Tag Archives: Thijs Van Leer

A 1973 Aside (I) – “Focus 3” Album

Focus – Focus 3

As the title cleverly suggests, this was Dutch band Focus’ third album.

Where the best-selling predecessor “Moving Waves” was a mostly tight and somewhat aggressive album, “Focus 3” is, by comparison, a much looser and free-form work.

Over the length of two vinyl albums, Thijs van Leer, Jan Akkerman and the rest of the band are able to showcase their skills in compositions that often resemble little more than jazz jams.

Round Goes the Gossip” is – to be blunt – a pretty insipid way to kick any album off. It sound like Van Leer was trying to write a traditional pop song, and it falls terribly short of its mark.

Love Remembered” is much more what we came to expect from the band, flute and acoustic guitar slowly giving way to lightweight drums. Every time I hear it I am, for some reason, always reminded of John Barry’s instrumental interludes for the early James Bond films.

Sylvia” was the hit single from the album, Akkerman – like so many times before – bouncing his virtuoso guitar work off Van Leer’s keyboard and… erm… yodelling skills. Yes, yodelling. I have always loved how the song sounds like it’s ending… and then just kicks back into gear again before slowly fading.

Carnival Fugue” exemplifies the ‘jam’ aspect of this entire album, featuring as it does a gentle lilting intro that suddenly builds into a substantial – but often muddy – drum/guitar/organ/piccolo playoff routine.

Jan Akkerman - then and... um... now

Focus III”  remains one of my favourite tracks by the band. I love how Akkerman’s guitar sounds throughout its six-minute or so length. It’s a beautifully restrained piece of work, the dynamics (at least for me) utterly captivating. It’s another composition that almost sounds as if it was purpose made as some kind of film soundtrack… I remain surprised the band were never approached by Hollywood in that regard. (btw, the YouTube clip selected for this cut is a vastly inferior recent live version of the song withOUT Akkerman on guitar – it stands up okay but it feels like some kind of weird karaoke performance by comparison)

Answers? Questions! Questions? Answers!” really kicks off the extended jam section of the album, another seemingly improvised-on-the-spot piece that swaps out instruments from beginning to end. It’s almost as if Focus were trying to be a jazz/rock band before the phrase had even fallen into popular use. Van Leer shows himself as much of a skillful organ player as the great Jimmy Smith, whilst Akkerman proves once again that other so-called ‘natural guitarists’ (Clapton comes to mind here) are mere pyrotechnic pretenders to his own throne.

Elspeth of Nottingham” is a medieval-themed birdsong, lute and flute piece that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the Robin Hood TV series. Pretty ghastly.

Thijs Van Leer - then and... um... now

The lumbering 26+ minute “Anonymous 2” closes the album. I do believe it could single-handedly sum up the phrase “self indulgent”. This is what I call a “kitchen sink” cut.. everything is thrown at the listener. Guitar runs, a lengthy drum solo, a bass solo, a flute interlude and heavy-fingered organ work are all in the mix for you to wrap your ears around.

Despite all my reservations here I maintain a soft spot for “Focus 3”, probably because it was one of those album from my youth that I just played so/too much. I’m not sure I could listen to the whole thing in its entirety anymore – it’s something of a curate’s egg after all – but it’s often a pleasant surprise when a cut unexpectedly turns up whenever I am shuffling my iPod.

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January 23rd 1973

“Bort MOVING WAVES – FOCUS – ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT” / “Got opticians appointment” / “Today is the 1st (day) Anniversary of finding my history book”

Why did I write that stupid line about my history book? (Monty Python had WAY too much influence on my teenage brain I reckon!)

I suspect making an appointment with an optician scared me. (It always has). I wonder if this might have been the fateful “contact lens” appointment? (More on that later. If I can bear to write it)

As for “Moving Waves”, my brief review in 1973 may have been somewhat biased? After all my anticipation of finally buying this album had been building for almost a month or more. I suppose that, unlike in later life, I couldn’t afford to have “buyers remorse” about the music I bought. Heavens forbid that a 15-year-old boy should ever make a mistake?!!

If you wake up one morning fancying some shrill yodelling underpinned by mellotrons, flute music, classically-tainted piano and what can only be described as “heavy metal” guitar, then I really can’t recommend “Moving Waves” enough to you!

This album was originally released in 1970 with a totally different cover – and entitled “Focus II” – in Holland, the band’s home country.

Following the astonishing “hit single” success of the quirky single “Hocus Pocus“, the album was repackaged and reissued all over the world.

The album did amazing business in England following an appearance by the band on TV show “Old Grey Whistle Test“. (Something I have spoken of before) It also reached #8 on the USA Billboard album chart.

Side 1 kicks off with the single, then mellows right out on “Le Clochard” a somewhat haunting instrumental highlighting guitarist Jan Akkerman’s more laid back style.

Track 3, “Janis“, was also released as a single (an unsuccessful release in it’s own right… not surprising considering it is perhaps the weakest cut on the album).

Tracks 4 and 5 (“Moving Waves” and “Focus II” respectively) are often considered ‘classic’ Focus compositions, combining Thijs Van Leer’s weird imagery and piano chords over Akkerman’s jazz-influenced guitar work.

The whole of Side 2 is a 23 minute “concept” track (I often wonder if there’s any album in the early 70’s that didn’t include some kind of tripped-out ‘concept’ piece?). “Eruption” is an ambitious suite split into 5 segments which the band pull off with professional aplomb. It’s a captivating musical journey of stunning guitar licks, hammond organ and drum solos, all infused with excitement and melody.

Here’s a 10-minute sample of “Eruption” courtesy of You Tube… you will notice that Thijs Van Leer has forgotten to put his shirt on…

“Moving Waves”, along with “Focus III“, are without doubt my favourite Focus albums. Other Focus albums like “At the Rainbow“, “Hamburger Concerto“, as well as their debut, “In & Out of Focus“, failed to fire my imagination anywhere near as much.

And the least said about 1975’s terrible – and APPALLINGLY-titled – “Mother Focus“, the better. At least IMHO.

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January 17th 1973

“No maths results yet” / “Only free days to go until I buy Moving Waves – Focus” / “More copying up” / “Asked Rob if I could borrow two Deep Purple cassettes of his”

I was obviously ‘sweating’ on my maths results….. *gulp!*

I love that I am anticipating my purchase of the Focus album. I often wonder if kids today carry the same levels of anticipation about things? It seems to me that there’s almost too much out there for them to single out that one thing to get massively excited about in advance.

That might just be me being an “old farty” however. Maybe a forthcoming Wii game or a new application for their phone gets them salivating equally as much as I was in 1973 over the thought of owning a vinyl slab of Thijs Van Leer‘s dutch yodeling?!

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October 30th 1972 (II)

“went up Trev’s – borrowed Ummug. + In+Out of Focus”

… and it was the second part of today’s entry that proved my ‘issue’ was not with Focus but with that particularly bad pressed vinyl.

In & Out of Focus” was Focus’ debut album, originally released at the very start of the seventies. Several decades on there’s not a whole lot I can personally recommend from this album – it was never in my pantheon of “great Focus albums” – but the cut “House of the King” (which I seem to recall was used as theme music for a TV show – maybe a holiday programme?) certainly gave a taster of what the band were about, or more readily, what they would become. Prog-rock innovators.

Focus were formed by Thijs Van Leer, a classically-trained keyboardist & flautist from Holland. Alongside him – at least in the “recognised-as-classic” Focus line-up – were drummer Pierre Van Der Linden, bassist Cyril Havermans and the stylings of a certain Jan Akkerman, who, from that day to this, has always been considered one of the world’s best & technically-gifted guitarists.

I suspect I will have more to discuss about Focus in future diary posts. I’ll bet you can’t wait?!

Ummug refers to Pink Floyd’s 1969 album “Ummagumma”. This was a double album, one LP of which was a live set, the second featuring studio compositions by each of the (then) four members of the band.

This album has never been particularly considered a “good one”, even the band members themselves admitting it comes across as a bit of a “desperate release”. The live portion is very badly recorded (I can’t imagine I kept that half very long at all – it was/is very muddy and, at times, terribly incoherent) whilst the studio contributions are certainly nothing to write home about….

Except for one which I am going to highlight here, but ONLY because 36 years later I still recall it’s title with alarming precision….

Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict

… a peculiar composition consisting of little more than animal sound effects combined with Roger Waters’ synthesized voice looping and and out of itself in a vaguely gaelic manner. If you’ve never heard it before judge it for yourself!

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