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Joy of a Toy reviewed by Fitter Stoke @ Julian Cope Presents Head Heritage
There can be few dudes in rock who have been lazier than Kevin Ayers. The man hasn't released any new material in at least a decade and was hardly prolific before that. And it's not as if he's ever enjoyed a hit single or album to sustain him. God knows what he lives on.
Ayers started his professional life in the mid-60's with the Canterbury rock/jazz/R&B growbag that was The Wilde Flowers, from which evolved The Soft Machine, of which he was a founder member with such luminaries as Robert Wyatt and Daevid Allen. Kev only lasted one album and 45 before jumping ship in '68. He bummed around the Iberian peninsula for a year before some pothead at Harvest, EMI's then new progressive arm, bravely decided to sign him up. And 'Joy Of A Toy' was the result. But no bedsitter singer-songwriter album this.
'Joy Of A Toy Continued' is the singalong instrumental that starts the record. Previously aired on the first Softs LP, it would have made a perfect alternative theme for Play School. But tweeness aside, it's an infectious 'la la' tune that annoys you for weeks after you've heard it. It isn't, thankfully, representative of the album, but then the beauty of 'Joy Of A Toy' is that every track is quite alarmingly different from its companions.
'Town Feeling' follows, a lovely woodwind and strings introduction leading into Ayers' first real vocal showcase. And what a vocal - an English Scott Walker with pre-Ferry crooning: irresistable. Each lazily delivered verse, with simple but charming lyrics, is accompanied by delightful woodwind obligati and followed by an ever so slightly "wrong" guitar lick that makes the song truly different. The instrumentation here, and through most of the album, is almost 'Pet Sounds' in its variety and depth, thanks for the most part to the now well respected composer David Bedford (later to join Ayers' anarchic Whole World combo). 'The Clarietta Rag' comes next, rhyming its subject's name with 'Lambretta' (inspired!) and the jauntiest mellotron fills on record. And how many songs have you heard that accompany a fuzz guitar solo with a trombone? Unbelievably, it works.
'Girl On A Swing' is a beautiful, simple love song with that patent late-60's pedalled acoustic piano and subtle mellotron and backward tape interruptions. Ayers' doubled harmony vocal is nigh perfect. 'Song For Insane Times' sees Kev reunited with his Soft Machine pals in a song which, vocally speaking, (will I get shot here?) sounds not a million miles away from our beloved Julian. The occasional drum and keyboard lapses indicate a liberal intake of hallucigenics without which an album this downright gone would never have been. Check out Mike Ratledge's stereo-panned fuzz organ at the end.
Side Two begins with the album's highlight: 'Stop This Train (Again Doing It)'. Full of tricks that have now become cliches - cranked up turntable effects at the beginning and end, vocal-through-a-telephone effect, train-like acoustic guitar strums etc - here they form a fresh and vital song that sounds like the soundtrack to every worst nightmare you've ever had. You know the sort, the kind where you fall off a high building never to land, or, as here, you're trapped on a train that never stops and is only going to get faster. The manic soloing that infuses the second half of the track (with more great stereo effects - get those headphones on and fly) only intensifies the effect. One of the best bad trips on record.
'Eleanor's Cake (Which Ate Her)' is, despite the weird title, another gentle acoustic number with gorgeous woodwind backing. Was there ever a simpler yet more uplifting lyric than "Don't be sad and down/Take another look around/Maybe what you've lost you've found"? The nearest Kevin gets to bedsitter balladery, but not for long: it's strange dream time again with 'Lady Rachel', which breaks out of 'Eleanor's Cake' with a nasty Bontempi organ trill and a slow, disturbingly strummed guitar. One of Ayers' most noted songs, 'Lady Rachel's minor-keyed ambience, relieved only slightly by the "What will you dream of tonight" chorus, develops into a quiet, but still terrifying, instrumental sequence four minutes in that preempts the nastier moments of Lou Reed's 'Berlin'. Luckily for poor Rachel, the song, and her bad dream, ends with the (only comparatively) sunny chorus.
'Oleh Oleh Bandu Bandong' defies categorisation. Essentially an instrumental built around a psychotic 7/4 bass and drum riff, it features girly vocalizations (courtesy of two of Benny Hill's Ladybirds!) and some Cecil Taylor-like piano abuse before devolving into pure avant garde about four and a half minutes in, similar to Peter Hammill's 'Magog' at the end of 'In Camera' (don't know that album? Do!). A million miles from anything else on the record. Then, out of the mire, fades in the final song 'All This Crazy Gift Of Time', where Kev shows us that he can be Bob Dylan as well. Except, of course, that Bob, for all his talent and charisma (it says here) could never sing like this. Terrific.
Like so many eclectic gems of its period, 'Joy Of A Toy' sold ball-all. I didn't get to hear it until 1975 when it was reissued as a cheap double album with its even more "out there" successor 'Shooting At The Moon'. But once heard, never forgotten. Kevin Ayers went on to make a handful of notable albums through to the late 70's when his muse faded somewhat, but never surpassed the invention and variety of this marvellous debut. For a singer-songwriter album with a difference, check it out.