EDDY GRANT: ELECTRIC INTERVIEW
He may have been based in Barbados for the last 26 years. Nevertheless, multi-million-selling legendary singer/songwriter/
producer/multi-instrumentalist/record-label-owner Eddy Grant will unquestionably go down in history as one of the most influential and pioneering figures in Britsh black music of the late Twentieth Century.
Born in the Caribbean nation of Guyana in 1948, Eddy emigrated to Britain in 1960 when his musician father moved his family to Kentish Town, North London. Combining his early Caribbean musical influences with the rock`n`roll of Chuck Berry and the nascent London pop music scene of the early Sixties, in 1966 a guitar-playing Eddy founded the then-groundbreaking multi-racial pop/rock/soul band the Equals. Featuring Eddy as songwriter, lead guitarist and producer, the self-contained quintet would go on to score three UK Top 10 singles - peaking with the 1968 Europe-wide chart-topper 'Baby Come Back' - before a severe heart attack forced Eddy to leave the group in 1971.
Immediately cancelling all touring activities, Eddy at first returned to Guyana to recuperate before eventually returning to London. Where he would spend the remainder of the Seventies highly active behind-the-scenes, recording at his own pace while simultaneously helping the careers of other artists he`d discovered. Opening up his own Coach House studios in 1973 (reportedly the first black-owned recording studio in Europe), he next went on to form his own independent label - Ice Records - in 1974 before, even more groundbreakingly, going on to set up the UK`s first black-owned record-pressing plant. All of which unquestionably laid a strong foundation for his triumphant return to the British Top 20 in 1979 with the socio-political reggae/funk of 'Living On The Frontline'. Which in turn would ultimately prove the auspicious start to a multi-million-selling, globally-successful solo career. Which through the Eighties (following Eddy`s relocation to Barbados in 1982) went on to produce landmark hits like the 1982 UK chart-topper 'I Don`t Wanna Dance' and 1983 US Number One 'Electric Avenue'; plus later international smashes like 'Romancing The Stone' and 1988`s anthemic 'Gimme Hope Jo`Hanna' - a thinly-veiled attack on the South Africa apartheid regime - which has in recent times become heavily rotated on radio in protest in Zimbabwe.
All of which tracks, and more, are this month included on a new 18-track comp-ilation 'The Very Best Of Eddy Grant'. Which is in turn released to coincide with Grant`s first UK lives date in over 20 years. Kicking off in Brighton on July 1, Eddy`s 10-date tour will additionally take in the Wireless, Glastonbury and Montreux summer festivals and provides an ideal starting-point for a highly-interesting conversation with the man himself.
“Funnily enough, you don`t notice the time going when you`re in the studio”, begins Eddy in slow, measured tones; “I`ve always dedicated myself more to making records than performing live, because I`ve always seen records as being the everlasting part of you. Also, to be quite frank and honest, in the early days artists went out in the road, not to make a living playing music, but to SELL RECORDS - and that`s something I`ve never needed to do. So, because touring can be very stressful and I didn`t feel that I should be burdening my body too much, I decided to spend a few years at home with the children and the wife and the studio. But then, the other day, it just suddenly came to me how I haven`t really done a lot of touring! There`s lots of places I haven`t been to; there`s lots of fans that haven`t seen me... So I was like `Look, I really want to play places like Glastonbury before I give up this game or IT gives ME up!`… So we set about putting together this tour!”
Which, in turn, Eddy has titled his `Reparation` tour: ‘”Well, my last studio album was called `Reparation`”, he continues, taking a break from tour preparations in London: “And, with reparation being singularly I think the last unresolved world issue of any denomination, I thought I`d bring attention to that. Because - despite America having walked out on the last symposium in South Africa - I do not feel any sensible politician can realistically turn his back on the issue of reparation and not give a nod to the fact that slavery took place. I think it is a required conversation that needs to be had on a worldwide level. Because, while people these days generally seem prepared to listen to all kinds of things coming from all kinds of people, still no-one seems prepared to listen to Africa and its diaspora with regard to the most heinous crime committed in recent memory. Which is why I`ve also subtitled the 'Very Best Of Eddy Grant' album 'The Road To Reparation'. And musically it will have all the hits, as well as tracks that may not have been so big in the UK but are very well known in other parts of the world.”
Meanwhile, the impressive fact that Eddy has meticulously and painstakingly played every single instrument, sung every vocal part and produced every track on most of his solo albums to date is also, he claims, a reason for his recent lack of new recorded output: “While I`m always working on new music, the fact is that - because I work alone - one album generally takes me three or four years to finish. Which is why I don`t have that many albums in the marketplace today. Plus, this particular dryness in the shops right now also came about as a result of the litigation I went through some years back, when people were stealing my music. I basically decided to let the market dry up before I came back out again. And, with us now being licensed to Universal, hopefully from now on there`ll be a greater policing of my stuff. You know, while everything I do still comes out through my own label Ice Records, the fact is for a small label today to hit the mainstream you do need to be affiliated to a major. Regardless of what they say about the internet, it still hasn`t really kicked in for us as a serious marketing alternative. Though, having said that, we are occasionally still putting out records independently by local artists in The Caribbean. But then the problem with that is that nothing sells, because everybody pirates everything!”
Indeed, Grant`s enthusiasm and devotion to his own Caribbean musical heritage has recently seen him assiduously acquiring the record and song catalogues of Golden Age of Calypso legends like Mighty Sparrow, Roaring Lion and Lord Kitchener in order to personally preserve and introduce this historic music to a wider audience: “Well, I`ve been a lover of classic calypso since I was a child. And, over the years, I got to know a lot of the old men who owned the labels it was released on. So, with a lot of them already having gotten out of the business by the time I`d become successful, I actually approached them about continuing their original work. And, while they were all really surprised that I`d want to be dabbling in something that was, firstly, problematic due to its traditionally seasonal nature and, secondly, not very financially rewarding due to piracy, I did actually manage to prove to them what they basically already knew. Which is that I genuinely love this music, and that I`d try in any way possible to bring glory to it by introducing it to new people who could appreciate it. So that hopefully a younger generation would want to start doing it too, and in turn bring a new value to the old catalogue. And the whole experience has basically given me an opportunity to do something good, while also increasing my knowledge of something I love very much.”
With Grant`s late-Seventies recording `Hello Africa` being generally recognised by the cognoscenti as the first-ever soca record (a blend of soul and calypso), his label has also fostered prominent soca artists like Gabby (who guests on Eddy`s upcoming tour) and David Rudder. While more recently additionally introducing to the world the new genre of `ringbang` - a distinctly Caribbean musical concept Eddy developed himself in his own studio in Barbados and which has taken the Caribbean by storm: “What happened is one day I was discussing with some guys in Trinidad the fact that I`d been the person who`d originally conceptualised soca”, he explains: “But, because - due to us having a very serious insularity in The Caribbean - other people have always grabbed the credit for it, they were like `OK, if you wanna prove to the people that you really did it you should really create ANOTHER new genre`. So I was like `OK, I will create a new music for the youth of The Caribbean. I`m gonna call it ringbang - and within a year everybody in The Caribbean will know about it!`. So, while everyone there started laughing hysteric-ally, of course what transpired was we did a number of ringbang recordings which became the standard. Which meant, with us making the music out of Barbados, Trinidad (regarded as the home of soca) was now being challenged musically by Barbados. So it all became very political. But then eventually Trinidad started to play our music themselves! So today, what they`re actually calling soca is in fact ringbang music!”
Meanwhile, with our conversation switching back to his early years, Eddy recalls his pre-teen move from Guyana to a stark post-war-period London with mixed feelings: “The cultural change from Guyana to England in 1960 was a helluva step! Because in Guyana you lived in a little house and you had a whole village to play in. Whereas in England you were living in a basement - and a cold one at that! - with only the STREETS to play in! So it took some getting used to! And, looking back, I guess I LOST something and I GAINED something. I mean, it was at school in London that I learned to read and write music. And influence-wise, while in Guyana I grew to love the dominant calypsonian Mighty Sparrow while also hearing the American pop they played on the Caribbean radio, England is where I got into Chuck Berry. Mainly through just about every pop-rock band here at the time - including The Rolling Stones - that was playing his music. So, when I eventually got to see Chuck himself at the Finsbury Park Astoria, my education and desire became complete! I was going to play guitar, just like Chuck! Who to me remains THE greatest exponent of rock`n`roll music!”
Indeed, it was Eddy`s early combination of ethnic and commercial pop influences that culminated in him, in 1966, founding The Equals - the first multi-racial pop/rock outfit to achieve international acclaim: “I had a schoolfriend, who played guitar, who`d go up to Highgate every other day or so to jam with some other guys”, he recalls: “So, because I`d by then started playing guitar myself, one evening he invited me up - and it was a rabble! You know, that sort of noisy affair with lots and lots of people trying to shout over each other. So, because I thought it was very disorganised, I spoke to the drummer and said `Listen, why don`t we just regularise this thing and form a group, proper?`. And, because he thought it was a good idea, we auditioned in the two Gordon brothers as vocalists plus Pat Lloyd - and the band was formed! It was actually John Hall - the drummer - who named it The Equals, and I do feel it was a very necessary group for the time. Because neither England nor anywhere else had one like it! So it was really great to be in the vanguard of what was to come, and I`m very proud of what we did back then. Because, as I said, we trod in grounds that had never been trodden in before.”
Having left The Equals due to ill-health in 1971, Eddy - with money scraped together from royalties on the The Equals` hits plus freelance production ventures - in 1973 made history by opening up Britain`s first black-owned recording studio. Where he began to mix the influences of early pop, rock and soul with the calypso music and African rhythms of his childhood to create the style that would dominate his later solo albums: “Because I`m not the most sociable person - I don`t really party a lot - I suppose my energy was instead spent studying the past greats and wanting to emulate in some ways what they`d done, to see if I could take it one step further. And, by setting up Coach House Studios, I was very seriously trying to make the lot of the British black musician a little better. You know, around that time I was on the radio a lot, doing the 'Reggae Time' talks on Sundays and basically trying to bring a better perspective to what we were facing in this country. In particular I was trying to sensitise the BBC and other radio stations to the fact that what was required in Britain was to create our own UK black heroes. As opposed to just supplanting AMERICAN ones here, as they continue to do today to the detriment of British society. Because, when you pick up grass from anywhere and throw it on your lawn, you tend to bring with it all the diseases of its history. Which, in some aspects, people regard as exactly what`s happening here in Britain NOW, with the gun-crime or whatever.”
Nevertheless, Eddy`s big-selling Eighties heyday as a globally-successful singer/ songwriter was preceded by his permanent relocation to Barbados in 1982. Where he would immediately build his Blue Wave commercial recording studio complex, whose clients over the years have since included The Rolling Stones, Sting and Cliff Richard: “It was an important and very necessary move at the time”, he insists: “I`d made my success here in the UK, I didn`t have anything to prove. So I felt I could be ANYWHERE and still write my songs and make my records. You know, back then the concept of a black entrepreneur hadn`t yet been assimilated into British society. And career-wise, moving to Barbados turned out to be the best thing I could have done. Because musically all those experiments I was able to do in my studio over there would soon translate and explode into meaningful, globally-acclaimed recordings. Plus the move also gave my children a chance to grow up in the environment I`d grown up in. Which in turn gave them another perspective on life - that they didn`t have to be second-best. While, as far as the studio itself goes, though it was built primarily for me, the fact we have major artists passing through every now and then insisting they must use the place is wonderful!”
Having made a surprise, if short-lived, comeback in 2001 via a dance remix of 'Electric Avenue' providing him with a Number Two UK single, Eddy is now taking seriously his newly-inked affiliation with Universal Music: “Well, the Nineties was a particularly trying time for me. Because it was during that period that I had my litigation, and that cost me the best part of the decade”, he relates soberly: “So it seemed to be rough justice really, that in 2001 somebody should turn up with a remix version of `Electric Avenue` that would give me a major success. And to me it just shows that it`s really all about just making the best music you can and then just waiting for the end result. So for me it is important, in this new time configuration, that I do look seriously at the worldwide distribution of my catalogue. Which is the reason I`ve now licensed it to Universal. I mean, obviously the world has shrunk in terms of record companies, particularly independents. So the fact that I`ve survived and that my label - Ice Records - is still here to me, at the end of the day, is really all down to the fact that I do truly follow the MUSIC. Because if, instead of the music, you follow the DOLLAR, you end up with some serious problems. Which is exactly what`s happened with Motown, with Virgin, with Island… You know, I could go through a whole plethora of these once-great labels that are great no more. So yeah, I do truly believe that if you take care of the MUSIC, then the music will take care of YOU.”
The album `The Very Best Of Eddy Grant: The Road To Reparation` is released June 30 through Universal Music TV/Mercury Records
Words PETE LEWIS