Saluting Grace Jones: The best to ever do it
It’s generally pretty depressing when a musical icon goes on a “kids today” rant.
Oh dear, Keith Richards – an intensely musically conservative man who has essentially been a professional caricature of himself for the past 35 years – doesn’t like rap: whoever’da thunk it? Chuck D doesn’t approve of your tastes? Someone find my stash of Grandpa Simpson memes, please.
There are exceptions. Or at least there’s one exception. When Grace Jones decides to lay in to Rihanna, Kanye, Miley and Nicki, that’s a completely different matter. Not necessarily because she’s right – although her opinion that they “don’t challenge the status quo” is at the very least worth giving a good hearing – but because she’s GRACE FUCKING JONES. This isn’t a faded museum piece rockstar harking back to a golden age, this is someone still patently capable of musical glory and genuinely eye-opening performance – and who has from the beginning to today carved out her own space within broader culture with no regard whatsoever for standard categories. This is GRACE FUCKING JONES and when she speaks, or sings, everyone needs to listen.
Seriously, Grace Jones is the best to ever do it. She’s up there with David Bowie and Joni Mitchell for consistently creating roles for herself way, way beyond those allotted to her – and making those roles not just as stage masks, but part of an all-encompassing Gesamtkunstwerk out of which radiates absolutely extraordinary music. Her performance, her persona, her artwork consistently smash apart not just musical genre, not just gender and sexuality, but categories of class, race, nationality, American vs European vs Caribbean culture, retro vs modernist, pop vs avant-garde, intellect vs instinct, outsider vs establishment, foolish vs serious, camp vs sincerity, and on it goes. Even now, at 67 years old, on stage in little more than a twist of wire, she’s fucking hard with what it is to be a star, in a way that present-day Madonna could barely begin to even conceptualise. Even Bowie’s knowing elder-statesman schtick can’t come close to her disruptive vitality nowadays.
She made a completely single-entendre, heavily racialised ode to anal sex and giant penises into a pop-culture staple well-enough embedded to be in every wedding DJ’s box. She made ‘La Vie En Rose’ into something so sophisticated and beautiful that a friend of mine nicknamed The Balearic Adjudicator for how exacting his tastes are had it as first dance at his wedding. The cyberpunk cover of 1986’s Inside Story could practically come from Hyperdub’s catalogue of artwork, so perfectly retro-futurist and techno-cosmopolitan it is. Her very first record (‘I Need a Man’ in 1974) and her second-to-last track released to date (2011’s vocal for Brigitte Fontaine’s ‘Dancefloor’) were both stone-cold club bangers, despite being separated by nearly 40 years. She topped the US dance charts in the 80s and 90s, and made at least one bonafide club classic in the 2000s too, thanks to Aeroplane’s still-heartstopping rework of ‘Williams Blood’. Her most recent track, ‘Original Beast’ from The Hunger Games: Mockingjay soundtrack, is an absolutely mindblowing thing, full of animal noise, cascading drums, Grace’s sinister patois and pure adrenaline.
She came through the dissipation of the disco scene – where she’d made her name with a series of Tom Moulton produced albums – with outrageous elegance, good taste and, well, grace. After all, what better way could there be to welcome in the colder, harsher 1980s than with a cover version of The Normal’s proto-techno dystopian kink-fest ‘Warm Leatherette’? Yet this wasn’t a “reinvention”, it was just Grace Jones being Grace Jones. We’ve looked in detail already at the brilliance of her working with Sly & Robbie and the rest of the Compass Point Allstars on the Warm Leatherette, Nightclubbing and Living my Life albums, but to follow that by hooking up with Trevor Horn, fresh off his explosive success with Frankie Goes to Hollywood was a true bravura move. Horn’s production on ‘Slave to the Rhythm’ – and Jones’s swagger – glance at the vainglorious cocaine gloss of 1980s pop culture, then do it a thousand times better than anyone else, rendering everything else obsolete.
Who else could link Smokey Robinson and JG Ballard, Iggy Pop and Josephine Baker, James Bond and Stephen Sondheim, Gary Numan and Johnny Cash, Tricky and Tom Moulton – not in the sense that self-consciously postmodern musicians do by conspicuously “referencing” things to make specific points, but by virtue of the fact that incorporating these things into her work was in each case simply the naturally “Grace Jones” thing to do? She completely subsumes the constituent parts of everything she does into the endlessly regenerating, ever-growing artwork that is Grace Jones. Ask anyone in music, and they’ll likely as not have a recent story about her refusing to go on stage at a rural festival without sushi, or terrifying some young record store assistant when she spots bootleg Grace Jones T-shirts on sale – all of which is perfect, not because this crankiness and aloofness makes her a diva, or a superstar, but because it makes her Grace Jones.
There isn’t a bad record in her oeuvre – perhaps a dodgy album track here and there, but nothing that really shows her firing on less than all cylinders at any time in her entire career: what other artist who’s been recording for 40 years can say that? Her last full album to date, 2007’s Hurricane, is not only an album fit to stand with her best, but in its expanded 2011 release, incorporates one of the best dub records of the 21st century. It’s mixed by Ivor Guest, 4th Viscount Wimborne, no less (he also produced ‘Original Beast’), and it begins with Grace, sounding as perfectly and uniquely Jamaican-New-York-Eurotrash-androgyne-cyborg as she always has, intoning, “This is my voice, my weapon of choice”. It’s a moment of utter genius, a perfect condensing of persona, sound and iconography into less than two seconds of sound, and one of the best opening moments of a record ever. So Grace Jones can say what the fuck she likes about subsequent generations of singers because, whether she’s right or wrong, she remains the best to ever do it.
Five classic Grace Jones cuts:
‘Williams Blood’ (Aeroplane Remix)
Has any record in the 2000s cosmic disco revival ever incorporated a vocal so well? No. Still one of the best out-on-a-terrace-in-the-sun records ever made.
‘Ladies & Gentlemen, Miss Grace Jones’
The final track of the album, and a reprise of the title – this is in fact the string-laden single version, extended and with a ridiculous but perfect final bit of studio chit-chat between Trevor Horn, Paul Morley (who was Horn’s conceptualist right-hand-man at ZTT) and Miss Jones. “You’re the centre of the universe?” “Heh… Yes, um, yes, mm-hmm, I’d say so.”
‘Feel Up’ (Larry Levan Mix)
Down and dirty, an 100% certified dancefloor monster.
‘La Vie En Rose’
Play this on an outdoor stage at a festival early in the day when people are just starting to mosey around, and watch their day get off to the perfect start. Also, how much does the cool side of the 1980s owe to this video? Grace Jones basically invented new wave.
Apparently GJ started an album with Tricky in 1997 but then fell out badly with him (who could possibly have forseen that happening?). A couple of slightly unfinished-sounding tracks leaked on white labels, but some of the material finally ended up on Hurricane a decade later. This one’s a cracker, all dancehall bump and grind and weird noises all over the place.