Fame- Grace Jones (Island 1978)
What’s this then? Two consecutive Grace Jones studio albums in the Top 5 Essential list. I’m making no apologies for this. After the superb “Portfolio” we were offered more of the same and I for one lapped it up. Released a year after the debut, sales were lower and this has gone out of print more often than its predecessor but it still sounds as good as when it was released and is an undervalued cult classic from the disco era.
True, there wasn’t a great deal of moving on from “Portfolio” but disco was still hot in 1978 and a great deal of energy had been lavished on Grace to ensure that the quality was there so why change things too much? Tom Moulton was back on board as producer – some of the same musicians and backing vocalists (The Sweethearts of Sigma) are back doing sterling work. Perhaps some of these tracks were even recorded at the same time as those on the debut. Information is a little vague on this. The quality artwork by Richard Bernstein is back, which went a long way to mythologizing the image of Grace Jones, a tactic which would be employed throughout her career. The back cover of the vinyl edition (although not the CD copy I own) contains perhaps one of the most stunning Jones illustrations ever, in a sailor’s cap, looking like Marlene Dietrich crossed with a panther. Pencils and paint on the front cover show that Jones is being viewed as a piece of artwork –and remember this is some years before Jean-Paul Goude famously begins to really play around with the visual image of the performer. The cover would have been seen as ultra-fashionably chic, once again cementing the Jones philosophy of merging the modelling and the music, the performance and the person.
Musically, there is some movement. The first side of Grace’s debut was her Broadway medley of three cover versions of recent show tunes, reformed into disco tracks. Perhaps by 1978 this particular bubble had burst and Grace is given three original songs to combine in a medley which is perhaps one of the greatest segues of three tracks since Gloria Gaynor’s “Experience” album and her (Casanova Brown/Do It Yourself/How High The Moon) trilogy. On “Portfolio” you had to wait for the beginning of side 2 to find the jewel in the crown, here Grace kicks off with the best track on the album and one of my all-time favourites.
By 1978 Disco had become far more European in flavour and Donna Summer’s megahit “I Feel Love” from the previous year had been a game-changer in that music had become more electronic. Here, however, Jones, always a radical, has eschewed the synthesizer for that big orchestral sound and some of the best session R&B musicians around, giving the lushness of the very best of the Philadelphia International sound – ironically from an artist who would find greater fame by stripping her music back to its bare minimum. But here in 1978 the fuller sound was having one of its last hurrahs with musical arrangements carried out by John Davis who had a number of club hits as the man in charge of his Monster Orchestra. He replaced another orchestra leader, Vince Montana from the Salsoul Orchestra who had performed the same duties on “Portfolio”.
The side one medley was written by Jack Robinson with James Bolden for two of the tracks and Gil Slavin for the third track. Robinson knew disco as he had written some of its biggest hits, including “I Love To Love” for Tina Charles, the sublime “If You Want It (Do It Yourself)” for Gloria Gaynor, “Strut Your Funky Stuff” for Frantique and would go on to write for that most bizarre of 80’s recording acts, Princess Stephanie of Monaco.
In many ways first track “Do Or Die” can be seen as a natural successor to the Gaynor track but Grace’s vocal imbues the whole thing with an edginess that makes you wonder just what is going on. Vince Aletti in his much referred to (by me) “Disco Files” tried to sum the whole thing up in his Record World column of July 1978 by stating “Jones remains an erratic singer, subject to bizarre vocal fluctuations that turn nearly every song into a reckless, daring roller coaster ride- both unsettling and exhilarating.” He felt that she had found a perfect match with Robinson’s lyrics which are “sometimes frankly unsophisticated but often approach the direct spare energy of the great romantic pop songs; a modern equivalent of the 60’s girl group mentality – more knowing, more ironic- but still soppy around the edges. So the songs are frequently as brash, presumptious, exaggerated and ultimately, endearing as the singer.” I think he has hit the nail firmly on the head on this and it is this heady combination which brings me joy every time I listen to this album. I love a bit of irony with my music and the greatest disco music has this in spades- think Chic, “Young Hearts Run Free”, anything by Dr Buzzard’s Savannah Band and/or Kid Creole all coming with a healthy dose of bittersweet irony which adds to their greatness.
In the first line of “Do Or Die” I think Grace is telling us she is an “operator” (that odd vocal inflection coming immediately to the fore). She “can sell an Eskimo snow” and there is probably no doubt about that. There’s a lot going on in the rhythm and percussion department of this song. It’s boastful and yet she may have met her match as the man she is after is telling her he’s not interested. Jones isn’t taking no for an answer, even if he is chasing her with a gun (!). She’ll get her man if it is the last thing she’ll do and boy, do we believe her. That other great one-off Eartha Kitt covered this song on her album “I’m Still Here” but Jones’ version has the full-frontal attack which makes this great. It was released as a single by Island in 1978 and attracted considerable attention in the clubs in the US, Canada and Spain it did not cross over to the pop charts. For a disco record it’s surprisingly uncommercial. There’s a subtle(ish) key change into “Pride”, a song which feels a little like “Sorry” from the first album as it is more understated. In the complex world of Jones emotions Pride is being both proclaimed and rubbished “what good is pride alone at night?” There’s a good little percussion breakdown mid-way with some funky bass guitar by Jimmy Williams doing battle with the percussion of Larry Washington and the Sweethearts of Sigma offering some very Salsoul Orchestra sounding support before Grace storms back into the song with her usual gusto.
“Fame” is another tale of lost love. In fact, there’ s quite a bit of unrequited love in this album. For the first album Grace was defiant, yet here there’s more vulnerability and maybe this change is another reason it gets the thumbs up from me. This track doesn’t quite have the magic of the preceding two. Grace is both claiming and blaming fame here. Taken as a whole these three tracks add up to eighteen minutes of high quality disco.
The second side of the vinyl copy opens with a track which unashamedly follows up from the high point of “Portfolio”, but as “La Vie En Rose” was the best thing Grace ever recorded perhaps it’s no surprise that there would be an attempt to re-create this. It’s Grace’s version of another French standard “Autumn Leaves”, known originally as “Les Feuilles Mortes” written by Jacques Prevert with English lyrics by Johnny Mercer. The introduction has Grace whispering in French over a violin solo by the quaintly named Piggy Pigerino, then the “La Vie En Rose” feel kicks in. It lacks the amazing build which that track had. There is, however, a nifty bit of what sounds like steel guitar after the first verse. By mid-way through any intention that this isn’t “La Vie” part 2 gets thrown out of the window and even the “La Vie En Rose” chant by Grace is substituted by “Les Feuilles Mortes”. There’s the same combination of the two languages with Francophile Grace slipping easily between the two. There’s no marks for originality here but you can’t blame them for trying and it still all works. It was released as a single in France where “La Vie” had been a big hit, but it did not chart.
“All On A Summer’s Night” is this album’s “That’s The Trouble” thematically and Grace is back in casual mode after a one night stand. Wah-Wah guitars hit a groove while Grace intones that it “may be love or it may be just the wine” and “maybe I should feel a twinge of shame/we’re almost lovers, I don’t know your name”. The percussion break is a little static, which sounds a little dated nowadays but Grace pulls this one off with great aplomb. “Am I Ever Gonna Fall In Love In New York’s City” sees Grace looking for the real thing in a song which is so delightfully corny and cheesy. She’s just the girl from Tennessee searching for love and lamenting that “There’s no future in single bars/nothing but the one night stars”. Grace really sings in the introduction – probably more than for entire albums of her later career . The song is repetitive and I think this might be a case of a song which only Grace could get away with. That deadpan vocal delivery allows her to pull off kitsch with panache. Everything is thrown at this song and Grace emerges shining.
Closing track “Below The Belt” unites Grace with Pierre Papadiamandis who penned the original songs on “Portfolio”. It’s not as good as those tracks although it has that Philadelphia International sound and is certainly more subtle than some of the tracks on display here and does not reduce the sense of exhilaration this album gives me. Vince Aletti aptly concludes in his contemporary review of the album- “Fame is a marvellous combination of chutzpah and charisma from which Grace emerges quite triumphant.”
Artists and their muse – Warhol, Jones and Keith Haring
But once again the anticipated commercial crossover didn’t happen. In Both Italy and Sweden she found herself getting her second Top 30 album (Italy 15, Sweden 22) and it did make a very brief appearance in the US Top 100 albums, which “Portfolio” had missed out on. But the club scene loved it enough for Island to try for three in a row the following year with “Muse”. By 1979 Disco had gone completely above ground and with everyone from Ethel Merman to Johnny Mathis and The Rolling Stones making disco and an underground artist with cult appeal would find it harder to compete. “Muse” is not an essential album by any means as it begins to feel like over-treading a formula. It was an album that took Grace’s plan for world domination almost back to square one. It is not without its merits, particularly the track “Don’t Mess With The Messer” and the Disco meets Gospel of “Saved”. Once the 80’s came along many Disco Divas were finding their recording contracts being terminated. However, Island Records could see that Grace had a shelf-life beyond Disco and by returning her back to her Jamaican roots gave her the fame that “Fame” only promised.
I have such a huge soft spot for the disco stylings of Grace Jones and anyone wanting to explore this period of her career should seek out the three CD set “The Disco Years” which packages the first three albums together for the first time. The fact that this was not released until 2015 shows there is still a great demand for these early tracks. Deservedly so.
The edited version of “Do Or Die” below comes from an Italian music show and words will fail you………………………….
“Fame” is available from Amazon.co.uk from £6.99 and it can be streamed from Spotify For more Grace the three disc set “The Disco Years” is currently available for £11.46 (it is also newly available on vinyl). In the US it is available used from $16.21 but the three disc set can be bought in a number of audio formats.
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