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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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January 26th 1973

“Got Melody Maker” / “Rob gave me back Fragile + another cassette to record Waves” / “Record player went up the wank – Dad fixed it for me”

“Up the wank”

Now, THERE’s a phrase I haven’t heard/used in a loooooooooooong time.

I can’t understand why.

Oh, wait… yes I can.

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January 25th 1973

“In the evening I taped Moving Waves and emerson lake and palmer for Johnny – good recording” / “Melody Maker not in yet” / “Got records off of Nobby in xchange for him losing my pen”

No truth in the rumour that I wore an eye-patch, had a wooden leg and carried around a parrot on one shoulder.

I did however ‘file share’ my collection of music, in exchange for other people’s collections of music.

Another way of getting music in 1973 was to have good friends lose my pen. (Why did I not just ask for a pen by way of replacement?)

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January 24th 1973

“Allen lent me a useless recording of the Goon Show + Parkinson” / “Listened to Moving Waves again – FUKIN  FANTASTIC” / “2nd (Day) Aniv of finding ‘istry book”

Poor old Allen. Does his best in lending me a recorded cassette of the show I spoke of a few weeks ago, and I pooh-pooh it.

Not, I suspect, because the contents were poor, more likely that the quality was sub-par, failing to meet my exacting criteria for recordings taken from a TV speaker!

Add that disappointment to another useless aside about my history book and a bad-spelled swear word and it all sums up what, on the face of it, feels like a very negative day for this particular teenager?

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January 23rd 1973

“Bort MOVING WAVES – FOCUS – ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT” / “Got opticians appointment” / “Today is the 1st (day) Anniversary of finding my history book”

Why did I write that stupid line about my history book? (Monty Python had WAY too much influence on my teenage brain I reckon!)

I suspect making an appointment with an optician scared me. (It always has). I wonder if this might have been the fateful “contact lens” appointment? (More on that later. If I can bear to write it)

As for “Moving Waves”, my brief review in 1973 may have been somewhat biased? After all my anticipation of finally buying this album had been building for almost a month or more. I suppose that, unlike in later life, I couldn’t afford to have “buyers remorse” about the music I bought. Heavens forbid that a 15-year-old boy should ever make a mistake?!!

If you wake up one morning fancying some shrill yodelling underpinned by mellotrons, flute music, classically-tainted piano and what can only be described as “heavy metal” guitar, then I really can’t recommend “Moving Waves” enough to you!

This album was originally released in 1970 with a totally different cover – and entitled “Focus II” – in Holland, the band’s home country.

Following the astonishing “hit single” success of the quirky single “Hocus Pocus“, the album was repackaged and reissued all over the world.

The album did amazing business in England following an appearance by the band on TV show “Old Grey Whistle Test“. (Something I have spoken of before) It also reached #8 on the USA Billboard album chart.

Side 1 kicks off with the single, then mellows right out on “Le Clochard” a somewhat haunting instrumental highlighting guitarist Jan Akkerman’s more laid back style.

Track 3, “Janis“, was also released as a single (an unsuccessful release in it’s own right… not surprising considering it is perhaps the weakest cut on the album).

Tracks 4 and 5 (“Moving Waves” and “Focus II” respectively) are often considered ‘classic’ Focus compositions, combining Thijs Van Leer’s weird imagery and piano chords over Akkerman’s jazz-influenced guitar work.

The whole of Side 2 is a 23 minute “concept” track (I often wonder if there’s any album in the early 70’s that didn’t include some kind of tripped-out ‘concept’ piece?). “Eruption” is an ambitious suite split into 5 segments which the band pull off with professional aplomb. It’s a captivating musical journey of stunning guitar licks, hammond organ and drum solos, all infused with excitement and melody.

Here’s a 10-minute sample of “Eruption” courtesy of You Tube… you will notice that Thijs Van Leer has forgotten to put his shirt on…

“Moving Waves”, along with “Focus III“, are without doubt my favourite Focus albums. Other Focus albums like “At the Rainbow“, “Hamburger Concerto“, as well as their debut, “In & Out of Focus“, failed to fire my imagination anywhere near as much.

And the least said about 1975’s terrible – and APPALLINGLY-titled – “Mother Focus“, the better. At least IMHO.

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January 20th 1973

“Leicester 1 City 1” / “Bloody couldn’t get Moving Waves – no bloodyshops had it” / “Bort Record Rack” / “Dun lot of copying up and homework”

Hahahahahaha!

Could it be that this one day provided some kind of deep-rooted emotional basis for running my own store later in life? That need, maybe, to try and make sure customers did not suffer the same kind of utter bloody frustration as I did when trying to buy “Moving Waves” in 1973?!

It seems I instead settled for a “record rack” although – as is usually the case (something which regular readers MUST be getting used to now?) – I can’t remember anything about it. A box? A wire-framed storage rack? Neither? We’ll never know, because I’ll never know.

There’s that reference to “copying up” again. Yep, wish I knew.

The crossing out of the swear words were mine. Embarrassingly at the insistence of my father who – in a rare moment of not allowing me to express myself and do my own thing – sat me down one evening and told me I had to cross out all instances of swearing in my diary.

Which means that, yes, he must have read it.

Or maybe, thinking about it – and perhaps a little more likely as Dad has always respected my privacy – he was reacting to my Mum complaining to him about the language I was using because she had found and read it whilst cleaning?

Oh, the indignity.

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