Beyond Electric Avenue
Eddy Grant's Return to Plaisance
Words by Falene Nurse. Photos courtesy of Eddy Grant and Ice Records.
When interviewing a living legend, there’s a great deal to cover - and Edmond Montague Grant (or Eddy as he’s known) has done it all, from leading a revolutionary band at 17 and surviving an unexpected heart attack and collapsed lung at 23, to founding a record label, opening a recording studio and achieving international success as a solo artist with his politically motivated lyrics.
Although born in Guyana, like many Caribbean nationals in the 60s, Grant’s parents moved to the UK to work, sending money home to fund their son’s education. At age 12, Grant too moved to London, where he attended Acland Burghley Secondary Modern and learned to read and write music.
He was still a teenager when he formed the quintet The Equals, one of Britain’s first interracial bands that blended the local guitar rock sound with calypso and reggae beats. “From a cultural standpoint there had never been anything like The Equals at the time,” Grant explains. Visually flamboyant, their brightly coloured clothing stood out from their peers’ sea of dark suits and Grant, ever the showman, enjoyed dressing in an outrageous blond wig or bleaching his hair.
By 1971 they had two hit albums and five top 40 singles under their belts - including the number one hit Baby Come Back - when Grant’s career as their energetic front man was abruptly cut short. The teetotal vegetarian and avid sportsman suffered an unexpected heart attack and collapsed lung due to an undiagnosed genetic issue. At the ripe old age of 23, he had to quit his beloved band – but one of his most pivotal life events was yet to come.
In April 1981 the infamous Brixton Riots took place, when the Afro-Caribbean communities of South London took to the streets to protest poor living conditions, racial tensions and inequality. It was a simple Brixton street sign that Grant saw in the months following the riots that inspired the smash hit Electric Avenue. A sociopolitical single, it achieved multi-platinum success in Britain and America and launched Grant’s solo career.
Politically aware and determined to fight for social justice and equality, in 1988 Grant released his anti-apartheid anthem, Gimme Hope Jo’anna. The track was banned by the South African government and not legally played again until Mandela’s 90th birthday when Eddy performed in Johannesburg.
“Part of the beauty of writing songs is that you can couch anything with words and music ” he says. In Electric Avenue, the lyrics “now in the streets there is violence”, referred more to the crime that was prevalent at the time in Brixton than to the riots themselves. It was, he says, about the violence that occurs “whenever a community of people inherits the belief that they are not as worthy as their fellow man.”
Although Americans knew nothing of the significance of the street name and it’s connection to the Brixton riots, Grant thinks it would not have mattered if they did. “It would have still charted high because it was a song and music video of the time.”
A quintessential maverick, Grant is also an industry pioneer. The Founder of Ice Records, he is the first black artist to have complete ownership of his entire musical back catalogue, including copyrights, master tapes, and publishing, both from his first band The Equals and also as a solo artist.
Owning the rights to his music makes his creative decisions personal rather than commercial. He could easily ride the current wave of 80s nostalgia, re-releasing a re-imagined, Romancing the Stone and Do You Feel My Love, if the mood takes him. But for Grant, there has to be a creative reason beyond simply cashing in. “Unless myself or another artist were going to bring something different, innovative and new to the table, I wouldn’t agree to a cover or bother re-releasing a hit just for the sake of a popular trend.”
A true artist, when talking about music, passion resonates in every word.
“Most people are really not interested in music,” he laughs, “they are more interested in the phenomenon that comes from it, the fame.” Although he originally planned to go into medicine, Grant was undeniably drawn to music. It was something he had to do.
The ever-youthful songwriter and producer turned 70 in March 2018 and shows no signs of slowing down. Last year, for the first time in more than a decade he released a new album, Plaisance, a concept album named after his childhood home in Guyana.
“It was difficult to find the exact emotions, the right lyrics, music and tempos, with something as personal as your life,” he reflects. “Musically it [from age 8 to 12] was one of my most important periods.” It was where he experienced his first rhythm and style influences and where his Caribbean roots lie.
Although two decades of living in London have turned his thick West Indian drawl into a mellow transatlantic lilt, Grant’s heart belongs to the Caribbean. He visits often, but has never returned to Guyana permanently. In the early 1980s he moved to Barbados with his wife and four children, not only due to his aversion to the cold but because “there’s a certain warmth to the islands” he notes, which goes beyond mere temperature. “For me, the Caribbean is going to be (if it’s not already) one of the greatest places to live on earth. Humanity, divinity, a sense of connection. Very few places have such beauty.”
Another reason he chose Barbados was to restore a dilapidated historic plantation and convert the outbuildings into the recording studio Blue Wave. Over the years he has hosted everyone from The Rolling Stones, Sting and Elvis Costello to calypso royalty the Mighty Gabby and Grynner.
Because the timeline of his travels and music has coincided with some of the most culturally relevant events in recent history, such as mass immigration to London from the islands, the end of apartheid, Nelson Mandela’s birthday celebrations and others, his latest project is to turn Bailey’s Plantation House (his Bajan home) into a “magnificent cultural and historically-rich experience” for locals and visitors. Investors envisage a cultural centre on par with Disneyland in size, but with a far more educational slant.
Grant has channelled an abundance of talent into a lifetime of achievement. Recently, The Equals’ number one, Baby Come Back marked its 50th anniversary, at the same time that his other homeland of Guyana issued four stamps in his honour (another first). He continues to share his love of music on United DJs’ station of the stars (internet radio), with some of the UK’s most celebrated hosts. He’s travelled the world and lived unforgettable experiences. As his Grandma once said, “if you truly want to see… you have to go to a high place.”
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