December 6, 2020

If, like me, you’ve been following Dutch prog masters Focus for the almost all of the 50 years of their existence, you will have had multiple opportunities to buy the back calalogue. Again, like me you may have ‘replaced’ your vinyl copies with CD versions, some released as early as 1987. 2017 saw the Red Bullet label release the ‘Hocus Pocus Box’, which gathered together the entire back catalogue as it was at that time, from 1969 right into the second decade of the new millennium – thirteen CDs without bonus tracks and a booklet of some (frankly, rather ropey) sleeve notes. So that’s three versions. Tick!

You might ask, therefore, do we need a fourth of anything? The answer, happily, is a resounding yes!

Focus 50 Years – Anthology 1970-1976 essentially covers the Akkerman era in meticulous, glorious detail. It features all seven of the albums he recorded with the band – including Live At The Rainbow and the compilation of outtakes Ship Of Memories, but this time the albums have been meticulously remastered in their original form by official Focus archivist Wouter Bessels. This includes a return to some original vinyl formatting, so (for instance) Anonymous II from 1972’s Focus III has been split in two again as it appeared on the original LP, whereas previous CD versions had it combined into a single 30 minute piece. He has also returned to the original artwork for the first couple of albums to reflect their original Dutch releases, without forgetting their various other incarnations of course. So far, so splendid.

However, the real joy here is in the sumptuous array of bonus material scattered across the seven albums, plus two additional live CDs and – joy of joys – two DVDs which gather together a great deal of the archive video material, much of which has only been available on BBC compilations or Youtube, and some of which hasn’t been seen since it was recorded.

The bonus materials may seem a little randomly placed at first, until you realise that this is entirely shaped by the 80 minutes available on a single CD. So, Focus III – originally a double album on vinyl – only has room for a few single mixes. However, the debut album not only has House Of The King as a bonus track as you might expect, but an astonishing 37 minute early version of ‘Eruption’, recorded in 1970, with many of the parts as they were finally to appear intact, but no Tommy (for instance).

Meanwhile, Focus II (Moving Waves) features an excellent live Focus I from 1971, while the story continues with At The Rainbow and Ship Of Memories; the latter, in particular, awash with early and rare versions of familiar favorites, while Hamburger Concerto offers up a couple of rare alternative mixes that fans of that album will lap up. Mother Focus – the much derided final album with Akkerman  – is a personal favorite (I’m in the minority there) and while the various early mixes from that album don’t offer much variation of note, a studio jam shows, if nothing else, what a great player fourth drummer David Kemper was.

But the real treasures are in the four additional discs. BBC 1973 in a one-hour audio set recorded for the Beeb in January 1973, with introductions by Bob Harris. Recorded four months before At The Rainbow, it finds the band on fire – it’s a better performance both in terms of playing and sonics than the official live album. The second CD is a more varied set, recorded between 1971 and 1975. The most satisfying track may be an extended – possibly a touch flabby – Eruption, however the tracks recorded in Japan in 1975 are fascinating for the wrong reasons – a mixture of great musicianship and clear dissent. The version of Hocus Pocus is cursory in the extreme, with Akkerman clearly bored out of his mind to be playing such old material.

An excellent booklet does a great job in summing up the story and gives some impressive detail about the performances. Finally, the two DVDs also make for fascinating viewing. The first disc covers various performances on the BBC between 1972 and 1974, including the Live At The Rainbow set on film, while the second picks up some (but not all) of the archive TV material from Dutch TV, including the 1990 reunion set. The clips include a full 50 minute Classic Albums documentary from 1997 concerning Moving Waves. While it’s understandable that this disc should be Dutch-orientated, it’s a shame that there are no English subtitles, rendering a great deal of the spoken material unintelligible except for the English speakers such as the Mike Vernon. One of the interesting aspects of watching so much material over a short space of time is seeing the deteriorating relationship between Akkeman and Thijs Van Leer – their positions on stage move further and further away from each other as the years progress.

But also bear in mind that this set concerns the Akkerman era only, and some might feel that coverage of the Phillip Catherine, Eef Albers and (gulp) P.J. Proby eras would at least complete the Focus story in the 1970s.

But these are minor quibbles; this is an remarkable set. If you have albums missing, then this astonishingly good package is the place to go. It’s hard to see any reissues – for any band – doing a better job than this, and it’s reasonably priced, too. Essential!