Grace Of The 80’s

Grace Jones Island Life 02

I always say that I wasn’t big on the 80’s.  If you collared me and asked me about that superficial excessive decade I tend to mutter something about Wales not really having an 80’s, we just had two lots of the 70’s and went straight into the 90’s.  I used to think that made me sound all hip, knowing and cool.

It is a complete load of bollocks though.

I’m 42, the 80’s were my teens and earlier.  I loved ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ and Back To The Future as much as anyone else my age.  Hell, my first single was Robert Palmer Addicted To Love, you don’t get a whole lot more 80’s than that.  Okay so there was truck loads of terrible shite around, but surely there is in any decade? it’s just that they wore worse trousers in the 1980’s.  Far worse. And then tried to sell them to you.  Look at all the great stuff from then – 80’s metal made me who I am today*, think of the rise of Def Jam, the indie scene, interesting dance stuff, hardcore punk, some amazing pop stuff etc. etc.

So ignore me – I know very little.

Grace Jones Island Life 04

I knew a little about Grace Jones, the scary strangely angular lady who I knew mostly from A View To A Kill, who also made that song about a bumper and starred in that scary Citroen DX advert.  It took the love of a good woman, Mrs 1537, to put me right.  Whenever she could get a tune in edgeways she often used to pop on a cassette of Grace Jones Island Life.  And I listened, and listened and then actually listened, then bought it and Warm Leatherette on eBay in 2006, I remember them both arriving on the same day.

Island Life gets spun quite a lot by me and from the brilliant cover by Jean-Paul Goude on in, is pure art; or maybe pure artifice.  By the way, the position of Grace’s body on the front cover is anatomically impossible – I should know I attempted to recreate it whilst holding my daughter’s hairdryer this morning**; like a lot of Goude’s images of Jones it was artfully created from a montage of photographs.  From the second the acoustic guitar is strummed at the beginning of ‘La Vie En Rose’ it just oozes class, in fact I find Jones’ version of the song little short of astonishing, no gimmicks no frills, she just sings the hell out of it.  Unfortunately I don’t have much time for the two disco tracks, ‘I Need A Man’ and ‘Do Or Die’ that follow it, all a bit second-rate and formulaic; anyone could have sung them.

I'm inordinately proud of this one
I’m inordinately proud of this one

Just as well then that in ‘Private Life’ Grace found a great song, courtesy of Chrissie Hynde, an excellent producer in Chris Blackwell and a genius set of musicians in The Compass Point Allstars^.  More than all that though, she found that style, that perfect clipped cold phrasing that, to me, actually sounded like the straight lines of her flat-topped androgynous image; possibly a corollary of the look.  I think Grace Jones is an excellent cover artist, not really an interpreter of others’ songs she tends to grab them and bend them to her own strengths, devices and will entirely; musically at least, lacking the humility which sometimes makes people too reverential with other people’s tunes.

Grace Jones Island Life 06a

The second side of Island Life is just completely flawless.  Her frenetic cover of ‘Love Is The Drug’ is just flat-out excellent, six minutes very well spent; in a certain mood I prefer it to the original.  The guitar of Barry Reynolds adding a little more bite here than elsewhere on the album.  ‘Pull Up To The Bumper’ is another great, great track a perfect melding of funk and reggae rhythms with lots of very satisfying squonking squelchy synth noises, I can’t keep still while it’s playing .  Grace’s driving advice here is unlikely to get you through your driving test successfully:

Pull up to my bumper baby
In your long black Limousine
Pull up to my bumper baby
And drive it in between

Pull up, to it
Don’t drive, through it
Back it, up twice
Now that, fit’s nice

Apparently in a 2008 interview she said that the lyrics aren’t necessarily sexual – so it’s clearly all in my smutty little mind; not even that line about lubricating it later on? just me then.

Next track ‘Walking In The Rain’ is the source of that elusive AC/DC / Grace Jones connection that has puzzled rock scholars since, ooh, probably midday today.  A cover of a Flash & The Pan song penned by Harry Vanda and George Young, of Easybeats fame and later producers of some of the best music the world has ever seen (courtesy of George’s pesky younger brothers).  Grace plays it cold and poised again to further great effect on this track.  ‘My Jamaican Guy’ is the most straight-forward reggae-influenced track here, albeit incorporating plenty of New York dance touches – I found myself singing it, very unself-consciously in the showers at the gym on Friday, so it goes.  I had absolutely no idea until just now that the LP closer ‘Slave To The Rhythm’, a quintessential Jones track, was originally intended by Trevor Horn for Frankie Goes To Hollywood – I can only imagine how odd that could have been.  As it stands it has a stately disco torch song gravitas which I really couldn’t imagine anyone else ever carrying off.

So the greatest hits was brilliant, but what about one of the source albums, Warm Leatherette?  well firstly I have to confess something, I genuinely think that until I wrote this, I had only listened to the first side of this LP once, nothing else, I hadn’t even flipped it over.  That’s horrible, it makes me feel like a glutton contemplating his fifth cheeseburger and peanut butter fried sandwich.  It’s a pretty good LP too.

Robo-Smurf Dominatrix
Grace in full-on Robo-Smurf Dominatrix mode

Kicking off with ‘Warm Leatherette’, Grace is immediately into her stride with the whole overly enunciated chilly vocals, set over a brilliant robo-funk background.  I thought this sounds like J.G Ballard’s Crash when I did the ironing to it earlier today, before reading up about the original version by The Normal and discovering that was exactly what it was – I’m so learned and hip!^^  ‘Hear the crashing steel / Feel the steering wheel’, indeed – but as we have already established Grace isn’t someone to get motoring tips from, she’d smack your bitch up every time*^.  Skipping over ‘Private Life’ we have ‘A Rolling Stone’ which is a bit of a throw back to her previous disco albums and a bit lightweight in this company – it was 1980 now, she should have left the late 70’s where they lay.

Then we crash full-on into ‘Love Is The Drug’ but in a very different mix to the one on Island Life, it’s two minutes longer for starters and is rockier, the guitar of Barry Reynolds being foregrounded in the mix.  There is also a quiet coda with Jones moaning about how she ‘has to have that drug’, in an eroto-narcotic fever – super!  The more I listen to it, the more I like it.  Her cover of Smokey Robinson’s ‘The Hunter Gets Captured By The Prey’ is good, a neat melding of soul and reggae rhythms again and you are minded by just what a great band of musicians this is, everything played and underplayed to perfection.

Grace Jones Leatherette 02

The winningly titled ‘Bullshit’ is next up, sounding like an angry Irene Cara more than anything else, it’s not much of a song but the sound is great – form over substance a bit, and they could have cut two minutes off the end without damaging anything; but there again, I’m a sucker for songs with swearing in.  Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers is up next and I understand he wrote a third verse for ‘Breakdown’ just for her and I like its soulful mix of reggae rhythms (them again!) and an almost bluesy undercurrent, the vocals add a touch of feeling and humanity on an LP that’s otherwise pretty devoid of it – but I understand that’s the point.

original cover of Warm Leatherette, almost
original cover of Warm Leatherette, almost

I have to say though that Warm Leatherette, in the re-issued format I have has a Godawful cover.  Instead of the original sinister samurai created by Jean-Paul Goude (above) they used a still from a performance video which makes her look nothing more, nor less than a robo-Smurf dominatrix – maybe this is what she was striving for? I don’t know, it was a funny decade.  But as part of my occasional series of cover redesigns, after my triumphs with Brian Eno and Black Mountain here is my honest attempt at a better cover for Warm Leatherette.  Prepare whichever part of the brain that deals with both being impressed and feelings of extreme jealousy, you wouldn’t want to catch it cold with this.

Warm Leatherette Alt Cover

And that took me precisely 10 minutes to do.  Which is, I’d wager, four minutes longer than anyone at Island Records spent on the re-release cover…

I’ve detained you long enough here already, I may not be totally reconciled to the 1980’s but I like Grace Jones a lot – superficial, brash, overly-poised, lusty and a little bit nuts, just like the decade itself.

Grace Jones Island Life 06

397 Down.

P.S – I know her musical career started in the 70’s but that would undermine everything above, so Shhhh!

*so beware people, beware.

**I should be okay with the right chiropractic treatment, thanks for asking.

^Sly and Robbie being one of my all-time favourite rhythm sections, I already knew a lot of their stuff through Old Man 1537.

^^I like Ballard and read Crash because Richey Edwards from the Manic Street Preachers used to bang on about it a lot in interviews.  Never bothered with the film but I really rate the novel.

*^the Prodigy’s original cover design was going to be a VW Beetle crashed into a lamppost.

 

6 thoughts on “Grace Of The 80’s

  1. I recently listened to the reissue of ‘Nightclubbing’ and quite liked it. Prior to that I thought Grace Jones was just another weird creature from the 80s. Commercials, films(who can forget ‘Vamp’? I can’t, apparently), and a great source for parody. But after hearing Nightclubbing I realize I was terribly wrong about her. To me, her sound is ‘Island Devo’. All angular and jagged, but with an island wooziness to it. Good stuff.

    Like

  2. Though decidedly luke-warm on the delights of Ms Jones (really, I’d rather suffer through a re-run of her distant cousin Bridget’s travails) I am massively impressed by the visuals for this post. The little French dude perfectly captures my state when in close proximity to the artist, but it is that first BW image is an absolute ripper and shoe-in for the lego-pic Hall of Fame. Well done, my son.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s