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Blog - Frank Bangay

Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys: Some Belated Praise for the Equals

The Equals

The Equals (1968). Photograph: Nijs, Jac. de / Anefo via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0 NL)

Last year I bought a copy of a music magazine called Shindig. A magazine that covers music from past decades. The main focus often being on the 1960s. In particular, the psychedelic music that blossomed in the second half of the decade. My main reason for buying the magazine was for the article about the Yardbirds and their 1966 album Roger the Engineer. The article was advertised on the front cover. The Yardbirds are one of my favourite bands from that decade. However, a little way into the magazine was a seven page article on the Equals. Reading the article made me go to YouTube to listen to their work.

The Equals formed in 1965, they were a group of mates who lived on the same housing estate in Hornsey North London and attended the same school. They were the first mixed race band in Britain. Guitarist Eddy Grant came from Guyana, bass player Lincoln Gordon and singer Derv Gordon came from Jamaica, while guitarist Pat Lloyd and drummer John Hall both came from North London. The name the Equals seems to signify equality at a time when there was racial prejudice in schools and workplaces, and in accommodation.

In the 1960s there were a number of black singers working with white bands. Some examples being Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band, Herbie Goins and the Nightimers, Carl Douglas and the Big Stampede and the Mike Cotton Sound featuring Lucas. Then there was Jimmy James and the Vagabonds, a group of Jamaican musicians who came to England in 1964 and spent the rest of the decade playing soul music, building a big following with a mod audience. They didn’t have any hits but Jimmy James is a fine singer.

Jimmy Cliff came to England in 1965 and worked with a band called the Shakedown Sound. A band that included future members of Mott The Hoople in its line up. Some of the Spencer Davis Groups hits were written by Jamaican singer Jackie Edwards. When the Spencer Davis Group played at the Marquee Club Jimmy Cliff was often the support act. In this he built up a friendship with Stevie Winwood. Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames featured Ghanaian percussionist Speedy Acquaye, and sometimes Jamaican trumpet player Eddie Thornton who had played with the Skatalites, a Jamaican band who were popular during the ska days.

Georgie Fame also worked with ska legend Prince Buster. The first Savoy Brown Blues Band line up featured a black singer and a black drummer, and in 1967 another mixed race group called the Foundations started having hits in the pop charts. There is no doubt a lot more. But these are some examples of the racial interaction that took place in music during that decade.

In the early 1970s a number a black or mixed race bands emerged. They included Assagai, a group of musicians from Nigeria and South Africa, they were jazz influenced and their music was described as Afro Rock. Another band was Gonzales. Their music had a Latin influence. They were also quite funky. Then there was Osibisa.  For a while their music, which was described as criss-cross rhythms that explode with happiness, caught the imagination of a rock audience. They were signed to Bronze, a record label that featured a number of progressive rock bands. A couple of their album covers were designed by Roger Dean, a man who would go on to design album covers for Yes with his interesting artwork. Unfortunately, early British reggae bands like the Cimmerons and Matumbi didn’t seem to have many opportunities open to them. They often seemed relegated to covering current pop songs. It wasn’t until the mid seventies that these bands got a chance to express their voice. By that time a number of new reggae bands emerged on to the scene. They included Aswad, Steel Pulse, Misty in Roots, Black Slate and the Reggae Regulars. There is an excellent compilation, titled Don’t Call Us Immigrants that features a number of the British reggae artists from that time.

Anyway, back to the Equals. They signed to the President label and in 1966 released their first single titled I Won’t Be There. Their next single released in early 1967 was titled Give Love A Try. I have memories of hearing the song on pirate radio at the time and being greatly moved. Listening to the song again on YouTube, I am still greatly moved. The song speaks about many of the injustices taking place in the world. From a starving child in Africa, to a political prisoner in Russia, to a lonely pensioner in England who is too frightened to speak to his neighbours. The message being to give love a try. Sentiments that were relevant then and are still relevant today. Derv Gordon delivers a soulful vocal; musically there is a Jimmy Hendrix influence. The singles continued to flow. There was My Life Ain’t Easy also from 1967, then in 1968 came a song called I Get So Excited. Between 1967 and 1970 the Equals released seven albums. They wrote their own material and were extremely prolific.

After watching television appearances by the Equals on YouTube, many from the German television show Beat Club, I am amazed by the excitement and enthusiasm of the performances they delivered. Watching singer Derv Gordon with his spirited growl I started thinking of Toots Hilbert from Jamaican group the Maytals. He may not be like Toots as I only saw the Maytals live once and that was a long time ago, 1974 I think. However, it is a compliment to Derv Gordon that he made me think of Toots and the Maytals. Behind him the rest of the band are enjoying themselves, Eddy Grant, Lincoln Gordon and Pat Lloyd swinging their guitars about, while John Hall beats out a primal rhythm on the drums. Musically, they mixed together rhythm and blues, pop music, bubblegum, garage, rock, blue beat and deep soul in their sound. The writer of the article in Shindig Magazine described them as being a cross between the Spencer Davis Group and the 1910 Fruitgum Company, I liked the idea of this. The 1910 Fruitgum Company were a band who were part of the American bubblegum movement that blossomed in the late 1960s.

In 1968, following I Get So Excited, the band released another single. It was titled Baby Come Back. It is an exciting number that has an irresistible chugging groove and winning guitar line. As the song nears the end of the verses you can hear Eddy Grant behind Derv Gordon’s vocals singing “alright ok” over and over. As the song nears the end Derv Gordon slips into Jamaican patois saying “alright rude boy”. The song got to number one in the British pop charts giving President Records their only number one hit. The hits continued, there was The Child like Michael and The Slipper Tree, Viva Bobby Joe became an anthem on the football terraces, dedicated to the then England captain Bobby More, as Viva Bobby More. Soul Brother Clifford is the story of a young man called Clifford who plays a funky organ in church. The song conquering up the spirit of a Caribbean church. Eddy Grant sometimes dyed his hair blond and sometimes would wear a woman’s blond wig.

While they were having these pop hits there was another side to the Equals’ work, an example being a 1967 single titled The Police Are On My Back. A song that the Clash would record at the end of the 1970s. The song was written from the point of view of a fugitive, but the sentiments would have had a relevance for black youth in the 1970s with the oppressive suss laws. The video used to promote the song was unfortunately speeded up, making the song sound like a comedy number. Eddy Grant was also venturing into rock steady as a writer and a producer. One example of this was Train Tour to Rainbow City for the Pyramids, he also wrote Rough Rider for Prince Buster, and he set up the Torpedo label to promote British reggae of that time.

In 1970 came Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys. Musically this is a pioneering piece of British funk, lyrically it relates to how things were in those times, with skinhead youth listening to reggae and identifying with the way black youth of the time were dressing. Black skinned blue eyed boys ain’t gonna fight no more wars. The sentiments were relevant to the two tone movement that started at the end of the 1970s, also to the rock against racism movement from the latter part of that decade.

During 1970, while the band was on tour in Germany they were involved in a car crash. Eddy Grant in particular was badly injured and had to stay in hospital in Germany. On returning to England he then suffered from a heart attack and a collapsed lung and was hospitalised again. On recovering he decided to leave the Equals as a touring band, however he continued to write and record with the band. While the band didn’t have any more hits, the singles continued. One song Stand Up And Be Counted again showed the militant side to the band’s work. In 1975 the Equals released another album titled Born Ya.

Eddy Grant set up his own label, Ice records. He also set up his own studio in his home in Stamford Hill, North London. In 1976 he produced an album called Feel The Rhythm for Jamaican vocal group the Pioneers.  He started recording his own albums and in 1979 had a hit with a song called Living On The Front Line. More hits would follow including Electric Avenue, a song about a street in the centre of Brixton. He then moved to Barbados where he set up Blue Wave studios producing local artists. The rest of the Equals didn’t have any more hits but carried on performing and recording. However, the Equals legacy lives on. As well as the Clash, The Police Are On My Back has been recorded by Willie Nile. The Detroit Cobras recorded another Equals song called Green Light, in 1994 Baby Come Back was a number one hit for reggae artist Pato Banton. The Equals music and television performances are on YouTube waiting to be discovered and enjoyed.

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Richard Downes

wasnt it jimmy james who did breaking down the walls of heartache – but maybe as jimmy james and the bandwagon?

Richard Downes

nope that was johnny johnson and the bandwagon. memory and tricks