Eulogy for Kevin Ayers
At the end of a European tour opening for the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Soft Machine's Kevin Ayers had had enough. An eternal free-spirit who'd grown up in Malaysia, Ayers was saddened at being part of a dog-and-pony show, was exhausted from the grind of touring, and felt trapped by the powers of commerce that, in 1969, were commodifying counter-cultural music. His conclusion: it was time to retire from music.
He sold his bass to Noel Redding, booked his passage to Ibiza, and, at the age of just 25, apparently this was to be it. Yet, at the last moment, on the last night of the tour, Hendrix fortuitously intervened, presenting Ayers with a guitar, and urging him to not completely abandon music in his retirement.
In isolation on Ibiza, guitar in hand, Ayers invariably found inspiration, wrote a pile of songs, and, then, mere months after feeling a need to abandon music entirely, entered Abbey Road Studios to make his first-ever solo album.
The songs that Ayers had written were tributes to the freedom he felt upon his retirement; an emancipation from rock'n'roll that afforded him a leap into territories uncharted. The tunes Ayers wrote were pop-songs, but they draw from Malaysian folk-song, free-jazz, English music-hall, psychedelia, and the avant-garde. In his head, Ayers heard them not as singer-songwriter works, but mad, delirious, cacophonous symphonies. Which is what his record, Joy of a Toy, eventually delivered.
Strange and Unstrange Songs
Joy of a Toy flaunts its whimsy on opening, when it begins with a song entitled, suggestively, "Joy of a Toy Continued." Summoning circus music, stage musicals, and military marches, the song immediately leaps in mid-stride, with Ayers cavorting, cajoling, and playing the fool out the front of —or, moreso, buried amidst the delirious cacophony of— a blaring, trilling, rambunctious rabble of brass, woodwinds, bass, drums, and in-chorus-caterwauling. It sounds like a national anthem for an imaginary land; a musical flag for a fantasia the nine subsequent songs are free to frolic in.
"Lady Rachel" smudges a narrative portrait out in scratchy electric guitar, hissing tambourines, and moth-wing flutters of oboe; its impressionist shapes and oblique lines often sounding like their slowly sinking out of tune.
"Stop This Train" chugs along for six rollicking, bluesy minutes, only for its steady, rock'n'roll locomotion to be slowly sped up by artificial tape-monkeying, until it careens off the tracks in a mess of chipmunk jibberish.
And "Oleh Oleh Bandu Bandong" is even more ridiculous: a Malaysian hymn rewritten to cast its otherworldliness as threatening: dead-eyed, monotonous incantations of the title line —by a chorus of eerie female voices— start out in hypnotic, near-robotic sync before the odd time signature, competing polyrhythms, and arrhythmic free-jazz overlays turn it into a delirious, discordant, on-edge mess; a thousand ideas crashing into each other until the song ends with screeching electronic sine-waves.
Contrasting with its penchant for the strange and ridiculous are the LP's moments of sheer beauty: "Elanor's Cake (Which Ate Her)" all romance and devotion, with Ayers' tender croon dappled by springtime flutes. "Song for Insane Times," a critique of the narcissism of supposedly-liberated counter-cultural swingers, in all its chiming piano and nimble-fingered church organ, almost sounds Nick Drake-ish. And "Girl on a Swing" is one of Ayers' most beloved compositions: in which guitars, organs, and pianos turn delicate circles whilst Ayers softly sings a paean to the titular muse.
As whole, the album feels like a product of its era, but the work of someone who was at the head of the curve. Here, Ayers plays tuneful, melodic, whimsical music, but delivers it with a sense of avant-gardist adventure. Joy of a Toy captures a time in which popular music first truly opened up, and made itself open to new experiences; this LP the sound of new horizons as far as the ear can hear.
Record Label: Harvest
Release Date: November, 1969