Longform: Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys: The Story of Pioneering Interracial Rock Band the Equals21 de julho, 2016
Eddy Grant can’t keep from smiling. It’s 1967, and the 19-year-old Londoner is standing on the set of the popular German television show “Beat-Club” with his bandmates in the Equals, miming the group’s debut single. The Grant-penned tune, “I Won’t Be There,” is a bouncy pop anthem spiked with bursts of brass and lead singer Derv Gordon’s spirited growl. Grant provides backup vocals as he bashes away gleefully at the guitar; next to him, Derv’s twin brother Lincoln and fellow member Pat Lloyd dance along, while drummer John Hall throws down a primal rhythm. Like a playground taunt amped up to the-Who-meets-James-Brown extremes, “I Won’t Be There” is simple and catchy—a harder, tougher, more soulful iteration of the upbeat bubblegum rock that had just begun to manifest in the mid-’60s. But with its refrain of “I won’t be there, I won’t be there!/I’ll be gone, but you don’t care!” it’s also a song about the pain of being underappreciated if not erased—a sentiment that would prove prophetic.
“I Won’t Be There” was released nearly 50 years ago, at the end of 1966, an auspicious year for British singles: The Beatles’ “Paperback Writer,” the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black,” the Who’s “Substitute,” the Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon,” the Creation’s “Making Time,” and Dusty Springfield’s “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” all came out that year, along with many other classics. The Equals, however, are rarely counted among that company. Despite massive hooks and enthusiastic support from pirate radio, “I Won’t Be There” flopped in the UK upon its release, though the band gained a cult following in continental Europe—particularly Germany—as well as in Africa, where the Equals toured at a time when very few British groups ventured there.
The reason for the Equals’ initial lack of success in their home country is a matter of speculation, but one thing is for sure: The band stood out. They were the first major interracial rock group in the UK, predating the Foundations (“Build Me Up Buttercup”) and Hot Chocolate (“You Sexy Thing”), and even getting the jump on America’s first conspicuously mixed-race band, Sly and the Family Stone (not counting forerunners like Booker T. & the M.G.’s, whose status as an interracial band wasn’t played up). On top of that, the black members of the Equals—Grant and the Gordon twins—were immigrants in England at a time when it was absorbing a large influx of people from its former colonies. The Gordons came to London from Jamaica, while Grant emigrated from Guyana, a Caribbean country near the top of South America, in 1960 at the age of 12. Guyana gained its independence from Great Britain in May 1966, a few months before “I Won’t Be There” was released—and while Grant’s lyrics don’t overtly reference that watershed event, it’s easy to imagine the song’s declaration of romantic independence having a deeper resonance to its writer.
Eventually Grant did become famous for an explicit political statement—his 1982 solo hit “Electric Avenue,” a reaction to the 1981 Brixton riot that saw police officers pitted against black residents and protesters in the African-Caribbean community of Lambeth, South London. Grant’s work with the Equals, however, was inherently radical, even when singing about bubblegum topics like burning love and going out on Saturday nights. Long before the UK’s Brexit vote legitimized the nation’s anti-immigrant constituency and America’s most recent wave of police brutality necessitated the worldwide Black Lives Matter movement, the Equals embodied the idea that blacks and whites, natives and immigrants, belonged together. Every photo of the five men standing together in a magazine or on a record was a statement.
Grant was born in the Guyanese village of Plaisance, the son of a trumpeter. The family was poor, but music filled their home. Grant would listen to his dad play on the radio as part of an orchestra. “My father would dedicate a song to his children and his wife,” he told a German interviewer in 2007. “That was the greatest thing to me.” The young Grant soon began stealing the trumpet from under his father’s bed at night; on Sundays he’d use the horn as a wake-up call.
When the family moved to London in 1960, the 12-year-old Grant had dreams of becoming a surgeon. But his father’s trumpet kept calling to him, and soon he was given lessons on the horn, becoming good enough to join his school orchestra. That led to a slot in a student trad-jazz combo, which mostly played school dances.
The big bang of the Beatles inspired Grant to switch to guitar, building his first one in woodworking class. “So many of the guitar players then were morons,” he explained to Creem in 1984. “I thought, I could do that.” He studied rockers like Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones—plus soul artists such as Stevie Wonder, Wilson Pickett, and Solomon Burke—while still harboring a deep love for the calypso he grew up on.
One day while still learning to master his guitar, Grant was summoned to a jam session at drummer John Hall’s house, and that roomful of instrument-wielding boys began making a ruckus on a regular basis. Speaking to Blues & Soul in 2008, Grant remembered it as “that sort of noisy affair with lots and lots of people trying to shout over each other.” After the initial rush of such rabble rousing wore off, Grant took Hall aside. “I said, ‘This is all well and good, but it ain’t going nowhere,’” he recalled in a Mojo interview. “‘Do you want it to be a group?’ ‘Yeah, I’d like it to be a group.’ ‘Well let’s put it together.’”
Neighborhood kids Pat Lloyd and the Gordon twins were soon pulled into the fold. A repertoire of cover songs was built up. Before long, Grant was pushed into writing his own material—but only reluctantly. “I thought, ‘Write? Write what? There are so many great songs. What am I going to be doing writing?’” he said in 2007. But then a friend named Gus bolstered his confidence. “He said to me, ‘If people can like what Bob Dylan writes, I’m sure you’re intelligent enough to write better songs than that.’ And I thought, I don’t know who the hell this Bob Dylan is, but if Gus says that I can write songs…” After several aborted attempts, Grant wrote his first “real” song, which turned out to be “I Won’t Be There.”
Hall came up with the band’s forthright, powerful name. “I do feel it was a very necessary group for the time, because neither England nor anywhere else had one like it!” Grant told Blues & Soul. Being a interracial band in London may not have been the norm in the ’60s, but there was already a melting pot going on. As Jon Stratton notes in his book When Music Migrates: Crossing British and European Racial Fault Lines, 1945–2010, “In the immediate post-Second World War period, while they would have preferred white European migrants, the British and French accepted, and sometimes encouraged, migrants from their colonies as a way of supplying their countries’ labour needs.”
Jamaican music filtered into England’s mainstream white culture starting with “My Boy Lollipop,” a 1964 hit by the Jamaican immigrant Millie Small. The song helped kick off a wave of ska, pop, and R&B known as bluebeat, which took its name from London’s Blue Beat Records (much in the same way the 2 Tone label came to identify England’s entire ska-revival genre in the late ’70s and early ’80s).
The Equals didn’t play ska, but they brought a Caribbean flavor—as well as a Jamaican accent, courtesy of Derv—to British beat music. This can be heard in the calypso lilt of “Look What You’ve Done to My Daughter,” the rubbery, rocksteady bass line of “Laurel and Hardy,” and the upbeat-pounding final chorus of “Baby Come Back,” which pushes the song momentarily into ska territory. The cry of “rude boy!”—Jamaican slang for stylish, rebellious youth, a term very much in currency in England in the ’60s (and today)—that appears at the end of “Baby Come Back” drives home just how open and proud the Equals were of their collective mixed heritage. The song became their biggest hit, selling more than a million copies in Britain and even sneaking into the Billboard Top 40 in the United States in 1968.
But regardless of the attraction white Britons had developed for the music of their immigrant neighbors, racial tensions persisted. The passage of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962 narrowed the door for would-be immigrants, causing Labour Party leader Hugh Gaitskell to call the act “cruel and brutal anti-colour legislation.”
For his part, Grant remembers the good as well as the bad. “The cultural change from Guyana to England was a helluva step,” he toldBlues & Soul. “Because in Guyana you lived in a little house and you had a whole village to play in. Whereas in England you were living in a basement—and a cold one at that!—with only the streets to play in! It took some getting used to! Looking back, I guess I lost something and I gained something.”
In Lloyd Bradley’s Sounds Like London: 100 Years of Black Music in the Capital, Grant elaborated, saying, “The English environment was extremely dark [in the ’60s], musically and in every other [way]. I remember there being really only two colours in England—brown and cream—all the houses were painted like that. It was the West Indians that basically… brought colour to England.”
That color wasn’t just musical, but sartorial too. “The Equals personified the Caribbean in dress,” Grant continued. “People talk about Bowie and Marc Bolan as having changed the dress code of then-current popular music and culture, but the Equals were really there first.” While every other band the Equals played with during their early days wore dark suits, Grant and company wore “lime greens and pinks and blues and yellows, things that were unheard of on the stage in England in pop music,” he recalled. “When they saw us in our brightly coloured uniforms they laughed. They didn’t know what was really happening. There was going to be a massive change in the way people looked at black people from there on.”
Jimi Hendrix’s arrival in London in September 1966 to form his own flamboyantly dressed, interracial band—just as the Equals were gearing up for their debut single—surely contributed to that sea change in England. But so did Grant’s practice of dying his Afro bright yellow and occasionally wearing a blond woman’s wig on top of that—a pre-glam flash of identity fluidness that bent expectations of both gender and race.
The rise of Black Power in the late ’60s changed everything for the Equals. There had been hints of social consciousness in their music, most notably in “Police on My Back,” sung from the perspective of a fugitive whose culpability in a murder is ambiguously summed up in the clever line “What have I done?”—which can be read as either an admission of guilt or innocence. The song’s promotional video downplayed the harrowing subject matter; in it, the band scampers around dressed as constables, with the film sped-up comically, like a cross between the Keystone Kops and Benny Hill.
“Mainstream white teenagers who bought beat group songs were used to lyrics about girls, and love and its complexities,” Stratton points out in his book. “In 1967 they were not used to songs about killing and being chased by police.” The Equals were effectively code-switching between two audiences—immigrant rude boys and white pop fans—in the same song, if not the same line. “[We] were caught in the middle by virtue of being a mixed band,” Grant said inSounds Like London. “There was this thing in the air that there was going to be a change.”
That thing came to a head in 1970 with the Mangrove Nine. Starting in 1969, the Mangrove—a Caribbean restaurant in London’s Notting Hill—became the target of police raids due to its hosting of community activists and radicals (although the pretext was said to be drug trafficking). With the aid of the Black Panthers, the Mangrove organized a demonstration in August 1970. It led to the arrest of nine protest leaders, dubbed the Mangrove Nine, who were acquitted after a highly publicized trial the following year. Along with the passage of the Conservative-sponsored Immigration Act of 1971, which strengthened the restrictions of its 1962 predecessor, the Mangrove Nine trial laid bare the nation’s institutional racism and xenophobia.
The Equals rose to the challenge. While still playing fun, stomping, nonsensical bubblegum earworms such as “Rub a Dub Dub” (about taking a bath) and “Michael and the Slipper Tree” (about a magical, shoe-growing tree), the group switched gears and unleashed its most powerful single: “Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys.” Up to that point, Grant and crew had completely glanced past psychedelia and progressive rock, two of the big innovations in English pop music at the time. But they couldn’t escape the gravitational pull of one of the era’s other potent musical movements: funk. “Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys” hit the shelves in 1971, and it sounds like a band reborn. “OK, I’m loosened up now, children!” Derv exclaims at the start of the song, as if to announce that the Equals weren’t going to be doing stiff dance steps to basic, metronomic beats anymore.
True to Derv’s word, the song launches itself into an unrelenting groove. The band’s travels through Africa seem to have made an impression; the rhythm is intricate and syncopated, the kind of beat that might be easy to get lost in if it wasn’t snapping so hard. Grant’s heavily distorted, proto-punk guitar solo—long a staple of the Equals’ sound—is now steeped in hard soul, like something out of the Temptations toolbox, only stripped down and pulverized into something far more furious and elemental.
“You see, the black skin blue eyed boys, they ain’t gonna fight no wars,” Derv sings, delivering Grant’s lyrics with passion, picturing a new world where interracial love and togetherness has broken all barriers. “They ain’t got no country/They ain’t go no creed/People won’t be black or white/The world will be half-breed.” What would be hateful words from a white supremacist’s lips are turned into a glorious prophecy for the human race—made by a band who walked it like they talked it. When “Top of the Pops” asked Grant to change the lyrics to something a little less revolutionary before allowing the Equals to perform the song on television, he refused. After years of letting their name and biracial lineup speak for themselves, the Equals finally owned their identity. With a vengeance.
Interviewed by the NME in 1971, just as “Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys” climbed to #9 in the British singles chart, Hall admitted, “There’s a different feel about us now. In the old days we used to do bubblegum. We’re still doing Equals music, still trying to entertain—but these days we care a bit more.” Or as Bradley asserts in Sounds Like London, “‘Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys’ was the first recognizably black British statement—a song that saw itself as being [English] in both words and music, and announced that London’s indigenous black soul music was entirely self-sufficient.”
The single turned out to be the Equals’ peak—and Grant’s swansong. On New Year’s Day 1971, the teetotaling, drug-abstaining vegetarian was blindsided by a heart attack and a collapsed lung. Still in his early twenties, he was faced with the prospect of retirement from the music business. “I was 23 years old and probably the fittest I have ever been, so you can imagine what a shock it was to me, to find out that I was not as strong as I looked,” Grant recalled in 2006. “It made me as weak as an old man overnight, and I was forced to reappraise my life and what future lay ahead.”
Speaking to Mojo, he added, “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.”
Facing reality, Grant left the band and retreated to his grandmother’s house in Guyana. The Equals continued without him and gradually incorporated more funk and reggae into their sound, culminating in their 1976 album Born Ya. Unlike the band’s full-lengths in the ’60s, which were mostly collections of singles strung together with lesser cuts, Born Ya was a fully realized LP—but minus Grant, it lacked most of the band’s signature hooks and fire. The Equals became just another one-hit wonder of the ’60s, if they were remembered at all.
But the Equals’ legacy crept on. The 2 Tone revival bands of the late-’70s such as the Specials and the English Beat touted their own interracial rosters, and echoes of the Equals remained: The English Beat covered a ’60s hit by the ska legend Prince Buster called “Rough Rider,” which just so happened to have been written by Grant soon after the Equals became known.
Meanwhile, the Equators, Stiff Records’ all-black ska-revival outfit, released a version of “Baby Come Back” in 1980, produced by Grant, who had reemerged as a label head, studio owner, and solo artist following his health scare. That same year, the Clash clocked in with their rendition of “Police on My Back.” Combined with Grant’s solo hit “Electric Avenue,” the attention should have brought a frenzy of fresh interest to the Equals—but it didn’t. In the U.S., where “Electric Avenue” spent five weeks at #2 on the Billboard chart, the Equals remained all but unknown; in Europe, the Grant-less band became staples of the nostalgia circuit, where they still play regularly.
The band’s songs have been covered by modern artists ranging from grime MC Lethal Bizzle to Spanish guitar-pop band Amparanoia to punks the Detroit Cobras, and Blood Orange mastermind Dev Hynes, himself of Guyanese descent, recently cited Grant as a foundational influence on his own boundary-smashing work. And yet, a half century after its release, “I Won’t Be There” still rings with an unintended double meaning.
The Equals—despite their groundbreaking lineup, not to mention the enduring grit and sweetness of their songs—have largely vanished from pop culture’s consciousness. But every band since the ’60s that’s ever mixed black and white members, or raw riffs with jingle-like melodies, or political outspokenness with dancefloor-filling force, owes them a little something. “Pop music requires a certain bravado, a certain upfront, in-your-face kind of attitude, and the Equals had that,” Grant justifiably boasted in Sounds Like London. “From a cultural standpoint there’s never been anything like the Equals.”
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