Susan Lomas has written a book about Kevin Ayers. It is not a biography, but the story of a sequence of events leading up to the Kevin Ayers memorial event that took place in Deia, Mallorca on the 16th August 2013. It also serves as a ‘Beginners Guide to Kevin Ayers’ too. The book is now available as a paperback on Amazon (see Kevin Ayers: August 16th 2013 Deià) and from time to time will be available as a free Kindle download.
If you would like to be notified when the free Kindle days are, just leave your email below and we will let you know. Thank You.
Shooting At The Moon: The Collected Lyrics Of Kevin Ayers, 2019 Faber Music Ltd. Front cover photograph by Hans Hendricks.
“What can I give you girl?
I can give you my share of time
That’s the only thing that’s mine
Kevin Ayers ‘Stars’ (1973)
So, the question is this. If you already own many of Kevin Ayers’ recordings or have been a fan of his music since the 1960s will this lyric book be of interest to you? Or maybe you have recently discovered Kevin’s music and are keen to know more about his life? Does ‘Shooting At The Moon: The Collected Lyrics Of Kevin Ayers’ give you an insight into the personality behind the songs?
Short answer… an emphatic Yes!!! It is a beautiful, very touching book; the spirit of Kevin Ayers shines from every one of its 296 pages. Published by Faber Music Ltd and printed on high quality paper with a luxurious glossy cover, this book is a visual delight, fit to grace the coffee tables and bookshelves of many a home or library. In my opinion it is good value for money at £25 (or whatever the equivalent price is in your local currency). I also like the size of the book (18 cm x 25 cm) which makes it large enough to include top quality pictures but not too heavy to hold when reading.
Photo of Kevin Ayers by Claude Gassian; ‘May I’ lyrics by Kevin Ayers, 1970 Warner Chappell Music Ltd.
Borrowing its title from Kevin Ayers’ 1970 album of the same name, ‘Shooting At The Moon’ has been lovingly curated by Kevin’s youngest daughter, Galen Ayers. The book features the lyrics from all of Kevin’s solo albums, beginning with ‘Joy Of A Toy’ (1969) and continuing through the decades up to and including ‘The Unfairground’ (2007). Galen recently revealed that her father used to keep a plastic bag of notebooks and photographs which formed his “archive”. Thus, where possible, the lyric book contains scanned pages of handwritten lyrics from Kevin’s original songwriting notebook(s). Sometimes the songs are early versions or alternative versions, with the more well-known album version on the facing page. Additional tracks from album re-releases circa 2003 are also included with the original album tracks.
To ensure that the book was as diverse, lively and appealing as Kevin himself, Galen Ayers invited family members, musicians, friends and fans to contribute to the project. Therefore ‘Shooting At The Moon’ features many previously unseen photographs, scans of posters and gig tickets, recipes for fish dishes and treating hangovers, plus quotations from Kevin himself and appreciations by his peers and other admirers. The introductory notes by Galen Ayers, Robert Wyatt and John Payne help to set the scene for those readers who are less familiar with Kevin’s life and work.
‘The Owl’ lyrics by Kevin Ayers, 1976 Warner Chappell Music; photo collage of Kevin, Galen and Ollie by Kevin Ayers.
Some of Kevin’s most poignant or intriguing songs have dedications to people he cared about deeply. That’s all I’m going to say on the matter, you’ll have to read them for yourself. And then there’s Kevin’s homemade photo collages of himself and Galen, sometimes with pictures of Kristen (Galen’s mother) or of Kevin’s dear friend and musical collaborator, Peter John “Ollie” Halsall. Bob Dylan even features on one of them! There are no dates on these collages, maybe Kevin made them to take on tour with him or to see him through periods of separation or simply as treasured memories?
The photographs featured in ‘Shooting At The Moon’ are beautifully reproduced, either as large full page “close-ups” or as smaller images on black or white pages at appropriate moments in the story of Kevin’s professional and personal life. In some photographs Kevin is pictured with members of his various bands and other musical friends, on and off stage. Some “classic” images of Kevin, e.g. those by photographer Claude Gassian, rub shoulders with energetic live performance shots, such as the black and white photos taken by Ronald Kienhuis, which I hadn’t seen before. There are also intimate or more casual photos taken by Kevin’s friends and family. Unusual highlights are Kevin Ayers and his “catch of the day” (a fishy tale indeed) and the minimal lyrics of ‘We Did It Again’ printed opposite a photograph of Kevin yawning.
Back cover photo of Kevin Ayers by Michael Putland.
Above all the book references the wit and wisdom of Kevin Ayers. The poetry of his songs speaks for itself. And the best ones? Well they just seem to write themselves…
In August 2019 we were contacted by Miguel Coll who said,
“Hola, os quisiera enviar para publicar en esta web, una grabacion casera que hice de una actuación Diciembre 1981, en el Puerto de Soller (Mallorca), Discoteca El Patio, con excelentes toques de Ollie Halsall, Es un archivo un poco largo MP3, Si me dais vuestro correo email puedo envialo. Muchas gracias y un saludo”
There is indeed some absolutely insane guitarwork from Ollie Hallsall, especially around the 31m mark. What a talent he was.
We were very pleased to receive an email from Alikati (?) who sent us 3 out of the 4 pages of one of the last interviews with Kevin Ayers from 2008. The interview was in “Word Magazine”, but the web site exists no more. The interview exists elsewhere on the internet, but not with the completeness that we have here.
The images from the article are below and the actual text is here too. This is super special to us as we have visited Montolieu and we can picture exactly where the interview took place. Enjoy
Kevin Ayers: ‘I never considered another profession’ – one of his final interviews
In 2008, Word magazine ran what turned out to be one of the final ever interviews with Soft Machine founder Kevin Ayers, who died this week three years ago aged 68. Here it is in full:
There are poppy fields above the city of Carcassonne in south-western France, and quiet houses with windows so tightly shuttered they appear to be in a permanent state of repose. The higher you get up the mountain, the closer the air becomes; there’s a place where the road forks into two – a little scrap of fenced-off land in the middle planted with fruit trees and a hammock strung up in the shade. It is here, on an afternoon like this, that if you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of Kevin Ayers.
Ayers has been living in voluntary exile in France for longer than he can remember; something about England never sat right with him. Forty years ago, when Soft Machine released their first album and toured the world with Jimi Hendrix, Ayers – lead vocalist and bass player, then 24 – gave up and fled to Ibiza. There, he later said, he “lived on nothing – fruit from the trees and the fish that I caught every day”. His first solo album, Joy of a Toy, was a piece of psychedelic whimsy with songs such as Eleanor’s Cake (Which Ate Her) and The Lady Rachel, while the demos for his first single Singing a Song in the Morning, originally featured Syd Barrett – although by the time it came to the final cut, the ex-Floyd frontman was too far into his mental meltdown to remember the chords. The Whole World, a band featuring a young Mike Oldfield on bass, was assembled for a second LP, Shooting At the Moon, and Ayers was back in the limelight, hailed as a new David Bowie. He cancelled the promotional tour after a few dates, though, and aborted the group just as it was taking off.
The industry chased him, and the solo records kept coming through the 70s, with songs about bananas and girls in white dresses, eight-minute prog experiments and spoken-word tracks. Ayers slept with countless women – from Lady Aspinall to Nico, from the wife of John Cale to the girlfriend of Lou Reed. He lived with Brian Eno in Maida Vale, and it was at one of Ayers’ famous house parties in July 1973 that Robert Wyatt, drunk and caught with the wrong girl, fell out of an upstairs window and was permanently paralysed from the waist down. Later in the decade Ayers would once more head off in search of the sun, setting up home in Provence, Majorca and Minorca, and by the close of the 70s he had gone to ground completely.
In 2007 he released a new album, The Unfairground, which reunited him with many from the old scene, including Wyatt, whom he claimed he hadn’t seen for 30 years. It seemed to spell a new lease of life but a major tour of Europe and America, planned for that summer, has just been abruptly cancelled. Approaching the strange little pen in the mountains now – the hammock rounded with some human form and the tip of a fisherman’s hat just visible through the trees – I’m not quite sure what I’m going to find.
Kevin Ayers is perching rather uncomfortably on the edge of the hammock. He rises to meet me – 6ft 2ins tall, dressed in a tattered velvet jacket and white trainers, and winces. He broke four ribs a few months back and has a fresh cut on the palm of his right hand from a fall he took earlier in the day. He removes his hat and scratches his messy blond hair, then covers up again self-consciously when he realises his face is exposed in the sun. I can’t be sure, but I suspect that the ribs – broken in a barroom brawl – are an excuse to keep popping the tablets he carries around in a blue plastic carrier bag – “my vitamin bag”, as he calls it. Unsteady on his feet and mortally embarrassed to be seen or spoken to, Kevin Ayers is in several strange kinds of pain.
“Did you see the nunnery down in the village?” he asks, fumbling a tiny roll-up. He sounds like a BBC broadcaster from the 1950s, his accent almost colonially refined, rich and sibilant, every T delicately crossed. “It’s very strange,” he goes on. “There are about 5,000 nuns in there but you never see any of them coming out.” We’re in surreal territory, and he’s brightening up. “I think they are fed into some kind of giant sausage machine,” he says, “or made into dog food perhaps.” By the time we get into his car, he’s drunk at least two bottles of wine and is winding down for a sedative-soaked siesta. For some reason I’m optimistic about making it down the mountainside in one piece. At worst we’ll end up with a couple of broken ribs, I tell myself, and besides, Kevin Ayers is probably still too much of a gentleman to crash me.
Ayer’s childhood was posh, lonely and miserable. His father was Rowan Ayers, the BBC broadcaster and creator of The Open Door and co-creator of The Old Grey Whistle Test, and when his parents’ marriage ended he was farmed out to live with his grandmother. His mother, “a cold woman with a fierce Catholic guilt complex and a desire for self-improvement,” set up home in Malaysia with a new husband, an army officer, and when they eventually sent for him he made the journey alone, at the age of six – a three-day trek to the far east with a stopover at Bangkok. “I was the only white boy among 80 pupils at school, and I spoke no Malaysian. Then they put me in a Catholic boarding school full of homosexual priests who were always trying to get into my pants because I was blond and looked like an angel.”
Back in England, Ayers was sent to “any school that would have me”. Some expelled him, and some he escaped; the names and locations are of no interest to him now, but one of them was the Simon Langton grammar school in Canterbury, where he met future Soft Machine members Robert Wyatt and Mike Ratledge, whose friendship represented “the first experience of intimacy, the first family I ever had”. He tried to live with his father in Chelsea but it backfired and he ended up on the streets “conning”, which is basically taking money for sexual favours and then trying to run away.
A car passes us by a hair’s breadth and the French driver jabs a finger sideways to signal, “get over the other side of the freaking road.” Kevin Ayers checks whether I’ve got my seatbelt on. We stop at his house for emergency supplies and he comes back to the car with seven bottles of wine.
Je suis un rock star … Je habiter la, dans la south of France …
The Bill Wyman hit of the 80s conjures images of a mini-chateau, a trout farm and a recording studio, PRS cheques and a comfortable life of food, drink and real estate. The Ayers residence is a tall, shuttered place at the end of a narrow street, built into the side of a gorge. The garden is on three levels with lichen-covered balustrades descending steeply and all sorts of greenery jostling together. It’s redolent of an old cemetery and there’s a strange, tropical ozone smell, rich in neglect. Overripe peaches spill from paper bags on the kitchen table and bits of buddleia blossom, faded and brown, have blown in on to the floor. There’s a small CD system on the dresser, half a dozen albums piled on top of it. One is by the Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis (“yes, someone gave me that”) and the others are by Kevin Ayers – The Unfairground, Whatevershebringswesing, Shooting at the Moon among them, all covered in dust. It looks as though they have been put there by someone else, to remind him who he is.
Throughout the 80s, Kevin Ayers was a heroin addict. He once received an entire portable studio as a gift from Mike Oldfield, and sold it to support his habit. His musical partner, Ollie Halsall of Patto, another “next big thing” from the early 70s, was his drug buddy – until he died of an overdose in 1992. His death weaned Ayers off the stuff, but there is something about this house – dishevelled and unfurnished – that speaks of those former times. The bedrooms, and there are many, don’t contain any bookshelves, or clothes, or clutter. He shows me his bed – green plush velvet – but each of the others appears to have been slept in too, the sure sign of an insomniac. He takes me to a room painted red, with the beginnings of a gold leaf design on one part of the wall. “This is the room with the woman’s touch,” he says. He’s referring to an American barmaid half his age who’d lived there on and off until about five years ago. The house misses her. If there is one thing Kevin Ayers can talk about freely – needs to talk about – it’s love. “I can’t write songs unless I am in love,” he states. “And I have always been that way. If I am not in love, nothing is meaningful to me. I have no energy.”
At the top of the house there is something that could once have been a nursery, “where I put children if I have them.” He has several, in fact, all grown up now, and he’s in regular contact with Galen, his daughter by Richard Bransen’s ex-wife Kirsten, a deal with Virgin Records in the 70s having proved fruitful in more ways than one. There is an old typewriter that no longer works up here, too, and a four-track tape-recorder that, over the course of three years, he used to put down songs for The Unfairground. There are no musical instruments and few other signs of his professional activity. I ask him how he writes his music now and feel instantly as though I’ve embarrassed him.
Out in the garden, a pint of neat Pernod in his hand, Kevin Ayers changes places with me so the sun is on my face and his is in the shade. I am bemused at his lack of physical confidence – he did a few small gigs in France two years ago and insisted that the venues were set in near-darkness. If he compared himself to other men in their mid 60s he’d feel a lot better. But that’s missing the point, really, because somewhere down the line, on the shores of Ibiza or Morocco 40 years ago, Kevin Ayers’s mind seems to have been frozen in time.
There is something unshakable about his attitude – his romanticism, his sedateness, the curious self-indulgence despite the impoverished circumstances – that sets him apart from those caricatures of the 60s bent on some kind of nostalgia trip. “I have always denied that there was a Canterbury scene,” he says matter-of-factly when I ask him about the early days. “There were no more than half-a-dozen people doing what we were doing – in a cathedral city that had its quota of real wankers. People would hit on me because I had a posh accent. Mike Ratledge got a first in philosophy at Oxford and Robert Wyatt came from a literary background. That was the thing that drew us together, really.”
“The thing about Soft Machine and me,” he goes on slowly, “was that I never considered another profession. My only other desire was to do as little as possible. Honestly, I just assume that whatever is going to happen to me is going to happen. There it goes: someone is there, someone isn’t there. This girl is here. This food is here. I think the clever people are the ones who do a little as possible.”
In a strange kind of way, Kevin Ayers is living bang in the present – his present. If he were feeding off the memory of his early career, he would be doing more to keep it alive. In fact, as I learn later, when he saw the dates for his planned tour in the summer of 2008 – in Europe and the US – he broke down and hospitalised himself with alcohol and painkillers. It was 1969 when he first cancelled a tour. This is not a man who is “past it” but a man who has not changed a bit.
The village is bedding down for the night and late in the evening, on the street outside his house, Kevin Ayers emerges carrying, to my surprise, an acoustic guitar. It’s the first voluntary sign of his musical life that he has given me. No one dares look at him or make a fuss, anxious not to put him off, and sitting in a doorway, Ayers starts to play an old blues song. His voice rings out loud, confident and unmistakable on the cobbled street, lagging lazily just behind the beat. One by one, people creep up on the street to listen. A couple of old French people open their shutters and look down. He finishes. “Play May I!” someone calls, wanting to hear a Kevin Ayers composition. “How about Lady Rachel?” They just don’t get it. “I can’t do those songs,” he says quietly, with a waver of frustration. “Because I don’t know the words and the chords.”
Kevin Ayers ‘Champagne and Valium’/ ‘My Speeding Heart’ 7″ Single, Charly Records 2017
Charly Records and Rob Caiger (Snapper Music) have worked closely with Kevin’s estate to bring about the release of this limited edition single on champagne coloured vinyl, ahead of the re-release of ‘Diamond Jack And The Queen Of Pain‘ later this year. The entire album has been enhanced through “pure analogue mastering” by Matt Colton at Alchemy Studios.
These versions of ‘Champagne and Valium’ and ‘My Speeding Heart’ (both credited to Kevin Ayers) were originally recorded in Madrid in 1983 with Spanish record producer Julian Ruiz.
‘Champagne and Valium’ is a stripped down version of Kevin’s drôle “Dirty Blues” favourite. Showcasing Kevin’s deep, warm baritone voice, the only accompaniment is a mournful slide guitar and plenty of reverb. Surely it’s the perfect hangover song?
Kevin Ayers ‘Champagne and Valium’ / ‘My Speeding Heart’ 2017 (Front Sleeve)
“Champagne and valium, half-hearted kisses;
Lord won’t you tell me
What kind of breakfast this is…
God said ‘Cool it boy, you sure got a nerve
You already had much more than you deserve
Shut your mouth and go home, boy…’ ”
“Take it out for a spin… see how it sounds!”
By way of contrast ‘My Speeding Heart’ is a complete outing in early 80s electronica. We heard a rumour (unconfirmed of course) that Julian Ruiz was keen to demonstrate the versatility of his studio back in 1983. With Kevin’s standing as an international musician he may have been hoping for a “hit record”. Who knows? ‘My Speeding Heart’ is a very uptempo, somewhat dance-floor friendly number, with synths, electronic drumkit, horns, additional female vocals, bells, whistles… It’s fun but there are dark undercurrents in the lyrics, a classic Ayers trick!
Here at KevinAyers.org we have followed the ‘Diamond Jack’ project since June 2014, when Rob Caiger got in touch to ask for fans’ memories of and tributes to Kevin. It was always the intention of Charly Records and all those involved in the re-mastering and re-issue to produce top quality merchandise, attractively packaged to appeal to enthusiasts and collectors. Most important of all, the sound quality is excellent and the “pristine vinyl experience” is as magical as ever.
We were luck enough to be sent a white label pressing of the single. However, this gets even better…
This single is a rare mis-pressing, the A-side is Howling Man and the B-side is Champagne and Valium. Both tracks appear on Kevin’s 1983 album Diamond Jack and the Queen of Pain. The combination of My Speeding Heart/ Champagne and Valium was the single chosen for public release in 1983.
We think that they have done a great job with this limited edition single but as usual we would like to hear your opinions. Now over to you!
Kevin Ayers ‘Champagne and Valium’ / ‘My Speeding Heart’ 2017 (Back of Sleeve)
The Cake 1966-1968 : Eleanor Barooshian aka Chelsea Lee (front) with Barbara Morillo and Jeanette Jacobs
Did you ever wonder who or what was the inspiration behind Kevin’s beautiful song ‘Eleanor’s Cake (Which Ate Her)’ from the ‘Joy of a Toy’ album (released 1970)?
Eleanor Barooshian (April 2, 1950 – Aug 30, 2016), also known as Eleanor Baruchian and as Chelsea Lee, was a member of all-girl band The Cake, formed in New York in 1966.The other band members were Jeanette Jacobs and Barbara Morillo. Their repertoire consisted of R&B standards as well as their own compositions, which have been described as “baroque pop” with madrigal style vocal harmonies. They released two albums on the DECCA label, ‘The Cake’ in 1967 and ‘A Slice of Cake’ in 1968. Eleanor also contributed backing vocals to the outstanding recording of “Why Are We Sleeping” on Soft Machine’s first album.
The Cake at Gold Star Studios
In 1967, Eleanor appeared in ‘You Are What You Eat’, a documentary film produced by Peter Yarrow of folk group Peter, Paul & Mary. In the film, Eleanor performed the Sonny & Cher hit ‘I Got You Babe’ with 1960s personality, Tiny Tim. She sang the male part while Tiny Tim sang the female. Yarrow cast the two singers after seeing them perform at Steve Paul’s ‘The Scene’ in New York.
It would seem likely that Kevin Ayers first met Eleanor and Jeanette Jacobs in New York, when the Soft Machine were supporting Jimi Hendrix in 1968. Jeanette was romantically involved with Hendrix at the time.
Jimi Hendrix and Kevin Ayers, circa 1968
Following the break-up of The Cake in 1968, Eleanor Barooshian and Jeanette Jacobs toured with Dr John and subsequently moved to the UK, where they became part of Ginger Baker’s Air Force. Eleanor also recorded an album in Japan with Tetsu Yamauchi. Sadly Jeanette Jacobs-Wood died in 1982, aged only 32. In 2006, Eleanor and Barbara Morillo reformed The Cake for a one-off Hendrix tribute show in New York.
When news of Eleanor’s passing became public, in September 2016, Bill Tasker, who had corresponded with her during the 1990s, posted in the Kevin Ayers Appreciation Society:
“Eleanor did backing vocals on the Softs’ ‘Why Are We Sleeping?’ Jeanette Jacobs, one of the other members of The Cake, was Jimi [Hendrix]’s lover around this time. Afterwards they stayed in the UK for a while singing with Ginger Baker’s Air Force. She [Eleanor] was very proud of the song Kevin dedicated to her. And looked back fondly of her time in ‘Cake’.”
“Take another look around, maybe what you’ve lost you’ve found…” Eleanor’s Cake (Which Ate Her) Kevin Ayers, 1970.
Many thanks for sending the link for the Softs Radio Special in 1976. I was a hardcore Soft Machine fan ever since I heard Moon in June on Top Gear in June 1969 – still the best version in my view with Robert Wyatt’s off the wall improvised lyrics and a blistering organ solo by Mike Ratledge towards the end.
A KB Valve Radio
I listened to Top Gear religiously every week recording many of the studio sessions from an old KB valve radio onto an Elizabethan reel-to-reel tape machine. They are very low-fi by current standards but I still have most of the tapes, complete with interference from various domestic appliances, including the fridge. You were not alone! I still have the log books in which I recorded details of each track – I was a bit of an anorak in those days (and still am!).
I continued to listen to John Peel when I went to university but somehow managed to miss the Soft Machine special – how could I miss a special programme by my favourite band presented by my favourite DJ. There must have been a lot of other distractions at the time. Its a great compilation of Softs tracks and other related music by Kevin Ayers, Robert Wyatt, Gong, Daevid Allen, etc.
Thanks again for bringing this lost treasure to my attention.
I was very pleased to receive this message and I urged Tim to tell me more…
Elizabethan LZ34 Reel to Reel Tape Recorder
I was unable to find an original photo of my Elizabethan tape recorder but found this photo of a similar model on the web. The original was destroyed in a fire at my Dad’s school in 1974 – he had borrowed my machine to record himself reading stories for his pupils when the school was torched by some local kids. I was distraught about losing it but replaced it with an AKAI 1720L reel-to-reel which I still have and is in full working order. A friend recently gave me an identical model to use for spares.
For anyone who may be remotely interested I made my early radio recordings from Top Gear in the late 1960s – the first Soft Machine session was around 1968. I also recorded a lot of BBC comedy programmes including Round the Horne, Im Sorry I’ll Read that Again, Stop Messing About, etc. I used an old Kolster Brandes valve radio (model FR10) dating from the early 1950s. It was given to me by my grandparents and opened up a whole world of broadcasting, complete with various whines, whistles and interference so the quality of my early recordings was very poor. The recordings made on the AKAI were more consistent and further improvements resulted from using a Mitsubishi transistor radio which had FM. Further equipment upgrades were made later by which time I had virtually ceased recording from the radio.
Most of my archive radio recordings were made from Top Gear between 1969-1974 but I continued making occasional recordings until the early 2000s, most recently an excellent weekly music programme on Radio 3 called Mixing It, sadly no more. When I retire and have more time on my hands I intend to revisit my archive recordings to see what has survived the ravages of time, print through, dropouts, etc. Magnetic tape is not the most durable of recording media…. I may even find time to catalog my recordings to share with like-minded anoraks!
Kevin Ayers and Nico, Arles Festival, August 6th 1975. Photo by Roy Perring
It’s always a thrill when new photos and memories of Kevin Ayers come to light. We were delighted when Roy Perring got in touch recently to share his unique pictures of Kevin and German musician/chanteuse Nico at the Arles Festival. For the sake of completeness we have included all the photos that Roy sent us, even though some are quite similar to each other and one is are a bit blurry. We think they are wonderful! Read on to enjoy Roy and friends’ reminiscences of Arles ’75 as well as a few notes about Kevin and Nico.
Kevin Ayers and Nico were friends and most probably (almost definitely) lovers at some point. When and where they first met, possibly New York, during Kevin’s time with Soft Machine, maybe Paris or even St Tropez… is a curious question, waiting to be answered.
Nico and Kevin Ayers, Poster for the Arles Festival,1975
The magnificent and beguiling song ‘Decadence’ on Kevin’s 1973 album ‘Bananamour’, is generally accepted to be about Nico, who he refers to as “Marlene” (a homage to Marlene Dietrich). He even makes a reference to Nico’s 1970 album ‘Desert Shore’:
“Watch her out there on display / Dancing in her sleepy way / While all her visions start to play / On the icicles of our decay / And all along the desert shore / She wanders further evermore / The only thing that’s left to try / She says to live I have to die.”
Nico sang on the track ‘Irreversible Neural Damage’ on Kevin’s 1974 album ‘The Confessions of Doctor Dream and Other Stories’, released on Island records. There is indeed a story about her being so stoned during the session that she was recorded lying down on the carpet! Nico and Kevin collaborated again as part of the so-called ACNE project (Ayers, Cale, Nico and Eno) which led to the famous June 1st 1974 concert and accompanying live album.
Arles Festival 6th August 1975, Kevin Ayers (guitar) and Nico (harmonium). Photo by Roy Perring
What was so fascinating about Nico? Born Christa Päffgen in Cologne, Germany, on 16th October 1938, Nico was a singer-songwriter, musician, fashion model, and actress who became famous as a Warhol “superstar” in the 1960s. She is known for her vocals on “The Velvet Underground and Nico” (1967)and her work as a solo artist.
Nico’s early life was marked by the events of the Second World War. When she was two years old, Nico moved with her mother and grandfather to the Spreewald Forest outside Berlin to escape the bombardments of Cologne. Her father was enlisted as a soldier and suffered head injuries that caused severe brain damage. Irreversible Neural Damage? He died in a psychiatric institution.
The Velvet Underground and Nico, circa 1967
Nico began working as a model in Berlin during her teenage years; her height (5’10”), pale complexion and high cheekbones soon attracted the attention of photographers and media types. She moved to Paris and then to New York. Nico had roles in several films, including Federico Fellini’s ‘La Dolce Vita’ (1960) and Andy Warhol’s ‘Chelsea Girls’ (1966). She had a child by French actor, Alain Delon and a relationship with Jim Morrison, who wooed her in the Californian desert and encouraged her to write peyote-fuelled poetry.
Nico’s singing voice was very distinctive in an era of talented female vocalists such as Joni Mitchell, Grace Slick etc., in the sense that there is little warmth in its tone, the delivery is unemotional, haunting, almost robotic, yet very beautiful. Her stage demeanour was aloof, cool and sometimes confrontational.
Nico and Kevin Ayers at Arles, August 6th, 1975. Photo by Roy Perring
Kevin Ayers, as we all know, was born in Herne Bay, England in 1944. His parents separated when he was very young, with his mother suddenly leaving home. After some time spent with his grandmother, the story goes that our Kev (then aged about six) eventually joined his mother and her new partner in Malaysia, after a long train journey on his own via India and Bangkok.
So here we have Kevin and Nico, two “War Babies” both with traumatic incidents and colourful events in their pasts, who felt the urge to write songs and perform. Neither had a formal training in music. The avant-garde 1960s scene had nurtured their creativity.
In 1975 both Kevin and Nico were signed to Island records. Nico was pursuing a solo career post-Velvet Underground, often working with John Cale. Her 1974 album ‘The End’ was released by Island. We don’t know for certain who booked Kevin to perform with Nico in Arles, although it was during this period that John Reid, also manager of Elton John, was trying to promote Kevin as a mainstream artist.
Theatre Antique, Arles (Roman, 1st century BC). Photo : Wikipedia
The historic town of Arles, in Provence, southern France is famous for its impressive Roman monuments including the Arènes (arena or amphitheatre) which dates from the 1st century BC. During the 4th century AD the Roman baths of Constantine and the necropolis of Alyscamps were built. Arles is also famous as the place where Vincent van Gogh painted many of his masterpieces. The Arles Photographic Festival is another cultural contribution and in 1975 the Music Festival was evidently part of the summer programme of events. After some reflection and research on Google maps, Roy confirmed that the concert was actually held at the Theatre Antique, just across the road from the famous amphitheatre and not in the amphitheatre itself, as we had previously thought.
Arles Festival, August 6th 1975. Audience at the Theatre Antique. Photo by Roy Perring
Roy Perring takes up the story of how he and his friends (and his camera) ended up in Arles on August 6th 1975…
“It was a very hot summer in 1975, and seven of us had set out in a hired people carrier from Plymouth via Roscoff in France to Spain. Pre-punk, we were still in the club era that had led on after the ‘Summer of Love’ in the sixties. On board apart from myself, Roy, was the DJ from the well- respected Plymouth rock club ‘Van Dike’, Derek, with his wife Anne. There was also another couple, Pamela and Malcolm, plus two other free souls, Patrick and Robbie.
What really drew us together in the first place was Van Dike, a now legendary club that has its own Facebook following. An incredible amount of the top rock acts of the time, including Kevin Ayers, performed at the club and after it had closed, the Plymouth Guildhall.
It was on the way down to Spain that Patrick noticed in a French rock magazine that there was a Festival at Arles and although it was interesting it didn’t involve much discussion as we were off to Spain and the sunshine.
It was a very hot summer and our stay, camping at Playa D’Aro, where we had ended up in Spain, was fun but at times uncomfortably hot. There was enough going on with the beach, bars and an all-night club to keep us occupied but after a while it became too hot. We decided to move a little north to the South of France.
We arrived in France and started looking to camp in the Marseille area, but if I remember we’d have to camp quite a bit outside of the town. It was then that Patrick remembered Arles and we suggested a detour there on the way back to Brittany. We found a great little campsite, this time with a swimming pool, and set up tent.
We only had two nights there, one short evening and a full day to explore. And yes it was the day of the Festival, Nico, Kevin Ayers and a stack load of other bands, providence or what?”
Arles Festival 6th August 1975, Nico and Kevin Ayers. Monochrome version by Roy Perring
Roy continues : “It’s often said that if you remember the sixties [and the seventies] then you weren’t there. Well, we’re all still friends with several [of us] living locally to Plymouth and others on Facebook. I contacted them to get their memories of the show. Sadly Patrick, who discovered the gig, has passed on but as for the rest of us our memories are blurred.
I remember somehow getting past security on to the side of the stage during Nico’s performance. I didn’t have a telephoto lens, fast film or flash so I rested the camera on a speaker to provide support and shot my transparencies on Agfachrome.
Kevin seemed to get a mixed reception in my mind, trying to reach a huge crowd as just a two piece (him and unknown guitarist) but I did remember he did ‘Hey Jude’. Malcolm remembers him singing ‘Big Bamboo’ and Robbie refusing a joint some French dude had offered him. ‘It was a very hot evening, I remember that!’ ”
Kevin Ayers and unknown guitarist, Arles 1975. Photo by Roy Perring
Derek said: “I remember a huge push to get in with the crowd shouting ‘Why are we waiting’. I remember a terrific atmosphere in the old theatre, the wonderful sound of Van Morrison’s Country Fair on record. Unfortunately no memory of the performance other than the music and the venue were terrific.”
Roy concludes: “We all remember the brilliantly hot evening and the alternative, ‘hippie’ feel of the event. From later research I’ve found the tracks that Kevin sang during his set and the songs he accompanied Nico on taken from her solo albums. Sadly in the end this is just a personal recollection of an event remembered with affection and does little to add to our knowledge of Kevin or Nico.”
Roy Perring, 2016.
Nonetheless we are very grateful to Roy and his friends for sharing their memories with us. It’s been interesting to go back in time and to consider the muse-poet-musician relationship between Kevin and Nico. Other eyewitness accounts of Kevin’s performance in Arles on August 6th, 1975 describe him as “trying to accompany Nico on a couple of songs”, that the music was a little “hit and miss”. Kevin and Nico were “very sweet together”and it seems possible that Kevin may have had a drink or two before going on stage. In many ways it’s surprising that the two performers weren’t supported by a full band at such a large event.
Audience at Arles Festival, August 6th,1975. Photo by Roy Perring
Here at KevinAyers.org we would love to hear from anyone else who was at this gig and also to solve the riddle of the unknown guitarist.
Set list for Nico with Kevin Ayers, Arenes d’Arles, August 6th 1975
Nico – vocals, harmonium
Kevin Ayers – vocals, acoustic guitar
1. Genghis Khan
2. Genghis Khan / Purple Lips
4. No One Is There
5. Falling in Love Again
6. Secret Side
7. Falling in Love Again
8. Janitor of Lunacy / You Forget To Answer
9. The End
For further reading about Nico on Wikipedia click here.
Didier Malherbe (left) and Loy Ehrlich (right) perform at the Altitude Jazz Festival, January 30th 2016. Photo by Susan Lomas
On a cold, dark January evening, in the southern French Alps, two intrepid music lovers set off from Briançon to Le Monêtier-les-Bains in search of some new sounds. The KevinAyers.org team had received a tip off that the Hadouk Quartet, featuring Didier Malherbe, would be playing at the Altitude Jazz Festival. The venue was the Salle du Dôme at the foot of the ski slopes. Wouldn’t it be great to go along to hear the band, take some photos and try to grab a moment with Didier to talk about his work with Kevin Ayers, Daevid Allen and Gong?
Gong photographed at the Chateau de Herrouville circa 1971. Left to right: Christian Tritsch, Kevin Ayers (bowl on head), Gilli Smyth, Daevid Allen, young Sam Wyatt, Pip Pyle (standing), Didier Malherbe.
As the support act finished we skilfully placed ourselves right in front of the stage, drinks in hand, poised for the musical treat ahead. And what a captivating delight the next ninety minutes was!
The Hadouk Quartet brings together the considerable talents of Loy Ehrlich (gumbass, hajouj, yayli tanbur), Eric Löhrer (guitars) Jean-Luc di Fraya (percussion and amazing vocals) with Didier himself “the master of the breath”. Musicianship of the highest quality, exotic customized instruments from around the world and several lifetimes of experience transported us to other worlds, different dimensions, better places. Didier played the soprano sax, the classical flute and the doudouk with precision and flair. Tunes such as ‘Chappak’ and ‘Bora Bollo’ filled the air, serious concentration alternated with smiles on stage. The audience were captivated; the applause was spontaneous and heartfelt.
Eric Löhrer (guitar) and Didier Malherbe (soprano sax), Altitude Jazz Festival 2016. Photo by Susan Lomas
I took several photos, no flash of course, to capture the players in mid-song. Like scenes from a Caravaggio painting, the play of light on the musicians’ faces… I didn’t mind the blurred hands, the feeling of movement. I got “the” photo I wanted of Didier, nice and clear, playing the soprano sax. Portrait photos of the other band members too, and a few general ones of the group. Enough now, concentrate on enjoying the music…
Jean-Luc di Fraya, percussion and amazing vocals, Hadouk Quartet. Photo by Susan Lomas
When the set was over we didn’t think we had much chance of meeting the musicians. The venue was busy and the evening was carefully supervised to comply with current regulations about public gatherings in France. The music continued with a crazy local ragtime band and some fire-eating. We had a beer and went to look at the merchandise, pondering whether to spend our pocket money on the “Hadoukly Yours” CD. It would be nice to get it signed we thought…
Suddenly I was aware of a tall gentleman in a dark overcoat with a shock of dandelion clock hair and gold-rimmed spectacles standing in front of me. Loy Ehrlich. For those familiar with the Children’s TV classic Mr Benn, it seemed “as if by magic the shopkeeper appeared!” Loy smiled encouragingly and I thanked him (in my best French) for bringing Hadouk Quartet’s beautiful music to our remote valley. I nudged Rick who was deep in conversation with the alcohol and drugs prevention representative. Yes really. I had to mention Kevin Ayers and Gong to Loy at this point, plus our previous adventures in Deià. Loy’s eyes lit up and he gave us this memory of a Kevin Ayers gig from 1973…
Loy referred to it as his “first concert” – I should have asked him to clarify whether he meant as a musician or as a spectator or whether it was his first Kevin concert. Anyway it was at Birmingham University in England. Loy was there with Didier. Kevin’s band consisted of Glaswegian rock’n’roll legend Archie Leggett on bass, Phil Miller on guitar? (Loy had to delve into his memory to find the name). We didn’t establish who was drumming, it could have been Mick Fincher perhaps. During the concert Kevin looked down from the stage and in a spontaneous gesture invited Loy to play bongos on one of the songs. I got the impression that was a magical moment in Loy’s life.
“But you will want to meet Didier” said Loy “He has many more stories. Stay just here and I will go and find him…”
“Oh yes please, we’d love to, if he has a moment” we chorused.
Five minutes later Didier himself appeared. Strangely enough nobody paid much attention as he wandered over to talk to us! We thanked him for the beautiful concert and he proceeded to give us his souvenirs of Kevin… and to take us on a journey through time and space. We spoke in English, at Didier’s request, because he welcomed the opportunity to do so.
“I have a souvenir of Kevin for you…”
Fasten your seatbelts folks it’s about to get interesting…
First of all we touched down on the Balearic island of Formentera in the summer of 1966. Didier’s first meeting with Kevin who he described as “a beautiful man, so blonde, so cultured”. Kevin was there with Jane Aspinall, a society figure of the time. Her “soon to be ex-husband”, John Aspinall, was a gambler and casino owner. As Didier talked I could imagine the white sand, the deep blue sea and the warm air on my back.
“But I don’t know why Kevin drank so much” said Didier suddenly, and it wasn’t a criticism of any sort it was just somebody trying to understand. “I think a lot of people have asked that question” I said. “You hear that it’s because he was shy but I don’t know whether that is the reason” added Didier. I said that yes, the shyness was something that a couple of Kevin’s friends had mentioned when I was researching his life.
“But still…” said Didier and then suddenly we landed in England in 1973 at the Birmingham University gig that Loy had already spoken about. I could almost see Kevin and Archie Leggett, a big man solid as a rock, through the smoke and the crowd. Archie had played bass with all the “greats” and was one of Kevin’s collaborators on the Bananamour album. I told Didier that a good friend of ours used to drum with Archie Leggett, back in the 70s. “They had a great big bottle up on stage” marvelled Didier. Remembering our manners in the present we asked Didier if he would like a drink. “I’m fine” he said. “I just had a beer. That’s enough for me”. Touché!
Kevin Ayers (centre) and Archie Leggett (right), Old Grey Whistle Test, 1973. We think the other guitarist is Cal Batchelor, any info gratefully received.
Perhaps thoughts of Bananamour had brought back memories of the Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico, whom it’s generally acknowledged is the subject of Kevin’s track ‘Decadence’. So our magic carpet touched down briefly in Belgium at a festival which featured Kevin and Gong. Nico was there and it seemed that she and Kevin were together… the exact date of this is obscure.
“I have another souvenir of Kevin for you” said Didier, “This is a really good one, Gong and Soft Machine in a big church in Lille…”
Would that be the cathedral we wondered? We assumed yes. ”Go on…” we said, encouragingly. Didier continued:
“Well I think the priest in charge thought it was a good idea to reach out [to the young people] but it got a bit out of hand. Gong played first and the way that the equipment was set up it was quiet but when Soft Machine came on the stage it was very loud… and Kevin, well the dressing room was in the sachristy and he found the bread, you know that they use for the Holy Communion, it has a special name…
“Wafers?” I suggested.
“Yes, wafers” agreed Didier. “Just before we went on stage Kevin said to me, ‘Tip your head back, open your mouth and close your eyes’ and I thought he was going to give me some kind of trip, but no, it was a holy wafer…!”
“I bet he’d already found all the communion wine!” I added, irreverently.
“And there were people smoking with chillums, getting stoned and some people were making love against the pillars. It was crazy… I think it was the last time they tried an event like that in the church” said Didier.
Returning to 2016 we took a brief pause while Didier spoke to a couple who had bought the ‘Hadoukly Yours‘ CD. Then we continued our time travels with a glimpse of life in Paris in November 1967. Didier talked about the psychedelic awakening at the ‘Fenêtre Rose’ event held at the Palais des Sports. (Jean-Jacques Lebel was one of the instigators of this event). Didier referred to it as the ‘Pink Window’. This was the Soft Machine concert which changed his life.
Didier Malherbe, January 2016. Photo by Susan Lomas
At the time Didier was a student of Literature, he already played jazz saxophone and had also been studying the classical flute. He didn’t imagine that it was his calling to be a classical musician or a jazz musician. When he heard the experimental rock music that Soft Machine played that day and witnessed the exotic charm of Kevin Ayers on stage Didier had a moment of revelation:
“Kevin was very impressive, he had a lot to do in the band, playing bass and taking lead vocals on many of the songs. Robert (Wyatt) and Mike (Ratledge) too… it was all very good”.
We talked about the heady mix of unusual time signatures used by Soft Machine. The numbers 7 and 5 were mentioned here. Didier’s epiphany was confirmed further the next day when he met Daevid Allen in person on “the Paris campsite”, near the river Seine. Didier also mentioned David Graham as a huge inspiration at this point in his life. “Do you know… blues, in Tangiers?” he asked. We couldn’t get this reference straightaway but when I got home and Googled “David Graham” I realised he was talking about the influential folk/blues musician of the 1960s, Davey Graham. Didier travelled in India and north Africa during the early 1960s, experiencing the diverse music and cultures of these continents. I believe he met Davey Graham in a commune in Tangiers.
“Coincidence happens quite often in the world of Kevin Ayers” continued Didier and we agreed. We told him about our chance meeting with Kevin’s dear friend Nigel in the village of Montaulieu back in April 2014. “Montaulieu was our summer residence”, confirmed Didier, “because Bob (Benamou) our manager had a house there”. I had a sudden flashback to the lush green mountainsides of the Rhône valley and mischievous Nigel with his bucket of whitewash.
Then we were off again on the magic carpet to Deià, Mallorca in the summer of 1968. “That was the best summer of my life“, said Didier. Rick and I smiled and said strangely enough we probably spent the best weekend of our life there, at the celebration of Kevin’s life in 2013.
“I was hosted by the family of Robert Graves, the writer” explained Didier. “There were parties every night”, he added wistfully.
I mentioned that we had met Robert’s youngest son, Tomàs, at Kevin’s celebration. (Tomàs Graves writes about Didier in his book ‘Tuning up at Dawn’. Didier’s lodgings were a former sheep hut and he could often be found sitting in a tree, perfecting his flute technique). All the “characters” were in Deià that summer: Kevin, Daevid Allen, Gilli Smyth, the talented painter Mati Klarwein… Kevin was moving towards a solo career while Daevid’s visions for a series of albums took shape amongst the mountains and palm trees. Memories of rocks and clear waters at the Cala de Deià filled my head briefly. The sun felt warm on our shoulders…
Es Clot, Deià, August 2013. Photo by Susan Lomas
On our way back to the present day we touched down briefly in 1971 at Abbey Road in London. “The home of The Beatles” was how Didier referred to the world famous recording studio and I could feel his sense of awe. He was there with Kevin to record tracks for the ‘Whatevershebringswesing’ album. I mentioned the beautiful final track ’Lullaby’ which features Didier playing two different flute parts over the sound of trickling water and a beautiful piano accompaniment. Didier told us:
“They have an underground room there that is like a ‘cave’, (French speakers use this word for cellar) we were down in the cave making the music”. It seems that this provided a natural reverb for the track. How very dark and mysterious I thought. I should have asked Didier about the opening track ‘There Is Loving Amongst Us’ orchestrated by David Bedford, to which Didier contributed the saxophone part, but time was moving swiftly on…
Rick was now trying to remember events where he might have seen Gong and Didier. They started talking about the Gong 25th Anniversary festivities in London (October 8th and 9th, 1994) and finally decided, correctly, that The Forum, in Kentish Town was the venue. There’s footage of Kevin Ayers, with very tousled hair, performing ‘The Lady Rachel’ with Daevid Allen and Marvin Siau in front of a psychedelic light show. Rick’s memories of the night were slightly hazy for some reason. I’m sure that Didier’s are crystal clear. Anyway, that’s where we left Kevin, strumming a guitar and entertaining his fans.
We dragged ourselves back to 2016 and the foyer of the Salle du Dôme. I later estimated that almost an hour had flown by while we were chatting. Didier kindly agreed to pose for some photos and wrote a lovely dedication inside the front cover of our ‘Hadoukly Yours‘ CD. Part of it says:
“In joyful memory of Kevin Ayers”
We’ll drink to that!!
Rick, Didier, Susan and ‘Hadoukly Yours’
We are very grateful to Didier for spending so much time with us and to Loy for the introduction. Thank you both very much! This was a completely informal, unprepared conversation and we hope that people enjoy it as such. Didier and Loy talked about Kevin with considerable warmth and admiration. I have tried to write it down as accurately as possible, while adding a few background details from other sources. I think we could have gone on chatting all night. I would have liked to ask Didier some more technical questions about his instruments and I didn’t even mention my descant recorder/clarinet playing teenage years! It was a magical evening for us and a memory to treasure. My impression of Didier was of somebody living perfectly in the moment, very much at one with himself and the universe.
By the way, Didier hasn’t published his memoirs yet but he has written a beautiful book of sonnets “L’Anche des Métamorphoses” that he would love us to read.
‘Lullaby’, from ‘Whatevershebringswesing’ featuring Didier Malherbe:
Gong 25th Anniversary Festival at The Forum, London. 1994:
Official footage of the Hadouk Quartet, 30th January 2016, with Didier playing doudouk. The piece is called ‘Chappak’:
The photos of ourselves with Didier were taken by the lady selling the CDs. I forgot to ask her name. Un grand merci de notre part! Also, a great big Thank You Very Much to Steve “St Tropez” Foster for giving us the “heads up” about Hadouk Quartet and the gig.
We always welcome any comments, corrections or further information to make our posts as interesting as possible!
The Soft Machine circa 1967. Anti-clockwise from left : Daevid Allen, Mike Ratledge, Kevin Ayers and Robert Wyatt (at 12 o’clock!) Photo from Ian Carpenter’s archive, photographer unknown
Steve Foster explores myth and reality during The Soft Machine’s 1967 sojourn in the south of France. With additional material and extracts from interviews by Aymeric Leroy of Calyx (AL). Edited by Susan Lomas (SL).
Details of The Soft Machine’s sojourn in St Tropez in the summer of 1967 have always seemed a bit sketchy to me. The various chronologies never seem to quite match up and all the versions I’ve read leave me wanting to know just a little bit more. Almost inadvertently I found myself in the vicinity of St Tropez in September.
I’d left my other half to make the arrangements for the first part of our holidays so that I could concentrate on the arrangements for the second part – a walking holiday in the Pyrenees. She arranged for us to go camping on the Cote d’Azur with her sister and brother-in-law. We’d done something similar about 20 years previously. It hadn’t been a great success. Very hot and very busy that August and pitching the tent full in the sun hadn’t helped this pink, prickly Brit relax and enjoy his holiday. From memory, I think I lasted three days. I wasn’t that keen on a repeat but it was too late to back pedal.
This time around it was September; much less crowded, the temperature several notches below blast furnace and we were in a caravan in a shady pine grove. Best of all, as we pitched up, I realised that the campsite was half way between Sainte Maxime and Port Grimaud, and that I could see St Tropez almost diametrically opposite across the bay, 20 minutes by Bateaux Verts shuttle or an 8 km jog along shady cycle paths. In spite of the heat I soon had my anorak on, Google whirring away, paper and pen at the ready.
St. Maxime beach nowadays. Photo by Steve Foster
I could find itemized chronologies of what Soft Machine were doing throughout the years, and where they were doing it, online, on the Pink Floyd Archives, Calyx and Planet Gong, but the St Tropez episode hung somewhere rather nebulously between the realms of myth and fantasy. Planet Gong isn’t of much help and freely admits to being ‘almost a blank canvas’ for that whole year. For July and August 1967 it is limited to:
Thursday 24/08 – Daevid refused entry to the UK at Dover under 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act
Friday 25/08 – Daevid sent back to Boulogne, France on The Maid of Kent (1)
And the other two sources don’t always correlate. As per the Pink Floyd Archive, Soft Machine played a gig in an underground car park, late June, on the Avenue Foch in Paris. Presumably on the way down to the French Riviera.
(AL notes that: “A Soft Machine roadie who only worked with them in the Spring of 1969 remembers taking part in this, so every likelihood that the guy who remembers attending it – Michel Polizzi – has the date [or year] wrong… more or less confirmed by other circumstancial details he remembers.”)
This [the Avenue Foch gig], along with the dates of Daevid Allen’s refused re-entry into the UK at least helps to bookend the time frame of the episode: late June, actually July 1 – see below, to 24th August 1967. Marking the first of several dénouéments in the Soft Machine story but also the beginning of another story, that of Gong.
From Mike King’s ‘Wrong Movements’ : “On July 1, Soft Machine depart to the South of France with roadie Ted Bing, Mark Boyle, Gilli Smyth and Mark Ellidge, with panel truck, equipment and cameras.”
Keith Albarn, creator of the Discotheque Interplay, also father of Damon Albarn of Blur /Gorillaz fame (e-mail to AL 2005) : “I travelled with the structure. As I [try and!!] recall there was a small convoy of our van and the lorry. The band travelled separately so I cannot help on that one. The accommodation for most was appalling/very primitive, virtually horse boxes. To my embarrassment, we were in a modest “hotel”/pension!! The “sleeping on the beach” was after we left. And no , I cannot remember how long we hung on !! But I think it was about two weeks”.
Discotheque Interplay, photo by Keith Albarn
At home I had accounts in three published books. ‘Gong Dreaming 1’, the first part of the autobiography of Daevid Allen, one of our four protagonists. ‘Different Every Time’, the authorised biography by Marcus O’Dair of Robert Wyatt, another of the protagonists. ‘Out-Bloody-Rageous, a history of The Soft Machine’ by Graham Bennett. The latter two are particularly well researched and informative. The former, a highly entertaining, though very personalised account of the period 1966 to 1975. As Pip Pyle said of ‘Gong Dreaming 2’, which it is true covered a later period; “some details, I remember a bit differently”. If Graham Bennett and Marcus O’Dair are the Mark and the ‘Q’ of the Soft Machine gospel, then Daevid Allen must be the John, although of course, Daevid really was there.
Online there is also a Wikipedia entry for Soft Machine with a brief paragraph on the period and, as I was to discover, a very enlightening article/interview with Jean-Jacques Lebel. Lebel it was, who staged Picasso’s ‘Le Désir Attrapé Par La Queue’ at the Festival de la Libre Expression in St Tropez in the summer of 1967 and who had chanced upon the Soft Machine on the beach at Sainte Maxime a few days previously.
(AL : This is where the story gets complicated… The July 1st 1967 edition of Melody Maker had a news item quoting Mark Boyle. The Sensual Laboratory will be “taking part in a light-show with the Soft Machine in the South of France, and we’re also taking part in a Picasso play called Desire Caught by the Tail […]. We’re doing the lights and the group will be playing.” This is unambiguous evidence that Soft Machine were always supposed to participate in the play, even though this contradicts most or all accounts by the protagonists !!)
Can’t say I’ve read or seen Picasso’s play but it’s an interesting story in itself. Written by Picasso in Paris during the Occupation. It had a read through shortly after the war with Camus directing, Sartre and de Beauvoir, amongst others, reading parts. Jean-Jacques Lebel came across the text in 1966 and premiered the play as a fully staged production in 1967 in the St Tropez area. Here’s the Wikipedia entry:
Bernard Frechtman, who translated the work from the original French, had this to say in his Foreword. “It says nothing of human destiny or of the human condition. In an age which has discovered man with a capital M, it is gratifying to advise the reader that Picasso has nothing to say of man, nor of the universe. This in itself is a considerable achievement.”
(AL notes : L’Express magazine of 3-9 July had the play running from July 13 to September 4, but the article still mentioned Papagayo as the venue. It got a few other things wrong, including naming both Bernadette Laffont and Rita Renoir as part of the cast, although the latter was actually a last minute replacement for the former, who bowed out to play the lead role in a film by Nelly Kaplan).
The article quoted St-Tropez mayor Jean Lescudier : “Je pense que la pièce de Picasso n’est qu’un prétexte, et je crains que le happening qui suivra ne cause des remous dans la population… Le conseil municipal a voté à l’unanimité contre ce projet, mais il s’agit d’une entreprise privée, c’est donc à la préfecture de police de l’interdire”. (SL: “I think that the Picasso play is nothing more than a pretext and I believe that the “happening” which will follow may stir up trouble amongst the population…” The mayor of St Tropez banned the play from being performed on his “patch” and ‘Le Desir’ was eventually staged in a circus tent in the village/commune of Gassin).
But back to our chronology. Gorgio Gomelsky, the producer and impresario had “planned a number of gigs” for Soft Machine on the French Riviera. Alternatively he had just planned a residency in a “pop-up” discotheque on the beach at St Aygulf. It’s hard to tell. The Discothèque Interplay took place within some sort of a dome or igloo (Wikipedia calls it “a flat-pack Fun Palace”) erected by Keith Albarn.
The Soft Machine play inside the Discotheque Interplay, July 1967
Gomelsky (e-mail to AL 2003) : “A french promoter, Jean-Pierre Rawson (who had managed Aphrodite’s Child and organized tours for some of my artists, The Yardbirds, Julie Driscoll and others, had called me asking if I knew a band willing to appear in a Jean-Jacques Lebel Happening-like production of Picasso’s only play ‘Le Desir attrapee par sa queu…’ (or something similar) which he wanted to produce in St Tropez that summer. I thought SM would be perfect for that (also because Daevid spoke French) and so I recommended them. They did the play and then stayed on and appeared at that club. Perhaps Rawson got them the gig or the contact, perhaps Keith Albarn approached them. I didn’t know him, so I don’t know”.
No mention of booking an entire tour there, merely recommending a band to another promoter.
01-05 July – Discothèque Interplay in St Aygulf.
Can’t possibly have been as early as July 1 if they really did leave London on that date !
Depending on who you read, the band only played the first night, they played all five nights or something in between (three according to Daevid Allen), before they got the bullet (my guess is probably longer than that, maybe a full week). And they were either playing as part of a beer festival or in parallel to said beer festival (I think the Discothèque was one feature of the Beer Festival). Whichever was the case, clearly The Soft Machine didn’t go down well with beer drinkers. Lack of interest by paying customers as someone put it, a reaction to ‘noise pollution’ as Daevid Allen has it or even the objections of the other clubs in St Aygulf put paid to them. And the band didn’t get paid. What is even stranger is that the tour then came to an abrupt end.
What happened to the rest of the Riviera gigs that Gomelski had organised? Had he organized much else apart from this residency? Was it hoped that other gigs would organically follow? It appears the band now had no money for the return journey. Soft Machine seem to have been left to their own devices. As per Kevin Ayers: “We were sort of abandoned in the South of France with no money, we had all the gear and stuff with us though”.
Keith Albarn (e-mail to AL 2005) : “We underestimated the impact on the locals and trippers. The discotheque, which held some 400 souls, was welcomed by the younger punters but was viewed as somewhat extreme by nearly everyone else and met with stiffening opposition, leading to instances of blatant sabotage – cutting our mains cable, etc. The Soft Machine played heroically – and could be heard and seen for miles along the beach! But overall it was a painful experience. We had to bribe our way on and there wasn’t enough of the take left for us. In the end we were obliged to blow the whole thing up on site to avoid being charged export taxes. Our remaining kit was then impounded at Calais by customs !”
Mark Boyle (from the Boyle Family website I believe) : “That summer we went off with the Soft Machine to play in a translucent white plastic pavilion on the beach at St. Aygulf on the Riviera. We were to project from inside on to the whole skin of the pavilion, so that the light show would be seen from outside as well as inside. We were offered a great wage to work there for two months. It was part of a festival. The idea worked. At night it lay like a great space-ship on the beach, made out of rivers of colours and movement like erupting stained glass. With the shattering sound of the Soft Machine it was a fantastic success. But the rest of the festival was a total failure, and at the end of the first week there was no money to pay anyone and the festival closed down. We didn’t even have tickets to get home”.
Since it appears they (Soft Machine) were expected to perform at Le Désir, it would seem they were simply left to wait until the play would start… I don’t think returning to England was an option – they had more work planned.
Kevin Ayers (back left), Robert Wyatt (middle right) and friends, French Riviera, July 1967, by Mark Ellidge
Mark Boyle and Joan Hills (AL interview 2000) :
MB: After the [Beer] festival fell through, but before Jean-Jacques Lebel, we went to Nice.
JH: And we stayed in somebody’s apartment.
MB: With Mike Ratledge and his girlfriend.
JH: For two weeks or something like that. And everybody was about the coast to see if there was any work we could do… And it was the Jean-Jacques thing that came up …When the whole thing collapsed, the festival collapsed, and we were all at a loose end, I contacted a friend of mine, Jean-Jacques Lebel, who was putting on Picasso’s play ‘Désir Attrapé Par La Queue’, in a circus tent, up there. And I said, ‘How about giving us a job?’. And he said, ‘Great! Great!’. He’d been to London, he’d been to UFO, and I knew he’d adored it. So he was really excited, and we… I think there was a contract to do a half-hour prelude to the Picasso show.”
Based on the above recollection, it seems Mike R split from the others for a few days. Maybe only Daevid, Kevin and possibly Robert busked on the beach in the meantime… All this circa. 10 July… Then the meeting with Lebel leading to the Café des Arts performance.
Mike Zwerin (11/7/68 Down Beat): “When I first met Michael, Kevin and Robert last summer, they were pretty much stranded on the French Riviera. Along with two road managers, they had crossed from London and driven to the Riviera jammed in a panel truck full of electronic hardware. They were scheduled to work all summer as part of the ‘beer festival’ on the beach of St Aygulf. After a week, they were fired. It seems the wrong element (penniless) was hanging around the discotheque but not drinking beer. Then the trio floated around St Tropez for some time, sleeping on floors or the beach”.
Jean-Jacques Lebel, who was staying with friends in Sainte Maxime (translated):
“We could hear people singing on the beach and we thought that amazing. They were English hippies, sleeping on the beach in their sleeping bags. To eat, they busked and passed the hat around. They explained that they were interested in William Burroughs and that they were called Soft Machine. At the time they were unknown, and hadn’t yet recorded an album. I suggested to them that they come and perform during the play as musicians and actors. They accepted straight away, they didn’t know where to sleep. They therefore hitched and caught up with us in St Tropez and it is maybe what set them on their world trajectory. They were excellent”.
And later in the same article: “Soft Machine, it was my wife who spotted them on the beach at Sainte Maxime; and so we went to see them. They slept on the beach, they busked and passed the hat around… I invited them to come and play in exchange of which they slept under the big top, and we tried, with the few tickets we sold, to feed ourselves, of course the vast majority of people did not pay, they were coming from all over Europe, those that were being called hippies, stoned, nomads; so we all lived there together, under what has now sadly become a myth: the sexual revolution…”
Kevin Ayers in St Tropez, 1967. Photo from the Soft Machine ‘Triple Echo’ compilation.
Kevin Ayers (Zigzag 10/74) : “The promoter of this play by Picasso thought it would be a good idea to have us as the first part of the show to make more of an evening of it, it worked very well. So we were hired, sort of for nothing, peanuts, but we had a great time, it was very good.”
Sainte Maxime is a short hop down the coast from St Aygulf heading towards St Tropez. St Tropez had already created its own legend by the 50s and may well have been a destination for the band anyway. July and August in St Tropez was probably as hip as it got, certainly in Europe. When did this meeting on the beach with Jean-Jacques Lebel occur? Before or after the 14th July? (see above – I would guess 10-12 July ?) Had Soft Machine already been to St Tropez? As the crow flies Sainte Maxime and Saint Tropez are probably no more than 5km from each other across the bay and some 15 kilometres around the bay. What strikes me as bizarre is the hitching. Soft Machine had instruments, amplifiers as well as a cast of at least 7 other people as per Graham Bennett (2) (himself quoting Mike King). Daevid Allen refers to the tour being undertaken in a “shiny new yellow bandwagon”. Following the St Aygulf cancellation had Keith Albarn, flat-pack Fun Palace and tour bus returned to the UK?
The next date in any of the chronologies is 14th July in St Tropez, where by common accord, except in Daevid Allen’s account where this is down as the 4th July (Daevid agreed he probably got confused between French “fête nationale” and US “4th of July” – see elsewhere), Soft Machine played in the town square. I take this to be Place des Lices. There are undated entries indicating that the band then played the Café des Arts sometime in July. Café des Arts also happens to be on the Place des Lices and unless the café has moved or been much reduced in size since 1967, I can’t see how an electric band could play inside the café – it is much too small. Since the Café des Arts is right on the Place des Lices, it is possible that the band were on the Place des Lices itself and playing to an audience sat on and around the terrace of the café. Could this gig have been one and the same as the 14th July gig? Perhaps sponsored/paid for/simply just outside the Café des Arts?
Cafe des Arts St Tropez. Photo by Steve Foster
(from AL interview with Mark Boyle & Joan Hills, 2000) :
MB : I remember when we were in St.Tropez, and we were busking with Soft Machine. None of us had the money to get back, we’d been in a festival at St.Aygulf, and none of us had the money to get back. And so they called the management, and they said, ‘Well, I’m sure you’ll do fine, guys, let’s do the best you can’. And it ended up with Soft Machine performing on the back of a lorry, outside the café…
JH: …In St.Tropez!
MB: No, they were sitting in front of the café, *we* were on the lorry doing a light-show from… There were a couple of hundred people sitting at tables having dinner outside, and we reversed this lorry, and then we did the light-show from there. We had the projectors on top of the cab, didn’t we?
JH: That’s right.
MB: And we were standing at the back of the…
JH: We must have got an electric cable from the café…
MB: And the café was white, so the thing just was superb. And Soft Machine played brilliantly. And afterwards, one of the people having dinner there asked to talk to them, and they went over, and this guy said to them, ‘I’d like to represent you in France, my name is Eddie Barclay’. And the guys in Soft Machine said, ‘You already do represent us in France!’ (laughs)
Mike Zwerin (AL int 2003) : They had a contract or a gig with a club that went bankrupt, so they were stranded… I don’t know how they got this, but they played on the Place in front of the city hall, town hall, one afternoon, with wires and, you know… electric… which was weird then – cables everywhere… And I just walked by, and I couldn’t believe it !
(…) I’d never heard that before, they were playing in seven and nine, with a rock… Frankly, Robert is probably the best rock drummer I ever heard… I may be naïve, I’m not a rock expert, but boy ! I mean, he sure could… I know one thing, he was the first one to play without a shirt !! Everybody said, “He playing WITHOUT A SHIRT !!”. That was big deal, then !
Place des Lices St Tropez. Photo by Steve Foster
Daevid Allen (e-mail to AL, 2002) : “It was, I believe, all because of a spontaneous gig organized by friends and helpers, including (Bob) Bénamou, in the town square of Saint-Tropez for a national festival – probably 14th of July. This gig impressed important people and resulted in our playing at the Brigitte Bardot party where we played We Did It Again for an hour. This in turn resulted in our getting booked by the Picasso play. Also partly because of my old friendship with Jean-Jacques Lebel, famed for his happenings in the Sixties”.
Daevid’s recollection implies that the “Brigitte Bardot party” was a separate event to the later Eddie Barclay party and would have taken place sometime between mid- and late July, but was his memory of this reliable?
Jean-Jacques Lebel (AL int 2003) : “On voulait absolument faire notre pièce. Alors on a loué un chapiteau, à Marseille, un grand chapiteau bleu de 600 places. On a trouvé un terrain vague, qui est maintenant devenu un supermarché, au carrefour de La Foux, à l’entrée de Saint-Tropez, qui n’est plus Saint-Tropez, c’est Cogolin, municipalement parlant. Le maire était socialiste, je crois, il était content de faire la nique à celui de Saint-Tropez, donc il nous a donné la permission de nous installer là. Il n’y avait pas d’électricité, alors on a loué un énorme générateur, et on est partis, encore mieux qu’avant. Mais seulement, il manquait la musique.
Et c’est là qu’un ami, qui s’appelle Bob Bénamou, qui était antiquaire, et avait fait des happenings avec moi, deux ou trois ans avant, est allé voir je ne sais pas qui à Sainte-Maxime. Et il y avait la Fête de la Bière – l’horreur, des mecs en shorts qui boivent de la bière et qui dégueulent partout, vous voyez ce que c’est, les campeurs qui font la fête… Et alors, il m’a dit que sur la plage, il y avait une bande de hippies qui dormaient sur la plage, tellement ils étaient fauchés, et ils se lavaient sous les douches des baigneurs. Ils n’avaient pas un rond, ils étaient dans la merde. Ils jouaient avec un chapeau, pour qu’on leur mette quelques sous. C’était comme des clodos, nomades, anglais, ne parlant pas un mot de français, se baladant, il s’est dit : ‘Ces mecs-là, ils sont pas mal…’ Il est venu me chercher, en voiture, et on est allés les écouter, et j’ai dit… J’ai été leur parler, parce que je parle anglais comme le français, je leur ai dit, ‘Voilà, je cherche des gens capables d’improviser de la musique, premièrement; et qui, en plus, ne soient pas uniquement des musiciens, mais qui rentrent dans le jeu des acteurs, et qui traversent la scène, et qui se considèrent comme acteurs, et pas seulement musiciens’.
Daevid Allen busking in St Tropez, 1967.
Et à ce moment, un des types, un grand maigre, me dit : ‘Mais je te connais, toi !’ C’était Daevid Allen. Figurez-vous que Daevid Allen était venu chez moi, et qu’il habitait cet hôtel, rue Gît-le-Cœur, le Beat Hotel, et qu’il était venu chez moi plusieurs fois, et qu’il avait même joué chez moi, avec sa femme, qui s’appelait Jill-je-sais-pas-quoi. Et un soir mémorable et inoubliable, j’avais fait une fête pour l’anniversaire de Bill Burroughs… Daevid m’a rappelé cette histoire… On est devenus très amis, et le producteur avait loué une espèce de grande maison à l’entrée de Saint-Tropez, où nous sommes tous venus vivre. Là où ‘La Collectionneuse’ avait été filmé. C’était à l’entrée de Saint-Tropez, plutôt sur le territoire de Cogolin”.
In the quote above Lebel mentions La Fête de la Bière – it seems although the Discothèque Interplay had closed down, the Fête de la Bière continued, as confirmed by ads in the local press until at least late July. (SL: a quick translation of the French tells us that it was the antiques-dealer Bob Bénamou who took Lebel to meet Soft Machine on the beach at St. Maxime, then Lebel realised that he had already met Daevid Allen and Gilli Smyth before, presumably in Paris?)
Bob Bénamou’s own recollection (int with AL 2000) : “I was spending the summer of 1967 in Saint-Tropez”, Bénamou remembers, “and one day my friend Michel Asso came by and said, ‘I’ve just met this band, you should really come and see them ! They’re playing on a beach at Saint-Aygulf, at the beer festival!’ Absolutely appalling… Of course, there was nobody there -who on Earth would have come to hear Soft Machine ?!? It was completely insane. So I told them, ‘Come with me, we’ll help you out…”
These accounts all contradict the notion that SM were booked to appear in Le Désir from the start. However this was clearly the case, as evidenced in the news item from Melody Maker issue dated 1st July!!
(SL: The opening of the show was delayed by legal problems ( the ban imposed by the mayor of St Tropez) and technical problems, i.e. a faulty generator).
‘France Soir’ of 16-17 July : “Le Désir de Picasso interdit à Saint-Tropez bénéfice à Gassin du droit d’asile. La première annoncée pour le 14 juillet a été reportée au 17, puis au 19, puis au 24 juillet. Le spectacle devait avoir lieu dès le 10 juillet au club Papagayo. Les promoteurs du spectacle, Victor Herbert et Jean-Jacques Lebel, se sont repliés avec leur chapiteau sur un terrain à 5 kilomètres de Saint-Tropez, au carrefour de La Foux, qui dépend de la commune de Gassin”.
The newspaper ‘Nice Matin’ of 20 July : “On l’avait d’abord annoncée pour le début du mois, puis pour le 14. Au dernier moment, la représentation fut ajournée, un groupe électrogène manquant, paraît-il, à l’appel. ‘Mais nous serons fin prêts le 17’, annoncèrent les organisateurs qui, deux jours après, distribuaient des prospectus indiquant que la date avait été de nouveau reportée. Hier soir, pleine d’espoir, toute la presse était à Gassin, en bordure de la route de La Foux, où Victor Herbert, producteur de la pièce, avait monté son chapiteau. Une fois de plus, ce fut en pure perte : un des générateurs était tombé en panne. ‘Mais gardez vos billets, ils sont valables pour demain’, a-t-on dit aux spectateurs. Ils étaient une cinquantaine à l’entrée du chapiteau, et tous d’ailleurs devaient se faire rembourser, visiblement lassés de cette affaire qui commence à être un peu trop longue…”
(Same issue has advert : “Le Picasso interdit commence le 19 juillet”).
‘France Soir’ of 21 July : “Hier soir, de (rares) spectateurs se sont présentés… Groupe électrogène en panne…”
‘France Soir’ of 23-24 July : “La pièce vient d’être jouée…”
By the 24th July ‘Le Désir Attrapé Par La Queue’ would appear to have begun its three week run with Soft Machine playing either before or after (possibly both) the play, under instructions from Jean-Jacques Lebel to produce “transmissions hallucinatoires”. The play was to have been staged in St Tropez at the Papagayo night club under canvas in the internal courtyard. The Gaullist mayor of St.Tropez, a member of the paramilitary Service d’Action Civique (SAC) to boot, caught cold feet when he heard of the contents of the play and had it banned. Needless to say, the socialist mayor of the neighbouring commune of Gassin was only too pleased to take up the relay. The tent was pitched in an area of rough ground, where the circus came to town, in Gassin. Jean-Jacques Lebel claims in his interview that the play ran for two and a half months, seven days a week, to full houses every night. That may well have been the case, but Soft Machine’s involvement would appear to have been for no more than 3 weeks. Allen (e-mail to AL 2002) : “Two weeks maximum – maybe less…”
Mark Boyle/Joan Hills interview 2000 :
JH: I seem to think of it as weeks.
MB: It was every night, and it went on for weeks.
JH: I think probably there was a month’s contract with Jean-Jacques for the performance of ‘Le Désir Attrapé Par La Queue’, I don’t know know how many weeks he was gonna do it. But it lasted about an hour, he actually tried to fill out the evening, cause people had to come out of St.Tropez, and drive along the coast a wee bit. We were staying in a place called Cogolin… which now is all joined up, but then it wasn’t all joined up, there were bits of country inbetween… So we must have been working for a month, I think.
Email to Allen 2002 : Q : “Did Soft Machine perform just a separate opening gig, or were you involved in the play itself?”
Daevid : “A 30-minute opening gig only”.
Lebel (AL int 2003) : Il n’y avait pas que la pièce de Picasso, il y avait… Après la pièce, tous les soirs, il y avait des concert Fluxus… Les Soft faisaient des concerts, il y avait plein de choses – c’était seulement la moitié de la soirée. Ça durait jusqu’à quatre heures du matin, vous pensez bien !(SL: “It wasn’t just the Picasso play, every night after the play there were Fluxus concerts [avant-garde, improvised happenings] …The Softs played concerts, there were lots of different things- that was certainly half of the evening. It lasted until 4am …”)
Boyle (AL int 2000) : There were two things. Every night there was that performance, which lasted between half an hour and an hour. But all day long they rehearsed, they just never stopped. I think it was possibly the best thing that ever happened to them. They got the opportunity to really work very, very hard all the time. We were at the beach, we were having a good time, with our children.
Zwerin (AL int 2003) : “They were going to do it in the Papagayo, and then the mayor wouldn’t let them, or the owner wouldn’t let them. That’s a café, I think that’s the name of the café, Papagayo… And so, some people leased them some land outside of town, and they put up a circus tent…
Rita Renoir was the star. And the guy with the shaved head, a French guy ? The male star. He was also “known”, like her (Jacques Seiler had played a lead role in the TV series « Vidocq » – AL). And whose name I can’t think of now. But the Living Theatre was around there. I mean, they used to come on, sometimes, they were on stage sometimes… I forget the names now, but that was a big deal back then, you know, so… It was like… Saint-Tropez was like… for some reason, a centre of art and music !… That’s exaggerating, really… but there was a lot going on there. A lot of people passing through.”
Warhol’s Riviera superstars : Taylor Mead and Ultraviolet. Photo by John Chamberlain.
Lebel (AL int 2003) : “D’abord, on s’est retrouvés dans la cour du Papagayo, une énorme cour, à Saint-Tropez. Et à cause d’une conférence de presse où j’ai proclamé que nous étions – ce qui était la vérité – des anarchistes, et que notre ami Arrabal venait de se faire arrêter en Espagne, et nous voulions organiser une manifestation au Consulat Espagnol de Nice pour protester contre son arrestation… Ça a été relaté dans le Figaro, et le maire de Saint-Tropez nous a jetés dehors, en disant:
‘Je ne veux pas de cette racaille anarchiste; ici, c’est les milliardaires, les yachts, ne nous emmerdez pas avec vos histoires, dehors !’
Alors on s’est retrouvés, avec une troupe de théâtre, enfin, qui n’était pas vraiment une troupe : une bande d’amis, une bande de fous, parmi lesquels il y avait le grand acteur des films de Warhol, Taylor Mead, l’actrice des films de Warhol, Ultra Violet, une strip-teaseuse reconvertie, non pas en nonne, mais en actrice de théâtre grandiloquente style Académie Française, ce qui est quand même assez extraordinaire… Rita Renoir, qui passe de montrer ses bijoux de famille à prendre des poses… ridicules, mais c’était ça… Je jouais sur son ridicule. Qui se prenait pour Sarah Bernhardt…”
(SL: So the Gaullist mayor of St.Tropez thought that the on-stage anarchy would alienate his wealthy friends, the millionaires, the yacht-owners. It sounds as if the actors of ‘Le Desir’ we selected for their craziness, their extrovert personalities and ability to improvise. Taylor Mead was a flamboyant friend of Andy Warhol and Ultra Violet, real name Isabelle Collin DuFresne, also worked with Warhol and had been the companion of the Surrealist artist, Salvador Dali. Rita Renoir was an “exotic dancer” at the Crazy Horse revue in Paris).
Actors from Jean-Jacques Lebel’s production of Picasso’s ‘Le Desir attrape par la queue’ St-Tropez 1967.
However long the run, the SAC couldn’t let the opportunity pass without getting involved and machine gunned the generator. I’ve read somewhere that Robert Wyatt’s drum kit took a bullet.
Lebel (AL int 2003) : “On a dit que c’étaient les S.A.C., à l’époque, vous savez, les Services d’Action Civique, on se sait pas qui c’était au juste, mais en tout cas, juste la veille de l’ouverture, des gens ont saboté notre générateur, en tirant des coups de fusil de chasse dedans. Heureusement, on était assurés. On a été obligés, à la toute dernière minute, de faire venir les flics, qui n’ont pas voulu faire de constat, en disant que c’était nous-mêmes qui l’avions fait… Enfin, il y avait une espèce de complot pour nous virer de là. Et on a été obligés de retourner à Marseille prendre un second générateur. Bref, les gens voulaient nous saboter, et ne voulaient pas qu’on soit là.”
(SL: The Soft Machine/ Boyle family accounts of the event are very similar…)
Allen (e-mail to AL 2002) : “We were also shot at by a drunken local redneck who thought it was too loud. He missed…”
Gilli Smyth (e-mail to AL 1999) : “A guy stood up in the audience with a gun and shouted to the band (it wasn’t so loud then) “If you don’t stop playing I will kill you”. They didn’t stop, and he fired, but a roady just managed to knock his arm so the bullet went sideways, into the generator at the sideback of stage, which cut out, and the whole tent was plunged into complete darkness. Robert Wyatt continued playing drums, but everyone else had to stop, wondering if they were in fact, dead. Audience panic, etc. etc.”
Mark Boyle (AL int 2000) : “I will always remember that show for one incident – I mean, there were many great things in it, but there was a woman who was a star from this big strip-club in Paris, I forget what they call them now… It’s the famous one…
JH: Crazy Horse.
MB: Yeah… And she [Rita Renoir] was the star of the show. And her husband was a wickless (?), a huge… And there was a guy from the Living Theatre, who was an absolute prick. He was a weed! And his great thing was to wander into… if any spotlight was on the stage, he would always be there, and he’d ???? and pick his nose… And when he did this to this guy’s wife, this guy kind of walked over and just removed him (laughs). After that rehearsal there was a big row about this, and the guy said to him that he was going to destroy him if he ever did it again. And of course he was some crazy guy, and… he did it again, and again, and again… Anyway, at the dress rehearsal of the show, the American backers of the show were shouting at Jean-Jacques Lebel, there was a fighting happening on the stage, and they were saying (he shouts), ‘Jean-Jacques, this is the dress rehearsal man! We’re going to have a ?? here tomorrow, you’ve got to direct this show, man!’. And Jean-Jacques said, ‘What do you think I am? A fascist?’ (laughs).
JH: And actually the people around us, around the tent – and they weren’t that close, but they hated the noise so much that they came with hatchets to try and smash…
MB: …Fire a gun into the generator… And it went silent and… I don’t know if they’ve told you about this, but what Soft Machine did was that… There was no electricity, it was total darkness, and Robert did a drum solo which just went on forever, and which was brilliant. And we managed to get candles and we handed them out, and the light show was provided by the people just dancing, and these candles… That was really something! But then they got the generator working.”
Mike Ratledge, Robert Wyatt (without shirt) Kevin Ayers – not necessarily in St Tropez but… (Photographer unknown)
Lebel (AL int 2003): “The play had enormous worldly success, press and TV….. People came from all over Europe, hitching or in 2CVs. People who had no idea where they were going to sleep, they had seen this on TV in Denmark, in Italy… They slept every night under the big top. They had no dosh for food. So when we had tuppence-halfpenny, and the money from a few sold tickets – most entered free – we’d make pasta for everyone at the interval. They passed their joints around. It’s true everyone was wrecked, and I would never state that there were things, more or less collective, going on that bourgeois moral would approve of. It was banal at the time. So there was this little wordly success vis-a-vis St Tropez society who came along to mix with the riff-raff but what interested me more was this nation-less, European, youth culture, coming from everywhere and nowhere, which found itself there. And it was they who made Soft Machine’s success. This population of young people who wanted another life-style and for whom this new art made sense.”
Jean-Jacques Lebel (translated and paraphrased by Steve): “It was extraordinary. Firstly there were musicians who were actors and who acted….one could improvise and surprise one another. Taylor Mead was magnificent. He was homosexual. He brought his lovers on stage….. he was amazing when he arrived on stage dressed as a dog, on all fours with his long tail and pointed ears, everyone just burst out laughing….. He has a comic genius, that just doesn’t come through very well in Warhol’s films…One day he brought along a young guy he had picked up on the beach. This guy had a camel and he would make a few bob taking photos of the holiday-makers on the camel. He brought him from a long way, some ten, fifteen kilometres, he was late but he got on stage…. He arrived as a dog leading the camel, the Soft Machine got playing and danced around the camel. But the camel got scared and started to shit enormous turds. People were screaming with laughter. We’d planned none of this but the great thing is improvisation, to allow people freedom, not to impose anything. The problem was to get the camel off stage. It was impossible and it spent the night on the stage. We managed to get it down the following morning. Every night we improvised with something new, it was absolutely fabulous.” (5)
The Pink Floyd Archive has the play being performed in Cogolin for two weeks in August. Cogolin is the next village/commune west of Gassin and has perhaps been confused with Jean-Jacques Lebel’s one-off Sun Love happening in Cogolin, where Soft Machine “performed naked around a swimming pool” (indeed!). As per Jean Jacques Lebel: “The Picasso part lasted an hour, that depended on the Soft Machine, and afterwards there were happenings, concerts… An American actor told us ‘come back to my place, I’ve got a swimming pool’, so we went and we created a happening which took the piss out of the faux-mystics, and we made a pseudo ritual to the rising sun, we took the piss out those people who were taking the piss out of the hippies, it was Sun Love… in my 16 mm films one won’t hear the Soft Machine but one will see them… it wasn’t recorded.”
Lebel (AL int 2003) : “…Une espèce de contre-campagne que nous avons faite, avec les copines et nous, pratiquement à poil, traversant Saint-Tropez avec des affiches collées – pas comme les hommes-sandwiches, sur du bois, mais collées à même notre peau… Nous avons attiré énormément, énormément de monde. Et alors le grand guitariste et leurs copines, et mes copines aussi, on a réussi, en traversant simplement les rues, en jouant des scènes dans la rue – Taylor Mead adorait faire ça – on a finalement attiré énormément de monde… Pas seulement des voyeurs pleins de bière des campings environnants, parce qu’il y avait plein de campings, mais un tas de jeunes gens… On s’est retrouvés avec des centaines de hitch-hikers – d’auto-stoppeurs et d’auto-stoppeuses, qui venaient pour voir la pièce, pour participer à cette folie… A tel point que, les gens étant complètement fauchés, on s’est retrouvés à faire des énormes quantités de riz basmati, avec un peu de choses… pour les nourrir, après… Et ils dormaient sous le chapiteau !”
Kevin Ayers in Graham Bennett’s ‘Out-Bloody-Rageous’ : “In fact what made Soft Machine was an article in Le Nouvel Observateur (11 September 1967 edition). We got written up, I think, because Mike (Ratledge) was fucking the journalist (It was actually Daevid, not Mike R, who “fucked the journalist”, i.e. Yvette Romi – see Gong Dreaming 1). So we got a good review and that was it. Suddenly France just opened up. We were the darlings of the literary scene there.” (3)
Daevid Allen in ‘Gong Dreaming 1’: “Suddenly we were the avant garde of intelligent rock. Within three months Soft Machine would be the third most popular band behind the Beatles and the Stones. We were soon invited to stay in luxurious beachfront houses, with the best food, wine, hash and cocaine.”
Ratledge (NME 9/6/73): “You see, we did the musical score for a Picasso play before the entire mass media of Europe, which led to us getting three major TV gigs before we’d even hit the road. When we eventually decided to tour we had a receptive ready-made audience waiting, and they’ve stuck with us ever since”.
Certainly Soft Machine appeared twice on French TV the following October, though by then they were a trio. As Marcus O’Dair writes they “had lost their Christopher Robin”, Daevid Allen. On En Parlera (3rd October) and Dim Dam Dom (8th October). All this was tied in with the band’s appearance at the Paris Biennale in early October – with Daevid Allen participating in one of them along with members of the Living Theatre. Sometime in mid-October they filmed for the Guy Beart Show (4), although this wasn’t broadcast until 25th August 1968 (Calyx).
We believe this to be Mike Ratledge and “friend” at the Sun Love happening, south of France, 1967. Photographer unknown
“Jean-Jacques Lebel had us playing one of his happenings, around a swimming pool at night. And the only rule was that everybody had to be undressed, including the band. Completely. If you weren’t, you had to stay indoors. It was a very nice feeling, on a warm, breezy, Saint-Tropez evening, to be playing without clothes. That’s when I realised you could do it. And being behind a drumkit protected what they call your modesty”. Wyatt’s bare torso would become intrinsic to his image as a drummer, occasionally embellished with shirt and tie drawn onto his flesh in crayon (Marcus O’Dair).
Allen (e-mail to AL 2002) : “We played on a stage which was raised up high above the pool. It was not even slightly enjoyable for me. I don’t think we were nude. Maybe Robert was. I don’t remember Lebel’s involvement”.
Lebel (AL int 2003) : “On a fait un happening historique, en dehors du chapiteau, dans une piscine, à côté, à Cogolin, ou à Saint-Tropez, je ne me souviens plus, qui s’appelait “Sunlove”. Auquel les Soft Machine ont participé…. C’était un de mes happenings… C’était la phrase de Nietzsche : “L’artiste ne doit pas se contenter de faire de l’art, il doit devenir lui-même une œuvre d’art”. J’ai pris ça à la lettre, et nous avons donc fait de la peinture les uns sur les autres, les uns avec les autres, sur les corps nus. Et c’était extraordinaire. [Soft Machine] jouaient sur le bord de la piscine. Et tout le monde était à poil. Il y avait une cinquantaine ou une centaine de personnes…. Et ensuite, comme ils étaient les seuls habillés, ils se sont pas faits prier pour se déshabiller. Parce que c’étaient leurs copines qui étaient là, on était tous ensemble. Il n’y avait plus de hiérarchie. Et à un moment donné, comme c’était de la peinture à l’eau, au bout d’une heure ou deux, je ne me souviens plus très bien, ce qui devait arriver est arrivé, tout le monde, y compris les musiciens, s’est retrouvé dans l’eau, soi-disant pour effacer la peinture, en fait pour se caresser, et ça a fini comme ça devait se terminer – comme la plupart des happenings, d’ailleurs, que je faisais, à l’époque”.
The Pink Floyd Archive also has the band playing private parties for Barclay Records and Caroll Baker in July and the Café des Arts early in August. I suspect that the Barclay Records do was Eddie Barclay’s La Nuit Psychédélique at L’Epi Plage on the 13th August as per Graham Bennett and others.
The party was reviewed by Philippe Bouvard (later a very famous radio and TV host) in Le Figaro (15 August edition) who shared his – rather fleeting – vision of Soft Machine’s performance. “Standing on a stage, a group of musicians dressed in animal skins, wearing motorcycle helmets, and relentlessly chanting, for what seemed like hours, ‘Chéri, je t’aime’ – or something to that effect in another language.” (Evidently he misheard ‘did it again’ as ‘chéri je t’aime’)
There is also mention of Soft Machine opening the Voom Voom Club in St Tropez. Strangely, for such a verifiable event (I found mention of other bands performing there during August, but not SM), there is no date, other than what we have to assume is pre-13 August. Soft Machine may well have played the Voom Voom Club, but the club seems to have been open for business from 1966 as far as I can make out.
Allen (e-mail to AL, 2002) : “We played in a hideous club in Saint-Tropez. We all shared accommodation in a house in the hills, and rehearsed. I also stayed briefly in a place in Saint-Tropez and busked performance poetry with other poets. Hung out in cafés. We drove to Marseille to find dope. We played in a village square, and helped Mark Boyle dig up paving stones. All of the above, but not necessarily in that order…The last gig – and my last gig with Soft Machine – was at a party where, for some reason, I snorted coke, which I hate, and played incredibly badly, attracting heavy criticism from Robert which he now denies”.
(Maybe the ‘hideous club’ was the Voom Voom, although it seems unlikely – supposedly it was a very trendy place at the time… Voom Voom can’t have been the last gig in any case, based on Daevid’s description of it as a “private party”).
At some point, at one of the parties in St Tropez, Brigitte Bardot was in attendance, though I can find no evidence that Bardot herself threw the party. La Nuit Psychédélique, perhaps? Daevid Allen is reported in Marcus O’Dair as saying that this was “the best concert Soft Machine ever played”. Kevin Ayers later recalled the event in his track Clarence In Wonderland: Let’s go to my chateau/We could have a good time/Drinking lots of sky wine’. See below for a photo of La Madrague (aka ‘My Chateau’) with its wall to keep paparazzi and rubber neckers at a distance.
La Madrague, St Tropez. Photo by Steve Foster
It was in St Tropez and at the party that Brigitte Bardot attended (AL: not sure about that – L’Epi Plage is more likely – although no articles concerning this event mention Bardot attending, while they mention various other celebrities being present) that Soft Machine performed their now near legendary rendition of We Did It Again, repeating their version of the The Kinks You Really Got Me riff non-stop for between 40 minutes and an hour.
“By taking the ostinato technique to its extreme, Kevin was actually making a serious artistic statement”. As per Mike Ratledge, again in Graham Bennett (Bennett – who never interviewed Ratledge – is actually quoting from another source – probably Oz interview 1969) “It was his idea that if you find something boring – a basic Zen concept – then in the end you will find it interesting. And there is something in that: if you listen to something repeated in the same way, your mind changes the structure of it each time….. Kevin saw it halfway between the spiritual liberation thing and showing off how hip we were.”And to borrow from Graham Bennett (again, I believe, quoting a 1970s source – Zig Zag maybe): Kevin says that he ‘pinched the idea from the Sufi thing of Dervish dances, the repetition of a straight rhythmic figure which promotes release from all the things that one finds difficult in releasing normally’. Kevin is adamant that it “was the nearest I got to doing what I wanted with that song. Since then it’s become sort of orchestrated. We’ve split it up into bits and got away from the point”.
Daevid remembers with undisguised glee the profound effect the performance had on their audience: “This bout of Terry Riley-inspired minimalism was enough to make us the toast of the new Parisian fashion season”. In Gong Dreaming 1, he has this to say; “To amuse ourselves we decided to perform a live loop of the louee-loui riff with a repetitive chorus of: WE DID IT AGAIN. We played it for forty minutes to an ecstatic ‘in’ crowd who instantly decided that we were to be the fashionable flavour of the month on their return to Paris.”
Louie Louie or You Really Got Me? Daevid also has this down as being at a party given by Bridget (sic) Bardot following the performance on the town square of the 4th July. Essence over detail, et alors?
Somewhere out there is a quote of Kevin Ayers’ answer to an interviewer pressing him on what Brigitte Bardot thought of the We Did It Again piece. “She probably said: Get the w*****s off.”
Whatever she thought of the music she had an eye on the bass player. Ayers and Bardot. I certainly hadn’t jogged over to St Tropez to try and substantiate the rumour. For me it has been fact for some time. Ever since I had it on good authority, by someone who had asked Kevin Ayers. Ayers answered something along the lines of: “Yes, it’s true but not the rumours about Bianca Jagger”.
Here’s an early version of Clarence In Wonderland recorded for French TV on 3rd October 1967 and incorporating a brief reprise of We Did It Again. Note the extended and rather disturbing lyric.
The programme, I suspect is On En Parlera rather than Camera III, as per Calyx. I would imagine that Camera III was a cue to the director? (I’d need to check, but more likely On En Parlera – synonym for “up and coming new talent”, I guess – was a section of Camera III, which really does seem to be the programme’s title, at least it was when I investigated the INA archives in 2003).
And this is what Brigitte Bardot looked like at the time. Well a couple of months later when performing Harley-Davidson written for her by her latest paramour, Serge Gainsbourg. (SL: This is slightly off-topic but it obviously makes Steve happy so we’ll include it in the “Wives and Girlfriends” section!!)
As it happened, within a day or two of our arrival in the St Tropez area, a small gang of Harley-Davidson bikers descended on our campsite. They were from Breda in The Netherlands. Inevitably, we immediately referred to them as The Breda Reaktors (6), not least because they were a quintet. One of them, it must have been Hannes (at least three of them were called Hannes) told me he had Soft Machine I and Soft Machine II on his I-Pod. Just like me, he couldn’t see much further than those first two albums. We had a memorable, what bikers may call a hoedown, that evening. Photo of Breda Reaktors below.
The Breda Reacktors, south of France.
But back to Bardot. Only recently have I been made aware that the follow up to Bardot’s Harley-Davidson was to have been Serge Gainsbourg’s Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus. Gunter Sachs had turned a blind eye to his wife’s libertinage but putting them down, literally, on record was too much even for him. Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus was to appear a year later as a Gainsbourg duet with Jane Birkin. Personally I’ve never understood the fuss around the Jane Birkin version. Here’s the Bardot version, which only came to light some 20 years later. (SL: a charming deviation, Steve, don’t forget about Kevin…)
We presume that Clarence In Wonderland was inspired by Brigitte Bardot. But what might Kevin Ayers have written for Bardot à la Gainsbourg? Could the Jolie Madame duet, recorded with Bridget St John in 1971 have had its genesis in St Tropez?
(AL notes : As far as I know, Clarence was written for Cyrille, Kevin’s eventual first [French] wife, and mother of his daughter Rachel, whom he met that summer.SL : Rachel Ayers once posted that Jolie Madame was the perfume that Cyrille used to wear… bought for her by Kevin).
We don’t quite know when the band left St Tropez (16th August as per The Pink Floyd Archives) but we do know that they caught a ferry to Dover on 24th August (7).
Jean-Jacques Lebel (AL int 2003) : “Je crois qu’on a arrêté fin août… Je ne sais pas. On a peut-être fait une semaine sans eux [Soft Machine]”.
Maybe the play stopped as originally planned, September 4 ?
Gilli Smyth (e-mail to AL 1999) : “The band returned because they were booked at the Edinburgh Festival, but I think it [Le Désir] was more or less over. The customs stopping Daevid entering U.K. was a great shock when they had that festival gig to achieve… It was so unfair.. The customs wrote that Daevid had no money, when in fact he had a hundred pounds in his pocket… It was pure prejudice”.
I can find few photographs of this whole [St Tropez] episode, in spite of there being a dedicated photographer amongst the party – Mark Ellidge. I have seen great colour pictures of SM performing at Discothèque Interplay in, iirc, Mojo. There’s one photo in Gong Dreaming 1 of Daevid Allen busking with a recorder labelled ‘le busking en st tropez’ and photos of Le Désir Attrapé Par La Queue can be found on the Internet, though none feature any of the members of Soft Machine. Gong Dreaming 1 also features an all too small reproduction of the poster for the Discothèque Interplay at St Aygulf. “Dansez! Freak Out! avec la meilleur formation psychédélique de Londres, à partir de 23 heures 45, les fantastiques SOFT MACHINE leur dernier disque LOVE MAKES SWEET MUSIC sur Barclay” it proclaims. Rather than their latest record Love Makes Sweet Music was their one and only record to date. That it appeared on Barclay Records may have something to do with the band playing at Eddie Barclay’s La Nuit Psychédélique the following month. Out-Bloody-Rageous has a photo of the band (Daevid Allen and Kevin Ayers) performing at the Discothèque Interplay in St Aygulf.
Nor do we know, apart from We Did It Again, what pieces Soft Machine played. I can only assume that their repertoire was likely made up of the pieces recorded three months previously for the Gomelsky Tapes/Jet Propelled Photograph, Love Makes Sweet Music and perhaps Daevid Allen’s Fred The Fish (8). Certainly Hope For Happiness and I Should’ve Known were part of the live repertoire since 1966, seems more likely the set was based around those rather than the shorter Gomelsky demos songs.
There’s a lot more to be said about this trip to the South of France, I am certain. I’d be interested to know more. It is sad, though a fact of life, that at least five of those who made up the Soft Machine party in the summer 1967 are no longer in the room. I’ve written to Les Archives Municipales in St Tropez for any articles (there’s mention of an article in Le Figaro, and the local paper must have reviewed these events) or any photos that they may have. I intend to make a return visit to St Tropez in the summer of 2017 to ‘Do It Again’, perhaps I’ll get my other half to make arrangements to Take Me To Tahiti (Plage).
(SL : Steve Foster supplied recent photos of the St Tropez area for this article. Aymeric Leroy sent scans of photos lent to him by Robert Wyatt’s biographer, the late Mike King plus pictures of Daevid and Kevin in St-Tropez from the Soft Machine ‘Triple Echo’ compilation. Aymeric also supplied a photo of participants in ‘Désir attrapé par la queue’ from a book on the psychedelic era. I’ve added some extra pictures from Ian Carpenter’s Kevin Ayers archive and from Wikipedia. If anybody out there has more photos or can help with photographer credits we will be very happy to add them).
(1) Daevid Allen was an Australian citizen with an Australian passport.
(2) Daevid Allen, Kevin Ayers, Mike Ratledge, Robert Wyatt (Soft Machine musicians), Ted Bing (roadie and old school friend), Mark Boyle (light show), Ian Knight (‘on behalf of management’), Gilli Smith (Daevid’s girlfriend), Mark Ellidge (Robert’s half-brother and tour photographer), Michael Chapman (see below for Michael’s account) and Keith Albarn.
(3) Yvette Romi’s short but effusive article which appeared in Le Nouvel Observateur in September 1967 is reproduced in Graham Bennett’s Out-Bloody-Rageous.
(4) Guy Beart died just recently (16th September) aged 85.
(5) This paragraph is a synopsis rather than a strict translation.
(6) Breda Reactor is the title of a Soft Machine bootleg recorded in Breda in 1970. I think I’m right in saying that it didn’t get an official release until 2005. An interesting footnote: I’m told that Breda Reactor features one of the few (two?) examples of a post-Ayers era version of We Did It Again.
(7) I’m rarely on the side of officialdom. But hats off to that over diligent immigration official. Without him there might not have been a Gong. Unable to return to the UK, Daevid Allen went to found Gong in Paris.
(8) That’s How Much I Need You, Save Yourself, I Should Have Known, Jet-Propelled Photograph/Shooting At The Moon, When I Don’t Want You, Memories, You Don’t Remember, She’s Gone, I’d Rather Be With You. Fred The Fish was never released and presumed lost (The shelved ‘single version’ of Fred The Fish from January 1967 – not the Gomelsky version which is indeed lost – is a bonus track on the Daevid Allen Trio archive CD, released by Voiceprint in 1993). What I imagine is a very different version appeared on Daevid Allen’s Bananamoon album in 1971.
Steve Foster’s acknowledgements:
I’ve lifted whole chunks from Graham Bennett’s Soft Machine Out-Bloody-Rageous (pages 107-112), Marcus O’Dair’s Different Every Time (pages 77-80) and Daevid Allen’s Gong Dreaming 1 (pages 60-62) and referred extensively to Calyx, the Pink Floyd Archive and Jean Jacques Lebel’s article/interview. Translations of the latter are mine, I’ve tried to convey the spirit rather than to be word for word accurate. Facts, dates and quotes are all their’s. All errors and interpretations are entirely a figment of my over-ripe banana imagination. It is really the Nicaean omissions that interest me now, any Mediterranean Sea Scrolls that have yet to be revealed and of course the gospel according to Kevin Ayers.
A couple of extra accounts I found on the ‘Net :
Juno Gemes :
« The story goes like this – Mark Boyle, who did the light shows at UFO, gave me a plane fare to Italy to see if I could get the Soft Machine and his light-show and myself a gig at the Festival Dei Due Mondi in Spoleto. I had worked there before – I adored the director the Italian composer Gian Carlo Menotti. After a very funny lunch he said he just couldn’t sponsor the event. Jean-Jacques Lebel invited us to take part in his Festival Libre. They put up a circus tent outside St Tropez in which we could create happenings n performances. Taylor Mead and Ultra Violet came from Andy’s Factory in NY. We were put up in a villa outside Saint-Tropez, Brigitte Bardot threw a party for us. It was a pretty wild time. Soft Machine & co, after this event, went on to open a new nightspot at Juan-les-Pins aftwards – it was run by mobsters but that’s another story…. Ultra Violet and Taylor Mead and others also put on the only play by Picasso called Desire Caught by the Tail in the circus tent. We were all there for about 10 days before moving on to Juan-les-Pins… »
John Bonehill :
« Met up with Soft Machine in the South of France later in June, I think. They played at the happening after Jean-Jacques Lebel’s version of Picasso’s only play, Desire Caught by the Tail. It was held in a blue circus tent in Cogolin, as they’d been thrown out of Saint-Tropez. Mark Boyle was experimenting with ‘microscopic’ projections such as pond water, & blood, saved in buckets from the chickens sacrificed on stage…. During the ‘happening’ their throats were slit and their bodies swung around on the stage, splattering the ‘glitter-arty’ in their Christian Dior and tails. Next came paint, and tomato sauce, under the projected images of bubbles and blood corpuscles, and Rita Renoir urinating on a very willing volunteer – she of the Crazy Horse saloon in Paris…. The play was narrated, and the face of the narrator TV-projected onto a 4ft. Styrofoam head on the stage, and much more… A couple of people I hung out with there, Ultra Violet, who played the curtains, and Taylor Mead, took me to La Cave du Roi, where we met Salvador Dali pouring honey high from over his head into his glass, then cutting off the stream with a pair of scissors ! I remember an old African-American woman who had a big cauldron going all the time stew, various twigs and mushrooms, she was wonderful… Parties in that 20ft. deep swimming pool at the villa… I remember when the farmer blasted the generator, with a shotgun ! »
(The following is from a long time ago, I guess 1997/98 ?)
From: Michael Chapman – email@example.com
Subject: The Soft Machine
I just looked up the page of the Soft Machine. My name is Michael Chapman and I was invited by the group to take part in the tour of the band in St. Tropez. In the 60’s I was part of a mixed media group called The Exploding Galaxy. I used to write poetry and read them on stage in Underground clubs like The Middle Earth, The Round house, etc. Sometimes I used to read together with bands and sometimes together with Daevid Allen.
Then one day he invited me to join the band on a tour to the South of France. This was too good to miss, so I immediately agreed. The actual trip was part of a summer package which included an enormous German Biergarten and a discoteque which were set up on the Beach of Frejus, which wasn’t that too far from St. Tropez. At the start it was quite fun. In the daytime there was the ridiculous sight of a brass band of fat Germans wearing lederhosen and singing and playing beer music, also the very pungent smell of sausage and sauerkraut. The public seemed to have come along from Germany and spent most of their time eating, drinking, and -if I may be so crude- farting. Well, next to this biergarten was the discohteque where we performed each night until the small hours of the morning.
There was quite an interesting crowd of people who kept coming and going, such as Taylor Mead and Ultraviolet who worked with Andy Warhol, another interesting person was Jean-Jacques Lebel the French happenings artist. If my memory is correct Mark Boyle also came along to do the lights. At the begining all went well, and we had a fine old time. But then the package went bankrupt and there was no more money to pay the costs, our pay, or even the trip back home. This was in a way quite amusing, as after some days the money got so short that it was even difficult to eat. The great part about it was that there were lots of cases of Champagne “Tattingers” left in the bar of the disco, and so we got quite drunk. It was then that Jean-Jacques Lebel stepped in and arranged some gigs in St. Tropez, including one which was very nice, in a public square of the town. Lebel had just finished building a very nice den in the pine-wooded hills and he threw quite a memorable pool party there.
At that time Lebel was organizing a kind of Theatre Happening that was inspired by a piece written by Pablo Picasso called “Le Desir Attrapé Par Le Queue”. He invited us to participate. The venue was a large circus tent, and the premiere was quite crazy. A mixture of disembodied events with music, theatre, happenings and quite a bit of nakedness, Taylor Mead and Ultraviolet also took part. Taylor Mead was quite remarkable, as he was well known to be permanently stoned on Valium. And he just always looked as though he would melt. Well this Happening was immediately banned by the Mayor of St. Tropez. and so became a historic event.
Eventually, we received money for the passage back to England. I managed to get a ride back with some tourists. I don’t know why the British authorities barred Daevid from returning to England, but it was probably because of all the repression at that time. And the fury of the newspapers in their fight against Underground events. The customs people had lists of undesirable aliens, and I know of other foreigners who were active, who were also denied entrance at one time or the other.
Well that’s about it. In 1971 I moved to Holland, 1975 to Berlin, and in 1985 to Brazil. And lost all contact with my past. If you see Daevid and Gilli again please pass on my e-mail. Regards, Michael.
HERE ENDS THE STORY SO FAR…
You are now leaving St Tropez…
A huge “Thank You Very Much” from KevinAyers.org to Steve Foster and Aymeric Leroy for allowing us to share their research. Thanks also to Ian Carpenter and all the other contributors to this story.
Johan Asherton in concert, by Jean-François Busch. “There were about twenty album sleeves pinned to the wall right behind us on stage, including TWO KA album sleeves, one of them just slightly above my head!”
One of the joys of writing my book ‘Kevin Ayers, August 16th 2013, Deià’, is that a number of very interesting people have got in touch to tell me they’ve enjoyed reading it. Kevin’s voice and music have inspired many musicians over the years and continue to do so. I recently talked to Johan Asherton, a singer-songwriter-guitarist from Paris who has been a dedicated Kevin Ayers fan for over forty years, about his enduring admiration for “Our Kev”.
SJL: Johan, I’m delighted that you have taken such an interest in KevinAyers.org and my book. I once described you on this site as “Kevin Ayers in reverse” in the sense that you are French but always sing in English. Whereas Kevin was English but was well known for his ability to compose and sing in French, for example, ‘Jolie Madame’ and the French version of ‘May I?’ (‘Puis-Je?’). Why do you choose to write and sing songs in English rather than your native language, French?
JA: I sing (or try to) sing in English because it’s how I started, listening to all the UK/US pop/rockers. Also because I was always interested in the English language, always saw films in their original versions, etc… I started visiting the UK in 1972… I love the French language, really do, it’s really perfect for the French “chanson”, but I don’t think it ROCKS as nicely, you know? Although there are some great exceptions…
SJL: Nice one! So, Johan, please tell me about the first time you heard Kevin’s music…
JA: I got into Kevin’s music in 1973, by the time ‘Bananamour’ was released, listening to ‘Interview’ on the radio. I was immediately taken by the voice, and the general atmosphere, ambience of the sound. I bought the album, and just loved it! ‘Shouting in a Bucket Blues’ was an immediate favourite, which I started to try to play and sing when I was 17 or so. At the time, I couldn’t imagine finding myself playing it on stage – or at a private acoustic evening, for that matter!
SJL: I have heard you sing ‘Shouting In A Bucket Blues’, with a slight French accent…very nice indeed! Let’s talk about Kevin’s voice…
JA: I was especially taken by his voice, vocal range – in fact I discovered…that I had the same sort of baritone, only slightly less deep or profound.
SJL: Your “mature” voice is quite similar to his, I think.
JA: Vocally, I was a tenor for a long time, then my voice deepened “naturally” (tobacco may have something to do with it…) about 8 or 9 years ago…
SJL: It almost seems as if Kevin was born with that incredibly deep voice. Or maybe he started smoking very young! On a different track…What aspects of Kevin’s music have influenced your own songs?
JA: Many of his (earlier) songs are in the prog-rock style, which was never my cup of tea, but many others are in a straighter pop-rock area, definitely my own. Some of the artists who’d influenced (Kevin) had already influenced me, so to speak, like Syd Barrett or Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground.
SJL: Tell me about your experiences of Kevin as a live performer…
JA: I remember listening to a concert (Salle Wagram, Paris – circulating as a bootleg) on the radio, with a little silly song as an intro! I saw Kevin in Arles, 1975, trying to back Nico (from The Velvet Underground) on guitar for a couple of songs, but not very convincingly. And I saw him at Passage du Nord-Ouest, Paris, 1992. A great gig, very much like the London concert of the same year you can find on YouTube
JA: At the time we were label mates…
SJL: Wow! So which label was that?
JA: FNAC Music. They released (Kevin’s 1992 album) ‘Still Life With Guitar’ in France, and my own ‘The Night Forlorn’. I found myself in the studio recording an album with two of Kevin’s friends, John Greaves, (bassist) and the great late drummer Pip Pyle. That was in 1992/1993. In the early 2000s, there was a plan to record another album together. We had to submit some sort of idea of a budget to the record company I was with at the time. We wanted to invite guitar virtuoso Richard Thompson and, as a very special guest to perform vocal duties with me, none other than our Kev! But the record company’s financial situation was very unstable, to say the least, and the whole project was shelved…
SJL: I have heard Pip Pyle mentioned before, in relation to Gong. What a cool album that would have been for us fans of the baritone singer and the guitar virtuoso!
JA: Pip Pyle was a great drummer from the Canterbury Rock scene, and he and Kevin were featured on Lady June’s album, which Kevin produced.
One of Johan’s favourite pictures of our Kev. “I especially enjoyed the (almost) all-white look AND (what seems to be a) Gitane cigarette “papier maïs” – though I could be wrong… !!”
SJL: Yes, Kevin always chose his collaborators very well, from the Soft Machine days onwards such as Mike Oldfield, Bridget St John, Archie Leggett, Ollie Halsall, etc. Apart from the unique voice and incredible taste in musical collaborators, what else do you admire about Kevin?
JA: I love his lyrics, and what I love above everything else in Kevin’s music is his sense of absolute elegance. He’s one of the truest dandies of rock, and there’s just a handful of them, I think.
SJL: I have seen video of Kevin talking about how he started with poetry readings back in the 1960s and found that people paid more attention if he strummed a few chords at the same time! So yes…a poet first and foremost…
JA: I dream of a KA lyric book… Maybe one day?
SJL: Yes, yes, yes to the KA lyric, guitar and piano music book. Publishers take note! Do you have a particular favourite Kevin Ayers song, or vocal performance? For instance we mentioned ‘Still Life With Guitar’, I particularly love his voice on ‘Something in Between’…
JA: Difficult for me to choose among so many great songs… I’d say ‘Yes I Do’ (from ‘Mananas’) for its delicacy, ‘Puis-Je’ for the charming accent and funny lyrics (the spoken section during the sax solo is something to be heard!), ‘Jolie Madame’ with the lovely Bridget, ‘Another Saturday Night’, ‘Day By Day’ and ‘Stranger In Blue Suede Shoes’ , ‘Shouting In A Bucket Blues’ (of course)… so many…!
SJL: Great choices, Johan. Mais oui… I catch his drift in ‘Puis-Je’, so to speak! You must regret that you never met Kevin in person or recorded with him. Surely the world would have been a better place for having an Ayers/Asherton duet?
JA: I had his address and phone number in Montolieu for years… but never could gather the courage to call him… I hope I can visit Montolieu sometime in the future. His music has been with me for 40 years or so… And I often play ‘Shouting In A Bucket Blues’ during my solo concerts.
SJL: So tell me about your new album, which was released in February 2015, the eponymous ‘Johan Asherton’s Diamonds’…
JA: Johan Asherton’s Diamonds is a new band I’ve put together from long-standing musician friends. It’s a return to my rock’n’roll roots after a number of more folk music based acoustic albums.
SJL: It’s an excellent album, Johan and I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing it for the record company. (There are currently three reviews in French, plus my review in English, on the PopTheBalloon website). There are also five sample tracks for people to listen to :
and here’s a link to the video of the song ‘Lonely Feeling’
SJL: Loneliness sounds rather good fun there… nice touch of irony, Johan! I noticed there’s also a bit of wry Kevin-style humour in the track ‘Life Of The Party’, I think he would have appreciated that one!
JA: Yes, with the lyrics to ‘Life Of The Party’ I was thinking of Kevin while writing this one, and ‘Ooh I Miss You’ as well. I would’ve loved for him to enjoy these songs, that’s for sure…
SJL: Did you have any sense with Kevin’s passing that you really wanted to get on and do and say the things that were most important to you?
JA: Oh yes! ‘Life Of The Party’ in fact is really about this. So many of my musical heroes have passed away over the last two years… Lou Reed and Kevin in the same year. People can say what they want about the Rolling Stones, when you see them still rockin’ in their 70s… What a great lesson…!
SJL: I know that you regularly play gigs in Paris, Rouen and Lille. Any plans to tour in England or further afield in France?
JA: We just want to play from time to time, at least for now. I played England just a few times, solo acoustic, London 12 Bar Club, and several places in Wales. These days, I keep thinking I’m doing this for the sheer pleasure of making music with my friends, to people who will listen.
SJL: Here’s a delightful “morceau” of recent live footage of Johan in Lille with Terry Brisack (guitar) and Pascal Favriou (keyboards).
SJL: Thank you so much for talking to me Johan, it’s always interesting to hear a musician’s insights.
JA: I’d like to take this opportunity to thank and congratulate both you and Rick for the beautiful Kevin site you created, and for keeping his memory and legacy alive.
For more information about Johan Asherton and his music please visit:
From time to time we can let you know about any further discoveries we make about Kevin Ayers and his music. Just leave your email here and we will let you know. So far we have the 1976 John Peel Soft Machine special and the 2012 Mr Kyps, Poole, Dorset Bootleg for download. Wonderful stuff – just leave your email here and we will send it over right now.
KevinAyers.org is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon (amazon.co.uk).