In which The Author marks an anniversary
In Leaving No Turn Unstoned
, I told you about my long-standing love of the British psychedelic scene. It’s just occurred to me that today marks the fortieth anniversary of a landmark gig.
To cut a very long story short, Kevin Ayers had come out of his post-Soft Machine semi-retirement in France and put together a new band, The Soporifics. With Mr Ayers himself on guitar and vocals, Ollie Halsall on lead guitar, Archie Leggatt on bass, Eddie Sparrow on drums and John ‘Rabbit’ Bundrick on keyboards, they should have been massive.
To launch his comeback, he played a gig at the Rainbow Theatre in London, and invited some friends along to join in the fun. In the event, Ayers’ former bandmates Mike Oldfield and Robert Wyatt came along; they were joined with former Velvet Underground members John Cale and Nico, and synth pioneer Brian Eno (who was still billed simply as ‘Eno’ at this stage of his career.) Backing vocals were provided by the Chanter sisters, Doreen and Irene, and Liza Strike. Just on paper it’s a dream line-up.
Highlights of the gig were released as an LP by Island Records. Titled simply June 1, 1974, it’s a fascinating snapshot of the British underground scene of the time. The cover photo is revealing, too:
The extremely cold stare between Messrs Ayers and Cale is (apparently) explained by the fact that, the night before the gig, Mr Cale had caught Mr Ayers in flagrante delicto with Mrs Cale. Kevin Ayers certainly had a reputation as a ladies’ man – Martin H. once told me that his solo career was effectively scuppered by Richard Branson, after the Virgin supremo had also been cuckolded by Mr Ayers.
The LP opens with Brian Eno, accompanied by The Soporifics and Robert Wyatt, playing two of the songs from his first LP Here Come the Warm Jets: ‘Driving Me Backwards’ and the classic ‘Baby’s on Fire.’ This latter song, for my money, knocks the studio version into a cocked hat; it might not have the two-and-a-half minute Robert Fripp guitar solo, but it crashes into life with a rare energy.
After that, John Cale takes centre stage with his extraordinary stripped-down version of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. Put all thoughts of Elvis Presley out of your head; it’s a truly chilling interpretation.
The last nine minutes of Side 1 is made up of Nico’s minimalist reworking of The Doors’ classic ‘The End’, with Nico herself on vocals and harmonium, and Eno noodling on the sidelines. It features possibly the most blood-curdling scream ever committed to vinyl. Don’t listen to it with the lights off…
Side Two (yes kids, records had two sides back in the day!) showcases Kevin Ayers and The Soporifics. This live set gives you a snapshot of just how great a band they must have been. Opening with the classic ‘May I?’ and skating through ‘Shouting in a Bucket Blues’ and ‘Stranger in Blue Suede Shoes’, Ollie Halsall demonstrates just what an inventive and fluid player he was. They slow the pace down for ‘Everybody’s Sometime and Some People’s All the Time Blues’, where Mike Oldfield plays an electrifying guitar solo, and then everybody takes the stage for the finale, ‘Two Goes Into Four’.
I was only eight years old when this gig took place. I came across the LP in the old Virgin store in Cardiff (more or less opposite the castle) when I was going out with Lisa, so I must have been seventeen. It’s still one of my favourites, a fascinating document of an extremely fertile period in British music.
Two and a half years later, Punk erupted onto the scene and the ‘old hippies’ were consigned to the bargain bins. Kevin Ayers’ solo career never fulfilled its early promise. Maybe, as Martin suggested, his progress was stymied by the industry moguls. We’ll probably never know for sure.
Kevin Ayers died in 2012, joining Ollie Halsall, Archie Leggatt and Nico at the Great Gig in the Sky. Brian Eno, Robert Wyatt, Mike Oldfield and John Cale still release records every so often. Four decades on, this LP still stands the test of time. I think I’ll give it a spin when I get home, in fact. I thought I’d finish by linking to the LP itself, so that you can hear the Rainbow concert for yourself. Enjoy…