill Enterprises subscribed retrospectively to the view that Ayers was a professional catastrophe but it is a view that is hard to sustain from the facts of those early Harvest years. 'Joy Of A Toy' at 4000 was double the allotted recording budget of 2000 because 'Kevin is such a fantastic perfectionist' (Peter Jenner, Zigzag 9, Jan/Feb 1970). Elsewhere, the word 'competency' is used. If such early promise was detected, how competent were Blackhill's skills of management in nurturing talent? Idle? Who? Between Harvest's inception in June 1969 and the summer of 1973, Ayers had delivered four studio albums (three as a solo artist plus one with the Whole World): labelmates Pink Floyd, one of which was partly live (Atom Heart Mother, Unnagumma, Meddle, Obscured By Clouds, Dark Side Of The Moon), and Deep Purple had five (Taliesyn, Deep Purple, Concerto, In Rock, Fireball) - these remember were the output of several people collectively. Ayers' recorded output far outstrips most Harvest artists of that period; there were also five singles containing nine non-LP tracks when they were first released. Not a bad record (ho ho!)

Another pertinent factor, which absolves Blackhi11 to an extent, was the structure of parent giant EMI. Harvest was a vogue progressive label after the fashion of Vertigo, Deram and Dawn, but the necessary business 'hunger' to promote its artist just wasn't there. Ayers repeated the idea of EMI as a cup of sand: once the cup is full the surplus is wasted; so EMI earning to capacity were unconcerned about the profitability of tomorrow's tax loss. Decisions that needed to be an instant response had to be channelled down endless corridors.        Product divorced from people ...

And the drink? Well, each to his own. Some people bite heads off chickens, don't they?
A three album deal with Island Records in the summer of 1973 seemed a turning point. They were a smaller company with greater incentive to make their artists successful and executives who were less shackled by leaden bureaucracy. Ayers was also given control of his own recording budget. Although the start of the Island period was marred by the break-up of the promising 747, Ayers would swiftly find himself with a much higher public profile and correspondingly more column inches in the music press. The LP 'Confessions of Dr Dream' was treated as a more serious, heavyweight album because of its conceptual dream/sleeping motif and also the involvement of so many professional 'career' musicians. Costing 32,000 to produce, it remains reportedly Ayers' biggest seller. It retains an engaging mixture of lighter tunes and longer thematic pieces, old friends like Oldfield and Ratledge with newer luminaries such as Rupert Hine. The promotional tour with the Soporifics evolved into the Rainbow show of June lst where Ayers was joined by fashionable personalities Eno, Nico and Cale - all Island artists. The momentum continued through June to culminate in the Hyde Park bash and the live June lst LP (fastest ever release at the time - Ayers' first ever gimmick?!)
So, on the surface, wonderful promotion - achieving more publicity in a matter of months than in years at Harvest. But the qualities of care that emerge from 'Bananamour' have been swamped by cold professionalism and iced detachment on 'Dr Dream' - Ayers' thumbprint has been wiped off because it spoils the gloss ... 'June lst' emerges as a poorly-packaged, hastily prepared, somewhat indulgent sampler rather than displaying the record company's faith in their artists as distinct individuals. Contrast these to Ayers' extra-curricular activities of 1974 - directing Lady June's LP with all the fun of simpler, less complicated days, or the B-side 'Thank You Very Much', Ayers and an acoustic guitar recapturing the essence of genius
'Sweet Deceiver' should have restored the balance - a handful of musicans, Ayers and Halsall producing.        Simple        songs,        though        some        less        convincing
than others, but no sparkle and a leaden mix fail it badly.        The press launched a verbal Exocet; Ayers departed to foreign climes for a rethink.

Ayers has often spoken of lack of confidence and self-belief. Mid 1970 must have seemed the firmest confirmation of that as Island appeared to lose all interest. Ironically it was Harvest that came to the rescue, albeit unwittingly. With their glory years past, and an increasingly uninspiring roster of acts, they started re-issuing earlier albums, amongst which was a double package of 'Joy Of A Toy' and 'Shooting At The Moon' . Reviews in the press were sentimentally nostalgic about Ayers' talent, but the exercise effectively restored his artistic credibility to the doubters. This was reinforced even more strongly when the superbly collated 'Odd Ditties' popped out in early 1976 with a couple of retrospective singles. The danger was though, as a promotional technique, Ayers was being sold as a glorious if wayward history rather than as a current concern.

Luckily, the drive that got him back into the studio and on the road again resulted in the strong 'Yes, We Have No Mananas' LP. Back with a seemingly penitent Harvest for another three album contract, things folded overnight in the grip of Punk. Ayers was obviously not unique in this respect - all readers who lived through those years will remember the cataclysmic changes that took place as one set of values was ruthlessly supplanted by another. That's an article in itself, but the significance for Ayers was that at least he survived whilst others with possibly stronger self-belief in their music just packed in and gave up. But the promotional machine ignored the fine 'Rainbow Takeaway' and the optimism had all but disappeared in the garish 1980 'That's What You Get Babe'.
Spain took Ayers to her bosom during the 80s, providing both home and work. Spanish audiences tend to respect his pedigree whilst perhaps not being party to his eccentricities. Spanish musicians have done him sterling service, though in a mainstream context rather than a specifically Latin one. Albums slipped out quietly in the UK in 1983 and 1986 via - bless 'em! - small independent labels, but both were disappointing products: 'Diamond Jack' is a technoflash parody whilst 'As Close As You Think' is overpadded with substandard songs. No tours, minimal media interest here, just a raised eyebrow that the man was still ticking ...
Grabaciones Accidentales, a Spanish independent label, was prepared to risk its budget to get 'Falling Up' released in 1988. It is said that Mike Oldfield swung the deal with Virgin for European distribution of his old mentor's disc ... A tour of Germany (one hour support slot to Arlo Guthrie) and a handful of dates in the UK followed ... The album oozed the classic bitter-sweetness of old but was hard to find unless you went looking for it. Ironically, the compilations and reissues were much more prevalent in the high street. At least things were happening, but the Future was in danger of being strangled by the Past ...
So there it is - a history of disinterest, back door promotion and unfortunate mistiming. An industry that can take an unknown off the streets and package their limited talent with a mediocre cover version and fill the high street with the single, the limited edition 7"/10"/12"/ gate fold/ poster/ postcard /coloured vinyl/shape/uncut/dance remix/ CD with bonus remix not to mention the video, T-shirt and souvenir brochure cannot find a space for Kevin Ayers ...
Or can it? - as Vic Reeves might say ... a friend mentioned to me that there was more of an Underground happening today than ever before, and this time it won't let it get away. Think of the fanzine you are holding, and the choice of others that exist; of the CD and reissue boom; of the resurgence in things psychedelic; of the network of correspondence and tape-swapping that covers the globe; of the musicians themselves re-emerging into a Renaissance ...
Kevin Ayers should know that along these pathways he walks as a giant. His talent should make an appointment with tomorrow.

Martin has since gone on to turn his excellent fanzine Why Are We Sleeping into an equally excellent website