Listen to the juke box in many Belgian cafes today and it will likely play one of Belgium’s all-time favourites, a witty sing-along record with the title “Potverdekke! It’s great to be a Belgian”. Written by an Englishman John Makin – performing under his stage name Mister John – it sat at the top of the Belgian hit parade in 1998 for 26 weeks. John Makin died peacefully at his home in Brussels on October 23, aged 61.
Before making his mark on Belgian musical history, John left England and his home town of Warrington near Liverpool for Brussels in 1972 to ply his trade as a professional quantity surveyor in the booming capital of Europe. Among the large expat community in Brussels he found a ready outlet for his musical talents as a folk/blues guitarist and songwriter.
In 1976 he released his first album of self-penned gems called Urban Romance and, with a manager behind him, quit the day job to become a performing musician.
In addition to his musical talents John was also sporty and he was a founding player of British United Football Club, and former captain of the club’s first team, which plays in the Belgian amateur league. Ever enterprising and positive, in 1980 he brought together a group of budding musical talents and launched an independent record company, OK Records. The label was signed by Polygram and John’s first single Anglais Franglais was released nationwide.
The record made a ripple rather than a roar, but John nevertheless became a regular feature on the Belgian music scene. In 1985 he recorded his first live album Live at the Planet with more of his original songs, featuring an electric band comprising top local talent.
John was proudest of his introspective melodic songs that demonstrated an insightful social observation, wry sense of humour and a critical – though always charitable – sideways look at the world. Despite critical acclaim, his quality songs did not provide him with the career breakthrough he sought, and it was ironically his throw-away sing-along ditty Potverdekke! – penned to entertain some Belgian friends – that changed his fortunes and turned around his life.
The song became an unexpected top ten hit. They say timing is everything and 1998 was the era of the Dutroux paedophile scandal, with much of the Belgian population depressed and wreathed in shame. And then along came an English singer from Liverpool who told the country: “It’s great to be a Belgian”. The people loved it. With numerous appearances on television, including CNN, and an invitation to play before the Belgian King on National Day on July 21, John became a nation-wide celebrity. As he wryly observed at the time: “It’s taken me thirty years to become an overnight success.”
That stroke of good fortune and his own persistence set him up as a successful professional performer for the next decade. In recent times he could be found performing as a duo with ace clarinet player Doctor Rob, playing his own distinctive brand of anti-depressive good-time music, as he called it. He recently wrote The Greek Song, a cheeky and witty poke at the shenanigans and chaos of the current financial crisis.
John is survived by his wife Anne Robertson, and his two sons Ben and Dan from his first marriage to Mary Brown.
John Makin, born February 13, 1950, died October 23, 2011