Back with a new double album, the Caribbean Queen singer discusses Savile Row suits, the joys of herb and London property values, Peter Robinson reports for London’s Guardian.
Billy, your album is full of your greatest hits. How does it differ from The Very Best Of, Greatest Hits, The Collection, Super Hits and Ultimate Collection?
It’s an album that’s a new album, yet it isn’t a new album (1). On Sunday I took my family out for a meal – a really nice Chinese restaurant in Queensway – and I was listening to all those old tracks in the car, and I thought: “This is all right. I’ve done some nice tracks over the years.” Sometimes you’ve got to big up yourself.
Surely you can do better than: “This is all right.” That’s not a quote to put on the CD sticker, is it?
Well, I don’t want to overdo it. I don’t want to blow my own trumpet.
Do you often make your family listen to your songs in the car? “Dad’s putting his songs on now – sing along!”
No! They listen to my music. My granddaughter gets in the car and goes: “Grandad music! Grandad music!” She only wants to hear my music, she’s my biggest fan.
In fairness, if you judge a song on how good it sounds at a wedding three decades later, you’ve got at least four solid gold wedding bangers on this album (2).
Not just wedding bangers, either – I’ve been told that Caribbean Queen (3)accounted for a generation of kids! Yeah! You know! (Pumps fist) GIVING IT SOME! (Laughs)
Is it true you did different versions of Caribbean Queen for different territories around the world?
Yes! It wasn’t my idea, it was a marketing strategy. I did African Queen, European Queen, Caribbean Queen and Lithuanian Queen.
Not really. That was a joke. But the funny thing is they were all successful, so it did the job.
What are your thoughts on how Shoreditch has changed since you lived there in the 1960s?
I think it’s great. I grew up near Brick Lane, and the fact of the matter is that whether or not people realise or admit it, if it hadn’t been for the injection of energy – and money – from the Asian community, the East End could easily have been one of the ghettos of England. And the more recent changes have given it another lease of life. If they knew what it was like, people would be glad what’s happened there. When I was growing up you couldn’t give away a property in east London – that’s how terrible it was. Now you can’t even buy one (4). It’s such a lively place now.
When you worked on Savile Row, what did you learn about the secret to a good suit?
It’s about good tailoring but also good colours. In the 80s, I made all my suits myself. In the music business you’re dealing with image, and what could be the more important thing than colour? Colour will always attract. Red will attract more than black.
Does a red suit not spell danger?
Well, there you go! Colour will always catch the eye.
Is Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car about a frustrated taxi driver? The line “get on the back seat” is a clear giveaway.
It’s about talking to A GIRL!
Wouldn’t you want the girl in the front seat, next to you? Why make her sit in the back?
Well … Also, actually, there’s a deeper way of looking at this. “Get into my car” is about “get into my way of thinking”.
So your brain is a motor vehicle?
Well, in a lot of ways it’s a very spiritual song. Religion can be very taboo for a lot of people, but if you can disguise it and make it interesting, and make it relate to people’s lives, that’s good. People might look at the outside of a car, but the deeper meaning is inside the car. Hopefully, along the line, a few people might see the deeper meaning.
You’re a fan of gardening, is that correct?
Great. What’s the best plant?
(Laughs) Turn your machine off and I’ll tell you. (Extended chortling)
What’s the second best plant?
The same thing! And the third! In the Bible, in the first chapter, He says: “I give you herb-yielding seed for your meat.” So that means there’s something about herb, whether it’s herb you cook with, scent the room with or that SOME PEOPLE smoke … Herb is herb! So to me the best plant is a herb plant.
Did you see Frank Ocean once claimed (5) that he was your nephew?
One day I’m going to meet him and smack his face and say: “How dare you?” (Laughs) Not really! Good luck to him. I don’t think I’ve heard his music, I don’t even know what he looks like. What is he?
He’s a singer who is good.
Well, it could have been worse – he could have said: “Billy Ocean is my dad.” There had been some of that (more fist-pumping) a few years ago, right, so it could have been worse! My actual, real nephew actually does work in the music business – DJ Charlesy. He works with Tinie Tempah. But listen, good luck to Frank Ocean. Let him ride on my tide, there’s nothing wrong with that.
(1) What he means is that it’s a double CD, one featuring old hits, the other featuring new tunes. (2) Those bangers are: Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car, Love Really Hurts Without You, When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going, and Red Light Spells Danger. (3) The 1984 single reached No 1 in the US. It also featured on season two of Miami Vice. (4) Contrary to Billy’s claims, it is in fact possible to buy a property in Shoreditch. There’s a nice one-bedroom flat on Rightmove for £1.7m. (5) In the interview, Frank clarified that he was “just fucking with” the interviewer. Just in case anyone was confused.