Saturday, August 11, 2018

Forgotten?: Mandrill

Mandrill: Fencewalk


To put it mildly, our Forgotten? theme is off to a slow start. The problem, I think is the paradox at the heart of the matter. By definition, any band or artist I can think of is not forgotten, because I remember them. So the key, I think, is to feature acts who we feel never reached the level of fame they deserved.

I offer as my first example the band Mandrill. As heard here on their biggest hit, Fencewalk, these guys were easily the equal of any of the great 1970s funk bands, such as Sly and the Family Stone or Kool and the Gang. But two things set Mandrill apart, and both kept them from greater fame. The first was that, unlike so many of their peers, Mandrill never went disco. The band lasted in their original run until 1981, and attempted a comeback in 1991, but they never bowed to the prevailing musical trends. That was also the second thing that held them back. Despite the ppure funk heard here, the most unusual thing about Mandrill was how they blended Latin and African musical elements into their sound. Listen to Funky Monkey from 1977 to see what I mean. This was their attempt to adapt to the times, but they couldn’t bring themselves to record a pure disco song.

Mandrill: Funky Monkey


This one never settles into the robotic groove that disco required, and the rock guitar late in the song was something that might have been heard on a Parliament album at that time, but would not break the charts until Michael Jackson and Prince did it ten years later.

As a final example, here is Hang Loose. This one is from the same album as Fencewalk, but here the band is much looser. Every time you think you have the groove figured out, something else happens to change your mind. It makes the song a challenge to dance to, but it’s a great listening experience, and that actually sums up what Mandrill is all about.

Mandrill: Hang Loose


Sunday, August 5, 2018


Focus: Sylvia [purchase]

The premise of our next theme is to highlight bands or musicians who had some degree of fame, but seem to have been forgotten over the years. I think it will be interesting to see what our team comes up with over the next two weeks.

I recently heard Focus’ most famous song, “Hocus Pocus” somewhere, and I was reminded that the song is both an example of incredible musicianship and remarkable silliness. Interestingly, though, most of the band’s music that I am familiar with is not at all silly, and to some degree, their legacy has been tainted by being considered as a novelty act because of this one song. Nothing could be farther from the truth, though. In fact, during the period of Focus’ popularity, their music was clever, well-played, and was able to straddle the worlds of rock, folk, jazz and classical without difficulty. They amply deserved their fame, and should be remembered today for more than one song—even if it is a pretty great song.

Originally formed as a trio in 1969 in Amsterdam by keyboardist, vocalist, and flautist Thijs van Leer, after the addition of guitarist Jan Akkerman, the newly named Focus secured a regular gig as the pit band for the Dutch production of Hair. An initially unsuccessful debut album, called Focus Plays Focus followed, but the band recorded a song, “House of the King," a classically influenced instrumental that featured Akkerman’s incendiary guitar and van Leer’s flute, that became a top 10 hit in the Netherlands, and garnered interest outside their native land. The song was added to the international version of the album, re-titled In and out of Focus, but the album was still mostly ignored, only reaching No. 104 on the US album charts.

But it was Focus’s second album, after the rhythm section was replaced, that the band took off. Called Focus II in Holland, but Moving Waves elsewhere, it included the aforementioned “Hocus Pocus,” whose 6:42 second length was edited down to 3:18 for single release. It hit No. 9 on the Billboard 100 chart in the US, and has been featured in movies, TV shows and commercials. In fact, researching this piece reminded me to go watch the movie Baby Driver, which uses an excerpt from “Hocus Pocus” to great effect (spoiler alert). The album reached No. 8 on the Billboard album chart in the US and No. 2 on the UK album chart. Moving Waves featured the band’s signature classical/jazz/rock fusion, with top notch playing, and is really a wonderful album.

Following a successful tour of Europe and the UK, Focus returned to the studio to record their third album, Focus III, with yet another new bass player. Included on this album was the triumphant instrumental (with some wordless vocals) “Sylvia,” a reworking of an old pre-Focus song written by van Leer, and our feature song (because if you have heard of Focus, you probably know “Hocus Pocus,” but maybe not “Sylvia.”) An economical three and a half minute tune, it always makes me happy. While “Sylvia” didn’t reach the same heights as a single in the US (stalling at No. 89), it became an international hit for the band, and the album was also a success. As Allmusic has observed:

The song remains one of the most loved and best remembered songs from Focus' catalog. The consistency in musical quality throughout Focus III is enough to merit any listeners' respect. To be frank, this LP has it all: diverse songs, astounding musicianship, one of the finest singles ever released -- Focus III should unquestionably be ranked alongside the likes of Revolver, Dark Side of the Moon, and any others of rock's greatest. 

And yet, it isn’t.

Focus followed this success with a headlining tour of Europe and the UK, and a North American tour, opening for other prog-rock luminaries. But the rigors of touring exacerbated tensions between van Leer and Akkerman and led to the replacement of drummer Pierre van der Linden. One set of songs was trashed before the band, with the two leaders working separately in the studio, released Hamburger Concerto, another diverse album that while often engaging, was not as good as its predecessors (and even included another attempt to strike “Hocus Pocus” gold with a song called “Harem Scarem.”). The album charted, but not as highly as Focus III. Another world tour followed, including an appearance on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert. Apparently, a young Michael Jackson was a fan, and saw them a few times, with Akkerman later claiming that MJ nicked a bass line from one of his solo songs.

That’s pretty much where I, and I think much of the world, lost track of Focus. Akkerman and van Leer feuded, drummers came and went, and ultimately Akkerman was given the boot, replaced by the fine Belgian guitarist Philip Catherine. But the band devolved into chaos, and a number of bad ideas and alcohol led to the breakup of Focus in 1978.

A few reunions in the 1980s and 1990s, some with, and some without, Akkerman were unsuccessful, but in the early 2000s van Leer formed a new version of Focus, has released a handful of new albums, and, as this piece is written, the band is on tour, with 2018 dates in Europe, the UK, and Mexico. Akkerman's solo career has embraced jazz, rock, fusion, and classical music, and he still breaks out both "Hocus Pocus" and "Sylvia" on occasion.

Clearly, the changing musical landscape in the late 1970s led to the disappearance of many prog-rockers, most of whom changed their sound, disappeared, or fell into obscurity. And yet, there is still a cohort of these bands who are still remembered today. I’d like to add Focus to that group.

Remedies: Steve Earle's CCKMP

Purchase Steve Earle's CCKMP

A stark, unforgiving and unrepentant reflection on drug addiction and personal destruction: I cannot think of another song so blatantly unapologetic in directly speaking of the reasons for , effect and legacy of drug abuse than Steve Earle's 1996 song "CCKMP (Cocaine Cannot Kill My Pain)."

The song is dark and disturbing, a funeral dirge, and one of Earle's most direct and earnest narratives in a career that has gloriously reveled in using song as story.

I have to say, for a long time, I wasn't sure what the song meant to accomplish on a narrative or artistic level. That is, until I started to think of it in terms of what Earle was doing as a writer rather than a singer. It's not really persona adoption, where an author gives us the means to understand a life, a personality and motivations we don't have the direct access or ready evidence to understand. The recreation of a life the consumer (listener or reader, I suppose is better) doesn't know is the basis of creative work, the lifeblood and reason narrative--be it song, story, poem, painting, or sculpture--exists. We read (or look at or listen) to the stories of others so we can understand. Art creates not a forgiveness or a justification so much as an understanding and a sense of empathy. That's why we go to art: to learn what others know through a vicarious experience. This is also a notion that has come under attack with increasing indignation lately. I feel like we're wading in territory of intolerance and victimhood that threatens to drown us and thus, end the artists' ability to explore and bring to the life the story of others and shed light into places that few of us know.  Intolerance is a singular animal, destructive to others, regardless of the motivation or what political or social spectrum it stems from. If we kill voices, or worse, lay exclusive claim to certain stories or voices, we risk losing the stories entirely. To illustrate my point, I direct you to this article from the New York Times. I'm not really sure what the problem is: be it a lived experience or an imagined one, if it is an experience others can benefit from living, even just on a page, it is most likely valuable. So, Earle is allowed to give us this dark slice of addiction and despair because it is his own experience of both.  However, this tangible hold on addiction doesn't give the author exclusive rights to the story, does it?

Of course, what I find refreshing about Steve Earle's "CCKMP" is the visceral rawness of the experience he presents. He doesn't have to explain himself, he just gives us a story that is his story. Or was. Earle is famously clean and sober now and works hard to help others out of the place he was once trapped in. His own experiences gave rise to this simple, uncompromising reflection on his own addiction. Of course, he owns the story and the pain that colors it, and by sharing it, he does shine light into a dark corner we don't know. Earle can give us this story because he lived it and thus owns the scars. But, the artist's job is to do this: let us understand the pain that causes the scars in hopes we don't inflict the same on ourselves. Art is meant to bring experience to life; if the artist has lived the experience, they have every right to it. If they haven't, can we still appreciate their efforts to interpret and bring to life the experiences of others? I'd say yes, resoundingly so. Without art, without interpretation in attempt to understand, what would we know?