Book review: Decades – Focus in the 1970s (Stephen Lambe)

Decades - Focus in the 1970s (Stephen Lambe)

Sonicbond Publishing [Publication date 30.04.21]

At the outset I should declare an interest.  As an inveterate Focus-watcher since the early 1970s, author of articles about the band for Record Collector magazine, liner notes, and the first book about Jan Akkerman and Focus, I may understandably have a jaundiced view.

Stephen Lambe’s latest expose of the Dutch rockers may have been better placed in his “On Track” series as the core of the book involves the breakdown track-by-track of the various album constituents.  Consequently it is fairly close-focused (!) and highly subjective.

For me Lambe’s biggest crime is to denigrate the intrinsic merits of ‘Anonymus II’ the long track that filled nearly two sides of the original vinyl.  It remains a highlight of the band’s third album. Fellow Focus watcher and writer Colin Harper describes it as “progressive-rock from 17th century Burgundy that somehow feels as if it’s being performed in a Roman amphitheatre”.  Lambe even goes so far as to wax lyrical on the re-sequencing to fashion a single rather than double album.  It all fits nicely on a CD so what’s the problem?

Similarly I think the author is quite harsh on Van Leer’s solo albums in the Introspection series.  Yes they are a little of their time but they sold well, especially the first one, and are easy on the ear renditions of the classics and popular tunes.  Of course, their success detracted from Focus and irritated Akkerman.  But we don’t hear that in this account.

Lambe has relied far too heavily on Peet Johnson’s internet published account of the band which has been discredited in some circles and, similarly, he has taken much from self-styled “archivist” Wouter Bessels who has been responsible for recent remastered album collections.

Lambe doesn’t offer much on the personal dynamics of the main movers and shakers which is part of the band’s fascinating history.  But why on earth didn’t he at least try and get to the source?  Van Leer is both friendly, articulate and with good recall.  Therefore this volume is not as credible as others in the series, such as the recent Alice Cooper tome.

But even the use of secondary sources is poor. There is a fair amount of supposition in the narrative (“allegedly”, “probably unfounded”, “there are suggestions” and “in various accounts”) when the story is out there.

As far as the track by track goes maybe a professional musician would have coped better describing essentially instrumental music, but here Lambe fails to give the full background to one of the classic tracks ‘House Of The King’ or mention that the first Focus tune (which spawned an ongoing series) was inspired by Schubert.

Again the full origins of that other classic ‘Hocus Pocus’ are not revealed, there’s no reference to the band making fun of themselves as they developed a piece that contrasted with their usual serious nature.  And surely Lambe should have a copy of technically the first Focus album when they were the pit band in the Amsterdam version of ‘Hair’?

When I wrote an unofficial account of Jan Akkerman and Focus in 2003 I had chatted extensively to Focus’ long-term manager in the seventies Yde de Jong.  I found him an extremely articulate and helpful source who confirmed the real reason for the band’s “no show” at the Lincoln Festival in 1972.  None of that is here.

Lambe plays down the influence of the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test (and indeed Bob Harris) in promoting the band’s music but after their appearance in December 1972 the Polydor presses were working at full pelt ensuring ‘Sylvia’ was a major hit.

There is no reference to an alternate USA mix of the album ‘Hamburger Concerto’ or the influence of FM Radio on the band during successive US tours.

The author is slightly dismissive of  ‘At The Rainbow’ (preferring the earlier BBC In Concert) but fails to mention that the reason Akkerman’s guitar went out of tune (on ‘Answers? Questions!) is because the guitarist lost his fine tuner and spent some time in the darkness reattaching to his guitar.

He also fails to mention there was an unreleased quadrophonic mix of the album or that Akkerman played lute during the encore (omitted from both the TV film and album).  Also, the TV film was actually speeded up slightly to synch with the audio tracks as for technical reasons it wasn’t possible to use the original soundtrack.

Similarly, on Akkerman’s 1978 live album recorded at Montreux,  he dropped his guitar when the strap broke but the crash was edited out between ‘Tommy’ and ‘Azimuth’.  This is all trivia but worthy of inclusion in a book like this.

Lambe does take the story forward to 1985 when our main protagonists got together for a reunion album and there is a brief updating for the band in the millennium.

The book is illustrated with the usual screen grabs and album covers but perhaps more interesting would have been a survey of the various European releases, especially picture sleeve singles which we didn’t get here in the UK.  And the “off the shelf” illustration of the 1976 live album (released in 2004) was actually taken from a contemporary tour poster/advert.

Any book about Focus is welcome but this offering is unlikely to really satiate hardcore followers and – for the jaundiced – equally disappointing. ***

Review by David Randall

Feature: An Introduction to Focus

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