IN A SMALL OFFICE at the Manchester Hardrock, reeking of stale beer and dirty ashtrays, Jan Akkerman is struggling to light a cigarette. Outside, where half an hour earlier Focus had closed the final date of their British tour, the Hardrock discotheque was in operation.
Hesitant dancers are making for the office, young guys hustling their way in, arms thrusting paper and pens at the guitarist. Akkerman is detached and a little moody as he scribbles illegible black lines, which will be undoubtedly, be pasted on a bedroom wall next to the Moving Waves sleeve.
One guy wants to shake his hand. “You”, he tells Akkerman, “must be the best guitarist I have set eyes on.” A wry smile curls the guitarist’s lips.
“Where in Holland will you be playing next week ’cause I’ll be over there?” inquires a 17-year-old, meticulously folding a signed cigarette box. “Ask him” retorts Akkerman, indicating the manager. “He knows all about it.”
Peter Banks once nominated Jan Akkerman as his choice in the NME Guitarist’s Poll and I sniggered, unaware of how good he was. But now, as Focus score four British chart positions (two albums and two singles) and the memory of two big crowd drawing tours remain fixed in the mind, few people in Britain will be unacquainted with Focus and the man who picks out beautiful lines on a black Gibson Les Paul.
But even though the rest of the band is over the moon about the British tour, Akkerman plays it cool. “I played several times good, but most of the time rotten. Just because we were working too hard. Four weeks in a row every day, with one day off.”
Yet in Holland, I point out, Focus does three-hour sets. Akkerman nods in agreement. “But that’s just three, four or five times a week. At least the other two days in the week we have off, and you need that desperately to come to your senses again and rebuild whatever needs rebuilding.”
Whether Akkerman admits it or not, the challenge of such arduous roadwork gets him high. He is a proud and determined man who, like Thijs van Leer, sneers at glam rock and all its connotations.
His interest is purely for the music, and another challenge in that field is his current preoccupation with the lute.
“To me, with 13 strings, it’s the most difficult instrument,” he comments, before going on to talk about 16th century music he loves. “It’s music in its most primitive form but, to me, it’s the most honest music.”
“There are also a lot of commercial tunes in other people’s stuff, strong melodies. Julian Bream, for example. Everybody knows I love him, the way he plays, his approach to the lute and guitar. I especially like his lute playing.”
“It’s just incredible what he does. Get any pop guitarist and put a lute into their hands and they can’t do anything with it. Because the guitar is easy compared to that instrument.”
Akkerman is a rarity, if not unique, in that his style is not derivative of the blues, jazz, or pop – even though they are all influences. He is one guitarist who has his own style completely. In years to come Akkerman’s technique will be copied by a new generation in the same way that Clapton’s is now.
When I put that to him the hard mask of confidence drops to show a glint of incredulity in the eyes. “In Holland they are doing that already, but I think the only comparison with Clapton is that I also have the warmth in my playing like he has. That’s all.”
“Technically, I’m far better than him, musically we are probably at the same level. But still I make my own music, and he is a blues guitarist. There’s a difference. And I don’t say it’s worse or better. Clapton’s the God of guitar players. He doesn’t need that from me, but he’s one of the few guys who I would say are good guitarists.”
Elaborating on his stimulus for creativity the guitarist says it comes only from his own ingenuity, his head. “I stopped looking at other guitarists round about 18 or 19. I knew what was going on in the world with the Beatles and things like that. Suddenly I said to myself ‘shut up’. I don’t want to listen to anything except good music. Just practice my own thing.”
It is just this attitude of mind which has enabled Jan Akkerman to emerge from a European country previously disregarded here and in America as our poor musical relations and be acclaimed as a great. There are many fine players waiting to come through in his wake, says Akkerman, although he feels many of them are on the wrong track.
“They’re still hanging themselves up watching the outside world. If they’d do their own thing they’d win, but they don’t. That’s the fatal mistake they make. There are beautiful musicians coming out of the Concertorium and going into pop music, and they’re going to play Burt Bacharach stuff in a pop way.”
In spite of his reputation Akkerman’s Profile solo album, which has only seen Dutch record counters, didn’t sell well back home. Which is stranger still when Akkerman agrees that he’s regarded as the Dutch guitar God.
“I am a name, I am a legend. But the problem in Holland is that they want the Sweet (a British glam rock/pop band) and stuff like that. I agree that doesn’t stop me making my own music, outside or inside Focus, which is what that solo album is all about.”
“Actually I should give you an explanation of that album. I lived in Amsterdam, and had a very hard time being run out of that group and this group, and I didn’t eat and things. And that’s what is exactly on the first side of that album. Then the other side is the classical thing, which I love very much.”
The style of the set is different to Focus, more abstract and technical. Akkerman insists: “That’s actually my part in Focus. I don’t care if people are raving or not. This is me. See? Expressive.”
“When you listen carefully to it, you see clouds, you see water, you see grass grow. It’s answering a question: am I happy that way?”
His conclusion is that he is. And he’s content with his contribution to Focus’ music: “Otherwise I wouldn’t do it. I’d stop writing at this moment if I didn’t like it, even if it was going well. Brainbox (his previous band) was going very well financially. There is a certain mentality you’ve got to have: all or nothing.”
To him Focus is an inspirational source for music and playing. Despite performing the same stage numbers for 18 months, it’s refreshing and rejuvenating each night. On this basis Akkerman will explain concisely what the group is aiming at.
“It’s just like an aeroplane which needs something to take off from,” he says. “After that, we take off and go on. That’s how we use the tunes. Every night is different. It is actually like building a new word or a new language out of the words you know.
“If people have heard us four or five nights, it’s all right, because they will still hear new things.”
© Tony Stewart, New Musical Express, 24 February 1973