In October 2016, Eddy Grant did the honours at the illumination of a spectacular street sign high above Brixton’s Electric Avenue, an event marking the end of a million pound refurbishment of the longstanding market street.
The neon sign was entirely appropriate, as Electric Avenue was the first street market in London to be lit by electricity. Grant, meanwhile, was picked because of his 1982 song of the same name, a #2 hit in the US and the UK.
But the origins of the song weren’t exactly celebratory. Grant wrote the number as a reaction to the Brixton riots of the previous year, a musical statement on the two days of burning and looting in the area.
“Electric Avenue” was a far from straightforward declaration on the matter. The lyrics appeared largely upbeat, but it’s in their ambiguity that the song became one of the most intriguing commentaries on Brixton at that time. Rather than the finely observed, emotionally involved hymns to the area by current and former residents like Linton Kwesi Johnson or the Clash, “Electric Avenue” was an outsider’s take, albeit an outsider familiar with Brixton and what it meant both to its residents and in a broader perspective.
Although Grant’s home and studio were in north London, he was never one to promote the River Thames as The Great Divide: The first record label he set up, Torpedo Records, played an active part in a Brixton theatre group in the 1960s, the same decade in which he regularly gigged there with his group the Equals. Grant called Brixton “the capital of black life in London, maybe even England,” but he also saw it as being much more than that – the theatre company he worked with nearly 50 years ago was proudly multi-racial, and had called itself the Dark & Light Theatre.
Grant has maintained he picked the words “Electric Avenue” as the basis of the main lyrical hook because the syllables scanned easily, giving it all sorts of songwritery potential. While choosing the title may well have been as simple as that, I’ve known Eddy Grant for years so I’m certain turning it into a fully-formed subject would have been a far more considered process. Indeed, by chopping the stanzas up, almost to the point of sloganeering – “Workin’ so hard like a soldier / Can’t afford a thing on TV / Deep in my heart I’m a warrior / Can’t get food for them kid, good God” – he’s making outsider’s observations, unconcerned with specialist local knowledge or precisely-angled storytelling. Grant’s social commentary always left plenty of room for interpretation, allowing anyone to feel involved.
In Brixton, Electric Avenue is more than just a landmark, it’s the beating heart of the area.
The masterstroke was to capture the essence of Electric Avenue in lyrics that sound like a series of overheard snatches of conversation, turns of phrase anybody would expect to be catching as they strolled down a bustling market street – all that’s missing are shouts of “Lovely plantain and green banana” or “I’m not asking ten pounds, I’m not even asking five pounds.” It neatly contextualizes what a cross-section of ordinary local people thought about what had happened in Brixton. Concern rather than condoning or condemning; the stoic acceptance that life must go on regardless; then the entirely cheerful notion that the true spirit of the area should and would prevail: “We’re gonna rock down to Electric Avenue / And then we’ll take it higher.”
It was precisely the right shade of optimism to give the song’s messages the mass appeal needed for a worldwide hit without diluting the sentiment; and, perhaps most crucially, to hit home with the locals. In Brixton, Electric Avenue is more than just a landmark, it’s the beating heart of the area – in the 1981 riots it remained untouched while adjacent streets burned. In 2016, as the new sign lit up the cold rainy October evening, the song’s opening bars rang out and Eddy Grant looked visibly moved as he stood back from the mic and the packed crowd of appreciative Brixtonites enthusiastically took over the vocals.