In this new series, we take a look back at some iconic records from the ages that hold a special place within the hearts of the LGBTQ+ community and examine just why they’re so damn great. First up, the one and only Grace Jones.
Date released: 11 May 1981
Best bits to dive straight into: Use Me, Pull Up To The Bumper, Use Me, I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango)
What makes this record so great?: It’s the quintessential collection of tracks that transport you into the world of exotic alternative early 1980’s disco, feeding your after-hours desire for sleazy dance pop.
When you think of Grace Jones what do you think of? Her unique sense of glamour? Her androgynous looks? Her portrayal of May Day in ‘A View To A Kill’ maybe? Or perhaps her bizarre affection for eating oysters? Beneath that initial eccentric veneer is Grace’s talent for being not only a groundbreaking performance artist but an artist who’s churned out some impressively iconic music through her 40-year singing career. This is best demonstrated on her 1981 breakthrough masterpiece Nightclubbing.
This album deserves its place in history for being one of the first to merge together that all-important recipe we’re so used to nowadays; fashion, art, and pop. Picture the scene; it’s the early 1980’s, a glorious time in music; a shift is happening from punk to new romantic, disco to funk, guitar to synths. Nightclubbing compresses all these changes into one timeless LP that sounded and looked like no other on the market upon release.
By the end of the 1970’s, Grace Jones had made three disco albums Portfolio, Fame and Muse, all under the wing of producer Tom Moulton (who’d made a star of Gloria Gaynor in the mid 70’s). Grace was an underground dramatic performer with box office appeal, but with the exception of fan favourite single La Vie En Rose, her albums didn’t give her the opportunity to break out of her commercial disco shell. Grace knew the disco sound had tired so with the whole ‘disco is dead’ fiasco of 1979 she moved on to something more authentic for the next decade.
Teamed with reggae production duo Sly & Robbie, Grace’s revised music identity was cemented with the sessions that created her next two albums Warm Leatherette and Nightclubbing. But Nightclubbing was the album that was a natural progression for Jones. Take a splash of her Studio 54 heyday hedonism, a sprinkle of the New Wave influence that was emerging at the time and add her reggae Jamaican roots to the mix (something that was ignored in past recordings) and what do you get? An excitingly exquisite album is what you get.
The record effortlessly marries together a heady mix of genres; reggae, pop, soul, funk, synth with hints of disco lightly decorated throughout. At the heart of it all is Grace’s indestructible persona; part woman, part man, part robot, part threat. In theory, the mix shouldn’t work, reggae with synth? What’s that all about? But listening to the results it’s a match made in pop heaven. Think Rihanna Man Down, and you’ll find a recent use of the combination, but Grace was there first. You can hear this best in the Bill Withers cover of Use Me. A track that starts off unassuming but turns into a climactic anthem to anyone willing to give themselves up for undeniable lust, “Now I’m going to spread the news/ If it feels this good getting used/ Then keep on using me ‘til you use me up”. Grace sings it with the precise amount of passion and degradation needed. Fun fact: it was the first time in music that a synthetic hand clap was used, and what a hand clap it is, it slaps the listener’s ears over and over along with Grace’s unavoidable authority.
Nightclubbing has one common denominator throughout; its danceability. Already a disco patron, Jones had garnered an almost exclusively gay cult following, now she was borrowing that same pop sensibility but nurtured it into a juicy funk, post-punk, post-disco vibe that would recruit her new fans too.
Never a big singer (let’s leave that to Aretha and Tina) Grace’s low alto voice is never pushed beyond its limits here, something past producers challenged. Even with her limited range, her vocals are distinguishably Grace’s. Sly & Robbie cleverly recognised the Grace Jones persona and gave it a voice. A clarity that’s now as easily referenced to Grace as soul is to Aretha. You hear elements of hard spoken word contrast seductively on moody tracks Walking In The Rain and Art Groupie adding an air of mystery to the music, further seducing the listener into Grace’s allure.
The production duo carefully selected a mixture of songs for Grace to cover ultimately to reinvent and propel to a new dimension, along with three new tracks that Jones co-wrote with the team. Most famous is breakout single, the irresistible floor filler Pull Up To The Bumper. A track that is like Haribo to the ears. Incorporating elements of Chic influenced disco riffs, grimy bass undertones with added car horns and street noise the track is probably Grace’s No.1 signature track. With suggestive lyrics like “Pull up to my bumper baby / In your long black limousine / Pull up to my bumper baby / Drive it in between” and “Grease it / Spray it / Let me lubricate it” no wonder it’s a gay anthem, despite Grace apparently being none the wiser to the meaning of the lyrics. Yeah right, you can’t kid a kidder Grace. It’s a timeless club hit that’s loved by all, recognised by music critics at The Guardian as “one of those rare records that manages to replicate the sensation of actually being in a club.”
The release also marked a time when Grace’s aesthetic reached an iconic peak. Along with partner at the time, artist Jean Paul Goude, they created a unique image for her that encapsulated the strong, striking, androgynous but still glamorous style that would go on to help define the look of the independent Eighties woman; a memorable style that was soon after emulated by Annie Lennox in her Sweet Dreams glory. It encouraged the Eighties to make stars of others playing with gender. Just think of Boy George and Pete Burns, it all stems from Grace’s work with Goude. You look at the cover of Nightclubbing and see a painted portrait of Grace; glowing indigo skin, unlit cigarette in mouth, sharply dressed in a men’s suit jacket (a la 1930’s Marlene Dietrich) with that direct glare at the viewer that is as seductive as it is threatening. Its gone on to be hailed as one of the most iconic album covers of all time; one of many images for Nightclubbing that Goude created for Jones that, like its content, never dates, never loses its impact, never loses its power.