DERV GORDON OF THE EQUALS: I’VE GOT TO MOVE
illustration by jun ohnuki
The Equals were unstoppable for the best part—truly the best part!—of two decades, breaking out in 1966 with their classic “Baby Come Back” and zig-zagging through hit after cult-y hit until the end of the 1970s. In between, they took soul, r&b, rock, glam, proto-punk, disco and funk and transformed them into their own unequalled sound, bristling with hooks and driven by an absolutely relentless beat. They were a step ahead in everything, from the music they played to the way they dressed to who they were—uniquely a mixed-race band and a majority-immigrant band, too—and while founding member Eddy “Electric Avenue” Grant would find solo fame in the 80s, the Equals’ reputation among musicians and music fans grows stronger each generation. (Plenty of other bands covered the Clash, but the Clash covered the Equals.) Singer Derv Gordon performed his first-ever U.S. show in San Francisco in January and will now be making his L.A. debut this Fri., July 14, at the Echoplex. This interview by Brad Eberhard and Jun Ohnuki.
Derv Gordon: When I was about seven years old I came to the U.K. from Jamaica. My parents were already in the U.K. because my father was an engineer and had employment, and after a couple of years he decided he’d like to bring his family and stay in the U.K. and work. So by the time I was seven we were all living in the U.K. It was an incredible shock being from the Caribbean. I came in December and I’d never experienced cold before. When the plane landed in London I wanted to go back on the plane and they said, ‘Well, no—you can’t.’ It was so cold. All I had was a cardigan—my father had said he would send us a cardigan and we had no idea what a cardigan was so we consulted the Oxford dictionary of English—a shirt, short trousers, socks up to your knees, and shoes. I’d never seen snow before in my life, apart from in movies. We drove from the airport to our home in North London in a borough called Islington and it was snowing on the way there. What I thought fascinating were all the houses with three or four floors. Never seen that before. In Jamaica you’ve got bungalows, right? But also what was fascinating was there was smoke coming out of the tops of the buildings. I thought, ‘Holy crow—they’re on fire! Why are all these buildings on fire?!’ That was my first impression of England—of Europe really. As a seven-year-old it was fascinating stuff.
That’s very vivid. Did you find yourself part of a community of West Indian immigrants? What was the community like there?
Derv Gordon: In the neighborhood where I lived? No—there was one other child. He was a mixed-race child—his father was African—and there were no West Indians in the area where I lived. I went to a primary school and I was the only Black child.
Was that difficult?
Derv Gordon: No, it wasn’t difficult because I was treated particularly as something that was quite unique, really. One experience I had which was not pleasant was when one child asked me … After we had physical education you had to have a shower, and he wanted to see if I had a tail. I told him, ‘No—bugger off!’ They weren’t accustomed to having any association with a Black child. It was a purely boys school as well, so yeah—you learn to defend yourself. I’d had that all my life. It wasn’t anything new. I was born in Kingston, and from there we moved to a farm in the country and I started school. I was told there to go back to where I was from. Even though I’m Jamaican—but I wasn’t from that part of Jamaica. It’s something I’d experienced before anyway. But from then on things were fine.
Did that have any influence in terms of forming an interracial band? Or was that just a matter of coincidence because you were already buddies in school?
Derv Gordon: We weren’t, actually. Eddy Grant and Pat Lloyd and John Hall went to the same school, but myself and my brother went to a different school. We crossed paths because John Hall, the drummer, it was his idea to form a band—not necessarily an interracial band but to form a band. His mother thought it was a good idea because John was a bit of a loose cannon as a child and she thought it’d give him something positive to focus on. So word got around in the neighborhood. A friend of mine, his name was Eddie—not Eddy Grant—asked me was I interested in joining his band?
Were you known as a musician already?
Derv Gordon: No, actually. So I bought a guitar and my brother bought a guitar, and when we turned up for the first meeting, Eddy Grant was there. We’d never met before. So we decided that, ‘Yup, it’s a good idea we’d form a band.’ Eddy Grant was going to be the rhythm guitarist. My brother was going to be the other rhythm guitarist because we wanted two rhythm guitars instead of rhythm guitar and bass. And I wasn’t really interested in learning the guitar so I got rid of it, and they decided, ‘OK, if you’re not going to be the guitarist then you become the lead vocalist.’ I said ‘That’s fine with me!’ because I didn’t want to learn the guitar. And the first Eddie—not Grant—decided because he was more advanced in playing, that we should practice for a few months and get up to his standard.Then he would come back and take over as lead guitarist. We thought, ‘No … if you’re leaving… ’ He was more interested in girls than music. ‘If that’s where your interests lie, then no.’ Then I went to a youth club one night. I used to run with a little crowd of about fifteen or twenty guys of similar age and we’d go from youth club to youth club. We went to a youth club that was out of our neighborhood and of course we weren’t welcome and a skirmish broke out. I saw this guy standing there but he wasn’t involved in the skirmish, and I wasn’t involved either, so I started to talk to him. I said, ‘You know I’m a musician’—you know, as you do after two or three months. He said, ‘That’s odd because my father just bought me a guitar.’ ‘Well, we’re a guitarist short—would you like to join our band? We could learn as we go along.’ That was Pat Lloyd. And that’s the formation of the Equals.
On the edge of a fight!
Derv Gordon: Right—it wasn’t a conscious thing for us to be Black and white, it’s just we were Black and white. Later on we were told, ‘It’s never happened before, it’s not going to work. Blacks play with Blacks and whites play with whites.’ We thought … we’re friends, we know each other, we like each other. We enjoy doing this together.
You’ve said before you tried to be a blues band and it didn’t click, you tried to be a soul band and it didn’t click. How did the Equals’ sound click?
Derv Gordon: We played Chuck Berry and John Lee Hooker and that stuff because we were big fans of bands like the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, the Pretty Things—those sort of bands, you know? They were doing cover versions of a lot of rhythm and blues and soul. But we found that whenever we played their songs it just didn’t sound right—it didn’t feel right. We decided that we’re not going to be great blues musicians, we’re not going to be great soul artists … so the best thing to do is to start writing our own material and therefore people can’t say ‘You’re playing it badly!’ because it’s yours—so whichever way you play it, it’s got to be good, right?
It has such an original snap from the very first singles. It doesn’t sound like the Yardbirds or any English beat group.
Derv Gordon: You can see influences from other artists in our music and from other parts of the world. There’s the Caribbean thing in ‘Baby Come Back.’ It’s not solely pop. My father used to play a lot of ska stuff and then blue beat, so there’s that little bit of influence in there. Eddy Grant’s father was a musician as well—he’s from Guyana, so there’s this South American thing as well. Influence came from all sorts of directions, really. Then later on we found that writing your own stuff is more profitable because everything belongs to you—all the royalties or whatever. So there you are.
How much time was there between that initial decision to be a band and finding your own ideas and sound, writing your own music, and making the first record?
Derv Gordon: We did what I call our apprenticeship. We had an amateur manager—Lee Shepherd. He was an actor, he knew a lot of people in show business, and he would teach us … you know, stagecraft. Some of it worked, some of it didn’t. One of his great ideas was that I should wear dark glasses. After we were going for about two-and-a-half years we had a gig in a very famous venue at the time, the Bromley Court Hotel. We were supporting—believe it or not—Bo Diddley. The place was absolutely packed. Sweat was pouring from the ceiling, it was so hot. I came onstage with my with my dark glasses and the glasses steamed up and I couldn’t see and I fell off the stage! I thought, ‘No, this is not going to be my image.’ For a start, it’s somewhat painful … But he taught us a lot of stagecraft—not to turn your back to the audience and lots of little things people just take for granted. He’d get us gigs as well, and he knew people in TV and so on and he was a great influence on us. So after about three years … we were rehearsing one night at Eddy Grant’s house and a guy lived next door. His name was Gene Latter and he was a singer. His claim to fame is that he recorded a Rolling Stones song ‘Mother’s Little Helper’ and it got to number 30 or something in Belgium. To us that was fame: ‘Wow, this guy’s a super-mega star and he lives next door to Eddy!’ I’m not sure if it was ‘Baby Come Back’ or Hold Me Closer’ we were rehearsing. He knocked on the door and said, ‘That song that you’re playing—whose is it?’ ‘Well, it’s ours.’ ‘OK—I like that song. I’m a singer and I would like to record the song. I know a man and he owns a record company… his name is Eddie Kassner. I can get an appointment with him but you would have to come along and perform the song for me, and from that I think I could get a recording contract.’ We said, ‘Oh wow!’ because we’d tried a couple of record companies and sent them tapes but nothing came of it. A couple of days later he said, ‘I’ve got the meeting at President Records in Denmark Street,’ which was a very iconic street for music in the 60s—all the big music publishers were there. We went along and they took us to the basement of the building where President Records was and we set up. We had a Selmer 30-watt amplifier and a Selmer Little Giant. We had a drum kit and everything went through the Selmer 30-watt because it had four channels, and the Little Giant was for two guitars. We performed ‘Baby Come Back,’ ‘Hold Me Closer’ and I think ‘I Won’t Be There’ as well. The guy who owned President—Kassner—he said ‘You’re the singer, right? Well, this guy that brought you says that he wants to record the songs. I want you to record the songs.’ I said ‘Whoa!’ I felt a bit bad but not too bad—I wouldn’t have been involved in it if he was recording it, you see? And they were going to use session musicians anyway to back him and so we wouldn’t have been in it. But he says, ‘I like your style, I like the way you’re playing, and I want your band to record the songs. I need 10 to 12 songs. I’m going to America and it’s gonna take about three or four weeks. When I come back, do you think you will have 12 songs?’ We looked at each other and in unison, we lied and said ‘Yes.’ We had about seven songs. We thought, ‘Oh sh—holy crow, we’d better write another five songs!’ And that’s how we wrote Unequalled Equals.
So from the very beginning, your voice and your performance were essential—you sold the songs through your singing. But the guy that was supposed to be the vocalist …
Derv Gordon: He was a good singer. If you listen to ‘I Won’t Be There’ he’s doing backup vocals on that.
But your performance as well—you’re so active on stage and I assume you were like that at this audition. I can’t imagine the Equals without you in the front.
Derv Gordon: Yeah—we were doing clubs in those days that were pretty tough venues, you know. If you didn’t perform well, the audience would let you know in all sorts of different ways. Some people even got injured … And also we were doing what I call an apprenticeship in the All-Star Club, which was a predominantly Black club. There you’d get visits from Rod Stewart, Elton John and people like that—they’d come to this club and that’s how they learned their craft. We had a residency there. Every Saturday night they’d have a big American artist. People like Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Irma Thomas, Rufus Thomas. We were supporting these people but we wanted to prove ourselves. I remember we were supporting Wilson Pickett. At the time ‘Midnight Hour’ was number one in the U.K. charts—or up there in the top 10, anyway. We thought, ‘OK, we’re supporting Wilson Pickett, but we’re going to play this song before he comes on! How are we going to do the saxophone solo?’ ‘Oh, I know what I’ll do, I’ll get myself a kazoo!’ In this club you’ve got some serious tough guys! I’d seen them actually injure musicians they didn’t think were up to it! We did ‘Midnight Hour’ and got applause! [laughs] That’s the kind of cheek that we had!
What an apprenticeship!