DERV GORDON OF THE EQUALS: I’VE GOT TO MOVE
illustration by jun ohnuki
Derv Gordon: We felt that nothing could stand in our way that we couldn’t demolish if we wanted to, and that was the attitude that we had.
It sounds like it worked!
Derv Gordon: From thereon the album Unequalled Equals was released in the U.K. and, oddly enough we’ve got a reputation as the one of the first bands to have a top ten album before they have a top 10 single. Unequalled Equals got to number eight in the U.K. album charts and it was a big hit on the continent in Germany, Holland, Belgium, and so on. We went off to Germany to do shows like Beat Club, which was a huge TV show shown all over Europe—you had to have a record in the charts in Germany in order to get onto Beat Club. There was a disc jockey in Bremen where Beat Club was recorded, and he had a famous club where the artists that performed on Beat Club would go after recording the show—the usual free drinks and free everything else that you want. On ‘Baby Come Back’ the A side was ‘Hold Me Closer.’ ‘Baby Come Back’ was the B-side. But he thought ‘Baby Come Back’ was the stronger track and he started playing it. And whatever he played disc jockeys from around Germany would pick up on. ‘Baby Come Back’ got into the German top 10 and was there for quite some time, and then gradually worked its way over to the U.K. So after it was a hit in Germany it took about six months before it became a hit in the U.K. Everything worked in sort of reverse, really.
I’ve seen some of the footage from Beat Club and you have amazing outfits.
Derv Gordon: Yeah! [laughs] Some were truly amazing.
I enjoy how active you are on Facebook with all the memorabilia, photos, magazine clippings—I’ve been impressed by how you were presenting yourselves. You have a look and it changes, but it always looks great!
Derv Gordon: It was natural because not only did we dress that way onstage, that’s how we’d dress in normal life. I had purple suits, yellow suits, pink suits … it was unheard of for a man to be wearing a pink suit in the city. I don’t know about the U.S. but in the U.K. if a man wore pink he was considered to be gay, for some odd reason. But being from the Caribbean as well, I just love bright colors. In the Caribbean you have all these beautiful flowers—the women would dress in colorful clothes and the men as well. But when we came to England everything was gray. I asked my dad for a blue suit and he thought I was crazy. He bought me a black suit. I’ve hated black suits ever since! [laughs]We were very conscious of the clothes that we wore, and of the cars that we drove as well.
You brought so much color and panache and style—it was ahead of its time. Before glam and—
Derv Gordon: —that’s right. I had two crazy tailors. One was just off Carnaby Street. I didn’t buy stuff from Carnaby Street because whatever you saw they would make hundreds of them, and I never wanted my stuff to look like anyone else’s. I would go in the morning and give him an idea for a design and color and he would say, ‘Come back tomorrow morning and pick it up.’ I had another tailor that was local to where I grew up; they were Italians and they made my suits. I would go in, get measured, choose the material—they had colored materials which was very unusual for the U.K. They would have pink material, mauve, green … and I would choose all these materials to have suits. But you wouldn’t just have one made—you’d have two or three in similar style. So we were very conscious about our clothes, yes. It had to be colorful and it had to make people want to look at you. When I met my wife, I was wearing a mauve suit. I met her outside of a huge train station and she took one look at me and turned around to run away [laughs]. A guy wearing a mauve suit and what we called Cuban shoes—all our boots were handmade as well. The heels were were extended to make me look taller because I’m only 5’4”. She just didn’t want to walk down the road with me wearing an outfit like that. But that’s how we were. I was driving a white sports car as well, which was unusual. From the sports car I bought my first Aston Martin, white with tinted windows which was unusual. Everything about us was unusual.
Distinctive. The attention to detail, tailoring, and custom-made stuff reminds me of things from the Mod scene. Did that have an influence on you? Or was it the entertainers you saw—the American giants who you apprenticed with?
Derv Gordon: No, and we never actually collaborated on clothes. Eddy would have his outfits, my brother Lincoln would have his outfits … John was a really snappy dresser as well. Even though he was English and brought up in England he was into colors. We never really discussed it. A lot of things we would think alike, you know. In our music, in our clothes, where to go, the types of cars—we were a five-man unit, really. A lot of bands play together but they’re not mentally or physically or anything together. But we just seemed to be the right people to be amongst each other.
You were a style and music machine.
Derv Gordon: I’m going to be honest—I never really admired the way American artists dressed. I was never knocked out by all that Motown stuff, no. [laughs] It didn’t really say anything, you know? London at the time was ‘anything goes.’ We grew up in the 60s and there’s never been a time like that—we believed that anything goes. In the 50s people would be ‘yes sir, no sir,’ masters and servants and all that. But in the 60s all that went out—you can be anything you wanted to be, you know?
What a great time to have your band!
Derv Gordon: Exactly! There’d never been a time like it before and there’s never been a time like it since. The 60s made a sort of stamp. It was a form of rebellion really. The 50s was just after the Second World War and there was a shortage of lots of different things. In England you had the teddy boys but they weren’t really saying much really. Then the Mod scene started. I had a scooter—a Lambretta—when the group first started. But that got in the way because I couldn’t afford to have that and also to pay for the stuff that we needed to perform: clothes and so on. So the scooter had to go. I never considered myself to be a Mod, but we had quite a large Mod following, actually. They liked that type of music that we were playing, and that tinge of Caribbean in it as well. The thing with life is that if something is different it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy to sell, and we were not an easy band to sell. Also we were on an independent label. We ere having a hard time because your records had to be distributed by the major companies. If they’ve got a record that’s selling well they’re not going to want to sell yours because they’re not making much money from it. So they would be pushing theirs in front of yours. Everything was a struggle. But we also built up a reputation as being a very good live performing band. A lot of movement on stage. If you watched a lot of groups from the 60s, they just stood there and didn’t move. Their mouths just about moved, their arms just about moved, but we were all over the place. People loved it. And I loved doing it. I cannot stand still and perform. I could never sit and sing a song. I’ve got to move!
That’s part of the energy—even before we’d seen videos you could feel it in the music.
Derv Gordon: While we were in our apprentice stage, myself and Eddy and my brother sneaked though the stage door at the Royal Albert Hall to see James Brown. When James Brown came to England people could not believe a man could move like that on stage. He got some very bad reviews—they said all he did was scream. They didn’t understand what the man was doing. The music was about feel, and his scream would be transmitting how he felt. A lot of the conservative press didn’t understand where he was coming from. But as musicians we did, and he was a great inspiration. I knew I could never move like James Brown, I could never sing like James Brown—I had to have my own style of singing. I find it very difficult to copy anyone else, so how I sing is me. I’m not trying to copy anyone.
That soul influence is some of what makes the Equals’ music so unique—the way you interpreted those soul and rock influences. It’s more dynamic and exciting than so many other groups that I still like. There’s a whole ‘nother level of joy.
Derv Gordon: We also dabbled in what is considered to be ska or reggae and we wrote a song called ‘Rough Rider’—
—the Four Gees!
Derv Gordon: That’s right. They wouldn’t put it out as the Equals because it wasn’t considered to be Equals-type material. And that song is actually based on a true story of something that happened to my brother! We were on tour in Germany and after the show you’d be invited to various places, and he got dragged off by this, uh, rather enthusiastic female. [laughs] The following morning we were having breakfast and I saw this figure come into the hotel looking somewhat … disheveled. I said ‘Whoa, what happened man?’ And he said ‘That was a rough ride…’ So we wrote ‘Rough Rider.’ [laughs] After recording it, we’d get copies and I took it home. We were still living with my parents then. And my mother who was a great fan … if it wasn’t for my mother I don’t think we would’ve managed because she had to forge contracts—which my father wouldn’t do—in order for us to be able to do certain things. She wanted us to be whatever we wanted to be. I was playing it and I didn’t realize my mother was in the house because it was quite a large house. She came in the room and she called me by my full name: ‘Dervin, the words to that song are disgusting!’ I was really embarrassed because I’d never used bad language in front of my mother and I had so much respect for her. She said, ‘It is absolutely disgusting and I don’t think you should ever play that song again!’
How did you feel when 2-Tone was happening?
Derv Gordon: To me it was just another genre—other people doing their thing. Actually I quite like the interpretation of ‘Rough Rider’ by the Beat. But I’ve also heard some Equals stuff that people have covered and … it’s like some form of, you know, attack! You should be able prosecute them for it. [laughs] But we hear things different ways, and there’s no set rule that something has to be interpreted exactly that way. This is one of the reasons why we failed as a blues or a soul band because we couldn’t interpret it the way that the artists who performed it first did.
What was touring Africa like?
Derv Gordon: We toured Zambia a couple of times, and we wanted to tour what was then Rhodesia and now Zimbabwe, but because we were a mixed band they wouldn’t issue us a permit. In South Africa our records were not allowed to have photographs of the band on the sleeves. Actually, the South African sleeve for Unequalled Equals is a black-and-white domino. [laughs] Somebody had a great sense of humor. The shows were incredible. One we performed for the then-president of Zambia in a huge hall. But most of the gigs were open air and there were people up in trees and on walls and all sorts of places. It was great experience. But to me it was a bit embarrassing, really. As far as I’m concerned, the birthplace of a lot of modern music is Africa. If you listen to Congolese music you can see where Calypso comes from. Merengue and all that South American stuff, the Cuban stuff … the root is in Africa. So it was to me quite like … We’ve got a saying in England: ‘It’s like taking coal to Newcastle.’ Newcastle is a place in England that had coal mines, so if you’re taking coal there, you’re taking stuff that’s probably not as good as the stuff there. But people loved it so … If they love it, what can you say? I was surprised at how successful we were there. I thought, ‘These people really know about music, these people really know how to dance.’ But it was something different and they enjoyed it. And it was a great privilege to do.
It proves how great a band you were.
Derv Gordon: I leave that up to others to say. We did what we did and we played it to the best of our abilities. I’m not one of these people running around shouting, ‘I’m the greatest.’ I wouldn’t say I’m the greatest vocalist. But I sing how I hear it and how I feel it. And if people love it then that gives me great satisfaction.
I had no idea that neither the Equals nor you had ever performed in the U.S. before that Elbo Room show in January 2017.
Derv Gordon: We were not encouraged to perform in the U.S. by our management and our record company—which was basically one man—because of the race situation you had here and the fact we were Black and white. I don’t think I could perform to a segregated audience. We played South Africa and insisted in the contract that the audience had to be mixed, and they accepted. We said otherwise we wouldn’t play. Nothing happens before its time so … there you are. I’m totally enjoying it.
You have a slew of shows this year.
Derv Gordon: Oh yeah—they’re gradually giving me the information but my diary is not controlled by me. [laughs] Someone sent me something that said, ‘I’ll see you in Memphis,’ and I thought ‘Memphis?’ Nobody’d mentioned Memphis to me. I made a phone call and they said, ‘Oh, yeah, but we didn’t want to tell you just now.’ ‘OK—that’s fine.’ But yeah, I’ll be spending a lot of time in the States over the next year or two.
I remember posting about the San Francisco show last November and friends of mine saying ‘When is he coming to L.A.?’ Everyone’s very, um … stoked.
Derv Gordon: I love that word! I’ve never heard it before I came to San Francisco. To me ‘stoked’ meant… something to do with coal? In a coal fire or something? But I’m also working with an incredible guy—Jason Duncan. We’ve become truly great friends. What amazes me, Jason is from South Carolina and I’m from Jamaica. I’m Black and he’s white and I couldn’t ask for a nicer friend. He feels the same. So it just goes to show it can work—no matter what your race is, what your color is, you can be friends and you can unite.
That’s great! And you are working on a book together?
Derv Gordon: Yeah—he contacted me about about four years ago. I had a message from Eddy Grant’s office to say someone wants to write a book on the group. I’d heard that a number of times and I’d never really been interested. I didn’t think I had anything interesting to say. So I left it. And he contacted me again. And I left it. Then I became very seriously ill, in intensive care for three months with sepsis. And I managed to survive. Sepsis is a killer—it’s blood poisoning and it kills 45,000 people in the U.K. every year. It kills more people than cancer and I managed to survive that, 95% without serious injuries. I was very close to dying. [laughs] So after that my wife said to me, ‘Listen, you need to do this. Stop avoiding it and get on with it.’ I have been married now for 48 years so whatever she says she’s normally right. So we started talking. Then Jason came over to the U.K. and I thought ‘I really like this guy.’ From then on we talk every day actually. I can’t remember how it came up about doing a gig. It wasn’t going to be an Equals gig—it was gonna be a solo gig with his band backing me. He sent me a tape and I thought, ‘This guy really knows the Equals’ music! As if he was in the band with us!’ Then when I came over to L.A. and we rehearsed for a couple of days, I thought, ‘This is really gonna happen.’ It just mushroomed from there. I’ve got a second chance after that illness, so I’d better take it. It’s like I got a great big injection up my rear, you know? Saying, ‘Listen, you can do it! You’re making people happy, you’re making yourself happy—do it!’ I’ve got no airs or graces. I don’t play the big star thing. I’ve known too many and it’s not my scene. Listen: we all feel pain, we all suffer, I’m no different from the next person.
Thank you so much for talking with us.
Derv Gordon: Please don’t keep saying that! Thank you for phoning me, thank you for having interest in what I do, I appreciate it. I’ll leave you with a Jamaican saying: ‘well-stoked.’ Ciao!
GREEN SLIME AND CRETIN HOP PRESENT DERV GORDON (OF THE EQUALS) ON FRI., JULY 14, AT THE ECHOPLEX, 1154 GLENDALE BLVD., ECHO PARK. 8:30 PM / $19.50-$24.50 / 18+. GET TICKETS HERE!