album list
Focus, 'In & Out of Focus'

In & Out of Focus  [a.k.a. Focus Plays Focus]  (1970,  36.18)  ***½/T½

Focus (vocal)
Black Beauty
Sugar Island
House of the King
Happy Nightmare (Mescaline)
Why Dream
Focus (instrumental)
Focus, 'Moving Waves'

Moving Waves  [a.k.a. Focus II]  (1971,  41.57)  *****/TTT

Hocus Pocus
Le Clochard ("Bread")
Moving Waves
Focus II

  Orfeus, Answer, Orfeus
  Answer, Pupilla, Tommy
  Pupilla, Answer, The Bridge
Euridice, Dayglow, Endless Road
Answer, Orfeus, Euridice
Focus, 'Hamburger Concerto'

Hamburger Concerto  (1974,  40.23)  ****/TT

Delitiæ Musicæ
Harem Scarem
La Cathedrale de Strasbourg
Hamburger Concerto
  Medium I

  Medium II
  Well Done
  One for the Road
Focus, 'Ship of Memories'

Ship of Memories  (1976, recorded 1970-75,  36.54)  ****/TTT

P's March
Can't Believe My Eyes
Focus V

Out of Vesuvius
Red Sky at Night
Spoke the Lord Creator
Ship of Memories
Focus, 'Masters From the Vaults'

Masters From the Vaults  (2004, recorded 1970?-76?,  62.19)  **½/½

Hocus Pocus
House of the King
Focus I
Hamburger Concerto
Cathedral de Strasbourg
Sneezing Bull
Angel Wings
Anonymous II
Focus II
Focus, '50 Years: Anthology 1970-1976' Focus, 'At the Rainbow'

At the Rainbow  [50 Years: Anthology 1970-1976, disc 4]  (1973,  54.51)  ****/0 (T)

Focus III
Answers? Questions! Questions? Answers!
Focus II
Hocus Pocus
Hocus Pocus - reprise
[Anthology adds:
P's March (original mix - single version)
Ship of Memories (original mix)
P's March (original mix - full version)]
Focus, '50 Years: Anthology 1970-1976' Focus, 'Live 1971-1975'

Live 1971-1975  [50 Years: Anthology 1970-1976, disc 9]  (2020,  79.47)  ****/T

Improvisation #1
House of the King
Improvisation #2
Hocus Pocus

Current availability:

Mellotrons used:

Focus are widely known as the Netherlands' biggest prog export; a good draw on UK and US stages in the early '70s, they actually produced less 'classic' work than you might expect. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that they recorded just one (almost) flawless album, their second, Moving Waves. They actually formed in 1969, pieced together from several other Dutch acts, quickly releasing their first album, In & Out of Focus (originally Focus Plays Focus, minus their first hit, House Of The King (often mistaken for Jethro Tull), which was added to later pressings). It's a bit of a hodgepodge, to be honest, opening with several vocal tracks (including the anti-Castro rant, Sugar Island, removed from the US version), not the band's forté, while one of its finest moments, Anonymous, was revisisted on Focus 3 a couple of years later. As for the Mellotron, there's an ordinary strings part on the jazzy Happy Nightmare (Mescaline) and a more overt part on one of the album's best tracks, Focus (Instrumental).

The following year, Focus released the storming Moving Waves (Focus II in the Netherlands), complete with 'novelty' hit single Hocus Pocus, fondly remembered by many for Van Leer's bizarre yodelling. The album features the full six-minute plus version of the track, which belies its 'novelty' status by actually being a great piece of music with some truly stupendous playing from guitarist Jan Akkerman. Second track in, Le Clochard is where the Mellotronic interest kicks in; a gorgeous classical guitar and Mellotron strings instrumental, under two minutes long, this surely has to be classed as one of the Mellotron Classics. After another beautiful (if Mellotron-less) instrumental, Janis and the title track, the album's only real weak point, comes another jazz-inflected instrumental, Focus II (the band have recorded eight of these 'theme' tracks to date), with more Mellotron strings. I would guess that they were using a MkII on these sessions, recorded at the same UK studio as their debut, but it's hard to tell. Side two of the album is taken up with the superb Eruption, a multi-part piece with all the band's disparate influences thrown into the melting-pot to create a unique piece of music. The Mellotron drifts in and out, only really present for four or five of the track's twenty-three minutes (strings on the Pupilla/Tommy/Pupilla segue and brass on Dayglow), but so effectively that it hardly matters. The music is stunning, common themes coming and going and fiery playing from all quarters. This track demonstrates why I shouldn't copy tracklistings from reissue CDs; the multifarious parts of the track are listed differently on the LP and CD, so the listing above is from the original release.

Focus 3 (****), while a good album, falls rather short of great; a sprawling double, much of it sounds improvised and there's definitely some excess baggage that could easily be lost, although it does include one of their best pieces ever (and their biggest hit), Sylvia, Van Leer sticking principally to the organ. After a live album, they dug out the Mellotron (M400 this time) for their next lot of studio sessions, which were abandoned after internecine squabbling amongst band members, although they salvaged some of their work for their next studio album proper, Hamburger Concerto. While it's arguably a lesser piece of work than its illustrious predecessors, it definitely has its moments, not least the title track, with Mellotron male voices across several of its parts, plus the odd string swell. After 1975's decidedly sub-par Mother Focus, the abandoned '73 sessions were exhumed and released the following year, with a few outtakes added to bring the album up to a decent length as Ship of Memories. Listening to the tracks makes you wonder what the problem was at the time, as recounted in producer Mike Vernon's sleevenotes. There's some excellent material here, with some fine Mellotron work on several of the tracks. I have to say that I feel most of it outclasses the Hamburger Concerto material; it's certainly more digestible, with nothing exceeding the six-minute mark.

Thijs at the M400

Fast-forward a few decades... In 2002, a reformed Focus, sans Akkerman, began wowing audiences in Europe and America, touring regularly and even releasing new albums. In response, various old recordings, both audio and visual, began crawling out of the woodwork, looking for a quick buck. I haven't seen the DVD version of Masters From the Vaults, but I hope to hell it's better than the CD of the same name. To be succinct, this is shit. It sounds like what it probably is: the unadulterated audio tracks from several video clips, probably recorded straight to two-track, spread over several years, with highly variable sound quality. The volume levels fluctuate not only from track to track, but also within tracks, while Hamburger Concerto has a track marker inserted about four minutes before the end, running into the following piece. Shoddy. "But what about the music?", I hear you cry. "Surely this is a Focus album?" It is and the music itself is excellent, even the two later-period pieces, but the disc's appalling presentation (no recording dates, indeed, no sleevenotes of any consequence at all) shoots the entire project down in flames. The Mellotron? A few seconds of strings in the Hamburger Concerto excerpt, as on the studio version, proving that the band must have used one live, even if only occasionally. Focus were and are a wonderful band, but this is a complete rip-off. Avoid.

2020 brought the splendid, nine-CD/two-DVD 50 Years: Anthology 1970-1976, a collection of almost all of the band's '70s work, amusingly omitting '77's 'actually not as bad as you might think' Focus Con Proby. All albums have bonus tracks, while the DVDs include an 'at long last' official issue for the Live at the Rainbow film, several BBC clips and a raft of Dutch TV appearances, making this pretty much the last word in the original band's oeuvre. Thijs did not, of course, use a Mellotron on At the Rainbow, their legendary 1973 live release, but it turns up on two of this version's bonus tracks, the original mix (single edit and full-length) of P's March, eventually withdrawn, finally finding a home on Ship of Memories (above). Disc 9, Live 1971-1975, is the second of two discs of exclusive live material (the first contains BBC recordings), giving us a slightly random snapshot of how they sounded at various points with various lineups, at its best on the three-quarter-hour (!) Eruption (from Rotterdam, 1971), giving the committed fan considerable insight into how the studio version was edited down to a single side of vinyl. The only Mellotron track is a 1974 recording of Hamburger Concerto's Birth from that year's Japanese tour, with a strings part towards the end of the twelve-minute piece, only really picking up during the last minute. Nice to hear, but inessential, unlike the set, which is a must.

Incidentally, I've heard a report of the band being sighted in a New York music shop around 1974, apparently buying an M400, although I have no idea why they picked one up in the States, especially considering that many US machines were horribly bodged by the importers, Sound Sales. So, it seems they did own one, presumably using it live, if only for a short period.

Focus, '50 Years: Anthology 1970-1976' Focus, 'Sight & Sound Vol. 1'

Sight & Sound Vol. 1  [50 Years: Anthology 1970-1976, disc 10]  (2020,  79.47)  ****/½

[BBC In Concert (April 1974) segment]
Hamburger Concerto
La Cathédrale de Strasbourg
Harem Scarem
Hocus Pocus/Sylvia
Focus, '50 Years: Anthology 1970-1976' Focus, 'Sight & Sound Vol. 2'

Sight & Sound Vol. 2  [50 Years: Anthology 1970-1976, disc 11]  (2020,  79.47)  ****/T

[Vara Nederpopzien (December 1973) segment]
House of the King
Hocus Pocus
Britannia (Jan Akkerman lute solo)
Hamburger Concerto
Hocus Pocus/Sylvia (reprise)

Current availability:

Mellotrons used:

As mentioned above, the 50 Years set contains two DVDs of archive footage, the only (relative) duffer being the NRCV Classic Albums programme from 1997, and then only because it's (quite reasonably) in Dutch. Disc 1, alongside that Rainbow concert (complete with terrible hiss), contains their BBC In Concert footage from '74, which sees Thijs adding electric and acoustic pianos to his L100 Hammond and, of course, a Mellotron. In contrast to the studio version of Hamburger Concerto, he plays strings across two sections of this slightly truncated version, not to any great effect, to be perfectly honest. Disc 2's highlight is probably the fifty minutes of footage from Dublin in November '73 (an RTE broadcast), the following month's Dutch TV appearance (on Vara Nederpopzien) running it a close second. Once again, Thijs on Mellotron strings on Hamburger Concerto, a little higher in the mix this time round, with some nice (reversed) overhead shots from the mirrors hung above the band.


Official site

See: Jan Akkerman & Kaz Lux

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