Anyone who listens to Focus’ trademark track Hocus Pocus without smiling just doesn’t get it. It’s a celebration of over-the-top virtuosity, madcap creativity and Spike Milligan-like “what are we gonna do next” improvisation. And as the Dutch prog masters proved on US TV in 1973, you can take it much further than you should if you really want to.
Originally released two years earlier, the track had raised many eyebrows but hadn’t opened enough wallets, with a near-seven-minute journey that aimed to leave listeners bewildered. First came a killer rock riff, then a staccato drum breakdown, and then Thijs van Leer started yodelling. Later he’d drop in a flute solo, whistle and just scream his head off. I mean: what?!
Focus had been based in Groeneveld Castle in Baam, Netherlands, surrounded by a cast of colourful creatives from many genres of art, when the great moment of inspiration came.
“We could rent a part of the castle for very little money so we could work on our music there,” van Leer recalled. One day they were jamming as usual. “Then Jan Akkerman started playing, and I immediately thought it was a world-class riff. That was the first sensation: ‘Shit, the sounds good!’
"He played that riff four times and then drummer Pierre van der Linden spontaneously started playing a solo for two measures. And then the bass player, Cyriel Havermans, he stopped playing even though he wasn’t meant to. We just made a stop there. And after the drum solo I started yodelling.”
If you knew, you knew. There’s a good chance a lot of people who found themselves intrigued enough to buy tickets just wanted to see if Focus could really play it live. And they could. And like almost every band in the UK and Europe in those days, the dream was to break America.
That door had opened for them when a re-release of Hocus Pocus reached No.9 in the States in mid 1973. So when the offer came to appear on NBC’s variety show The Midnight Special on October 5, van Leer wanted to make the most of the opportunity.
They were up against stiff competition – guest-hosted by Gladys Knight, the episode featured her Pips, BB King plus Earth, Wind and Fire. Focus wanted to crowbar in four songs, and of course Hocus Pocus had to be there. But it would lose its impact if was trimmed back too much, like the single edit, since the music and the joke is built around the notion of how far they can take it.
The solution they came up with was to play almost all of it, but play it stupidly fast. They’d touched on the concept at the end of 1972 during an appearance on UK show The Old Grey Whistle Test and it had helped lead to an explosion of new interest. Hoping for a similar result, van Leer wanted to go right over the top on The Midnight Special and his face-pulling, along with the band’s relentless precision over four minutes, became an unforgettable moment – as the audience reaction demonstrates.
The joke still reverberates around the world. Hocus Pocus has been featured in stacks of movies, in the TV ads for Nike’s 2010 World Cup campaign (opens in new tab), as the match time theme tune for Scottish football club Partick Thistle, and as a cover by Iron Maiden (among many others).
In 2017 Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine noted: “70s musicians were so much more charismatic. Watch the Focus Hocus Pocus live track from Midnight Special.”
Describing his solo sequences as “gags,” van Leer reflected: “A part of it is humour, but it’s not just mine, and it’s all musical humour.” He revealed what he thought was the song’s secret weapon: “People called it an instrumental song but it’s actually a vocal song – only we’re not singing, ‘I love you, I need you.’”
They're not. According to the website Songmeanings.com (opens in new tab), they're singing something far deeper: