'Hocus Pocus' instrumental in Nike ad

Originally Published: July 3, 2010
By Page 2

One of the biggest stars of the World Cup hasn't been a player, but a commercial. Nike's much-ballyhooed "Write the Future" ad, playing throughout the tournament, was directed by Alejandro Inarritu (Babel, 21 Grams).

The official three-minute-long version on YouTube uploaded by Nike now has nearly 18 million views.

The commercial's soundtrack is perhaps the driving force, impossible to shake. It seems like the perfect fit for the spot, a composition made to order. Instead, it's a 1970s hit by Dutch band Focus, called "Hocus Pocus."

Focus lead singer Thijs van Leer (pronounced like "Tice"), reached by phone in the Netherlands, said the commercial was a surprise, approved by the song's publisher and shown to him when it was nearly at a completed state.

"It's coming from heaven," said van Leer, now 62. "The last thing you would expect, you know? The last thing on my mind."

In 1973, the song reached No. 9 in the United States and No. 20 on the British charts, a big achievement for an instrumental song. The World Cup exposure led to its re-entrance to the UK charts this month after 37 years. The song landed at No. 57, two spots below a Black Eyed Peas song.

Clocking in at nearly 7 minutes long, "Hocus Pocus" features van Leer yodeling, playing the organ, singing falsetto, and playing a wicked rock flute. The twists and turns in it were perfect for the divergent storylines in the commercial, said Mark Bernath, the co-creative director of the commercial from the advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy Amsterdam. A former drummer from New York, he just happened to be hanging out with van Leer hoping to jam a little bit, calling the song and the commercial a "serendipitous marriage of pictures and music."

"We were hoping to come upon something that feels like a piece of magic," Bernath said. "When you have a song called 'Hocus Pocus' you're halfway there. It's a combination of musical ideas that seems like they couldn't possibly go together. It's constantly suprising. It just works.

The lunacy of the song isn't lost on van Leer, who says it was created during an impromptu jam session in the rehearsal studio. Normally, van Leer composed songs behind a piano at home. This was just off the cuff. The guitar player played a riff, the drummer played a short solo.

"Then I began to yodel behind my Hammond organ," he said. "I did that for the first time in my life." And is that an accordion solo in the song?

"Harmonium, actually," he said with a laugh. "It's even worse."

So it seems a perfect fit for a commercial meant to entertain, but also to make people laugh.

"The song has many gags, many jokes, you could say," van Leer said. "The film is an amazing film, full of spirit and humor. The song is filled with humor, so it was like a marriage."

Focus, which has kept touring with different lineups throughout the years, is actually back in the studio currently, re-recording its biggest hits and then working on a new album, Focus 10.

But for now, van Leer, is still touring, saying he's proud of the new life for his impromptu hit nearly 40 years ago.

"It's amazing how it spread the world again, this song. So much attention on this song. I'm still amazed and very thankful."