Stranger in blue suede shoes
This wonderful half-hour French TV film features my favourite incarnation of the Soft Machine at their very best: Mike Ratledge (organ), Kevin Ayers (bass) and Robert Wyatt (drums). After yesterday’s announcement of Kevin’s death, Robert paid him a lovely tribute on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: Kevin, he said, had no sense of career, in which respect he was the exact opposite of an X Factor contestant. As his A&R man at Island Records for a short time in the mid-’70s, that was also my experience of a man who came closer than anyone else I ever met to incarnating the archetype of the golden hippie.
I’d first encountered Kevin in the days of the Whole World, a wonderful band with David Bedford on keyboards, the teenage Mike Oldfield on guitar, Lol Coxhill on soprano and tenor saxophones, and Robert on drums. They were not, perhaps, the most consistent of performing units, but I remember one night at the old Country Club on Haverstock Hill when they completely lived up to their individual and collective potential.
Muff Winwood had just signed Kevin to Island when I joined the company in 1973, and Muff produced his first Island album, The Confessions of Dr Dream and Other Stories. The next move was mostly my idea, turned into reality at a lunch with Kevin, Brian Eno and John Cale at the old Trattoo restaurant in Abingdon Road (close to the location of the original Biba, trivia fans). I’d signed Cale and Nico, and the June 1, 1974 concert and live album project was conceived as a way of expanding the audience for all of them. Each had a cult following, and deserved more.
During the concert I was in the Island mobile recording truck parked in the street behind the Rainbow, watching John Wood, the great engineer, work the faders, while keeping an eye on the black-and-white TV monitor, which gave us a feed from a single poorly focused camera. So I didn’t actually see the gig. But in the foyer beforehand there was no question that this was a real occasion, a hot ticket for the era’s scenemakers. We got the album into the shops within a month, which was a considerable feat for the time. I wanted it to be like a kind of newsletter. And whatever may be claimed in the otherwise excellent obituary of Kevin in this morning’s Times, they were never supposed to be a “supergroup”. (A couple of years ago Universal got in touch to discuss the idea of a deluxe edition with all the unreleased material, before somebody apparently thought better of it.)
One of the last times I saw Kevin was soon after the Rainbow show and its Manchester sequel, when he invited me to help him make a single and we spent a weekend in the Island studios in the converted laundry at the back of the St Peter’s Square offices. It wasn’t a happy experience. He didn’t know what he was doing, neither did I, and I’ve managed to erase the name of the unfortunate song in question. We both recognised the futility of the attempt, and tacitly decided not to fall out over it. If the experience had a lasting benefit, it was to put an end to any ambitions I might have had to become the next Phil Spector or Jerry Wexler. But anyway, Kevin, thanks for asking me, and sorry I didn’t do a better job.
Richard, ACNE at the Rainbow was a momentous gig and I still remember it vividly for varioius reasons, from Cale breaking into his incendiary version of Heartbreak Hotel (like watching a volcano erupt) to Mike Oldfield backstage literally quaking with nerves. The subsequent concert tour also stands out – such an unlikely quartet!
Agreed the Ayers version of Soft Machine was a fine trio, but I always thought the
line up from late 1971 took some beating. Powered by the ferocious drumming of
Phil Howard and Elton Dean playing at his wildest this was the nearest the band ever
got to the murky waters of Free Jazz. It didn’t last long, formulaic jazz/rock fusion beckoned.
Elton Dean’s eponymous CBS album is a good example of what could be achieved.
He was the most extraordinary person.
“Dr Dream” is not my favourite Kevin Ayers album (I think it’s a tie between “Joy of a Toy” and “Whatevershebringswesing”), but it was produced by Rupert Hine, not Muff Winwood. Muff Winwood did produce “Yes, We Have No Mananas” in 1976 (by which time Kevin had returned to Harvest for three albums). Like you, I think this trio was Soft Machine at its best.
I much appreciate the depth of comment here about The Soft Machine. Although I was not familiar with the Kevin Ayers incarnation, the Softs were one of my earliest jazz influences after my father ( at the time a music lecturer at Goldsmiths’ College) played me a reel to reel tape of a radio concert he had recorded. In the summer of 1970 or 1971 he took me to see them live at … The Coliseum – St Martins Lane. The line up included Mike Ratledge & Karl Jenkins. I still have a cherished book published by Hugh Hopper of his Soft Machine compositions including my favourites at the time ‘Dedicated to you but you werent listening’ and ‘Kings and Queens’