Hard Work on Electric Avenue (November 2023)

Today I want to talk to you about working hard, and about doing hard work, and how those are not quite the same thing. Before I do that, however, I want to clear something up. I think I may have given you the impression that in my free time I do nothing but read – if you think about that at all, I think some of you have the impression that I sling a hammock in my office and sleep here. I do, however, get out and about, and sometimes on my travels I listen to a podcast. My favourite right now is called “Add to Playlist”. This is hosted by Jeffrey Boakye and Cerys Matthews and each episode, joined by two skilled musicians, they construct a playlist of five songs, each leading on from one to the next. As you know, I’m fond of a good link, a serendipitous segue, and so this enchants me. It also teaches me a lot, because in making their links they eschew such ideas as “songs by the same artist”, or “heteronormative love songs” and instead pull the music apart, examining the chords, the intervals, the instrumentation, the time signature – they make listening hard work because you’re not just letting the tune wash over you, you’re thinking hard about what’s going on. And thinking hard about whatever you’re doing is a good discipline, a good way to learn – the only way to learn, in fact – if what you’re doing isn’t hard work then you’re probably not learning much.

Anyway, as a result of these five songs per episode, I come across some eclectic and charming music, one example of which is the Pyramids’ debut record “Train tour to Rainbow City”. Now, I’m going to be surprised if any of you have heard of the Pyramids, never mind Train tour, but I recommend it to you as an example of the introduction of ska to British society. The link to the previous song, by the way, was the pa-pa beat you get if you have music in triplets, but only sound the first two.

On the record, the song is credited to Edmond Grant who was nineteen when it came out, a songwriter and producer whose own band, the Equals had had a number one hit with “Baby Come Back” – also written by Grant. In the late 1960s, teenaged Eddy was working hard, performing with his band, writing and producing for other acts, making the best use of his time. Working hard, putting the hours in, doing more than the minimum – and also doing hard work: these songs aren’t just rushed off, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, some dodgy rhymes and a melodic hook – they’re innovative, fusing ska, reggae, pop and blues with an apparently unlimited energy.

A quick look back over Eddy Grant’s youth – he was born in Guyana, on the north coast of South America and I can’t let this slip by without taking the opportunity to give you one minute on Guyana. Guyana is one of three small slices of South America north of Brazil and east of Venezuela between the mouths of the Amazon and the Orinoco. The other two are French Guiana and Suriname – which used to be part of the Dutch empire. Guyana is the westernmost of the three and was, until 1966 a British colony. It is dominated by impenetrable rainforest which makes it one of the least densely populated countries on earth – slightly more people per square mile than Mongolia or Australia but about the same as Libya and Iceland. Back to Eddy, however, whose parents went to London to find work and sent money home to pay for his education. In 1960, he crossed the Atlantic to join them, living in Kentish Town at the far end of the Northern Line from us.

He learned to play music, formed the Equals with friends from school, and that takes us through to 1971 when he suffered a heart attack and collapsed lung, still only 23 years old. Fortunately for us all, he survived, but it ended his time with the Equals – instead he spent the 70s on some rather unsuccessful solo work, learned to tap-dance and act, and, of course, produced music for other bands. April 1981 came round and the story isn’t at the far end of the northern line any more because in that month there were riots in Brixton – the result of racial tensions, abuse of stop and search by the police, economic recession, and a suspicious house fire that killed 13 young adults. Estimates suggest that 5000 people were involved in the disturbances, 300 injured (mostly police) and 82 arrested. The subsequent report pushed for the met to employ more non-white officers and to make community engagement a priority. Eddy Grant wrote an angry song and went to Barbados. His songs got lost with his luggage during the journey and, showing remarkable response to what must have been heartbreaking circumstances he settled down to write some replacements. One of the first to be written was a song about the Brixton riots and the impact of the recession on the Afro-Caribbean community– the opening lyric is “Now in the streets there is violence and a lot of work to be done.” This song is not obscure – it’s called Electric Avenue, named after the road that runs by the tube station – the first market street in the UK to be lit by electricity.

When you listen to it – and I hope that you will – I expect you to listen hard: what can you hear going on beneath the lyrics of social justice and local landmarks? Well, I’m no expert in this area – I usually rely on Cerys and Jeffrey, but I haven’t heard their analysis of this one so I went to the internet and found a site called hooktheory.com which claims that Electric Avenue is in the key of A, but the mixolydian version which has G natural instead of G sharp. On the site you can get it to play through common chord progressions in this key signature and maybe even put together your own hit. I, however, have more Eddy Grant to tell you about and must crack on.

Well, he’s still alive, still making music (although at the age of 75 he’s slowed down from those heady days of the late 60s), he’s been given a souvenir Electric Avenue sign, received a lifetime achievement award from Guyana, sued Donald Trump for using one of his songs without permission and refuses to allow Spotify to play his music on the grounds of how they pay artists. He has, however, not matched the success of Electric Avenue and I Don’t Want to Dance, released at the same time. Well, almost, because that’s not quite true – there’s a rather glorious coda to his pop success – and it came in 1988 with a song that only the most oblivious would think was an ode to a girl he knew. I, in all honesty, was that oblivious and actually thought he wanted the object of his affection, Joanna, to give him hope that they might get together. This is despite the first line “Well Jo’anna she runs a country, she runs in Durban and the Transvaal. She makes a few of her people happy, she don’t care about the rest at all.” This obviously (to everyone but me) anti-apartheid song was immediately banned in South Africa but was a hit round the rest of the world and has become the song Eddy Grant is best known for, and is most proud of.

Meanwhile, I was studying History GCSE and getting on the wrong side of my teacher (who didn’t like smart alec mathematicians). We weren’t looking at apartheid or race tensions in London because that was news rather than history in the 1980s (there’s a good argument that it still is) – we were looking at the agricultural, industrial and transport revolutions of 18th century England and I was bored. Bored and not liking your teacher is not a good combination for academic success, but I wasn’t going to let history beat me and so I worked hard – spent more hours on history than my other subjects (which came fairly easily) – and I did hard work. I didn’t sit looking at a textbook, or spend time rewriting my notes, or highlighting a text – I memorised facts and dates, and wrote them out and covered them up and tested myself. I wrote essays and got my long-suffering mother to read them through and point out where I didn’t make sense and wrote them again. I listened in class, and made notes that made sense of what was being said. I worked hard, I did hard work, and my History GCSE is probably the qualification I’m proudest of as a result. It didn’t come easy.

Which brings us back to where I started, which is fortunate because I’m running out of time, having spent rather longer on the remarkable Mr Grant than I intended. You’re the same age he was when he started his pop career – are you working as hard as him? Are you working hard on the hardest bits of the work? Are you using all five hours of each subject’s prep and reflection time to stretch your abilities as far as you can, learn as much as you can, produce the best work that you can? That’s the way to achieve what you want from life – that’s the way to make something you can be proud of, something you can look at and say “I did my best work there.” Work hard – and do hard work.

The other lesson from Eddy Grant, I think, is not to make excuses from circumstance – he faced heart attack by learning to tap dance, lost his songs and wrote new ones, better ones. Life is bumpy and you need to make the best of it – your response to adversity is what shapes you, what sets your direction, what makes the difference to the person you are. That and doing hard work.


1. More thoughts on music and apartheid in Art and Artifice

2. Inspiration from Brixton in Humanity

3. A link to Add to Playlist