Prog rockers Focus emerged out of the trio that
classically-trained Thijs Van Leer had formed in 1969, backing Dutch pop acts
and with a residency for Dutch cabaret artist Ramses Shaffy.
When, in late-1969, the renowned Dutch guitarist Jan Akkerman (ex-Johnny & the
Cellar Rockers, The Hunters) auditioned it was plainly evident that here was a
spark to ignite a flickering flame.
Akkerman joined Van Leer's trio for a six-month stint as part of the pit band
for the Dutch version of 'Hair'. As Van Leer later recounted, in between the
shows the band was able to rehearse their own material for their debut album.
The band's first album came out in Holland as 'Focus Plays Focus' in June 1970
(It was later released as 'In And Out of Focus') and demonstrated the strength
of musicianship, even if some of the songs suffered from the “foreigner sings in
English” syndrome and the lyrics were a little trite.
The instrumental passages were, of course, quite wonderful with an early outing
for 'Anonymus' (later developed on 'Focus III') and the inimitable 'House Of The
1971's 'Moving Waves' is a prog rock classic, with one side of the then vinyl
taken up with the piece 'Eruption'. Van Leer was keen to write a longer work
inspired by 'classical' composers, chiefly Bela Bartok, Bach and Monteverdi.
What emerged was a magnum opus, showing off the band's musical brilliance, not
least on 'Tommy', a showcase for Jan Akkerman's soaring guitar figures.
This album also includes the full length version of 'Hocus Pocus', conceived as
a reaction to the band's more classically minded pretentions. It became a staple
in their live gigs, as well as on classic rock radio.
An appearance at the Reading Festival in August 1972, followed by a spot on the
national TV rock show 'The Old Grey Whistle Test' (OGWT) cemented their impact
with more discerning rock fans, and their early success was consolidated with a
UK college/theatre tour in late 1972, early 1973 when they tasted Top 5 chart
success with a glorious piece 'Sylvia'.
With the November 1972 release of the double album 'Focus III' the band
hit their creative peak. 'Anonymus II' developed an earlier theme, and
highlighted the band's free-form qualities melding mediaeval, jazz and
rock influences whilst 'Elspeth of Nottingham' displayed Akkerman's
infatuation with an earlier age and the Renaissance Lute.
In 1973 Akkerman was cited as 'best international guitarist' in a Melody
Maker poll and tours of the USA and Japan widened their appeal in those
markets. A live album 'At The Rainbow' showed the band at their peak,
the concert was also televised on the OGWT.
Focus' subsequent albums never quite captured their early originality and
constant touring in late 1973/4 led to creative burn-out. 'Hamburger
Concerto' was a solid if sometimes meandering work in 1974, 'Mother Focus'
(1975) followed a funky transatlantic vibe and the material was decidedly
Akkerman quit the band in 1976 to follow a solo career and the 1978
swansong 'Focus Con Proby' somewhat bizarrely included veteran sixties
singer PJ Proby. Highly-regarded Belgian guitarist Philip Catherine
replaced Akkerman for a UK tour but the band soon imploded.
Whilst Focus fans will find merit in all of the band's output, as even the
later patchy offerings held up some gems, there is no doubt that 'Focus
III' is a good starting point for newcomers. It also includes 'Sylvia' and
'House of the King'. On the original vinyl, there was a break in the long
piece 'Anonymus' so the CD version restores the track's continuity.
And once hooked, the salivating listener will want to explore in more
depth the parallel solo careers of both Akkerman and Van Leer, the latter
via his semi-classical and highly successful 'Introspection' series.
Akkerman's solo work can be patchy but 'Tabernakel' (1974), 'Heartware'
(1980) and 'Focus In Time' (1996) show the guitarist's musical range
utilising lute, synth-guitar and compositional skills respectively.
Focus reformed in 2001, with the great Jan Dumee on guitar and latterly
Pierre van der Linden on drums. Van der Linden remains in the line-up but
'Focus 9' (2007) was re-recorded with new guitarist Niels van der
Steenhoven. And before you ask, it is highly unlikely that Van Leer and
Akkerman will appear together on stage again, or in the studio.
Akkerman continues to tour and make solo albums, but sometimes with a
reticence about playing the 'Focus' tunes which first brought him
international acclaim. His gigs are frequently a case of "will he, won't
he?" when it comes to his Focus past and a tangible sigh of relief when he
relents. The results, though, are usually spectacular especially when
older material is reworked.
© 2007 David Randall/GRTR! All rights reserved.