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In our 'Re: View' section, in which our writers look back at albums from the past, Adrian Janes reflects on Grce Jones's 1981 album 'Nightclubbbing', which has just been re-released in a double CD edition
'Nightclubbing’ is the second in the trilogy of albums Grace Jones recorded at Compass Point in the Bahamas which were released between 1980 and 1982 (the others are ‘Warm Leatherette’ and ‘Living My Life’). Apart from her own striking voice and image, what links them just as importantly is the outstanding playing of the Compass Point All-Stars, a studio band put together by Island Records boss Chris Blackwell. Upon the foundation of Robbie Shakespeare (bass) and Sly Dunbar (drums) are laid Wally Badarou’s keyboards, the guitars of Mikey Chung and Barry Reynolds, and percussion by Uziah ‘Sticky’ Thompson, creating a unique mixture of reggae, funk, soul and rock.
As a former model (and future film star), Jones is especially image-conscious. The album’s iconic cover, with its riot of gender signals (cropped hair and lipstick, mannish jacket on a slight frame), serves as an alert before the music even begins. And when it does, with ‘Walking in the Rain’, the ambiguities are only reinforced, as her low-pitched voice declares she’s “feeling like a woman/Looking like a man”.
It’s interesting to compare this song of self-conscious alienation with the previous decade’s ‘Walking in the Rain (With the One I Love)’ by Love Unlimited, the latter traditionally feminine and cloyingly romantic in character, whereas Jones - here at least - seems on her own in every sense, her walk leading to no rendezvous, romantic or otherwise.
Underpinning her affectless vocals, Dunbar’s reggae drumming entwines with Shakespeare’s fluid, funky bassline. Deftly-struck guitar and a muted, melancholy synth disclose her mixed emotions, the loneliness of the defiantly self-reliant.
The mood then shifts into the celebration of ‘Pull Up to the Bumper’, its sex and car lyric slick with lubriciousness. Shakespeare’s bass is funky poetry, he and Dunbar easily slipping into a disco rhythm on the bridge before returning to the dominant driving rhythm, while keyboards, guitar and percussion skilfully weave in and out: throughout the album there is this real sense of a band of mutually sympathetic musicians, assertive enough for their talent to be heard, but never at the expense of the song’s overall effect.
Over a spare steppers rhythm, ‘Use Me’ is stark; dark synth notes and the occasional electronic drum smash stand out. Here Jones almost seems to take on a ‘Women Who Love Too Much’ role, welcoming emotional exploitation (“Keep on using me/Until you use me up”), with a climax of Badarou’s agitated keyboard and the soul-style repetition of the title, like a supplicating choir. But it should be remembered that this is originally a Bill Withers song, so if Jones is giving the song her own twist, it’s a further turn of the screw from Withers’ subversion of the image of the emotionally contained male.
Starker still is the title track, Jones’ echoing voice evoking an all but deserted club. Stripped down and considerably slower than the Iggy Pop/David Bowie original, her tone is tired, a thrill-seeker who has seen all that was once hidden and is now jaded and sarcastic: “Oh, isn’t it wild?” Spooky keyboards, strangled guitar notes and scratchy percussion are all dropped into the abyss in which Jones wanders. The icy, atomised atmosphere so acutely rendered is somewhat ironic in view of the fact that she was actually a devotee of such then-fashionable hang-outs as Studio 54, seeing in them something of the joyful spirit of the church of her youth. More than for most singers, her renditions are performances.
‘Art Groupie’ is slow pop reggae which, while it may further evoke something of the world in which she moved (not least because her then-partner, designer Jean-Paul Goude, had been instrumental in fashioning her image), is rather slight in comparison to much of the album. Indeed, it’s the first of three songs - along with ‘I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango)’ and ‘Feel Up’ - which are passable rather than impressive.
The former, despite its sinister undercurrent of possibly being followed by a stalker (“A hawk seeking for the prey”) and fairly sprightly rhythm, has a certain blandness to the music, the prominence of Jack Emblow’s accordion and a spoken word interlude in French making for the most obvious of Gallic clichés. ‘Feel Up’ has an African air with its prominent percussion and Badarou’s bright keyboard, but there is a sense that, having got into the groove, Jones and her band can’t see where to take it, leaving a tantalising feeling of being on the verge of a song that never arrives.
‘Demolition Man’, written by Sting for Jones (although the Police later recorded it as well), is one of the album’s most dynamic tracks. Founded upon Dunbar’s walloped drums and Shakespeare’s bass snarl, the band are at their peak, like a group of top chefs each adding spice (such as the dashes of discordant guitar) to a musical gumbo. The somewhat silly lyrics are salvaged by the music’s strength and Jones at her most steely. “It’s love you need, but I don’t play that game,” she sneers, and you believe her.
But this belief lasts only for the length of the song, as on closer ‘I’ve Done It Again’ she just as convincingly conveys regret in a Joni Mitchell-like register, the music of a wistful synth and caressed guitar forming the perfect complement.
Being a deluxe reissue, a second CD comes with the original album. This mainly consists of 12” single and extended versions of the tracks on the first CD. But apart from the fairly enjoyable ‘Peanut Butter’ (an instrumental version of ‘Pull Up to the Bumper’ with dub touches, rather than a full-blown dubwise excursion), these tend chiefly to establish the good judgement of producers Chris Blackwell and Alex Sadkin displayed in the generally terser versions that made the final cut. Similarly, two songs recorded during the same sessions, ‘If You Wanna Be My Lover’ and Gary Numan’s ‘Me! I Disconnect from You’ are tolerable but give no reason to think that they should have displaced anything from the 1981 album.
‘Nightclubbing’ certainly merits its reissue, not just because of some outstanding songs and performances, but because they and their singer are a fascinatingly individual slant on the era, an intersection of disco, early electronica and the replacement of roots reggae by dancehall, with Jones a kind of New Romantic Eartha Kitt. If at times Blackwell and Sadkin’s production feels a little too sumptuous, they mainly achieve an atmosphere distinct and suitable to each song, from the frigidity of ‘Nightclubbing’ to the sunshine of ‘Feel Up’.
705 Posted By: Tom Watson, Syndney, Australia on 26 Jun 2014
This rerelease has also been released on High Fidelity Pure Audio BluRay. While I applaud the release and fidelity of the release, A huge miss for the publisher not to release a surround version of this seminal release in this new format. Record companies still promise mush but quite often fail to deliver