Jan Akkerman

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 recognisable 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:

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.

“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…”

© Colin HarperThe Guitar, November 1997

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