Album of the week: Joy of a Toy (1969)

Would recommend if you’re a fan of: Soft machine, Syd Barrett, Nick Drake, Donovan

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Source: Album artwork

In a musical universe where musicians and labels churn out albums that are trite and commonplace, music goers can be sometimes left disillusioned. However, when geniuses such as Kevin Ayers come along, it can bring any doubt in an individual’s mind of hearing musically what is continually derivative to a complete standstill. It is not just how he could conjure up extended moments of intense musical attractiveness, but how he also reached deep into the innermost realms of our imagination, and brought out images full of mystique and absolute wonderment.

Kevin Ayers was born in 1944, in Kent. After recording with The Wilde Flowers for a couple of years, the band split into two groups, Soft Machine and Caravan. Joining friends Robert Wyatt, Daevid Allen & Mike Ratledge, Kevin was a co-founder of the Canterbury Scene’s Soft Machine. As fate would have it, Soft Machine shared the same management team as Jimi Hendrix, and they then opened for The Jimi Hendrix Experience throughout 1968. However, after recording their debut album, Kevin Ayers became disenchanted by Soft Machine’s jazz leanings (as well as their tiresome touring schedule), so he amicably left the group and sold his bass guitar to Noel Redding. In an ironic turn of events, Jimi Hendrix himself had then given Ayers an acoustic guitar on the promise that Kevin would continue making music.

Ayers’ two most intriguing qualities are his imaginative songwriting, and a voice so soothing  it could calm a monsoon. When you combine these, you get not only detailed imagery of the most whimsical of sorts, but a narrator who perfectly showcases those child-like visions. This is apparent the most on songs like “The Clarietta Rag” and “Girl on a Swing.” The former is a carnival-like sounding ditty, drenched in mellotron that, like a time machine to the listener, transports them back to an affectionate moment of childhood endearment. “Girl on a Swing”, however is more cataclysmic in sound. While “The Clarietta Rag” could invoke a fairy-tale that deals with happiness, “Girl on a Swing” has an atmosphere that is extremely ominous. However, the lyrics themselves are not in even close to the gloom and doom of the musical tone. Kevin could have sung about unicorns and rainbows on this one, and it still would have sounded dreary. Another song that is sinister in sound is “Lady Rachel.” It is intriguing not only in the masterful story-telling, but also in the accumulation of exhilaration in the verses.

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Source: Album artwork (back)

When Ayers left Soft Machine by the time their debut album was released, him and the members of that group had remained friends, and they appear throughout “Joy of a Toy” In fact, songs like “Song for Insane Times” and “Stop This Train (Again Doing It) sound so much like Soft Machine songs, it would be easy to mistake them as such. Although not on here, you can hear Soft Machine member Robert Wyatt’s backing vocals on certain songs on Ayers’ albums that followed this one.

As stated previously, Ayers had a voice that could relax even the most stressed individual. The already mentioned “Song for Insane Times” could put a smile on even the most execrable of people. Featuring mesmerizing keyboards throughout, this one is a definite keeper. Another song that is infused with calmness is “The Town Feeling.” The tranquility cannot be overlooked on songs such as these.

There are not really any low-points on the record. “Eleanor’s Cake (Which Ate Her)” is not a favorite, but it is still listenable. The “Eleanor” in the song was about Eleanor Barooshian, a member of the New York City girl group The Cake. “Oleh Oleh Bandu Bandong” is as strange as the title itself, and is certainly not for everybody, and might take several listens to be appreciated.

When it comes down to it, Kevin Ayers’, Joy of a Toy, is a crucial landmark in the underworld of experimental pop. It pushed all the right buttons, and will leave you craving for more. Fortunately, there is more, with Ayers releasing several more albums after this one. This includes 2007’s The Unfairground, released six years before he died in 2013. However, Kevin Ayers’ music continues to astound listeners to this day, and should be viewed not only as a legend of the Canterbury Scene, but of music in general.

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