Focus

TrackAlbum
Hocus PocusFocus II/Moving Waves
Focus (instrumental)Focus Plays Focus
Anonymous II (Part 1)Focus 3
Answers? Questions! Questions? Answers!Focus 3
SylviaFocus At The Rainbow
BirthHamburger Concerto
Spoke The Lord CreatorShip Of Memories
Night FlightFocus Con Proby
Tamara's Move (Allegro-Adagio-Allegro)Focus 8
Sylvia's Stepson - UbatubaFocus 9: New Skin

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Contributor: Ian Ashleigh

There is an argument that had Jan Akkerman been British or American he would regularly appear in the lists of great rock guitarists. But he is Dutch and was at the core of the prog rock band Focus between 1969 and 1976 and in reformations of the band in 1985 and 1990.

Focus was fronted by Thijs van Leer a classically-trained organist and flautist who added his occasionally eccentric vocals. The inclusion of the flute brought inevitable comparisons with Jethro Tull in the UK. When you mention Focus, the band that was Akkerman and van Leer with bass player Bert Ruiter and drummer Pierre van der Linden spring to mind. The majority of my selections come from this 1970s period but there are some surprises from later incarnations of the band put together by van Leer without Akkerman.

We start with Hocus Pocus from Focus II/Moving Waves (1971) and a hit single, complete with yodelling and nonsense lyric. But it is a showcase for Akkerman’s effortless guitar. Within the flute solo, van Leer manages to hit the exact note of the whistle of the Metropolitan Line underground trains that ran behind my Grandparent’s house when I was a child. A note I heard regularly as the trains left Wembley Park Station. The humour of the band is captured on the live album Focus At The Rainbow (1973) and on a recording for the Old Grey Whistle Test at Christmas in that period, which seems to have disappeared from YouTube. Humour that sometimes overflowed into song titles with appalling puns (e.g. All Hens On Deck from Focus X)

Focus II/Moving Waves contains the magnificent Eruption, a 23 minute adaptation of Peri’s 17th century opera Euridice which just missed out on inclusion.

Focus have recorded nine tracks that carry the name of the band (I to V and VII to X). The first one from their first album Focus Plays Focus (later released as In And Out Of Focus) is a showcase for the more sensitive side of Akkerman’s guitar playing (following the raucous Hocus Pocus) and van Leer’s flute with keyboard taking a secondary role. If you listen to the nine tracks sequentially, there is a connection. (Focus 3 contains occasional echoes of George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps).

Focus 3 marked the high point of the band’s commercial success. A double album from which I have taken three tracks.

Side 3 of the original vinyl, the eclectically named Anonymous II (Part 1), a classically based piece played in a jazz-rock style, with each member of the band taking a solo – there was a track called Anonymous on In And Out Of Focus. Answers? Questions! Questions? Answers! is a brilliant piece of jazz-rock again showcasing Akkerman’s guitar and van Leer’s keyboards. The hit single Sylvia came from Focus 3 but I have taken the version from the live album Focus At The Rainbow. Just listen to how Bert Ruiter’s bass underpins the whole tune.

Here is the band in January 1973 for the BBC Radio 1 In Concert Series with a stunning version of Anonymous II.

After the success of Focus 3, Hamburger Concerto in 1974 was not particularly well received. The Hamburger Concerto itself is based on Johannes Brahms’ Variations Of A Theme By Haydn. Birth closed side 1 of the original album and with a Bach-esque harpsichord opening theme which Akkerman takes into the guitar and a full-blown rock treatment. Just a great piece of music.

Ship Of Memories was released in 1976 but contained recordings made in 1973. Spoke The Lord Creator was the band’s first attempt at using the aforementioned Brahms’ Variations Of A Theme By Haydn in a rock context. This is the last of the selections that features Jan Akkerman on guitar.

In 1978, the American singer P. J. Proby joined the band for the recording of the very uneven Focus Con Proby. Night Flight written by guitarist Eef Albers is worth including in the ten.

We end with two tracks from the later incarnations of the band, with Thijs van Leer as the only original member. From Focus 8 comes Tamara’s Move (Allegro-Adagio-Allegro) which could have come from the early period, and from Focus 9: New Skin a return to almost the beginning with Sylvia’s Stepson – Ubatuba.

Throughout a long and sometimes halting career, Focus were never able to recreate the energy of the early 1970s when they were touted as the band to watch at the beginning 1973. There have been some strange detours into funk and disco, but at their best Focus produced some of the finest progressive and jazz-rock of the early to mid-70s. I do feel that a British or American band producing the same music would have had greater attention.

Incidentally, House Of The King from Focus 3 (see clip below) was used by Yorkshire Television between 1974 and 1978 as the theme music for their popular science programme Don’t Ask Me featuring Magnus Pyke, Rob Buchman, David Bellamy, Miriam Stoppard and Derek Griffiths.

 

Focus official facebook

Jan Akkerman official website

Focus biography (iTunes)

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1 Comment

  1. Kasper Nijsen
    Jan 6, 2015

    Great list! “All Hens On Deck” is indeed an appalling pun but it’s also an in-joke directed at Dutch listeners (like myself), since it refers to the Dutch saying “alle hens aan dek” (which is itself derived from the English saying).

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