What does it sound like?:
This is a 9CD/2DVD box set covering the golden age of Focus – specifically, the period from late 1969 to May 1975 (with a couple of outlying moments a few months either side) during which both Jan Akkerman (guitar) and Thijs van Leer (organ, flute, vocals) worked together. It manages to be more than comprehensive (while not claiming to be ‘complete’) and also extraordinarily great value for money. In short, in one delightful package you can acquire, for less than £40, in splendid new mastering utilising the original tapes, the seven original albums from that period plus the long-awaited first official release of their magisterial January 1973 BBC Radio 1 ‘In Concert’ performance, a load of further unreleased live recordings, stray tracks, alt mixes and single edits and five hours of fabulous film material from various broadcasters, including the first official release of the May 1973 ‘Live at the Rainbow’ film in full.
One aspect of a set like this is that one has the opportunity to both focus in (sorry) and see individual moments of brilliance but also to zoom outwards and see the whole picture, warts and all. The thing that strikes me most – as a long-standing fan of Focus and Akkerman (as a solo artist) and also of the reincarnated non-Akkerman Focus of recent years – about that big-picture aspect is that one can recognise the band more clearly now as being a mercurial entity that could be astounding on some nights and either earthbound or over-indulgent on others. We have the evidence for all of that here in one handy package now.
Some will hold up this or that unreleased live performance as mind-blowing, but others might feel that versions of ‘Eruption’ that last 37 minutes (1970) and 46 minutes (1971) are somewhere in the region of being twice as long as they need to be. And they’d both be right – at the same time. Leaving aside over-extended core repertoire, the four hitherto unreleased improvisation jams – two 1974 amateur live recordings from Japan, a 1975 studio jam in LA and a rather half-baked coda to an otherwise solid 1974 BBC TV ‘In Concert’ – leave one thinking that the real Achilles heel for the band was its relatively limited repertoire.
The Focus legacy rests on the combination of astounding musicianship and musical partnerships and singular compositions perfectly suited to that virtuosity but also, not least, with the legs to last as great compositions. In that sense, there were a couple of years, spanning mid-1971 to mid-1973, in which the planets were aligned: the musical partnerships were still thriving, highly original and distinctive compositions of ‘Focus music’ were being created, the personality issues between Jan and Thijs (a perpetual problem almost from day one) were manageable and the band was both critically and commercially on an upwards trajectory.
For most of those two years, the band was performing the same set onstage – basically, the set represented on the January ’73 Radio 1 ‘In Concert’ and partly represented on the ‘At the Rainbow’ album. There could only be so many (dozens of) times that the same four people could go onstage and play the same set – much of which depended on a hefty degree of improvisational inspiration every night to really fly – and make it exciting for both audiences and themselves.
This box set, for instance, documents a sensational 23-minute ‘Anonymous II’ live on BBC radio in January ’73, a rather untogether 24-minute go at it at live on Irish TV in November ’73 (albeit fascinating from a visual perspective) and, happily, the still definitive 27-minute version that appeared on the largely ‘live in the studio’ ‘Focus 3’, recorded in July 1972. One is tempted to piece all this together and suggest that in mid ’72, the piece was fresh and exhilarating for the performers but that 18-months later it had, literally, been played out. A month after the anthropologically fascinating filmed Dublin concert, Focus performed their new stage epic ‘Hamburger Concerto’ on Holland’s ‘Nederpopzien’ TV show. It would replace ‘Anonymous II’ in the stage repertoire and would occupy one side of the ‘Hamburger Concerto’ LP, recorded in March 1974.
It was a common problem in that era – a band with a couple of albums to its name suddenly becoming huge and being sent off around the world on tour, providing little time to get worthwhile new compositions together. Indeed, ‘Anonymous II’ was basically a souped-up rendition of ‘Anonymous’ from the band’s first album, ‘In and Out of Focus’ (AKA ‘Focus Plays Focus’), recorded in January 1970 – so that’s four years the band were stretching out around that one basic piece, which had itself been based on an anonymous (see what they did there?) composition from the 17th century, ‘Dit le Bourguignon’. (As a side note, van Leer was always rather behind the door in crediting his borrowings from his classical/Renaissance forebears.)
The musicianship of the version(s) of Focus that erupted to overnight prominence in the British media and single/album charts in 1972–73 was widely acclaimed and the band’s sound was distinctly European, utilising themes and ideas from Renaissance and Baroque music along with van Leer’s conservatoire vibe and Akkerman’s singular chromatic (rather than blues-based) and lyrical guitar playing and use of a very dynamic sound range, with masterful use of volume and tone controls on his instrument. Pierre van der Linden, on drums from late 1970 to late 1973 – a quiet, somewhat depressive individual offstage by some accounts – was an equal contributor to the uniqueness and brilliance of Focus, being both a virtuoso and a unique stylist on his instrument, a jazzer at heart, in a magic triangle with two much bigger personalities – Akkerman the insouciant rocker with a growing Renaissance lute music obsession and van Leer the yodelling classicist, both of whom seemed to get on each other’s nerves while being perfect musical foils.
There were two bass players during Focus’ period of international success: Cyriel Havermans, who plays on about half of the breakthrough second album ‘Moving Waves’ (AKA ‘Focus II’) – with Akkerman playing bass on the rest (which can’t have been great for Havermans’ morale) – recorded in April/May 1971; and Bert Ruiter, who played on the four subsequent albums. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that the role occupied by both Havermans and Ruiter was one that involved not having the artistic temperament / big personality of either van Leer or Akkerman and frankly not needing to provide the same ostentatious and original levels of musical virtuosity of either those two or van der Linden. Every ship needs an anchor.
Havermans can be heard on a fascinating 14-minute live version of ‘Focus I’ recorded in August 1971, in which Akkerman appears to be exploring ways to move the piece into new territory with luxuriant washes of sound lapping at the edges of the mode in which it was written. He also appears in the 1997 ‘Classic Albums’ Dutch-language documentary, on ‘Moving Waves’, on the DVDs, which also includes film of his line-up of Focus rehearsing in Kasteel Groeneveld. There seems to be a prickly moment when he’s asked about Akkerman playing bass on the album, but alas I don’t speak Dutch… He could play bass perfectly well, but he was a guitar/vocal singer-songwriter at heart, and went on to record two solo albums in 1973–74 (backed by Akkerman, van Leer and van der Linden on the first). As for Bert Ruiter, the others presumably felt him a better fit for the ‘solid anchor’ role, although they still felt it necessary to give him a solo spot onstage – exemplified in the Dublin ’73 concert on DVD, where the rest troop off to smoke and chat side-stage leaving Bert to… do not very much for four minutes. Then again, the crowd seem to enjoy nodding along to his perfunctory groove for that period of time so fair enough, the past is another country.
But let’s go back to the start… In the beginning was Trio Thijs van Leer, with Thijs on organ/flute/vocal, Martijn Dresden on bass and Hans Cleuver on drums. Trio TVL, along with Jan Akkerman (at that time the star guitarist with blues-rockers Brainbox), appeared as session players on a single by Neerlands Hoop in Bange Dagen recorded in August 1969 (the A-side appears in the box set). By October, Jan had either left or been kicked out of Brainbox and had joined the members of Thijs’ trio under the new name Focus. The name, and the quartet, first appeared on a splendid if eccentric single ‘The Shine of God’ / ‘Watch the Ugly People’, recorded in October/November ’69 and credited to Dutch cabaret sensation Ramses Shaffy ‘with the group Focus’. Both sides of the single appear here. During 1969–70, Focus made a living as the house band in the Dutch version of stage musical ‘Hair’, and guested on a superb singer-songwriter album, ‘Scarecrow’s Journey’, by Robin Lent, one of the performers in the musical. (It’s a minor quibble that a couple of tracks from that album aren’t included in the box set – the ‘Focus sound’ is thrillingly apparent on it.)
In January 1970, Focus got a week off from ‘Hair’ and travelled to Sound Techniques, London, to record their first album, speculatively. Some view the album as out of keeping with the albums that followed but, for me, it is magical stuff. It is musically on the cusp of late 60s ‘progressive pop’ with vocals, like Procol Harum, becoming early 70s progressive rock, with an instrumental focus – and wonderfully evocative of its time while being, in places, thrillingly new. The two long instrumentals (well, long in terms of this album) ‘Focus [I]’ and ‘Anonymous’ are gripping musical journeys, brilliantly arranged, no flab (that would come later). Martijn Dresden also plays wonderfully stirring trumpet on ‘Anonymous’. Three of the songs – ‘Why Dream?’, ‘Black Beauty’ and ‘Focus (Vocal)’ – are co-written by van Leer with drummer Hans Cleuver’s father Eric, and are splendid collaborations. One wishes that more in this vein were created. Another vocal co-write with one Jan Staal, ‘Sugar Island’, is dreadful, but ‘Happy Nightmare (Mescaline)’ co-written by van Leer with Martijn Dresden and local (English) club DJ Mike Hayes is beguiling if a little unsettling. Dresden sang that one, having apparently the most experience with the drug scene.
While the album was being unsuccessfully touted around record labels, Focus recorded ‘House of the King’ as a standalone single in July 1970. Written by Akkerman (who had had no compositions on the album), it was a Dutch hit and suddenly the album had an opportunity, appearing first on Imperial in the Netherlands as ‘Focus Plays Focus’ in October 1970. It would go through several mind-boggling variations in title (generally ‘In and Out of Focus), cover design (four, at least two of them bad) and audio content (‘House of the King’ added in some versions, ‘Sugar Island’ removed in some).
Box set curator Wouter Bessels has opted to present the albums in their original incarnations in terms of audio, with bonuses added thereafter, with one exception – ‘Focus 3’ (1972), which had ‘House of the King’ originally at the end of side 4 (because (a) most people outside the Netherlands wouldn’t have heard it and (b) that side was short-weight), has had it removed herein to avoid repetition. ‘House of the King’ appears as a bonus track on the first album disc where it belongs, along with a 37-minute version of ‘Eruption’, a composition that was to occupy side 2 of ‘Moving Waves’ (1971), recorded by the first-album line-up at a university in Lanx. It’s a very welcome addition to our knowledge of this ‘first Focus’, or ‘pre-fame Focus’ if one want’s to look at it from the perspective of Anglophone markets. Drummer Hans Cleuver was seemingly very important to the group’s business dealings (aside from his father being the Pete Brown of the team to Thijs’ Jack Bruce, or the Keith Reid to Thijs’ Gary Brooker) while Martijn Dresden was clearly a virtuoso bass player, in a way that his successors were not.
Somewhere between the release of ‘House of the King’ and the first album in the latter half of 1970, Dresden left – apparently unable to deal with the constant rancour between Akkerman and van Leer. (Tragically, he recorded no more music and van Leer bumped into him in the 80s, begging on the streets.)
Despite a few short-lived bass stand-ins, Akkerman became fed up with things and left, desiring to play again with Pierre van der Linden, his drum partner in Brainbox and previous bands. With ‘House of the King’ proving the Akkerman/van Leer partnership was worth preserving, the group’s financier, Hubert Terheggen, employed Yde de Jong to spend weeks in shuttle diplomacy between the two antagonists to get some version of Focus back on the cards. Eventually, Thijs agreed to join Akkerman and van der Linden, with van der Linden bringing in Cyriel Havermans on bass. Yde de Jong became their manager.
Soon after this, Seymour Stein, US boss of Sire Records, who had somehow seen Focus playing live in their home country, urged his UK business associate, producer Mike Vernon of Blue Horizon, to go and see them in concert. He did so and was suitably blown away. Vernon would produce their next three studio albums – ‘Moving Waves’ (‘Focus II’ in the Netherlands), recorded in April–May 1971; ‘Focus 3’, recorded in July 1972; ‘Hamburger Concerto’, recorded in March 1974 – plus the insanely abandoned album attempted at Vernon’s Chipping Norton Studios in May 1973, which emerged as most of the posthumous album ‘Ship of Memories’ in 1976.
Vernon’s production skills were most apparent in the editing (and editing together) of the side-long ‘Eruption’, based on the Orpheus and Euridice myth. While the band members may have been uneasy about the produced feel of the album (vis a vis their ‘perform it live’ instinct), Vernon helped create a UK No.2 album with a Top 20 single in his 3:27 edit of the 6:41 album track ‘Hocus Pocus’. The other single from the album was an edit of the sublime ‘Tommy’ section of ‘Eruption’ – composed by Tom Barlage, a member of Dutch soul band Solution. Akkerman had seen Solution performing the piece and realised its potential as a guitar ballad. It is a classic example of Focus’ instinct for ‘songs without words’ – their instrumental pieces at their best were proper compositions, with memorable melodies and dynamic journeys, not just riffs and jams.
Famously, Focus exploded in the UK after a May 1972 appearance on ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ performing part of ‘Eruption’ and ‘Hocus Pocus’. Two takes of each can be found on the DVDs here, along with one take each of an admirably brief (at 10 minutes) ‘Anonymous II’ and ‘Sylvia/Hocus Pocus’ from a December ’72 OGWT appearance. (Annoyingly, an Akkerman solo appearance on the show performing lute pieces no longer exists.) ‘Sylvia’, the single from the sublime double LP ‘Focus 3’ (recorded in July ’72), reached No.4 in the UK charts in January ’73 with the double album reaching No.6.
‘Focus 3’ is, in my view, ‘peak Focus’. It’s a magnificent piece of work – the pinnacle of progressive-rock as a whole – from the sublime miniature ‘Elspeth of Nottingham’ (lute, flute and birdsong) to the coiled-spring live-in-the-studio epic ‘Anonymous II’ – progressive-rock from 17th century Burgundy that somehow feels as if it’s being performed in a Roman amphitheatre. Other lengthy album tracks ‘Focus III’ and ‘Answers? Questions!’ would also become concert staples while the brilliant, concise ‘Round Goes the Gossip’, ‘Love Remembered’ and ‘Carnival Fugue’ would remain enigmatic, only existing on the album.
During a UK tour in January ’73, Focus recorded a Radio 1 ‘In Concert’ performing sensational versions of ‘Focus I’, ‘Focus II’, ‘Focus III’, ‘Anonymous II’, ‘Answers? Questions!’, ‘Hocus Pocus’ and the ‘Sylvia/Hocus Pocus’ reprise that generally ended all their shows. Akkerman has previously not signed off on this broadcast being released, claiming in the past not to like it. Perhaps his view has changed or his permission is no longer explicitly required. Either way, from a fan’s point of view, the performance is outstanding, the recording of it brilliant, and it has long circulated as a bootleg. It’s appearance on this set can only enhance Focus’ collective reputation and the reputations of each member.
And then the rot started to set in.
After two nights in May at the Rainbow Theatre, London, were recorded and one night filmed, the band went to Mike Vernon’s Chipping Norton Studios to record a new studio album. They were exhausted, Akkerman didn’t seem to want to be in the studio at the same time as van Leer, Pierre van der Linden was in a slough of despond… and the whole thing was abandoned after two weeks. The Rainbow recordings were edited and mixed, instead, into a live album to keep the profile up (it reached UK No.23) and ‘OGWT’ showed a 33-minute edit of the 47-minute film of the Rainbow show. The first official release of that film here is most welcome. A bigger budget would have allowed a bit of restoration TLC on the print used, but Bessels has done a good job on the audio (the film audio track being a different mix to the album mix, seemingly). It’s a masterclass in no-frills music making at the highest level during the progressive-rock era – a fascinating, immersive watch, which rewards repeat viewings (preferably with an open fire and a glass of whisky). It matters not that Akkerman breaks two strings – the first time, he simply wanders off and changes it while Thijs plays a flute solo, the second time (mid ‘House of the King’), he whips the string away and improvises a wholly new solo on the remaining strings. Heroic!
Mike Vernon had mixed two of the Chipping Norton tracks, ‘P’s March’ – a rollicking bit of faux medievalism a la ‘House of the King’ – and Pierre’s mesmerising drum/harmonium solo effort ‘Ship of Memories’ as a potential single, but it never appeared. Both tracks would be mixed again in 1976 along with four others – ‘Out of Vesuvius’, ‘Can’t Believe My Eyes’, ‘Focus V’ and ‘Glider’ – for the posthumous ‘Ship of Memories’ album (which also included first album outtake ‘Spoke the Lord Creator’ and two May 1975 pieces, ‘Red Sky at Night’ and ‘Crackers’, the final Akkerman/van Leer session). Those 1973 mixes of the abandoned single tracks appear here for the first time, and it’s a particular delight to hear the full version of Pierre’s ‘Ship of Memories’ (it would be severely edited for the 1976 album mix).
While the band members’ mood might have caused them to write off the 1973 Chipping Norton sessions at the time, a dispassionate listener – either in 1976, when the stuff first appeared, or now – can only marvel at how none of them recognised the quality of the music, aside from their personal doldrums, at the time. To my knowledge, none of it made the stage repertoire; meanwhile, the same set continued being flogged around the globe for the rest of the year.
The November ’73 concert at a boxing stadium in Dublin, filmed by RTÉ and never previously circulated nor seen since its original broadcast, is a priceless artefact. Any touring band today might see it and be amazed at how casual and simple things were back then – four people wandering onstage in a big hall, no light show, one bloke on the sound (no entourage of flunkies, caterers, etc.), and periodically wandering off while someone takes a solo, to be captured by the cameras chatting and smoking behind amps while the soloing is going on. Also, a guitar hero without a spare guitar. When a string goes mid ‘Sylvia’, Jan simply stops and puts a new one on… on live TV… and then everyone starts again from where they left off!
The audience is similarly fascinating, with some wonderful shots of ruddy-cheeked young farmers grooving in the aisles and women – yes, women! at a prog-rock show! – happily head-shaking in their seats to the sounds. Trainee media professionals of 2020, meanwhile, may view the first five minutes of ‘Anonymous II’ and think ‘What the hell was the vision mixer thinking? Did people really do that back then?’ To which the answer would be, I think, ‘No – just that one guy at RTÉ, on that one programme. After which everyone told him to wise up and bever do it again.’ The Dublin show isn’t a performance on the same level as the BBC ‘In Concert’ at the start of the year, but it has its moments, it’s compelling viewing, and it’s no less valuable in showing us that even Focus had off-nights – albeit, their off-nights were still many times better than most acts’ on-nights.
Things seem to have become suddenly ‘more professional’ the following month, December 1973, when Focus film a shiny, well-staged concert for Dutch TV’s ‘Nederpopzien’. The band have new stage outfits, a new long composition in the act (‘Hamburger Concerto’) and… a new drummer. Pierre had had enough and simply didn’t turn up one day. Colin Allen from Stone the Crows was looking for a new gig and Mike Vernon put him in touch with the chaps. While Allen’s style was markedly different, and less swinging, to Pierre’s, perhaps his personality – and the fact the he was British and necessitated communicating in English – brought something positive to the band’s internal dynamics not dissimilar to Billy Preston ‘joining’ the fractious Beatles in 1969. That’s just a guess. A fantastic revamped arrangement of ‘House of the King’ is another highlight of the ‘Nederpopzien’ set.
In April 1974, Focus filmed a similar TV studio concert for the BBC, performing a slightly less energetic ‘Hamburger Concerto’ along with a fabulous ‘La Cathedrale de Strasbourg’ (one of Thijs’ finest compositions, in my view) and a decent ‘Harem Scarem’, both of these also being tracks on their new album, ‘Hamburger Concerto’, recorded the previous month. (A fantastic clip of the band miming to a ridiculously inept edit of ‘Harem Scarem’ on a Dutch TV show is also on the DVDs.)
The album falls outside of the classic Focus ‘sound’ of ‘Moving Waves’, ‘Focus 3’, the Chipping Norton tracks and ‘At the Rainbow’ but it can still be viewed as falling within their body of classic albums. Jan’s sound has changed. It has become less ‘stringy’ and more muscular, with a fascination for swirling Leslie speakers. The album still feels European at heart but there is a clear US rock influence present. Although there are no US TV clips or radio recordings on the set, these exist and reveal Focus to have pumped steroids into their sound for the US market. The first stirrings of this were in a ‘US single version’ of ‘Hocus Pocus’ recorded in December 1972. The stately, rumbling power and, yes, lumbering swing of the original was set aside for a sort of buzzsaw piledriving sound that was, to my ears, actually less swaggering and impressive than the original. The multi-track of that US single session is actually the only Focus multi that still exists, and Bessels has included a short selection of takes from it herein.
The ‘bigger’ sound may have made Focus more palatable to Americans but it also diminished their uniqueness. Weirdly, having spent 1974 pursuing stadium rock stodginess in America and Japan, by the time 1975 came around, it was as if all the magic and energy had completely left them. In its place was a sort of wibbly, flaccid, namby-pamby MOR jazz-funk. The album ‘Mother Focus’ was recorded (without Mike Vernon) between January and May 1975. Colin Allen was around for ‘No Hang Ups’ in January, another example, like ‘Tommy’, of Akkerman spotting a tune by an outside writer (Paul Stoppelman in this case) that could become pure Focus. It was the stand-out track on the album. Allen was let go at this point and David Kemper, a session man, drummed on the rest of the album – an aural blancmange.
Purportedly, van Leer was keeping his best material for a solo album (Akkerman had been placated by management with his own solo album opportunity, ‘Tabernakel’, recorded in the US). ‘My Sweetheart’, a van Leer/Akkerman co-write had a certain something in a Focus-go-disco way, and ‘Mother Focus’ itself was decent – being a low-volume, smoother revamp of ‘Glider’ from the abandoned Chipping Norton sessions – and ‘All Together… Oh That!’ would have made a nice country-rock pastiche on an Akkerman solo album. But generally, the album was the living evidence of a once giant and dazzlingly decorated dirigible deflating into a small beige balloon. Bert Ruiter had stepped into the paucity-of-material breach and written several tracks, but they were no good.
Four amateur recordings from Japan in 1975 reveal this inconsequential jazz-funk sound to have infected their live performances. Akkerman was barely audible behind an armada of burbling, boinging phaser pedals. Even a half-hearted bash at ‘Hocus Pocus’ sounds like ‘Girl from Ipanema’ at this point. The final recordings of the van Leer/Akkerman Focus were two tracks at a studio in Brussels in May: ‘Red Sky at Night’/’O Avondrood’ (the latter being a vocal version) and ‘Crackers’. The former had a certain elegiac quality to it while the latter, an Akkerman composition, was a rather slight, and slightly annoying, thing that he would also record a couple of times as a solo artist.
Both ‘Red Sky at Night’ and ‘Crackers’ would be added to the six fabulous Chipping Norton ’73 tracks and an outtake from the first album to create ‘Ship of Memories’ in 1976, assembled by Mike Vernon. Van Leer and Akkerman appeared in a promo clip for ‘O Avondrood’ (which appeared as the B-side on a reissue of ‘House of the King’ at that time) on a Dutch TV show in late 1975 – albeit, they were clearly filmed separately – and this was their last activity together as Focus until a (fantastic) one-off reunion of the van der Linden/Ruiter line-up of the band for a Dutch TV concert in 1990. Both the ‘O Avondrood’ clip and the reunion concert are included on the DVDs.
Weirdly, ‘O Avondrood’ has never been on CD before, not even on a Focus ‘As & Bs plus’ 2CD compilation a couple of years back. It’s joined here by a rare alternative mix – and a much better one, in my view – of ‘Crackers’ that appeared in the 70s on a Focus vinyl compilation in the UK. The box set gathers up several single edits, including a couple of edits of things prepared for singles that were never released. The most exciting to have on disc are the 3:27 edit of ‘Hocus Pocus’ and the 3:08 edit of ‘Harem Scarem’. I confess, I can’t hear any difference at all in the supposed ‘single versions’ of ‘Sylvia’ and its B-side ‘Love Remembered’ (both from the ‘Focus 3’ album).
The only genuine studio outtake, as such, is a seven-minute jam from the ‘Mother Focus’ sessions, which appears along with a selection of rough mixes of tracks from the album. Similarly, two divergent mixes of the ‘Hamburger Concerto’ tracks ‘Birth’ and ‘Harem Scarem’ are in the set, having slipped out accidentally in 1974 on some US pressings of the album.
Aside from that, given that ‘Ship of Memories’ in 1976 gathered up the best of Focus’ unreleased studio adventures, and that almost all multi-tracks no longer exist (hence, no mining for alt takes and remixes of things), all that Wouter Bessels could do in terms of extra studio content was to gather up these various stray bits and pieces that were released here or there at the time. My favourite ‘stray’ Focus track is ‘Early Birth’ a B-side early version of Akkerman’s ‘Birth’ with its own magic. The full version of ‘Ship of Memories’, mentioned earlier, prepared for a curtailed single B-side in 1973, is the stand-out ‘new’ studio track here. Two mixes of the ‘House of the King’ single backing track (without lead guitar or flute) somehow survived the 70s, and Bessels includes them both, though one would have done.
But the relative paucity of significant studio extras new to CD or new to release in any form is no big deal, because there is a wealth of hitherto unreleased live-on-stage content in both audio and audio-visual form. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that the DVD content in this set – five hours of it – is a much more significant element than might be the case in other box sets, where a DVD can be seen as window dressing or of passing interest. From a unique two-minute live clip of the first line-up at a festival in the Netherlands through the glory years of UK/international fame to the triumphant 1990 one-off reunion back home, it’s all an engrossing and often thrilling viewing/listening experience.
Usually, in reviews of box sets, the reviewer whinges about something that’s been left off or something that could have been done better. Knowing Wouter, if anyone did that, he’d be here telling us that he/she was wrong. So I’m not going suggest anything to do with things *not* on the set (e.g. various other TV appearances or audio bootlegs that might have been cleaned up) save one thing, which stems from a feeling that the 9 CDs could have been 10 CDs, to allow for a different placing of certain tracks. Had that 10 CD approach been taken, there would have been room to add the stunning performance of ‘Anonymous II’ from the sensational Texel 1971 recording made by Jan’s brother Jacob (only ‘Focus I’ is included from the performance). But, look, that’s a minor thing – it’s not as if there aren’t plenty of other versions of ‘Anonymous (I or II)’ herein.
Sound-wise, Wouter has done his usual quietly sensational job – the first proper remastering of the Focus catalogue since 1988, and using the original tapes. The booklet is excellent and the whole thing is a real testament to the unique magic of Focus that flamed briefly in the first half of the 70s and that, despite whatever it was between Jan and Thijs that perpetually annoyed each other, held together probably longer than it might reasonably have been expected to. To be honest, if Akkerman had left after ‘Hamburger Concerto’, that would in a way have left a ‘more perfect’ body of work. ‘Mother Focus’ isn’t unpleasant; it just doesn’t seem to be Focus. It’s like an album by a slick US jazz-funk act with enough good tunes for an EP and a recording budget in direct disproportion to its ideas.
But let us not remember the blancmange at the end – let us celebrate the magic of the starters, main course and soup. It was all well done. Indeed, it was unsurpassable!
What does it all *mean*?
It means you can pick up the complete original works of Focus plus a slew of fantastic DVD and audio extras for £40.
Goes well with…
Whisky and open fires of an evening.
Might suit people who like…