Author’s Note: I think of all the musicians I’ve met I would say that Jan Akkerman is the greatest. It was a thrill to see his shows on Merseyside – referred to in the Mojo ‘Diary’ piece below – in 1997 and, again, to make the pilgrimage to Chester for more Akkerman shows two years later. I was asked to contribute a sleevenote to a limited edition live CD recorded at the Chester shows – which I’ve included in this selection of pieces, along with a feature from The Guitar Magazine. When I phoned Jan for that particular interview he’d just had the police round asking if he was involved with a criminal they’d just arrested – a man named ‘Akkermans’, who had happened to have had a poster of Akkerman (singular) on his wall at home. It’s a morsel of absurdism that seems to sit well with painting a picture of Jan, for as breathtakingly beautiful or dizzyingly complex as his music can sound, he remains at heart a man with a very sophisticated, endearing sense of humour, a taste for understatement and his feet very firmly on the ground. There are many with only a fraction of the man’s brilliance who could learn some learn some lessons there…
Phone Home: Jan Akkerman
Published: Mojo, July 1996
“After Focus I made a record called Eli and toured Britain. The record was a success but the tour was a disaster. I did one more gig in Britain after that, at the old Rainbow – it was then called The Venue or something – and they announced me as ‘Jake Akkman’, so I got the message! It was the punk period so they weren’t interested in music anyway. After that I released records in Europe – some of them are good, and at least they’re all different, although that’s hard for the business people to deal with. Some guys they have one trick and they keep milking it. That doesn’t inspire me, but after 20 years away from it I’m now playing the old Focus material again. It’s all kind of organic what I do, it’s not precalculated. Circumstances change, ages change but my style has always stayed the same – only sometimes it veers more towards blues, or towards jazz, or free-form or classical. I like to have many directions. I had a car accident four years ago, and it’s a miracle I got away with it, but it did make me aware that the problem [with Focus] was never in the music – at least I dared to look back and see what my heritage is. I did a Focus reunion in ‘86 and I didn’t like it. Thijs Van Leer is a brilliant musician but if someone thinks they’re a genius you can’t talk to them any more. I did two CDs with EMI Holland since the accident and now I’ve a new worldwide deal with MCA. I’m doing a 40 gig tour through Holland at the end of the year and they’re recording all the stuff for a three CD live thing – one acoustic and two electric. I suppose I’m getting to the age where I should think about releasing retrospective stuff, but I just don’t have time. Right now I’m working on a studio album with an old friend Tom Salisbury and we’re doing some pretty ‘out’ stuff, more in a classical direction. We took some fugues by Bach and I played blues over them, recording at full blast in a church. I’m going to add lute to it, which should be difficult but I like a challenge. I’ve done a lot of experimenting I guess, but it always comes back to rock. I don’t think you can ever be as good as people make you out to be, though! All this ‘number one’ stuff – you can never live up to that. But the ideas in my head keep me busy, because I never grow as good as I think I can. Some people tried to combine me with Sting but I never did that. I just don’t like his music. I shouldn’t say that too loud, I don’t want to hurt him – but how can you hurt someone with £300 million in the bank! I was supposed to tour Britain and Ireland this year with [Dublin blues guitarist] Samuel Eddy, who I love, but I don’t want to play blues all night so it didn’t work out. If I come over, I come over with a good band and probably play that old Focus stuff ‘cos I that’s what I want to do right now. One of these days it’ll happen.”
Diary: Jan Akkerman
Published: Mojo, November 1997
NOVEMBER 14th JAN AKKERMAN (ACOUSTIC) – BIRKENHEAD PRIORY, MERSEYSIDE
NOVEMBER 15th JAN AKKERMAN (BAND) – FLORAL PAVILION, NEW BRIGHTON, MERSEYSIDE
These are the first proper UK shows in two decades for the former Focus man proclaimed world’s best guitarist in early ‘70s polls, when polls seemed to matter and guitar heroes from Holland were as much a novelty as they are now. Promoting his sensational new live double CD 10,000 Clowns On A Rainy Day, and playing Focus material for the first time in 20 years, Akkerman remains a genius of his craft and as impenetrably aloof from the whole business like the Eric Cantona of guitardom: “I don’t think I can live up to the picture people have of me,” he reflects, “and I don’t want to. I know I’m a hell of a player if I have to be, but that’s nothing to do with the way I comb my hair.” And, on the subject of the contemporary guitar scene: “Well,” he sighs, “if a monkey types very fast on a type-writer that’s very clever, but the story that comes out is already known. I guess the guys with the glasses are the best. Every so often they have to stop and push the glasses back up their nose…” Akkerman doesn’t wear glasses. Oh, and he’s still the best there is.
Published: The Guitar Magazine, November 1997
All over the world there are individuals trading copies of grainy videos from European television, cassettes of horrendously obscure old records by people with unpronounceable names (if always one important name in the ‘special guest’ credits) and useful information about hotels in Holland. These are mild-mannered individuals of no particularly distinctive background and their idol is a man who, barring the odd trade fair and a 1990 ‘Night Of The Guitar’ bash in London, hasn’t been to Blighty and 20 years. And yet five years prior to that he had been welcomed ashore with messianic fervour from the music press at large and commissioning editors of The Old Grey Whistle Test in particular. How cruel the music biz can be.
Crucified by punk and all that it meant for musicality, of which our hero was the poll-winning deity of his day, he cleared off back to Holland, made a whole pile of occasionally bizarre, often brilliant solo albums and generally didn’t bother sticking them out in Britain. But the resurrection is now at hand. And it’s happening in, er, Birkenhead. Does Jan Akkerman – prog-jazz-classicist of chromatic-scaled, dizzyingly speedy fret-wizardry and formerly of 1973’s most implausible chart phenomena Focus – feel he has something to prove to UK audiences? “Yes,” he says, “otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it…”
Indeed. Having survived a double spinal fracture in a car crash five years ago, he has a new perspective on life and has started playing previously taboo Focus material again, some of which appears on his definitive new live double CD 10,000 Clowns On A Rainy Day. Rather like Page & Plant coming to terms with their Led Zeppelin material surrounded by a band of awestruck youngsters, so Akkerman gives a lot of credit for his own legacy-recognition to his current band members, particularly keyboard player Nico Brandsen:
“Doing that old Focus stuff again, for me it was kind of like laying an egg!” he says. “I had to get rid of that old karma and it’s been good to do that – it opens the door to new possibilities, I think, without getting rid of the old ones. I refused to play that music for 20 years until I started playing with Nico, and he already knew all the material.”
The two shows on Merseyside – a candle-lit acoustic affair at Birkenhead Priory on November 14th and a full band work-out at the Floral Pavillion, New Brighton on the 15th – have been organised through one of those mild-mannered fanatics (and Akkerman’s website maintainer) Dave Randall. So aside from Focus epics, unparalleled musicianship and selections from frustratingly unavailable-in-the-UK solo albums, what can people expect?
“Well, I’m playing an Irish Lowden guitar and it’s like an angel peeing in your ear,” he says, “so beautiful! I have it hooked up with this new gear I have from Peavey and it sounds absolutely great. It’s this pre-amp with nice, long reverbs and interactive chorus and stuff – hardly recogniseable but they’re there as a colouring.”
Custom made or off the peg? “Haven’t got a clue,” he says, “but it sounds like it was made for me.” The love-affair is reciprocal – Lowden’s PR supremo Ian Wilson has been on the road promoting the brand in Europe with Akkerman and he’s done some workshops for them. But what’s his electric set up these days?
“I have this hand-built guitar,” he says, “which is a redesign of the Framus I had built in the ‘70s and it’s going to be put back on the marketplace again by a Scottish guy and an English guy – Keith MacDonald and David Mayhew. They’re going to build and distribute the guitar to my liking. But I just rediscovered the old Gibson Personal that I used with Focus on the Hamburger Concerto album and tour. It’s a larger version of the Les Paul. It was stolen years ago and just recently turned up but totally stripped and wrecked so I went straight to a guitar guy here and asked him to put all the furnishings and old pick-ups back on. I’ll be playing that old Gibson as well until the first prototype of this new guitar is ready – it’ll probably be called the ‘Jan Akkerman’.”
Unfortunately, ‘Play-Like-Akkerman-In-A-Day’ manuals won’t be included, but re-educating the English-speaking world to the music of a man who would almost certainly be doing residencies in the Albert Hall had he been born this side of the English Channel is something that is on his mind, after years of simply not being bothered about it:
“This year I’m 50,” he says, “and it’s about time I started at looking at all that back catalogue thing. All that stuff from the ‘60s [with pre-Focus bands The Hunters and Brainbox] I still have on the shelf and it’s just laying about, and all the albums from 1976 on. I guess I have react one way or the other because I gather there’s a lot of interest. I’ll probably go with this Dutch company Pseudonym and release the whole lot next year – every month release an old album on CD with extra tracks. After that there’ll probably be videos and a virtual home page, working with guitar schools in Holland with tablature and videos on there, the whole trip. The only home page I have I authorised in England.”
There’s an irony. And is he listening to anybody on the contemporary guitar scene? “Well, the contemporary guitar scene…” he sighs, “If a monkey types very fast on a type-writer that’s very clever, but the story that comes out is already known. I guess the ones with the glasses are the best. Between every bunch of notes they have to stop and push the glasses back up their nose….”
Clearly, people who can play extremely fast simply don’t interest a man who was doing all that before they were born and has subsequently, clearly, become the Eric Cantona of guitar-dom:
“I don’t think I can live up to the picture people have of me,” he says, “and I don’t want to. I know I’m a hell of a player if I have to be, but that’s nothing to do with the way I comb my hair. I try to incorporate a lot of musical influences and I don’t expect people to grab that all the way or always. If you read all my old interviews from the ‘70s, my heroes have always been Django Reinhardt, Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian and they come from be-bop. But actually I don’t give a damn, it’s just great musical music with great technical abilities. I mean, I don’t get a kick so much any more out of rock playing ‘cos everything’s been done – upside down, reverse, sideways, you name it. The older I get the more I tend to go back to my youth heroes. But, let’s put it this way, I hope to re-establish my friendship towards English audiences with my musicality and I think there’s a lot of people who really want to hear that – that’s the impression I’ve got.”
Let’s hope he’s right. But, finally, does it bother him that for some reason – and let’s be completely tangential here – the editors of jazz encyclopedias never seem to give him an entry? “Well, hey, that’s alright,” he says. “God listens to simple tunes too…”
Jan Akkerman: Live At Alexanders
Published: sleevenote to the limited edition CD Live At Alexanders, October 1999
Some years ago, an uncle in Edinburgh posted me a cassette copy of the Focus LP Live At The Rainbow. I’m sure it came with a context but I forget what it was. To someone of 13 or 14, the world conjured up by the music of Focus was a deeply attractive, timeless place but one that, from the viewpoint of the early ‘80s, seemed a lifetime away. On reflection, of course, it was closer to then than then is to now but even today the music of Focus remains unique in the history of rock: eminently European in feel, the soundtrack to imaginary fairytales where minstrels wander round empty cathedrals and gargoyles yodel on the spires. The key to what made this group special was always, to my mind, their guitarist Jan Akkerman. Clearly, from his musical compositions and choice of notes alone, here was a fellow of some wit, refinement and imagination.
On meeting the great man subsequently, one’s perceptions were only enhanced and, by chance, those encounters coincided with the first time he had returned to the music of Focus in 20 years. Less mythical and more alive than it had ever seemed in the early ‘80s, Akkerman’s rehabilitation of his most hallowed material during concerts at The Birkenhead Guitar Festival in 1997 imbued an added dimension of celebration to the event. Through his official website Akkernet, maintained locally by Dave Randall, fans came from around the UK and further afield and gave Jan the welcome he had long deserved. Together with a very satisfying new studio album Focus In Time, the awesome live double 10,000 Clowns On A Rainy Day underlined what appeared, dare one say it, to be the product of a more focused attitude. A near-fatal car crash in 1992 had ushered in for Jan a new perspective on past work that had for long been the baby thrown out with the bathwater of acrimony that had surrounded the split and latterday reunions of his old band.
Two years after the Birkenhead renaissance, Dave Randall facilitated Akkerman’s return to Britain for a more substantial tour with a four piece band including long-time collaborator Ton Dijkman on drums, Willbrand Meischke on bass and complete newcomer Jeroen Rietbergen on keyboards. So complete were Rietbergen’s newcomings he had signed up for the band only days before the trip. It didn’t seem to phase Akkerman, but then nothing ever does. More importantly, it didn’t seem to phase Rietbergen, and the centrepiece concerts of the tour, three nights at Alexander’s Jazz Theatre in Chester, became the platform for some good-natured but clearly determined musical jousting between the two. Akkerman may have been the legend, but Rietbergen had something to prove and, while the repertoire was necessarily limited, audiences were treated to some incredible musicianship from all concerned. More so than the seasoned unit Akkerman had brought previously to Birkenhead and had recorded 10,000 Clowns with, this was a jamming band: with the glorious exceptions of ‘No Hang Ups’ and ‘Tommy’, from the Focus days, themes were stated and brinkmanship pursued.
In the sheer joy of those concerts at Alexander’s, the increasing realisation that my wife and I were staying at Chester’s equivalent of Fawlty Towers was banished from thought. Every night risks were taken, avenues explored and virtuosity matched with virtuosity. The edges of Alexander’s seats endured more wear and tear than may reasonably have been expected. In the hands of Willbrand Meischke ‘the bass solo’ became the stuff of legend, eagerly awaited by the faithful. By day, Willbrand could be encountered sight-seeing, street-walking and sitting in wine bars. With the exception of Dave Randall we were each, after all, tourists in this town.
One of the perks of writing professionally on music are the opportunities of meeting one’s heroes. It has been my very great pleasure to have met Jan Akkerman and I know there are many others who have enjoyed that opportunity themselves through the tenacious activities of Akkernet. As a momentary diversion from working on a biography of Bert Jansch, my Akker-pilgrimage to Chester was most welcome; my wife, for her part, fell in love with ‘No Hang Ups’. Keen eared listeners will spot a ‘jazz note’ endearingly evident in the performance of that tune included on this disc. My uncle always did insist there was one on Focus At The Rainbow, though personally I could never hear it. The integrity of that record is repeated with this one: what you hear is exactly how it was on the night – four exceptional musicians in playful competition and joyful harmony. And anyway, what’s a note between friends?