Monday, November 16, 2009

Biba Kopf Kevin Ayers Epiphany

From richardbrunoelliott at the whatevershebringswesing yahoo group:

The Wire
Biba Kopf has his life changed by a
mysterious noise in the night

During one of their habitual tirades against the
evils of Western music, party leaders in Beijing
once unfavourably compared the oeuvre of Elvis
Presley with the Chinese revolutionary hit "The Faeces
Collectors Descend From The Mountain". Had the
venerable cadres been more familiar with Yukio
Mishima's startling literary debut Confessions Of A Mask
(1949), in which a four year old Yukio recounted his
sexual arousal at the sight of a youthful night-soil man
coming down the slope, they might have have been
more careful about the selections for their youthpurifying
revolutionary jukebox. For Mishima's encounter
was, he wrote, a presentiment that "there is in this world
a kind of desire like stinging pain". So who knows what
unusual longings Beijing's injudicious cultural watchdogs
unleashed in the hearts of young China?

A kind of desire like stinging pain... In musical terms
such a desire manifests itself through disharmony, dirt in
the ear, the spillage of noise. Pardon my pretension, but
my Christmas holiday reading of Deadly Dialectics: Sex,
Violence And Nihilism In The World Of Yukio Mishima
accompanied by a video of a childhood favourite Tom
—well, it was a holiday — unreeling in the
background, triggered a memory of the first time I was
really aroused by noise. It occurred during the following
Sawyer scene: a barge loaded with a cannon floats
downriver, intermittently firing salvos with a view to
raising the corpse of the hero, presumed drowned. The
blast, the recoil, the sonic boom rolling across the
surface of the water in this instance failed to bring up a
bloated body. But it did conjure for me the image of a
six-foot plus British blond, with a voice as deep and
resonant as that unfolding sonic boom. Inevitably, I
heard it first through the darkness of a late-night John
Peel show back in 1972, the voice naturally preceding
the name of its bearer. It was shrouded in a dense fog of
sound, consisting of depth charge bass and a knot of
indistinct, yet squealing lead noises, which slowly and
inexorably ricocheted across the song's watery base.
Maybe I should have gotten out more, but back then I'd
heard nothing like it, especially not the voice. Its very
English baritone defied the period predilection for mid-
Atlantic accents, just as the song cleared itself of rock's
usual drab, denim debt to 12 bar blues. I flipped on the
bedroom light and carefully noted the details of this, to
my fresh ears, unearthly performance. The singer? Kevin
Ayers. The track? "Song From The Bottom Of A Well".

As an arousing icon of transgression Kevin Ayers
hardly bears comparison with Mishima's night-soil man,
but you have to remember things were more innocent
then. (Or perhaps it was just
me — I can only imagine the
jolting pleasures of coming of
age to, say, a group like Coil.)
Naturally enough I sought to
repeat the experience and searched
out the song on the LP,
Whatevershebringswesing. The
anticipation was great but getting it
home was an immense disappointment.
Far from being an album spilling over with
dirty noises akin to "Bottom Of A Well", it
began with some orchestral idyll called "There
Is Loving", followed by a collection of dotty
ditties and a totally daft take on Velvet
Underground's "Sweet Jane", called "Stranger
In Blue Suede Shoes" (my George Washington
complex impels me to admit I made that last i
connection long after the fact). I mjght have shelved, it in
disgust, but economic factors dictated I couldn't afford
to play the thing just once. So the true pleasures of
Kevin Ayers's music surfaced slowly: his very Englishness
(probably preserved by a childhood largely spent in
some Far Eastern colony); his awry wit and lazy charm,
which manifested themselves in the countercultural
equivalent of a Noel Coward song; and a yen for
experiment that dated back to his experiences in
Canterbury during the early 60s, when he partnered
Australian gonzo Beat alchemist Daevid Allen in the first
version of Soft Machine.

Indeed, the two finest pieces on Soft Machine's debut
album are credited to Ayers. The first is a lengthy stiffriffed
workout on a track with a passing resemblance to
The Kinks' proto-Metal masterpiece "You Really Got
Me", called "We Did It Again". Legend has it that Ayers
wanted the group to hammer away at the single,
unvarying title phrase for as long as they could stand it,
with no changes or embellishments, but the others
buckled long before he did. The second is the great,
cod-philosophical wake-up call "Why Are We
Sleeping?", in which he dramatised the teachings of his
guru, Gurdjieff (in the 60s everyone needed a guru).

The fact that he quit Soft Machine after their first, by
all accounts gruelling US tour with Jimi Hendrix was the
first indication of Ayers's proto-slacker tendency to
escape to the Balearics at the first whiff of the kind of
serious hard work that prefigures commercial success.
He continued to escape there throughout what you
might charitably call a career of missed chances,
throughout which the dividends became frustratingly
more erratic as it progressed to his present invtsibftty Cr
you could read his laziness as his means of preserving
the fragile, but very precious qualities that set him apan
from his contemporaries. Though not without their
strong moments, Ayers's later albums became more
straitjacketed inside the usual rock expectations. But he
first three are all wonderful mixes of wistful, summery
(no, I can't believe I'm writing this either), vaguely
philosophical songs like Joy Of A Toy's "Lady Rachel",
harder edged locomotive pieces such as "Stop This
Train", and alternately hazy or Spike Jones-y
experiments. In addition, they are about as far rerrc. =:
from rock as you could then stretch while still being
somehow part of it. No real surprise, given that they are
performed by bizarre ensembles of noted fringe players
including his former partners in Soft Machine — most
persistently, Robert Wyatt — composer David Bedford
(also responsible for Ayers's off-the-wall arrangement
saxophonist Lol Coxhill, and... a very young Mike
Oldfield, whose double tracked bass and guitar parts ori
the title track of Whatevershebringswesing amount to
the loveliest two minutes in the entire Kopf collection.

Whereas by current standards "Song From The
Bottom Of A Well" now sounds positively creaky rather
than Big Noise creepy, the Whatevershebringswesing SB.
remains my single-most transgressive disc. Just watch
your friends recoil in horror when they discover they're
falling for an album with Mike Oldfield on it.

1 comment:

db said...

Just found your blog via Twitter; brilliant, provoking stuff. And you're prolific! Much here to catch up on.