I was tubing it into to work today, on the Piccadilly Line, a bit weary. Nearly Christmas, time for a break. Reading the Guardian on my iPad, I felt like something upbeat, but not too raucous. I flipped through my playlists and settled on ten from Grace Jones. From the early eighties, funky, strident, a little robotic. Unusual.
She has had her spats over the years. Confrontations with the media. But do I care? No. What I care about is the music.
She’s still going, still entertaining, still provoking; but for me it was when she teamed up with the great reggae rhythm team, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, in the early eighties, that she struck gold. Three outstanding albums on the Island label: ‘Warm Leatherette” in 1980, “Nightclubbing” in 1981 and “Living My Life” in 1982.
“Warm Leatherette”, the title track of that first album, was a sharp cover of a rather sleazy electro thing by a band called The Normal. Which they absolutely weren’t. Grace turned it into something funky and bass heavy that sounded a bit like the Talking Heads. That is a very good thing. Roxy Music’s “Love Is The Drug” was turned into a frantic dance with Grace’s straining voice giving it a sense of angst and edginess as opposed to the loucheness of the original. And, best of all, “Private Life” was a lazy electro-funk that worked perfectly with Grace’s mechanical voice. I can’t help but feel she could be the woman on the Sat Nav if it had a musical accompaniment. When I first heard “Private Life” on “Warm Leatherette” I didn’t realise that the original was by the Pretenders, from their first album. It’s good there too – a bit more tender. Grace turns it into something quite different, something quite dark and sleazy – Roxy Music would understand. With Sly and Robbie giving it a bit of the reggae-rock-rhythm in the background. So all sorts of ways of appreciating it. It’s a masterpiece.
“Nightclubbing” was more of the same, and so just as good. The title track was a cover of an Iggy Pop song from his Bowie/Berlin period. Quite faithful to the original, but with a hint of dub rhythm in the background. The great track on the album for me was “Pull Up To The Bumper”, a really funky, swampy song which would have been just perfect for the fashion catwalk. Again, you just imagine the Talking Heads doing this one. It’s probably my favourite Grace Jones track. Made for dance.
“Living My Life” was full of tracks that stretched out into brilliant twelve inch singles. The best was “My Jamaican Guy”, which had Sly and Robbie banging out the kind of rhythm that powered along so many of the great early eighties reggae dance tunes. Likewise “Nipple to the Bottle”. “The Apple Stretching” was more languid, closer to reggae, celebrating New York City. All songs for the chill out hours of the night club.
After the three albums came “Slave to The Rhythm”. It was the culmination of all that had gone before. Funky, punchy, with that flighty eighties dance feel. Tots of treble in amongst the bass rhythms. The eighties was trebly. Even tinny. With a yuppie coffee table groove. “Slave To The Rhythm” was the end of my affair with Grace Jones’s music. But it was good while it lasted.
I couldn’t claim to listen to Grace Jones a lot. But when I do, think, wow, these songs are so cool. That fusion of funk, the essence of the reggae rhythm, as delivered by Sly and Robbie, the robo-voice and the eighties shiny pop sheen is really engaging. they are songs very much of their time, but with a musical quality that makes them stand up to today’s standards. It’s Sly and Robbie – one of the greatest rhythm sections of all time, in any genre of music, who deliver. While reggae was their day job, Grace Jones was one of their crowning glories. And Grace herself, originally a model, fused the glamour and emotional detachment of the fashion world with the funk and reggae and early eighties electro in a way which was truly distinctive.
There’s never been anyone else quite like Grace Jones. Check those three albums – they are all classics.