Sometimes the brightest lights really do hide beneath a bushel.
Kevin Ayers, who sadly died earlier this week, was perhaps not the most household of names. He shunned the limelight and eschewed a music business career to a degree eclipsing even his sometime compatriot Robert Wyatt. His Wikipedia entry describes him as “a self-imposed exile in warmer climes, a fugitive from changing musical fashions, and a hostage to chemical addictions.” Never prodigious in his output, in the Nineties and Nighties he managed an output of one album per decade. (Neither of which I've heard, to be honest.)
When he is remembered now it's as a founder member of the legendary Soft Machine (though he left after their first release), or for the live album 'June 1st 1974'. Featuring John Cale, Brian Eno and Nico as well as Ayers, it's virtually the trump card to bring out when know-nothings claim nothing happened in Seventies music before punk. Though Ayers headlined the gig, ironically these days he's probably the least-known name of the line-up.
You could call that unfortunate, but really - it was the way it had to be. Ayers' musical explorations were undertaken the way previous generations of well-bred Englishmen had their more literal explorations – the preserve of the gentleman amateur. Where he was going, that was the only way to get there.
Quality was admittedly uneven. But the point was to tread the most eccentric of paths. Tracks were too playful, too song-based to be labelled as underground, experimental or avant-garde. But they were too quirky, too idiosyncratic to file under pop. They'd often sound like the soundtrack to some hip Seventies children's show, broadcast from behind the looking glass. (See for example 'Girl On a Swing.') A compilation album was called 'Odd Ditties' (after the working title of 'Up Against the Dried Fruit at Tescos' was nixed), which probably sums things up better than I ever could.
Put it this way... it was Ayers who started off Mike Oldfield's career. And I still love him!