what we’re listening to – “focus live at the BBC”, early 1973, with bob harris

to say that this is my favourite concert of all time is not really an exaggeration.  I taped this off the radio soon after it was broadcast, I had it on a kodak cassette for more than 30 years…later, I got other copies of it from tape traders, later still, “new” copies from the internet – and no matter what version I am listening to – this concert has a quality like no other.

I would also say, straight away, that I feel it’s far better than the official live focus album from the day, “focus live at the rainbow” – which is a nice record, but, it’s from later in their career, and it’s my contention that they reached the height of their quality performances in late 1972/early 1973, when “focus III” was the “new” focus album.

I’d come to focus almost accidentally, I had bought the album “moving waves (also known as “focus II”) like so many other teenage boys, for the bad reason that it had “that” song on it, “hocus pocus” but what I understood pretty quickly was, “that” song was a bit of a one-off, a bit of a gimmick, and if you ask me, it’s the worst song on the album (well, not that there are ANY bad songs on “moving waves” or “focus III” – two more perfectly-formed prog masterpieces you could not ask for), and the rest of the tracks are so good, that you can skip “hocus pocus” and still have a fantastic listening experience – especially since it ends with the remarkable “eruption”.

at some point, I would love to talk through the first three focus albums in detail, to discuss their relative merits, that is “in and out of focus” (also known as “focus plays focus”), “moving waves” (also known as “focus II”) and “focus III” but for now I want to restrict myself to this mystical live concert.  first of all, this concert has no definitive “date”.  some think it’s actually from december 1972, others are just as certain it’s january 1973, from what bob harris says during the introduction, it’s pretty certain that it’s in the new year of 1973…but beyond that – the BBC records aren’t clear, the last focus broadcast they mention is from the end of 1972, so that’s no help…

the show starts with one of the toughest pieces from “focus III”, “anonymous two” – a 20-minute-plus prog/jazz workout that is something that I wouldn’t try “cold” – but they just dive in, and it’s amazing – the speed, the skill, the solos – each member takes a solo – but to me, it’s the ending, when suddenly, after all that improvising and jamming, they all four hit that theme, hard, and in a slowed-down, endless-ritard way, with jan akkerman’s incredibly fluid, melodic guitar working so beautifully with the glorious, classically themed hammond organ of thijs van leer…sheer sonic beauty, but also, precision jobs – and the snap/cold/dead ending of “anonymous two” here is a thing of beauty.

I don’t know why akkerman left the band, but now, I really wish he had stayed forever.  to me, this was the best focus lineup – bert reuter on bass, pierre van der linden on drums, van leer on organ and flute, and akkerman on lead guitar – this lineup, that produces a few of the classic, and best, focus albums – starting with moving waves, then focus III, then hamburger concerto (a terrible album name, but the last great studio album from the band – although, in my opinion, not as good as focus III).

they follow the loud, brash, jazzy “anonymous two” with something very delicate and beautiful and melodic (and this is my favourite piece from the entire focus canon) – a shortened, concise version of “focus I” from the first album – this is the best arrangement, and the best performance, of this song, anywhere, any time, and to me, it’s one of the most beautiful songs ever written, and akkerman’s sensitive, careful, beautiful guitar lead really just blows me away, it’s so simple, so purely about melody, and van leer so seriously underplays his part – very clean, very clear, very simple hammond chords, while the rhythm section just purrs along – it’s three minutes of classical pop heaven, and I absolutely love it – I find the original studio version tedious, with it’s extended end section, this short, to the point, live, clean reading of a great song is the best – I love this arrangement!

after the almost religious experience of pure, simple, beauty that is “focus I” has passed, the band moves back into prog territory, this time with the very flash title track to the “new album”, “focus III” – starting with a mysterious hammond, but soon, progressing to a full on prog-workout, that gives all the band members plenty to do…this track then seques into another really, really long track from “focus III”, “answers! questions? questions! answers?” – which is again, very jazzy, very fast, with odd dissonant sections that are weird enough to have come from a king crimson song but are played instead with hammond and guitar – and it’s that organ and guitar combo that keeps me coming back for more, they slam, they speed, they twist, they turn, they shred, then – suddenly, a beautiful organ solo, with single notes, and a gently speeding up and slowing down leslie speaker, suddenly, akkerman comping on chords with little guitar solos in between as van leer takes over – a drum and bass interlude leads into a van leer flute solo – this song is so complex, and twists and turns through so many sections and solos, it’s no wonder that it wasn’t in their live repertoire for that long – it’s can’t have been easy to remember, much less play!

but they do a stupendous job – it’s better than the album version, by far better – and I can hear it’s influence on me when I hear tapes of myself jamming from a couple of years after this came out – I kinda learned how to play lead guitar from listening to this tape far, far too many times – and you couldn’t have a better teacher, akkerman was all about taste, knowing what to do when, knowing when to push hard, but totally being able to be supportive too, working as a team…what a great band this was in 1972 and 1973!  it’s great too, to hear the musicians stretch out and play for so, so long – I love the long view, and they think nothing of playing music in 15, 20, 25 minute chunks – but not just jamming, a lot of it is planned, arranged, set up – but whether it’s carefully arranged prog, or crazy, abandoned jamming – it’s simply brilliant!

the musicality of van leer and his prowess on the hammond is surpassed perhaps only by hugh banton (of van der graaf generator) but he is also an absolutely amazing flute player (if you’ve seen the official focus DVD, you will have seen and heard his flute solo there – the best flute solo in modern music that I have ever heard – it is astonishing!) – and I love the melodic and classical music influences he brings to the table.  his hammond organ is the harmonic foundation upon which akkerman adds the melodic information that makes this such an amazing team – it just works!

I do not mean to short-sell the contributions of bert reuter on bass and pierre van der linden on drums, they are critical to the success of the two soloists, and they are so constant, so supportive, but, also, totally able to come up to par when it’s required that they go beyond the ordinary – they come through with flying colours – in fact, bert even plays a nice solo in “anonymous two” as does van der linden – both extremely good players, if perhaps slightly overshadowed by the powerful presence of akkerman and van leer – but who wouldn’t be intimidated by two such amazing players?

without stopping, they move into a third song, another melodic, thematic one, this time from “moving waves” – the beautiful, beautiful “focus II” – this piece has some really great rhythmic breaks, and van der linden is especially good on this, I love his drum arrangement, and the stops and starts, slow downs and speeds up, the dynamics are all over the place, and he plays almost effortlessly, but so, so carefully, too – his popping snare leading the way at some points – there are a large number of “bits” where it’s just pierre – and I think he rules this piece – the last section especially…and then…the hush, quiet organ chords, a suddenly subdued, melodic akkerman – and pierre just sits on the bell of his ride cymbal while harmonic and melodic magic occurs around him, reuter supporting on melodic mccartney-style bass – what a song, and, another dynamic build up, with distorted, leslie-speaker organ winding down with that amazing lead guitar…

to play these three songs in sequence, without stopping, ending up well over 20 minutes in total, as if it were nothing – these guys sound like they could play all night (and when I saw them play, they tried to) – this is a fantastic live medley, and a great part of a great concert.

finally, because they have to, they play their big hit, and of course, they have messed with the arrangement to make it even weirder (as if it were not weird enough on the album), with it’s proto metal chord sequence, but with…yodelling…as the vocal, van leer is famous for his strange vocalisations, and his work on this track is no mean feat – he demonstrates not just his yodelling ability, but also the enormous range of his voice – all the while playing a very complex chord sequence as he yodels and sings.  the star here though in my mind is akkerman, who has to play at breakneck speed, however, he makes it sound easy, and it’s back to those famous chords…

van der linden also gets some little solos of his own, in between whatever vocal weirdness van leer is injecting at any time – this is not my favourite song, but they do rock on it – and the drum part is amazing! so it’s worth it being here, so we can here them being quasi-proto-kinda-metal – in a very dutch and strange way !  I mean, the idea of a massive hit song having…yodelling as it’s lead vocal, that’s an odd, odd hit – but, it got them noticed, despite the fact that it’s the weakest song on that album (“moving waves”).  with this bizarre and strange rendition of “hocus pocus” by focus, the concert ends.

for me, the gem here is the shortest, apparently most inconsequential song, the 3 minute arrangement of “focus I” – I absolutely love that tune, and it represents a special kind of prog to me – a kind of prog that only camel and focus, really, and maybe sometimes nektar, every played – very simple, very classical, very melodic music – and “focus I” has such a hauntingly beautiful guitar line, that plain, clean note, rings in my brain, akkerman expressing van leer’s melody the best way possible – simply.

I was quite disappointed then, when the official live album (“at the rainbow“) came out, and it didn’t contain this material, it was missing a lot of the great songs played here, so really, even though it’s now 2012, I would give anything for van leer to go back and make the RIGHT live 1973 album – this one, or a better one, if there is such a thing.  this band was so good at this point, I really think that “focus live at the rainbow” disappoints, because it was made too late, when akkerman had lost interest (and his playing is NOTHING as good on “rainbow” as it is in this concert – believe me) so it would be my dream come true if van leer could find the master tape of this awesome BBC concert (or even the best quality BOOTLEG tape, just so I can have an official, clean recording), and give us a deluxe CD release of the real 1973 live focus album that never was.

if only.  it makes me wonder too, what the tapes of this band in rehearsal sound like, what other concerts recorded right around this time might yield – and if van leer or anyone has those tapes – they could make a fortune off of people like me – because I want two or three or four “new” live focus albums from 72/73 – twist my arm.  what a great, jamming, melodic, powerful, instrumental band – a huge influence on me (I can hear myself imitating akkerman in tapes from the late 70s), and I would be proud if any of the rock music I make ends up half as good as any piece from this remarkable concert.

thijs van leer – if you are out there – can we have an “offical” CD release of this concert please?  PLEASE?????????????

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2 responses to “what we’re listening to – “focus live at the BBC”, early 1973, with bob harris

  1. I’m not that much of a online reader to be honest but
    your sites really nice, keep it up! I’ll go ahead and bookmark your website to come back down the road.
    Cheers

    • Thanks very much for your kind words, and for bookmarking the web site. You may also want to check out davestafford.bandcamp.com for my catalogue of music, and it am also on twitter @pureambient.

      All the very best, and thanks again!!

      Dave Stafford

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