100 Essential CDs – Number 59 –The Grace Jones Story – Grace Jones

The Grace Jones Story- Grace Jones   (Island 2006)

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I’ve dealt pretty comprehensively with Grace’s finest moments – her disco years of 1977 and 78 and her trio of Tom Moulton produced albums – Portfolio, Fame and Muse but Grace finished the decade with a career in decline.  Disco was not the force it once was and she faced the loss of a recording contract and career like many of her contemporary second division disco divas.  However, Island head honcho Chris Blackwell had other ideas in mind which made her a household name and has given her the longevity of a forty year performing career.  Actually, in my opinion the post Disco albums are a little patchy with some moments of greatness and some fairly ordinary pedestrian tracks and style sometimes wins over substance.  The best of these albums is “Nightclubbing” , but the best tracks from this and her other albums can be found on this 28 track 2-CD compilation released in 2006.  For those who want a little less Jones her biggest selling album is the single CD “Island Life” collection- but this is more comprehensive and becomes my third and final (to date) Grace Jones essential CD.

We  can skip to track 12 on CD 1 because the first tracks are the highlights of the first three albums with 5 tracks from the astonishing “Portfolio”, and 3 apiece from “Fame” and “Muse”.  Track 12 is a distinct departure and is the title track from the album that rejuvenated her career, especially in the UK.  She hadn’t exactly been away for long- just a year between “Muse” and “Warm Leatherette” but this was a completely different Grace we were hearing.  From the punk thrash guitar intro and a snarling vocal in a song originally recorded a couple of years earlier by The Normals – this hits a groove and doesn’t let up.  We really hadn’t heard anything like this by a female performer before.  The concept of the album was quite simple.  It’s cover versions of mainly new wave hits, recorded at the Compass Point Studios in The Bahamas with a rhythm section headed up by reggae legends Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare and produced by Alex Sadkin and Chris Blackwell turning this new Grace into a hybrid of reggae, punk, new wave and R&B, whilst still making it relevant to the discos which were still thriving in the UK.  She ups the pace for Roxy Music’s “Love Is The Drug”.  This was surely before its time.  Six years after the release of the album this was released as a single and cracked the UK Top 40 (#35 1986).  You do get the full 7 minute 15 version of this track, which is actually a little long.   The first CD ends with her version of a good song by the Marvelettes, the Smokey Robinson penned “The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game”.  This has a stronger R&B edge to some of the tracks on “Leatherette” and has always been my favourite from that album.

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The second CD opens with the track which gave her a first UK hit (#17- 1980).  Chrissie Hynde’s “Private Life” was a track from The Pretenders’ debut album released earlier that year and was the first sign that Grace was back.  I remember that summer being delighted that Grace had made a commercial breakthrough and at the time I really loved it and the “Warm Leatherette” album which I played constantly.  Used to the splodge of vivid colour of the artwork of  Richard Bernstein the stark black and white photo of Grace with huge shoulders was an indication of the way things would go.  (The CD cover is a rather nondescript blue-tinged photo) .  She had gone from disco diva to androgynous predator.  This was the first time we had seen the artwork of lover Jean-Paul Goude on her covers.  “Private Life” is without doubt the most reggae influenced of the tracks and is a melange of grooves.  This track showed the direction Grace would be taking in her future albums with Sly and Robbie- moving away from the flaunting with rock and punk of some of these tracks.  But before this there is the full-length version of the B-side of “Private Life” single which didn’t actually feature on the “Warm Leatherette” album.  Her version of Joy Divison’s “I’ve Lost Control” is rather extraordinary and is the work of madness as Grace builds to what sounds like a psychotic breakdown and she intones “I’ve Lost Control” in increasingly disturbing ways until she reaches the completely demented level over a tight Sly and Robbie groove.  The album “Warm Leatherette” reached #45 in the UK and also made the Top 50 in Australia where Grace was already an established chart act.

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The second album in the Sly and Robbie Compass Point All-Stars trilogy is the most mature and is technically superb.  Produced once again by Sadkin and Blackwell from “Nightclubbing” we get five tracks of the nine tracks, kicking off with her most successful UK chart single.  “Pull Up To The Bumper” missed out on the Top 40 on first release in 1981 but got to number 12 when teamed up with “La Vie En Rose” in 1986.  This was the only Grace Jones original on the album – penned with the interestingly named Koo Koo Baya (actually the collective name of Sly and Robbie) and Dana Mano.  Grace has always got a lot of mileage (pun intended) out of the lyrics.  The car horns may suggest it is a song about motoring but it’s full of double entendre.  Grace has stated that it’s our dirty minds if we misinterpret the lyrics to mean something else- a comment usually accompanied by one of her guffaws of laughter.  This is an effective slab of funk which once again saw Grace filling dancefloors. It took her back to the Top 3 US Dance charts for the first time since “Fame”. Also from this album we get “Walking In The Rain” a melodic, mid-tempo chugger originally by Australian band Flash In The Pan.  This to me has the feel of a more sophisticated “Warm Leatherette” and with lyrics like “feeling like a woman, looking like a man” it seems to be perfect fare for Grace.  “Use Me” is a cover of a Bill Withers song, with a compelling rhythm track which feels rather empty despite the percussion which makes the gospelesque work of the backing singers very effective.  However, it’s not as empty as the next track.  The title track “Nightclubbing” is a David Bowie and  Iggy Pop song from the latter’s debut album and in Grace’s hands it becomes an apocalyptic, post-industrial sound.  It is a tour-de-force from the opening as Grace drones “It’s much louder than before, can you hear me?”  The pace is funereal, the whole thing is ice-cold and menacing and w0rks brilliantly.  This sounds like it is recorded by the Grace Jones on the front cover who is both purple and looks more like a praying mantis than a human in an extraordinary manipulated photo by Jean-Paul Goude.  The warmth returns with the accordion centred “I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango)” where the sensuality and seediness of the traditional Argentine tango is combined with Grace’s ultra-modern schtick.  This many ways feels like this album’s “La Vie En Rose” and has always been another of its highlights.  The album got to number 35 in the UK and 32 in the US, but returned her towards the top of the charts in other markets, reaching number 2 in the Netherlands, 3 in New Zealand, 4 in Sweden, 5 in France and 8 in Germany.  This was Grace at her commercial peak and with perhaps the exception of the autobiographical ballad closer “I’ve Done It Again” we have the best tracks on this compilation.

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“Living My Life” from 1982 pushed the reggae influence further but for me was a much less successful album.  The production team and the Compass Point All Stars were present and correct and this was perhaps Grace’s most personal record to date as she wrote six of the seven tracks .  From here we get “My Jamaican Guy”, a repetitive chant over an admittedly potent rhythm track and “The Apple Stretching” (the non-original written by Melvin Van Peebles) in which Grace sounds like that other European model of the disco era, Amanda Lear, in a tribute to New York, which actually sounds better now than it did when it was released and “Nipple To The Bottle”, neither of which rank amongst Grace’s best as far as I was concerned.  Could it be that her unpredictability by this stage was becoming a little predictable?  The album however, gave Grace her highest UK chart position (#15) to date and made the Top 10 again in New Zealand and Sweden, but it did not really build on the commercial highpoint of its predecessor.

We do not get anything from the Trevor Horn “Slave To The Rhythm” set which was really just the admittedly great title track stretched in various directions in what seemed like a slightly cynical attempt to fulfil record label obligations (and ironically giving Grace both her biggest chart single and studio album in the UK when both reached number 12 in 1985.)  By this time of course Grace was a movie star in films such as “Conan The Barbarian” and one of the most terrifying Bond Girls as Mayday in “View From The Kill” and this household name status helped her timely released retrospective of her years at her record label “Island Story” which gave her a UK #4, went Top 10 in Australia and Austria and topped the charts in New Zealand where Grace had always had a very strong fanbase.

On “The Grace Jones Story” we do get a couple of examples of her work beyond the Island years.  She moved to the Manhattan label and teamed up with Nile Rodgers for the excellent  “I’m Not Perfect (But I’m Perfect For You)” from 1986 and “Love On Top Of Love” from “Bulletproof Heart” from 1989 – both this and the Rodgers produced album “Inside Story” are very well worth while searching out –even if they are not essential albums.  The second CD ends with two  lesser-known Jones tracks “Someone To Love” (also from “Bulletproof Heart”) which sees a return to the mix of French and English lyrics and  “Sex Drive” from 1993 which was recorded to be part of an album “Black Marilyn” which was shelved.  It’s a hard dance track which actually when released as a single topped the US dance charts.  It’s typical Jones material with a 90’s feel.

Grace is still recording and performing worldwide and made headlines around the world when she hula-hooped throughout a rendition of “Slave To The Rhythm” in front of the Queen at her Diamond Jubilee celebration concert- probably stealing the show with just one song.  If you haven’t seen this I’m delighted to have it below this review and anyone who doubts the fabulousness which is Grace Jones needs to watch this (or give it a go yourself).  Her most recent album “Hurricane” brings the Jones sound right up to date and contains the great track “William’s Blood”.  For a career retrospective which spans two CDs and 16 years this release, presented in a book form is hard to beat.

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“The Grace Jones Story” is available from Amazon.co.uk from £16.00. In the US it is available from $34.70.

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