Red Bullet 2020
A nigh on definitive package from the rock period of Dutch dreamers that boxes their classic oeuvre to examine it in aural and visual detail.
Forget about GOLDEN EARRING and SHOCKING BLUE, for it’s FOCUS that, this side of of innocent Nederpop, has always been one of Holland’s greatest exports – as symbolical as tulips or Van Gogh’s paintings. Arguably the sole old-generation prog group where half of the players could boast of classical training, this ensemble arguably were the least influenced by non-continental musical styles and, thus, stood out, apart from their competition – still do. The quartet’s legacy – the albums which brought them fame and glory – may be meagre when compared to the output of other ’70s bands, yet it’s massive from the cultural point of view. Here’s the reason why the group’s works deserved a box set treatment – not only because it was long overdue but also because their records must be accessed as a whole, as a continuity. So there it is, the anthology marking the veterans’ fiftieth anniversary.
Comprised of nine CDs and two DVDs, this collection includes all of those albums, properly remastered from master tapes so the tracks order and sonic minutiae – pauses where they were on vinyl, etcetera – are reproduced, and no aspect of the LPs is lost. On the contrary, the plethora of rarities and previously unissued numbers enrich the context, and an 80-page booklet – curated by the Dutch troupe’s archivist Wouter Bessels – tells their story comprehensively and succinctly. Yes, there’s a glaring absence of “Focus con Proby” from 1977, which brings home the point that the team’s integrity is perceived to be lying exclusively within the talents of organist-flautist Thijs Van Leer and guitarist Jan Akkerman.
Unlike many other art-rockers, this ensemble – immaculate in terms of artistry – never took themselves too seriously with regards to stage act and always provided top-notch entertainment – no mean feat given there was no standalone singer in the band – and yodeling, their most distinctive feature for the uninitiated, appeared to be but a small part of the quartet’s appeal. There are many eerily attractive elements scattered across the opuses gathered here.
Fueled by ambition from the off, the foursome not only opened their debut album – known in different territories, because the band thought of the entire world as their audience from the very beginning, as “Focus Plays Focus” and “In And Out of Focus” – with the ten-minute eponymous piece, an elegiacally triumphant showcase of the combo’s creative and performing force, yet they also made the enumerated “Focus” an instrumental thread that would traverse all bar one of the ensemble’s studio opuses for years to come, the latest being the "Focus 11" titular cut. While the group’s launchpad record briefly revisits it in a much paler vocal form for the finale, and “Why Dream” or “Black Beauty” are rather innocent, if impressive, post-psychedelic songs, the longplay’s genuine strength is in wordless compositions such as “Anonymus” – the first number to credit both Thijs and Jan among the writers – a not-too-tentative flute-flaunting trip into Renaissance folk and jazz as suggest Martijn Dresden’s four-string solo, Akkerman’s blistering guitar wigout and Hans Cleuver’s percussive fest. Not so innocent feel the pop-tinged “Happy Nightmare (Mescaline)” and “Sugar Island” – the catchy later, referring to Cuba, got omitted from the platter’s US and Canadian editions – demonstrating van Leer’s interest in Latino rhythms which found ultimate release on "Focus 8.5 / Beyond The Horizon" in 2016.
Foreign listeners might not have appreciated the singer’s accent in delivering English lyrics – and the success of baroque-tinctured single “House Of The King” seemed to confirm their preferences – so, perhaps subconsciously, Thijs once went Tirolean over Jan’s heavy riff, which was how, with falsetto, sped-up scat and toot further spicing up this multifaceted slab of hard rock, the ensemble’s calling card “Hocus Pocus” came into existence. It introduces 1971’s “Focus II” – more famous as “Moving Waves” – but before that work, produced by blues maven Mike Vernon, saw the light of day, and before the ’45’s American cut got peppered with funk, the axeman had quit and joined his old friend, skin-kicker Pierre van der Linden, just to greet van Leer’s rounding off, cajoled by the manager, their and their bassist’s communion. The drummer’s input would both elevate the earlier oeuvre – a live version of “Focus I” from the same year a testament to the collective’s upgraded scope – and sharpen the band’s improvisatory edge and approach to nuances. So after the idiosyncratic onslaught of the album’s start, Akkerman and van Leer cool down the air as they’re weaving delicate acoustic lace on, respectively, “Le Clochard (Bread)” and “Janis” and then the title track – a piano recital set around Inayat Khan’s Sufi-minded stanzas, the very poet whose verses gave the team their name.
And then there’s “Eruption” – the group’s tour de force, spanning an entire vinyl side and clocking in about 23 minutes: a humble duration, really, with its original, rough concert display – laid down, as documented here, in Amsterdam in 1970, when previous line-up had sketched this suite, exposing several tunes which wouldn’t end up on the album, but sans a pair of parts like a future single, the ethereal, almost easy-listening “Tommy” – stretching to 37 minutes, and in a year, in Rotterdam, as illustrated on one of two bonus live CDs, gloriously running twice as long as its studio template. Based on the Orpheus and Euridyce myth yet taking the concept far beyond simple symphonic scope, along diverse vectors of progressive spectrum, the quartet’s epic masterpiece flows via variety of moods and techniques, from serene to blustery, from swagger to brooding drift, from filigree to broad strokes.
The foursome’s sophomore offering established their presence on the scene, so the ensemble’s aspirations bloomed, and that record’s 1972 follow-up – titled, without a pinch of fantasy, “Focus 3” – had to become a double LP which leaves space for additional material in CD form. Less stormy than its predecessor from a contrast point of view, the band’s newly acquired mellowness will prove deceptive. Of course, the jovial chart-riding “Sylvia” – jubilant in its twine of roaring organ and soaring six strings and high on van Leer’s helium-light vocals – can look as if it was an attempt to recapture the “Hocus Pocus” vibe, but the track’s levity is indicative of the quartet’s maturity, the characteristic of all the album’s numbers. Another signal of this ocher-hued change is the reflective, albeit celebratory, “Focus III” that segues into the syncopated sprawling tapestry of “Answers? Questions! Questions? Answers!” to get punctured by Bert Ruiter’s bass – a bottom-end support which would be there for the next half-decade.
As cosmic synthesizers permeate the rippling “Love Remembered” and the translucent lament “Elspeth Of Nottingham” lets Jan’s lute and Thijs’ flute explore medieval landscape, the group tighten their grip on an idyllic idiom. Nearing it are the breezy “Round Goes The Gossip…” where bliss and anxiety ooze out of fusion-informed pseudo-gothic passages, and “Carnival Fugue” whose strum-caressed solemn piano is increasingly frivolous in a cool-jazz manner until swirling ivories whisk the band to a village fair. Yet there’s no better sign of the collective’s development than “Anonymus II” – a one-and-a-half side walk-in-the-park expansion of a theme from their debut, and a few more familiar figures – allowing each musician to shine and do the samba under a protracted individual spotlight and then merge their sophisticated lines, without pretending to be as adventurous or logically eclectic as “Eruption” was.
With “Focus 3” the Dutchmen aimed to replicate their stage experience in the studio, and spent only two days nailing the tracks there, so the team decided to issue a live album next – but not before trying to author a regular one and failing to be satisfied with the results. A handful of instrumentals from those sessions would form a good portion of 1976’s “Ship Of Memories” – including the percussion-and-harmonium piece by Pierre that, severely shortened for this compilation then and unveiled in full on a different disc now, lent the disc its title. The rest is relatively strong: “Focus V” emerges as a typical entry in the melancholic franchise, and “P’s March” – dedicated to van der Linden rather than peace movement – comes across as a victorious, riff-and-flute-driven image of a palace tour, stately and free, especially when guitar flurries imitate gulls’ cries. Sadly, jams “Out Of Vesuvius” that was planned to carry on the “Eruption” grandiosity only to reveal an insipid jive, and “Can’t Believe My Eyes” brim with ideas, which could have led to an array of memorable cuts yet hit a cul-de-sac instead. Live tracks, though, as the foursome discovered, had excitement embedded in every lick and beat fed to the London crowd – stunned by Hollanders’ extravagance and resourcefulness in using their own equipment in order to work during the oil crisis.
Recorded in May 1973 and inserted in this box in its remarkable cut-out sleeve, “At The Rainbow” presents neither the ensemble’s entire performance – to avoid doubling black plastic so soon after their preceding effort, the quartet had to condense “Eruption” to a mere eight minutes, without diluting the suite’s impact – nor its actual order, as marked by inter-song pauses. However, placing “Focus III” at the start makes a lot of sense, since the band gradually heat up the atmosphere to transmogrify the wistful, dynamically astonishing number into a wildly rocking and then contemplative “Answers? Questions! Questions? Answers!” – the brilliant snapshot of the collective’s virtuosity, as is “Focus II” even in a reserved concert reading. It’s tempting to think “Hocus Pocus” – somewhat repetitive as this piece is – cannot be unfolded outside its constraints yet, quickened and infused with an invigorating dose of operatic vocalese, listing the players’ names and bidding farewell, it does – wrapped around “Sylvia” that’s a bit hectic, too.
There’s also a film of a the “Rainbow” gig on a DVD here – it was shot on one of the two evenings when the companion album got recorded- with the picture quality vastly improved and yet-not-seen fragments reinstated for all to enjoy the rare view of Thijs standing for the main theme of “House Of The King” or Jan shredding with broken strings before perching on a chair with a lute in his hands. The video is spellbinding on every level and sometimes unhinged, only there’s more from that tour. Of the same duration as “At The Rainbow” and recorded several days afterwards in Ireland, “Focus At The Stadium” is strikingly unlike that renowned video, capturing “Anonymus II” – on which the grimacing Van Leer in the familiar polka-dot shirt intones the riff and then smokes at the side of the stage, together with Akkerman, during the denim-clad Ruiter’s and red-donning van der Linden’s solos – in all its prolong, unpredictable power, the band looking tired yet fans going into a frenzy to demand encore in the end.
As Vernon noticed, the “Rainbow” show wasn’t the group’s best, and the BBC tapes from London’s “Paris Theatre” made on January 17th, 1973 and left in the archives until now, when it receives a separate CD, support the producer’s statement. There’s unbridled panache on a similar setlist, so obvious on the revitalized “Focus I” and “Answers?” where melodic tangents are simultaneously raw and magnificent, and the central position of “Anonymus II” – updated again and bordering on rapture – enhances the overall euphoria emanating from these tracks. But in 1973 those who attended the ensemble’s shows had to marvel at a then-unheard epic that they envisioned as a contender to “Eruption” and wanted to call “Vesuvius” – which the aforementioned studio jam was related to. It would eventually be rolled out as a titular piece – side-long, too – of 1974’s “Hamburger Concerto”: the collective’s supreme achievement whose realization required an amazing array of instruments and a change in the line-up, as Pierre jumped ship and was replaced with Colin Allen – an inventively solid drummer of STONE THE CROWS fame. There’s a TV performance from December 1973, with him on the stool, where this epic got premiered on-screen, although nothing on that video indicates how the entire album would turn out like.
It’s a mélange of exquisite musical drawings – Akkerman’s bucolically pellucid, purely unplugged “Delitiæ Musicæ” and Van Leer’s dramatically nostalgic, spiked with cinematic singing, whistle and imitation of bells, “La Cathédrale de Strasbourg” – and aural assault of “Harem Scarem” that comically mirrors “Hocus Pocus” in heft, frenzy and the piano-pounding Thijs’ vocal clownery. On the other hand, the quasi-orchestral Brahms-inspired principal suite, this 21-minute richly layered harnessing of restrained pomposity and tuneful hope, hung on a Harrisonesque refrain and was encrusted with yodel, velvet baritone, but deliberately devoid of bright motifs. The mini-miracle is rivaled by Jan’s “Birth”: a ceremonious, spiritual, sublime, harpsichord-and-reeds-adorned, if largely upbeat, piece of infinite, guitar-winged wonder at life; its embryo version is here as well as a slightly watered-down, yet still profoundly, emotional performance from Osaka – preserved for posterity three months after the record’s release and stored here on a concert disc alongside tracks of Japanese origin from 1975, among them muscular, and to an extent pointless, funk-rock improvs that could alienate the band’s fanbase. It was as though grandeur was abruptly stripped from the group’s output, and the players resorted to an often superficial, albeit glittery and robust, fusion – as though Jan and Thijs stopped competing.
Which was how “Mother Focus” from the same year felt, because Van Leer and Akkerman, who challenged each other creatively ever since the former had joined the renegade later back in 1970, ceased to do so and saved the best bits for their solo endeavors, leaving it to Bert Ruiter to rule the game. The bassist’s authority and the comparative lack of commitment from the colleagues, plus the arrival of American David Kemper behind the kit, led to the prog element almost completely banished from the album in favor of RETURN TO FOREVER-patented lightweight inventiveness – given a faint European flavor. Yet if Thijs couldn’t help but sign off with somber organ of “Father Bach” – a snippet of the German genius’ “St Matthew Passion” passed off as a traditional melody – such curio as the Bert-sung, primitively infectious “I Need A Bathroom” would be impossible to imagine on any FOCUS’ record. These don’t stand a lot of chance to outbalance even the title track – a disco-bubbling number, where acoustic guitar and piano battle with their electric counterparts and welcome the echoes of yodel, the master cut not having the punch of preliminary mix where sitar is quite discernible – let alone “Focus IV”: enchanting, chamber-perfumed only too much tuned into the mid-’70s trends.
Surprisingly, unsophisticated “Bennie Helder” flutters once flute is added to its effervescent dance, and the scintillating “Soft Vanilla” and “Hard Vanilla” – an originally single composition, as another rough mix stresses, split in two – flower on a bottom-end bedrock. But while the sensual, silky “Someone’s Crying… What!” has no humor, the faux bluegrass background of “All Together… Oh That!” is jolly enough. The preparation of this box became an opportunity to correct an error made back in 1975 – to note that it was Allen performing on the romantic ballad “No Hang Ups” and not Kemper who drummed on “Bathroom” – just like “Ship of Memories” gave Mike Vernon an opportunity to corral compositions into the quartet’s last classic album when they had nothing substantial to share with fans anymore.
A couple of tracks on that record reminded aficionados of something they had already heard, which couldn’t be a coincidence: the earliest entry on the compilation, the Haydn-cum-country “Spoke The Lord Creator” from January 1970, was used in “Concerto” and “Glider” was already known as “Mother Focus” – yet was independently defiant on its own. Pride also pours out of “Red Sky At Night” and this anthem’s vocal version “O Avondrood” – issued on a Dutch music compendium and added as a bonus here, together with a voice-supplied rendition of “Crackers” that remains a bleak mirrorball fodder anyway. Other box-set prizes on the disc are of higher historical, rather than musical, value: NEERLANDS HOOP IN BANGE DAGEN’s glimmering “Elektrisch Levenslicht” released in 1969, where Thijs and Jan are domineering legionnaires, and two 1970 cuts from singer Ramses Shaffy where FOCUS are only accompanists, the pathos-ridden “Watch The Ugly People” emphasizing their utter competence.
As for the DVD-stored delights, there’s most, not everything, of what is on YouTube – yet what’s here is in much better quality. Not that it matters in the case of a short, under two minutes, yet priceless, black-and-white clip of the first line-up on a stage, in 1970, with Van Leer without his golden locks, and the next quartet shot en plein-air, relaxing with flute and lute. Filmed in May 1972, their initial “Old Grey Whistle Test” appearance finds the band visually unpretentious – Jan and Bert in brown long-sleeved tees, Thijs in black singlet – situated so close to each other that one may drink in the hypnotic sight of their fingers casting spells in unison on “Eruption” and “Anonymus,” Van Leer in a sort of epileptic trance and Akkerman in a kind of quiet reverie while Pierre, wearing the same red sweater for the October session, makes a hell of a racket on his small drum set. Still, nothing can disrupt the magic of the moment when “Sylvia” morphs into “Hocus Pocus” via a few Hammond chords and vocal curlicues.
It feels different at the “Rainbow” where the darkened space, allowing for distance between the musicians, does a lot to imbue the atmosphere with the air of freedom, but scales down the eye contact between them. More attention is paid to clothes as well, even though van der Linden, seated at the same front line as Thijs and the now-shorthaired and beardless Jan, is resplendent in the red sweatshirt. As a live rendition of two thirds of the “Hamburger” album – with its main cut, to quote Van Leer, “medium, rare and well done” – needed the use of grand piano, the keyboards rack was moved to the right side of the stage, as seen on the 1974 BBC show, with Allen’s gong and timpani, prominent on “Harem Scarem,” a visual shift, too, his clean-shaven look and light attire complementing the singer’s sideburns and dark-green jacket with epaulettes. But how bad they were at miming, with spectators around, as opposed to a genuine live situation or their sole staged video, “O Avondrood” from 1976, where Jan and Thijs, the only featured members, are left to their own glamorous devices!
Nevertheless, the classic foursome’s one-off return on a 1990 festival for five numbers showed that it’s feasible to evoke their erstwhile wizardry – a few fluffed notes notwithstanding – and nervous, but happy, smiles, but this footage confirmed that the crowd cared for the ensemble’s early material so they didn’t bother to venture beyond. This is why the “Classic Albums” feature on “Moving Waves” is worth watching – despite interviews conducted mostly in Dutch – if only to witness the matured musicians dissect “Hocus Pocus” on acoustic instruments in 1997 or see the group write and rehearse the record in Kasteel Groeneveld.
“Our music is not a revolution but only evolution,” says Thijs in the 1971 film, and Jan adds, “It’s a solution!” Indeed, it was – and it is, sealed in this neat, exhaustive, uplifting package and waiting to be let out once again. One can open the Pandora’s box of “Anthology” just out of curiosity, simply interested in FOCUS, only to close it – and keep at hand to spin its gems on and on – loving the group and longing for more. As the treasure chest is very much accessible for the sheer volume of what’s inside it, “Anthology” is easily the best box set of 2020.