A year ago nobody bothered to listen to them, but when Focus smashed their way up the charts with a yodel the world stopped to listen. Now Jan Akkerman is the greatest living guitar player, and the Dutch band of classical-rockers continue to seduce the musical world.
by Ellen Mandell
Twelve million Dutchmen considered them stars. In England they were nothing. When the Dutch Masters of progressive rock first landed on the shores of Great Britain, them were relegated to the bottom third of a three act show. "The record companies didn't think we were important enough," Thijs Van Leer said ironically. "After all, we were a Dutch group, and nobody ever paid any attention to the Dutch."
A year and a half later a very, different scene was taking place in London. It was early May and a mood of romanticism had blown in with the British springtime. At the old and revered Rainbow Theatre on the outskirts of London, that mood couldn't have been clearer. As the four shadows of Flemish musicians took their places on the darkened stage, a hush swept across the ancient tiers; it was as if he theatre itself was holding its breath.
Organist extraordinaire Thijs Van Leer threw back his head, entranced, and gently coaxed the opening noses of "Focus III" from his Hammond L-100. Bert Ruiter's bass purred softly behind the eerie weeping of Jan Akkerman's custom Les Paul, finally joined by drummer Pierre Van Der Linden for a dramatic ingress into the heart of the song.
Focus had returned to England, and the Rainbow gig was a Dutch treat that had marked the climax of their fourth tour of England, As their dedicated cult of fans sat spellbound before them, each member swelled with pride in remembering how far they had come from the time they were "just a Dutch group." Their night at the Rainbow was their chance to click their wooden heels in triumph, and their new album, 'Focus Live At The Rainbow' (on Sire Records and tapes), is a chronicle of that historic event.
Rags and riches: Focus first sprouted rock & roll roots in obscure Amsterdam club bands like Johnny & the Cellar Rockers and The Hunters, and later in the Netherlands' chart-topping Brainbox. But the dominant seed in their bold rock-classical mixture was firmly implanted in the Baroque and Renaissance music of the 15th and 16th centuries - major influences in both Jan Akkerman's and Thijs Van Leer's backgrounds.
Thijs (pronounced Tice) was born to musical parents who were part of Amsterdam's wealthy elite. His musical training on piano and flute began when he was a wee tyke and he spent hours practicing every day in his family's mansion, At eighteen, while listening to Europe's acclaimed Radio Luxembourg, he heard a rock tune for the first time. The song was by Traffic, and it was then, he said, that he realized that, "Pop music also can produce things of beauty." He deserted his classical studies to join a jazz-rock cabaret.
Jan, very much Thijs's alter ego, was a child of Amsterdam's colourful street scene. His guitar prowess was self-taught and evolved through experience in a halfdozen rock bands. By his late teens, Jan was one of the Netherlands' most eminent rock stars, yet he chucked it all to accept a scholarship to the Amsterdam Music Lyceum. He had become fascinated by the lute and classical guitar.
The two rock/classical music buffs eventually met when Jan learned of Thijs, who was then trying to earn his own living in the orchestra pit of the Flemish production of Hair. A friend finally introduced them. After a long afternoon spent playing for each other - taking every opportunity to show off their own technical proficiency and finesse - a strange friendship was formed as well as the concept for a serious rock band called Focus.
Changes in store: "Focus is a Latin word that is the same in many languages," says a craggily striking Jan Akkerman. "It means, concentration, which is the meaning of what Focus does."
Thijs Van Leer agrees, pegging the further sophistication of rock as Focus's thrust. "In rock music," says Thijs, "the emphasis is always on the singers. But instrumentally it is still very immature. We want to change that."
The British audience has been particularly susceptible to such a change. Focus soared onto the British charts like invincible Flying Dutchmen with four hit records at once - the albums Moving Waves and Focus III and two singles, "Hocus Pocus" and "Sylvia." A Focus concert there has become as much an event as an appearance by the lofty Led Zep or Focus's classical-rock co-disciples, Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
But across the Atlantic, the highbrowed hype that preceded Focus Stateside 'fugued' and 'rondoed' right over the Americans' boogie-loving heads. Only the folly of the Hocus Pocus" yodel and the simplicity of "Sylvia," have had mass appeal in the States, and although American gold LP's keep stacking up, their following in the U.S. is not as great as they deserve.
Just before a concert at the Orpheum Theatre in Boston, Thijs ran his hand through his thin, frizzled hair and explained, "It's difficult to describe an audience's reaction to Focus because the kind of people we attract are not what you'd call demonstrative people. They're more into listening, especially in England."
As for American audiences, he con- tinued, "The hard core fans are very similar to the European audiences in that they listen and applaud, and get into what the band is trying to do. The balance of the audience are people who've come to find out what it's all about."
Funky violins: A rare occurrence took place at a Focus concert last August in Houston, Texas, when they compelled an entire theatre to rise to their feet in rock & roll ecstacy. Focus were halfway through their second encore when the opening group, a rock act, bolted onstage for a jam that blended Focus's instrumental expertise with a hefty rocking beat. Jan later claimed that the idea of such a seemingly unlikely cross was not all that far-fetched. "After all," he insists, "Focus is nothing more than a rock band. If we were classical musicians we'd go on stage with violins!"
To recapture the funky sound they achieved in Houston, Focus began work on a new album at Kasteel Groenguerd, a sumptuous palace hidden away in the Netherlandish countryside. They had just returned from their most successful tour of the U.S., and were about to experiment with a new sound that would make America theirs at last. Only one thing stood in their way: a hardheaded drummer named Pierre Van Der Linden.
Thijs tries to be objective in relating the events that led to Pierre's eventual departure. "Pierre was a purist in many ways," he explains. "He is very into jazz, and he felt that rock music would not be a step forward."
One day, Thijs, Jan, and Bert met at their usual early hour in the huge, drafty castle cellar that they had converted into a rehearsal studio. When Pierre didn't show up, they assumed that he had overslept and began to jam without him. Several hours later Pierre still hadn't arrived, nor would he ever play with Focus again. How could he do such a thing at the high point in their career? The remaining members of Focus panicked.
They called Mike Vernon, their producer (and formerly Bowie's and Savoy Brown's) for advice. Vernon suggested getting in touch with three drummers he thought might be available: Mitch Mitchell of the original Jimi Hendrix Experience; Aynsley Dunbar, ex- of the Mothers of Invention and John Mayall; and Colin Allen, formerly with John Mayall and Stone the Crows.
Focus scuffled to the nearest phone and rang up Colin Allen, whose rock and R&B experience, they felt, would propel them into their new direction. By the next morning, Colin was on the plane to Holland. Eight days later, he was touring with Focus in America.
Focus Live At The Rainbow was Pierre's last recorded appearance with Focus. Their stay at the Rainbow lasted two glorious, sold-out nights, which were videotaped and shown on BBC-TV's Old Grey Whistle Test program.
"We didn't do anything special those nights, only we tried to play very good," says Thijs in the simple English he has perfected. A more appropriate description would be that they tried to play 'better' - better than ever before, and better than each other!
Before bursting into "Answers? Questions' Questions" Answers!", Jan first looked hesitantly at Thijs, self-consciously hunched his shoulders, then set off on a rock & roll race up and down his guitar's neck, paying careful attention to the details of classical fingering. In response, Thijs unleashed a booming series of organ chords, beneath which Bert on bass and Pierre on drums fought not to be outdone. The sound was incredible!
Several months later, listening to Mike Vernon's sound remix for the BBC broadcast, Thijs couldn't believe his ears. "Is that us?" he cried. "Is that how we sounded?" He was amazed at the energy of "Answers? Questions!" and at the tenderness of "Focus II." He and the rest of Focus decided right at that moment to select from the twin performances material for a live album. They included the highly complex "Eruption" in its seven-part entirety, as well as "Focus II." "Focus III," "Answers? Questions!" and their top hits, "Hocus Pocus" and "Sylvia."
After the show, much of the British press, who have reassured Focus and cheered them on since their first, blackoutplagued tour. showed up in force to congratulate their proteges. Also joining the impromptu backstage bash were Pete Banks of Flash, and other top rockers from Deep Purple, the Moody Blues, and Yes.
Eric Clapton staged his own reunion at the Rainbow several weeks later. But by then, Jan Akkerman had already captured the former guitar-king's throne in the minds of the participants in the Melody Maker poll awarding him the world's best guitar position. Receiving the news in his North Holland home, Jan just sank into his plush easy chair and sighed. Jan never expected any less for himself yet all he had originally planned was to make "beautiful music" in a band called Focus.
Text and pictures kindly sent by Chuck Cobb