Tiggerlion on Nightclubbing by Grace Jones, released 11/05/1981
Grace Jones is one of nature’s wonders. Towering at nearly six foot tall with sharp features and an ebony skin tone, she was initially a supermodel, stalking the catwalks wearing Yves St. Laurent and Kenzo. She was Helmut Newton’s, Guy Bourdin’s and Hans Feurer’s muse and appeared on the cover of Elle, Vogue and Stern.
Musically, Grace first immersed herself in Disco. To begin with, this involved attending Studio 54 in New York completely naked. Soon, she hooked up with Tom Moulton, the man who invented the extended mix, and made three surprisingly camp albums, her purring contralto set against beautifully orchestrated music. The best track, a striking version of La Vie En Rose, pricked Chris Blackwell’s ears. The founder of Island Records heard something both terrifying and seductive in that detached monotone and thought he knew exactly what to do with it.
Blackwell’s pitch to become her producer alongside Alex Sadkin was irresistible. He appealed to her inner musician, putting her in a band setting, working in a studio, functioning as a single unit. That band, soon to be known as The Compass Point All Stars, was brilliant: Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare on drums and bass, Barry Reynolds and Mikey Chung guitars, Wally Badarou keyboards and Uziah ‘Sticky’ Thompson percussion. How could anyone turn down an offer of recording with them in The Bahamas? However, it was the change in musical direction that clinched it. Disco was officially dying and this band offered a completely new sound, one that ticks over with restrained power, as beautifully engineered as a Ferrari idling at the lights before exploding into action. The All Stars were a hybrid, a perfect blend of Culture’s Sinsemilla, English Rock & Pop and a Gallic way with Dance, mixed with American R&B and Latin sensuality. They were cool, they were stylish, they carried more than a hint of menace. The All Stars were the perfect foil for Grace Jones, herself the product of multiple cultures: a Jamaican childhood “crushed by The Bible”, a New York schooling and a Parisian coming of age, sharing a flat with Jessica Lang and Jerry Hall.
The song choices were inspired. Many were relatively contemporaneous, taken from New Wave, post-Punk innovation with musicality, but nothing was off limits, from Motown royalty to French chart hits to tango classics. The only criteria seemed to be how, like a method actor, can Grace inhabit, possess, this song? The recording of the first album, Warm Leatherette, flew by, with most tracks captured within three takes. Its Reggae/Rock meld introduced a new Grace Jones to the world but it’s on Nightclubbing, a sexier more soulful album, where the legend coalesced immaculately.
The opener, Walking In The Rain, immediately places the listener in a city at the dead of night, the car lights prismatic in a downpour, while Grace prowls the streets staking out her territory. The song is an obscure B side by a New Zealand group called Flash And The Pan but it belongs totally to Grace. ‘Feeling like a woman, looking like a man,’ ‘singing in the darkness, shining in the light,’ ‘trip the light fantastic, dance the swivel hips,’ she glowers, stating facts not intent. Walking In The Rain introduces Grace like no other song, as a manifesto, a blueprint for life. It sets the tone for the entire album: assertive, subversive, challenging, disturbing and as cool as fuck. It’s also an unashamed floorfiller. Many of these songs, unlike most of her ‘disco’ tracks, were huge successes in the clubs, outclassing the opposition with ease. 1981 was peak twelve inch. The extended version dilutes the vocal with echo but the stretched out instrumental part, floating along on Badarou’s brooding solo and punctuated by Reynolds’s dramatic chords, is sublime. Tom Moulton should have been proud.
For an artist known for her commanding covers, there are only three more on the album. Her take on Iggy Pop’s Nightclubbing is even more blank eyed than the original. She may not frequent the same kind of establishment as Iggy and her drugs of choice may be more expensive, but her existential angst is even more depressing. ‘Oh isn’t it wild,’ has the indifferent air of someone who does not care if she lives or dies. Grace curls her lip with disdain for Demolition Man, ‘I’m a walking nightmare, an arsenal of doom’, out-muscling Sting’s own later version with ease. Either of these could could sit comfortably on Warm Leatherette but Bill Withers’s Use Me goes further. It is sung with relish, shoulders back, chin forward, forcibly turning the song upside down, confronting any assumptions of female sexuality and confounding prejudices. It is an instruction rather than a plea, emphasised by sharp handclaps, while the bass-line sways with snake hips.
Perhaps the definitive Grace track is the rewrite of Astor Piazzolla’s Libertango, Reynolds adjusting the music slightly and Grace adding lyrics. I’ve Seen That Face Before is an Argentine Tango with a Reggae lilt set in a Parisian street, underlined by the presence of an accordion and pretty much summing up the All Stars. Grace is at her most beguiling as she describes, in detail, what happens if someone tries to follow her. The French interlude sounds wonderfully exotic but it’s a threat roughly translated as ‘What are you looking for? Death?’ When she puts it like that, there’s many who’d gladly follow her to their doom.
Nightclubbing is also the album when Grace’s songwriting comes into its own. Feel Up is simply lude, glistening with oil after a day sunbathing on the beach, a tropical rhythm consumed by animal lust. In Art Groupie, she presents herself as an image not an individual as though she wants to be admired as a piece of art displayed in a gallery. However, the song that became her signature is Pull Up To The Bumper. It follows decades of Rock & Roll tradition, a song about a car as a vehicle for sexual innuendo. Set to an impossibly funky beat, Grace, of course, pushes innuendo so far that the lyrics become frank and explicit: ‘grease it, spray it, let me lubricate it’. To the delight of her gay following, acquired during her Disco phase, Grace took a song about being taken from behind right to the top of the dance and R&B charts in America. Prince was listening. The following year, his own lascivious car song became his breakthrough hit.
The finale is a tender ballad, one sung to herself, almost jet lagged, as a Zelig type trailblazer listing her achievements. I’ve Done It Again is the result of a writing partnership between Reynolds and Marianne Faithfull and became a stepping stone to a Reynolds/Jones collaboration that would flourish on the next album, Living My Life.
The cover realises her wish to be a living, breathing work of art as expressed in Art Groupie. The photograph, taken and adjusted by her then lover, Jean-Paul Goude, is as important to the whole product as Warhol’s work is for The Velvet Underground With Nico or Brian Duffy’s for Aladdin Sane. Entitled Blue-Black in Black on Brown it blurs the boundaries between male and female, human and object, imagination and reality. The lines and angles are sharply cut, including Grace’s cheekbones and hair. The colour of her skin is exaggerated to the point where it appears to be marble. The Armani jacket exposes her chest ambivalently, evoking anatomical rather than sexual curiosity, her shoulders unfeasibly broad. An unlit cigarette hangs perilously from her blood-red lips. Grace glares at the viewer. It’s as engrossing and as unsettling as the music within. Goude’s work is not without controversy, accused of being “a white man’s rendition of the African feminity.” It is hypersexualised and distorted in a technique he described as ‘French correction’ but within it, there is no doubt that Grace is proud, even haughty. Grace is the star in all his images. Goude’s camera is clearly in awe of its subject, something demonstrated even more in his film, One Man Show, that mixes concert footage with videos for the singles. It is essentially an hour long performance-art fixation on Grace in her many bizarre poses.
Nightclubbing does not provide a window to humanity’s soul as, say, Aretha’s Amazing Grace, but it does allow us to live in the unique world of Grace Jones for a little while. It’s no artifice either. The Grace Jones presented here is the way Grace Jones really is. It is an album whose subject matter is, essentially, the singer herself. Every song is entirely about Grace whether written by her or for her or a cover chosen so that she can devour it. We get to know what makes her tick far more than we do listening to Joni Mitchell or Carole King, the queens of introspective singer-songwriter albums. Nightclubbing represents the creation of a cultural icon, uncompromising and sexually voracious. A generation of women were in awe of her, proud of the dark tone of her skin and defiance in the face of the ‘angry black woman’ trope. Just witness her performances as the anti-Bond girl, May Day, or The Amazonian in Conan The Destroyer. Then, there is the altercation with Russell Harty on live television through to the hula-hooping at the Queen’s diamond jubilee concert. Her influence has rippled throughout the decades. Imagine the careers of Madonna, Björk, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga or, even, Annie Lennox, Niles Rogers, Róisín Murphy or Lorde without Grace Jones. The woman has been fierce and imperious her whole life, never more so than on Nightclubbing.