Welcome to Strange Hits, a new column about songs you may forgot or simply not know hit the Top 40, acts whose very appearance in the charts is odd or intriguing, or just tracks that are too damn weird to fit our pre-conceived notions of what a Pop hit sounds like. Today, we discuss the Progressive Rock classic “Hocus Pocus” and its unlikely rise up both the American and British Top 20 lists in 1973.
I will always find it a bit bizarre when an instrumental, or at least largely instrumental track reaches the Top 40 charts. Yes, there was a time in which this was a lot more common, but once the music industry tightened their control on what a hit single “should be”, this kind of hits dried up ─ this decade, the closest we have to a mostly wordless smash is Bauuer’s “Harlem Shake”, and although that song actually topped the Billboard Hot 100, most of its success came via the viral video phenomenon it inspired.
Still, non-lyrical hit singles will always feel odd. We have a natural tendency to respond not only to vocals but to words in our unconscious search to find music to relate to, something that not only speaks to us, but that also reflects our perceived identity and values. Of course, this is one of the factors at play as for why it’s not only so hard to get an instrumental in the top 40 but also why, even considering the ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity of modern North America and the United Kingdom, a non-English-speaking chartbreaker is still quite rare. The 16-week number-one Billboard run of last year’s “Despacito” and the rise of K-Pop in the international consciousness are opening possibilities for a more cosmopolitan hit parade, but these markets are still very attached to the English language.
But then, how does an instrumental hit happen? Naturally, music is a universal expression, and some tunes are just powerful enough to stand by themselves, or are just so catchy they’re irresistible. People will always respond to infectious melodies and/or hot beats. Also, most of the biggest instrumental hits are associated to some kind of visual media, whether it’s TV and film ─ like Jan Hammer’s “Miami Vice Theme” or Vangelis’ “Chariots of Fire” ─ or appearances in advertising, sporting events, dance crazes or viral social media. But sometimes, there come songs that are just so unique, so out-there, they’re impossible to ignore. Enter Dutch progressive rock band Focus’ neoclassical tour de force, “Hocus Pocus”.
This song was originally released in 1971 as part of their sophomore record Moving Waves, and although it was released as a single that year ─ shortening the track from its 6:42 album version to a radio-friendly 3:18 ─, it didn’t reach the UK and US charts until 1973, when it was taken by then-emerging label Sire Records. When we try to break down what it is about this song that ended up conquering both sides of the Atlantic, well, let’s just say that there’s a lot going on. To be fair, 1973 was a perfectly good time for Progressive Rock in the musical mainstream; this was the year of Dark Side of the Moon, and bands like King Crimson, Yes and Genesis were everywhere, at least in Britain. But that doesn’t explain why it went so far, especially for a band from the Netherlands.
A good reason might be its scope and structure. Prog, as a genre, is immensely influenced by classical music’s compositional approaches, scales and tunings, but in “Hocus Pocus”, these influences are so front-and-center, so on-the-nose, it almost feels like a Rock cover of an 18th Century late Baroque period piece, which makes it somehow more accessible than the rest of so-called Symphonic Prog. It’s even composed in the form of a Rondo, in which a main theme (called a “refrain”) alternates with one or more contrasting sections (called episodes), creating an A-B-A or A-B-A-C-A structure. The Rondo form highlights the technical strengths of the band, especially those of its composers, guitarist Jan Akkerman and multi-instrumentalist/bandleader Thijs Van Leer. The refrain is a hard-hitting rock section led by a badass riff by Akkerman, accentuated by fierce guitar solos, but definitely the most memorable elements about the song are Van Leer’s episodes, where he plays organ, flute and accordion respectively. It may all come down to the first intervention, in which, after an introductory drum solo, Van Leer unleashes his incredible vocal talent via a descending yodel, and then an octave-wide ascending falsetto, creating enough intensity to transition back into Akkerman’s riff. It’s one of the most exciting moments in rock history, hands down.
“Hocus Pocus” went to the Top 20 in the UK and peaked at an impressive number 9 in the American charts during the summer of 1973. Despite the fact that so many instrumental hits of its time were seen as novelty acts whose appear would be fugacious, the Dutch band’s single has wonderfully stood the test of time. Pop culture has consistently revived it through the years, using it in various different creative vehicles. It’s sampled in one of my personal favorite rap songs ever, and it was part of the one really cool sequence in José Padilha’s Robocop reboot. And yes, if you watched Baby Driver last year, you could see how well this song works alongside visual media. It shows us that great music transcends. It always has and it always will.