Focus (band)

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Focus
Focus - TopPop 1974 6.png
1974–1975 line-up on TopPop, 1974.
Left to right: Jan Akkerman, Bert Ruiter, Thijs van Leer, Colin Allen
Background information
Origin Amsterdam, Netherlands
Genres
Years active
  • 1969–1978
  • 1985
  • 1990
  • 1999
  • 2002–present
Labels
Website focustheband.com
Members Thijs van Leer
Pierre van der Linden
Menno Gootjes
Udo Pannekeet
Past members See Personnel

Focus are a Dutch rock band formed in Amsterdam in 1969 by keyboardist, vocalist, and flautist Thijs van Leer. The band have undergone numerous formations in its history; since December 2016 it has comprised van Leer, drummer Pierre van der Linden, guitarist Menno Gootjes, and bassist Udo Pannekeet.

The band's first endeavour was performing in the pit band for the Dutch production of the rock musical Hair. Focus gained popularity following the success of their second album Focus II (1971), better known as Moving Waves, which contained the international hit single "Hocus Pocus". Their success continued with Focus 3 (1972) and Hamburger Concerto (1974), the former containing their second successful single, "Sylvia". Following their break up in 1978, Focus reunited in 1985, 1990, and 1999.

In 2002, van Leer reformed the band with a new line-up, after which they met with renewed interest after Nike used "Hocus Pocus" in its 2010 World Cup commercial Write The Future. The band continues to tour and release albums; their most recent is Focus 8.5 / Beyond the Horizon (2016).

History[edit]

1969–1970: Formation[edit]

Thijs van Leer, the founding member of Focus.

Focus formed in mid-1969 by keyboardist, vocalist, and flautist Thijs van Leer, who recruited bass guitarist Martijn Dresden and drummer Hans Cleuver[1] after he met them at sessions for the Jazz and Poetry radio program in Hilversum, Netherlands. The three wished to start a band and as a trio, started by backing various artists playing covers of Traffic songs mixed with original material, mostly by van Leer.[2] During rehearsals at the Shaffy Theatre, Amsterdam in November 1969,[1] they were joined by guitarist Jan Akkerman of the rock band Brainbox who was invited by Ramses Shaffy to play with van Leer's trio. The latter recalled the first try out session: "Jan came in and we jammed for hours, and it was really kicking". The band then performed their first gig at the now defunct Bird's Club in Amsterdam.[2]

The group's first endeavour as a four-piece was playing as part of the pit band for the Dutch production of the rock musical Hair in Amsterdam, with Welsh actor Victor Spinetti as its producer.[3] During their stint in the production, which ran for roughly six months, the schedule allowed the band to rehearse their own material in the afternoons without paying rent for rehearsal space, and storing their equipment at the venue.[3] An album of the musical's soundtrack featuring the four was recorded in February 1970 and released soon after on Polydor Records.[4]

After a period of scattered live gigs in between the Hair performances, the band's earnings rose to 400 guilders per week but as Akkerman recalled, "we didn't know the value of it, we immediately spent it". Cleuver soon became the member who looked after their earnings and spending.[5] In early 1970, the four chose to leave the musical to become a full time band as their gigs started to increase.[2] They settled on the name Focus, with a direction in instrumental rock with strong melodies, arrangements, and improvisations. Akkerman later said, "Focus is a Latin word that is the same in many languages. It means concentration, which is the meaning of what Focus does".[6]

1970–1972: Debut album and Moving Waves[edit]

In 1970, the band recorded their debut album Focus Plays Focus at Sound Techniques in Chelsea, London with producer Hubert Terheggen and engineer Jerry Boys.[1] Their association with Terheggen led to the album and their stage equipment financed by Radio Tele-Music, the music publishing company of Radio Luxembourg, which helped them secure worldwide publishing deals.[2] With a mix of pop-oriented songs and instrumentals, van Leer felt the vocals on the album suffered as a result from singing English lyrics with the band's foreign accents, but later inspired the group to become stronger instrumentally.[2] "House of the King" is an instrumental which Akkerman wrote after the band's appearance at a music competition in Spain, during which the power cut out which angered the guitarist.[2] The album was released in the Netherlands in 1970 on Imperial Records. It was reissued soon after with a different track order as In and Out of Focus by Sire Records.[1][7][8] It received little commercial or critical attention outside their home country, but "House of the King" was put out as the lead single which went to number 10 in the Netherlands in January 1971.[9]

Shortly after the first album, Dresden and Cleuver left the band. Akkerman later said that van Leer and himself felt the pair struggled to incorporate their own identity or musicianship into the music.[5] They were replaced by drummer Pierre van der Linden, who had previously played with Akkerman in Brainbox, and bassist Cyril Havermans. Towards the end of 1970, English producer Mike Vernon was asked to witness the band perform in the Netherlands by American entrepreneur and Sire co-founder Seymour Stein, who signed the group. Vernon was impressed by their performance and agreed to produce their next studio album.[10]

Moving Waves was recorded between April and May 1971 at Sound Techniques and Morgan Studios, London. The album showcased the band exploring progressive and jazz rock elements with extended pieces and lengthy solos. Moving Waves was released in October 1971 and became a worldwide commercial success for the band, reaching number 2 in the UK during a 34-week stay on the chart[11] number 4 in the Netherlands,[9] and number 8 in the US. Its success was helped by its lead single "Hocus Pocus", which did not chart in the UK until January 1973 with a peak at number 20.[11] The rock instrumental became the band's signature track and a highlight of their live set with quirky and energetic interludes that included flute riffs, accordion, guitar, and drum solos, and van Leer's whistling, nonsensical vocals, falsetto singing, and yodeling.

In September 1971, shortly before the band were to begin their supporting tour for Moving Waves, Havermans left.[2] He wished to sing on more tracks but was unable to do so within the confines of a group, and wanted to pursue a solo career.[5] During the band's stay in Los Angeles on their North American tour in March 1973, the remaining Focus members accepted Havermans's invitation to play on his first solo album, Cyril.[5] Focus found their new bass player in Bert Ruiter.

The success of Moving Waves increased the public's attention to Focus in the UK, who in 1972 were voted Brightest Hope by readers of Melody Maker and Best New Talent by New Musical Express.[2] In early 1972, the band underwent a UK tour to support the album at a time when the country experienced a series of nationwide power cuts. The band went around the problem by bringing their own power generator as they thought one of their gigs was to take place at an outdoor festival. Akkerman said: "We played the universities ... they were packed because it was probably the only thing that was going on".[2] The tour included spots at the Reading Festival in August 1972, followed by the Melody Maker Poll Awards show at The Oval, London a month later.[2]

1972–1975: Focus 3 and Hamburger Concerto[edit]

In July 1972, the band spent four days at Olympic Studios in Barnes recording their third album, Focus 3.[12][2] The band had written a considerable amount of material, so the group opted to record a double album rather than a single, much of it was written by van Leer and Akkerman. Focus 3 saw the group produce short and extended pieces, including the three-minute instrumental "Sylvia" and the group devised a twenty-six minute "Anonymous II" that reflected the band's live sound. "House of the King" from Focus Plays Focus was added to the album. Upon its release in November 1972, the album went to number one in the Netherlands for one week,[9] number 6 in the UK for a total of 16 weeks,[11] and number 35 in the US. "Sylvia" was released as a single and reached No. 4 in the UK in January 1973, the same week "Hocus Pocus" reached its peak on the same chart.[11]

Focus resumed as a live act to support Focus 3 which ran from October 1972 and through 1973, during which they completed their first North American tour as the supporting act for various artists. Upon their return, the band performed two sold out shows at the Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park, London on 4 and 5 May 1973 which was filmed for broadcast on the BBC's The Old Grey Whistle Test show and recorded for their first live album At the Rainbow.[2][6] The album reached a peak of number 23 in the UK in October 1973. The band received a Billboard award for their success after notching up two gold albums, combining sales of one million copies sold in the US, and one gold single.[2]

In May 1973, Focus recorded new material with Vernon at Chipping Norton Recording Studios in Oxfordshire with the aim of releasing a new album.[2] By this time, growing creative differences between van Leer and Akkerman caused tension which affected the material as a result. The pair refused to co-operate and worked separately, recording their parts without the other present.[2] Vernon called this period as "probably the worst ten days I've ever spent in a studio".[13] Recordings from the Chipping Norton sessions were released on the compilation album Ship of Memories, in 1976.

Jan Akkerman in 1974.

Upon their return from their second 1973 US tour, the band organised rehearsals in a cellar at Kasteel Groenguerd in Baarn that they had converted into a studio. After van der Linden failed to turn up, the group learned of his decision to leave Focus in October 1973.[2] Van Leer said rock music was a step in the wrong direction for the drummer, who wished to pursue jazz music. Vernon then suggested English players Mitch Mitchell, Aynsley Dunbar, and Colin Allen as potential replacements. The first two were unavailable so the band asked Allen, who took the invitation as a complete surprise and flew to meet the band the following day. After a successful try out session, Allen "got the thumbs up. It all happened pretty quickly ... I fitted in."[14] His arrival came eight days before the band's upcoming North American tour was to start in late 1973.[6]

By 1974, constant touring had affected the band's inspiration to write strong new material. Their fourth studio album Hamburger Concerto, recorded with Vernon from January to March 1974, demonstrated a heavier rock approach than previous albums. Its centrepiece is the six-part, 20-minute title track based on Variations on a Theme by Haydn by Johannes Brahms. Akkerman later felt his position in the group was weakened without van der Linden, and claimed van Leer "broke up the tandem I had with Pierre rhythmically".[2] A single version of the track "Harem Scarem" failed to chart in the UK.[11]

1975–1978: Mother Focus, Focus con Proby, and disbanding[edit]

In 1975, the band gathered in Brussels to record their fifth album, Mother Focus.[14] They reunited with their original producer Hubert Terheggen to oversee the project but the group found themselves without a collective direction. Van Leer put its failure down to the band's recording contract which required them to produce one studio album each year, and the pressures of touring had affected the songs.[2] During a period when van Leer and Akkerman were absent from the studio, Ruiter became a more prominent songwriter and contributed more ideas than he had on previous Focus albums. Allen and Ruiter recorded "I Need a Bathroom", and the two began to experiment with a drum machine to aid their ideas, but as the drummer claimed, Akkerman got angry at the idea and shouted at Allen, tossing the machine across the room. Allen was then kicked out of the band, not knowing who made the final decision. Soon after his departure, Allen claimed their management required him to pay what he owed to the group which amounted to roughly £10,000; he used his earnings from royalties to pay much of it. Despite the problems, he "will always remain proud to have been a member".[14] This marked the temporary return of van der Linden on the drums, but he could not make an impact on the recording as van Leer favoured the style of American drummer David Kemper, who was brought in to complete the album and subsequently became a full time member.

Mother Focus was released in October 1975 to mostly negative reviews, as the group had consciously departed from their progressive rock foundations towards more commercially accessible music with light disco and funk rhythms and less classical and jazz elements. For a tour of Scandinavia and Japan in 1975, van der Linden returned to the group.[2] This was followed by the 1976 release of the single "Crackers"/"O Avondrood (Red Sky at Night)". The latter track originally appeared on a Dutch compilation album.[2] The two appear in instrumental form on Ship of Memories.

In March 1976, shortly before a UK tour was scheduled to begin, van Leer asked Akkerman to leave the band as he recalled the guitarist disagreed with the music they were presenting and could not come up with alternative material. Akkerman had grown tired of playing the same songs on stage, adding: "It felt like I was in a straitjacket. There was still a lot of improvisation but even this had become planned".[2] When Belgian player Philip Catherine agreed to step in, van Leer spent the evening before the first gig mapping out the guitar parts on paper which Catherine followed on stage.[2]

In 1977, Focus teamed with American singer P. J. Proby after the band's manager, Yde de Jong, had a contact with the head of Proby's fan club in the Netherlands.[2] The result of this collaboration was Focus con Proby, which also featured future Journey drummer Steve Smith and guitarist Eef Albers. The album did not see a UK release, and received negative reviews from critics. After a short tour which ended at a gig in Terneuzen, with Richard James on the drums instead of Smith, Focus disbanded in 1978.[2]

1985−2001: Reunions[edit]

In mid-1983, both of Akkerman's managers came up with the idea of the guitarist reuniting with van Leer to record new music, to which Akkerman agreed. Van Leer immediately accepted the invitation, and went on to play the synthesiser on "Headbanger" on Akkerman's 1984 solo album From the Basement.[15] After this initial collaboration, one executive at Phonogram Records suggested the pair work with producer Trevor Horn to release an album of re-recorded Focus tracks, but it was dismissed. In the following 15 months, the two wrote, rehearsed, and recorded new music with several additional musicians with engineer Theo Balijob.[16] Their contract required the two to record as a duet, rather under the name Focus.[17] During the recording, producer Ruud Jacobs was brought in to supervise the project due to the length of time taken to put the tracks down. Balijon claimed Jacobs cut corners and pushed for the strongest tracks to be completed quickly to save production costs, which "unintentionally increased the animosity between Jan and Thijs".[16] In the 63 days they spent recording from April to May 1984, around 30 tracks were completed with several additional musicians.[2][17] Focus was released in March 1985 by Vertigo Records which reached number 33 in the Netherlands.[18][19] The pair followed the album with promotional videos and a local four-date tour.[2][17][20]

In 1988, EMI acquired the rights to the band's back catalogue and reissued their albums on compact disc for the first time.[2]

In 1990, the former line-up of van Leer, Akkerman, van der Linden, and Ruiter reunited for the first time since 1975. The four played a 40-minute set at the Americahal in Apeldoorn on 20 April that was broadcast as part of the Oud van Goud television special.[21][2] It came about when producer Frans Meijer asked Akkerman to perform a gig with the group, and the fact that the guitarist's manager had not seen the band play in the 1970s, so "it was swatting two flies with one hit".[21] The other three agreed at the opportunity, and they rehearsed for four hours in Wijchen several days prior to the concert. Ruiter said they "went very well"; van Leer said it was "fantastic".[21] Following the concert, van Leer was keen to formally restart Focus with Akkerman, though the latter felt different though he was happy to reunite with van der Linden.[22] On 17 May the group, minus Akkerman, mimed a performance of "House of the King" on the Service Salon television program on AVRO-TV. Originally the band were to perform "Hocus Pocus" with Akkerman, but the guitarist declined the offer made by the network, stating he reunited with Focus for Meijer and his manager. The appearance went ahead regardless.[22]

Van Leer and Akkerman shared the stage once more in 1993, performing Focus songs at the North Sea Jazz Festival.

In 1999, van Leer attempted to reform Focus with Cleuver, Ruiter, and a new guitarist, Dutch player Menno Gootjes. They performed several live dates in the Netherlands, but internal wrangling between van Leer and Ruiter over material intended for release effectively split up the group.

2001–present: Reformation, 2010 World Cup advert, and touring[edit]

In 2001, Focus reformed with van Leer, his step son and bassist Bobby Jacobs, guitarist Jan Dumée, and drummer Ruben van Roon. The four were former members of van Leer's band Conxi. Soon after their return, van Roon was replaced by drummer Bert Smaak. This new line-up entered the studio and recorded Focus 8. Released in 2002, the album received critical praise and was supported by a world tour.

In 2004, Pierre van der Linden replaced Bert Smaak on drums. Due to "musical differences", Dumée was dismissed from the band in 2006. In July 2006, Niels van der Steenhoven joined the group and the Focus 9 / New Skin album was released on the Red Bullet label, which currently owns the entire back catalogue of Focus.

Thijs van Leer, Lowdham, Notts, 27 November 2014.

In May 2010, Nike included "Hocus Pocus" as the main theme tune in their extended FIFA World Cup commercial. The advert was first aired on US Network TV during the UEFA Champions League Final between Bayern Munich and Inter Milan on 22 May and then throughout the World Cup. A re-release of "Hocus Pocus", due to the Nike commercial, led to the song entering the UK Singles Chart at No. 57.

As of 2011, Menno Gootjes has rejoined the band, replacing Niels van der Steenhoven. Also in 2011, American rapper J. Cole sampled "Hocus Pocus" in his song "Blow Up", which is featured in the game MLB 11: The Show.

The band released their tenth studio album, Focus X, with cover art by Roger Dean in October, 2012 to very positive music reviews.

In 2014 'Hocus Pocus' appeared in the Soundtrack to the RoboCop (2014 film) remake. On 14 April, the band released their eleventh studio album Golden Oldies, a collection of newly re-recorded versions of some of their most popular songs including "Sylvia", "House of the King", and "Hocus Pocus", along with two newer songs of the early 2000s.

New bass player Udo Pannekeet replaced Bobby Jacobs in December 2016.

Music[edit]

Akkerman's "House of the King" was originally a Dutch single release, before being included on the UK album In and Out of Focus,[7] which featured tracks from 'Focus Play Focus" in a different playing sequence plus "House of the King" (the track is not on the band's Dutch debut[23]). The same version, not a re-recording, was included on the 1973 double vinyl release of Focus 3 (but was omitted from the CD version of that album), and later became the title themes of the BBC children's television shows "Encounter France: and "Merry-go-Round", both 1979,[24] then Don't Ask Me, a science-based British TV show of the 1970s that made household names of Magnus Pyke and David Bellamy. It is also the title theme of Steve Coogan's BBC 2 sitcom, Saxondale.

Personnel[edit]

Band members[edit]

Current members
  • Thijs van Leer – keyboards, flute, vocals (1969–1978, 1985, 1990, 1999, 2002–present)
  • Pierre van der Linden – drums (1970–1974, 1975, 1990, 2004–present)
  • Menno Gootjes – guitar (1999, 2011–present)
  • Udo Pannekeet – bass (2016-)
Former members

Timeline[edit]

Discography[edit]

Main article: Focus discography

Studio albums

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d Focus (1973). In and Out of Focus [Reissue] (Media notes). Sire Records. SAS 7404. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab Randall, David (May 1991). "Focus" (PDF). Record Collector (141): 102–107. Retrieved 21 January 2017. 
  3. ^ a b "Go Focus Yourself... The THIJS VAN LEER Interview". The Ozymandias Progject. 28 October 2015. Retrieved 17 January 2017. 
  4. ^ Various Artists (1970). Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical – Original Amsterdam Cast (Media notes). Polydor Records. 2441 002. 
  5. ^ a b c d Beckes, Hans (24 November 1973). "Het Grote Jan Akkerman Verhaal" (PDF). Veronica. Retrieved 17 January 2017. 
  6. ^ a b c Mandell, Ellen (February 1973). "Focus' Dutch Treat – Live at the Rainbow" (PDF). Circus: 32, 41. Retrieved 21 January 2017. 
  7. ^ a b http://www.discogs.com/Focus-In-And-Out-Of-Focus/release/2240177
  8. ^ In and Out of Focus: The Music of Jan Akkerman & focus at Google Books.
  9. ^ a b c "Dutch Charts – Focus". Retrieved 18 January 2017. 
  10. ^ Vernon, Mike (1976). Mother Focus [UK Pressing] (Media notes). Harvest Records. SHSP 4068. 
  11. ^ a b c d e "Official Charts – Focus". Official Charts. Retrieved 18 January 2017. 
  12. ^ Focus (1972). Focus 3 (Media notes). Polydor Records. 2659 016. 
  13. ^ Cunningham 1999, p. 191.
  14. ^ a b c "In And Out Of Focus... COLIN ALLEN Interviewed in December 2008". The Ozymandias Progject. 17 October 2015. Retrieved 19 January 2017. 
  15. ^ Johnson 2013, p. 205.
  16. ^ a b Johnson 2013, p. 206.
  17. ^ a b c Johnson 2013, p. 207.
  18. ^ "Dutch Charts – Jan Akkerman & Thijs van Leer". Retrieved 24 January 2017. 
  19. ^ Johnson 2013, p. 215.
  20. ^ Johnson 2013, p. 217.
  21. ^ a b c Johnson 2013, p. 224.
  22. ^ a b Johnson 2013, p. 225.
  23. ^ http://www.discogs.com/Focus-Focus-Plays-Focus/release/2990972
  24. ^ http://www2.tv-ark.org.uk/schoolstv/bbcschools_programmes.html
Sources
  • Cunningham, Mark (1999). Good Vibrations: History of Record Production (2nd ed.). Sanctuary Publishing Ltd. ISBN 9781860742422. 
  • Johnson, Peet (2013). Hocus Pocus: The Life & Journey of Rock's Dutch Masters. Thorpe-Bowker. ISBN 978-0-646-57754-8. 

External links[edit]