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.

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20131218

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.

20131113

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!

20131027

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.

20130404

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).

20130326

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


20130312

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.

20130306

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)

20130305

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.

Track by track 123

Archive number: 123
Title: European Rap(sody)
Main Album: Focus 9 (New Skin)
Track number: 11
Genre: Progressive Rock Instrumental
Studio: Fieldwork Studios, Schoten, Belgium
Length: 10:19
Composer: Thijs Van Leer, Gordon Taylor
Musicians: Thijs Van Leer – Piano, voice, handclaps, synthesiser, organ, 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 (although there is a clip of a Focus jam in the castle on Youtube where they play something similar to one of the sections)
Notes: This song is in several parts. First comes a slow, even halting part led by the guitar backed by piano and keyboard set to choral (00:00-00:42). It leads into a second slow part, backed by the organ (00:43-01:07). We then turn east for an increasingly fast, Russian style dance tune led by the flute with the guitar and backed by the rhythm section (01:08-02:10). This is further developed from 02:11 with the use of the voice and handclaps, the guitar giving balalaika-type riffs. At 02:37 a shout or laugh takes us back to the flute-led tune, this being brought to an end by a couple of piano arpeggios (02:38-02:59). The slow and introspective guitar then leads off again followed by the cymbals, organ, bass and then piano too (03:00-03:34). This segues into the next part, still slow, led first by piano then with guitar and backing from the rhythm section and organ (03:35-05:20).
A crash of cymbals abruptly announces a new and jaunty fast section, which features a first litany of about 12 titles of previous Focus tracks from Van Leer (05:21-06:27). The list with the few additional words is as follows:
1. Spoke the Lord Creator, Can't believe my eyes, Out of Vesuvius, Red sky at night, Round goes the gossip, (of) Eruption, Well done, Dayglow (to break), (Creating) Moving Waves (for how long?), Answers, questions ..., (of) Love remembered, … Questions, Answers, Ship of memories, ??? (06:28-06:13)
This is followed by an instrumental section in the same vein (06:14-06:28)
At 06:29 we come into a new section that begins slowly then becomes jaunty again but this time we are looking west and the style is very French, the keyboards in a very accordion-like mode. At 07:33 this comes to an end with the same slow piano, cymbals and bass conclusion as before, ending at 07:47.
A crash of cymbals announces the second part of the litany. This time we have around 35 further tracks
2. Carnival Fugue, (on an) Endless Road, (it's an) Early birth, (like a fugue of the) Sneezing bull, Hocus Pocus (and) Birth (and Birth, and Birth), No Hang ups, (with the) Russian Roulette, (surely) Harem Scarem (dreams, dream), (and a) Cathedrale de Strasbourg, Anonymus (it seems), Maximum, (or) Medium, (or) One for the Road (but) Someone's Crying … what? (in the) House of the King, (it's a) Happy nightmare, Altogether … Oh that!, (Let's) Focus (on) Who's calling?, (Is it) Beethoven's Revenge, (or may be) Father Bach, (is it) Tommy, Benny, Eddy (or) Judy or Sylvia, My Sweetheart (My Sweetheart), It's an Indian Summer, (I'm the) Glider, The Tango, (with) Tokyo Rose, Night flight (with a) Black Beauty, (such a) Tropic Bird, (With movement, with movement, with movement; that's the Lord, that's the Lord, that's the Lord) (07:48-09:15)
We then play out with the band led by Van Leer's rocking flute (09:16-10:10). The closing nine seconds are left to the solo flute.

20130206

Songs in different languages

Focus are not known for their vocals but the songs they have sung feature several languages.
1. English (Why dream, Happy nightmare, Black Beauty, etc, etc)
2. Dutch (O Avondrood, Hamburger Concerto, Flower Shower)
3. Latin (Round goes the gossip, Hoeratio)
4. French (La Cathedrale de Strasbourg)
5. Spanish (Le Tango) [on the Japanese Focus X]