Monday, October 02, 2006

Yodel and be Damned - Focus

In 1973, Dutch band Focus were set to conquer the world. Paul Stump tells a tale of rise, fall and a redeeming comeback

When this writer's short trousers were still in short trousers, Focus were briefly the hottest property in music. Alchemising rock, classical, jazz and knowingly knockabout musical comedy alien to the prog-rock genre they ploughed, they were for a time to Brits the cultural analogue of the cerebral 'total football' espoused at the time by the mesmerising Ajax and Netherlands teams of Johan Cruyff et al - exotic, very clever, utterly modern and supremely sophisticated. This was the music of the future as envisaged by TV shows like Joe 90 and Space 1999.

The band were led, jointly, by taciturn Amsterdam guitar virtuoso Jan Akkerman and keyboardist/flautist/ yodeller/ whistler/ playwright/actor/composer/general clever-clogs Thijs Van Leer. The latter had a particular penchant for superb melodies, often inspired by Dutch folk music and Protestant hymns. The two had met while playing in the backing band for the first Dutch production of Hair, and shared wildly eclectic tastes from John Coltrane to John Dowland. The group's second album, Moving Waves (1971) set the template - Van Leer's sensationally audacious opener, the yodel-heavy Hocus Pocus, bridged instrumental novelty a la Mrs Mills with turbocharged hooks and riffs; the rest mixed seductive melodies with taut and to-the-point electric energy which burst out rudely whenever things seemed to get too strait-laced.

From nowhere, the contrary Akkerman effortlessly offered playing simultaneously as fast, sinewy and tasteful as axe-heroes like Eric Clapton's or Jimmy Page's - his incisive attaca was as jazzily clean as Wes Montgomery's or Jim Hall's. The 23-minute Eruption, which takes up half of Moving Waves, is a striking set of variations on a theme from Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. Only the interpolations of chuggingly energetic band workouts turn this from the icon of pretentiousness it should have been into a viable artistic statement. Few electric bands have ever understood dynamic range, in terms of texture as well as volume, as well as Focus. Thanks to Akkerman and Van Leer they made European art music respectacle in rock - not a vehicle for empty virtuosic grandstanding, but as a basis for Romanticism, passion and humour.

Focus might not have gone much beyond that had they not had the foresight to load up a portable generator for a spring 1972 tour of England. They arrived in the middle of a glum-skied winter plague of industrial unrest and power-cuts and suddenly became the only band able to play regularly anywhere. And they played their socks off. No other prog rock band ever played with as much guts and conquered so much of the British blue-collar rock constituency as Focus. Here was something - a very loud band comprising a classic garagey set-up of organ, bass, drums and guitar (with optional flute) playing knowing crossover music with with equal amounts of delicacy and raw fury (all of the quartet, even drummer Pierre van der Linden, remained straight-faced while racing through breakneck live workouts of Hocus Pocus). Sales and plaudits went off the scale. No act appearing on the BBC's Old Grey Whistle Test ever received such a response as Focus.

Focus 3, a 1972 double-set, contains instrumental longueurs typical of the time. But there were also some of Van Leer's finest tunes. Harmonies most rock musicians would never have conceived intruded even into quite commonplace pieces. Sylvia, a coquettish triumph of major over minor keys, coined from one of the genre's most hackneyed riffs, made the British top 3. Carnival Fugue marries sound classical writing with and a raucous cha-cha finale poking affectionate fun at Victor Sylvester. Akkerman's matter-of-fact lute cameo, Elspeth of Nottingham, is quietly impressive.

America wilted in the band's path; but within 12 months Focus were, effectively, washed up. Their 1974 album, Hamburger Concerto, was probably their most mature, but the moment had passed. Intelligent and energetic though their music was, their market value had always been as a curiosity. Van Leer made a mint fluting on a series of anodyne, easy-listening albums under the rubric Introspection; a resentful Akkerman began a feud which has lasted until this day. Live, the music got faster and faster; Akkerman tried to play Van Leer off the stage. "He's the artist, I'm the artisan," Akkerman complained. In 1976 he quit, on the eve of a British tour. Philip Catherine was drafted in as a replacement but the damage was done; despite excellent moments on Mother Focus (1975) and Ship of Memories (1976) and even on the monumentally bizarre and misguided collaboration with 1960s trouser-splitting pop rebel PJ Proby (Focus Con Proby, 1978), Van Leer called in the receivers.

He enjoyed a brief reconciliation with Akkerman: Focus (1985) is a frequently inspired selection of instrumental duets, an impromptu summer jam, heavily electronic but with a depth and scope of harmony few rock musicians can dream of. Since then Van Leer has lived happily off his muzak earnings, although occasional outings, such as an album of traditional Dutch tunes, Gelukkig is 't Land (1982) and Renaissance (1986) a portfolio of home-brewed flute-and-Casio ballads, would charm the pants off all but the hardest-nosed cynic; all of these simple instrumentals are potential Oscar-winners.

In 2000, though, Van Leer found himself watching his stepson, bassist Bobby Jacobs, performing with a Focus tribute band. He got so carried away at the gig he intemperately offered to join them, and before long an entirely new Focus had assembled. This was due in no small part to the prodigious compositional abilities of guitarist Jan Dumée. The results - especially the latter's hauntingly filmic Tamara's Move - feature on Focus 8, released on the French Musea label in 2002.

The fact that the comeback spawned - indeed was centred around - an album of very fine if sometimes meretriciously fanbase-pleasing new material, may be why this prog rock rebirth, unlike many, seems to be taken seriously by a shedload of listeners, often mingling parents and children in the same audience. No matter what the age of the spectator, when the madcap riff of Hocus Pocus was heard, roomfuls of people still go seriously barmy, no matter how toked the older spectators are. And the band still play it at velocities so rapid it make The Ramones sound like Brian Eno.

The genial and modest Van Leer is now a corpulent and genial 58, his hairless cranium discreetly hidden by one of those broad-brimmed hats of the kind that only bald rockers ever wear; his trademark mutton-chop sideboards ashen now, but when he plugs in that Hammond organ and those Leslie speakers, the man comes alive; ditto the unfeasible yodelling range, attacking the flute while the posture and breathing technique stays that of the most seasoned pro... from Japan to Brazil, and even in their native Netherlands, Focus are the subject of cult worship once again. The future their music was supposed to portend never happened; but the fact that Van Leer has once again made them active and creative and easily still one of rock's most eccentric attractions must surely make the whole strange trip worthwhile.

BLOGGER'S NOTE - New album, new line-up - see for details

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