Eddy Grant has traveled many roads since his best-known hit “Electric Avenue.” Growing up in Guyana, he was influenced by the Mighty Sparrow and calypso but, after his family moved to the UK, he was blindsided by Chuck Berry, the Beatles and the Stones. He formed The Equals, a hitmaking pop/rock band for whom he wrote (including “Police On My Back,” which the Clash covered on Sandinista), produced, played and sang. Bob Gourley spoke to him about this time, as well as his prolific solo career and role as an acclaimed studio owner and producer in Barbados, whose clients include the Stones, Elvis Costello and even the Mighty Sparrow.
While Eddy Grant is best known in America for his 1982 hit “Electric Avenue,” his highly prolific career spans over five decades. Born in the Caribbean nation of Guyana, Grant moved to London with his family in 1960 and soon developed a love for rock music. As a teenager, he formed the pioneering multi-racial pop/rock outfit The Equals that had three top 10 singles in the UK. Their biggest hit, “Baby Come Back,” also cracked the US Top 40. But Grant’s career trajectory suddenly changed when a genetic condition triggered a severe heart attack at age 23.
Stepping away from touring and ultimately leaving The Equals, Grant worked toward becoming completely self-sufficient as a solo artist. Opening his own studio allowed him to work at his own pace and with artists he admires. Grant launched his own label, Ice Records, in 1974 and later set up his own record manufacturing facilities. Grant relocated to Barbados in 1982 and opened the acclaimed Blue Wave Studios, which continues today as his base of operations. The most recent Eddy Grant album, Plaisance (2017) is named after and dedicated to his hometown in Guyana.
PKM: Your music has brought together a variety of musical styles. Looking back, what do you feel were the major inspirations in becoming a musician?
Eddy Grant: My father was a really great musician. He played a number of instruments, trumpet being his main instrument. And from about the age of five, or maybe a little bit before that, I started to mess with his trumpet. I’d pull it out from under his bed and start to blow it, make a bit of a ruckus. He tried to dissuade me from it, because being a musician, in Guyana, in the late ’40s and ’50s, you couldn’t really sustain a living. And so, obviously, no father, especially in that time, really wanted his son or his daughter to be a musician. Times were so tough.
He just tried to dissuade me from wanting to play. All his friends would tell him, “You talk about your son going to medical school and being a lawyer.” He would just hang on to the academic side of things. His musician friends would say, “That guy’s not going to be no teacher, or no doctor, or no lawyer. He’s going to be a musician.”
That sort of stayed with me, I suppose, right into young adulthood, when we left Guyana to go to England. And I continued to mess about with his trumpet when he wasn’t in, which was quite a lot of times. And then, one evening, he came in and heard me playing, and he said, “Oh, god. All right, all right, I suppose if you really want to play it, you must learn to play it well.” And he started to teach me.
Then, of course, when I went to the new school, in England, they had a dedicated music teacher, who taught trumpet. And I started to take lessons from him as well. I’d have to remind him every now and then, that my father was a greater trumpet player than he was! But that’s just how it was. That started me wanting to play instruments. Outside of that, of course, you had, on the radio in Guyana, the all evasive sound of the Mighty Sparrow, from whom I really learned the art of calypso. So, I took that with me to England. I learned how to rhyme and all of that. That’s an integral part of calypso.
I then got to know of Chuck Berry. Well, you couldn’t help but hear the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles. And one day, a friend of mine said, “Don’t worry with those guys. They’re not the original people. There’s this guy called Chuck Berry.” And I thought, “Who? I’ve never heard of no Chuck Berry.” They never played his records on the radio. Then, I got to find out that Chuck Berry was coming to London. He had just been released from jail. And when Chuck Berry landed, we went to see him at the Finsbury Park Astoria.
And there, that was the moment that triggered my playing the guitar. I just had to get a guitar. This guy was just the most fantastic player, showman, the whole thing. There’s a hell of story to it, but the truncated version is that he came, I saw him, he conquered England, and everybody was there. But, there were no black people there. There was just myself and my friend, and maybe one other, who worked as an usher in the showplace. But, it didn’t particularly dawn on me, until a little later when I thought about it. I started to get interested in Chuck Berry’s music and eventually, I made a guitar with the help of my woodwork master at school.
I asked my father, “If I make a guitar, would you get the amplifier for me.” Yeah, and that was the deal. So when the guitar was made, I got an amplifier, and I became Chuck Berry.
PKM: You later wrote a song about Chuck Berry for your File Under Rock album.
Eddy Grant: That’s right, “Chuck is the King.”
You had, on the radio in Guyana, the all evasive sound of the Mighty Sparrow, from whom I really learned the art of calypso. So, I took that with me to England. I learned how to rhyme and all of that. That’s an integral part of calypso.
PKM: What was your perception of the music scene in England at the time, and your place within it?
Eddy Grant: Everybody was kind of fishing around for their influences. The Beatles were Little Richard and Smoky Robinson sort of put together, and the odd other Motown song. The Rolling Stones were more into Chuck Berry, and Muddy Waters, and the blues in general. They sort of took it a little more seriously, I think. And I was into Chuck Berry, and every other blues artist that there ever was. I listened prolifically to whatever there was. I was listening to Lonesome Sundown, and Slim Harpo, and Sonny Boy Williamson, and Howlin’ Wolf with Hubert Sumlin. All of these guys, Albert King, BB King. Once I started playing, I was into listening to everything that existed. I listened to Wes Montgomery, and I listened to the young George Benson, with Brother Jack McDuff, at the time, and just about everything. I had very catholic taste, you know? I was into music. And the fact is that I was very into traditional jazz. At the time, we had a little jazz band at school, where I played the trumpet, but trumpet didn’t last very long in my life. After I played classical music with the school’s orchestra, I played traditional jazz with my friends, and I went and stood outside of pubs to listen to the British version of Louis Armstrong.
You know, I just picked up things. I listened to the African music of E. T. Mensah, and people like this, which my father would bring home. And so, I really had an unbelievable education in music. And it stayed with me, really until I started making my own things. I found that I could write songs of all kinds, and I could understand music of all kinds. And so, therefore, I never put any boundaries on what it is that I was making. The feelings came, I wrote the song, I played the groove, and so forth.
PKM: What was your experience like with The Equals?
Eddy Grant: With regard to the Equals story, the Equals had what was an earth-shattering success, because there hadn’t been one like them before. And in the time, in England and Europe, it really was social upheaval, a disruption in the social context. Because we were so young, and obviously were a lot younger than either the Rolling Stones or the Beatles, we kind of enjoyed a special kind of success. And being of mixed race as well, it just gave the other side something to hang on to.
It was a lot of a hope factor, in the Equals. Both black and white, it just produced a kind of relationship. As we played around the country, as we played in Europe, we could find the temperature of the moment. And because we were absolutely energetic, we kind of blew a lot of bands, who probably were musically more gifted, off the stage. That’s what happened. For me, it was a wonderful time. Illness intervened when I was 23 years old. On New Year’s day in 1971, I had a heart attack. It caused me to reevaluate all the things that were happening around me. And there were many, too many for this discourse. But I did suggest to the guys in the band that I should really take it easy, or else I think I’m going to die.
I was doing everything. I mean, everything. I was playing, writing, producing just about everything for the band. Obviously, it took its toll, it couldn’t work. And I said, “I really would like to ease back.” And if I could find a replacement for me, then I could take my time and concentrate on that which you know I love most, which is making records, and preparing those things for them. But their management at the time didn’t like the idea and created a lot of abrasion. And so that precipitated me having to leave the band.
I asked my father, “If I make a guitar, would you get the amplifier for me.” Yeah, and that was the deal. So when the guitar was made, I got an amplifier, and I became Chuck Berry.
But prior to that, I was asked to make the next record for them, which became an album called, Born Ya! And then, I went on to making an even more difficult album, which was called Mystic Sister. And then, I physically left.
PKM: When you left The Equals, did you have a sense as to what you wanted to accomplish as a solo artist?
Eddy Grant: No, I have never really had a clear shape of what it is that I wanted to do, at any time. I’m very spiritual in my creativity, so to speak. I lean towards what is presented to me, what I know is the truth and I play it. I wait for the spirit to come, so to speak, before I do anything. And if it doesn’t come, it doesn’t come. But invariably, it does come. Unusual subjects, unusual melodies, unusual rhythms come, and I play them.
PKM: What did you think of the cover The Clash did of “Police On My Back”?
Eddy Grant: I think it was great, and I wouldn’t say that about every cover version that I’ve heard of my songs. They imbued it with something, and obviously, it has been successful for them. It retained the urgency, and the melody, and everything. They just did a very good job, and they helped to make that song a big song, as opposed to it lying in a box somewhere.
PKM: How did it feel to have a breakthrough in America with “Electric Avenue”?
Eddy Grant: It was tremendous. You see, what America has not appreciated with my success is that, of course, I was successful a long time before the advent of “Electric Avenue.” “Electric Avenue” came after one of my biggest songs ever, which was “I Don’t Want To Dance.” But, because of the peculiar way in which the records were released, “I Don’t Want To Dance” got a chance everywhere else in the world. And then, “Electric Avenue” came and finished the job. In America, it was not that way. I just happened to end up in a funny chronology, that “Electric Avenue” came out first. So, after having that really amazing success in America, the DJs, and the VJs, and whoever else were the arbiters of taste, would not give “I Don’t Want To Dance” a chance. I mean, I thought it was going to absolutely kill America.
I thought, “Well if they would go for ‘Electric Avenue’ in this big way when they got hold of a song that is more melodic, it would just be like going to the bank,” as they say. But it didn’t happen that way, and there have been many more hits than America knows. And so, it really creates a situation where there are people in America who think, “Oh, Eddy Grant, yeah he had one hit. He’s a one-hit wonder.” But of course, that is not true.
It’s something that I hope to now be able to address, in being able to speak to America. That people there get to know me and know the songs. And not just cover versions, and what have you. But they truly get to know me as an artist and recognize whatever value I have as a songwriter, producer, and musician.
PKM: The music video played a big role in the success of ‘Electric Avenue,’ as it received heavy rotation on the relatively new MTV.
Eddy Grant: The video is important and significant. “Electric Avenue,” along with Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean,” broke the back of the reluctance by television to play black music. And thereafter, others followed. And with there not being too many videos or exciting videos for the people to grab hold of back then, it had an extremely long life. The guy who made those videos, “Billy Jean” and “Electric Avenue,”; I’m going to tell you, Steve Barron was a visionary. He really is an exceptional videographer and director.
Personally, I am not a big video fan, because it’s a gamble. But a great video can assist a song in becoming even greater. Even adding a different meaning to it, that would enable it to cross into boundaries that it never would have done, purely as a song. But, the absence of a video, and the presence of a great song, or great melody, great lyrics, can also do the same. So I am ambivalent.
It really creates a situation where there are people in America who think, “Oh, Eddy Grant, yeah he had one hit. He’s a one-hit wonder.” But of course, that is not true.
PKM: The other thing about MTV at the time was that it included a mix of genres, as opposed to now where much of the media is fragmented.
Eddy Grant: Well, yes. America has kind of gone backward, to a behavior pattern that existed previously. Where the genres are seriously separated, and the kinds of broadcasting have become so sectionalized, and homogenized, that there is not any real, true creativity in that medium. But, like everything else, it will come around. It will find itself, and the people will realize that it’s not only about how much money can be made from a particular issue, or a particular way of broadcasting. That will sort itself out. Almost every song now sounds the same, because people cannot take a chance. The few executives, who are working for both the radio stations and the record companies as they’re construed right now, they’re afraid. There’s so much fear. There’s fear permeating the atmosphere. It’s unbelievable, and when you get that, there becomes a lack of true creativity.
PKM: Your most recent album, Plaisance, is named about the village in Guyana that you are from. Could you discuss how Plaisance and your time there influenced the songs?
Eddy Grant: Yeah, I remember one day after I’d made “Give Me Hope Jo’anna,” and that had cracked the world, outside of the United States of America, where it was banned. I remember one of my brothers saying to me, “Ed, you’ve put the world’s issue to rights. You don’t write anything about Guyana, Plaisance, where you come from.” And I said, “No. Of course, I do, but just people don’t take notice. They’re so busy dancing or listening to this or that. Anyway, what I will do is for the life that my village and my country gave to me, I will create a document that will, for all time, as long as the music is playing, represent my hometown, my home country, my village.”
And so, I set about with god knows how many songs, to try and create something that could be both audio, audiovisual, and that can be presented on stage, and/or film. In other words, little vignettes of my life, and call that “Plaisance.” In doing that, I will be forced to write really seriously, different kinds of songs. Honestly, I don’t sit there and count the money. I don’t think, “Well, if I do this, this is going to be a hit.” Because all my songs that have been hits have been strange. You don’t go for a hit record with a song called, “Living On The Frontline.” If you’re smart, you don’t do it, and not being that smart, I’ve done it.
Plaisance is vignettes of my life. And you know, all these years that I’ve been making music, I never realized that that’s what I was actually doing. I was writing vignettes of my life. I was going into areas of my life and seeing what was there. And hopefully, when they would come together, they would make some kind of sense of my experiences. Those experiences, good, bad and indifferent, and be able to show the making of a man. Because I have involved in music, in loving music, and in being around music, since I was seven or eight years old.
Before that, my father would take me to his rehearsals, and I’d sit by the kick drum, and have my head battered by the 4/4, you know? But that’s what’s happened with Plaisance. Plaisance introduces characters and situations. You may find, for example, the song, “Is Carole King Here?” And you’ll think to yourself, “What the hell? Eddy Grant, and Carole King. Where is the symbiosis? ”
But of course, what a lot of people forget is that, in our colony, as it was at the time, American music and British music, as they existed at the time, played a massive part in our entertainment. And, Carole King was writing a lot of those songs. And so, I decided to bring her into my life, and really to say thank you to her as well.
Because, songwriters generally don’t do that to each other, but I thought “before she leaves this earth, at least she should get a chance one day, to hear that somebody who was a fellow traveler thinks, or thought about her, and her influence down in Guyana.” Which was, until now, like being in the jungle. But now, with the advent of big oil, Guyana’s now almost the richest country in the world per capita. So it’s seeing all of these things happen, and have somebody as far removed from our society, as Carole King.
It would make somebody think, “Oh, Eddy Grant’s gone soft.” No, not at all. I’m just telling a story, as it came, you know? To make the story complete. You will hear about Uncle Cy, who really taught me to play shak-shak. And all of that is imbued in the song. When it gets spun out, and the characters that are in the song come to reality, then one would understand, “Oh man, seriously. This guy had been through some serious issues.” And here it is, in this recording.
PKM: When you set out as a solo artist, you strived to be completely self-sufficient. What were some of the goals and challenges?
The video is important and significant. “Electric Avenue,” along with Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean,” broke the back of the reluctance by television to play black music.
Eddy Grant: To talk about my enterprise, in terms of the recording studio back then, the pressing plant back then, the record label back then. At that time, nobody did that, no artist. Even The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and the guys who were really big in the world did not do those things.
First of all, it was publishing. The Beatles got sauced in that. So did The Rolling Stones, and they’re two of the biggest bands in the world. They got sauced; I didn’t get sauced. I had a good teacher; I had been around a number of really strong negotiators and read a number of books about the entertainment business. And so, I got to understand the values. Not that I didn’t have to fight for it, but I got to understand the value. See, price and value feature very seriously in my life. Once you understand the value, then you don’t need to worry about the price, because you will never undersell what it is you have. And so, I went about, first of all, learning about that. And then, eventually, when I was about to leave The Equals, I realized that I had to have my own recording studio. Unheard of, at the time.
I mean, Berry Gordy … in America, with 300 and how many million people, he could do that. But, certainly not in England, or in Europe. Eventually, that is what I did, and it offered me an opportunity to experiment even more. Because now, it wasn’t costing me as much. With regard to the factory, to manufacture records, I was now totally independent. One afternoon, I was discussing it with my brother, and he said, “Man, you’re spending a lot of money to make records. Pye Records [one of the manufacturers used] is doing so well out of you.” And I said, “Yes, it’s going to stop.” So I started to look around for a factory, that would manufacture our records, so that we could export and so on, so forth. You know, go to where the people wanted me. At that time, the people did not want me in Europe, and they didn’t want me in America. So, we exported a lot of records all over the world from Argentina to Russia.
PKM: You’re currently doing an internet radio show on United DJs; what has that experience been like?
Eddy Grant: It hasn’t been that new, because some time before “Electric Avenue,” and “Killer On The Rampage,” and all of that, I did the same sort of thing for the BBC World Service. I had nothing better to do at the time, and I did that. It was extremely popular, and it helped me in my quest for success, as a solo artist, all around the world. Which is why I didn’t need America, so to speak, at that time. The new radio program, which is called “Eddy Grant’s Ringbang Time,” has been very well received. I enjoy doing it tremendously.
PKM: Quite a few other artists have come to your studio to record. What have some of the highlights been?
Eddy Grant: I’ve had the largest of the large actually. It’s not a thing that I have ever advertised, because the studio was there, primarily for my own use. But then, the first person actually to use the studio was Marcia Barrett, of the band Boney M. She came down, and she wanted me to produce her. All of this was happening at a time when I was both building the studio and seeking to record “Killer On The Rampage.” So, you could imagine, those three things ate up a complete day. There was really little time for sleeping.
And then came Sting, to record The Dream Of The Blue Turtles, which was extremely successful for him. It kind of made him into a bigger star than he was in the Police. And of course Branford Marsalis, and Kenny Kirkland, and a guy named Daryl Jones. He’s now with The Rolling Stones. They all came down, and had a great time, making Dream Of The Blue Turtles. A complete 360-degree turn for Sting, but one that has paid off handsomely to him.
We’ve had The Rolling Stones, with Mick Jagger, and we’ve had Mick Jagger without The Rolling Stones. He did his solo album here, and then he told the guys, “You’ve really got to come and see this place and experience what it’s like to record.” So they prepared Steel Wheels here. They didn’t spend forever recording, but they did a lot of prerecording stuff. And putting the songs together, writing the songs, all that was done here at Bailey’s [in Saint Philip Parish], at Blue Wave Studios. And they did Voodoo Lounge, of course, which was here, at Blue Wave as well.
First of all, it was publishing. The Beatles got sauced in that. So did The Rolling Stones, and they’re two of the biggest bands in the world. They got sauced; I didn’t get sauced.
We’ve had Elvis Costello do Kojak Variety. We’ve had Julio Iglesias come here, we’ve had Mariah Carey come here. I mean there’s been a lot of people from all over and Caribbean artists like Mighty Sparrow. But, you know, it’s a sublime place to make music because there just is no interference. You do what you want, and you get the result that you seek. Bayley’s is singularly the most important piece of real estate in Barbados, by virtue of it having been the site of the 1816 rebellion, General Bussa’s rebellion.
And so, it has its own little cachet, you know? Serious cachet. And people fall into it. They come here, and they get to understand that. That sublime feeling of relaxation and history all is part of the deal.