David Randall developed the groundbreaking website Akkernet in 1996 during the Internet’s infancy and went on to manage several UK tours for Jan Akkerman before writing the original biography published in 2003. Here he recalls Focus and the key recordings.
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 “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 King’.
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.
Focus at the BBC in 1972 (left to right) Pierre van der Linden, Bert Ruiter, Jan Akkerman, Thijs van Leer
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’ – also produced by Mike Vernon – 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 under-par.
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.
Van Leer reformed Focus in 2001, with 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. Since 2010 Menno Gootjes has occupied the guitar position with Udo Pannekeet now on bass. In the past decade the band have frequently toured in the UK and played many festivals.
Jan Akkerman photographed in July 1998
Akkerman returned to the UK for a series of well received gigs in 1997-2000 and continues to tour – although mainly in Holland. His latest solo album – Close Beauty - was released in 2019.
And, before you ask, it is highly unlikely that both he and Van Leer will bite the bullet and collaborate again. (Although they did perform together in 1990 for Dutch TV following their “reunion” album ‘Focus’ released in 1985).
Akkerman still harbours resentment that started brewing in the mid-1970s, with the success of Van Leer’s solo career which he also felt compromised Focus and detracted from future progress. In truth the guitarist also tired of the relentless touring at the band’s peak, the lack of time to compose new music, and the inevitable repetition in the set-list.
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 (1972) 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. Moving Waves (1971) is also essential.
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.
Collectors will have their work cut out with the high volume of session work over the years for both Van Leer and Akkerman, complicated by import-only single releases many with picture sleeves. One of the rarest Akkerman releases was recorded in 1997 during his triumphal return to the UK stage, a purely acoustic set Live At The Priory (1998). A compilation marking his 50th birthday is also a rarity as it was only issued in small numbers to friends and family.
The boxed set released in 2018 brings together all Akkerman’s solo albums plus bonuses. A similar ‘Hocus Pocus’ box exists for Focus. Both include either dubious remastering or obvious omissions but represent good value nevertheless.
“In And Out Of Focus – the Music of Jan Akkerman and Focus”, David Randall (SAF Publishing, 2003)
Album review (Jan Akkerman, Close Beauty)
(i) David Randall
(iv) Clive Woodley
© 2007, 2020 David Randall/GRTR! All rights reserved.
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