Thursday, January 30, 2014

Sire Records: Hocus Pocus

If you took Deep Purple, Ian Anderson, an Alpine yodeler, Popeye the Sailor, Frankie Yankovic, and Whistling Jack Smith and had them compose one song, you might come up with “Hocus Pocus.” Dutch band Focus’ signature tune had it all – a heavy rock band that had flute, yodeling, scat singing, accordion, and whistling all on one track.

I remember this record quite well. It was the summer of 1973 and I just graduated from high school and got my first car. My friends and I would spend the evenings cruising through the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh listening to the radio. My ’64 Ford Fairlane 500, however, only had an AM radio with one oval speaker, but that was sufficient to hear the tunes in all of their mono glory. That summer, it seemed that the three Steel City Top 40 stations (13Q, KQV, and WIXZ) only played three songs: “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple, “Frankenstein” by the Edgar Winter Group, and “Hocus Pocus” by Focus. These three cuts dominated the airwaves.

Released in the US on Sire Records, “Hocus Pocus” – in all of its unusual glory – made it to the Top 10 and charted at #9. It also was the first record I ever purchased on the Sire label. The flip side of the single was part two of the nearly seven minute album cut from their “Moving Waves” LP. The song was born with a riff created by Jan Akkerman while the band was practicing in a room of a castle that they had rented as a rehearsal hall. 

While coauthor Jan Akkerman’s guitar shines on this number, the real work came from the song’s other author, Thijs Van Leer, who played the organ, accordion, and flute along with whistling, singing the Popeye like scat parts, and of course yodeling – the song’s unique characteristic. Typically it categorized as an instrumental, but Thijs Van Leer considers it a vocal performance; albeit, a different type of vocal performance.

The song also fits our Repeats and Threepeats category as the album was released three times and the single twice. Generally known for the album’s second and third releases distributed by Polydor and Famous Music as “Moving Waves,” the original version of the album was named “Focus II” and was on Sire distributed by Polydor.

The single was released twice in succession from Polydor and Famous Music Corporation. Interestingly enough, the two issues had the same catalog numbers; however, the publishing companies were listed with different identities. I was cognizant of the two issues at the time and sought out a copy distributed by Polydor as it would be rarer.

Even though Nike used it for a World Cup commercial a few years ago, you don’t hear “Hocus Pocus” much these days as the novelty  has worn thin, but it is always a treat to hear the band’s only American Top 40.


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