Eddy Grant defined the frontline

Eddie Grant arrived in Britain in 1960 on a mission to show the country its musical future. He was taking bands into the studio and writing and producing hits with them when he was still getting pocket money from his parents. In The Equals he gave us Britain’s first multiracial pop band, challenging the dour monochrome of his adopted home with the defiant optimism of ‘Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys,’ and the timeless groove of ‘Funky Like A Train.’ A slew of ’60s and ’70s projects pushed soul, ska, reggae, soca and even rock into new shapes, giving black British dance music firm foundations. As a musical magpie, he combined styles from across the Caribbean, Africa, the UK and US, pioneering a cross-cultural approach that would underpin decades of future British sounds. Under his own name he’s a chart star with a barrel of international hits your mum knows: ‘Electric Avenue,’ ‘Living on the Frontline’, ‘Walking on Sunshine’. He’s also a relentlessly experimental producer, creating flagrantly unique tracks like ‘California Style’ and ‘Timewarp’, that are sampled, stolen and re-edited to this day. He launched his own labels Torpedo and Ice, and opened perhaps the first black-owned studio in Europe. At one stage, to capitalise on massive export success, he even bought his own pressing plant. Eddy Grant is an artist who mastered the industry rather than let it ever control him.

Interviewed by Bill, 16.10.02 in Stamford Hill, London

Describe what it was like for you arriving in Britain.
It was December 1960. I was 12, and when I landed it was cold and wet and I can still remember the exact smell and look of the place. The very first thing that grabbed me was the smell of coal burning. It was asphyxiating because I was used to wide open spaces. Everything was grey and black. England had two colours in its decorations: brown and cream, and they permeated everything. Cars were black or very dark colours. Men wore dark suits. Dustmen wore suits, so I thought, ‘This country’s gotta be happening! A guy’s a dustman and he’s wearing a suit!’ You never saw anyone in a suit in the West Indies unless someone was dead or very important.

My dad took us to Burleigh Road in Kentish Town and said ‘Okay, we’re going to our new home now.’ I could see this house with about 50 doors and I thought ‘Jesus, my old man has really arrived.’ But he said come this way, down to the basement and I found out what a basement was. It was cold, damp, and there was this lino on the floor, and he showed us into this room, which was gonna house the four of us, and my father and mother would sleep in the front room. That was a culture shock for me. I never conceived we’d be living underground.

Where did your parents come from?
Guyana. My mother’s from Plaisance and father’s from Berbice. My dad came over in 1957 and my mom a few months after that. Three of us three years after that. I’m the eldest. My father was a musician, primarily. He also mended bicycles and cars. Here, he worked at Blackman’s Motors in Kentish Town. He also had his own little garage that he would go to work in after work, and before playing gigs at night, so my father held three jobs.

What was his music?
Dad played the music of the time, which was Harry James, some jazz, Caribbean and all of that. Like all the musicians of that time, he played with different people. In Guyana he played primarily with a band called the Luckies [The Lucky Strike Orchestra]. When he came to London it was a similar situation. He’d play society parties, anywhere the band got booked, in clubs, pubs… There were pubs like the Tally Ho in Kentish Town that were very popular for music, trad jazz in particular. It was a very esoteric time, you had West Indian musicians playing with English musicians in all kinds of formats. Guys like Harold Beckett, Joe Harriott, Ivan Chinn. Iggy Quayle, the keyboard player, was a contemporary of my father and played in the same bands. Harry Beckett played with Herbie Goins and the Night Timers, but he was like a gun for hire. Herbie was around when the Equals, Jimmy James, Geno Washington, Georgie Fame, Zoot Money, The Gas, a whole circuit of bands. It was called the ‘Gunnell circuit’ because the Gunnell Agency controlled it, which was the Flamingo, the Manor House, Eel Pie Island, The Witch Doctor in Catford, they were the local gigs.

Did you learn music from your dad?
My dad was always interested in me learning to play. I can remember being four or five and taking my dad’s trumpet under the bed from the night before and making the most unbelievable racket, and he would come down and grab it off me. I learned the embouchure of the trumpet very early on by watching him. Once I came to England I didn’t touch the trumpet much more, though I did play bugle in the Boy’s Brigade. The drum was my instrument there. My dad tried to send me for piano lessons, the teacher was a woman called Mrs Philadelphia, Her first name was Prophet. She was a great teacher. My brother Derrick couldn’t absorb it as quickly as she would like so she would take a ruler or pencil and hit him across the knuckle. And I got totally pissed off because nobody hits my brother, so I started skiving off. My older uncle who had charge of us in the house found out, and he beat us so bad! We never went back to piano lessons. So that was the end of my musical education.

What did you listen to in Guyana?
Everything. Guyana is a totally multiracial society. In Guyana I’m hearing Indian music, African, western, American, Latin and Dutch on the radio at night, calypso from Trinidad. I heard everything that there was and listened to everything. I had a very eclectic base and my music shows in that.

When I came to England even more so. There was African, and early bluebeat, and British artists were copying Americans and doing their own version of it. Lonnie Donegan was a particular favourite of mine. I really liked trad jazz, I loved Kenny Ball & the Jazzmen, Acker Bilk, Monty Sunshine, Humphrey Lyttleton. Because I played trumpet as my first instrument, I was really into Freddie Hubbard, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie.

So at the same time as listening to trad and modern jazz, I listened to pop, the Shadows, the Beatles, and then the Rolling Stones who I listened to a lot, because they were playing real hot rhythm and blues from the American standpoint. I soon realised they were playing Chuck Berry’s music so I made a beeline for him, although he was in prison at that time. When he came out I saw him with the Nashville Teens at the Finsbury Park Astoria [later the Rainbow]. That was the moment that changed my life. I suddenly saw my mission in my life. I saw something in Chuck Berry on stage and thought I had a chance as a musician.

Why did he have such an effect?
There were very few people that can play like him. It’s accessible and accessible to your spirit, and he’s very articulate. He writes little stories so it’s like calypso. Early on in my life, apart from my father, my first hero was Mighty Sparrow. When I heard Chuck Berry it was similar. Little stories being told. But I still spoke West Indian, so I would have to learn that vernacular. I had a West Indian soul and I would now have to find an English soul. Chuck Berry delivered the path.

What were your first impressions of England?
I saw it as opportunity, because my dad had worked really hard to bring us here, so I had to make the best use of it. I made English friends very quickly so I could get into their homes and learn how they speak. That was a conscious thing. I read a lot. I had to get my head into English racism. I had to get to understand why they were like they were. They reacted to us in a different way and I’d never met that way. I was planning to be a doctor, train here and go back to Guyana so I thought none of this would matter once I’d gone, anyway.

Where did you go to school?
I went to Acland Burghley, an incredible school. It produced a lot of very talented people, I played in the school jazz band with Derek Griffiths, a great actor and musician, Maurice Lavey, Danny Dukowski, Gus Ibegbuna. All the teachers were great role models and there were no black teachers there, either. It was 99.9% white pupils. I was in the vanguard of the black invasion of the school, so to speak. All the black kids did well there. My brother Rudy was a fantastic footballer, brilliant. He played with all the great players of the time, the Bowles and Bests and Marshes.

Were there any notable role models for you in Britain?
I have to call the name of [St Lucian-born pop singer and sound engineer] Emile Ford. When I came here I saw Emile and he was black and he was in a position where people looked to him as a star. [Actor/singer/songwriter] Kenny Lynch also was a star. In a funny kind of way they didn’t belong to the community because they’d been appropriated by the white society. But nevertheless they were black people and they represented a vanguard. So I knew it was do-able.

There was the injustice of race, though. England was quite inclement to its foreign children. I’ve seen great musicians give up because of their race, and great artists, too. Although I’ve done well I am the one out of hundreds and thousands that gave up on the way, like the one salmon who made it up the stream to mate.

They seemed to accept what was given to them. When the time came for me, which was with the Equals, I knew it wasn’t going to be like that for me. We were going to be the first multi-racial band of its kind and, as such I had to establish a whole new modus operandi.

Did you know the early black London DJs like Count Suckle and Al Needles?
Suckle played the Roaring Twenties with his sound system. I became very close with him many years later. Suckle moved on from just being just a DJ to owning the Q Club in Praed Street, where I played early in my career. It was the premier black club in London. That and the All-Star Club which was owned by Ken Edwards in Artillery Passage in Liverpool Street. They were the two main black clubs in London during the ‘60s.

I played all of them, every ballroom, every church hall, every barmitzvah in this country. All of them. The Equals were a very popular band. Money was good. And the food, too! We played youth clubs, we played Blytheway Mansions, we played York Court.

How did you get your first break?
This friend of mine Georgie took me to meet a rasta one night. At that time rastas were very serious men and you didn’t see them around London really. He was called Roddy and he said he knew Admiral Ken, a disc jockey who owned the All-Star Club. He was just about to go to Ethiopia but he took me to the All-Star the night Stevie Wonder was appearing. It was jam-packed, black with people. Afterwards he took me to meet Ken [Edwards] and asked him to give me an audition.

We came down and he loved us. There was us, the Rick’N’Beckers, and Heart & Soul. All black bands. Rick’N’Beckers played more ska-oriented soul, Heart & Soul were total soul, and we played anything from James Brown, Rufus Thomas, Sonny Boy Williamson, Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry, really eclectic. We had no bass guitar and no organ and no saxes and you couldn’t play a black club without at least an organ. But we went into the All-Star and mashed it up! Just pure energy. Our first gig supporting was Wilson Pickett and he came on and he was awesome. He had a pick-up band. Sometimes they’d use Herbie Goins. We gave those guys a good run for their money. One night when we played with Solomon Burke, the crowd didn’t want to let us off. Every major black artist that came to England we supported.

How did you meet the other guys in the Equals?
I had just made my first guitar in woodwork in school. I’d started to play a little. My father taught me some chords and some guys who lived in our house helped me. One day a guy called Andy Vassilliou invited me to come to his house for a jam session. Very good musician. Exceedingly good. We’re jamming in Mrs Hall’s room, who was John Hall’s mum, who became our drummer. A fantastic atmosphere. I said to John one night, this is all well and good, but it ain’t going nowhere. Do you want it to be a group? ‘Yeah, I’d like it to be a group’. Well let’s put it together, let’s look for a singer and guitarists. So there was a guy called Eddie Faisems, an Indian guy who could play the guitar better than me, the Gordon brothers, they were at Barnsbury School but had left to go to work. I was the only one still at school. Pat Lloyd came one night. Eddie left because he was into his girlfriend. And then we were five.

Was it a conscious choice not to have bass and organ?
I decided early on we were gonna be different. Being the musical head, I never encouraged having bass in the live line-up. We recorded with a bass guitar, Calvin Fuzzy Samuels became our regular bassist on record, and there’s only one song we recorded without it. Not having saxes or organ hastened our demise. Ken Edwards our great benefactor kept on at me ‘Yout! Why don’t you get a little organ or sax in the band an’ be like the ‘Beckers, bwoy’. We used to rehearse upstairs at his club and one day he’d locked us out because we wouldn’t get a ‘little organ or bass’! I could see through the keyhole other equipment that wasn’t ours, but we never did find out who replaced us.

How did you get discovered then?
Gene Latter, he was a popular singer in Europe, he made me angry when he said he could dance better than James Brown at a time when James Brown was my God. But I didn’t know he lived next door to me! We were rehearsing one night doing ‘I Won’t Be There’, which I’d just written. There’s this knock at the door and this guy says, ‘Who’s that song?’ I said ‘It’s mine.’ ‘You didn’t copy it from Rufus Thomas or Wilson Pickett or anybody?’ ‘No, it’s mine.’ He said, ‘How would you like to record it? I’d like to make a record of it. I know somebody who would take a listen.’ And he took us to Eddie Kassner at President [transatlantic music mogul who also managed The Kinks]. He took us into the basement at Kassner House, 25 Denmark St and set us up among the sheet music. Eddie came down, liked it, and by the time we left, Gene was our manager and Eddie Kassner was our record company.

What motivated you to write in the first place?
My good friend Gus. He said there was this guy Bob Dylan and he writes his own songs, I’m sure you can do that. You can play chess and you know science, I’m sure you could do it. Then a guy called Lee Shepherd who became our manager said to me, ‘You should really write songs, you have that kind of intellect.’ But I had no way of knowing how. I started humming things and eventually a couplet started to come and I’d write them down. Nothing significant happened until a girlfriend gave me a tape recorder. Then I started really seriously. I’d write ten songs in an evening.

I started writing songs with other people in mind. I remember writing ‘Hold Me Closer’, which started as the A-side of ‘Baby Come Back’ and ended up as the B-side, and offering it to all my friends at the time. I eventually gave it to Lincoln, who was always a good spar for me in the Equals. We became really good friends. ‘When’s your birthday, do you wanna a piece of my song?’ It wasn’t till later I realised what value a song could be.

The Equals were big in Germany before the UK.
Yeah. Equals used to do weekend gigs in Germany and we took over there in a really big way. ‘Baby Come Back’ was a hit 18 months before it was a hit in England. And remember, I was still at school. The other guys were content to get up and play all over the place but I could really only go out at weekends and when we went abroad my dad would come with me. We’d get off the boat at Bremerhaven, drive to Bremen, do a big club, do the clubs around north of Germany, Hamburg, Gütersloh, then we stretched out into Dortmund, the Ruhr, Stuttgart, Berlin.

Were you still at school when you had a hit?
We got a hit in Germany in 1967. I didn’t leave school until after ‘Baby Come Back’. When you talk about boy bands, the Equals would have to have been the first! There was just not anything like the Equals. You remember I talked about England being two colours brown and cream, the Equals were the first to dress brightly. We would be multi-coloured people in our multi-coloured clothes. We loved it. It was strong. From that we went wilder and wilder till eventually I wound up with the white hair.

How were you received in Germany playing as a multi-racial band?
Never had a problem. The Equals, because we were not girlish, we got big respect from guys, We could play Club 51, the rocker’s heaven, and we played places like the Shoreline Hotel [in Bognor Regis], the first youth hotel.

Was that like a YMCA?
No. It was a number of different caverns, which could all house different groups, one playing this bay, another playing that bay, and more women per square foot than you can imagine. You had kids taking pills, everybody was on pills [amphetamines]. Dozens of kids sleeping outside on makeshift beds. How that was allowed to carry on in that time, god only knows! Great environment.

Back in London did you get to play Flamingo?
Yeah, that was standard fayre. We played Tiles, where Jeff Dexter DJed. Twisted Wheel in Manchester, Top Hat in Newcastle. We played every gig in this country. Sherwood Rooms in Nottingham. We took over from Geno Washington because we had the added benefit of getting a hit record. I said to Geno, ‘It’s okay mashing it up in the clubs but you gotta have records.’ He was big, he was god. To upstage Geno, we had to be doing very well. I got the right education in the music business, and I took it very seriously. I learnt the studio inside out, I learnt all the instruments, I learnt to dance. I learnt about property though my father.

When did you sign with President?
It would have to be ’65. I made ‘Train to Rainbow City’ [by The Pyramids] in ’66.

You suffered a heart attack very young, didn’t you?
Twenty-three! The heart problem precipitated my departure. You don’t know who is who until something like that happens. I saw the light in so many regards. That was January 1st 1971. it knocked me out for a year and other people had to come into the band. I got the vision for the future.

So what happened to the Equals after that? What was your vision?
That wasn’t to do with music it was to do with people. The greatest thing in this world is love, it blinds you to everything. And the first love of my life was the Equals. I would’ve died for the Equals. I didn’t go out to clubs, I wasn’t a drinker, I wasn’t into drugs, I wasn’t into girls. I just wanted to play music and these guys were my instruments, they gave substance to everything I thought about. I could visualise incredible things for the band and for the music.

You had to leave the band but you continued writing and producing.
I thought the illness would kill me, so I had to do this and come out the band and hoped the guys would understand and allow me to do the thing I loved the most which was to make the records.

You built our own studio early on, didn’t you?
My manager Lee Shepherd was an ex-actor, RADA, and involved in property in a big way. He had a brochure from an estate agent on his desk. I noticed one that had a property in Clapton with a coach house on the corner. It was 25 grand which was a hell of a lot of money then. I went to look at it; it was a mess, falling apart, a dump. Lee said it was a bad buy but I bought it anyway. I bought it in 1973 – exactly at the time when there was a depression in the property market! It took 28 skips to clear the rubbish out. Eventually I got to the point where I could call it a studio. Bought some equipment from Dave Robinson [of Stiff Records] and some from Manfred [Mann], who had owned the Maximum Sound Studio in Old Kent Road.

So I built the first black-owned recording studio in Europe. It opened late 1974, early 1975. I got Frank Aggarat who became the first black engineer in this country, through giving up a very lucrative job as a technician to do this job and make the dream a reality. We really tried things. And because we were new and totally idiotic, we did things and they happened.

Did you use Coach House for everything?
I did, in the early stages. Anything that required more than eight tracks was done outside. Things like the Pioneers I would have started pre-production at Coach House and then gone over to Maximum Sound. Some of the Equals would have been done at Coach House and then gone on to Manfred’s studio. I’d know if I heard them because Coach House sounded really different to anywhere else. It helped me to establish myself through that sound, you know.

The Pioneers’ ‘Racial Segregation’

What was the inspiration for ‘Funky Like A Train’? It’s quite different to anything that the Equals had done till then.
Well you know the music can never be one way, because I was always looking for something else. So experiments continue and occasionally when you experiment you find a germ of an idea, a germ of a song, and that stands out from the rest. ‘Funky Like A Train’ just happened to jump out of the group of tracks because I had to approach it in a special way.

It’s mainly based around a clavinet, right? And Ron Telemacque on drums?
It’s the two of us on drums! Like James Brown. I think Lincoln played bass, Ron was on drums, I overdubbed drums, I overdubbed all the other things, the synths and so on. For me the most remarkable thing about it is the actual sound of the train and the synthesis of the voices to make it sound like a train. Even though I did it and I know how I did it, it can still fool me.

Yes, but why are trains funky? Where did the concept come from?
The whole idea is that the funk of a train is quite magical. It sounds like absolute nonsense but when you actually check it out it’s like, ‘Oh yeah I see what’s happening’. The lyrics came to me in a certain kind of way.

Did they think you were barmy when you brought them the song?
You don’t know how much shit I got with regard to the Born Ya and Mystic Syster albums. In the end the record company were asking me every other second, ‘Is that the synthesiser? Is that the synthesiser?’ It was early days for synthesisers and people could only see it making those warbly sounds that some bands had used it for.

How did you get into production?
I was always in the role of making music. When Eddie Kassner signed us he got a guy in called Tony Clark, a Decca producer, who didn’t like the music and wouldn’t stay. I remember going in there and having to sit with Adrian Ibbotson the engineer and he said ‘Okay, who’s producing the session?’ I’m looking at him and I don’t know what it means. I say, ‘You better ask Mr Kassner’. ‘Mr Kassner will only come in and check at the end.’ And so I became the producer of the Equals. After a while it became my band, if there was a piano part, I played it; if there was a bass part and Fuzzy wasn’t there, I played it. In the early years Mr Kassner took all the credit and later he gave me a half credit, but long-term he acknowledged I was the producer of those records.

Marco [aka Eddy Grant] ‘I’m Coming Home’
Tony Morgan & Muscle Power ‘Racial Segregation’ (note similarity with ‘I’m Coming Home’
Coach House Rhythm Section ‘No Such Thing’ (basically a later dub version of ‘Racial Segregation’)

Did you get producer royalties?
No, no, no, no! No. We didn’t have a proper hit until ‘Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys’. When I wrote it, I had to demo it myself. I put down all the tracks and I remember playing it to Mr Kassner. He listened to it and he said ‘What the fuck is that? A hit, my ass!’ I said ‘I wanna do it.’ ‘Not at my studio with my money.’ I went into ABC Studios in Portland Place and recorded it. When I came back to play it to him I said you’re not having your name on this right? ‘That’s right.’ I played it to him, he says, ‘Edward, my son, you’re making a great mistake.’ I got Lee Shepherd in to help promote it. It was one of the biggest records I’d ever had. It was released on November 17th. Hendrix was dead and immediately thereafter I nearly went.

Tell me about The Pyramids
When the Equals wasn’t happening, I used to go in the studio and experiment with ska. In my father’s house in Kentish Town was a guy I called Georgie but was actually called Roy Knight, who had just joined a group called the Bees, who were backing Prince Buster on a national tour. These were the guys who would become the Pyramids. I went out with them on a few gigs. I was about eight years younger than Roy; I’m a little kid hanging out. Buster wore this little pork pie hat and I got the job of holding Prince Buster’s hat before he went on stage. He’d do a song or two first and then he’d say, ‘Yout’!’ and I’d come on stage and give him his hat, he’d put it on and the whole place would go crazy.

I asked Roy if he would organise with the guys to come and do a session with me. We went to the studio on the basis that I make I will get some royalties whenever it sells. So this guy who’s taking them in the studio is really a schoolboy earning 2s 6d a week pocket money! Remember I told you I can write ten songs in a night very easily? Well, I was about to demonstrate it. We’re in the studio, an idea comes out. Off they go. Anything out of my head. Another song. There are other guys from the Equals there. My brother Patrick and I created a party atmosphere and I started to talk about the things that were happening in Jamaican music. I started talking about the black women in Skaville, bad people that lived in Phoenix City, even though I didn’t know where Phoenix City was. I’d never been to Jamaica. My only interface with Jamaican culture was hearing the sound system playing in the clubs or having parties next door.

We did maybe 15 or more songs. And they’re done, one take. This guy Jimmy Spencely, the second engineer, he came up at the end of the session and says ‘Love the session Eddy but what about the money? The studio costs, the tape. The money is ten pound a man.’ But I don’t have that kind of money. ‘Well, you better find it.’ Any half of them could have killed me. Mr Kassner came down, paid for the studio and the guys. Then when they’d gone, Kassner says ‘Play me the tape. You did all of these today? Jesus!’ So we signed a deal, and I was so glad to have got out of the shit that I didn’t care what happened.

We were in Germany a few weeks later and Eddie Kassner turned up. ‘Edward, something very serious has happened, you know those songs you did, I put them out and people can’t get enough of them.’ I called the band and said if you want you can become the Pyramids; change your name from the Bees. And so they were out there earning more money than we were. ‘Train to Rainbow City’ was the first British-produced ska record to chart. The next record I made with them was ‘A Wedding In Peyton Place’, which again used my voice. I did an album called the Pyramids with them singing. The original session all appeared on an album called Club Ska or something.

What about Symarip?
The guys in the Pyramids eventually ended up being called Symarip, which is Pyramids spelt backwards. ‘Skinhead Moonstomp’! I wasn’t involved in the track but I owned the song; they sold it to me. There are two songs in my entire life that I own but didn’t write, one is ‘Skinhead Moonstomp’ and another one called ‘Why Build A Mountain’.

You produced a couple of all-black rock bands. Sundae Times and Zapatta Schmidt
Sundae Times was Conrad Isidore, Wendell Richardson who went on to sing with Osibisa, Calvin Fuzzy Samuels, who played on all those Equals hits and then went on to play for Crosby Stills Nash & Young and everybody else. They were the greatest group of black rock musicians in the world. There was no band that could touch them. One night Stephen Stills saw the band and he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. So he nicked them. He broke up my band, a band I loved and recorded. They were my alter ego, we played funky soul music with the Equals, and hard rock with Sundae Times. I bought them equipment, I bought them a van, I roadied for them, even when the Equals were selling millions of records I was out on the road with them.

I produced them. I gave them pieces of my songs but I don’t think I wrote anything for them. The album Us Coloured Kids was recorded in about ’68 or ’69. When you listen to the playing, it’s awesome. Conrad Isidore is the baddest drummer I’ve ever heard, period. His brother Reg Isidore played with Robin Trower and his youngest brother Gus plays with Seal. Musical family.

The end of Sundae Times was that the two of them went off with Stephen Stills and played with all those rock’n’roll artists. And Wendell took all the equipment and the van and formed Osibisa. The music industry is so racist, though. Osibisa is the greatest afro-rock band in history, I was meant to be their first producer. Tony Visconti did it instead, and maybe Tony Visconti can produce David Bowie, but he can’t produce Osibisa. So all that great music came out sounding like a little tin cup rolling down a hillside. Kofi is my percussionist when I play live now.

What about Zapatta Schmidt?
I produced them. But they were a bona fide band. A great band too. Zapatta Schmidt and Sundae Times were the two great black rock bands There were not many at that time. When Stephen Stills broke up Sundae Times, I had no one to play with, so when I saw Zapatta Schmidt playing upstairs at Ronnie Scott’s, I thought, yes here’s another great bunch of musicians. So I made a record with them. They were Tony Zak-Edmonds keyboards, Ronnie Telemacque drums, he’s now playing with the Equals, Marcus James, who’s now married to Marcia Barratt of Boney M, then there was Vince Clark the singer and Joe Blanchard the guitarist. All black. They could rock the shit. I used them as my backing band after Vince left them, on my first gigs I did as a solo artist.

When was your first solo record?
My first solo record was made in 1972 as Eddy Grant. It came out on Torpedo first. That’s the album which nobody knows about, the Hello Africa album. It’s just called Eddy Grant. Then it came out on Ice in 1974 in the Caribbean.

I want to ask you about ‘Nobody’s Got Time.’ Why did you come back to it so often. You’ve managed to reinterpret it in so many different ways.
I did it on the very first album, Hello Africa, with a guitar synthesiser. I played that sound on that and on ‘Georgetown Girl’. That album was done in ’72. Then I did ‘Nobody’s Got Time’ again which came out on Ice, the version with the harmonica, part one is the vocal and part two is the harmonica. Part three is ‘Timewarp’. I’ve also done ‘Nobody’s Got Time’ with the Equals on Mystic Syster. They’re all different. That’s what remixing is really supposed to be about. If you’re going to revisit the song you must give it some degree of originality.

And ‘California Style’. Two different records in one tune, what was that about?
Well as I’ve grown and got better facilities, my work has taken on a different shape, but the central feature is that I’m a Caribbean person who has influences from the world, and that Caribbean-ness must stand firm in that firmament. If you listen to the lyrics of ‘California Style’ you’ll hear it talk about me basically. All the music of me. You’ll hear the way in which I’m prepared to stretch and groove and with very limited resources quite successfully. The music of ‘California Style’ and ‘Nobody’s Got Time’ and all the others is me being able to stretch the boundaries of a song, either sonically, rhythmically or lyrically.

What about the second half of it?
The jam? Since it came out there has not been a Trinidad party where that’s not been played. There has not been a successful record out of Trinidad that has not incorporated some part of that record. It’s like a well that people go to for inspiration. That song stands till today.

Were you aware your records were so popular in New York?
I had no idea. After having all the success in the Caribbean, Trinidad in particular, [Ensign Records founder, then at Phonogram] Nigel Grainge had arranged for me to go over to New York. I hadn’t been successful in the States since ‘Baby Come Back’. None of my music, as far as I knew, was meant to be here and yet people knew it. All the guys who were playing in the gay clubs, people like Larry Levan, Jellybean Benitez, all those boys were playing my music. I thought this was incredible, but it was not on a level that could take me into the charts; that didn’t happen until much later. Here I was the underground, so I came back to the UK with a renewed vigour. I’m getting through. It’s not massive, but I’m getting through. People like Arthur Baker were getting my records, my brother sent stuff over to him.

I met Sylvia and Joe [Robinson] at All-Platinum Records [they later launched Sugar Hill], and a bunch of other people. When I finally got through to Epic and Columbia there was this guy called Vernon Slaughter in black promotion and he championed me to that company. He told them, ‘If you wanna know what’s happening it’s this’, and he threw ‘Walking On Sunshine’ on to the table. Eventually they signed me. I went to LA and was a guest of my friend Mike Parrish who took me to meet Stevie Wonder. Stevie wanted to record ‘Walking On Sunshine’ with Aretha Franklin but it had fallen apart. Of course Arthur [Baker] did it, Bill Summer also did a version.

Tell me about ‘Timewarp’
I’d made Nobody’s Got Time again. It’s obviously a track I love. Something about that track fascinates me, and every time I make it I find something else and I add something else. This time I’m playing around and I’m starting to hear an instrumental. So I got the synthesiser and I started to play. I thought it was alright. Then everybody who heard it told me how brilliant this track is. Anyway, we put it out as the B-side of ‘Nobody’s Got Time’ and everybody flipped the record and all the gay clubs were playing it. All the Larry Levans were playing it. They were using it for catwalks and fashion shows. So I thought surely this has got a life of its own.

Not only had it refused to die, but I went to Xenon in New York one night after having been to the Paradise Garage and I heard a wall of sound playing ‘Timewarp’, ‘Nobody’s Got Time’ and ‘Walking On Sunshine’ and they were like absolutely new records. I couldn’t imagine that’s what I had made. Xenon really was like a wall of sound, so many different speakers, and it imbued these records with a whole new set of dynamics. It stunned the hell out of me and gave me a whole new focus. From then on I started to concentrate very heavily on the bottom end of my records. The synth bass, I must’ve been one of the very first people to use it, that bass that’s on ‘Timewarp’ it’s only now that people are using that sound on their records.

What about Nigeria? You spent some time out there, didn’t you?
Nigeria was like Trinidad for me. They both came at a very important part of my career and they afforded me the celebrity and money to be able to do other things that transported me to another level. I’d been successful in Nigeria with the Equals in the first configuration in the ’60s. I couldn’t believe that I would ever be more successful than the Equals were. It happened in Nigeria, so much so that I ended up recording in Yoruba, two albums for Nigeria specially which were immensely successful. Tunes I’d had originally done in English and lengthened. ‘Wipe Mon Fe E’ which is Say I Love You and that was 18 minutes long. One side of the album. I loved the record. It was a moment in time for me and Nigeria. We were selling so many records into Nigeria, I bought a pressing plant – the British Homophone pressing plant in New Cross. I was manufacturing so many records for myself and shipping out to these places that I thought it would make sense to own my own factory,

So did you meet Fela?
I did interface with most of the other artists at the time, like Sonny Okosun who really introduced me into Nigeria. But I didn’t come into contact with Fela at the time because he’d just been beaten by the army.

Did you tour in Africa?
No. Although The Equals went to Zambia at the end of it all. In ’71 and ’72.

When did you leave the UK?
November ’81. It was time. I’d promised myself when the time came I’d know. I’m not one for the cold weather. It was a particularly cold winter and I was driving my daughter down to school at Parliament Hill and my brother’s car, going down the hill, wouldn’t stop. It was going straight for the crossroads and I turned to jam on it onto the kerb. And I thought no, leave the country right away. It came to me like that. I told my wife I was going out there to find a house to fix it up and then left quicktime. Not many days after.

Mind you, when I left I lost all my baggage with all my songs for my next album. When I got there I didn’t have a studio, nothing. No clothes, no songs. A German record company were threatening to sue me over non-delivery of my album. I had to build a studio quickly. I got one in about six weeks, and the album was Killer On The Rampage which would spawn ‘Don’t Wanna Dance’, ‘Electric Avenue’, ‘War Party.’ That album was the quickest flash of recording. I went there in November 1981 and by the end of 1982 the album was out.

What motivates you as a songwriter?
To tell a story in a short time in a way that nobody else would, that is the ultimate for me. That’s why I like songs like ‘War Party’, ‘Gimme Hope Joanna’, ‘Living On The Frontline’. They would be called protest songs, but in a way that nobody else would protest. Always just to do something slightly different, because slightly can be a whole heap in musical terms. The difference between G and G sharp is only one little step but it’s a whole heap in terms of music.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton