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Focus

The prog-rock movement in The Netherlands only really materialised when FOCUS formed toward the fall of 1969; fellow countrymen GOLDEN EARRING had, at that time, become a hard-rock act, another to sway from the kaleidoscopic continental pop fashions. The 70s being a decade of two halves, for the first half Amsterdam’s FOCUS (guitarist extraordinaire Jan Akkerman and organist/flautist Thijs Van Leer at the helm), competed with ELP, YES and the emerging Krautrock movement, assuring their place in history by way of classic cross-Atlantic hits, `Hocus Pocus’ and `Sylvia’.
Akkerman hadn’t just appeared out of nowhere, the guitarist had served his apprenticeship with respective 60s combos Johnny And His Cellar Rockets, (hit-makers) The Hunters and BRAINBOX, the latter of which laid the foundations of prog-rock in their homeland. Meanwhile, the classically-trained flautist Van Leer was branching out into jazz-rock, having studied at Amsterdam University and the Geneva Conservatoire. His interest in the piano/organ and singing led him into forming his own named group which, with bassist Martin Dresden and drummer Hans Cleuver, initially played TRAFFIC covers; when Akkerman was installed, the quartet became FOCUS.
Signing to the Dutch Imperial label, their sadly underrated debut LP “Focus Plays Focus” sold moderately, but seeing their potential after the non-LP track `House Of The King’ hit homeland Top 10 status, Polydor (UK) and Sire (US) bought up the rights forthwith. Adding the aforementioned single and altering the tracks to suit a fresh overseas market, IN AND OUT OF FOCUS (1970) {*7} was its new title. While flowery pop played its part in tracks `Black Beauty’, `Sugar Island’ and `Happy Nightmare (Mescaline)’, there was serene majesty in prog-rock stunners `House Of The King’ and `Anonymus’ (both ringers for JETHRO TULL), plus the 9 minutes of the un-anonymous `Focus (instrumental)’; `House Of The King’ was subsequently borrowed for the odd political TV theme or documentary.
With Cleuver and Dresden surplus to requirements, their vacant berths taken by Akkerman buddies Pierre van der Linden (ex-BRAINBOX, ex-Hunters) and Cyril Havermans, respectively, the quartet exploded on to the scene with “Focus II” (aka MOVING WAVES (1971) {*9}); issued in the Netherlands and Germany under both these titles. Across in Britain, and almost a year after its initial premiere, with a re-edited, re-issued `Hocus Pocus’ taking them into the Top 20 (soon-to-be Top 10 in America), sales of the Top 3 LP went through the roof. A more progressively innovative set, containing the said extended version of one of prog-rock’s best-known numbers, the songs was described by some as a novelty single due to Van Leer’s strangulated yodel intermittently punctuating Akkerman’s blistering axe-work. Fairly unrepresentative of the FOCUS sound, the majority of the band’s material was characterised by more pronounced neo-classical and jazz-rock leanings; `Focus II’, `Janis’, `Le Clochard’ (“Bread”) and the sombre title track perched against the funereal but uplifting ELP-like `Eruption’ suite (all 23 magma-flowing minutes of it).
They consolidated these early triumphs with another hit, `Sylvia’, a less frantic, more melodic piece, which fared even better than its predecessor, cracking the UK Top 5 (US Top 100). The single was gleaned from the 1972 double-set, FOCUS 3 {*8}, another album that surprised many pundits by also hitting high in the charts Stateside. Bert Ruiter (ex-Caps) was installed as their new bassist, and it was clear the band wanted to embellish beauty with a little whimsy; quirky opening cut `Round Goes The Gossip’ surely a song that deserved a single/45 release. As the album advanced, mostly all the pieces ramped up the clock, the culmination – after a funky-jazz `Answers? Questions! – Questions? Answers!’ – an exhausting self-indulgent 26-minute run-through of `Anonymus Two’.
However, after a stop-gap Top 30 (LIVE) AT THE RAINBOW (1973) {*6}, highlighting extensions or edits of their best-known cuts, FOCUS slightly disappointed critics of the day with the more medieval and cheesy HAMBURGER CONCERTO (1974) {*7}. English-born drummer Colin Allen (ex-ZOOT MONEY, ex-STONE THE CROWS, ex-JOHN MAYALL) had stepped in for Linden, but America was gradually losing in the faith in FOCUS. But for the racy `Harem Scarem’ single flop, or the cinematic `La Cathedrale de Strasbourg’ (both scribed by Van Leer), FOCUS played the stereotype card with the king-size 20-minute title track.
From then on in the band chose jazz-fusion as their raison d’etre, leading to a sharp commercial decline for studio set number five, MOTHER FOCUS (1975) {*4}. Chicago-born drummer David Kemper was roped in for Linden, who’d briefly returned to supersede session-bound Allen, but in desperate tracks `I Need A Bathroom’ (one for DIY enthusiasts with a burst pipe no doubt!) or the derivative `Bennie Helder’, FOCUS were the funky equivalent of PETER FRAMPTON or STEELY DAN.
True to their cosmopolitan revolving-door inclusion-zone, and taking his leave while the going looked good-to-soft-rock, a solo-bound JAN AKKERMAN was substituted by London-born/Belgian-raised Philip Catherine (ex-JEAN LUC PONTY, ex-JOHN McLAUGHLIN). American drummer Steve Smith (future JOURNEY) – not Kemper – had been another addition, alongside second guitarist Eef Albers and 60s vocal star P. J. PROBY, but an obvious contender for mis-match collaboration of all-time, FOCUS CON PROBY (1978) {*4}, sent shivers down the spine of AWOL prog fans – the end had come; THIJS VAN LEER continued solo.
Almost forgotten among the mass of prog-rock comebacks, a re-formed FOCUS – with Ed Starring (synths), plus Tato Gomez (bass) and guests Ruud Jacobs, Ustad Zamir Ahmad Khan and Sergio Castillo – got together for a “Vertigo” release, the unimaginative FOCUS: JAN AKKERMAN & THIJS VAN LEER (1985) {*4}.
Jan and Thijs had already moonlighted with solo outings, going full-time after FOCUS’s demise; in April 1990, the late ’72 line-up of FOCUS re-formed for Dutch TV special. Re-uniting briefly again in ’99, Van Leer, Ruiter, Cleuver and guitarist Menno Gootjes played in the hope that no-one asked: “where’s Akkerman”?
Come the millennium, Thijs Van Leer was back in FOCUS, alongside new faces Jan Dumee (guitar), Bobby Jacobs (bass) and Bert Smaak (drums), courtesy of an hour-long FOCUS 8 (2002) {*5}. Proving if nothing else, that the man’s flute chops could still cut it after over 30 years, the record found the familiar FOCUS formula little varied from its heyday; `Hurkey Turkey’ and `Flower Shower’ (“Hocus Pocus” for opera fans) scythed down a raft of memories in one fell swoop. Thanks to the 2002-cut LIVE IN AMERICA {*7} – released in 2003 by Classic Rock Legends – for restoring the faith, although LIVE IN SOUTHAMERICA (2005) {*6} was similarly-themed.
When Pierre van der Linden returned to replace Smaak, and Niels van der Steenhoven was chosen to capture the group of old (rather than Dumee), the Dutch-only FOCUS 9 / NEW SKIN (2006) {*6} was a decent combination of the Baroque olde style and the jazz-rock retro. Although there were several high points among the pomp and ceremony (a re-vamped `Black Beauty’ stands tall), there were too many references to past parts, `Focus 7’, `Focus 9’ and `Hurkey Turkey 2’.
2012’s FOCUS X {*6} re-introduced guitarist Menno Gootjes (in place of Steenhoven), but in the axeman’s own `Father Bachus’, the magical “Hocus Pocus” element of the track was rather implausible. Lounge lizard and almost horizontal, Van Leer’s `Focus 10’, `Victoria’ and `All Hens On Deck’ had the band’s hallmark stamped to its bough, while the flighty CAMEL-esque `Birds Come Fly Over (Le Tango)’ – but not the nursery rhyme of `Talk Of The Clown’ – was pure FOCUS, a FOCUS that are still playing to packed crowds as of summer 2015.
© MC Strong 1994-2004/GRD// rev-up MCS May2015

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