Here’s a slightly edited and revised version of the text I wrote in April 2014 for the much anticipated re-release of Kevin’s album ‘Diamond Jack and the Queen of Pain’. In April 2017 Charly Records announced that the album “will be released across all formats…later in 2017”.
“The story of Kevin Ayers’s album ‘Diamond Jack and the Queen of Pain’ is a strange one. It begins in Mallorca, takes us to New York, then Madrid and it’s about to touch down for a while on your stereo. Who knows where the tale will finally end…
As the 1970s rolled into the 1980s, Kevin Ayers formed a band in Mallorca with the guitar player Joan Bibiloni and other local musicians. They started writing and rehearsing many of the songs which eventually appeared on ‘Diamond Jack and the Queen of Pain’. A music-loving businessman became Kevin’s manager and invested money in the band and their new project. Kevin and his band recorded demos at the Maller Studio in Palma de Mallorca during December 1980. They also played the songs at live gigs throughout Mallorca. There was a “good vibe” around the band and the music.
In 1981 Kevin asked his best friend and “love at first solo” guitarist Ollie Halsall to come to Mallorca to work on the new album and to play gigs. Ollie brought his Swedish girlfriend, Zanna Gregmar, who was a keyboard player and vocalist, with him. Once Ollie was in the band, Joan Bibiloni took a back seat. With Ollie on board Kevin probably felt he could up the stakes. They played gigs throughout mainland Spain and the positive vibes continued. The Kevin Ayers Band recorded a show for Spanish TV with guests Andy Summers and John Cale.
Kevin, Ollie, Zanna, Kevin’s business manager and Ian Carpenter, his road manager, went to the Electric Lady recording studios in New York to record demos of three tracks: a cover version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Lay Lady Lay’, ‘My Speeding Heart’ and ‘Give a Little Bit’. Kevin’s contacts in New York organised a top producer for the sessions and shopped the tracks around in the hope of securing a deal.
It seemed however that the American record companies were more interested in finding “the next big thing” than supporting the comeback of a talented, but wayward veteran. Drinking with The Clash and an evening spent laughing into a mirror with John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten might explain Kevin’s slightly punk moments on the track ‘Who’s Still Crazy?’ which later appeared on ‘Diamond Jack and the Queen of Pain’. After a few weeks Kevin and his friends returned to Mallorca hoping they might still receive a phone call asking them to record the album in America, but the call never came.
In 1983 Kevin, Ollie, Zanna and Kevin’s business manager, went to Madrid to finally record the album that became ‘Diamond Jack and the Queen of Pain’. Kevin had a very good relationship with his business manager who had spent a great deal of money on nurturing Kevin’s career and both of them needed to see a return on this investment. So Kevin’s business manager chose Julián Ruiz, a Spanish music producer, based in Madrid, to work with Kevin on the album. Ruiz had studied sound engineering in Los Angeles in 1980-1981 and by 1983 he had already produced ten albums by various artists.
The recording of Kevin’s album didn’t run smoothly and Kevin later commented that he had little creative control over the song arrangements, production or backing musicians selected by Ruiz. Ollie and Zanna felt the same way. Kevin Ayers was no stranger to musical experimentation but on the original version of ‘Diamond Jack and the Queen of Pain’ the drum machines and synthesizers appear at odds with the natural warmth of his voice. Ollie’s guitar solos seem lost amongst the jangling. It’s very difficult to work out what percentage of the album is Ayers’s input or Julián Ruiz’s intervention. Maybe Ruiz thought the album would reach a wider audience if it featured the up to date sounds of 1983? Julián Ruiz is now a very well known musical producer with over a hundred albums to his credit. Perhaps he really wanted to work with David Bowie or Marc Almond and thought that Kevin would do instead?
The best track on the original version of ‘Diamond Jack and the Queen of Pain’ was the stripped down ‘Champagne and Valium’, which gave us an insight into Kevin’s somewhat tortured state of mind, but did so with charm and humour. When I cranked up the volume on the rest of the album I realised that my nineteen year old art student self would have enjoyed dancing to many of the tracks during my nightclubbing days in the early eighties. Light bulb moment! Was this the destiny that Kevin envisaged for it when he started writing the songs or did the album evolve into something else along the way via New York and Madrid?
Apparently ‘Diamond Jack and the Queen of Pain’ was never the working title of the album. Maybe it’s Kevin’s comment on a particular relationship, maybe it’s a reference to heroin, (“No secret Jack inside this box, to help the pain within” – from the track ‘The Unfairground’). Maybe it’s better not to speculate too much…
The original version of the album was finally released in June 1983. In an interview for Dutch radio in 1985 Kevin, honest and forthright as ever, commented that he liked some of the songs on ‘Diamond Jack and the Queen of Pain’ but he didn’t like the production. He repeated this in interviews over the years.
In 1984 the songs ‘Champagne and Valium’, ‘Lay Lady Lay’, ‘My Speeding Heart’, ‘Stop Playing With My Heart (You Are a Big Girl)’ reappeared on a collection of tracks entitled ‘Deia…Vu’. These songs were mostly remixed from the demos which Kevin made with Joan Bibiloni and the other Mallorcan musicians at the Palma sessions in 1980. Production is credited to Kevin Ayers and Joan Bibiloni. The musical arrangements on “Deià…Vu” may be closer to Kevin’s original intentions for his songs, thus making ‘Diamond Jack and the Queen of Pain’ somewhat of an interesting detour.
I have been privileged to listen to a test pressing of the 2014 vinyl re-issue of ‘Diamond Jack and the Queen of Pain’. Some of Kevin’s friends and fans were genuinely astonished when they heard of the plan to re-release the album. “It’s not one of his best,” they said. However Rob Caiger and his team have redefined the tracks by bringing certain instruments to the front of the mix, dampening down the sounds that didn’t work so well and re-establishing Ollie’s solos. There’s more than a nod to Giorgio Moroder in the production, but I like that. Kevin’s voice is now where it should be, at the heart of all the songs, rather than just added on the top or to the side of the music. This is evident in the cover version of J.J. Cale’s ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’ and ‘My Speeding Heart’.
I can’t help loving the re-mastered version of this album right now. Maybe it’s the combination of Kevin’s voice and the vinyl.
Kevin Ayers always wrote and sang about his life as he saw it. This album is part of Kevin’s life in the early 1980s. It’s interesting that you can go back and re-master the music, but would you ever want to change the life? Let the music talk…”
With many thanks to Ian Carpenter