Sunday, August 5, 2018


Focus: Sylvia [purchase]

The premise of our next theme is to highlight bands or musicians who had some degree of fame, but seem to have been forgotten over the years. I think it will be interesting to see what our team comes up with over the next two weeks.

I recently heard Focus’ most famous song, “Hocus Pocus” somewhere, and I was reminded that the song is both an example of incredible musicianship and remarkable silliness. Interestingly, though, most of the band’s music that I am familiar with is not at all silly, and to some degree, their legacy has been tainted by being considered as a novelty act because of this one song. Nothing could be farther from the truth, though. In fact, during the period of Focus’ popularity, their music was clever, well-played, and was able to straddle the worlds of rock, folk, jazz and classical without difficulty. They amply deserved their fame, and should be remembered today for more than one song—even if it is a pretty great song.

Originally formed as a trio in 1969 in Amsterdam by keyboardist, vocalist, and flautist Thijs van Leer, after the addition of guitarist Jan Akkerman, the newly named Focus secured a regular gig as the pit band for the Dutch production of Hair. An initially unsuccessful debut album, called Focus Plays Focus followed, but the band recorded a song, “House of the King," a classically influenced instrumental that featured Akkerman’s incendiary guitar and van Leer’s flute, that became a top 10 hit in the Netherlands, and garnered interest outside their native land. The song was added to the international version of the album, re-titled In and out of Focus, but the album was still mostly ignored, only reaching No. 104 on the US album charts.

But it was Focus’s second album, after the rhythm section was replaced, that the band took off. Called Focus II in Holland, but Moving Waves elsewhere, it included the aforementioned “Hocus Pocus,” whose 6:42 second length was edited down to 3:18 for single release. It hit No. 9 on the Billboard 100 chart in the US, and has been featured in movies, TV shows and commercials. In fact, researching this piece reminded me to go watch the movie Baby Driver, which uses an excerpt from “Hocus Pocus” to great effect (spoiler alert). The album reached No. 8 on the Billboard album chart in the US and No. 2 on the UK album chart. Moving Waves featured the band’s signature classical/jazz/rock fusion, with top notch playing, and is really a wonderful album.

Following a successful tour of Europe and the UK, Focus returned to the studio to record their third album, Focus III, with yet another new bass player. Included on this album was the triumphant instrumental (with some wordless vocals) “Sylvia,” a reworking of an old pre-Focus song written by van Leer, and our feature song (because if you have heard of Focus, you probably know “Hocus Pocus,” but maybe not “Sylvia.”) An economical three and a half minute tune, it always makes me happy. While “Sylvia” didn’t reach the same heights as a single in the US (stalling at No. 89), it became an international hit for the band, and the album was also a success. As Allmusic has observed:

The song remains one of the most loved and best remembered songs from Focus' catalog. The consistency in musical quality throughout Focus III is enough to merit any listeners' respect. To be frank, this LP has it all: diverse songs, astounding musicianship, one of the finest singles ever released -- Focus III should unquestionably be ranked alongside the likes of Revolver, Dark Side of the Moon, and any others of rock's greatest. 

And yet, it isn’t.

Focus followed this success with a headlining tour of Europe and the UK, and a North American tour, opening for other prog-rock luminaries. But the rigors of touring exacerbated tensions between van Leer and Akkerman and led to the replacement of drummer Pierre van der Linden. One set of songs was trashed before the band, with the two leaders working separately in the studio, released Hamburger Concerto, another diverse album that while often engaging, was not as good as its predecessors (and even included another attempt to strike “Hocus Pocus” gold with a song called “Harem Scarem.”). The album charted, but not as highly as Focus III. Another world tour followed, including an appearance on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert. Apparently, a young Michael Jackson was a fan, and saw them a few times, with Akkerman later claiming that MJ nicked a bass line from one of his solo songs.

That’s pretty much where I, and I think much of the world, lost track of Focus. Akkerman and van Leer feuded, drummers came and went, and ultimately Akkerman was given the boot, replaced by the fine Belgian guitarist Philip Catherine. But the band devolved into chaos, and a number of bad ideas and alcohol led to the breakup of Focus in 1978.

A few reunions in the 1980s and 1990s, some with, and some without, Akkerman were unsuccessful, but in the early 2000s van Leer formed a new version of Focus, has released a handful of new albums, and, as this piece is written, the band is on tour, with 2018 dates in Europe, the UK, and Mexico. Akkerman's solo career has embraced jazz, rock, fusion, and classical music, and he still breaks out both "Hocus Pocus" and "Sylvia" on occasion.

Clearly, the changing musical landscape in the late 1970s led to the disappearance of many prog-rockers, most of whom changed their sound, disappeared, or fell into obscurity. And yet, there is still a cohort of these bands who are still remembered today. I’d like to add Focus to that group.

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