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Six Definitive Songs: The ultimate beginner's guide to Kevin Ayers

The late Kevin Ayers was one of those rare musicians who was highly influential but never got the plaudits he deserved in the mainstream. Something of an English equivalent to Todd Rundgren, his surreal blend of psychedelia, folk and jazz endeared him to musicians across the globe, of all walks of life. A key figure in the English psychedelic movement, he would go on to become a cult hero as a solo artist across the 1970s and beyond.

Ayers was a founding member of psychedelic heroes Soft Machine, and was a leading figure within the Canterbury scene before he moonlighted as a solo artist with a distinct artistic vision. If I were to compare his music to anyone aside from Rundgren, I’d argue that his music is closely aligned to post-Byrds Gene Clark’s dazzling cosmic music of No Other

Ayers released numerous albums as a solo artist, and his post-Soft Machine career would see him work with legends such as Brian Eno, Syd Barrett, John Cale, Elton John, Andy Summers, Mike Oldfield and Nico, to name but a few. Together, he and Barrett are regarded by many to have been the most significant people in British popular music, a claim that dismisses the input of the likes of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. 

There’s no coincidence that everyone from Teenage Fanclub to The Go-Betweens and even Welsh heroes, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci cite him as an influence. From these names, we can extrapolate that Ayers is the de facto hero of cult bands, those who noted his left-field approach and cultivated their own lauded and distinctive styles. He was even a huge influence on the band’s who comprised London’s Shacklewell Arms scene in the early-mid 2010s, with bands like Toy and Charlie Boyer and the Voyeurs mentioning him as an inspiration. 

Ayers passed away in his sleep at his home in the south of France in 2013, and since, a void was has remained that will never be filled. A genius songwriter who helped to redefine what songwriting is, his efforts are likely not to be forgotten by those in the know, his work will be handed down like the ancient texts that survived the ruination of past civilisations. 

Join us then, as we list Kevin Ayers’ six definitive songs.

Kevin Ayers’ six definitive songs:

‘The Lady Rachel’ – Joy of a Toy (1969)

A slightly ominous piece of psychedelic pop, on ‘The Lady Rachel’, Ayers augmented the formula of Soft Machine, creating a meandering piece of music that’s equally as enchanting as anything his friend Syd Barrett ever put out. There are some strong bass licks as well as a reverb-drenched guitar that carries the whole thing. Bouncing between major and minor keys, you don’t know whether to be scared or excited.

When Ayers sings, “The draw bridge is open / And a voice from the water /
Says ‘Welcome my daughter’ / ‘We’ve all been expecting you to come'”, you expect to be pulled into some fraught psychedelic freakout, but fear not, that was not Ayers’ style. He arrived at his destination precisely when he meant to. The pace carries on plodding along, but not before Ayers can treat you to one of his classic choruses for the last time.

‘May I?’ – Shooting at the Moon (1970)

Shooting at the Moon, the sophomore album by Kevin Ayers, has many stellar moments, but the standout has to be ‘May I?’. A mellow piece of music, there’s some warming woodwind in the background, as well as a romantic accordion line that makes you feel as if you’re floating above the clouds on a summer’s day in Paris. 

It’s a hazy piece sounding like a progenitor to the swooning landscapes of Air’s masterpiece Moon Safari. Interestingly, Mike Oldfield, later of Tubular Bells fame, performed bass and guitar on the record. 

‘Stranger in Blue Suede Shoes’ –  Whatevershebringswesing (1971)

The lead single from Ayers’ third solo album, Whatevershebringswesing, ‘Stranger in Blue Suede Shoes’ is a homage to the rudimentary forms of rock and roll that Ayers loved so dearly. Featuring that dissonant piano line, if you took away the vocals, this could quite easily be mistaken for a Todd Rundgren track. 

Ayers’ vocal delivery is guttural, and the lyrics are lighthearted and absurd, creating a sound not dissimilar to what Frank Zappa would achieve on 1974’s Apostrophe (‘). A catchy piece of rock and roll, you’ll instantly have it on repeat. 

‘Shouting in a Bucket Blues’ – Bananamour (1973)

‘Shouting in a Bucket Blues’, the second track from Ayers’ fourth album, Bananamour, saw Ayers adopt a more traditional songwriting style. A languid, introspective piece carried by his trademark baritone, Ayers laments feeling sorry for his lovelorn self and tells the listener that he feels sorry for them too. 

There are many lines that stick out as genius, including, “I won’t say that I love you / ‘Cause that would be a lie / I can only say I try, and you know it” and “Lovers come and lovers go but friends are hard to find / Yes I can count all mine on one finger”.

The chorus is perhaps the finest he ever wrote: “So I sing for everyone who feels there’s no way out / So maybe if you all shout someone will hear you / Listen to them shout”. 

There can be nothing but love for this track, teetering on anthemic, with a killer lead guitar line to boot, it is sure to quell the February blues. 

‘O! Wot A Dream’ –  Bananamour (1973)

Another take from Bananamour, ‘O! Wot A Dream’, has long been a fan favourite of Kevin Ayers fans. Across his career, Ayers stated that this charming piece was written about his great friend Syd Barrett

Opening the song, Ayers sings of the former Pink Floyd frontman: “You are the most extraordinary person / You write the most peculiar kind of tunes / I met you floating as I was boating / One Afternoon”.

He recounts first meeting Barrett, and some of the wholesome moments they shared, including trips to the countryside and sharing sandwiches. Singing of his friend, Ayers conjured one of the most catchy songs in his entire discography.

Short but sweet, the candid image of Syd Barrett he creates is a stark departure from all the stories regurgitated by music historians. The relaxed melody will be stuck in your head for days. 

‘Decadence’ – Bananamour (1973)

Another cut from Bananamour, no definitive list of Kevin Ayers tracks would be complete without ‘Decadence’. Clocking in at just over eight minutes, it is the centrepiece of the record, and was written about one of the biggest names of the countercultural era, Nico. It’s much more of a regretful piece than his track about Syd Barrett, and Ayers paints Nico in an incredibly moving light.

He sings: “Watch her out there on display / Dancing in her sleepy way / While all her visions start to play / On the icicles of our decay / And all along the desert shore / She wanders further evermore / The only thing that’s left to try / She says to live I have to die.”

A slow burner, but psychedelic to the core, ‘Decadence’ makes a bold claim for being Kevin Ayers’ best track.