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Eddy Grant: Electric Avenue

Reggae and pop singer Eddy Grant's most famous hit, Electric Avenue, was written in response to the 1981 Brixton riot. Although musically it sounded like a pop song, the lyrics related to the outrage he felt when tensions over poverty, racism and unemployment erupted into violence between protesters and the police.

Grant was a 33-year-old musician and vocalist, born in British Guyana, when the unrest erupted in Brixton in April 1981. He had moved to London with his parents at the age of 12. He came from a musical background, his father, Patrick, being a trumpet player.

Eddy Grant

Photo Credit: Stuart Sevastos

Grant learned to read and write music while at Acland Burghley Secondary Modern School in Tufnell Park and formed his first band, The Equals, in 1965, playing guitar and singing backing vocals. The band was a fusion of R&B, pop and rock music.

He was a big fan of American rock 'n' roller Chuck Berry, whose live gig at the Finsbury Park Astoria spurred Grant to follow a career in music.

 

Number one hit

The Equals had their first number one hit in 1968 with Baby Come Back, which was written by Grant. They had five more top 40 hits up until 1970. Police on My Back (a song from their Baby Come Back album) was covered by several other artists, including The Clash in 1980 and Willie Nile in 2006.

On 1st January 1971, at the age of 23, Grant suffered a shock heart attack, which caused him to rethink his priorities. He left The Equals and concentrated on producing records instead, launching his Coach House Studio in 1972 and Ice Records in 1974.

After launching his solo career in 1975, his album, Message Man, released in 1977, had little commercial success, despite Grant's talents - he played all the instruments himself.

 

Breakthrough

He made his breakthrough commercially in 1979 with the album, Walking on Sunshine, spawning a top 40 hit single, Living on the Frontline. He enjoyed more chart success with Do You Feel My Love in 1980 and two hit singles in 1981, Can't Get Enough of You and I Love You, Yes I Love You.

Moving to Barbados, he opened his own Blue Wave Studios. Ironically, the misery of the Brixton riot, when the Metropolitan police clashed with protesters, led to Grant's biggest hit since his days with The Equals.

He was horrified that the area he remembered from his youth had come to this and wrote Electric Avenue in recognition of the problems. Writing, producing and recording the song himself, he made it a meaningful lament. It was released in 1982 in the UK and 1983 in the US.

Electric Avenue is a real street in the south London district, so called because it was the first market street that was lit by electricity in the 1880s, when it was the height of Victorian grandeur. The Victorian shoppers were used to gas lighting, which was much dimmer, so they would have noticed a massive difference when electric lights arrived.

 

Lyrics

Grant's song emphasised what had become of the street since the days when it was one of London's most upmarket and modern shopping areas, telling his audience, "Down in the street there is violence and a lot of work to be done."

He touches on the reasons behind the riot, saying, "Workin' so hard like a soldier, can't afford a thing on TV," adding, "Deep in my heart, I'm a warrior," but, "Can't get food for the kids."

Despite the grim subject matter, Electric Avenue had a lively and catchy chorus and was a dance floor filler. The chorus had a more upbeat feel, relating to repairing the damage and restoring the area to its former glory, with lyrics such as, "We gonna rock down to Electric Avenue and then we'll take it higher!"

Electric Avenue was number two in the UK and the United States singles charts, with its video playing a crucial part in its success. Filmed in Barbados, it was a big hit on MTV!

 

Later career

Grant has continued to release albums and singles, but nothing has compared with the massive success of Electric Avenue. His last chart hit was Gimme Hope Jo'anna in 1988. The anti-apartheid single peaked at number seven in the UK.

Since the 1980s, the star has expanded his business interests to include a nightclub and music publishing, while building on the success of his Blue Wave Studio, which has been used by major stars including Cliff Richard, the Rolling Stones and Sting.

Now aged 70, Grant's last major live appearance in the UK was at Glastonbury Festival in 2008. In 2016, he won a lifetime achievement award from the government of Guyana.

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