Saturday, 23 January 2021

Grace Jones






In many ways, nothing screams and parades "disco" as much as the androgynous, supremely photogenic diva Grace Jones. Her extended grooves are just as important within the genre as the more poppy hit singles that were everywhere in 1977-80. I have dealt with her early, blatantly disco albums here, along with her later, funkier offerings....

Portfolio (1977)

This was Grace Jones's 1977 debut and, contrary to her big persona, it went under the radar, retaining cult status among disco-pop aficionados. It was produced by Tom Moulton and featured Philadelphia soul musicians. It is a very 1977 album, when the strains of disco ruled many of the airwaves, but it has an underlying classiness in its extended grooves that put it above much frothier contemporary disco material. It is a bit of an acquired taste, however. 

Send In The Clowns is a funky, brassy, big-production of the plaintive Judy Collins ballad with typically 1977 disco horn breaks throughout. It is quite an achievement to turn such an un-disco song into a piece of slow, dignified disco groove. It has an understated grandiosity to it. The track neatly segues into the lush strains of What I Did For Love. This track has a bit of a showy gloss to it, probably too much for me, but it has some nice gentle disco guitar parts underpinning it and there is a nice break at around 2:48. Once more, it is so very 1977. There is a slick professionalism to it and the musicianship is excellent but Jones's vocal has not yet morphed into the menacing semi-spoken delivery of the early eighties - here is its haughtily higher in key and far more enthusiastic. None of that detached ennui


A drumbeat takes us into the enjoyably upbeat Tomorrow, but again it is a little bit "show tune" for my stuffy old heterosexual tastes. Jones always had a large gay following and you can hear why in the somewhat stereotyped Broadway musical vibes of this song and its slightly over-the-top delivery. I love the drum and horns interplay half way through, however. Researching the song I have found that it is from the musical, "Annie", (as my wife has just informed me). There was no way I was going to know that, not being a fan of musicals. Of course, all three of these tracks are from musicals - sorry for my ignorance.


Anyway, on to the old side two, and more to my taste is the delicious sound of the old Edith Piaf song La Vie En Rose, a song that I had always known, being Jones's first relatively successful release. It features her first venture into French singing and is full of Parisian café atmosphere, treating us to some lovely acoustic guitar together with a rhythmic bass. Sorry is a shorter, breezier number that is pleasant enough in a cool, summery way. That's The Trouble grooves on in a rousing disco style that is once more highly representative of its era and the final track is another one that I have known since back then in I Need A Man. The song reminds me of ABBA, lyrically, for some reason. I prefer Jones's early eighties edgier, funkier, more reggae-influenced albums but I can understand the appeal of this outing into quality, subtle disco. It definitely has something.


Fame (1978)


This was Grace Jones's second album, and her second of disco material. Again produced by Tom Moulton, the old "side one" plays as one continuous suite of disco joy. Disco wasn't all about short, catchy three minute singles - the extended groove was just as important. 


I was familiar with the lively and eminently enjoyable disco fun of Do Or Die, a track that is healthily long featuring infectious bongo-orchestration typically disco passages. Its great and Jones's hammy voice is as gloriously enthusiastic as I have ever heard her. Pride continues in the same vein - melodic but haughtily strident vocals, classic disco "diddle-diddle" guitars, sweeping strings and mid-song string-percussion breaks. If you love bass guitar, as I do, big time, you will be in bass nirvana when you hear the rubbery mid-song solo. The groovy percussion leads us into the rousing Fame, the last of this supreme disco trilogy. There is a fair case for this side being the best of Jones's disco work. 


Grace loved her classic French torch songs, and she covers one here (singing in French) in Autumn Leaves as the tempo drops and we are initially transported to the escaliers of fifties Montmartre before some delicious Sexual Healing-style keyboard backing and a beautiful, gently strummed acoustic guitar come in. The song then becomes a beautiful piece of laid-back romantic music. Nice.


We are back on the floor with the poppy, Barry Manilow-esque disco groove of All On A Summer's Night. Once again, the mid-song percussion-bass-guitar merging is just wonderful, especially for people like me who absolutely love those sort of instrumental breaks. The Streisand-ish Am I Ever Gonna Fall In Love In New York City presumably comes from a stage show, actually, but it still has a great, irresistible disco vibe to it. It reminds me of Donna Summer's On The Radio. Oh lordy - just listen to that bass bit near the end too. Yes I love my punk, my roots reggae and my blues rock but I have no shame in admitting that I love this too. This fine, thoroughly enjoyable disco album ends with the uplifting positive message workout of Below The BeltI prefer this album to its predecessor as it is less Broadway show-ish, less blatantly camp and more pure disco. It is one of the great disco albums (of which there were few - it was largely a singles genre).


Muse (1979)


The following year saw the final release in this excellent disco trilogy. The idiotic US-based "disco sucks" movement was taking off by now and this album sort of went under the radar as Jones tinkered with her sound for the next album, going all menacing and dabbling in reggae rhythms. She was probably right as you can only release so many disco albums, I guess.


Kicking us off is the slightly heavier groove of Sinning, featuring a deeper beat and bass along with those funny synth-drum sounds that suddenly became so popular in disco music at the time. Soon every disco tune would have one. As on the previous two albums, the first side of the album has the songs playing on a continual flow, and here we merge seamlessly into Suffer. The song features shared vocals with Icelandic keyboardist Thor Baldursson. Repentance (Forgive Me) is a dense number that sort of predates Jones' subsequent style of music. Her vocal has become more menacing and far less incorrigibly camp. She sounds as if she means business now as opposed to simply having fun. The opening suite  contained four songs this time and it ends with the upbeat, frantic disco-gospel-pop of SavedFor me, these tracks slightly lack the infectious, rhythmic disco groove of the previous one. The mid-song bongo breaks were gone as were the bass solos, to its detriment. This track does have a nice guitar-drum-organ interplay near the end, however.


Atlantic City Gambler sees the first hints of the reggae beat and the don't mess with me vocal style as disco merges with something slightly different on a mysterious, slow burner of a track. I'll Find My Way has the new-found vocal style merging with some slow disco backing. The changes were still coming, though, albeit subtly - but surely. I previously knew Don't Mess With The Messer as a blues-soul song by Koko Taylor (I think it was originally a Willie Dixon song) and here Jones, unsurprisingly turns it into a mid-pace disco groover that harks back to the first album. We finally get a percussive instrumental break. The disco is back on On Your Knees. While this album is perfectly acceptable, it was no doubt clear to all concerned that a change was necessary. That said, there will no criticism from me for these three superb disco albums.


Warm Leatherette (1980)


While not a post punk album, musically, this 1980 offering from Grace Jones has all the dark attitude of that genre but also the cool sophisto-pop vibe of the early/mid eighties. It is great wine bar fare - after dark, urban, rhythmically infectious and vaguely other-worldly Bowie-esque in places. It taps into the same groove that Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club would explore and it is a pretty much perfect piece of accessible but intriguing classy disco-ish pop/funk with reggae influences (supplied here by Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare). The earlier emphasis on disco is notably enhanced here to include many more influences and it is a truly great album, possibly Jones's best, and I much prefer it to the more popular Slave To The Rhythm. It was here that Jones's persona became importantly aligned with the music, delivering both image and musical content with a simultaneous beauty.


Warm Leatherette is a Grace Jones classic - moody and magnificent both vocally and musically. Chunky riffs, pounding drums and an insistent rhythm captivate the listener and Grace supplies her usual menacing, unnerving vocals. What exactly was a "warm leatherette" , by the way? I always imagined it to be something in an exclusive but dodgy s & m club, something one would lay on while Grace whipped you. Anyway, enough of that....


Private Life was a track I first came across on the first Pretenders album. While it suited writer Chrissie Hynde's laconic voice perfectly it was absolutely tailor-made for Jones. Her detached, bored but bitter vocal floats over a totally intoxicating late night beat. Its effect is disturbingly magical.

A Rolling Stone is an upbeat serving of disco/rock merge while the cover of Roxy Music's Love Is The Drug is inspired, upping the tempo a bit to turn it into a brooding, riffy, new wave-inspired cool dance number. I almost feel the ambience it delivers is exactly what Bryan Ferry was trying to achieve when he wrote it. Great stuff. Smokey Robinson's The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game is a triumph, a magnificent cover overflowing with the atmosphere that the whole album carries. Once more, Jones uses her powerful persona to take the song to new levels. Not for the first time, the influence this would have on Talking Heads' Speaking In Tongues album is clear. Check out the mid-song guitar solo as rock styles surface amongst the mellifluous rhythms, not for the first time. Bullshit is a no-nonsense, muscular number that lives up to its uncompromising title. Jones is tired of the same old shit and assholes and she lets us know on the album's riffiest, rockiest cut. It has a great sound to it, very guitar-driven. Another track that suited Jones down to the ground was Tom Petty's Breakdown. Jones makes already atmospheric and brooding tracks even more so. All the covers she did were superb. My goodness, I love that bass line at the end too. This excellent album ends with the convincing Euro-reggae sound of Pars (French for "leave"). Jones's vocals were always suited to singing in French, and she does so here to great effect. It has a similar feel to I've Seen That Face Before (Libertango) from the next album. Honestly, there is not a duff track on this album. Is it her best one? Yes.


** The extended versions also available are excellent too, particularly A Rolling Stone and Love Is The Drug. A long time favourite of mine has been her superb cover of Joy Division's She's Lost Control.


Nightclubbing (1981)

Ditching her previously somewhat camp disco diva style, model turned serious music artist Grace Jones came up with this ostensibly reggae album. However, there was nothing roots about it, despite featuring the rhythm section of Sly and Robbie. The album was a melange of catchy reggae rhythms, dub stylings, dance grooves, disco, funk, synth pop and even a bit of tango. In so many ways it was a ground-breaking piece of work, both musically and culturally. Jones’ androgynous appearance was as shocking in 1981 as Boy George or any of the gender-bending “new romantics”. There really wasn’t, or subsequently hasn’t, been anything quite like this record. Jones’ vocal style, also, was quite unique - speaking at times as opposed to singing, in a dull, monotone. The laid-back reggae rhythms suited such a delivery perfectly. Again, unique.

Walking In The Rain exemplifies this effortless, almost contemptuous delivery - fashion and style meet post punk style. The line “feeling like a woman, looking like a man” fits the whole image perfectly. Pull Up To The Bumper is urgent, sensual, blatantly sexual in many ways, with a shuffling, insistent beat. The cover of Bill Withers’ Use Me is vastly different to the sparse, funky original. At times, one struggles to recognise it. For a start, the lyrics are completely different, although the writing credits are given to Withers. Nightclubbing was co-written by David Bowie and Iggy Pop and you can tell. Their contribution perfectly suits the whole ambience of this album. The fashionable, nightclubbing thing. This one track maybe sums it all up. It is menacing, stark and industrial, While “new romanticism” was burgeoning all around by now, this was something different. It was tougher, cynical, even brutal in its no-nonsense application. You felt Jones was already a little bored by it all. Yes she was making a statement, but she had no real need or desire to do so. My own personal favourite is the Parisian tango groove of I've Seen That Face Before - a marvellously sensual and evocative slice of cinematic disco funk with that hypnotic tango hook. It was used to great effect in the Paris nightclub scene in the Harrison Ford movie, Frantic.

Sting of The Police contributed the potent Demolition Man six months before his group recorded it themselves. It seemed that everyone wanted to get in on this new thing. What was a pity was that it never really got this good again for Grace Jones, musically. There were certainly still some good albums to come, but none quite as good as this.

Living My Life (1982)

After an attention-grabbing album in 1981 in Nightclubbing, Grace Jones released her final album before a three year acting sabbatical with this 1982 offering. It was critically seen as slightly disappointing, but I won’t really go along with that. In the midst of all that dour post punk, new romantic foppery and tinny synth pop it was a nice piece of bassy but cool and detached disco funk. The pace was largely slow but it was sexy, seductive and extremely atmospheric. It stands as one of the better albums of 1982, for me. 

The legendary reggae rhythm duo of Sly and Robbie are once more on duty here and again you can tell. The music is outstanding. The cover was an iconic Grace Jones image too. My Jamaican Guy is a typically staccato, jerky serving of rhythm topped off with an also by now familiar detached and slightly menacing-sounding vocal from Jones. She did this sort of thing so well. Even better is the mesmerising and intoxicatingly rhythmic Nipple To The Bottle, which drips with female power and also has some great keyboard licks and rubbery bass lines. I love this - it cooks to a healthy bubbling point. Just as good is the über cool groove of The Apple Stretching, which is a kind of love song to the city of New York. Once again, the instrumentation on this is superb. Grab a load of those keyboards and drums. Jones’s semi-spoken vocal and descriptions of urban life are also captivating, as is the sleepily melodious chorus. 


The original “side two” is composed of four slightly shorter tracks, beginning with the more upbeat, poppier vibe of Everybody Hold Still, which has a big Talking Heads-style sound to it. Cry Now - Laugh Later also reminds me of the Heads in its chugging funky beat. I have to repeat myself when I praise its boiling hot temperature. The same warm but vaguely distant late night feeling can be found on Inspiration, which has a guitar sound that brings to mind Dire Straits’ more laid-back material. Listen to those keyboard swirls and little guitar bits - an aural treat. Lovers of basslines will love the warm offering on the final track, Unlimited Capacity For Love, which is another laconically-delivered groove. This was surely an influence on Talking Heads’ Speaking In Tongues from the following year. Anyway, it’s time to leave the wine bar, jump in a taxi and glide through the wet, dark city streets with this playing.


Slave To The Rhythm (1985)

This is a most odd album from Grace Jones, although it is one of her most popular and commercially successful. All the songs are interspersed with spoken clips of interviews given by Jones, which totally breaks the cohesion of the whole thing, despite being no doubt intended to link all the tracks. For me, it does anything but that and acts as a complete irritant. The interviews are fawning and pointless, with Jones at the height of her pretentious "difficult" phase, spouting nonsense and sounding as she had taken a nose full of drugs.


The music is ok, but, in my view, is nowhere near up to the standard of either Nightclubbing or the most underrated Living My Life. While there are definitely some good moments the overall feel is of an album which is a long way up itself. The album displays the artist's aggressive vanity to its full 1985 extent. It suits the era so much. Everyone was urged to love themselves and show themselves off and Jones devotes the whole album to talking about herself or having other people talk about her. It is like an aural catwalk. 


Jones The Rhythm is a frantic opener, with hints of David Bowie's Scary Monsters in its "hoo-hah" backing vocals. It also has some sweeping, madcap string arrangements. The semi-instrumental The Fashion Show has a nice deep bass line and a seductive slow groove to it. It is one of the album's best tracks. It has that typically cool, detached vibe to it that I so love about Jones's often mysterious and beguiling music. I like the "keep it up, keep it up" backing vocals (which appear on other occasions throughout the album) and also the fuzzy guitar part mid-song. The Frog And The Princess has a nice bassy backing groove but is slightly blighted by a spoken vocal in praise of Jones and her singing at a gay club, looking like a man and singing to a bunch of men. Oh look, it is ok and has a certain atmosphere but it is certainly not essential listening. The backing and the vocal reminds me of Talking Heads' Seen And Not Seen. Despite researching it, I cannot find out who does the vocals. The less said about the waste of time that is Operattack the better. It is a cacophonous serving of drivel. Thankfully it lasts less than three minutes, although that is too many. The next track causes some confusion, because although it is titled Slave To The Rhythm, it is not the track that everyone knows by that title (that comes later under another title, oddly). Anyway, this track is chunky and staccato and reminds me a bit of Bad from Big Audio Dynamite's 1985 debut album.


The Crossing (Ooh The Action) begins with Grace telling us that she spent her youth "floating in a cloud" before we get a rather infectious piece of world music-esque ambient rhythm that backs a repeated spoken vocal "Jones - Miss Grace Jones". We get it - her name is Grace Jones. Although I like the music, I have to say it gets nowhere. Don't Cry - It's Only The Rhythm is a comparatively shorter piece of drum and keyboards instrumental before we get the song that most people know as Slave To The Rhythm, only it is titled Ladies And Gentlemen - Miss Grace Jones. Whatever, it still stands as one of her most iconic and catchy numbers. The percussion is excellent and Jones's vocal is delightfully sonorous and menacingly sexy. I liked it back then and I still do. As I said, this was an indulgent, often incoherent album redeemed by some occasional bits of quality. Contrary to the opinions of many, this was not the best of Grace Jones. 


11 comments:

  1. Sometimes I also think living my life is a better album than Nightclubbing. And sometimes I think all three albums she did with them are kind of equal. Even Warm Leatherette. The thing that I miss on living my life is the cover songs that were so good on the two other albums. I mean songs like Walking in the Rain and Demolition Man and Nightclubbing and Love is the Drug and Private Life. All those covers of rock songs that were so awesome. I think all the songs on Living my Life she wrote herself except for one. And they are pretty good, but the covers were much more fun. Musically it's great but I don't enjoy it as much. And I think Slave to the Rhythm is just kind of okay but not great. My favorite track is Miss Grace Jones. I think that's the only really great one. And actually, I like that album more now than I used to.

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  2. Some of the reviews I have read of Living My Life criticise it which I find difficult to accept. I really like the album.

    As I said in the review, I'm not a fan of the 'concept' of Slave To The Rhythm, finding it indulgent and self-obsessed.

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  3. You should review Warm Leatherette too. I wonder what you think of that one. And also Portfolio. It might be the most consistent disco album ever. But of course, only if you've got a taste for it. it's nothing like these albums here.

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  4. I've done Warm Leatherette and Portfolio. As you say, two very different albums.

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  5. That's a really fantastic review of portfolio. For someone who's not into that type of music, you picked up every detail of it that are the exact things that are the reasons I think it's great. You got good ears. Most people wouldn't have picked up on these things. I usually hate Broadway show tunes and musicals in general, so I think this album was one of those spectacular flukes. The kind of record that shouldn't have been any good, what was. I read your review three times because I liked it so much. As for Warm leatherette, I don't quite agree that it's her best except for the high points. I think it's about half great. Actually there's about four or five great ones, and that's pretty good considering it only has 8 tracks all together.

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  6. Hey thank you so much. I am most flattered. I was a bit worried that I had written a pile of shit about one of your favourite albums!

    Regarding her best album, I would probably go for Warm Leatherette above Nightclubbing, but only just. Living My Life is up there too. They are all good. I love the mix of disco, funk, reggae and rock that the excellent musicians achieve.

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  7. Yeah. I can't decide which of the three I like best. I like different parts of each one.

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  8. Oh,btw. Leatherette is just artificial leather. Like the kind they use for car seats. The song is about those people who have a fetish for car crashes. It's some kind of weird perversion. I guess the song is based on some cult novel
    and then later it was a David Cronenberg movie called Crash. Which is excellent. Not to be confused with the other movie called Crash at about the same time.

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    1. Yes, I thought it was something like that, judging by the lyrics. My theory is an intriguing one though!

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  9. I didn't much like the follow-up albums after Portfolio. I think it was still Tom Moulton but I thought they were mostly dull. I had a Canadian import of Muse and it had another French language track that wasn't on the American version and it was the best one. I'd never be able to spell it though. Or even pronounce it, but I can hear it in my head. The only other thing I really liked is Don't Mess With the Messer.

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    1. I'm surprised you don't like Fame so much, I really like it. I think it is her best disco one.

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