Charles Thomson

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Eddy Grant: Why I'm Back on the road after 20 years
He pioneered multiracial pop before Sly and outwitted the industry before Prince. Charles Thomson catches up with Eddy Grant.
November 2008, JIVE Magazine

“I suppose I was interested in music from the day I was born,” muses Eddy Grant. “My father was a musician. I used to listen to him play. I remember him clipping me around the ears as a child for stealing his trumpet. I couldn’t play it at all; I just made noises with it. He didn’t teach me to play it until we moved to London.”

Last year Grant embarked on the first UK leg of his ‘Reparations World Tour’, which saw him perform at some of the biggest musical events of 2008, from the Glastonbury Festival to Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday. The tour, his first in 20 years, is set to continue for another two years and this summer will see him playing to arena audiences, sharing the bill with UB40. When JIVE catches up with the star he is rehearsing for an intimate show at Camden's Jazz Cafe and is keen to reflect on the influence of his childhood on his music.

At 12 years old, Grant found himself uprooted from his home country of Guyana as his family travelled to England and settled in Kentish Town, London. The move, says Grant, left him torn between his affection for Guyana and his aspirations for a better life in London.

“It was a massive culture shock," he says. "I suppose I had to prefer London to Guyana because London was the future. When I got there, though, that was another story... It wasn’t until I got to London that I recognised what I’d left behind in Guyana. As they say, you don’t miss it until it’s gone.”

In Guyana Grant had internalised the musical styles of calypso giants such as Mighty Sparrow and Roaring Lion, but once in London he found his musical horizons expanding as he was exposed to new artists and genres. He studied the works of blues singer Muddy Waters and jazz legends Miles Davis and John Coltrane. But one particular artist really captured his imagination.

“Chuck Berry was my first great inspiration,” he enthuses. “He made me want to play guitar, he made me want to sing and he made me want to write songs. I could learn more from one action by Chuck Berry than I could from everybody else combined – outside of James Brown, of course. He was my first mentor.”

Grant cites a meeting with the Godfather of Soul as the catalyst that truly launched his career in music. In 1966 Brown travelled to London for a series of shows and appeared on the television programme ‘Ready, Steady, Go!’. By chance, Grant switched on the family television and caught Brown’s performance.

“I thought I was watching the Messiah,” he recalls. “When I heard he was playing at the Walthamstow Granada that night I ran all the way from Kentish Town to Walthamstow. That is a long, long way – but I knew I had to see this man perform live. I got there a little while before show time but I had no way of getting in. I was terribly upset.

“One of James Brown’s employees spotted me on the street looking forlorn because I didn’t have a ticket. He introduced himself as Mr Moore and suddenly I found myself holding a big pile of James Brown’s programmes, trying to sell them. Mr Moore was a big, fat man but he was very funny so he managed to talk a lot of people into buying programmes – I was far less successful.

“At show time Mr Moore started to waddle away. I chased after him but I got stuck at the gate. It took a lot of lying and chicanery on my part before they let me in. Inside, I found some more of James Brown’s people and convinced them to take me backstage. They let me help them arrange his costumes. That night I saw the greatest showman on earth live onstage, and I was invited back to the hotel with the entourage. That was where I met Mr Brown.

“He came over to me and asked if there was anything he could do to thank me for helping out. I just told him that I would like an autograph and one of his press packs. I had him make the autograph out to ‘The Equals’. I told him that was my band and that we were going to be successful. He gave me a lot of encouragement and I knew from that moment that I had to do him proud.”

It is to his father that Grant attributes the formation of The Equals. Shortly after the family’s arrival in London, his father deemed him old enough to begin learning the trumpet. This was to be the beginning of Grant’s fascination with musicianship, which saw him master numerous instruments throughout his teens.

“Learning instruments is a discipline,” he posits. “I think the trumpet is one of the hardest instruments to learn, so after I learned that, everything else came very easily for me. I think that with learning instruments you either have the programme inside your head to be able to do it or you do not. When you pick it up, it seems like magic. It did wonders for my ears, too. I can learn melodies very quickly."

Grant began playing guitar in the school symphony orchestra, from which he was plucked by a fellow student and invited to a jam session. But, says Grant, initially he was dubious.

“I went to this flat in Highgate and there was a bunch of guys playing Rufus Thomas and a lot of other nonsense,” Grant recalls. “It was fun but it wasn’t going anywhere. Eventually, I said to the drummer, John, ‘Hey, I know this is your house and your mum makes the sandwiches and all that, but I think we should have something more formal. We should start a group.’ He liked the idea and we recruited the Gordon brothers then, eventually, Pat Lloyd.”

Although The Equals would become known as one of the earliest examples of a successful multi-racial group, ironically, says Grant, the group’s name had nothing to do with its racial diversity.

“It was John’s idea, actually. He just said very early on that we all had an equal vote in the group so we should call ourselves The Equals. We all liked it and it stuck.”

The group began gigging around London with their unique blend of rock, pop, blues and R&B. After establishing themselves with bouncy dance tracks like ‘Soul Groovin’ and ‘I Get So Excited’, the group began releasing edgier tracks such as ‘Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys’ and ‘Police On My Back’.

“England was a different place back then,” sighs Grant. “Society was such that interaction between black boys and the police was inevitable. The songs were not autobiographical because I have never been in trouble with the police, but they had a message about society at that time.”

In 1968, three short years after the group’s formation, the boys scored a UK number one with the catchy reggae-pop hit ‘Baby Come Back’. The single’s success catapulted the group to international stardom and they began charting across Europe and America. But, says Grant, fame is no indicator of success. He stresses that the group’s greatest achievement lies beyond mere record sales.

“There weren’t any bands like The Equals before us. We were a social phenomenon. Later there were more multi-racial bands but back then we were the only one. We had some great songs but our success was more societal than just in terms of pop culture. We broke down barriers.”

As the boys’ popularity mushroomed so did their workload and Grant found himself under increasing stress. The situation came to a head on New Year’s Day 1971 when, aged just 23, he suffered a massive heart attack. Grant’s voice turns sombre as he recalls the fateful night.

“I had just come home from a party. I wasn’t drunk or anything because I was teetotal – I never drank or smoked. I hadn’t even been dancing! It was just a very quiet night with friends. Everything seemed fine when I went to bed, but in the middle of the night my heart woke me up. The next thing I knew, I was in hospital.”

The near death experience shook Grant and he was forced to re-evaluate his life. During his recovery period he made some monumental career decisions.

“When you have a heart problem it becomes all encompassing,” he explains. “Your view on life changes completely. You realise that you are not immortal, as many young people think they are.”

During his recovery period Grant decided to escape the stresses of busy London life and stayed with his grandmother in Guyana.

“She took care of me and made me well again,” he says warmly. “While I was healing, my perspective on the music industry changed. I didn’t care about fame or money – they brought with them too many trappings. I wanted to go into the studio and produce tracks for other people.”

When Grant returned to London he set about breaking another racial boundary, building the Coach House Studio – Europe’s first black-owned recording studio.

“It was a long and arduous process,” he laughs. “I had to take 28 skip loads of rubbish out of the building before we could do anything! Then I bought some old equipment from Manfred Man and from a man called Dave Robinson, who went on to set up Stiff Records. I got a friend to help me build the studio because he had far superior technical abilities.”

For the next few years Grant produced for acts including 90 Degrees, The Pioneers and The Equals, who continued recording and touring without him.

“It was mainly people who would just walk in off of the streets,” he says. “Just odds and sods really. For every one album I have recorded solo there are several that I have produced or appeared on doing backing vocals or playing instruments.”

By the mid seventies Grant got itchy fingers – singing and playing for other acts no longer fulfilled him and he gave in to temptation, beginning work on his debut solo album, ‘Message Man’. With this album Grant began what would become a lifelong tradition by meticulously playing every instrument himself.

“I like music that is played in an artistic way and the best way to do that is to play it myself,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I look at it like art – you never had Picasso painting with Renoir. If Picasso wanted to draw some woman’s nose on the side of her face, he just did it. If he had involved somebody else they would probably have told him not to.”

Grant recorded all of his solo material on his own record label, Ice Records, to avoid corporate interference.

“Record companies want to own you," he says. "The first time I worked for a major company they started telling me how to make records and how not to make records, how to write songs and how not to write songs, who to work with and who not to work with... I never wanted any of that. I think about Prince and wonder if, had he followed my example, he could have avoided all that nonsense with Warner Brothers.”

According to Grant, stars nowadays are too easily seduced by the glamour of the music industry but often find themselves used and then discarded.

“Major companies can afford to throw millions of dollars at you but that doesn’t mean they care about you. They care about money. They are only spending that money in order to make even more money. Then, once they’ve made as much money from you as they want, they get rid of you.

“Today it has boiled down to four major companies because they use all of their money to buy the competition, even the tiny independent labels. They think they can buy everyone – but they will never buy me.”

A series of low key releases followed but in 1982 Grant scored his greatest success with the album ‘Killer On The Rampage’. Tired of the frosty London winters, Grant had elected to move his family to Barbados and build the Blue Wave Studio Complex, which has since hosted stars including Sting and the Rolling Stones.

“On the way over to Barbados the airline lost all of my luggage,” Grant huffs. “That included all of the songs I had been working on in London. All of a sudden I found myself under challenge for non-delivery. I had to rush the building of the studio so I could get in there and record all new material.”

That new material, rushed out against an impending deadline, would become Grant’s biggest commercial success. ‘Killer On The Rampage’ spawned two major hits, ‘Electric Avenue’, which hit number 2 on the UK and US pop charts, and ‘I Don’t Wanna Dance’, a UK number one. Grant attributes his success to the breaking of MTV’s colour line.

“Michael Jackson, Prince and myself were the first three black musicians to be played on MTV,” he claims. “That was a huge boost to my profile. My success was what you would call a ‘growing success’ anyway. I had been selling records elsewhere for years. America was just the last one to fall.”

For the next few years Grant enjoyed a degree of chart success, but failed to equal the album’s success. However, in 1988 he scored an unlikely hit with his anti-apartheid protest song, ‘Gimme Hope Jo’anna’. But, says Grant, he has never considered himself a political songwriter.

“I don’t know about political and not political,” he says dismissively. “I just write songs about people in situations. Most people are completely ignorant of what is going on around them – I like to inform people and let them draw their own conclusions.

“The day that I wrote ‘Gimme Hope Jo’anna’, I was working in the studio and one of my synthesizers broke. I went back to the house while the engineer tried to fix it. There happened to be a programme on about the apartheid regime and saw how serious it was. By the time I got from the house back to the studio I had already written the chorus. When I went into the studio I took out everything that I had been recording and started working on that song instead.”

In July 2008, Grant reprised the hit at Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday concert. Grant says that this was the greatest thank you he could ever have received.

“It was a sublime moment – a moment that will go down in history. Standing aside and looking at the implications of 1988 and taking into account that I have never been invited to any of the other major concerts; I think it was a highly spiritual moment. For me, my performance was the performance of the night.”

Grant’s appearance at the Mandela concert served a second purpose; It was the first date of his ‘Reparations World Tour’ – his first in 20 years. Why did he wait so long?

“Twenty years go by pretty damn fast, man,” he laughs.

Grant says he was inspired to hit the road by his looming 60th birthday.

“I was sitting around at home one afternoon and I realised that I was going to be 60 soon and I hadn’t even played any of the major festivals. I couldn’t believe it! I decided there were certain places I had to play – Glastonbury, for example – before I hung up my gloves.”

But, says Grant, drawing inspiration from his early idol Chuck Berry, he doesn’t intend on hanging up his gloves any time soon.

“Chuck is still touring at 82 years old - he can’t still need the money, he’s just playing because he loves playing. That’s the position I am fortunate enough to be in today. And who knows? With modern medical advances I can probably remain vital ‘til I’m 100!”

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Charles Thomson - Sky News