Note: Click here to see all entries in this ongoing series.
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)