Tag Archives: Focus

(1974 Album) Focus – At the Rainbow

Once again I fell for Holland’s finest prog rock export.

Focus at the Rainbow was, as the name suggests, a recording of a live performance by the band at the Rainbow Theatre in London’s Finsbury Park.

The sleeve was another of those die-cut affairs that were all the rage at the time, cardboard flaps opening left and right to eventually reveal…..um, actually I can’t remember!

It may have been the first live album I ever bought.

If it was, then it kicked off a lifelong disinterest in live recordings. Unlike many other music fans, I have never really embraced the notion of “in concert’ albums and in all my years of buying records or CD’s I have amassed just the merest (one) handful of them to listen to.

This may be surprising to some of my readers. I just reckon live versions of songs are never anywhere near as good as studio originals, no matter how much ‘energy’ is exhibited. Plus there’s that whole “audience joining in” rubbish which has never struck me as listenable.

I know I’m in a minority with this point of view. On the upside however I have never, ever had to invest in dodgy bootleg recordings of my favourite artists – something which a lot of my ‘musical’ friends feel is necessary to their collections.

So, in 1974 I bought “At the Rainbow” and I’ll bet it wasn’t played more than a half a dozen times before I got rid of it.

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September 6th 1973

“Bort Photos of Ghosts – Premiata Forneria Marconi – SMART, spesh Celebration”

Two reasons why I was attracted to this album by relative unknowns Premiata Forneria Marconi … or to give them their easier name, PFM.

1• This Italian group were ‘discovered’ by Emerson, Lake & Palmer and signed to the trio’s own Manticore Records.

2• One Sunday afternoon whilst listening to DJ Kenny Everett’s irreverent radio show on BBC Radio 1 he played the track “Celebration” a half-dozen times over and over.

The mix of ELP-ish keyboard stylings with flutes and strong drum work (plus vague yodels) reminiscent of Focus sucked me in straight away. In my humble opinion, “Celebration” was – and still is – a GREAT prog-rock pop song, worthy of classic status.

The album itself is actually a set of (“English”) reworkings of the band’s second studio album “Per Un Amico”, with new lyrics courtesy of Pete Sinfield from King Crimson. I hasten to add that these were NOT translations of the original Italian lyrics, but brand new words.

Opener, “River of Life” kicks off proceedings gently with lute and flute to the fore, eventually accompanied by a harpsichord. At around the 1:30 mark the gentleness briefly gives way to heavy prog-rock drums and then reverts to lightweight meanderings, with guitar work VERY reminiscent of Focus’ Jan Akkerman.

Celebration” is next. And it IS!

The title track, “Photos of Ghosts, follows. Like “River of Life” it swaps light and dark all the way through, its dominant piano/violin theme almost mesmerising. Sinfield’s lyrics leave a little to be desired though…

Black roses laced with silver by a broken moon.
Ten million stars and the whispered harmonies of leaves.
We were these.
Beside a dried up fountain lie five dusty tomes
with faded pasted pictures of love’s reverie.
Across each cover is written,”Herein are Photos of Ghosts”
of ghosts, of ghosts,
of the days we ran and the days we sang.

It’s twaddle really, isn’t it?

To make up for it, “Old Rain” is a beautiful, lilting instrumental.

Il Banchetto” is the only track on the album performed by the band in their native Italian. I know not why. Maybe Pete Sinfield had lost his Encyclopedia of ProgRock lyrical clichés that day?

Mr 9 ’till 5” is my second favourite cut on the album after “Celebration”. Predates Dolly Parton and/or Sheena Easton by years. The wild drums and violin perfectly compliment one another, whilst vocalist Flavio Primoli displays a certain charm in trying to pronounce words entirely foreign to him.

The album’s closer “Promenade the Puzzle” is very, let’s say, Jethro Tull-esque, both in its composition and lyrical content.

I know that when I got this album, I pretty much played nothing else for a while. As a result, it’s one of the handful of albums that I know extremely intimately, each nuance, instrument and note are always anticipated and expected.

Perhaps weirdly, I have never, EVER got into any of PFM’s many other albums. “Chocolate Kings”, “Cook” and more have been sampled occasionally but rarely enjoyed.

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July 17th 1973

“Lent Focus 3 to Gra for him to tape for MP. 10p each. Also gave him C90 to record Be Good — MAN”

Surely Gra and I weren’t profiteering from our home taping were we?

*Cough*

Changing the subject rapidly, let’s just say that if I were to recommend one Man album to anyone “Be Good To Yourself at Least Once a Day” would be that choice.

It seems to be the one that sums the band up the best. 4 lengthy tracks – obviously recorded with live performances in mind – it jogs along at an even pace and features two of their ‘killer’ cuts… the 11-minute opus of “C’Mon” and the previously-mentioned classic “Bananas

In a display of some nepotism, the record sleeve opened up to reveal a fold up map of Wales. Maybe Deke Leonard & Co felt the country was the British Isles very own “West Coast”, in keeping with their fascination for Californian jam bands like Quicksilver Messenger Service or the Grateful Dead?

However, I can state there is a BIG difference between San Francisco and Cardiff.

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An Aside – My “History of Music” Project: Part IX

My fascination for Dutch yodelling/guitar/hammond organ combos knows no bounds, stating that Focus were the first continental group to make a lasting impact. If only Holland was a ‘continent’ eh?

Having recently listed to a Mahavishnu Orchestra album again, I have NO CLUE as to why I would have referred to them as “magic”… unless it included a disappearing act?

A personal nod for Faust too. I had/have no shame.

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An Aside – My “History of Music” Project: Part I

This is the back cover. I hope everyone can read it OK?

Please note that in amongst the plethora of big name acts (Presely, The Beatles, Dylan, Zeppelin etc) I have included such other musical giants such as Man, Deke Leonard, and the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. What?

“Rock” was the main ‘fireball’ it would seem – apt I guess given Deep Purple’s dominance at the time – but please note that “Ballad”, “Motown”, “Soul” and “the Classics” have also been deemed worthy of inclusion for the years beyond 1973.

I REALLY hope I knew how to spell “future” and my attempt was merely covered by tape?

“Everything” is apparently included, from “Frank Sinatra and the Inkspots” to… erm… “Gary Glitter and Focus”. Dear oh dear, oh dear.

Nice to realise that the cover, sleeve notes and artwork were ALL by l’il ol’ me. Nothing like some self-delusional ego-promotion at the age of 15 is there?

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A 1973 Aside (I) – “Focus 3” Album

Focus – Focus 3

As the title cleverly suggests, this was Dutch band Focus’ third album.

Where the best-selling predecessor “Moving Waves” was a mostly tight and somewhat aggressive album, “Focus 3” is, by comparison, a much looser and free-form work.

Over the length of two vinyl albums, Thijs van Leer, Jan Akkerman and the rest of the band are able to showcase their skills in compositions that often resemble little more than jazz jams.

Round Goes the Gossip” is – to be blunt – a pretty insipid way to kick any album off. It sound like Van Leer was trying to write a traditional pop song, and it falls terribly short of its mark.

Love Remembered” is much more what we came to expect from the band, flute and acoustic guitar slowly giving way to lightweight drums. Every time I hear it I am, for some reason, always reminded of John Barry’s instrumental interludes for the early James Bond films.

Sylvia” was the hit single from the album, Akkerman – like so many times before – bouncing his virtuoso guitar work off Van Leer’s keyboard and… erm… yodelling skills. Yes, yodelling. I have always loved how the song sounds like it’s ending… and then just kicks back into gear again before slowly fading.

Carnival Fugue” exemplifies the ‘jam’ aspect of this entire album, featuring as it does a gentle lilting intro that suddenly builds into a substantial – but often muddy – drum/guitar/organ/piccolo playoff routine.

Jan Akkerman - then and... um... now

Focus III”  remains one of my favourite tracks by the band. I love how Akkerman’s guitar sounds throughout its six-minute or so length. It’s a beautifully restrained piece of work, the dynamics (at least for me) utterly captivating. It’s another composition that almost sounds as if it was purpose made as some kind of film soundtrack… I remain surprised the band were never approached by Hollywood in that regard. (btw, the YouTube clip selected for this cut is a vastly inferior recent live version of the song withOUT Akkerman on guitar – it stands up okay but it feels like some kind of weird karaoke performance by comparison)

Answers? Questions! Questions? Answers!” really kicks off the extended jam section of the album, another seemingly improvised-on-the-spot piece that swaps out instruments from beginning to end. It’s almost as if Focus were trying to be a jazz/rock band before the phrase had even fallen into popular use. Van Leer shows himself as much of a skillful organ player as the great Jimmy Smith, whilst Akkerman proves once again that other so-called ‘natural guitarists’ (Clapton comes to mind here) are mere pyrotechnic pretenders to his own throne.

Elspeth of Nottingham” is a medieval-themed birdsong, lute and flute piece that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the Robin Hood TV series. Pretty ghastly.

Thijs Van Leer - then and... um... now

The lumbering 26+ minute “Anonymous 2” closes the album. I do believe it could single-handedly sum up the phrase “self indulgent”. This is what I call a “kitchen sink” cut.. everything is thrown at the listener. Guitar runs, a lengthy drum solo, a bass solo, a flute interlude and heavy-fingered organ work are all in the mix for you to wrap your ears around.

Despite all my reservations here I maintain a soft spot for “Focus 3”, probably because it was one of those album from my youth that I just played so/too much. I’m not sure I could listen to the whole thing in its entirety anymore – it’s something of a curate’s egg after all – but it’s often a pleasant surprise when a cut unexpectedly turns up whenever I am shuffling my iPod.

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May 9th 1973

“Caught F.Oak coach home illegally. Borrd Billion Dollar Babies off of Jackie S. Went up Gra’s in the evng. saw his new addition – Garrard SP25 III (G800).  Borrowd Gemini Suite & Book of Tailisyn, lent him Focus 3,”

Good lord, there’s so much going on – and to write about – in today’s diary entry…

Let’s tackle it in order shall we?

By a matter of living just a few hundred yards outside a government-prescribed zone – I am not making this up – I was denied the opportunity of catching a scheduled coach home from school each day. Instead – and as if to somehow verify my ‘prolitariat’ status – I was forced to wait with the hoi-polloi for a regular bus service each day.

By contrast, friend who lived just a few blocks away from me in  , were ferried home in a clean air-conditioned coach. Bastards.

However, every so often I either just sneaked onto the coach (prepared to claim ‘ignorance’ if I was caught out) or was able to borrow somebody’s coach pass. (In those days, I.D.’s rarely came included photos). Seems as if today was one of those days.

Alice Cooper’s “Billion Dollar Babies” is not an album that has really sat with me over the ensuing years.

Indeed, it only has 4 tracks that I continue to adore.

The title track, Billion Dollar Babies – duet between Alice and Donovan – sounds far more ethereal on record than it does in this live performance, but – like a lot of Alice’s stuff – is guitar-riff laden.

No More Mr Nice Guy” is a Stones-esque basic rocker which proves that Alice is not adept at maintaining a falsetto voice.

Hello, Hooray” sounds like it may have been recorded for his School’s Out album sharing lots of the same style and feel – maybe no accident it is the opener?

Best of them all, however, and only marginally below “School’s Out” as my favourite Alice track ever, is “Elected“. Written, probably, as some kind of rock’n’roll response to the whole Nixon/Watergate debacle, it simply screams along with utter hairbrush in mirror mime-ability…. not that I am saying I ever….. OK, yes I admit it. (It would be years until I caught that promo video for the song, and I remember laughing so hard the first time I saw the chimpanzee walk in with the wheelbarrow full of money)

Like so many albums of the era however, it is my memories of the sleeve that has remained with me the longest. The fold out cover was designed to look like a snakeskin billfold wallet – it even had rounded-off corners. When you open the cover out there was a loose 12″x24” “billion dollar bill” clipped inside  that featured a photo of the band and irreverent cartoons.

I’ll say it again – the advent of Compact Disc RUINED album artwork.

The Garrard SP25 Mk IIIwas – in 1973 – my hi-fi Holy Grail.

Especially when twinned with a Goldring G800 stylus. The exact package friend Graham apparently managed to acquire. Bastard.

More about this piece of kit when – as must happen somewhen – my diary tells me I bought my own.

I have talked about Deep Purple’s atrocious “Book of Taliesyn” before – indeed 26 years later I can’t imagine exactly why I would have borrowed it again? – but this is first mention of Purple’s equally dodgy “Gemini Suite”

So dodgy in fact that “Gemini Suite” has not flitted across my personal radar AT ALL in the interim years… years which include over 22 years of actually working in the music industry, and being asked for stuff!

I’ll admit I had to look the album up online to nudge any kind of even vague memory about it. Consequently, my research *ahem* ‘reminded me’ it was a piece of Jon Lord-composed music (performed by Deep Purple and an orchestra) which was commissioned by the BBC for a TV show highlighting the association between rock music and traditional classical material.

Yes, that sounds like it was some kind of train wreck. Finding this excerpt online however, suggest a train wreck may have sounded better?!

Somewhen in the past few months, it would appear that I bought Focus’ “Focus 3” album, a rambling double concept album. I threatened to buy it back in January, but opted for “Moving Waves” instead.

How weird that my diary never made mention of its subsequent purchase?

So as to save this post from falling off the edge of the planet due its length, please expect an incoming EFA70’sTRO  “aside’ to talk about it.

For which I duly apologise in advance.

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