Kevin Ayers
What More Can I Say?
Reel Recordings

In the current climate of platinum-selling ringtone pop hit snippets, bland “alternative” rock & roll co-opted by adult-contemporary radio and an exciting underground scene splattered with whiskey and broken pawnshop gear, it is a stretch to imagine a world when progressive music was popular, widely accepted, even revered by ultra-hip tastemakers worldwide. This world—post-hippie, pre-glam—was a time when 10-minute rock epics received no-edit radio airplay, when the jazz scene looked to the weirdoes in the psych-prog scene for inspiration, when a complex melody could be taken for a Top 40 pop hook, when rock musicians were respectable professionals and theorized on sonic movements and even sincerely wrote parts for strings and brass. It seems like a music nerd’s dream. This is the world inside a Kevin Ayers record. Every idea is grand, yet straightforwardly presented. Every melody is strange but sounds infectious, like it should be on the radio hourly. This world inside Ayers’ solo records—or those with the Soft Machine—is gone; it’s not one accessible to the casual music fan. This is a world that must be sought out and delved into.

With Soft Machine and the rest of the “Canterbury Scene” (Caravan, Wilde Flowers, Gong, et. al) in England during the late ‘60s, Ayers pioneered the soon to be exploited (Yes, Rush, ELP) progressive rock genre. Though the scene was only based loosely around the University of Kent at Canterbury, most of the musicians that regularly played on each other’s projects revolved around the central area, perhaps the way the Warhol scene drew musicians into New York like a vortex of creativity. Fostering a quirky pop sound that fused equal parts improvisation, avant-garde experimentalism, and carefully written, nearly symphonic pieces, Soft Machine gained popularity quickly, even touring America with Jimi Hendrix a few times. It was after this extensive touring that the band collapsed, and Ayers retreated to Spain and begun extensively writing songs for what would be his first solo album, Joy of a Toy, released on Pink Floyd’s Harvest label. These songs, more so than the rest of the psychedelic, progressive music that grew out of the Canterbury Scene, showcased Ayers’ incredible aptitude for accessible pop melodies juxtaposed with almost comical carousel ditties and ambitious symphonic overtones. As far as bygone genres go, well made, orchestral, carnival-flavored, prog-rock pop is lost to this past.

Listening to What More Can I Say is akin to jumping into a time machine and appearing 40 years ago on the veranda of a cabana in Majorca, Ayers by your side, strumming quiet melodies on an unplugged electric guitar, wondering aloud if he should play the B or stick with the C minor. A stack of old tapes like this (song ideas, studio outtakes and demos) were ditched in poetess Lady June’s flat in the mid-70s then discovered in storage by guitarist Gerry Fitz-Gerald. They were given to Reel Recordings to be restored and mastered, then pared down to seven tracks, though the last is more of a songwriting clinic. For the most part, the compilation is focused on Ayers, though backing vocals, percussion, organs, and accompanying guitars appear courtesy of Mike Oldfield, Archie Legget, David Bedford, and Soft Machine co-founder Robert Wyatt. The songs are barely sketches compared to some of his other work, Ayers’ steady baritone over a quiet, clean electric guitar or an ambiently reverbed acoustic. “This Song Isn’t Called Anything” is a sickeningly sad paean to “being free” and “knowing what it is you want to be free from,” the guitar probably recorded on an out of calibration home reel-to-reel tape deck with vocals dubbed over top. “Unfinished,” a simple acoustic and vocals demo, is a song about “trying to say what can’t be said” and failing. The instrumental “Crystal Clear” recalls (pre-dates?) Another Green World-era Eno, chorused guitar with bass over top of a wood block clicking and a triangle for accents. “Clarence in Oyster Land,” the only song with proper rock drums, belongs on Faust IV wedged between “The Sad Skinhead” and “Jennifer,” perfectly encapsulating a mesh of Renaissance Fest carnival dance and proto new-wave pop sensibility. The compilation ends with probably looped and definitely vertiginous guitar drone on “Dreaming Doctor,” then the 14-minute “What More Can Anyone Say.” The former is definitely a demo version of part of Ayers’ album The Confessions of Dr. Dream and Other Stories, and the latter is a nearly complete extrapolation of “Ballbearing Blues,” the Doctor Dream movements and a few other riffs, all sung in a hushed tone by Ayers in what sounds like a hotel bathroom. At one point he apologizes for the “poor quality” of the vocals (he’s being modest, they’re heartrending), to the addressee of these instructions—perhaps producer Rupert Hine or guitarist Ollie Halsall? Ayers then goes into an explanation of his vision for “a total feeling... not depressing though the material is sort of sad, [but] poignant and slightly sinister.” Given the much touted ideal that Ayers and the Canterbury Scene were master improvisers, the way he accounts for every detail down to the way the back-up singers will sound or where the organ will cut out to make way for a certain guitar chord, it is apparent that it was Ayers’ otherworldly talent for his craft that exemplifies this bygone genre. What More Can I Say is the long buried but now unearthed nuclear time capsule that holds the secret of how jaw-droppingly brilliant this genre sounded when it was fresh.
Michael P. O’Shaughnessy