Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #7: Focus

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Who They Are: A mostly-instrumental Dutch progressive rock band featuring organist-flautist-singer Thijs van Leer as their sole constant member since their inception in 1969. Their original run (through 1976) also prominently featured truly stellar guitarist and lute player Jan Akkerman; he and van Leer reunited briefly for an album in the mid-’80s, before the group was relaunched on a full-time ongoing basis by van Leer in 2002. In 2004, their “classic era” drummer Pierre van der Linden rejoined, and has remained with the group ever since. He’s a killer sticks-man, working the sweet spot where jazz and rock overlap most enjoyably. (Bassist Bert Ruiter was the other member of their definitive line-up, which was woefully short-lived). Focus are best known in the States (and elsewhere, I suppose) for their weirdly wonderful 1973 single “Hocus Pocus,” which took wordless yodeling to chart heights not likely achieved by any other artists, before or since. (I welcome your suggestions and referrals if I’m wrong on that front). Their most recent release was 2019’s outstanding Focus 11, which I recognized as one of that year’s finest albums.

When I First Heard Them: I mentioned in the prior post in this series that I’d acquired Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s 1971 masterpiece Tarkus at the Nassau Community College (NCC) lending library sometime in the mid-1970s, after becoming conceptually familiar with them via their earlier AM radio hits. My introduction to Focus followed a similar path, in that I’d undoubtedly heard their big hit, “Hocus Pocus,” when it was charting, but my first experience of playing one of their albums through from beginning to end was while sitting in a library cubicle with headphones on at NCC, randomly selecting things from their collection in the hopes of finding something I loved. The introductory Focus album for me was At the Rainbow (1973), which remains one of my favorite records all these years on, one of the very few “in concert” discs on my “Top 200 Albums Ever” list. I don’t know exactly why I grabbed that one out of the stacks, but I’m very glad I did. Also, as noted in the prior post about Tarkus, I must confess that At the Rainbow was another record that I borrowed from NCC, and, well, accidentally never actually returned before we moved to Rhode Island. My illicit copy of that great LP was in my collection right up until I sold all of my vinyl albums in the ’90s. And it would have been one of the first albums that I acquired on CD, when I was eventually dragged against my will into the digital era.

Why I Love Them: Focus were and are somehow imminently familiar and totally strange, usually at the same time. While they ostensibly can be dumped into the “prog” bucket, they tend to draw on a different set of influences than their mostly-English peers on that front, presumably as a function of their creative and cultural influences in the Netherlands. Jazz, blues and folk flavors are as frequent as classical and rock ones are on their best albums, far more so than was the case for others working their idiom, to cite but one example. Focus also frequently deploys “non-lexical vocables” like the notorious “Hocus Pocus” yodel, but I always appreciated and liked that aspect of their work, which didn’t require English language skills to be appreciated, likely making their appeal wider than it might have been otherwise on a global basis. When I did my March of the Mellotrons survey of the greatest classic progressive rock albums ever, their double-LP Focus 3 (1972) made it to the Elite Eight round, and I actually got a fair amount of guff from readers about that, since their presence that deep in the tournament meant that some more stereotypical English prog album was knocked out to give them a seat at the table. But I stand by that rating and decision, regardless. They achieved all of the defining signatures of progressive rock, and they did what they did with spark, flash, and incredible instrumental prowess. I also note that as much as “Hocus Pocus” may be perceived as a novelty one hit wonder song, if you listen to the ways they played it live at their performing peak, it was a slamming, high-speed riff of nearly proto-punk intensity, not some twee musical folly developed for the sake of radio play. My favorite version of it (referenced in the list below) is actually neither the studio album nor the single edit, but rather the reprise live version from At the Rainbow. I commend it to you highly if you only know how it sounded on the radio, way back when.

#10. “Tommy (Part Six of the “Eruption” Suite) from Moving Waves (1971)

#9. “La Cathedrale de Strasbourg” from Hamburger Concerto (1974)

#8. “Hoeratio” from Focus X (2012)

#7. “Harem Scarem” from Hamburger Concerto (1974)

#6. “Who’s Calling” from Focus 11 (2019)

#5. “Birds Come Fly Over (Le Tango)” from Focus X (2012)

#4. “How Many Miles” from Focus 11 (2019)

#3. “House of the King” from In and Out of Focus (1971)

#2. “Sylvia” from Focus 3 (1972)

#1. “Hocus Pocus (Reprise)” from At the Rainbow (1973)

Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #6: Emerson, Lake & Palmer

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Who They Are: One of the earlier “supergroups” of the modern rock era, ELP were formed after Keith Emerson (The Nice), Greg Lake (King Crimson), and Carl Palmer (Atomic Rooster) left their commercially and critically successful bands to create an unusual ensemble which frequently adapted classical and experimental works for their own artistic purposes. The critics mostly hated them from the git-go, but audiences were more discerning, and their “classic” era four studio and two live albums were all sales chart hits on both sides of the Atlantic. The trio’s initial run wound down after a disappointing and dispiriting final album, Love Beach, in 1978. Drummer Carl Palmer had the most commercially successful post-ELP career as a founding and long-time member of Asia, but Lake and Emerson kept busy, too, with some creatively, if not necessarily financially, successful solo albums in the decades that followed. The trio reformed in part or in full at various times over the ensuing years for studio and live work, but it tracked largely about nostalgia by that point, not vital new canonical music. Keith Emerson tragically took his own life in 2016, and Greg Lake succumbed to cancer later that year, leaving Palmer as the surviving heir to their legacy. He’s an amazing player with a lovely, thoughtful online presence, and I appreciate the ways that he’s continued to respect, honor and advance the work of the group that (partially) bears his name.

When I First Heard Them: I’m sure their American radio hits “Lucky Man” and “From the Beginning” had permeated my ear-holes soon after their releases, but my most memorable and strong initial experience of ELP’s music came when I nabbed a copy of their Tarkus (1971) album from the Nassau Community College listening library sometime in the mid-1970s. I will freely admit that I picked it up and spun it first and foremost because of its epic cool cover art (war armadillo FTW!), but the music it offered immediately and deeply moved me, and I obsessed about all things ELP for a good portion of the late ’70s, even though there weren’t a lot of stellar new releases during that time, alas. True confession time: that album that I nabbed from the library kinda sorta accidentally never got returned to Nassau Community College, lingering on the “Oh, I should do something about this” pile for the latter part of the ’70s, then moving with me to Rhode Island in 1980 when my dad was re-assigned there by the Marine Corps. That copy of Tarkus was in my record bins right up until the time that I sold all of my vinyl in the 1990s, with a little guilt-inducing “NCC” stamp on its front cover to remind me of my original library sin. Oops. Sorry. My bad.

Why I Love Them: In 2005, I wrote a 30,000+ word essay called “March of the Mellotrons: The Best Classic Progressive Rock Album Ever.” Spoiler alert: Tarkus was my winning album, and there are thousands of words at that article explaining why that was the case, if you want the deep story on my subjective and objective appreciation of their work. In summary, for here, right now: ELP offered insane technical proficiency, and created music that incorporated classical, folk, jazz and rock idioms, building something truly unique in the process, aided and abetted by an under-appreciated ability to craft infectious pop melodies, and to move audiences in a live setting. I think I learned more, early in my own music-making career, about nontraditional time-signatures from them than I did from anybody else. Unlike a lot of their nominal “prog” peers, ELP also actively demonstrated that they had senses of humor about their work, and seemed to have fun making and presenting their music. As “serious” as many of their best songs are, they sit comfortably side-by-side with things that are often a wee bit silly, in the good sense of that word, e.g. “Benny the Bouncer,” “The Sheriff,” “Are You Ready, Eddy?” and “Nutrocker.” That contextual leavening, while perhaps not appreciated in its time, actually makes their albums more lastingly listenable today than many other po’-faced releases of the era. I also appreciate the fact that ELP persevered with their unique creative vision in the face of active, rabid critical hostility throughout much of their classic-era run. They were never hard rock, nor punk, not much of anything else that would have qualified for “hot fad of the right now,” ever, but that’s okay, since not everybody had to be, even then. ELP also introduced me to a variety of classical composers whose work still features regularly in my life’s soundtrack, and there’s something to be said for rock groups who shared their influences openly, creating something fresh by reinterpreting music that might have otherwise been seen and heard as stale or irrelevant in its time. Smart stuff, at bottom line. Made me feel smart myself as a young fan, open to having my horizons broadened.

#10. “Knife-Edge” from Emerson, Lake & Palmer (1970)

#9. “Brain Salad Surgery (Instrumental),” out-take bonus track from Works Vol. 2 (1977) and Brain Salad Surgery (1973) reissue packages

#8. “Trilogy” from Trilogy (1972)

#7. “Bitches Crystal” from Tarkus (1971)

#6. “From the Beginning” from Trilogy (1972)

#5. “The Enemy God Dances With the Black Spirits” from Works Vol. 1 (1977)

#4. “The Endless Enigma (Parts 1, 2 and Fugue)” from Trilogy (1972)

#3. “Karn Evil 9” from Brain Salad Surgery (1973)

#2. “Tank (Orchestral Version)” from Works Vol. 1 (1977)

#1. “Tarkus” from Tarkus (1971)

Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #5: Shriekback

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Who They Are: Shriekback began as an ’80s-era independent super-group featuring keyboardist-singer Barry Andrews (ex-XTC and Robert Fripp’s League of Gentlemen), bassist Dave Allen (ex-Gang of Four), and singer-guitarist Carl Marsh (ex-Out On Blue Six). Drummer Martyn Barker joined a couple of years later, and the group has sported a variety of long-term supporting players over the years, most notably guitarist Lu Edmonds (ex-Damned and PiL) and singers Wendy and Sarah Partridge (The Sidneys). Shriekback achieved their greatest acclaim in the United States via their underground dance-club hit “Nemesis,” a brilliant groove that forced a generation of late-night dancers to consider the concept of “parthenogenesis;” the video for the song is also an era epic, and I recommend you hit the prior link to check it out. Shriekback evolved through the ’80s via subtraction, with Marsh first and then Allen departing, leaving the group and brand to serve as an Andrews-helmed entity for much of the ’90s and ’00s. There were some great, though harder-to-find, albums from that period, including a most interesting and unexpected acoustic era. Eventually, Barker and Marsh returned to the fold, and Shriekback’s latter-day work, built around that trio, happily compares very well to their brilliant initial run, with their most recent albums standing among the best of their long and convoluted catalog.

When I First Heard Them: Shriekback are another band I heard of before I actually heard, back in those primitive pre-Internet days when you couldn’t get everything you wanted in instant gratification time. I don’t remember what music magazine featured it, but something I read at the time informed me of the group’s inception, and given my strong and active interest in Andrews’ and Allen’s earlier groups, I was excited by the prospects their collaboration offered. That said, I’m thinking it was a solid year or more before I was actually able to score any Shriekback records at the local stores available to me in Annapolis during my Naval Academy days. I think I acquired their 1984 LP Jam Science first, then was able to work backward to get their earlier EPs, singles and albums over the next couple of years. Certainly by the time that “Nemesis” became a minor hit in 1985, I am pretty sure I had acquired their complete back catalog via import bin trawls, at not-insignificant expense through poor-student days when I had to assiduously manage my limited tobacco, alcohol, food and music (the four basic pillars of college culture) budgets. I’ve acquired everything they’ve done since then, and throughout all of the line-up and stylistic changes, there has always been something there of interest, even if that something was a completely different thing than any of the things that had come before it.

Why I Love Them: Musical and lyrical genius, at bottom line. Allen and Andrews had proven their chops to me long before they became band-mates, and Marsh and Barker showed over the years that they were equally formidable players and composers. Shriekback often mine insanely infectious and unusual rhythmic realms, are adept at creating ear-worm caliber melodies and (perhaps most important to me, as a writer) Marsh and Andrews are both incredibly brilliant and creative lyricists, rendering so many of the very best Shriekback works as songs of note, with texts of equal note. And it’s not just about being clever for clever’s sake with Carl and Barry. Yes, they use arcane words in odd ways, and they tend to be deeply wordy, always, but they don’t do it just to be flashy, but rather they create meaningful, significant statements of artistic, social and cultural intent with their songs, little testaments to the ways that smart people can say smart things in smart style, when and if they’re not afraid to do so, cowed into dumbness by their more-commercial peers. It’s rare, in my obsessive listening experience, to find artists who are so adept at both the musical and the lyrical aspects of music-making, but Shriekback have long sat at the sweet spot where those two art-forms collide, a creative collective of deep and abiding significance for those open-minded enough to embrace their truly eclectic musical worldview. They’re not quite like anybody or anything else in my collection, and I’m grateful for their shocking originality and admirable tenacity in hewing to their singular creative vision, so many years on from their inception.

#10. “The Reptiles and I” from Big Night Music (1986)

#9. “Flowers of Angst” from Life in the Loading Bay (2010)

#8. “The Painter Paints” from Why Anything? Why This? (2018)

#7. “The King in the Tree” from Without Real String or Fish (2015)

#6. “Lined Up” from Care (1983)

#5. “Bollo Rex” from Some Kinds of Light (2020) (Note: Advance the video to 4:35 if it does not do so automatically in your browser).

#4. “Sexthinkone” from Tench EP (1982)

#3. “My Spine (Is The Bassline)” from Care (1983)

#2. “Mothloop” from Tench EP (1982)

#1. “Agony Box” from Some Kinds of Light (2020)

Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #4: Brian Eno

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Who He Is: Brian Eno is a quintessential art-school artist who has deeply and dramatically shaped and altered modern music making and appreciation, while aggressively insisting that he is not a musician, per traditional definitions of that term. He was the sartorially-spectacular synth player and tape manipulator in Roxy Music’s early days, before embarking on a solo career than produced some astoundingly creative and influential rock-based albums in the mid-’70s, most of which feature in my list below. Eno was a pioneer in — and actually named — the “ambient music” field, which offered conceptual “quiet” music as a supplement to enhance one’s natural and organic surroundings, rather than distracting one from the same; a lot of affronts and offenses have been promulgated over the years in the name of the “new age” music that Eno could be seen as inspiring, but his own instrumental efforts have clearly demonstrated the values to be appreciated within that idiom, if not its replicability. Eno has also had an extraordinary career as a producer, helming epic albums by the likes of David Bowie (whose Eno-collaboration “Berlin Trilogy” stands among rock music’s greatest creative accomplishments), Talking Heads, Devo, John Cale, U2, Ultravox and numerous others. He has continued to release challenging albums and publish provocative essays on the art of music-making to this day, a clear luminary in his field, shaping the textures of the modern rock idiom while eschewing any dogmatic adherence to the same.

When I First Heard Him: I had probably heard an early Roxy Music song or two featuring Eno at some point soon after their releases, but my most dramatic introduction to his catalog came while sitting in my bedroom at Mitchel Field in the mid-’70s listening to WLIR (92.7 FM), which was a truly brilliant radio station in terms of its free-form programming at the time. A very weird song with words about a “baby on fire” began to ooze out of my speakers one night, and I was utterly transfixed, most especially when one of the most insanely different and exciting guitar solos I’d ever heard sprawled out over several minutes of the song’s run. I would easily cite that as one of the most memorable moments of my radio listening career. It truly moved and astounded me, in life-altering ways. Thankfully, the DJ did ID the track on the air when it had run its course (sometimes that didn’t happen way back when, cue “confusing life before the Internet” tropes): the song was called “Baby’s On Fire,” it was by Brian Eno, and the guitar solo had been played by Robert Fripp, while current and former members of Hawkwind played key supporting roles. I would be hard pressed to find another artist who so fundamentally redirected my musical interests and loves as much as Eno did in that particularly memorable moment.

Why I Love Him: I don’t often promote my own music on my own website (self-marketing is not my strong suit), but were I to do so more often, there would be two points about my deeply-held personal creative values that I would stress, namely (1) Making music using non-musical elements is a glorious art-form, and (2) Making music where lyrics play a key role in the framing and appreciation of each and every song is equally brilliant and important. That second point is noteworthy to me with regard to today’s blog entry: lots of folks have written and will continue to write about Brian Eno’s instrumental influence, but I think he is also one of the finest lyricists to have worked within the rock idiom, ever, a true poet by any measurable rubric. If I think about where I developed and honed my personal preferences and traits when it comes to my own music-making, many of the intellectual trails lead straight back to Brian Eno, either through learned behaviors culled from deep spins of his solo albums, or through thoughtful appreciation of and reflection on his productions of other outsider and mainstream artists, or through adopting the premises framed in his writings about why and how he does what he does. Brian Eno should be the patron saint of musicians whose creative vision exceeds their technical expertise, as few artists have ever made such brilliant music with such limited chops as he did in his heyday. And that’s a compliment, not an insult, just for the record.

#10. “Sombre Reptiles” from Another Green World (1975)

#9. “No One Receiving” from Before and After Science (1977)

#8. “Broken Head” from After the Heat (Eno Moebius Roedelius) (1978)

#7. “On Some Faraway Beach” from Here Come the Warm Jets (1974)

#6. “Golden Hours” from Another Green World (1975)

#5. “Burning Airlines Give You So Much More” from Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (1974)

#4. “The Belldog” from After the Heat (Eno Moebius Roedelius) (1978)

#3. “The True Wheel” from Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (1974)

#2. “St. Elmo’s Fire” from Another Green World (1975)

#1. “Baby’s On Fire” from Here Come the Warm Jets (1974)

Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #3: Neil Diamond

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Who He Is: I open these sorts of articles with this type of framing question because I know my tastes can be a bit arcane and out of the mainstream much of the time, and feel a duty to explain some of my more obscure choices to readers. But Neil Diamond has sold over 100 million records over the course of his career, and I’m guessing that if you’re culturally literate enough to even bother reading a website like mine, then you know who Neil Diamond is.

When I First Heard Him: My father was a huge Neil Diamond fan, and he was very vocally proud of the fact that his Marine Corps career had sent him to California during the summer of 1972, allowing him to attend one of the Greek Theater concerts immortalized on Neil’s epic live album Hot August Night. Neil’s first studio album came out before I had set foot in nursery school, and it included “Solitary Man,” one of my Dad’s favorite songs. So I presume he acquired that record (The Feel of Neil Diamond) soon after its release, and was likely playing it regularly on the big old wooden console record player with the cobra-eyed stylus arm in our house when I was still a toddler. Neil never left the stereo throughout the years when I lived at home with my parents (remember when your life only involved a dozen or so well-beloved albums played over and over again, pre-Internet?), so at bottom line, I can never really remember a time without Neil Diamond on my life’s jukebox.

Why I Love Him: There’s the “comfort music” factor at play here, of course, with Neil’s music representing happy, easy childhood times, readily evoked when his discs are spinning. (See here for more on that concept). But as my musical tastes and smarts evolved over the years, I developed a much deeper appreciation for Neil as a songwriter and song-stylist, especially deft at crafting heartbreaking little vignettes like, say, “Morningside,” which shows up on my Top Ten list below. Can you think of a sadder song with a more glorious melody? I can’t. Neil also excelled in exploring idioms that you really wouldn’t expect a nerdy Jewish kid from Brooklyn to have mastered in the ways that he did. The “African Suite” from his 1970 album Tap Root Manuscript, for example, beat the more-critically-acclaimed likes of Paul Simon and David Byrne to the punch by more than a decade in its explorations of African melodic and rhythmic themes as the wellspring of Western pop/rock culture, but he was not considered cool enough to get due credit for that, was he? He certainly deserved it, and I certainly accord him that respect. As another example, being from the deep American South, I grew up with gospel music as a key part of my cultural experience, and Neil actually created an improbable crossover pop hit in 1969 with “Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show,” an effective and honest homage to that idiom. I was also a self-taught guitar player, and sometime around 1974 or 1975, I acquired a chord book for his 12 Greatest Hits compilation album, and played and sang those songs regularly over the years that followed, for my own amusement, most of the time. I will confess that once the ’80s rolled around, ever-edgier me largely stopped following Neil’s ever-more middle-of-the-road ballad-oriented contemporaneous releases, but his ’60s and ’70s classic songs and albums are a vital part of my musical heritage, without doubt, shame or question.

#10. “Morningside” from Moods (1972)

#9. “Crunchy Granola Suite” from Stones (1971)

#8. “Holly Holy” from Touching You, Touching Me (1969)

#7. “Stones” from Stones (1971)

#6. “If You Know What I Mean” from Beautiful Noise (1976)

#5. “Soolaimón” from Tap Root Manuscript (1970)

#4. “Longfellow Serenade” from Serenade (1974)

#3. “Brooklyn Roads” from Velvet Gloves and Spit (1968)

#2. “Done Too Soon” from Tap Root Manuscript (1970)

#1. “Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show” from Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show (1969)

Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #2: Coil

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Who They Are: Coil were a creative collaboration between producer-programmer-visual artist Peter Christopherson (ex-Hipgnosis and ex-Throbbing Gristle) and his long-time creative and life partner, singer-composer-poet John Balance, along with several key long-term associates, most notably Thighpaulsandra. The pair were extraordinarily prolific from their founding in 1982 until their ending in 2004, which followed Balance’s tragic and untimely death in his home by misadventure involving alcohol. Christopherson (known colloquially as “Uncle Sleazy” to those who adore him) also died young in 2010.

When I First Heard Them: I first heard of them soon after their founding, likely via some music magazine, but in pre-Internet days, scoring obscure records by strange experimental groups from the UK was a bit of an expensive chore, so it took me a while to start my collection. I think the first song I actually heard by them was “The Wheel” from the 1985 Some Bizzare sampler album If You Can’t Please Yourself You Can’t, Please Your Soul. I bought that record soon after its release, and consider it to be one of the finest and most mind-bending compilation albums ever made; it is the only “Various Artists” entry on my Top 200 Albums of All Time list. While “The Wheel” does not quite make my Top Ten list below, it did soundtrack one of the more profound moments of my life, per entry #5 at this post.

Why I Love Them: They were as complete a creative package as any music geek could ever want. They worked with electronics, and they worked with organic instrumentation, often together. They recorded in isolation as a duo, and in band formats with an incredible cohort of co-players. They were ferociously noisy, and capable of creating the very sweetest melodies. They were exceptionally provocative when they wanted to be, especially in publicly and proudly writing about their experiences as gay men at a time when that was commercial and social anathema. Their music can agitate, soothe, aggravate and inspire in equal measure. I’ve let it be known to those who love me that I would like the #1 song below to be played at any funeral/memorial service held in my honor, and I have a key lyric from the #2 song below tattooed on my left leg, so it will be incinerated with me, when that time comes. Coil have spoken to and moved me to my core for decades. They were special on every front, brilliant artists all around. What’s not to love?

#10. “Slur” from Horse Rotorvator (1986)

#9. “Teenage Lightning 2” from Love’s Secret Domain (1991)

#8. “Restless Day” from Scatology (1984)

#7. “Who’ll Fall?” from Stolen & Contaminated Songs (1986)

#6. “Going Up” from The Ape of Naples (2005)

#5. “Ostia (The Death of Pasolini)” from Horse Rotorvator (1986)

#4. “Love’s Secret Domain” from Love’s Secret Domain (1991)

#3. “Bee Stings” from Summer Solstice: Bee Stings EP (1998)

#2. “Amethyst Deceivers” from Autumn Equinox: Amethyst Deceivers EP (1998)

#1. “Fire Of The Mind” from The Ape of Naples (2005)