File Under Genius
how to stay at the top for two decades, and still not get noticed
AFTER TWO DECADES WRITING, PLAYING, SINGING AND PRODUCING HIS WAY INTO THE HEARTS OF POP FANS THE WORLD OVER, EDDY GRANT IS STILL BEING UNDERESTIMATED BY THE CRITICS. WE SET THE RECORD STRAIGHT.
ANYONE who has any knowledge of Eddy Grant's music knows at least one thing: that the reggae/black music tag which forever haunts him belies a talent that doesn't recognise the boundaries of musical divisions. Sure, Eddy Grant can play reggae. But then, he can also play calypso, soca, rock, and a guitar solo with his teeth - Hendrix style.
"If it comes to it, I'll play symphonic music as well", he suggests. "It is the way I view music. I don't have this closeted view of it - my education has been total, so I fall very easily into all the categories."
It's two in the morning in, of all places, the Rotterdam Hilton. Eddy Grant sits eagerly on the edge of his bed, showing a boyish enthusiasm that disguises both the 20 years he's been in the business, and the fact that only three hours earlier he was on-stage in downtown Rotterdam, doing his bit for a Dutch public who've kept his latest single at the top of their charts for the best part of the previous three months.
In a world of narrow fields, specialist markets, bracketing and pigeonholing, Eddy Grant is a one-off. He is a truly versatile all-round performer - a writer, a producer and a multi-instrumentalist. He is one of the few true solo artists around today, creating his albums totally alone in his own Blue Wave recording studio, in St Philip, Barbados.
Yet for all his chameleon-like versatility, Eddy realises that many people are not aware of the full scope of his talents.
"People still think I have a band who make my records", he says. "One time I was in the States, a guy said to me: 'Hey, listen, you can't fool me man, there is no single musician who can make a record sound like it's a band playing, like it's five different people'. But that's exactly what happens... If there was anybody else like me in this music business, they would give him the highest accolade possible; there are no artists in the world today who can play as wide a range of music competently."
The monologue isn't so much a boast, more a simple statement of truth from a very modest man. If Eddy Grant was a) white and b) mainstream rock, the cries of "genius" would be much louder and last much longer. His latest album, 'File Under Rock', is a direct challenge to the usual assumptions people make about the man and his music.
In common with all Grant's recordings, 'File Under Rock' was written, produced and played by the man himself. Not a surprising way of doing things when you realise that, philosophically speaking, Eddy Grant sees the single-handed creation of a work as the ultimate achievement for a musician.
"I align myself with the artist, the guy who paints - I'm never tired of telling people that's how I see making music. I go in with an empty tape, I have an idea, I put some echo on it, I take some echo off the other thing, and keep on going: painting and rubbing off, and eventually having a picture and saying I'm happy with that now."
Eddy Grant has survived the music business for over two decades. Many of the people who buy his records still don't realise that Grant was the guitarist and driving force behind bubblegum soul boys the Equals, who brightened up the late '60s with a succession of hit singles like 'Baby Come Back' (their only number one), 'I Get So Excited' and 'Viva Bobby Joe'.
Leaving the Equals for health reasons, Grant continued as the band's writer and producer, taking bold, innovative steps in the early '70s with such cuts as 'Funky Like A Train' (a track re-released this year after heavy exposure in the clubs). But the spark of musical genius that was keeping Grant ahead of his contemporaries ("I wanted the Equals to go into the future"), did not find favour with management, record company, or even the other Equals. So Eddy stopped working with the Equals, and the Equals did cabaret...
"In 1972 I left and it was really very hard for me, because when I left I wasn't guaranteed any money. It was like my whole world had come to an end, because everything was geared towards the Equals for me... I believe that had the guys stayed with me, we would have been making this music for them, because I never had a separate side, I never had anything for Eddy Grant. There was only one thing in my life - that was the Equals. It was more important than my wife, it was more important than my children, everything. I know that might sound bad, but that is how I felt, that is how I am. Music is more important to me than anything else... I never ever thought I would be without the support of those guys, and suddenly I was out and I had nothing to do - no job, no songs to write."
Eddy Grant's second coming certainly took a while to come to fruition. And the story of what happened in between is a bizarre one. Following rejections from just about every British record label, major and minor, Grant financed his own releases and found that he was still able to shift the units abroad - first in the Caribbean and then in West Africa. Gradually his music began to filter back to Britain through European tourists visiting the Caribbean. "Even Bill Wyman was telling me he used to come down there with the rest of the guys, and that's how they got to know my music", says Eddy.
His first solo hit in Britain - and the song that re-ignited his career as a major star - was 'Living On The Frontline' in 1979. Yet it was a totally unexpected hit, coming as it did from an album that seemed doomed to failure.
"'Living On The Frontline' came out of the guts of the people", recalls Eddy. He had given up hope of ever seeing the album gain any commercial success, after the vital West African market had been taken away from him when Nigeria banned the import of records. That left Eddy with 10,000 copies of the record - bought and paid for by himself - and nowhere to sell them. In a last-ditch attempt to give 10,000 albums away, Eddy passed copies on to anyone that would take one, and thus the disc finally began circulating through British clubs. Ensign Records took notice of the underground reaction to the record, bravely released the 13 minute-long title track as a 12-inch single, and... Eddy smiles broadly: "It went out there and mashed it up". 'Do You Feel My Love' followed the year alter, and the rest is (recent) history.
Before and since, Eddy Grant has penned some monster tunes. But unlike many people who've been in the business as long, he carries a deep affection for his past, and cares deeply about the relationship between his songs and his audience.
"Whenever I play a song like 'Living On The Frontline' or 'Gimme Hope Joanna' or 'Electric Avenue', I have to smile", he says. "And many times when I'm on stage, I'm laughing to myself. I'm really happy that people understand something that was a moment in my life, and that they've taken it as a moment in their lives as well. I have a great rapport with people when I play the music, because it was specifically for them that I wrote it."
Other musicians have noticed Grant's songwriting talent, and taken advantage of it. Rocker's Revenge took 'Walking On Sunshine' into the Top 5 in 1982; The Clash cranked up the Equals classic 'Police On My Back', turning it into a standard for young guitar groups in the process; and currently Captain Sensible has a rendition of 'I Get So Excited' on release - featuring Eddy himself on guitar. Surprisingly, the Clash variation remains Eddy's favourite cover.
"Not many people have done my music and I've been happy with what they've done. Of all the people, I would never had thought that The Clash would have done a good cover version of my song. This is not in any way to denigrate The Clash, but I'm so used to it not happening. When someone told me the Clash had done it I expected a total mish-mash, but I liked it and I thought they might have used it as a single."
If people see Eddy Grant as influential enough to cover, Eddy himself has his own heroes. Every night on-stage, he runs through a tribute to the greats of soul, screaming the names of Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, and - with most emphasis - James Brown.
"I got to meet James Brown in '66 through a very strange situation", he recalls. "I sold his programmes on the street outside the Walthamstow Granada so I could get to meet him... His guys kinda adopted me and took me around, and I was cleaning his shoes, and putting away his suits at night. I saw what a real professional showbiz person James Brown was, why it was that he was so in advance of all of the other artists. He'd set a standard over and beyond anything that anybody else would achieve. It was this education that helped me to develop a style of my own, because I could see that the only people who were great and who were successful, had a style that was all their own."
Eddy Grant certainly, developed a style. Following JB's outrageous example of showmanship, Grant caused a sensation of his own: at the tail-end of the '60s, a black guitarist was rare enough, but one with bleach-blond hair? Eddy insists that came about more as an attempt at self-expression, than a desire to shock.
"Very few people allow themselves to express themselves to the maximum of their potential. And I started to appreciate the fact, very young, that the more you can express that aspect of yourself, the more easily recognised you are. Everybody's basically the same: we all have the ability to sing. But it's that extra something you have inside of you, that you never show to people, that makes you different to everybody else."
And if you couldn't fail to notice Eddy's bleach-blond coiffure in the '60s, 20 years on, you should be able to see just how good a guitar player he really is. It's a talent always noticeable in his live shows, but until 'File Under Rock', disguised on his studio work. He sits on his bed, cradling a guitar in his lap.
"Believe me, these guitars are never much further than ten feet away from me", he says. "I'm always with my guitars, I go to bed with my guitars. People find that strange, but it's what I'm used to since the beginning. I'm always playing."
An outstanding achievement for someone who started his musical interest with the trumpet, only taking up the guitar when, in the post-Shadows explosion, it seemed guitarists were having a better time. Eddy made his first guitar in a woodwork lesson at school; now he owns a selection of utterly brilliant instruments - which also happen to be "blue-chip" investments.
"I think guitars will appreciate the way violins and cellos have done - they are the new cellos and violins. I've got a Les Paul Standard; when I bought it, I paid £136 for it, now it's worth over £10,000. I'm now having a room specially dedicated to my old guitars."
From the expensive to the ridiculous. Eddy's main stage guitar is an anonymous-looking, plain white instrument: no markings, no tell-tail trade names, nothing to give any clue as to what it actually is. Eddy is coy on the matter, and won't be drawn to identify it.
"I've got this guitar which I never talk about", he says casually. "It's a cheap old guitar and I was told that the company - whoever they are - don't sponsor artists, so I thought: Why the Hell should I give them the benefit of any publicity? But I've really made this guitar into my own special thing." His hands flick momentarily over the controls as he explains the finer points of the instrument. "This red switch here", he says, "is a demon. It's actually the old Big Muff fuzzbox. A guy from the States found the circuit and fitted it for me. It's the only pedal I use, and it's in the guitar!"
A guitarist Eddy maybe - his teenage ambition was to be the best in the world - but he's also taken the time to understand the recording process, and learn ways to harness new technology. He is synth-literate, and quite au fait with the advantages of computers.
"I'm inquisitive to know about everything to do with music, and if there is something that I don't know, I must find out", he says. "Unfortunately, there's only so much time. I can't really delve into every aspect of technology, but I try. And I still try to maintain touch with every new thing that's happening."
Eddy Grant is one in a million, and maybe it's time that a few more people recognised that. On the world stage, he is Britain's biggest and most consistently successful black talent, and in a year when he hit the charts with 'Gimme Hope Joanna' ("an earth-shattering protest record with regard to South Africa") it was criminal that he should not be invited to perform at the Mandela birthday concert at Wembley Stadium. The concert was something that meant more to him than record sales. "They tell me that Stevie Wonder cried when he realised there might be a chance he couldn't play", says Eddy. "But if he cried... I died!"
Yep, there's not much doubt that Eddy Grant would have looked a damn sight more at home on that stage than, say, Simple Minds, Dire Straits, or the Eurythmics. But then, maybe his omission was symptomatic of his lack of status among his contemporaries - or simply of his own personal modesty.
"If you're gonna file me anywhere, file me under something as broad as rock 'n' roll", he says. I say: file under genius.
Interview by Chris Hunt
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!