In the world of music, we have artists, we have stars and we have superstars. Most people fall into the first category. Some fall into the second. But it takes a special kind of person to fall into the latter – and only a few make it. David Bowie. Prince. Patti Smith. Kurt Cobain. Madonna. Beyonce. Maybe some others. And then there’s Grace Jones – a superstar in her own galaxy – who, at 70 years old, will be playing Bestival this weekend, hula-hooping while covered in paint and singing her greatest hits, probably.
Even though Grace Jones is considered an icon – and she is iconic, with her androgynous aesthetic, boundary-pushing musicality and 50-year career – her discography isn’t as well known as other artists of her calibre. Her name might conjure up the radical visual collaborations between herself and Jean-Paul Goude, Andy Warhol or Keith Haring, in which she used her body like bold, abstract paint on a canvas. Or your mind might wander towards her most successful tracks from the mid-80s, like “Slave to the Rhythm,” or “Pull Up to the Bumper.” But mostly, unless you’re a fan, Jones is better recognised for the span of her cultural influence than the intricacies of ten studio albums and 53 singles between 1976 and 2008. Which is a shame, really, because there’s a lot to unpack here, and a lot to fall in love with.
Born and raised in a painfully militant religious household in Spanish Town, Jamaica, Jones’ early life was defined by discipline and boundaries. What she could and couldn’t do. What she ought to repress. How she should spend her life. She eventually escaped to Paris in her teens to become a supermodel for the likes of Kenzo and Yves Saint Laurent, and later to New York to become a cult actress and musician – but in order to fully understand the work of Grace Jones, we need to first acknowledge where she came from. Because what she has always done best is break rules with the ease of somebody who barely seems to notice they’re there. Which is odd considering her upbringing – but then again, perhaps it makes perfect sense.
“Hiding, secrets, and not being able to be yourself is one of the worst things ever for a person,” she told me, when I interviewed her back in 2015. “It gives you low self-esteem. You never get to reach that peak in your life. You should always be able to be yourself and be proud of yourself.” Much of Jones’ work is centred around this principle – of doing whatever you want, and doing the absolute most while you’re at it. Her output is weird, vibrant and progressive. Over the years she has woven disco, new wave, post punk, art-pop, industrial, reggae and gospel into a tight sound that is distinctly hers, threaded together with lilting, powerful vocals. Her performance style is just like her visuals: physical, full of movement, colour, life.
Basically, there is nobody else like her. If you’re not aware of this already, then here’s everything you need to know:
So you want to get into: 70s Disco, Gay Club Grace Jones?
So imagine. One moment you’re in a small village on the outer edges of Spanish Town, taking part in prayer meetings and bible readings every night. The next moment it’s the late 70s – and you’re in midtown Manhattan, New York – having earned the title “Queen of the Gay Discos” among the locale. Photographs of Grace Jones from around this time show her at legendary nightclubs like La Sept, Studio 54 and Area, sipping cocktails in silk one-pieces, draped on motorbikes on her birthday alongside people like legendary drag queen Divine, or generally exuding illegal amounts of big dick energy.
I’m mentioning all of this because Jones’ earliest music – her late 70s stuff – consist of three disco albums that really capture the big city queer club vibe of the time. Portfolio (1977), Fame (1978) and Muse (1979) were released by Island Records in the space of three years, and are best consumed as a trio. Created alongside disco producer Tom Moulton – who had already worked with Gloria Gaynor and The Trammps – these are albums intended to be performed under the rotating speckles of a glittering disco ball, through the haze of quaaludes washed down with Benedictine and for an audience of queer kids, fashion stars and cultural outsiders.
Despite the world from which they came, though, these early albums are some of Jones’ tamest work. Her voice is lighter, more feminine, than in later tracks, and the music itself consists of classic four-to-the-floor rhythms and orchestral shapes that are typical of disco. Still, there’s something magical about these tracks, too, because they transport you back to that influential golden era. Listen to “I Need a Man,” for instance, and you can imagine Jones performing it to a packed-out basement club, crowd dressed to the nines, sweat dripping down the walls, singing just as much about herself as to a room full of gay men singing the words back to her.
Playlist: “Fame” / "Do or Die" / “Autumn Leaves” / "La Vie en rose" / “I Need a Man” / "Send in the Clowns" / "Sorry" / "What I Did For Love" / “Sinning”
So you want to get into: New Wave Reggae Grace Jones?
Now we’re talking. It’s hard to know where to begin with this very special aeon in Jones’ career, so let’s begin at 1980, when disco had suddenly become outdated and boring – in no small part due to being attacked by swathes of straight white American men. Bolstered by the need to switch things up creatively, alongside the positive but also relatively modest success of her first three albums, Jones flew to Island Records’ Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas and proceeded to undergo one of her most radical transformations.
It was here that, alongside producers Alex Sadkin and Island Records’ president Chris Blackwell, she forged a sound and style that would go on to influence most of your fave pop stars. This “new” Grace Jones was one part post punk, two parts new wave, and all parts taut reggae-pop flavours, somehow blended seamlessly. And from this creative explosion sprung Warm Leatherette (1980), Nightclubbing (1981) and Living My Life (1982), another bunch of albums that are best enjoyed as a trilogy, each containing some of her most well-known and exceptional music to date.
It was also around this time that Jones started collaborating with then-lover and artist Jean Paul Goude. The cover art for Nightclubbing, for example – which includes strutting, post-punk sex jam “Pull Up to the Bumper” – is a painting by Goude of Jones in a block-shouldered Armani suit jacket, cigarette dangling from mouth, her hair the androgynous flat top that would come to define her. To fully appreciate the sheer quality of work that these two produced, it’s worth watching The One Man Show, a 45-minute music video directed by Goude in which Jones can be seen from every angle. She’s soaked in primary colours, as Goude’s bold, angled vision converges with Jones’ musicality to create one singular, timeless piece of art.
In terms of her music, this handful of years is perhaps best wrapped up by synth pioneer Wally Badarou in 2010 for the book The Story of Island Records: “I don't believe anything could ever sum it up, like nothing could ever sum up Motown or Stax sounds,” he said, in reference to Compass Point's heyday. “The studio itself, the engineers, the producers, the artists, the vibes of the time, and only the specific combination of elements does the job.”
Playlist: "Warm Leatherette" / "Private Life" / “Love is the Drug” / "Pull Up to the Bumper" / "Nightclubbing" / “Demolition Man” / "My Jamaican Guy" / "Nipple to the Bottle" / The Apple Stretching”
So you want to get into: Accessible Art-Pop Icon Grace Jones?
I have spent ages trying to put Grace Jones’ 1985 hit “Slave to the Rhythm” into words, but it’s not easy. There’s nothing else like it. The song begins with these bright electronic piano chords, the faint whisper of go-go rhythms in the background, as actor Ian McShane reads extracts from Goude’s biography, Jungle Fever. Then he introduces her by saying, “Ladies and gentlemen… Miss Grace Jones… slave to the rhythm,” before the drums come in with a steady thwack, a squelching bassline spread beneath it all, Jones’ deep, silky vocals winking at the listener: “I’m just playing around, baby.”
There are so many layers to what ensues, that you may as well just listen for yourself. There are the lyrics (“Build on up, don't break the chain / Sparks will fly, when the whistle blows”) which have been interpreted as a comment on race and capitalism. There’s the video, which consists of spliced-together footage from previous visuals, like an absurd moving collage. There’s the music itself, a perfectly constructed, danceable blend of R&B, funk and go-go music. It’s been said that producer Trevor Horn spent $385,000 on the Slave to the Rhythm album on which this song appears, and you can tell. Each moment on that record is tight, chiselled, astonishing, as if someone has expertly hacked away at marble to reveal a statue beneath.
This is largely considered to be Jones’ most mainstream moment. She had already established herself in the late 70s and early 80s, so by the time the mid-late 80s swung along, she had become a weird pop megastar. After Slave to the Rhythm came her best hits compilation Island Life followed by Inside Story, the latter of which was co-produced by herself and Nile Rodgers of Chic. These are some of her most accessible creations, but they’re also some of her most conceptual and challenging. To me, the energy of this era brilliantly climaxes with “I’m Not Perfect (But I’m Perfect For You”), a pumping pop track in which she punctuates each chorus with ferocious chants, once again taking pop sounds and pushing them into freaky, leftfield corners.
Jones’ mainstream pop era culminated in the release of her ninth album Bulletproof Heart, in 1989, but at this point she’d already segwayed into acting, having appeared in fantasy film Conan the Destroyer alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger, and then in James Bond film A View To a Kill among others. Nobody was aware of it at the time – other than perhaps Jones herself – but she wouldn’t release another album for almost 20 years.
Playlist: "Slave to the Rhythm" / "The Fashion Show" / “Jones the Rhythm” / "I’m Not Perfect (But I’m Perfect For You" / “Hollywood Liar” / "Victor Should Have Been a Jazz Musician" / “Party Girl” / "Inside Story"
So you want to get into: Back-to-Her-Roots Grace Jones?
In 2008, the last thing anybody expected was a Grace Jones album. She had been “lying dormant” for years, travelling between Paris, New York, London and Jamaica, raising her son Paulo, spending time with family. But somewhere along the line she’d changed her mind and decided to work on a tenth album, Hurricane. And so, she swiftly enlisted some of the most talented collaborators she knew – Brian Eno, Tricky, Sly and Robbie, literal Afrobeat co-founder Tony Allen, Antony Genn from Pulp – and wrote her most explicitly autobiographical and, in my opinion, underrated record so far.
You don’t need to have listened to any of Jones’ back catalogue to appreciate Hurricane – it’s a separate force unto itself. She weaves together dub, electronica, industrial, reggae and gospel music. She writes about her mother, who married a preacher at 17. She sings about her brother, her son, some of her lovers. Her voice is darker, in parts, even more masculine. In “Corporate Cannibal” – a slick, industrial masterpiece that should be played at Halloween because it’s so atmospheric – her voice comes in like a robot: “I’ll give you a uniform, chloroform / Sanitize, homogenize, vaporize you.” This is Jones at her weirdest, her most wonderful; the glistening result of the perennial muse becoming her own muse.
Without sounding sycophantic, I could write for eternity about Grace Jones – there is so much more to say about an artist who bust open doors before other people could even see them. But it’s probably worth just reading it in her own words. In the introduction to her 2015 autobiography, I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, she says this: “If you want me, this is me. Not the caricature of me. This is the deeper me, the other me, and there are other me’s I’ve not even thought of. But I’ll get to them. I’ll keep following the trail I left behind and find out where I’m going next. I’ve got one life to work with and I’ll squeeze it dry before I’m through.”
Playlist: "This Is" / "Williams’ Blood" / “Corporate Cannibal” / "I’m Crying (Mother’s Tears)" / "Well Well Well" / “Hurricane” / “Love You to Life” / “Sunset Sunrise” / Devil in My Life”
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