While delving though the Boot Room archives in search of something to amuse and inform you, Ozymandias has unearthed some material intended for an unrealised Focus project. Firstly, it’s our great pleasure to present this 2008 interview with Colin Allen…
Colin Eric Allen (born 09.05.38, Bournemouth) has drummed for Dylan, Donovan, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Georgie Fame, Stone The Crows, Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band and, more recently, The British Blues Quintet. In his youth he took drum lessons from legendary jazzer Philly Joe Jones and has backed such luminaries as John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson, Memphis Slim and Solomon Burke. He’s written songs for Wings (a band not exactly bereft of quality song writers!), Fleetwood Mac, Mick Ronson and Lulu, as well as several Swedish acts. Most pertinently for the purposes of this blog, of course, he joined Focus after the acrimonious departure of Pierre Van Der Linden, playing on and touring their Hamburger Concerto (1974) album. It was this line-up of the band that Ozymandias saw at the Liverpool Empire on 22.05.74.
So Colin, how did you got the Focus gig?
That one come right out of the blue. Mike Vernon called me one day & the rest is history. Fortuitous, to say the least… I didn’t have a gig at the time & didn’t know what I was gonna do, but that’s the music biz. I had know Mike for some time. He produced the John Mayall album Blues From Laurel Canyon, which I played on. So I said yes, I was interested. Shortly after that I flew to Holland to meet the guys and eventually I got the thumbs up. It all happened pretty quickly.
Were you aware of the band before joining them?
Yes, I was aware of them. I had seen them play at The Speakeasy, and thought they were good but what really got my attention was Jan’s guitar playing. I had also done a gig with Stone The Crows, I think it was maybe Exeter University, where Focus were also on the bill.
It’s said that they were also looking at Mitch Mitchell and Aynsley Dunbar…
The subject of other candidates for the job was not mentioned. I was very good friends with both Mitch & Aynsley…I still consider Aynsley to be just about the best British drummer from that period.
So the audition must have gone well…
I don’t remember too much about the audition, but I know it was at this kind of country manor (Dutch style) that the band often used for rehearsals. It was just down the road from Queen Juliana’s castle. I do remember lots of very attractive hippy-type birds ligging about. Basically I just jammed around with the guys. I remember Bert saying he had always wanted to play with the drummer who was on the Mayall track (I’ve Been Living With) The Bear… so I made at least one dream come true.
Did they have any ideas about how they wanted the drum sound to change after the departure of Pierre Van Der Linden?
I really had no idea what Jan & Thijs were looking for. I just said: “I’m an R & B drummer who has also played a little jazz as a semi-pro – if you like it, fine.” There was no mention of how they wanted the music to progress. I don’t think they sat around pondering that kind of thing, they just wrote musical pieces that developed into whatever, once the other players became involved. The guys in Focus were … and still are … really fine musicians. Thijs couldn’t fail to be so, because his father was a music teacher. Jan was just blessed with this great talent. I wasn’t at all surprised when he stole Clapton’s crown in the Melody Maker poll. Bert was a very good bass player. I really liked Bert as a person. Most of the time it was he and I hanging out while the dramas between Jan and Thijs were being resolved. They were the creative forces in the band.
You must have some great memories of playing with them…
Yeah, I fitted in pretty quickly and I kinda liked the idea that I was in what was, essentially, a pop band. They were a brave band – I remember one time we opened the show with… I think it’s called Focus or Focus 1, a slow melodic piece in 3/4 time… I often think of that. Most bands would go on stage & hit the audience between the eyes with some ballsy, up-tempo piece. I also remember when we went to Japan, coming out into the reception area – it was full of kids with Focus placards. We then did a press reception, it was just like the old stuff you see of the Beatles – four guys each with his own mic. We played some great gigs in some wonderful locations. I saw Jan sit in with Sam & Dave’s backing band in a small club somewhere in The States. I remember playing a gig somewhere when the metal rod that goes down through the centre tube of the drum stool and supports the seat had come loose & slid down and hit the floor – thud! Oh Jeez, now what? I don’t know how I did it but I managed to stay balanced on the seat and get through the number. The show must go on! Another incident that sticks in my mind… If I remember rightly, it was in Berlin. For some reason Akkerman threw a wobbler and walked off stage, leaving the rest of us to carry on. I don’t remember which number we were doing but the three of us just kept playing – anything – and after about 10 or 15 minutes, Jan decided to reappear & I guess we just took up again where we had left off. I don’t remember what that was all about, but it happened.
One gathers that the atmosphere inside the band was generally pretty fraught…
The writing was on the wall, for the demise of the band. As I said before, there was always underlying stuff going on between Jan and Thijs, and that was sure to continue… it’s just the way it was between those two, a clash of personalities that was both positive & negative. About a year after I got kicked out, they split the band. It was inevitable, really. I believe the previous drummer, Van Der Linden, had left due to the constant strain of dealing with two divas.
How did Bert deal with it?
I don’t know what Bert had to do with the politics of the band. I would imagine he had quickly learnt to accept the situation, not get involved & just look after himself. I did like Bert, be sure to say Hi to him from me. (Note – Bert Ruiter rebuffed all my attempts to contact him. Apparently he can’t bear to talk about his experiences in Focus! Oz.)
When Mother Focus, the lack-lustre follow-up to Hamburger Concerto came out, you were only on one track… Bert’s distinctly odd number, I Need A Bathroom…
Mother Focus… that must have been the last sessions I did, in Brussels. I remember very well the whole situation that led to my exit. I know for sure that Jan had gone off to his country place in Friesland for a day and I’m pretty sure Thijs was also absent. Bert and I started recording the bass and drums for the, as you say, peculiar I Need A Bathroom. I was even thinking about some new lyrics for that track, but it stayed as it was. In the absence of the other players we were using a drum machine to keep things really steady. Obviously tales of our little experiment had been relayed to Jan and for some reason he was pissed off, ‘cos the next day he walked into the studio, directed some kind off angry statement at me, relating to drum machines or metronomes and tossed a drum machine onto, I think it was a couch. From then on, it was all downhill for me. I think the American engineer we were using thought they could do better than me and the guy who took my place was a friend of his, a guy who had played with Sly Stone. Not sure whether Thijs or Jan took the decision to kick me out… the latter, I suspect but the bottom line is only they know. One should bear in mind also, that Jan used to joke about his 13 personalities, so any one of those could have been active at the time. (Personality mode #13, below… Oz.)
I don’t hold anything against them whatsoever, it’s just the way it was. Within a short time I was off on the road with Donovan, opening for Yes all over Europe and The States. Focus was history for me, but would always remain a memorable part of my musical life. Financially though, it was a bit of a joke. I used to get the odd cash advance while on tour, a couple of hundred quid here and there, but one didn’t really need too much money because everything was paid for, apart from meals and some of those were provided by the promoters after the gig. We also got the odd present from them now and again. You flew around, got limo’d to the hotel, did the gig and then same again the next day.When I finished with the band and met with the powers that be, imagine my surprise when I was told I owed them between ten and fifteen thousand pounds! I don’t remember quite how much but most of the royalties due me went to paying off this debt. It was a few years before I received any royalties but they never amounted to very much. I’m sure it was an expensive proposition transporting us around, plus eleven Leslie cabinets, two tympani and a huge gong (none of which I actually wanted), plus all the other usual stuff… roadies, managers, etc. I think it’s possible that a lot of money went on keeping Jan and Thijs happy on the road and I guess I paid for some of that. Anyway, I didn’t get into the business to get rich, I just liked being a muso. That’s about it.
What are you up to now, Colin?
Just now I’m a member of The British Blues Quintet which was more or less born out of the fact that my Stone the Crows bandmate Maggie Bell had returned to the UK from Holland after living there for about 20 years and basically needed to earn a living. I suggested the line-up and a few months later we were doing our first gig in Wolverhampton… that’s just over 18 months ago now. We’ll continue to work, as and when the various members are available. We recently released a CD, Live in Glasgow, which has received really good reviews, likewise the gigs. Even now, when I’m touring with The BBQ, I get asked to sign Focus album covers. I enjoyed playing with those guys and will always remain proud to have been a member of Focus. I couldn’t forget Bert, Jan and Thijs, even if I wanted to…
Shortly after this interview I had a brief conversation with Jan Akkerman, who offered this perspective on Colin’s ousting: “Colin got sacked by Van Leer in his eternal wisdom, because the band needed a more American approach in his opinion. Actually, I recently saw a show from those days, the Don Kirschner show or something, where Colin Allen played the drums on Hamburger Concerto and I was pleasantly surprised by what I heard, there was some really heavy, balls-to-the-wall drumming… great! I never complimented him because I was still so heavily into Pierre’s playing but now I realise that was Mickey Mouse’s balls compared with what I heard Colin playing there. So, I know this is a little late, but Colin… thanks, mate!”
Special Boot Room thanks to Dantalion himself, the immortal Zoot Money for facilitating this interview. Colin quit active service in 2012. Here’s wishing him a long and happy retirement in Stockholm, where he’s lived with his Swedish wife since 1985.
The Colin Allen interview previously appeared on the now defunct Bootroom Of Ozymandias blog.