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.

100 Essential CDs – Number 4 –Fame– Grace Jones

Fame- Grace Jones   (Island 1978)

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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.

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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 Gaynors “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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.”

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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.

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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.

100 Essential CDs – Number 1 – Portfolio – Grace Jones

Portfolio- Grace Jones   (Island 1977)

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So here it is – the album which I will save above all others from the theoretical burning building (at least I hope it’s theoretical- I don’t want to actually have to make the choice).  This is the CD I play probably more than any other and have done really since its release back in 1977.  It was not a big seller yet has remained consistently available.  It is the ultimate cult album from one of the ultimate cult artists.  It did establish Grace as a hit artist in a number of markets gaining a Top 30 placing in Australia (27), Sweden (22), Italy (9) and The Netherlands (8).

Grace Jones was born in Jamaica and had a very strict upbringing.  Things got tougher for her when her parents migrated to America, aiming to settle there before bringing the family over so Grace and her siblings were brought up for a time by very devout church-going relatives.  Grace was always going to rebel.  She eventually joined her parents in Syracuse and the awkward tall teenage girl drifted into acting and then modelling.  It became clear to Grace that if she wanted to make it as a model she would have to get away from the USA as her brand of exoticism was too much for the conservative model agencies.  She moved to Paris where she became for a time one third of a modelling agency where the two other girls on the books were her friends Jerry Hall and Jessica Lange.  It was the image of Grace Jones that first caught my attention.  I remember a photo of her being published in “Record Mirror” and I bought this debut album on the strength of that photo without hearing a note.  Never has an impulse buy paid off so well.

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Grace was in France really not knowing of the disco explosion that was happening in New York in the mid 70’s.  She had made some demos in Paris and a New York couple called Sy and Eileen Berlin, who had been in the clothing industry but were looking to move into music took note.  Grace’s early tracks were lined up for a label they had planned called Beam Junction.  The popularity of the early singles led to a record label with Island Records the home of many Jamaican recording artists and  run by the man who would become a great friend of Grace’s, Chris Blackwell.  Grace, in her 2015 autobiography “I’ll Never Write My Memoirs” had this to say;

“The fact that I made disco music was an accident, really.  When I made my first records, I didn’t think of them as being disco.  I made them in France and the word discotheque is a French word, but it did not have the meaning that it was beginning to have in New York.  I didn’t characterize them as anything.  They were simply songs with a little bit of soul and rhythm, echoes of singing in church, a sense of something showy whipped up by being in Paris with all the fashion, around all the people making it happen.”

Back in America genius record producer Tom Moulton was brought in to mix the tracks Jones had already recorded and eventually to put together the other songs which made up this seven track debut.  Grace may have not been aware of disco initially but she recorded the perfect disco record which clearly illustrates what disco was all about.  As well as the rhythm and melodies there was the hedonism, the camp sensibility, the excellent production values and for me most of all the chutzpah of Grace the artist with a voice that could hover towards the flat end of the scale performing with such gusto that she just had to become a household name.

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Producer, re-mixer and disco legend Tom Moulton

The look of the album also suggested something different.  I have held onto my vinyl copy because the CD could not reproduce fully the look and feel of the album.  The Warholesque artwork was not by Andy, who would become Grace’s big Studio 54 disco pal but by Richard Berenstein who worked for Warhol’s “Interview” magazine who was one of the first of many who would manipulate the image of Grace Jones from photographs.  Grace’s face is in tones of purples and greens on the striking blue background of the front cover and on the back as a disembodied head in reds and purple with a glittery tongue.  Grace Jones had arrived.

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The first side of the album also summed up Disco.  Grace was not the greatest singer yet the idea was to get her to tackle three demanding recent Broadway tunes which would segue into one another and would use some of the greatest Philadelphia session musicians.  Vincent Montana Jnr, the vibe player and brains behind the Salsoul Orchestra was brought in to do the arrangements and the celebrated backing vocalists, known as The Sweethearts of Sigma, Barbara Ingram, Carla Benson and Evette Benton were on hand should Grace find herself deviating too far from the melody.  The result is around eighteen minutes of sheer joy, which I turn to whenever I need a boost- the ultimate guilty pleasure.

It wasn’t that original to disco-fy old songs.  Gloria Gaynor had exploded onto the pop charts and was heralded the Queen of Disco by raiding the Motown songbook and older songs such as “Tangerine” (Salsoul Orchestra), “What A Difference A Day Makes” (Esther Phillips) were becoming mainstays of this recent form of music.  The song chosen for Grace’s Broadway medley were quite recent showstoppers.  The whole thing kicks off with “Send In The Clowns” from “A Little Light Music” (first produced on Broadway in 1973) which had that year already just survived a vocal version by Elizabeth Taylor in the film version but whereas Taylor seems apologetic Grace is going for it.  Grace’s vocal is unique and gells excellently with the “sweet” background vocals.  Her unusual phrasing, long notes and just-on-key performance are all used for excellent effect.  There’s great work going on in the piano and rhythm section. The track moves with a flourish  into “What I Did For Love” from 1975’s “A Chorus Line”.  There is no doubt that Grace is camping this up with a vengeance.  The backing girls are given more to do here and their harmonies are sublime.  The rhythm, crashes, builds, breaks down and builds up in a template for the disco sound.  The third track is the weakest of the three, but then the song “Tomorrow” came from “Annie” which opened the same year as this album was released so would have been less familiar  and Strouse and Charnin’s song is never going to be of the same quality as the Sondheim and Hamlisch tunes that precede it.  Once again Grace gives it her all- although it does get a little repetitive before the end.  It does however, perfectly fit the concept and the production and musicianship is excellent.

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Grace at Studio 54

If the producers had gone for more of the same for the second side then maybe we would have a very good solid disco concept, not startlingly original and probably not essential.  It is the second side that makes this album for me – bringing remixed versions of her tracks originally recorded in France with another French standard which is one of the highpoints of the whole Disco era.

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The second side kicks off with Grace’s finest moment  of her long music career, her version of a 1945 song with lyrics originally written by France’s most famous chanteuse, Edith Piaf.  “La Vie En Rose” needs to be heard in its seven and a half minute glory. (The video below from a 1977 European pop show is the edited single version).  The lengthy introduction with woodblock and guitar builds things up beautifully into a kind of bossa-nova feel which would have ensured this went down a storm in Latin discos.  It’s coming on for two minutes before Grace makes her entrance, speaking in French before easing into the familiar melody.  This works because of its sense of exotic – the French lyrics, the latin rhythms and Grace soaring her way vocally.  This track is often a staple of live shows and Grace has said of the song, “That’s a very special song to me. Oh God, I cry every time I sing it. I had quite a few French lovers, so every time I sing it I think about them.”  I love Grace’s vocal on this.  At the time of its release music journalist Vince Aletti was writing a column in Record World which he put together in the five-star rated book “The Disco Files” .  This is what he had to say about this track;

“building to an emotional peak from a minimal, delicate, seductively languorous arrangement of piano, guitar and percussion.  Grace, singing in both French and English, uses the simplicity of the production as the perfect foil, strutting across it, purring, growling, shouting and whispering like an actress working her lines for all they’re worth.”

I couldn’t put it better myself.  This track gave Grace her first international hit single going Top 5 in France, Italy and the Netherlands.  In the UK Grace had to wait another nine years for it to be re-issued as a double A side with “Pull Up To The Bumper” where it did more than help that track get to number 12.  Grace has never had a Top 40 hit single in the US, so that decision to make a move to France to find fame might have been the right one after all.

Grace goes unusually passive on the next track, the apologetic “Sorry” which certainly has that Philadelphia feel.  It’s a tale of jealousy written by Jones alongside Pierre Papadiamandis.  Jones has been caught out after a rendezvous with an ex-lover . The rap “he loves me too and he’s not jealous of you” shows where Jones is coming from.  The song is basically trite but Grace pulls it all off with panache.  This was a double A sided single with “That’s The Trouble” written by the same song-writing team and this is a great, infectious track where everyone appears to be having a good time.  Taken at quite a fair old pace, Grace laments being followed by men who fall in love with her instantly.  “Every man I see taking every little thing so heavily”.  Grace isn’t into commitment but those around her seem to be.  This is establishing the Grace Jones image of a strong, attractive, desirable woman.  She performed this song many times live in nightclubs, including Studio 54, and those booking her really did not know what they were getting- occasionally bare-breasted, painted, or even with a leopard on a chain – this lady was certainly coming from a different place from previous disco divas.

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Her gay appeal was established very early on with her first single release which becomes the closing track of the album.  In “I Need A Man” Grace is not going to be wasting her time cooking (it was hard to imagine Grace cooking!).  She ‘s out to get her man “then at night I won’t be lonely/knowing I’m the only one”.  The song is predatory, sexual and yet has a yearning which shows the contradictions of being Grace Jones.  It also has a fervour which could almost be described as gospel-esque, although it’s not religious salvation Grace is looking for. The track was an instant success in the Discos and took Grace to the top of the American dance charts.  In a track from her later “Slave To The Rhythm” album,  (“The Frog And The Princess” ) narrator Ian McShane relates the words of her lover and manager Jean- Paul Goude who spoke of the ambiguity  of his first viewing of Grace watching her sing “I Need A Man” in a New York nightclub “Les Mouches”  and looking like a man, to a room full of gay men.  He knew then that this radical, electric performer would be his muse.  When Grace ends the track with the spoken “perhaps that man is you!” you can’t help but smile nor have a slight shiver up the spine!

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The complexity of the artist is evident from this first album.  Rebellious and radical yet prepared to perform a Broadway medley this is just what Grace Jones was all about.  Predictably unpredictable merging the worlds of fashion and music, a punk sensibility with disco.  I knew she was going to go far.

Portfolio is is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £7.33, used from £1.97 and as a download for £6.93.  In the US it is currently $8.99 new,  used from $1.79 and download for $5.99.  It is also available to stream on Spotify in the UK .

I’ll Never Write My Memoirs – Grace Jones (2015) – A Real Life Review

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This is the book I’ve waited years to be written.  Over the years I’ve completed a number of publisher surveys regarding Celebrity Biographies,  a question often asked is “Who would you most like to write their autobiography?”  Without fail I always answer “Grace Jones” and here at long last it is.

There are a number of reasons I wanted to read this book and ordered it from Amazon so it would be delivered on the day it came out.  Firstly, Grace is a true original, there really is no-one like her.  Also, she must surely have a story to tell, the people she has known, the whole surviving the hedonism of the 70’s thing, the whole Art, Celebrity, Music, Fashion involvement, but perhaps the most significant for me was because the image of Grace Jones is so strong, I wanted to know how much of the real Grace would be allowed to filter through in her life story.

We’re not hiding the ghost-writer here.  This is Grace’s story as told to Paul Morley.  British writer Paul has spent years as a leading music writer, has participated in the madness of the music business itself as member of the Art of Noise and worked with Grace on her 1985 “Slave To The Rhythm” album project.  He obviously has the experience and trust to get the best out of Grace and this is the result.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the importance of image and her background as a model, my first introduction to Grace Jones was through a photograph.  It was probably in “Blues & Soul” magazine or “Record Mirror” in 1977 and through the wonders of the internet I can produce this picture here

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At the time Grace had just released her first album and there were stories of her performing in New York nightclubs with whips and a leopard, arriving on the back of a Harley Davidson, performing in under-dressed extravaganzas which although commonplace today were really quite revolutionary then .  On the strength of the picture alone I went out and bought the album, without hearing a note from it.  I had to hear what the woman who looked like this sounded like.

Grace had got into music through modelling.  Because of her skin colour and her determination not to fit into a round hole she moved to Paris and became at one time one third of a modelling agency whose other two signings were women who became life-long friends, Jerry Hall and Jessica Lange.  She became for a while The Disco Queen; recreated herself in 1980 with a completely different sound and became a household name.  Movies beckoned, most significantly, the part of Mayday in the Bond film “A View To A Kill”.  In recent years we know her for hula-hooping her way through the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Celebration concert and still turning out music with her UK Chart album success “Hurricane” in 2008- over 30 years after her first album release.

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Grace and close friend Jerry Hall

Grace is surrounded in her own mythology.  Part of this has been because of the manipulation of her image by one time lover and father of her son, French artist Jean-Paul Goude which has made her seem at various times warrior-like, masculine, robotic, machine-like, animalistic even insect-like.  Grace has both exposed herself  totally and hidden herself totally and the lines between what is real and what is artistic representation have been more blurred for her than for any other performer.  Her background is chilling – a harsh upbringing amongst a very religious family in Jamaica which saw regular beatings and instilled in Grace the need to rebel.  Moving to be with her parents to Syracuse, USA at a time where there was greater freedom certainly turned her head and  from then there was no looking back, and very few regrets.  Grace is excellent in this book in conveying the difficulties of her background and what that has meant for her life.

But one thing you are never going to find from Grace is her age.  Time is a shifting concept for her and she goes to great lengths to explain why this number cannot be revealed.

“The world likes to know the age of someone, so I would often be asked.  I am honestly never sure, so when it comes to working it out, to work out how old I am,  I take something important, like my son’s age, and if he is thirty-three, and I was, say, twenty-nine when I had him, then I do the math.  So if you ask me now how old I am, nothing comes to mind straightaway.  To some extent, it could be any number.  Even then I am not entirely sure; it’s not because I am hiding my age, embarrassed or annoyed by it, but because it is not something I keep to hand.  It’s not the most important thing about me.  There are more important things about me than my age that will give you a better idea of who and what I am.”

The agelessness of Grace Jones is part of the myth.  She does look much the same as she did forty years ago but her view of time does give a kind of vagueness to all events and this autobiography lacks the usual chronological approach- although then again she can be hot on details.  It’s part of the contradictory thing which Grace admits is part of her make-up.

I was particularly fascinated by her views on the Disco Years, Studio 54 and her close friendship with Andy Warhol.   She gossips a little but not too much.  She is totally open with certain aspects of her relationships with the men in her life but is more likely to chronicle the break-down rather than the good times.  The whole thing is imbued with the philosophy of Grace and that is really quite intriguing.  This book is not therapy as Grace does not believe that helps but she is able to justify, explain and record her actions.  In the UK she is well known for slapping TV chat show host Russell Harty on his television show in an action that was obviously significant for her as it helped to both make and threaten her career.  This she places in context as she does many of her “wilder times”.  The Grace of now is a grandmother, who loves to swim, watch tennis and do jigsaws but can still become the performance Grace, the party Grace , the scary Grace.

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Grace and close friend Andy Warhol

I would have liked more photographs.  There are two sections of photos within the book.  These are slightly random and most come from Grace’s private collection.  There are times within the book when specific photos are being discussed.  I would have liked a third section of photos of those pictures and pieces of artwork relevant to the text.

The title of the book refers to a line in the song “Art Groupie” penned by Grace, which appeared on her 1981 “Nightclubbing” album.  The opening lines are;

I’ll never write my memoirs,
There’s nothing in my book,

After reading this volume that is certainly not true, although Grace said when she wrote these lyrics she believed every word.  I loved being immersed into this world of Grace Jones – I think she is one of the most significant performers of the last 50 years and we should treasure her.  Her autobiography does not shatter many illusions but does a lot to round out the character.  She and Paul Morley are to be congratulated for producing probably the only celebrity biography worth reading this year.

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“I’ll Never Write My Memoirs” was published in 2015 by Simon & Schuster