Saturday, July 12, 2008

Focus -- "Hocus Pocus" (1971)

Definitely file this under the "what the hell was that?" category. With prog rock roaring in the early 70's, the Dutch threw their hat into the ring, and as always, it was nothing less than interesting.

Focus had one of the most off-the wall instrumental hit singles of the decade, veering close to self-mocking and classical parody. The long version of "Hocus Pocus" was several minutes long, and guaranteed to be heard on the FM progressive rock stations at the time, while the much shorter single was on the AM and usually found in current compilations of the era.

You know the prog rock cliches and they were all here, regardless of where these guys came from: long hair, high-speed quasi-classical precision flourishes on their instruments, high-pitched vocals, unusual time meters and key changes, largely expanded drum kits, and those analog synths.

The song revolves around guitarist Jan Akkerman's highly distorted rock riff front and center, starting on A minor and working its way around some unusual progressions, then breaks into the song's signature yodeling melody. Yes, leave it to the Dutch to bring yodeling to prog rock. The yodeling, done by organist Thijs van Leer, sings out a nonsensical melody, and then gets higher and higher until you expect thousands of sheep to come herding in.

If you listen to the full version, van Leer's vocals get even wackier in one verse, where it seems like he's choking on an Irish jig (at least that's what it sounds like to me!). They even chuck in a Viking-ish flute break, as if the kitchen sink wasn't thrown in already.

A joke on the audience? A sophisticated out-of-the-blue show of musical and vocal chops? Whatever it was, this song was an FM radio staple but then again, radio was embracing a lot of strange stuff in 1971, from the ridiculous Mac and Katie Kissoon's "Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep" and Coven's "One Tin Soldier" to the icky "Stay Awhile" and "Put Your Hand in The Hand."

"Hocus Pocus" is far better and outlived all that pap, and now considered a respectable classic rock song.

The October 1973 video below from NBC-TV's "Midnight Special" is quite entertaining, from Gladys Knight's unlikely introduction ("Musically, they're one of the most exciting and together groups going") to van Leer's bizarre nervous tic facial expressions before, during and after yodeling.

1 comment:

capewood said...

That's a song I completely forgot about. I may never forget van Leer's yodeling again after seeing him.