Kevin Ayers: six hard facts about Soft Machine founder

Feb 20, 2013

One of the founding fathers of the UK's psychedelic rock scene has died at the age of 68

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Kebin Ayers

KEVIN AYERS, the founder of the influential 1960s group Soft Machine and a leading light in the English psychedelic rock movement, has died at his home in France at the age of 68. Ayers's talent was "so acute you could perform major eye surgery with it", the BBC DJ John Peel wrote in his autobiography. Here are six things you may not know about the "acid-dropping, Hendrix-supporting, Burroughs-quoting" British musician...

He was raised in Malaysia and loved the sun: Ayers's stepfather was a civil servant and he spent most of his childhood in Malaysia acquiring a taste for "tropical climates and unpressurised lifestyles". One of the reasons he never became a major star was that every time he seemed "on the point of success", he would "take off for some sunny spot where good wine and food were easily found".

His school spawned an entire musical scene: Returning to England at the age of 12, Ayers went to Simon Langton Grammar School For Boys on the outskirts of Canterbury. The school has been described as "a hotbed for teenage avant-garderie" because its alumni includes Ayers, Robert Wyatt, Mike Ratledge and Hugh and Brian Hopper who founded key underground bands of the 1960s such as The Wilde Flowers, Caravan and Soft Machine. The result was the 'Canterbury scene' - a loose grouping of jazz, experimental and psychedelic bands.

He made music that sounded like nothing else: Writing in Mojo, Ross Bennett says Ayers "possessed a voice like no other, intrinsically British and full of whimsy and mischief". His bands were just as distinctive. Soft Machine's music was a "rainbow of sounds and songs drawn from gamelan to pop, via jazz and Terry Riley's minimalism. "There was nothing quite like it," wrote Jonathan Glancey in The Guardian. They quickly became leading lights on the London underground music scene alongside bands such as Pink Floyd and the Nice.

He gave a teenager called Mike Oldfield a break: In 1970 Ayers formed an eclectic band called the Whole World that featured a teenage guitarist called Mike Oldfield. Oldfield borrowed Ayers's tape machine to make the demo tapes of an album he was planning called Tubular Bells.

He was a committed Francophile: Soft Machine were venerated in France where they were idolised as "Dadaist heroes". By the 1990s, Ayers was living as a virtual recluse in southern France. He was lured back into the studio for 2007's acclaimed album Unfairground featuring contributions from the likes of Wyatt and Roxy Music's Phil Manzanera.

He thought he was too posh to be a star: "I would have made a very unlikely star with a voice like mine," he told The Guardian. "I mean, a public school rocker with a plummy BBC accent... hardly."

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