Grace Jones

‘Nightclubbing’ Again: Revisiting Grace Jones’s Masterpiece

Barry Walters

By Barry Walters

on 04.30.14 in Features

Thin and violet, a pointedly androgynous Grace Jones stares out from under her severe flattop. A cigarette aims downward from her lip, unlit — if it were otherwise, ash would surely burn the sleek skin of her chest, exposed below her padded shoulders. The album’s called Nightclubbing, an apt title for this image because, even 33 years later, after Lady Gaga, after Nikki Minaj, we are unaccustomed to women dressed and painted like this, walking around in broad daylight. It was an extreme image in 1981, and it announces that what’s inside wasn’t — and still isn’t — in any way normal.

Now reissued in the UK with a bonus disc of vintage 12″ remixes and previously unreleased outtakes, Nightclubbing ranks as one of the all-time greatest examples of white and black cultures mingling to enrich, rather than dilute, one another — so much so that the result is some miraculous third, almost unnamable thing. What do you call a seamless fusion of reggae, New Wave, funk, cabaret, Argentinian tango, disco and electronics? It’s a sound that only this willfully mutable fashion model could embody.

‘‘The title track lays to waste the original: Their version swings, hers stalks. It speaks eloquently to club life, even though only the undead could dance to it.’’

The studio band behind Nightclubbing, the Compass Point All Stars (as they’re known in retrospect), was emphatically Jamaican yet acutely international, like Jones herself. Island Records founder Chris Blackwell picked the roster expressly for her — Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, one of reggae’s greatest rhythm sections, together with fellow Jamaicans Mikey Chung on guitar, Tyrone Downie on keys and Uziah “Sticky” Thompson handling percussion. Wally Badarou, the French-African synth whiz who co-wrote Level 42′s hits, and British guitarist Barry Reynolds, Marianne Faithful’s Broken English collaborator, rounded out the cast. Although these musicians, in varying combinations, had worked together before — with artists as diverse as Robert Palmer, Black Uhuru and the B-52′s — no one brought them to the peak of urbane sophistication like Jones, and she did it best on Nightclubbing.

Jones, Blackwell and the CPAS had come together on the previous year’s Warm Leatherette, a departure from Jones’s Tom Moulton-helmed Philly disco so radical that not even NYC’s most progressive clubs played it much. Like that album, but to a lesser degree and with greater impact, Nightclubbing includes some cover versions, two of them definitive. It opens with Flash in the Pan’s “Walking in the Rain,” which Jones was clearly born to recite. “Feeling like a woman, looking like a man,” she knowingly deadpans. Like Lou Reed or Leonard Cohen, she needn’t sing a note to impart authority and ownership; Badarou’s lonely, moon-watching synth does all the crooning this mood-setting track needs. The album’s other magisterial cover, the title track, lays to waste the already awesome David Bowie-helmed Iggy Pop original: Their version swings, hers stalks, like vampires who’ve sucked the blood of junkies. As such, it speaks eloquently to club life, even though only the undead could dance to it.

With these albums, Jones became a true rarity — rock’s black alpha female. Her rendition of “Use Me” is far more aggressive than Bill Withers’s original, and her Sting-penned “Demolition Man” similarly swaggers. But both are side dishes for the entrée that is “Pull Up to the Bumper.” Begun then abandoned when it was determined too soulful for Warm Leatherette, this is hardcore NYC club funk as interpreted by master outsiders, as if Bob Marley’s Wailers woke up one day and decided they were Chic. An extended parking-equals-sex metaphor, Jones lays one euphemism after the other while CPAS stack the polyrhythmic deck by making every interlocking instrumental segment a hook. There’s the strong suggestion Jones is alluding to anal sex — the last line of the second bridge is “Let me lubricate it” — and the vibe is so strong that it nearly feels forbidden, which of course makes it freeing.

Every track is sequenced to contrast sharply with what came before, so much so that the listener must accept that Jones is mercurial, a hurricane whose power can’t be controlled: The buoyant “Art Groupie” gets followed by the simultaneously breezy and brooding “I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango),” a bigger hit for Jones in Europe than “Bumper.” The carnivalesque “Feel Up” sets up the raging “Demolition Man,” which then gives way to the closing ballad “I’ve Done It Again.” Jones sings this ode of to worldliness as softly as she’s ordinarily hard. She’s obviously seen and done everything; her sighs say as much.

Nightclubbing became Jones’s sole U.S. Top 40 album. England’s reigning music weekly named it their Album of the Year; it sold well throughout much of Europe and went platinum in Australia. For MTV, which launched the same summer “Bumper” ruled clubs, Jones was too black, too strong: You cannot look at her videos and not see that she’s a rock star of the highest magnitude, one who approached the burgeoning medium as performance art — a tactic that clearly inspired Eurythmics and Madonna then and countless performers today.

Nightclubbing remains an inexhaustible inspiration to confrontational pop stars, alternative R&B heads and genre-hopping DJs because it is completely sui generis. There’s only one Jones; only Sly and Robbie play like Sly and Robbie. We need more of its expansive vision, its exquisite musicianship. Digital life has made us awkward; we need more Grace.