++++ UNDER CONSTRUCTION ++++
It was Eddy Grant’s intention that his first UK shows in 15 years would be intimate affairs.
To put it mildly, events haven’t turned out like that.
In the fortnight prior to our chat prior to his gig at London’s Bush Hall he’s played Glastonbury for the first time, taken to a stage in Hyde Park for Nelson Mandela’s 90th Birthday celebrations and appeared on the same stage again for the Wireless Festival.
Is he surprised he’s picked up so much attention so soon after announcing his comeback from his Caribbean bliss?
“Your fans are coming to see you and it’s nice that people can come and see your eyes, and feel you, rather than everything being big. I think this will probably be the last time we’ll do this size of place,” he says.
“This tour is about my experiencing what I haven’t experienced for over 20 years.” I explain that I was a mere nipper when Electric Avenue was in the charts. “It’s the same story with most people I would have to call my third generation of fans,” he muses, while hills rumble and galaxies spin.
He describes himself as “Eddy Grant as a solo artist” and “The Equals days”. There’s something of Old Father Time about his demeanour.
Even in the ’70s “I wasn’t touring. I made records, I put them out there and people bought them. To me that was the greatest test of what you’re doing. But now it’s become so marketing-oriented that you don’t know if it’s the product or the bullshit (that’s selling) anymore.”
“I’ve had a lovely time coming from that generation where you made a record, you could put it out and within a short time people would let you know if what you had was good.”
Road To Reparation follows just seven years after his last Greatest Hits record was put out. Why was there a need for another so soon? “The honest reason is that I’d just licensed my entire catalogue which had been off the market for over 10 years. I completely cleaned out the shops of my music. It’s a tremendous sacrifice for an artist to make to take your stuff off the marketplace altogether. People were doing all kinds of terrible things to my catalogue. In wanting to come back, speaking with the agencies and so on, they outlined the position of where today’s marketplace is. And that is, for an artist like me who’s been independent for all his life and has his own little record label, the costs of funding and supporting a world tour would be impossible. So you have to deal with the majors. They’re not my most beloved people but they have their use; they have far-reaching pockets and capabilities.” The album went Top 20, which pleased Grant of course. “The songs have been used quite solidly for ads and so on; so a whole generation has grown up, and someone who was eight years old when the last record came out is now 16; he can have his own record.”
As for his recently rekindled love of live he has this to say. “When you come to my shows you see it’s split down the middle; you’ve got a very young audience who want to jump and dance and go crazy like fit young men and women, and you have an older generation, into their 70s. It’s like the Rolling Stones or The Grateful Dead, who’ve had a long career; people bring their grandchildren to see them.”
Turning to Nelson Mandela, Grant shares the global respect and awe in which the former South African President is held. “You’re dealing with a soul that has encountered life at its fullest. He has dealt with it significantly to the benefit of mankind,” he eulogises. “I do believe that the alternative would have been too gruesome to think about, and the world has in some measure said thank you to him. But the fact is he lost 27 years of his life. That’s significant.” At the 90th Birthday concert, Grant said hello to Mandela and had his photo taken with him, but reckons if he was going to speak to him it would be in Cape Town or Johannesburg “because there the pressure is less”.
He’s remarkably circumspect in his comments about Zimbabwe. I ask about reports that Gimme Hope, Jo’anna has been played by Zimbabwean radio stations as a freedom song against the Mugabe regime’s continued misrule and gerrymandering.
“You write a song and people will find a use for it; it says different things to different people. Some people just want to dance to it and don’t give a damn what it’s saying. And that’s fine. If people in Zimbabwe want to use the song for that purpose then, also fine.”
“It’s topical and it’s not. For me it’s old hat because the same process keeps on happening over and over again throughout Africa and the Third World. I made a comment on radio where I mentioned the kingmakers and kings. That’s about all there is to it, otherwise you’re getting involved in something you don’t know too much about. I cannot say categorically that Mr Mugabe did this or Mr Mbeki did that. We’re subject to media, to newspapers who also have agendas. They represent governments that also have agendas. The less I emphasise the issues in Zimbabwe, that’s currently so popular, I think, the better.”
You’d rather not talk about it? “Not really. I talk about anything” He laughs, perhaps a little self-consciously. “I’m well known for that. But people in emotive situations take the easy way out. Nobody knows what’s going on. The more you read about it in the papers, the less you know. Until I know, until I can speak categorically, like on apartheid, only then will I be able to speak. The wisest of us all, Nelson Mandela, spoke. It doesn’t require further word on it at this time.”
Glastonbury: “I said to my business manager, ‘I’m coming up to 60 and I haven’t played Glastonbury or any of the major festivals in the world and I would really like to do that.’ ‘That would entail a world tour of some dimension,’ he said. Glastonbury was a revelation for me, simply because you tend to hear about things in glowing terms all the time and when you actually meet it, it’s an anti-climax. Glastonbury was not an anti-climax. There was no description that could have told me what it was about. Woodstock may have come close, but still nowhere near. It’s like discovering a lost world in a valley. That’s how it looked to me when I drove into there. It was so clean, pristine; nobody was throwing rubbish about the place. It was wonderful; the smells of the earth; life smells… it really blew my mind. I thought that I must play special, play well; nobody must forget that I played Glastonbury. And the fact that God came to my side with beautiful weather made it even better still. We started playing and by the time we’d finished we’d sucked people in from other areas. It was just swelling, the audience was getting bigger and bigger…”
“I’m a musician; I love to play live and it’s amazing that I could stay 20 years without playing.” I ask him to explain why this was. “It’s quite simple,” he shrugs. “I do everything myself, I record everything, I write every track. How many seconds do you reckon there are in the day that one can dedicate to everything and still have time for touring? Touring is an all-consuming issue. I found time to do the things I wanted to do. Having been in the business for nearly 30 years already at that time, I was going through serious litigation, when my ex business manager was trying to steal my company, and I was involved in the archiving and preservation of classic calypso music and I was making calypso music with a lot of these older artists, most of whom have died since. We would have lost all that music. I had a chance to work with a lot of young artists too; I spent a lot of time doing a lot of things and so you know, 22 years have gone. But I’ve done the work” – he claps his hands together – “next! Touring. I can’t be doing touring while I’m doing the other things. This is how it is.”
“There have always been reissue companies who’ve done this kind of thing over the years. Strut has done a lot in this department. It’s there for everybody.”
“I have acquired maybe 80% of the output of classic calypso, ’30s – ’90s. It’s a tremendous amount of work to archive that work, as I’ve done significantly over those years.” He obviously sees himself as significant; his answers are shot through with a self-confidence that some might consider to verge on bombast. “I gave up my career to do that. There is no financial reward; it is just something you do because today everybody’s nicking everything. Before you put out a compilation, somebody’s nicked it and you find it’s out there selling for next to nothing or for free. So there is an upside and a downside to it all. But everybody seems to like the work that I’ve done with it.”
“I’m a musician,” he says again, “and I love what I do. There is nothing in life that gives me greater pleasure than doing what I do. I’m not a person to say it, I live it.”
I ask him whether he’s seen anyone at a festival, or been sent a demo, and he’s liked them. “Not yet,” he sighs. Obviously nobody’s quite as good as Eddy Grant. “There’s one young girl called Indra who I work with. She started doing backing vocals for a lot of the calypso and so forth. She has come out as being a really significant talent.
“Great talents don’t turn up every day.”
“What I’ll do is what moves me at the time. If I find there is someone that requires my help and assistance, I will do that. What I do or what I like won’t necessarily sell a lot of records.”
“Not to blow my own horn,” – HA! – “I’ve been in this business for 40 years, at the top end of it, making music that people have bought. And then to disappear for 20 years is significant. If you come back you require the services of the media to introduce you to your own people and any new transients who may like your music, who may like you. Otherwise you might as well go and sing in the bush.”
“London is a special place for me. I grew up here; these places were my stomping grounds. I know London very well. The people of London are different in a very strange way. London’s people have seen everything because they are educated to see everything. They notice everything. It’s become very cosmopolitan; it’s capable of absorbing culture and is able to bring forward new things.” He lived variously in Kentish Town, Tufnell Park, Highbury and Battersea.”
New album… Calypso catalogue