Sunday, September 14, 2008

Songs for Insane Times: An Anthology 1969-1980
directors' cut, The Observer Music Monthly, August 10th 2008

by Simon Reynolds

The greater part --in quantity and quality - of this box set documents a neglected period in UK rock story: those diffuse years between psychedelia and glam, a time of drift and discovery during which Kevin Ayers recorded four albums for EMI's "head" imprint Harvest. Listening to the selections included on the first two discs of Songs For Insane Times you can trace an arc from 1967-style carefree innocence to the fundamentally melancholy hedonism of the early Seventies.

The lighter side of Ayers is not so far from Donovan. He wrote a string of wistful ditties about faintly aristocratic, "See Emily Play"-style dreamgirls ("The Lady Rachel", "Eleanor's Cake", "Girl on A Swing") while the lovely "May I" presents Ayers as a modern-day courtly lover entranced by a beauty in a cafe, happy just to look but not touch. "Clarence in Wonderland" offers a LSD-era variation on the classic "come up and see my etchings" come-on : "Let's go/to my chateau/we can have a good time/drinking lots of sky wine." Philosophically, lyrics such as "everything is play" and "everything… is true as long as you believe it" echo 1968-and-all-that slogans like "take your dreams for reality".

But only a few years on, 1973's "Oh! Wot A Dream" offered an elegy for the fading utopianism of Ayers's generation, disguised as a fond tribute to Syd Barrett. In rock bohemia, collective dreams of change were superseded by an ideal of "decadence". Which was the title Ayers chose for another paean to a rock icon friend of his, Nico. It's a loving, painfully empathetic portrait of an ice queen “suffering from wear and tear,” who keeps slipping back into “liquid night” despite the out-stretched arms of her retinue of lovers. Built out of a radiantly rippling wall of tape-delayed guitar, "Decadence" is one of the most transcendent pieces of rock of its era. Addressing the same topic but taking the form of a disturbing self-portrait, "Song From the Bottom of A Well" combines a jolting noise-scape of guitar-squall with oblique lyrics about the dangers of self-medication and solipsism: this well is full of wine not water, with Ayers happy to drown because he sees "all the universe as a comfortable bath".

Ayers's sound on the first four Harvest albums was too poppy to be prog but too proggy to really make it as pop, especially when his band was The Whole World: classical composer David Bedford on lava-lamp squiggly keyboards, free improviser Lol Coxhill and his parping and tootling sax, frequently amazing guitar from a pre-Tubular Mike Oldfield. The result was marvelously wonky tunes like "Stop This Train" and "Shooting At The Moon," which rocked hard but at oblique angles. Later, on, as Ayers worked with more straightforward backing musicians, the gold to lead ratio declines. "Caribbean Moon" is typically tropical tripe, its cod calypso horribly catchy in a "Ob-la-di, Ob-lad-da" style, while the strained whimsy of "Banana" that kicks off the 1973 live performance on this box's fourth disc is greeted with a few awkward titters from the Queen Elizabeth Hall audience.

After his first four albums, Ayers had a spell at Island (who wanted to make him a star but succeeded only in making him miserable) then returned to Harvest for three more LPs in the late Seventies. Titles like Yes We Have No Mananas and Rainbow Takeaway speak eloquently of the inspiration drought of this phase. There's the odd twilight gem, like the punky "Observations", a jaundiced-eye's view of a spiritually empty society that's "lost control/to the ones who sell you dreams to fill that hole". Overall, though, the template of chansonnier + backing band generates few sparks. Still, even treading water and going through the jaded-yet-still-debonair motions, Ayers never lost his charm. Like an English Lou Reed, he's not a good singer, strictly speaking, but he remains one of the great voices in British music.

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