zondag 26 maart 2017

Let's Focus. Thoughts on the band Focus

This feature on the blog, an online discussion between two gentlemen from the U.K. and Wo., seems to be turning into a series. After a conversation on progrockers Emerson, Lake & Palmer followed an online discussion on Todd Rundgren and, I might add, who not? Both were published earlier in this year. At the very end of the Rundgren discussion Gary suggested to continue with another band. That invitation was picked up on, so let's focus on Dutch prog and classical rockers Focus.

Gary, 23-02:
We must have a discussion about another Dutch favourite band of mine… Focus!

Wout responded on 28-02:
As you know we have a minor generation gap. When you started to buy your first albums, I was still mainly dependent on the radio and bought a few singles that were on offer during sales. When you were into ELP, I was able to scratch together my very first self bought LP, 'Cuz I luv you' by Slade, with the two big hits of 1971 on it.

As Focus was famous mostly in the same years, the band sort of past me by. I must have known some of the singles, but I can't truly remember, 45 years later. My real initiation came in 1977 at the other end of the world.

In 1977 I quit school and packed my things and went to Australia for over five months to meet and stay with my family on my mother's side. She had left Australia in the mid 50s, met my dad on Canada's west coast and moved to The Netherlands to get married. Hence I travelled for over a day in late July 1977 and met people who I had never seen before.

I had saved a lot of money, in my eyes, for the trip and my parents doubled that. What did I do with a portion of that money? Buy albums of course. What I remember is Boston, Heart, The Rolling Stones, the 'Magical Mystery Tour' double EP book version, that great single by Mother Goose, 'Baked Beans', 'In The Flesh' by Blondie and a compilation album. Filled with songs from the late 60s and early 70s. 

Here I am, Down Under, and found a compilation album with e.g. John Mayall, Eric Burden's Animals, The Who, Jimi Hendrix and two Dutch bands. One is, of course I'd say, Golden Earring with 'Radar Love'. The other is Focus, 'Hocus Pocus'. One of those yodel songs with fantastic guitar work. Jan Akkerman was always what attracted me in Focus. I was a guitarist before I became one almost 10 years later. That Akkerman was voted best guitarist in the world did not pass me by. It was the music that did. Albums were too far away for me and my friends. The music most likely too far out for our 11, 12 year old ears. In 1972 I got my first record player, a GDR made one. Not before too long I was able to catch up with The Beatles, the red and the blue album in 1973 and 1974. Now that was a priority for me.

Now Jan Akkerman. I did know him a little better, but let me start here. There's a little more to come later on.

Gary, 1-3:
Yes I would imagine that Focus’ album material would not be easy listening for most people (then or now), beyond Hocus Pocus, Sylvia and House of the King (which was the theme music to a UK sit-com by Steve Coogan called Saxondale. See http://dai.ly/x37dgm9 . Saxondale was roadie during the 70s but is now a 'pest control consultant’. There are many names dropped including (in later episodes) Keith Emerson! I really recommend getting a box set!

I have always been a fan of Focus since the mid 70s, excellent musicianship and composition.

I look forward to your continuation…

Wout, 3-3:
Late in 1968 I discovered the Veronica Top 40 and that it was released every week on a leaflet that my local record store had laying on the counter. Although I listened to the radio already a lot, I now understood that songs were not just played. There were hits, tips, flops and golden classics. The Top 40 was broadcasted on this pirate station called Veronica on Saturday afternoons between 14 and 16.00: "The National Saturday Afternoon Happening", fanfare tune announcing it and all.

And so a song came by in 1969 by a band called Brainbox. 'Down Man' only became a moderate hit, yet drew my attention. It was different, harder, with a great guitar. Like I was attracted to that guitar sound in 'Hair' by Zen (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cO8cMRbDkfE), my second self-bought single ('Hey Jude' being the first). I was also told that the song was a hit abroad.

That might have been it, were it not that I was surprised at our yearly Saint Nicolas feast with a present I did not see coming: an LP! A compilation LP of Dutch bands with their hits in 1968 and 1969 called 'Their Greatest Hits'. The members of the four or five bands all stood gathered on a beach or sand dune, with the names of each on the back. So I knew what Jan Akkerman looked like, better I also knew how Pierre van der Linden, later Focus' drummer looked liked. These guys also looked distinctly different from the other bands. Blue jeans, hipper, not so much longer but wilder hair. The singer of Brainbox was Kaz Lux, with whom Akkerman made a few duo records after he left Focus. The second Brainbox song on the LP was 'Sea Of Delight', the band's second single and an edit of a song that took a whole side of the band's first LP, which I bought over a decade later. 'Dark Rose' being the third and final single of this version of Brainbox.

Now I haven't played that compilation for decades, yet that one song, 'Down Man', is still a fantastic song (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dJWLVYK9zk4). Aggressive, yet warm and passionate. The lyrics are a bit of a shamble I'm afraid, the music is fantastic. The interplay between Lux' voice and Akkerman's guitar solo is fabulous. The drive the acoustic guitar brings to the song gives it a great, propulsing pace. One of the highlights of our Nederbeat years.

Now of course Jan Akkerman had built a name for himself before Brainbox. Ask my friend Willem, ten years my superior, and he'll speak to you about The Crazy Rockers from the early 60s in which Akkerman was the guitarist as an early teenager. After that he played that Russian music inspired solo in 'Russian Spy And I' by The Hunters, a song that had caught my ear somewhere in those years (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TEH1qTiGY5w). It's a gimmick hit song, but the (speed of) playing is something else for 1966.

When we moved from the big city to the country late in 1969 I lost the reception of the pirate station, Veronica and there was no Top 40 in the town for over a year. A gap in my musical development. In that gap Focus started.

So what is your experience with this Dutch band?

Mark, 3-3: 
The interesting thing for me is how did a hitherto unknown Dutch band manage to break through the Anglo-American dominance of the 1970's rock scene? Focus were more successful than Golden Earring who we remember only for one impressive single: Radar Love. Three factors probably: the unique vocal histrionics of Thijs Van Leer on the instantly memorable Hocus Pocus single; Jan Akkerman's hard-edged guitar mastery that threatened to displace Eric Clapton in the best guitarist category in the annual Melody Maker poll - helped by Slowhand unaccountably drifting into softer, laidback Ocean Boulevard territory; and the power of the one and only British TV late night live rock show: The Old Grey Whistle Test which they performed on in December 1972 - watch it on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5owrU-axzXg.

Moving Waves was the lp that shot up the album charts as a result of that performance and posters of Jan Akkerman started to appear in the ads pages of the NME. Focus 3 which I also bought as a "must have" was an over-confident extension as a double album (you had made it if your label let you roam freely across 4 sides) but it showed their impressive versatility to the full. While I didn't put a poster up on the wall in my student digs, these two albums were a  part of the soundtrack to my university years - and when I worked In Rotterdam in late 1977.

Hamburger Concerto was heavier rock and the Mother Focus title seemed like a cheap shot at maintaining their profile. Inevitably, after their meteoric rise from university gig curiosities to UK tour concert headliners, they faded rapidly from view as the ground shifted and new wave swept all aside. The acrimony between Akkerman and Van Leer probably prevented them from adjusting to the changing times with a clear sense of musical direction: they failed to re-Focus. 

Their records alas then headed for the cheaper sections of the second hand racks: that's where I off-loaded my copies, along with Yessongs, ELP's Trilogy and Pictures at an Exhibition - sorry Gary but back in London in 1979 I was unemployed and severely strapped for cash to buy my Jam and Clash singles. However, my recent more affluent circumstances have allowed me to do some serious record collecting and I've sought out replacement copies during my tours of record shops worldwide; so these two albums are now rightfully restored to my collection - and not solely for nostalgic reasons: they do make it the turntable from time to time because they have hardly dated at all: testimony to their impressive musicianship. skilful embrace of classical and jazz influences and the sheer thrill of tracks like Silvia and House of the King. I have yet to replace my copy of Van Leer's "Introspection." I can't remember too much about that record other that it was serious and heavy in the "prog" sense: will continue to keep an eye out for a decent copy.

Wout, 7-3:
@Mark, Funny you mention 'Introspection'. It triggered a memory I had nearly forgotten about. I only have one experience with the album. One of my uncles, who we visited very regularly, had the album at the time. And now I remember that I must have known the hitsingles of Focus. My uncle announced that he had an album by Thijs van Leer of Focus and I remember that that fact impressed me. Until he played the album. The impression I got was that he had put on a classical album. That was the first and last time I have listened to it. I am still not one for things classical.

'Introspection' was, if I remember correctly, the best sold album of 1973 over here, followed by a few more Introspections in the 70s. In second hand stores there ought to be legions of copies, there were so many of them around. Several parents of friends of mine had the album.

Looking it up, thank you Wikipedia, the album charted in the spring and summer of 1972 for 15 weeks, to return just before Christmas of 1972 and remain charted for well over two years, including a #1 spot for a month in the winter of 1973, well into 1975.

By the time I started to earn enough money to buy albums regularly, 1978, Focus was a thing of the past. Still, I have looked into my collection and behold one album did pop up, 'Focus 3'. A double album. I had forgotten that. Also 'Sylvia' is in my 45 collection. Bought second hand only a few years ago. So I'll give 'Focus 3' a serious spin and come back at you on that.

Also I dug up the compilation from Australia. It is called 'Immortal Rock'. Even nearly 40 years down the road it gives a sense of pride that these two Dutch bands are among the 14 odd songs selected on these grounds:

"The late 60s and early 70s was an era when rock came of age. This album features a collection of all time rock classics emphasising the strong influence of British and European musicians. From Hendrix to Status Quo,...the Who's Who of Rock's golden era".

Well, to put things into perspective, the artists had to be on Polygram. Clapton is on it in three guises I notice, Cream, Derek and solo. Pete Townsend in two, The Who and Thunderclap Newman, which he produced and played bass on. As a whole it still looks like a strong compilation though. I was surprised to find a 1976 track by Status Quo was on there though. 'Rain' seems totally out of place, as does 'I Shot The Sheriff'.

As a fun fact. Inner sleeves in Australia at the time were made of plastic. So no liner notes and stuff on inner sleeves there.

Wo. has started to listen to Focus and reports on 14-03:
To update on my listening sessions. I turned to Spotify and started with Focus' first album that can either go by the title 'Focus I' or 'In And Out Of Focus' it seems.

That album truly surprised me. I have always associated Focus with instrumental, touching on classical music and nonsensical yodelling. Thijs van Leer is singing a lot on the album. Next to that there's a lot of psychedelia of the kind that had gone out of style for a while by then. The sort of music that is quite in vogue again since a few years. 'House Of The King' is the hitsingle, over here at least. It charted in the winter of 1971 for four weeks (#14). It seems like I remember Jan Akkerman's solo hit of the same song in 1974 (5 weeks, #17) better. More guitar driven and not flute. Overall conclusion: I rather like this album and may go out and buy it in the near future. As an extra. Akkerman's 'House Of The King' comes from his solo album 'Tabernakel', an album filled with classical compositions, played Jan Akkerman's way with Tim Bogert and Carmine Appice as rhythm section. It seems he followed Van Leer here, with a lot less commercial success.

'Moving Waves' was up next. It seems that this is a hybrid album with one foot in 'Focus 1' and one foot towards the big breakthrough. The tandem Van Leer - Akkerman is getting into its stride. Pierre van der Linden has joined the band. There's more power in the pace of the album.

What I heard brought Ekseption to mind. A Dutch band with an international career in the early 70s. It scored hits in 1969 in NL with rock adaptations of Beethoven's 5th, Bach's 'Air', e.g.  Something that really impressed me at the time. That same uncle I wrote about before had the album, so I got to know Ekseption's version of 'Sabre Dance' as well. Both key players, keyboardist Rick van der Linden and trumpet player Rein van der Broek, are not among us any more.

From 'Moving Ways' it is not even that far away in time that the two driving players were to fall out. Now Akkerman, from a giant distance, seems a grumpy sort of man. The only way he communicates about Van Leer in the past decades is by calling him "that yodeller". It stands in the way of a potentially successful tour of enacting whole albums like many artists do nowadays. There's still a Focus and Akkerman played his 70th birthday tour last year.

It seems you got me into Focus a little. I'll dig up 'Focus III' soon.

BTW I'm about to score some tickets for the "It was 50 years ago today" show. It was announced last week.

Gary, 14-03: 
I was not aware of Ekseption before, I may have to check them out... thanks!

I love all of the early Focus albums and Moving Waves is certainly high on my list! I can still 'listen' to the title track in my head and get the words right even today! I even have early Focus bass player Cyril Havermans' solo album Cyril! Pierre van der Linden is one of my favourite drummers who was heavily influenced by Buddy Rich... as was Carl Palmer.

I have seen Focus in the mid 70's at an 'all-nighter' and they blew me away (although it may have also been the clouds of heady 'incense' that permeated the venue? ;)  ) and also Jan Ackerman's Focus at my local Mick Jagger venue (Mick's old school in Dartford, Kent) about ten years ago. I would have liked to have seen Thijs Van Leer's Focus that was touring at the same time but sadly I couldn't go.

A great band that excelled in something that is lost to music today... instrumentals!

And here we left Focus and focused on ..... Stay tuned to find out.
Gary Hunt
Mark Carvell

 P.S. from Wout:
While editing this conversation I clicked on the link to the 'Hocus Pocus' performance on 'The Old Grey Whistle Test'. It looks like this tells all of how Akkerman views Van Leer. As soon as Van Leer starts his yodel you can view Akkerman snickering towards Van der Linden. Has he ever really liked what he was playing here?

Focus is on Spotify.

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