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, the 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.

Formed of members of the pit band for the Dutch production of the rock musical Hair, Focus gained popularity following the success of Focus II (1971) which contained the hit single "Hocus Pocus". Their success continued with Focus 3 (1972) and Hamburger Concerto (1974). Following their break up in 1978, Focus reunited in 1985, 1990, and 1999 before reforming in 2002. They continue to tour and release albums.

In 2010, "Hocus Pocus" was used as the theme for Nike's 2010 World Cup commercial Write The Future which renewed interest in the band.

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, The 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 were 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 van Leer and Akkerman. Focus 3 saw the group produce short and extended pieces, including the three-minute instrumental "Sylvia" and the group devised, twenty-six minute "Anonymous II" that reflected the band's live sound. "House of the King" from Focus Plays Focus was added 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 mid-1973, Focus recorded new material with Vernon at Chipping Norton Recording Studios in Oxfordshire with the aim of releasing a new album. 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. 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 at a cellar 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]

From January to March 1974, the band recorded their fourth studio album, Hamburger Concerto. Its centrepiece is the six-part title track based on Variations on a Theme by Haydn by Johannes Brahms. A single version of the track "Harem Scarem" failed to chart in the UK.[15]

1975–1978: Mother Focus and split[edit]

In 1975, the band gathered in Brussels to record their fifth album, Mother Focus.[14] During a period when van Leer and Akkerman were absent from the studio, Ruiter became a more prominent songwriter and contributed more ideas than previous Focus albums. Allen and himself 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.

The final outing of this line-up was the 1976 single "Crackers"/"O Avondrood (Red Sky at Night)". The latter track originally appeared on a Dutch compilation album. The two appear in instrumental form on Ship of Memories. One side of this album features recordings from 1975-1976, and the other side is of the unfinished Focus tracks from the 1973 tracks at Chipping Norton studios. Ship of Memories was released largely due to the effort of Mike Vernon, the group's producer during the period 1972 - 1974, and without the active involvement of the band.

Jan Akkerman was fired from the group by Thijs van Leer after he refused to rehearse a new jazz fusion song ironically entitled 'For Jan.' This was in early 1976 on the eve of a sell-out UK tour. His last-minute replacement was Belgian guitarist Philip Catherine. Recordings from the UK tour exist as Focus - 'Live at the BBC, dated 21 March 1976. The song "For Jan" was subsequently retitled "Maximum" and was recorded for a new album the following year.

In 1977, the newly reformed Focus worked with U.S. singer P. J. Proby. Within weeks, photographs of the singer and Thijs van Leer adorned the pages of the music press. The result of this collaboration was the album Focus con Proby, which featured drummer Steve Smith (later of Journey), guitarists Philip Catherine and Eef Albers and P. J. Proby on vocals. The album, which was not released in the UK, received dismal reviews and a lack of interest from the record buying public, and after a short tour the band terminated with a final concert in Terneuzen in 1978.

1985−1999: Reunions[edit]

In 1985, Van Leer and Akkerman reunited for a joint project (because of contractual obligation) which resulted in the commercially unsuccessful album Focus.

In 1990, the "classic" lineup of Akkerman, Van Leer, Ruiter, and Van der Linden performed old and new compositions on the Dutch TV shows Veronika and Goud van Oud. An unsuccessful attempt was made to formally restart the band at this time.

Van Leer and Akkerman shared the stage and performed Focus compositions at the North Sea Jazz Festival in 1993. Six years later, Van Leer attempted to reform Focus with original drummer Hans Cleuver, bassist Bert Ruiter, and new guitarist Menno Gootjes. They performed several live dates in the Netherlands, but internal wrangling (between Thijs and Bert) over material intended for a CD release effectively split up the group.

2002–present: Reformation, 2010 World Cup advert, and touring[edit]

In 2002, Thijs van Leer re-formed Focus with himself, stepson Bobby Jacobs on bass, guitarist Jan Dumée, and drummer Ruben van Roon (all are former members of the band CONXI). Van Roon was soon replaced by Bert Smaak. The result was the well-received Focus 8 album and 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[16]). 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,[17] 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 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 "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. ^ http://www.officialcharts.com/artist/14769/focus/
  16. ^ http://www.discogs.com/Focus-Focus-Plays-Focus/release/2990972
  17. ^ 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. 

External links[edit]