James Grant: Music was my first love
THE industry is no longer as free and easy as it once was for bands, but in the end it still all comes down to singing, writing and playing, says James Grant
I was on Saturday Superstore on the BBC. I felt very shaky: the children, the garish colours and bad jumpers all made my hangover kick in. Beforehand, the girl from our record company, Phonogram, had kept telling me: “Cheer up… try to say something funny.” We were promoting our new single of the time, Jocelyn Square. The militantly effervescent presenter Sarah Greene asked me to pick the winners of the previous week’s Travelling Wilbury’s competition. They brought out the envelopes in what looked to me like an urn. I sensed an ideal opportunity to interject some humour into the situation.
“Is that his ashes?” I said. Roy Orbison had died the week before. Greene went ballistic. “You are a very sick individual!” she shrieked. I just sat there, grinning inanely. On Monday, I was in the Sun: SARAH SLAMS SICK ROCKER! A mugshot of me, looking like Mephistopheles, sneered under the headline. In truth, it was a bit scary. That week, Jocelyn Square sold more than 50,000 copies. We barely scraped into the Top 50. Today, we’d be No1, easy, with that level of sales.
Last century, in the mid-80s, I’d made the record with my band Love And Money. We spent a month in Los Angeles and seven months in New York. We worked with one of the top producers in the world, Gary Katz, who was renowned for his work with Steely Dan and Donald Fagen. Our working title was From Sunset Boulevard to Chateaulait. (That’s Castlemilk for the less cosmopolitan among us.) But, after Prefab Sprout released From Langley Park To Memphis and Aztec Camera quoted From Westwood To Hollywood, the paradox of schemies hitting the big time seemed a little common. So we named the album Strange Kind Of Love.
Today, it seems vaguely surreal even talking about this. Famous musicians and jazz legends were in and out of our studio. Guys like Jeff Pocaro from Toto (he played on Thriller!); Donald Fagen of Steely Dan; Paul Griffin (keyboards on Dylan’s Highway 61 and Blonde On Blonde); Tim Schmidt from the Eagles … As anybody who’s ever worked in the business that we call “Rock” will tell you, Spinal Tap is the bible. We had filled the studio with Nessies of all shapes and sizes. Our food bill alone was £40,000. (I’m still proud of this.) The album itself cost about £250,000. That was just what you did back then. If you didn’t spend the money, then someone like Bon Jovi would. So, it was cool.
However, we owed about a million quid for our first album. (It only sold around 10,000 copies.) But the music business had become a bloated self-serving monster and we were probably just a tax loss. We jetted out to the Mojave Desert and Tokyo to shoot videos, ramping up the marketing budget. Eventually, after touring, doing TV, radio, press all over the world, Strange Kind Of Love sold about 300,000 copies worldwide. That’s pretty successful, even by 1980s standards, but nowhere near paying back what we owed. Not even close.
There is no modern equivalent. Those days are gone. We were very, very lucky.
I grew up in Castlemilk, wanting to be a footballer like pretty much every other lad. When I reached 15, my stick-insect physique became a problem. There was a very real danger of me getting snapped in two. So, down came the Kenny Dalglish poster and up went Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. There was a bit more to it than that, though.
Ever since I’d bought Cum On Feel The Noize by Slade when I was around ten and saw David Bowie on Top of the Pops, I’d quite fancied being a rock ‘n’ roll star. I’ve often thought you need to have a soupçon of sociopathy to “make it”. What we see weekly on our televisions bears that out, but writing songs became an obsession for me.
I know it’s an act of colossal vanity, but I still cast a thankful glance skyward when the right thing falls into place. The feeling when you nail it; when you have the marriage of lyric and melody, grace and poise. I always used to say that the least important thing in the music business was the music. Now whenever I talk about the music business, I’m reminded of the quote about “cynicism being the last refuge of the idealist”. But I’m more stoic than cynic. And I never was an idealist.
Most people in bands (in Scotland, in those days certainly) would admit, we were all chancers to some degree. Some more than others, obviously. But it’s just very difficult to see a way out of where we are now.
I try and view positive aspects of how “the business” has changed. But everyone who’s a working musician, everyone still in the business in some capacity… none of us really has a clue what to do.
What has happened means that there is now no middle ground. You are either doing very well on a grand scale, or you’re trying to make a living.
Music has been diminished as an artform, I’m certain of this. For many different reasons, it just doesn’t carry the same weight culturally. There are only 12 notes in the scale, and it feels like the hard drive (maybe a particularly apposite phrase) is getting full up. There will always be exceptions to this rule, I know that. But, as one of my heroes, David Byrne, said just the other week: “It feels like the end of history when we talk about music now.”
Yet although X Factor in all its incarnations is one of the most popular and repulsive programmes in the history of television, perversely, the pop song is still the axis on which the whole thing turns.
In 1993, Love and Money were dropped by Phonogram and effectively flushed from the bowels of the industry. We probably owed about £7 million at that point, but they just wrote it off.
After that, we made another record independently. Then it felt like we’d nowhere to go. So the band broke up, amicably. Since then, I’ve made five solo records and I’m proud of them all. I’m still looking for the perfect song, knowing full well that I’ll never find it.
I’ve tried not to be sentimental about things, to be forward looking. But as you get older, you realise that there is a place in music for nostalgia. In 2011, Love And Money reformed for a gig at the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow. People came from all over the world to see us, and it was incredibly moving.
Much of what I do now is just me with an acoustic guitar. But, with the band re-forming, I got to play the ROCK GOD again. I liked it. We were having fun and rocking out, and it reminded me of why I started this thing.
After the show, I got so many letters and e-mails from people telling me how much my songs had meant to them. How children had been born; couples married; and how, through times of light and darkness, my songs had been the soundtrack to their lives. One person even told me they’d used a lyric as an inscription on a tombstone.
As Love and Money, we had a set of songs from a shelved album called The Mother’s Boy that we felt was unfinished business. I wrote some new tunes, some with the other guys, and now we have a new record. (I still like calling it that. The phrase means for me “where I’m at now”.) It still moves me. I’m still in love with music and how it affects people.
Fittingly, I think, the new Love And Money record is called The Devil’s Debt.
• James Grant is a singer/songwriter. The new Love and Money album The Devil’s Debt is out now on Vertical Records
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