Looking at the music of Dutch rock band Focus, started in the late sixties by Thijs Van Leer (b /31/03/48) with Jan Akkerman (b 24/12/46). Van Leer still performs and records under the name today (official site here). Akkerman's site here.




Focus 8.5

It is possible to get hold of some unofficial material by Focus on an album called Focus 8.5. Subtitled Old skin, it is a collection of five tracks from sessions completed before the departure of Jan Dumee. The same title has been used, but now with the subtitle New Horizon, for a fresh collection of some seven tracks, again from the Dumee era. The album perhaps answers the question of what might have happened if Focus had determinedly struck out in a jazz direction rather than a rock one.
Technically, none of these tracks is by Focus - that is by the four piece rock band as it existed in 2005. Rather what we have is Van Leer and the others supplemented by other musicians, in and out of Focus. The opening track, for example, Focus Zero (a pastiche of Focus style tunes), features Thijs on flute and piano with Pierre on drums but with three Brazilians on bass, guitars and teclados. Track 6 (Talking rhythms) features Pierre with Marcio Bahia. On Track 3 (Rock 5) a very Focus sounding number, Bobby Jacobs on bass ia the only Focus element, the other eight contributions (including the flute) coming from other (Brazilian) musicians.
Although very acoustic and World music in style, the album does have a Focus feel, with one vocal track (Hola, como estas?), the use of handclaps and voices, plenty of varied time signatures. The vocal track does actually feature a Focus foursome but supplemented by Brazilian voices and Marcio Bahia's drums. Perhaps this very good album should have come out under Van Leer's name.

Live at The Scene October 2016

I was able to catch Focus one again at The Scene in Swansea last night. The set list was fairly typical in that we started with the oldest material (Focus 1 with Anonymus and House of the King from the first album) followed by a very long and varied exposition of the Eruption theme (Eruption appears on the second album). We then had the famous Sylvia (from Focus 3) and (more unusually) excellent renditions of All Hens on Deck (from Focus X) and Hurkey Turkey 2 and Le Tango (from Focus 8 - the first not a track I recall being covered in a long while). We then had La Cathedrale and Harem Scarem (I am still not convinced about all that goes on under this heading but Menno Gootjes' violining was of a high order). We finished with Hocus Pocus, introduced by some excellent solo Bach flute. Pierre van der Linden appears to have another new  drum kit and somehow he was able to notch things up even further once again in an amazing solo that beggars belief. (How it happens that a piece surely made for the guitarist to show us his skills in becomes a drum tour de force I have complained about many times in the past). As so often in the past this was familiar but excellent stuff and certainly not a simple rehash of past glories. Several songs had been worked on afresh. I had never heard the recording of the bells of Strasbourg play as they were last night, for example. Thijs may not be able to reach the high notes any more but he gets deeper and deeper with those low notes as the years go by. For a 68 year old he is pretty remarkable. As ever he was a good showman and full of self-effacement in his presentation. It was good to shake his hand after the gig and get him to sign my copy of Focus 8.5 on sale at the gig. (I had bumped into Bobby the bassist earlier in the loos!).


Live at the Underworld March 2016

Really enjoyed Focus at the Underworld in Camden last night. A packed audience gathered first to hear Earls of Mars (rock on the heavy and loud side and not really my cup of tea). Focus were as amazing as ever from the opening Bach flute lines through to Hocus Pocus and the Focus 3/Answers Questions encore. There were genuine classical, jazz and rock moments and some fine playing by Menno Gootjes. I'm still not entirely convinced about the solos from Gootjes and Booby Jacobs on bass though Pierre Van Der Linden and Thijs Van Leer can do no wrong as far as I'm concerned. The bonus this time round was a two hour twenty minute set without a break. It's a short tour and so the usual intermission was dispensed with. One Van Leer trick new to me was making a whistling sound with a glass of water in the encore. With the flute, organ, vocals, whistling, melodica, scat, tongues, etc, Van Leer did not put a step wrong. Good to speak briefly with Thijs and Menno before leaving. I should have asked for a photo opportunity but none of my cameras seemed to be working properly.
The set list was Focus 1/Anonymous, House of the King, Ode to Venus, Eruption, Sylvia, Brother, Le Tango, All hens on deck, La Cathedrale de Strasbourg/Harem Scarem, Hocus Pocus with Focus 3 and Answers Questions as an encore.


Golden Years of Dutch Pop Music

This 2 CD compilation album issued in October contains
CD 1
1: The shrine of god
2: Watch the ugly people
3: Why dream
4: Happy nightmare (mescaline)
5: House of the king
6: Focus
7: Hocus pocus
8: Janis
9: Sylvia
10: Love remembered
11: Tommy
12: Focus ii
13: Harem scarem
14: Early birth
15: P's march
16: Focus v
17: Eddy
18: Sneezing bull
19: Anonymous
20: Black beauty
21: Le clochard
CD 2
1: Eruption
2: Focus iii
3: Answers? questions! questions? answers!
4: Hamburger concerto
5: Focus iv
6: Mother focus
7: Glider
8: Crackers
9: Hocus pocus


Miming to House of the King 1971

O Avondrood Video

Just now and again you come across something you've never seen on YouTube. This is a video with the Focus track Avondrood (Red evening). I'm not sure what the live at Top of the Pops tag means. I don't think this was ever on any British top of the pops.


SIr Thijs Van Leer Solo Album

Focus fans will be interested to know of a limited edition Thijs Van Leer solo album recently released. The three CD offering is a recording of a live gig at Trading Boundaries. The second and third discs give the concert itself with the fascinating biographical ramblings by Thijs that interweave the songs. The first CD selects songs from the concert and presents them as  amore straightforward album. The three CDs come in a very attractive book-like album with lots of photographs and info and original art work by Roger Dean. A lovely presentation full of old favourites and one or two more obscure ones, all in acoustic fashion. 


New edtion of Focus book

A new (third) edition of the book on Focus by Australian Peet Johnson arrived through my door the other day - Hocus Pocus: the strife and times of rock's Dutch masters. (See details here) Peet must know more about Focus than any man on earth and this new edition brings you right up to date with facts such as the version of Focus 3 done by Outkast and that by Guo Yue of House of the King (both in 1996). It's a bit expensive but hardcore Focus fans will go for it.


New version of Focus II

A new album, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Plays Prog Rock Classics includes a version of Focus II with Van Leer on flute. Worth a listen.


Can't Believe My Eyes

Focus at The Scene in Swansea

My son is in university in Swansea so I thought I'd pay him a visit as Focus were playing at a place called The Scene on a Monday night, a good night for me (November 24).
My attachment to Focus goes back to my teenage years when I was born again and wanted to find a rock band that would not corrupt me! It is a little like paying homage. I had duties here I London on Monday afternoon so didn't get away as early as I hoped and with traffic and so on did not reach the venue until just after Focus had started. They were just coming to the end of House of the King when I got there. I guess they would have started with Focus 1.
The first half was all the old stuff including a brilliant Eruption, including Tommy, Sylvia and so on. The newer stuff didn't get played until the second half. It is hard to put into words what a brilliant band this is. The only low point for me was at the end of a ripping Harem Scarem where Menno Gootjes was left more or less to himself. It left me rather cold. Interestingly, because it was like something out of the seventies. Focus were never like something out of the seventies but always transcended the decade.
One treat at the concert was seeing just a few people dancing at the front to the rock numbers. The flute passages were also an immense treat.
During the interval I bought the new double helping of Swung where the band minus Van Leer jam. Interesting stuff. Van Leer's wife Anneliese runs the shops. She has no English (and I no Dutch). I said Thank you very Dutch. She said "What is Dutch?"!
The main set closed with an excellent Hocus Pocus, which now includes a second extended drum solo for the amazing Pierre Van Der Linden. As I watched him endlessly work his way round the kit it made me wonder have I ever preached at all? Here is a man who knows his drums better than I know any text I've preached. Surely I should be immersing myself in the texts week by week. Yes, you may not be appreciated (a Van Der Linden drum break is not to everybody's liking) but you will be thorough.
So by the end of the concert I was pretty impressed and would have been happy to leave. There was some enthusiasm for an encore, however, and the band returned with Focus 3, a beautiful number that has grown and grown on me over the years, and its partner Answers Questions Questions Answers. The flute playing at this point was beyond beautiful and I was gone. Amazing.
If you have opportunity to go to see Focus. They are worth every penny. Sorry I have no video footage or pictures. I left my camera in the car.


Moving Waves Documentary

Some good news now bad news - the 1997 documentary on the making of the album Moving Waves was briefly available on Youtube. The bad news for monoglot English speakers was that the documentary is in Dutch. However, as it was made up of performances and interviews with Mike Vernon and Jerry Boys there was quite a bit not in Dutch. Die hard fans might even have been able to work out what was being said in Dutch as Van Leer describes the writing of Hocus Pocus, perhaps or as Akkerman describes his early career and Havermans is asked about the bass parts! Anyway it is gone for now.


Focus in the Underworld

I went to see Focus down at The Underworld in Camden October 29. This was the last show in a recent short tour. I was in two minds about going really but a Tuesday night in London and the family away - why not? I got down there early as I had not bought my ticket. I saw Thijs and Menno on the street and Bobby in the distance. Unusually I came across a busker with a flute but the paths of the two flautists didn't cross I gather. Inside I spotted Thijs's daughter Eva (now based in France where she is an artist in ceramics I see here). It was an opportunity to thank her personally for her contributions to family Christmas albums such as this one (although she was taken aback to be reminded of it). It was nice to see Thijs's grandson near the back of the stage snapping away with his phone. (The current Mrs Van Leer was as ever on the merchandise stall).
The Underworld is a dump and the two opening bands (Sonic Mass and Sondura) were very much rock bands (some nice melodies with Sondura, however) and I was beginning to feel I'd rather not be there when Focus eventually came on and suddenly I was entranced. They began with Thijs on alto flute and then a chorused vocal and soon they were into an exquisite rendition of Focus 1 with a brief burst of Anonymus and then House of the King (all from the ancient first album). Then it was the rocker All hens on Deck and the melodic Focus 7, both from the latest album - both again very good. A highlight was the Tommy from a long version of Eruption. We then had the obligatory Sylvia and La Cathedrale followed by Harem Scarem with some solos. Menno Gootjes is very competent and is now thoroughly conversant with the material and plays very subtly. Given the opportunity to do his own thing he likes to rock in a very seventies way but not one that I feel is very much the Focus sound. Interest waned a little at that point for me, having trodden this path many times. Overall still a great band to see and showing no signs of waning.
Two of my sons and a nephew were watching Arctic Monkeys in Cardiff at the same time. Wonder how they got on. Imagine AM when they're in their sixties!


Revised edtiion of the book now out

The revised, corrected and improved edition of the book by Peet Johnson is now available. I have actually had a small hand in things this time. This new revised edition is most highly commended. The book can be ordered here.


How to write a Focus number - 10 steps

1. Ideally, you need to be Thijs Van Leer or a current band member but in theory you could be anyone.
2. Look for an attractive but subtle melody or two. Ideally, sing it with words of some sort. You can be inspired by an event or a person. Don't be afraid to half plunder the classics or, at a push, more recent music. Collaborations can come later, if necessary.
3. Play around with the melodies a bit. Try them fast and slow and in different keys.
4. Get the band together and try to get things in some sort of order. Start and end with any instrument. Be happy to receive collaborations or contributions and don't be afraid to throw in a yodel or something else that is slightly bizarre.
5. Not vital but if it is appropriate, try it out on the road perhaps. Live in it a bit.
6. Find someone to put words to it. Alternatively, start with the words. Don't worry too much about these as they will rarely be heard, if ever.
7. Attempt a recording with the whole band. Aim for around six minutes worth of music but it can be more or possibly less.
8. Possibly, abandon this recording unreleased and start again or cannibalise it for future pieces. Record it in another form on a solo project, if possible.
9. Add a Van Leer introduction perhaps and think of a title, usually in English. Puns and rhymes preferred.
10. Record it again in a different arrangement with no vocals and release it on an album to critical praise (or otherwise).


Track titles that rhyme

Over the years Focus have produced at least five tracks whose title rhymes.
These are

1. Hocus Pocus
2. Harem Scarem
3. Night Flight
4. Hurkey Turkey
5. Flower Shower,

Hard Vanilla

Soft Vanilla


New book out

It's out at last. You can read the opening pages online at Amazon. Already my knowledge of the band has grown immensely. This is a real labour of love and the fruit of a lot of hard slog. Thanks for the mench too Peet - very kind. As so often with these books it is full of minor proofing errors and slightly expensive but it looks a fine production otherwise and is a must for anyone interested in a blog like this or a band like that. I am eagerly awaiting my copy. Not sure yet how many errors here on this blog will have to be changed or modified.


A rugby team out of Focus

There are actually now at least 15 men who have been part of the official Focus line up but are no longer in the band.
There are five guitarists and three bassists who can form the forwards, while the six drummers can be the backs with PJ Proby at full back.
They are
Jan Akkerman – guitar (1969–1976, [1985, 1990])
Hans Cleuver – drums (1969–1970, 1999)
Martin Dresden – bass (1969–1970)
Cyril Havermans – bass (1970–1971)
Bert Ruiter – bass (1971–1978, 1990, 1999)
Colin Allen – drums (1973–1975)
David Kemper – drums (1975–1978)
Philip Catherine – guitar (1977–1978)
Steve Smith – drums (1978)
Eef Albers – guitar (1978)
P.J. Proby – vocals (1978)
Jan Dumée – guitar (2001–2006)
Ruben van Roon – drums (2001)
Bert Smaak – drums (2001–2004)
Niels van der Steenhoven – guitar, vocals (2006–2010)


Track by track 125

Archive number: 125
Title: It takes 2 2 tango
Main Album: Focus 9 (New Skin)
Track number: 13
Genre: Progressive Rock Instrumental
Studio: Fieldwork Studios, Schoten, Belgium
Length: 07:57
Composer: Thijs Van Leer
Musicians: Thijs Van Leer – Hammond organ, piano, flute; Niels Van Der Steenhoven – Guitars; Bobby Jacobs – Bass; Pierre Van Der Linden – Drums
Producer: Bobby Jacobs and Thijs Van Leer
Engineer: Han Nuijten
Label: Red Bullet
Date of recording/release: Summer 2006
Alternative version: None
Notes: This further exploration of the tango form is quite slow for the most part. The band handle the first five minutes or so like a jazz quartet but with the familiar Focus rises and falls. There are some very attractive guitar phrases here as it somehow tells a story without words. Just when you have forgotten the tango title, tango rhythms break in first at 05:07-05:40 and then again at 06:08-06:42. In both cases the piano leads, followed by organ, then drums and then flute. The old theme soon reasserts itself (05:40-06:07 and 06:43-07:57), The whole closes on a suitably dramatic and extended note.

Track by track 124

Archive number: 124
Title: Pim
Main Album: Focus 9 (New Skin)
Track number: 12
Genre: Progressive Rock Instrumental
Studio: Fieldwork Studios, Schoten, Belgium
Length: 02:57
Composer: Thijs Van Leer
Musicians: Thijs Van Leer – Hammond organ, piano; Niels Van Der Steenhoven – Guitars; Bobby Jacobs – Bass; Pierre Van Der Linden – Drums
Producer: Bobby Jacobs and Thijs Van Leer
Engineer: Han Nuijten
Label: Red Bullet
Date of recording/release: Summer 2006
Alternative version: None
Notes: The guitar leads the band in a jaunty bit of rock with a bright and pretty sound that celebrates the birth of Van Leer's grandson. He appropriately whistles (01:48-02:00) before the guitar takes over with renewed strength and the band head for the simple close.