FOCUS - The history of a unique band- by Irene Heinicke
From his early childhood on Thijs van Leer had been made familiar with mainly classical music. Besides that he is a keen jazz lover. Not until1967 Thijs becomes interested in pop music. He adjourns his study of art history when he starts performing as a vocalist, pianist en flautist at the cabaret of Ramses Shaffy. It is Ramses, who teaches Thijs "about the business", stimulates him and who advises him to go into music. In the fall of 1968 Thijs founds a trio with drummer Hans Cleuver en bass guitarist Martijn Dresden. They accompany Liesbeth List and Ramses. The trio draws so much of his attention that Thijs has to end his studies at the conservatory. Martijn approaches Hubert Terheggen of the publishing house called Radio Tele Music, who becomes interested in Thijs' compositions. He wants to make a record and talks about an international release. During one of the rehearsals in the Amsterdam Shaffy Theatre guitar virtuoso Jan Akkerman, who played in the Friendship Sextet, Johnny and his Cellar Rockers and the Hunters and who was becoming successful with the band called Brainbox, walks in and joins the session. As a result of this Jan gets fired by John van Setten, the manager of Brainbox and thus joins the trio. In January 1970 this quartet plays in the Dutch version of the musical "Hair" as the heart of the orchestra of nine members. On the Dutch Hair album Van Leer, Cleuver, Dresden and Akkerman are recorded together for the first time. After the Hair shows the new band gets a name: FOCUS.
The first performances take place in Amsterdam clubs. Everywhere youngsters are wild enthusiastic. Already three months after the foundation they make a record "Focus plays Focus", a first try out with mainly vocal songs and short solo's. Only the pretentious "Anonymus" that was later worked out in an extremely beautiful way, draws the attention. The cover looks bad, technically the product has an inferior quality and only eight thousand copies were sold. As Focus is gaining an enormous popularity, they decide to re release this "moderate" album in a much better way: "In and out of Focus" recorded in London. Mike Vernon, former producer of Fleetwood Mac and John Mayall, is the artistic leader of this record, that no longer represents what the band stands for at that moment, but Focus desperately needs a hit. "House of the King" becomes an enormous hit, that stays in the national top ten at a high position for a couple of weeks. Then Martijn Dresden leaves Focus and is replaced by Cyriel Havermans, coming from the band called Big Wheel. Pierre van der Linden, also coming from Brainbox, changes places with Hans Cleuver. Jan and Pierre, who already played together in bands like the Cellar Rockers and Brainbox, form a unique rhythmic duo. Focus develops its own musical style: a synthesis of pop, classical, jazz and rock music.
In the summer of 1971 the big break through in The Netherlands takes place. "Hocus Pocus" becomes an enormous hit. De second album "Focus II", better known as "Moving Waves" abroad, is released almost a year after its predecessor for which they got an Edison Award in the meantime. As a part of "Eruption" that covers the whole B-side, there is a song called "Tommy", which was later released on compilation albums in the single version. The title song "Focus II" is also on the record, which was produced again by Mike Vernon. This album nowadays is considered to be one of the all time greatest Dutch recordings of pop music. Focus stands at a lonely height and belongs to the "crème de la crème" of the Dutch pop scene. Even fine bands like Kayak, Supersister, Alquin, Golden Earring and Earth & Fire are no "competition". Manager Yde de Jong also contributes to the band's increasing successes. After a large amount of concerts, performances at festivals and tv specials in and outside The Netherlands, Focus goes to England for the first time. As first European band Focus breaks the unwritten law that "it's impossible for a continental band to be successful in England". Within a couple of weeks two albums and two singles make it into the top of the English charts and stay there for quite some time. A renowned English pop magazine writes: "the music of Focus bursts with vitality, is full of refreshing variations, shows magnificent harmony and contains a large sense of humour." Within half a year England lays at the feet of Focus. The hit single "Sylvia" appears to be outstandingly successful.
Then Cyriel Havermans leaves Focus to make a career as a solo artist. Bert Ruiter, who was in bands like Full House and de group of performer Herman van Veen, takes his place at the end of September 1971. In a short period of time two double albums are released in Holland: "Moving Waves" containing the songs of the first two albums and "Focus 3", which has a smashing sale. It enters the album top ten of Radio Veronica at place 4 and later makes it to the highest position of that chart. The outstanding "Anonymus 2" is more than 40 minutes long. In view of the budding English (and American) market "Sylvia" and "House of the King" are also on the record. Particularly "Focus 3" has the atmosphere of their live performances. The sound of Focus on stage is almost identical to their albums sound. Moreover is Focus also a constant musical fight, between Jan and Thijs there is a continuous musical rivalry, not only inside the band. Van Leer releases his first solo album. "Introspection" becomes the best selling Dutch album ever, this album will get more follow-ups. Akkerman is a very popular guest featuring on lots of albums of other artists and he releases some solo albums too ("Profile" and "Tabernakel"). In England Focus is announced as "brightest hope" for the future! The four musical phenomena receive lots of other honourable distinctions and in polls of the big music magazines in and outside Holland, they are elected as best band or best foreign band.
In the fall of 1972 Focus is touring England again very successfully, this fact leads them to a new adventure in the United States. Jan Akkerman is voted "best guitarist" by the English magazine called Melody Maker". In leading American music magazines Focus gets a lot of striking attention. The critics talk of a "whole new sound" De USA tour in March1973 is like a true triumphal procession and is extended due to the thrilling success. "Moving Waves" en "Focus 3" make it to gold within a short period of time. The specially new recorded single "Hocus Pocus" stays in the top ten of the American charts for weeks. The "Dutch Masters of Music" as the press calls Focus, go on a more extended tour a few months later, which consists of dozens of open-air concerts. There were rumours that Focus would get a million dollar contract at CBS, but later they receive a very attractive offer from EMI that they can't refuse. During preparations for a third American tour Pierre van der Linden calls it a day and leaves the band. He can no longer identify himself to the changing style van Focus. The English drummer Colin Allen, who played before in Stone The Crows and John Mayall, joins the band in October 1973 and then this new line-up tours the States.
Shortly after Pierre's departure Bovema releases a live album recorded at the The Rainbow theatre in London. On this album are some superb live performances (with Pierre on drums) of Focus songs of the years passed. Again Focus proves its world class and this record sells incredibly well. All previous released records score a golden sale. As Focus goes into another direction with their new "Hamburger Concerto" album in March 1974, they prove how to keep their status of international super band. But this album with songs like "Harem Scarem" and "Birth", fails to match the success of former albums. Constant tensions cause the departure of Colin Allen. At the end of 1975 an album called "Mother Focus" which was mainly recorded in Los Angeles is released. On this record with songs like the title song and "Focus IV", American session drummer David Kemper takes the place of Colin, with the exception of "No Hang Ups", which was recorded in the Morgan Studio's in Brussels. When the position of the drummer causes Focus problems Pierre van der Linden rejoins the band. His come-back comes just after a failed musical adventure with a band called Trace and he joins Focus on a tour to Japan, Australia en the Scandinavian countries. Once more Focus bring their fans into ecstasy, but the heydays of the past are over.
The band has a lack of inspiration and magnificent compositions fail to occur. At the beginning of 1976 the compilation album "Masters of Rock" is released. Pierre van der Linden quits the band again and as a result of increasing tensions Jan Akkerman leaves Focus too. The American drummer David Kemper and the Belgian jazz guitarist Philip Catherine take over their places. Their musical influence is a heavy delivery. The reactions of the Focus fans are less positive to this change in the line-up of the band. During an English tour new songs are performed in a fluent style, in which Focus reaches a very high level in the field of the international jazz-rock. In October 1976 "Ship of Memories" is released, containing old tracks (with Van Leer, Cleuver, Dresden, Akkerman and Ruiter), which were disapproved for the first 3 Focus albums. A year later Bovema releases "Focus Con Proby". On this record Philip Catherine, guitarist Eef Alberts, drummer Steve Smith and singer P.J. Proby can be heard in "Sneezing Bull" "Wingless" en "Brother", The album is not successful. Focus' last performance takes place in Terneuzen, the line-up is: Thijs van Leer, Eef Alberts, Richard James (drums) and Bert Ruiter.
In 1985 Jan Akkerman and Thijs van Leer release an album together called"Focus", with "Russian roulette", "King Kong" and "Beethoven's Revenge" and a cd with extended versions of some of the tracks. They also do some live performances together. The record is not very successful and the duo splits up again.
In 1990 Focus gets together one more time in the most successful line-up: Bert Ruiter on bass guitar, Pierre van der Linden on drums, Jan Akkerman on guitar and Thijs van Leer on organ and flute. They perform a fantastic live show in the t.v. programme "Goud van Oud" ("Golden Oldies")of Veronica. The songs being played are: "Focus 3", "Focus II". "House of the King", "Sylvia", "Tommy" and "Hocus Pocus".
In 1993 Akkerman and Van Leer are live on stage together for the last time during the North Sea Jazz Festival. With the Akkerman/Van Leer Band they play both Focus songs as Jan's solo pieces.
Jan Akkerman and Pierre van der Linden remain buddies, they regularly meet and perform together at the Blues route in Utrecht in 1995 for instance.
From 1996 Jan and the Jan Akkerman Band tour The Netherlands, besides Jan the other members are: Nico Brandsen (organ), Ton Dijkman (drums) and Manuel Hugas (bass). A live performance of the band (with some old Focus songs) can be heard on the Jan Akkerman "10,000 Clowns on a rainy day" cd.
In 1998 Thijs van Leer makes another effort to reform Focus, together with two other "golden oldies" Hans Cleuver and Bert Ruiter. The "wonder child" Menno Gootjes is the new guitarist. Soon it appears that this Focus won't last very long: before the start of the theatre tour, the band splits up again due to problems that rise between Thijs and Bert about the release date of the new c.d. with songs like "Focus VII" and "Hurkey Turkey".
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