NPR logo Old Music Tuesdays: Focus

Old Music Tuesdays: Focus

A friend I can usually count on for Web links to the absurd oddities of the world recently pointed me to a truly bizarre progressive rock group from the 1970s called Focus. I don't know how to describe the music of Focus other than as "Yodel Rock."

Focus is from Amsterdam and formed in 1969. The group was (and still is) fronted by Thijs van Leer, a classically trained pianist and flutist (he's the one sitting at the keyboard, looking possessed in the video). I say "is" because, after nearly 40 years, the band is still together and still putting out albums. Its most recent was a 2006 LP called Focus 9: New Skin.

Focus has gone through a number of lineup changes and split up in 1978. There were a handful of reunions in the '80s and '90s before Focus officially re-formed in 2000, with van Leer back at the helm.

The song featured in the video above, "Hocus Pocus," was actually a pretty big hit. It reached No. 9 on the U.S. pop charts in 1973 — a stunning achievement for a decidedly non-commercial, non-pop, and flat-out strange piece of music. This was at a time when songs such as Diana Ross' "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and Bread's "Make it With You" were topping the charts. How there was ever any room for something like "Hocus Pocus" is beyond me.

Here's a recent photo of Focus with its current lineup. That's Thijs van Leer in the glasses.




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It's so strange that I can't work out whether it's very, very good, or very, very bad. The opening minute is one of the best rock openings of a song that I have heard. The addition of the instrument that appears mid-way through the song was unexpected. It reminds me of Edgar Winter's 'Frankenstein'. Okay, I've made my mind up. It's genius!

Sent by Keith Bradnam | 4:20 PM | 7-15-2008

They seduced me with the yodeling but the relationship was consummated with the whistle. And like a good one night stand, I never want to hear about it again.

Sent by Tom EG | 9:18 PM | 7-15-2008

I love that song. When I was younger and FM radio was my primary source of introduction to new music, I heard it once in a while without ever knowing the name of the song or the artist. The riff is classic, and the weirdness of the vocal doesn't get it in the way at all, at least for me. I heard it again last year after forgetting all about it, and promptly found a live version on iTunes and bought it.

The reason a song like this could make the charts in 1973 is because commercial radio wasn't as rigid and formulaic as it is now, and the stations gave DJs enough freedom to play stuff they liked, even if it was weird. Also, there simply weren't very many ways to hear new music back then. You listened to the radio and waited for the occasional chance to see a band on TV or in concert, and if you liked them you bought the album. Things are better now, but anybody who relies on the pop charts to decide what to listen to is missing out on all the good stuff.

Sent by Gary | 9:40 AM | 7-16-2008

Oh, wow! What a great surprise for Tuesday. I already loved this crazy, oddball song, but I never knew there was a video.

Meanwhile, who was the announcer -- she looks very familiar. (Gladys Knight?)

Yes, that's Glady's Knight. That's her name written in Japanese, running down the right side of the screen at the beginning of the video.

Sent by John | 12:18 PM | 7-16-2008

The musicianship on this song is very very good.

Sent by Tom Hendricks | 5:00 PM | 7-16-2008

Why so patronizing? Focus were, and probably still are great.
I miss the 70's AM radio days when musical oddities like this could rise to the top of the pops.

--- it is sad you can't hear anything like this on the radio anymore. -- rh

Sent by schlep | 8:52 AM | 7-17-2008

What a find. Thank you. I will undoubtedly be forwarding this video to many of my friends.

Sent by evan | 12:48 AM | 7-18-2008

I had been humming/yodeling that song to anyone who'd listen for years until recently... trying to figure out WHO the artist was. Then... someone forwarded me the Youtube video in the form of an "wtf?" IM message.

I was so happy that I bought their album on iTunes that very moment and I was not disappointed at the cool variety of tunes.

My workmates, who is a bit older, told me his class all stuffed the ballot box and voted this song as the theme song for their prom! haha.

Sent by matt heindl | 12:27 PM | 7-22-2008

I've always loved "Hocus Pocus," ever since I was a kid -- and now my 6-year-old daughter is into it, as well. The video is a trip, although the tempo is ridiculously fast (I'm guessing it was a compromise for television, but if ever there was a song that DIDN'T need speeding up...). Thanks!

Sent by John Olore | 12:35 PM | 7-22-2008

I think that the fact that Gladys Knight was introducing this song is a better reflection of the freedom in music programming back in the 1970's than the charts than the fact that Focus made it onto the charts. I can't think of a similar juxtaposition today, unless Alicia Keys is going to introduce Godspeed You Black Emperor! any time soon.

Sent by Wilbur Pan | 11:15 AM | 7-24-2008

That's so funny! I still have some Focus albums buried in a closet. I remember getting them at a used record store and they were quite a find.

Sent by Mary | 9:07 PM | 7-26-2008

The music is great, but I can't get past Thijs van Leer's face on the first verse, chorus, whatever it is. I've just been rolling on the floor laughing.

Sent by Nick | 11:52 PM | 7-30-2008

I chose 1966 because the Beatles' ground-breaking "Revolver" album was released in August of that year. No other rock album had ever featured so much wild studio experimentation. Having freed themselves from the toil of touring, the Fab Four began using the recording studio as a primary musical instrument with such great Lennon songs as "Strawberry Fields Forever" and his mesmerizing "Tomorrow Never Knows," McCartney's poignant "Eleanore Rigby," Paul and John's charming "Yellow Submarine" written for Ringo, and George Harrison's bitterly droll "Taxman."

I found this album more startling in its originality than 1967's "Sgt. Pepper" for which it paved the way. Not that "Sgt. Pepper" isn't great too -- it certainly is -- but I consider it Volume Two of "Revolver."

Sent by Bob Conway | 3:39 PM | 8-11-2008