Grace Jones - Nightclubbing - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Grace Jones - Nightclubbing

by Rich Morris Rating:8 Release Date:2014-04-28

I recently had the pleasure of talking to a German guy who had worked in clubs in the 70s and 80s. He recalled the night his Berlin club put on a show by Grace Jones. As the music started, she strode on stage like the uber-alpha she always has been, but then –wham! – slipped and fell flat on her back. Without a pause, she began to sing, stretching out and turning what should have been a disaster into another triumph. After the show, my German acquaintance drank champagne with her well into the next morning, before Jones walked out of the club, no drunken staggering, head held high.

That Grace Jones could party harder than anyone is the stuff of historical document, but what’s only just beginning to be broadly accepted is that she’s a true one-off, a talismanic force around which many disparate elements could gather. It was this megalithic quality which made her perfect for the 80s, a decade she grabbed and sunk her teeth into like a chunk of the raw meat she allegedly loved to dine on.

Having made a few albums of chocolate box disco with remix pioneer Tom Moulton (of which her gorgeous cover of Edith Piaf’s ‘La Vie En Rose’, where she howls like a jet plane taking off, is the only classic), Jones paired up with Compass Point All Stars, virtuoso players who could turn their hand to any genre. Jones’ mix of hurricane-force charisma and seeming blankness (an important contradiction for a pop star to inhabit – just look at Bowie or Liam Gallagher) made her perfect for their synthesis of the zeitgeist.

Nightclubbing is the second of her trilogy of albums with the All Stars and, I would argue, isn’t quite as great as the two either side of it. 1980’s Warm Leatherette had the shock-of-the-new on its side; like that year’s Dirty Mind by Prince and Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) by Bowie, it flits from funk to rock to synth-pop, with the emphasis on FM-friendly, new wave guitar. 1982’s Living My Life, her love letter to dub, is softer, brighter, sexier, more emotional.

However, it’s not hard to see why 1981's Nightclubbing has become the record on which her legend is built. It boils down all the elements of her band’s expansive sound, and every other fashionable noise passing by, to a super-hot, yet granite-hard core. Over the decades, her fifth album has matured into both an acknowledged classic and an ever-present touchstone for anyone wanting to channel the pure heat of late-70s/early-80s club culture. More than that, in its faultless, ever-writhing grooves; its stoned, sweltering rhythms and ricocheting beats; its icy synths and sudden explosions of guttural, ferocious guitar, you have the perfect meeting-point of every worthwhile musical trend of an extraordinarily fecund period: disco, funk, post-punk, new wave, reggae, synth-pop, and dub – all exist at Jones’ command; her sinewy voice, like a steel fist in a velvet glove, ruling over whatever sounds lesser mortals lay at her feet.

It begins with ‘Walking in the Rain’, one of the greatest opening tracks ever. Originally by Australian band Flash and the Pan, Jones takes total ownership of the song, as she does with everything. The band’s undulating reggae is so thick, so luscious, so enveloping, you can practically see the stream rising from gutters; hear the fat raindrops bouncing off the pavement; smell the wet, pungent trash of downtown New York in the early 80s. When Jones barks “Feeling like a woman/ Looking like a man”, it’s utterly thrilling, like witnessing a high-fashion terminator on the hunt.

The following ‘Pull Up to the Bumper’ somehow wasn’t a massive hit, incredibly, but time has justly made it a classic. Over peerless, bootie-quaking, slick funk, Jones hollers what amounts to the world’s best smutty joke: basically, she’s telling a guy with a big cock how to use foreplay rather than just trying to slam it in her. I don’t know if this barely consealed double entendre (“I’ve got to blow your horn”, indeed!) hampered single sales. Maybe some idiot DJ should have banned it like with Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Whatever, it remains an irresistible party track, complete dancefloor perfection.

Bravely, the album’s title track is something else entirely. A cover of the Iggy Pop classic, Jones and her band take it by its scruffy junkie neck and remake it thoroughly, turning its queasy shuffle into experimental dub-punk. Jones’ ‘Nightclubbing’ is as hollow and fearful and The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’, as blank and arch as Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, dissonant and yet somehow funky like Gang of Four’s ‘At Home He’s a Tourist’. Its vast, echoing soundscape, underpinned by brittle piano and minimalist percussion, still reveals new layers after countless listens.

It’s not all darkness and sex: ‘Feel Up’ is pure fun, itchy funk-reggae married to effervescent high-life melody, over which Jones engages a gentlemen in patois conversation which I frankly can’t decipher but still adore. The album’s closing track, meanwhile, a Marianne Faithful composition called ‘I’ve Done It Again’, is stunningly beautiful, Jones revealing just how achingly emotional her voice can be on a lilting song about embattled survival. The moment where her voice soars over a sudden flutter of mandolin is breath-taking, as great a chanteuse moment as any recorded.

To be honest, the rest of the album leaves me a little cold. I can see the appeal of tracks such as ‘Use Me’, ‘Art Groupie’ and ‘Demolition Man’: they’re tough synth-funk workouts, hard songs for the harsh new world of the early 80s. But they’re just a little too perfect for me; too slick, too airless. I prefer the lush, almost organic rhythms of Living My Life, a record which I hope will in time be viewed with the same adoration as Nightclubbing.

This deluxe reissue comes with the obligatory extra tracks, the most extraordinary of which for fans is her cover of Gary Numan’s ‘Me! I Disconnect From You’. The choice makes perfect sense; lyrically, Jones and Numan shared a very similar world of alienation and machine-fetish, even though her playground was the club dancefloor while he inhabited a pocket of commuter-belt paranoia. As it turns out, her version of the song is pleasant pop-reggae, not the techno-sex-nightmare you would hope for.

There’s also ‘Peanut Butter’, a dub-wise, vocal-less version of ‘Pull Up to the Bumper’, which was originally denied to Jones by Island head Chris Blackwell for being “too R&B” and given to someone else. After much crying and tantrum-throwing, she got her track back and the rest is filthy pop history. Another song, ‘If You Want to Be My Lover’, is pretty fine and thankfully sounds nothing like the Spice Girls. Apart from that, however, it’s all alternative mixes of the album tracks, and thus for completists only. 

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