By Dave Simpson
Eddy Grant, singer-songwriter
British society in the 1960s wasn’t quite ready for my first group, the Equals, which had a multicultural lineup of three black boys and two white boys. DJs used to smash our records live on air, but we somehow made a connection with young people. Baby Come Back went to No 1, and we bought Aston Martins to show other young people that anything was possible.
One night, I parked the car, got into bed and … BOOM! I woke up in hospital. I was 23 and had had a heart attack because of a genetic condition. I was so overwhelmed I left the band.
I learned to tap dance and tried to make a career out of that, but then Norman Beaton – the UK’s first black TV star, who was from Guyana like I was – goaded me into acting. On the way home one night from working in the Black Theatre of Brixton I saw Electric Avenue on a street sign, and thought: “What a fantastic song title.”
Several years later, by which time I’d returned to music, I left England for Barbados, but British Airways lost my bags, containing all my latest songs. I had to write a whole new set of material. My big songs, like Electric Avenue, tend to come quickly. It’s like visiting the bathroom – you’ve really got to go.
Just before leaving England, I’d watched the Brixton riots unfold on television. I’d seen the Notting Hill riots starting a few years previously. I wrote down: “Now in the street there is violence,” and the song just flowed from there. I had been talking to politicians and people at a high level about the lack of opportunity for black people, and I knew what was brewing. The general attitude was: “Oh come on, Eddy, you mean rivers of blood?” I myself might have been successful, but I could have easily been one of those guys with no hope, and I knew that when people felt they were being left behind, there was potential for violence. The song was intended as a wake-up call.
I recorded it using synthesisers as workmen were building my studio in Barbados, with carpenters everywhere. I don’t make demos: I try to record everything in one take. You may not get perfection but you get an urgency.
Steve Barton’s videos for Electric Avenue and Michael Jackson’s Billie Jeanbroke the colour bar on MTV, and the video played a big part in my song becoming a global hit. By filming in the dark, he made Barbados look like a street in Brixton. I recently went back to Electric Avenue to switch on their new illuminated sign, with the mayor, and people came out in their droves in the rain. They even gave me the Electric Avenue road sign that inspired the song. I’ve since found out that there are Electric Avenues all over the world: in Antigua, California, South Africa … there’s even one in Harrogate.
Frank Agarrat, sound engineer
I came to England from Trinidad as a child. It was so cold when we got off the boat at Southampton that my father wore two coats. I met Eddy through my sister. She was a backing singer and told me that he wanted some help to build a studio. We found an old studio under a pub in north London’s Stamford Hill and used it to set up the Coach House, the first black-owned recording studio in Europe. Then, when Eddy relocated to Barbados, I did the wiring and electronics for Blue Wave, where we did Electric Avenue.
Eddy played every instrument on it. He’d lay down a drum machine track, build up the melody, then take the drum machine off and play real drums in its place. The chorus – “Rock down to Electric Avenue” – suggested cars or motorcycles, so I looped a snare drum roll and distorted it, so it sounded like a revving motorbike.
We recorded at night, when the workmen had stopped and before the studio had been soundproofed. Not that noise was a problem – our only neighbours were monkeys – but we did have problems with machines malfunctioning. The tape would suddenly spew out of the machine for no reason. One night, nothing would work at all. Eventually it turned out that a rat had got in through the air-conditioning and eaten through the wires under the floor. We spent the rest of the night running around the studio trying to catch it.
I was with Eddy in Barbados recently when he told me he was going to visit Electric Avenue. I couldn’t believe it. I never knew it was a real street.