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Kevin Ayers - Joy Of A Toy CD (album) cover


Kevin Ayers


Canterbury Scene

3.64 | 121 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
4 stars 12/15P. Kevin Ayers' grand masterpiece. He'd never record an album as colorful, frantic and consistent as this one again. No dull avant-garde noodling, a lot of delicate arrangements and only one strange country song to sit through. Essential!

Kevin Ayers has recorded quite a lot of solo albums over the years. Many of them include brilliant songs, but nearly all of them are marred by some really strange Vaudeville tunes or insipid free-form improvisations. Joy of A Toy, however, along with the really good Bananamour album of 1972, can be listened through without any earache or anger about Kevin's laziness in terms of songwriting.

In fact it features a couple of brilliant art pop songs which could be called essential to the Canterbury Scene. The lyrics range from friendly to slightly melancholic, David Bedford's orchestra arrangements profit a lot both from his British restrainedness and his refreshing avant-garde training - and both Bedford and Ayers are responsible for the glorious madness created by a plethora of effects, details, little melodies and fragments which are inserted everywhere. Lots of subtleties to explore here, and all this material is kept together tightly by Ayers' deep bass voice.

An obvious highlight is Song for Insane Times, unique in its Soft Machine line-up of Hugh Hopper, Mike Ratledge, Robert Wyatt and Kevin Ayers. It's the one and only example of the Soft Machine playing a soft jazz-inspired pop song, and curiously it sounds a lot like early Caravan with Ratledge providing both soft organ washes, jazz soloing and some fine flute playing as well. Wyatt sets a tight, but fluffy beat for the band to rely on. Another obvious highlight is Town Feeling, a critically acclaimed song which is most successful in fusioning Bedford's baroque orchestra arrangements, Ayers' slightly Cohenish songwriting and the rootsy R&B influences of Wyatt on drums and Ayers on guitar/bass. So why does it work a lot better than many of the late 1960s pop songs which featured orchestral elements? It's because Ayers himself is part of the arrangement with a gorgeous double-tracked guitar melody which is perfectly geared to the loping oboe tracks which dominate this piece. Otherwise you may enjoy tuneful lyrics about walking through a British town with a slightly ironical and simplifying choice of words. The less obvious highlight is Oleh Oleh Bandu Bandong, Kevin Ayers' only adaptation of traditional folk music, in fact Malayian folk music since Ayers spent many years of his childhood in Malaysia. It is clearly the rhythmically most challenging experiment Kevin Ayers has ever made, an ominous chant in 7/4 with a melody and phrasing which occidental listeners can look through after fifteen listens at the earliest. Confusingly Ayers has the singers of the Benny Hill Show, the Ladybirds, sing the chorus (in fact, this track only consists of this one chorus) again and again over this very stiff rhythm. I'm pretty sure you can imagine how totally weird this sounds, but the combination comes out positively uneven. An essential listen for everyone interested in the intersection of the Canterbury Sound and the London Underground. At some time psychedelic tape effects and slightly detuned Hammond organ notes take the lead until the last half of this composition features David Bedford on grand piano. He really gets caught up in a frenetic jazz piano solo which fans of Dave Stewart's work with Egg will appreciate as well; to me this solo is the highlight on the original album because it effortlessly wanders on the ridge between playfulness and mayhem. On Ayers' next album Shooting At The Moon this tightrope walk would be less successful. The piano solo finally trickles away in a free cacophony of piano, some treated violins and feedback noises. Then gradually All This Crazy Gift Of Time is faded in, a sluggish ode to wine, partying and life borrowing heavily from American country music and featuring two shrieking blues harps which are played even more gruffly than on Bob Dylan records. The similarities to the decadent and anarchistic rock'n'roll of the glam/art rock scene of the mid-1970s is hard to deny. Ayers' vocals are double-tracked, and nothing is synchronal or in tune, it seems as if Ayers doesn't care at all about all that. It's a tough song to stand through, but this lazy attitude is an integral part of Kevin Ayers' songwriting, and as a winking last dance on a very good record I really don't object to it a lot.

Lady Rachel, in its original studio version, is exhaustingly fast and gets extremely surreal with the monotonous electric guitar strumming, threatening clarinet flutters and tinkling organ effects. Maybe that's what Syd Barrett might have sounded like on his solo albums if he had been able to communicate his ideas better to his studio musicians. The lyrics send shivers down my spine as well, I'd never have thought that Kevin could pull off such psychological verses. Although this version is interesting and extremely haunting, I do admit that I listen to the 1972 recording by far more frequently. This 7 minute version is added as a bonus track, is played by a whole band and is enhanced by outstanding brass arrangements by David Bedford, very much in the vein of his work on There Is Loving/Among Us, but as melodic and majestic as Ron Geesin's Atom Heart Mother score for Pink Floyd. Instead of simply adding some brass chords in the background Bedford develops really catchy melodies from Ayers' rough basic track and works with these phrases in an extremely playful and polyphonic way. If you know the Cockney Rebel song Sebastian with its shimmering Hammond organ, the ghostly female backing vocals and the emotional orchestra backing - this is the Baroque hipster pendant to it! Forget the 1972 single version - it's shortened to hardly 5 minutes, it's got a strange flanger effect on the guitar track and is inferior to the longer track.

Girl on A Swing and Eleanor's Cake are similar to each other in their folk-inspired and a wee bit medieval atmosphere whilst the former, stuffed with fragile electric harpsichord sounds and an occasional Mellotron fanfare, glitters and shines a bit more than the darker Eleanor's Cake, highlighting Ayers' dark harmonies and a lilting flute accompanying his own lead voice. The incredible sophistication of production is audible on Girl on A Swing in which treated tape snippets of solmisation (= the sung do-re-mi-fa... scale) follow irregularly vibrating electric guitars and a Schubert-ian Romantic piano backing. I don't want to deconstruct the whole song, but you can guess how much is happening during the course of this album.

Joy Of A Toy Continued and Clarietta Rag are the two fun numbers, and both of them aren't merely silly, but also an enjoyable listen. Joy Of A Toy Continued, featuring elaborate trombone and piccolo flute arrangements, sounds like the title melody to a circus show or a TV series for children. There's no similarity to the creepy and dark Soft Machine track of the same title, but rather to Manfred Mann's late 1960s output (Sweet Pea, Ha Ha Said the Clown), with the difference that Ayers sings something inintellegible about tigers, elephants and kangaroos in the very background. I couldn't think of a better way to begin this album, and the subsequent oboe intro of song two (Town Feeling) ... well, you have to listen to it yourself! Clarietta Rag comes dangerously close to the insipid ragtime sound of Ayers' own Oh My, but Robert Wyatt's relentless drum playing and a hilarious trombone/fuzz guitar-duo give it a pretty peculiar momentum. You don't notice any stanza or chorus here because this song swings in a hectic pace, backed by Bedford's jazzy Mellotron MkII strings which wouldn't sound out of place on The Moody Blues' Another Morning.

Lyrically most haunting, Stop This Train is the most psychedelic - in the truest sense of the word - recording on Joy Of A Toy, a song about a frightening journey on a train with equally frightening sound effects. Rob Tait is on drums on this track, and the same R&B-like drum rhythm stays the same for the complete 6 minutes, giving this track a relentless groove similar to the German band Can. This would be quite boring had it not been for Mike Ratledge who is aboard again and duels with pianist David Bedford on his Lowrey Organ in the second half of the song, both using the harshly humming and the softly bubbling tones of this all-transistor home organ. Emulating the sound of a train gaining momentum the speed of the tape player is gradually increased in the beginning and the ending of Stop This Train. Although Mike Ratledge has a stunning performance in this track and the ambience is pretty unique, too, the track is a bit too long. It's not a major flaw, but one aspect which gets in the way of a full rating for this album.


One of the bonus tracks I have not yet reviewed is Soon Soon Soon, a reworked version of the Soft Machine number We Know What You Mean. In the space of three minutes Kevin Ayers moves around an acid mixture of modal jazz (in the complex intro part), soul (in the stanzas) and pop (in the chorus), passing by the short meditative soon soon soon part in the middle which is a possible predecessor of the multi-tracked vocal part in There Is Loving/Among Us. The Ladybirds are part of the arrangement again, singing on top of a fierce fuzz guitar and jolly Mozart-like string arrangements. Again, not only the music with its unexpected variety and the accomplished polyphonic combination of motives used stands out, but also the lyrics which are conflictive in their confrontation of sarcastic stanzas ('you sell yourself so you can buy more') and the soothing Ladybirds-sung chorus (we know what you mean, we understand).


Singing A Song In The Morning, the single accompanying the album, is featured in three versions and is a song which comes around extremely powerful and tight in spite of not having any compositional substance - it deserves great talent to pull off such a song! (Another example would be Neanderthal Man, a Godley/Creme song published as The Hotlegs, which is really similar in its carefree attitude.) Singing A Song In The Morning, in a way, is a happy mantra on four ever-repeated verses which gets all of its diversion from strangely ominous 'ostrich'-style guitar lines and the Caravan rhythm section of Richard Coughlan and Richard Sinclair, the former providing his typical semiquaver-fills.

There are two widespread myths about Singing A Song In The Morning. The first one is that the early version of it (named Religious Experience, rec.11/1969) features Syd Barrett on lead guitar and/or backing vocals. When you listen to Barrett's The Madcap Laughs, recorded in April 1969 (=two months earlier), you won't find a solo guitar track which stays in time for more than a few seconds; in fact, the participating musicians of Soft Machine and Pink Floyd had to record everything around Barrett's eccentric demos. Because all the guitar tracks in Religious Experience are pretty much in time, and because credible sources (q.v. the link above) state that Barrett wasn't participating in the 11/1969 sessions, I'm pretty sure that all the guitars are played by Ayers.

But, interestingly, the third version Take 103 (rec.12/1969) includes a really demented and ferocious guitar solo at 1:22 - and this solo unmistakably has Syd's handwriting. And this is the session in which Syd actually participated - he is simply mislabelled on the album reissue. If you trace this solo track back and forth through the song, you'll see that in fact it's one constant guitar sound stretching from the beginning to the end. To me it's impossible to imagine that Ayers recorded this electric 6-string track; he, for sure, was responsible for the Barrett-ish electric 12-string raga licks in the left channel, but the savage shredding in the right channel is definitely Syd Barrett.

And the vocals? There are indeed certain places where you hear a voice sounding seemingly different to Ayers'. But due to a tape blackout at 4:25 you hear one of these backing voices singing solo, and it sounds a lot like Richard Sinclair of Caravan - who definitely played on this session. The second myth is that Dave Sinclair of Caravan plays organ on the finished single version. To put it short - there's no organ to be heard anywhere.


Taken together this album is highly recommendable to every listener of sophisticated pop music with lots of experimental twists. There are only minor flaws which still make me just give a really good 4 star rating. It really comes close to a masterpiece, it includes utterly good bonus tracks and stands out as a pretty unique album of its own - a melancholic, thoroughly British and sometimes downright absurd blueprint for the kind of album which lots of today's bands try but fail to recreate.

Einsetumadur | 4/5 |


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