For some bands of the late ’60s, herbs, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and other perception-altering substances were fundamental to the music being played. Often, this is associated with San Francisco bands including the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and other bands that had a propensity to play on and on, improvising, adding, subtracting, modifying, noodling, drifting, daydreaming, and otherwise mesmerizing and apparently being mesmerized. And the audiences would engage with this in an appropriate, nodding, manner.
While this was primarily an American phenomenon, there were some British bands who undertook a somewhat analogous method of performance. But there was, in many instances of those that existed, a major difference.
Many of us in the U.S. hear someone with a British accent (with some exceptions, like, say, Liverpudlian) and think that the person is undoubtedly more sophisticated than their American brethren. It may be true. But not necessarily the case. Still, it is notionally convenient. While the American musicians were involved in long, seemingly endless jams, some of those on the other side of the Atlantic were involved in much the same thing. But the accent was different.
Rather than the American rock, some of the British bands were playing more jazz-influenced music. More sophisticated, as it were. One such British band was the Burroughsian-named Soft Machine.
One of the members of Soft Machine was Kevin Ayers. Another was Robert Wyatt. Last year, Robert Wyatt’s vocals were part of Welcome to the Voice, a production of Steve Nieve, best known as the keyboard accompanist for Elvis Costello. This year, Kevin Ayers is releasing The Unfairground. This minor resurgence of Soft Machine musicians seems to be something of a phenomenon. In the case of Ayers, the work is primarily his; he is not a supporting act to the likes of Sting as is Wyatt in Welcome to the Voice. But Ayers apparently understands that for most listeners, the final notes of a Soft Machine performance are echoing and resonating no longer, so he is supported on The Unfairground with the likes of Teenage Fan Club and Architecture in Helsinki. (Phil Manzanera is there, too, for some of us of a more vintage perspective.)
The Unfairground is a pleasant if unremarkable collection of 10 songs. None of them are longer than could be comfortably contained on a 45-rpm record, with 4:32 being the longest of the bunch. There are no extended jazz-oriented riffs, obviously. It opens with a musical-hall tinged “Only Heaven Knows,” which might be off-putting to some. But once that it passed, the orchestration and execution are in support of Ayers’ not-particularly strong set of pipes. The final cut, “Run, Run, Run” echoes, in some passages, the opening cut, which at least bookends the work.
Absent Soft Machine fans, it is not entirely clear who might be taken with this recording. It is not that there is anything in the least bit objectionable about it; its just that there is so much music unheard that is more remarkable.
You can download a couple of Unfairground songs on MySpace.