Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Soft Machine Of Deià

When music acts have named themselves after books, characters in books or just ideas in books, they have typically erred on the side of the macabre, the bizarre or the violent. Belle & Sebastian are an example of "nice" naming (a French story for children) but are unusual. As for others: Heaven 17 came from Anthony Burgess's "A Clockwork Orange"; Joy Division was described in the "House of Dolls" by Ka-tzetnik 135633 (Yehiel Feiner), a story of Jewish women kept for prostitution in Nazi concentration camps; The Velvet Underground took their name from Michael Leigh's book about paraphilia (sadomasochism, zoophilia, paedophilia).

William Burroughs didn't inspire the name of only one significant band. Two, at least, stand out. The Soft Machine and Steely Dan. The latter was a strap-on dildo in the drug-influenced and addled "Naked Lunch". "The Soft Machine" referred to the human body. The book was as weird as its naked predecessor. Drug abuse as a disease, secret agents, Mayan calendars, it was a bad trip of a novel, one that had been written some years before tripping became de rigueur for hippy culture but one, as a consequence of its tripped-out and hallucinatory imagery and peculiar structure that bordered on incoherence, became as identifiable with psychedelia as did the group that named itself after the book.

Kevin Ayers was a founder of The Soft Machine. He was with the band for two years. He left and, in the opinion of many, squandered a career that, with a talent as great as his, should have been stellar. But stellar, as in star, i.e. being a star, was an alien concept to Ayers. He didn't turn his back on fame and wealth through going mad, as was the case with contemporaries Peter Green and Syd Barrett, so much as he couldn't really be bothered. He wasn't interested in being a huge name, but equally he often displayed a lack of interest in what was his chosen career. Instead, he made a career out of remaining a hippy, disregarding convention in the pursuit of hedonism, much of it to be enjoyed in sunny Mediterranean climes, notably that of Mallorca.

Ayers' association with Deià helped to give this small town in the Tramuntana a reputation that it has never shed. Nowadays, this reputation is hippy-chic, a magnet for dippy chicks like Kate Moss. It was a reputation for faux-hippydom, capitalist-sell-out-to-the-man hippydom, that was enhanced when the fakest of fake hippies and so therefore the greatest of all fake-hippy entrepreneurs, Richard Branson, established La Residencia. Branson, despite the beard and very much longer locks that he sported at the turn of the 1970s, was a hippy exploiter supreme. He was never a hippy himself or anything remotely like one, other than in appearance, but he knew that the "heads" would hand over good money for "sounds" that were far removed from The Archies, Lulu or The Tremeloes, even if these sounds should never have been allowed near a recording studio, let alone the headphones of the original Virgin store above the shoe shop on Oxford Street. And among these sounds, of course, was Kevin Ayers and The Soft Machine.

Ayers left The Soft Machine, and he was right to have done so. This was a time, 1968, of enormous musical experimentation and the revisionist view of this period tends to eulogise the output of many of its exponents. Some deserve the praise, as they deserved it at the time. Pink Floyd were groundbreaking but also never anything other than interesting, engaging and simply good. The Soft Machine, on the other hand, were turgid, self-indulgent and tedious. Ayers had more to offer than hour-long, organ-led dirges. He was, to use a cliché, a musician's musician, who could surround himself with the likes of Brian Eno and The Velvet Undeground's John Cale, but he only ever did so much. He was hippy personified and he always kept his integrity. He was, in a way, "The Soft Machine" personified; the taking over of the body by outside controlling influences.

There was a ceremony in Deià the other evening to honour Ayers, who died earlier this year. It was a charming, gentle and rather lovely event. Here was a tribute to a musician who eschewed the trappings of fame and appeared to do everything he could in order to ensure that he did but who, probably because of this rejection, enjoyed an affection reserved for few others. Ayers' music world was not the thrusting dominance of an industry brandishing a brazen steely dan. It was a world far removed from this machine and the demands of its production line and of its manufacture. His world was one made from an altogether different machine, a very much softer one.

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