Grace Jones’ Nightclubbing: A Celebration
Grace Jones’ 1981 album Nightclubbing was a defining moment in the history of pop music. John Preston celebrates the passion, fire and pure subversion that is Grace.
(Click Images to enlarge)
Over the years it would seem that Grace Jones has somehow become a particularly welcome, if surprising, part of the establishment. She has hula-hooped her way through the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations and, in a weird turn of events, become a somewhat camp chat show favourite loved by camp chat show hosts. Due partly to Britain’s on and sometimes off love of the eccentric, combined with Jones’ own considerable charm and warmth, she has sustained a career which has more or less been based around 3 albums worth of material recorded in the Bahamas at the famous Compass Point Studios, the last of which was made over 30 years ago. During these years, which only spanned 1980 – 1983, Jones had reinvented herself completely as an androgynous, sexually ambiguous alpha-female. Usually obscured behind ray-bans, she wasn’t ‘camp’ and she wasn’t yet the gay icon that she is today. The image of a black woman dressed as a man with a flat top hairstyle, but with the face of a bruised and beautiful athlete, was a new and thrillingly terrifying one.
Grace Jones’ live performances are hugely revered. She has always had an innate understanding of how to fully captivate and astound her audience. Her actual physical presence makes up for around 70 percent of it. Her voice, a booming and on occasion operatic baritone, is severely underrated. For an artist who has for the last three decades provided an essential template in regard to the power of image, male or female, Jones has always made a little go a very long way. She never has backing dancers, although there maybe a singular video installation which is quickly dispensed with, and a stage set that involves no shifting themes, explosions or magic castles. She is the explosion. Give Jones an electric fan or a spinning chair, an Issey Miyake cape and a pair of cymbals, and you’ll feel as though you’re witnessing other worldly, artistic genius. It’s not just an illusion, as it often the case with the hordes of young performers who at least acknowledge her as an influence – in the case of Grace Jones it’s real.
There is an emphasis now on Jones’ age. Of course there is – youth has become a cultural obsession and observing its decay a national blood sport. She may never have actually revealed it, but she is believed to now be in her sixties. She has the energy and movements of someone thirty years younger. She does look different, but why wouldn’t she? She mysteriously now has a prominent gap between her teeth, which was never there before, and her body is bigger and stronger looking. Yet her appearance is somehow more real now, and she remains striking in a way that is uncommon. But this is Grace post-Jean-Paul Goude, Studio 54 and Russell Harty – this was a time where she was considered more alien than person, and the fear of that persona was indeed palpable. And so on that note let’s go back to 1981.
I grew up in a small market town in Essex and when I was 12, already aware that I was gay. Following my fascination (and obsession) with Kate Bush, my next hero worship, much to the confusion of my parents, was Grace Jones. I was so enraptured by this woman that I was enraged when the Smith Hits review of her first foray into new wave and reggae, ‘Warm Leatherette’, gave it 3 stars out of 10. I had to take action. I did the right thing and wrote a letter to the magazine expressing my horror at the dismissal of this “beautiful and odd” album (as my letter of complaint described it) and it was duly published.
After many days, weeks and months of going in and out of the town centre’s tiny independent record shop, I finally had the follow up to ‘Warm Leatherette’ in my hands. The album cover has Grace Jones cut to the waist in a tux, bare chested, all right angles and smoking a cigarette. She was blue-black, and this was the singular image that accompanied Nightclubbing. The LP was concealed in a plain, black inner sleeve, no lyrics and with no photo on the back cover. Even then she understood the power of holding back.
Feeling like a Woman,
Looking like a Man,
Sounding like a no-no,
Mating when I can –
I can’t remember exactly how those words made me feel when I first heard them, but for someone who knew he was different they struck a strong cord – so much so that ‘Walking in the Rain’, the first song on Nightclubbing, still to this day makes me feel very much alive. Like ‘Warm Leatherette’ before it, the Alex Sadkin and Chris Blackwell produced Nightclubbing is predominately a covers album. ‘Walking in the Rain’ being originally by Flash and the Pan, an Australian male-led group, and although the song sounds as though it were written specially for Grace her version isn’t a massive departure from the original. Performed in Jones’ often preferred style during this period as a deep-pitched, threatening and spoken narrative (which was originally established in her version of The Pretenders’ ‘Private Life’) it is nihilistic and alienated.
On first play of the album ‘Pull Up to The Bumper’ astounded me and it’s fair to say that I became addicted to it. The first 30 seconds or so mimic the sound of an engine revving up to the very literal inclusion of various impatient car horns, male yelps and calls; I just couldn’t quench my desire for it. Everyone knows ‘Pull Up to The Bumper’. It’s Jones most famous song, and everyone also knows that it’s about fucking. But at 13 I didn’t quite get the now almost embarrassingly obvious lyrics and car parking metaphors. I knew it was about a certain kind of sex with men and knew that it sounded dangerous and exciting and forbidden.
‘Bumper’ is the first of only three original songs on the album to be co-written by Jones. Along with the more melodically and lyrically abstract ‘Feel Up’ it is also the most euphoric, sexually liberated and obviously dance influenced cut. Both tracks have been remixed several times: ‘Pull Up to The Bumper’, in its hard to find Disconet interpretation; and in the case of ‘Feel Up’, Larry Levan’s version contained completely new verses and a differently sung chorus, with both being the definitive re-workings of the already outstanding album originals.
The arrangement of Bill Withers ‘Use Me’ is akin to the original’s laid back funk and nonchalance being pulled back tight into a bunch, with any stray, untamed ends being snipped off by pinching shears. It is uncompromising, with vocals bordering on the hysterical but tight with tension and barley repressed horror. Where Withers was compliant in being another’s emotional play thing, Jones is aghast. This reversal of reaction works wonderfully and the clatter and clash of Uziah ‘Sticky’ Thompson percussion and Sly Dunbar’s jumping bass add to the neurotic undertone and urgency of this interpretation, and it’s one of the best performances on the album.
Payback for this abuse comes later in the album with an incredulous sounding Jones at the point of violence on the Sting-penned ‘Demolition Man’. The chorus, the proper lyrics of which eluded me for years, sum up her position and the pointlessness of compromise. It’s a study in power and gender politics and is annihilating-Grace at her most unstoppable.
I’m a walking nightmare, an arsenal full of doom.
I kill conversation as I walk into the room.
I’m a three line whip, I’m the sort of thing they ban.
I’m a walking disaster, I’m a Demolition Man –
“Can you hear me?”: the title track, a spacious and dub threatening cover of the Iggy Pop and David Bowie song, opens with Jones asking for more volume, demanding to be heard over Sly and Robbie’s wobbling and doom laden chords. A live staple for years, it opened her infamous 1981 One Man Show, and the more recent Hurricane shows. In many ways it collects all of the essential Jones references together in one song. Drugs, a depraved glamour, sex and, of course, the act of clubbing. Look at that list and see, for better or worse, what is commonly referred to as ‘gay culture’. I hadn’t consciously made that link as a preteen in 1982 but it was certainly a precursor of what was on coming.
The staccato and jolting ‘Art Groupie’ could initially be perceived as the album’s one minor anomaly, but to judge it as that would be short sighted. The shortest track at just over 2 minutes, it is the second co-write by Jones and was written specifically for the Nightclubbing sessions. It is possibly the only track that could be considered as autobiographical. Always the muse (her last album released as a warbling disco chanteuse in 1979 was actually titled Muse), Jones has up until very recently continued to refer to herself as the eternal art groupie, and her love of collaborations with artists such as Chris Cunningham and Banksy has continued throughout the years. It’s a minor track maybe but one that still surprises today with its starkness and simplicity. Like the majority of Nightclubbing it sounds like a future release and its refusal to date is part of its brilliance.
Love me in a picture,
Kiss me in a cast,
Touch me in a sculpture,
Whisper in my mask.
Admire me in glory, an Art Groupie –
‘Libertango (I’ve Seen That Face Before)’ is the only song on Nightclubbing that explicitly references Jones’ previous work as a mid-seventies Tom Moulton-produced disco queen. It is not a disco track, but then neither was her version of ‘La Vie en Rose’, the one and only track she still continues to perform live that predates the Compass Point material. Like ‘La Vie’, ‘Libertango’ also features accordion, uses passages of French language, and is whole hearted and unashamedly romantic. It is one of the most soothing and endearing moments of her discography and has deservedly gone on to achieve the status of a classic, a song that will be forever synonymous with Jones.
The final track sees Jones use her voice in a different way than she does on the rest of the album. Like ‘Demolition Man’ and Sting, ‘I’ve Done It Again’ was written especially for Jones by another iconic performer. Marianne Faithful’s song is a reflective meditation on a life lived to the full and is one of the most tender and sincere performances Jones has ever given. With a soaring middle eight on an album that almost dispenses with them entirely, instead opting for instrumental bridges, the album closer is in fact the one wild card where a glimmer of vulnerability adds an important insight into the Jones persona.
Grace Jones made one more full length recording with the Compass Point All Stars. With Jones co-writing 6 of the 7 songs on 1982’s ‘Living My Life’, it contained some of the best material of the trilogy and, by some distance, also some of the weakest. It was almost thirty years before she made another album that managed to capture the essence of Grace in the way that the Compass Point sessions managed to. Released in 2008, Hurricane won’t speak to young, alienated and confused gay kids the way that Nightclubbing did for me and others all those years ago, but that wasn’t its intention. With no gay role models, no gay people full stop, the persistent and violent homophobia I experienced in my small Essex town (I was ‘obviously gay’ and never had the luxury of being able to conceal it as can be the desire of a young person placed in an hostile environment) was made tolerable by the intense relationship that I had formed with the music and images of Grace Jones. I knew that she would challenge the prejudice I faced without fear, that she would be an ally, and by her doing that she made me fearless and she helped me to survive. Thanks Grace.