Compass points to the rhythm

It barely matters that one of Miss Grace Jones’s two true masterpieces was recorded in New York City and the other in the Bahamas—both are imbued with the spirit of the Caribbean, and both are albums I kept returning to whilst marooned in India over the last month or so.

Now I’m no expert on the Caribbean—I leave that to my friends who know their afrobeats from their bashment, their Beenie Man from their Machel Montana, and their Boys’ Town from their Trenchtown—but these two albums couldn’t get more chilled unless I threw a can of Red Stripe at them.

To start with the later, and more outré work, Miss Jones’s magnum opus, Slave to the Rhythm. Released in 1985, It’s a relentless piece of work, and today serves as a totem of the interplay between music, fashion and journalism. It is nothing if not audacious. Nitpicking, one could point to the lack of true diversity on it: fully five of the eight tracks are reinterpretations of the title-track. But what reinterpretations they are. Radical and immersive, each inhabits its own universe of madness. And, in any case, you could say that was always the point of the album. Like Claude Chabrol tirelessly making the same film over and over again, the songs on Slave To The Rhythm conjure up different environments and characters, but end up coming back to the same themes over and over again. The recited extracts from her former partner’s memoir are performed drolly and with tongue firmly in cheek. The more avant-garde instrumental arrangements, on the other hand, are dead serious—or, at least, are serious about creating chaos.

A review of the album in Record Mirror (no longer extant) had this to say: “Grace Jones and studio cut the rhythm into tiny bits of slave: bustling, deep, dark, languid, lush, wandering, fishy and a few bits that could have been on Bowie’s ‘Lodger’ LP.” That captures its disparateness pretty accurately—from the go-go rhythms of the title-track, with its brutal orchestral stabs, to the steamy tropical funk of “The Frog and the Princess” and the languorous instrumental, “The Crossing (Oohh the Action…)”. The “tiny bits of of slave” alluded to in that quotation are also descriptive of the album’s most gauche stylistic deviation, “Operattack”, which is a test of strong stomachs and, delivered with less chutzpah, would have left the audience cold.

And then there is the murky undercurrent of politics and exploitation coded within the sparse lyrics. She could be talking about an oppressive colonial past, or she could be referring to the music- and fashion- industries which had chewed up so many of her contemporaries. Nothing is made explicit, but in the context of the hectic, stressful music which surrounds her thoughts, I think it’s likely she was trying to make at least a semi-coherent argument.

On the earlier masterpiece, 1981’s Nightclubbing, the reinterpretations are of other people’s songs, but you don’t need to rigorously analyse the lyrics to feel the Caribbean spirit at play. From the very first bar onwards, the calypso percussion and reggae-indebted, wandering bass-lines are ever-present. The two most clear evocations of this aesthetic are “Pull Up To The Bumper” and “Feel Up”, both of which would not have felt out of place on Talking Heads’ Remain In Light. The former is P-Funk by numbers, with its lightly flanged guitar chords, attention-grabbing percussion, Bernie Worrell-flavoured synths, and chain-gang backing vocals in the outro. The latter is more risk-taking: an insistent two-bar phrase loops endlessly, overlaid with jittery morse-code guitar and occasional keyboard flourishes, Jones’s combination of dry intonations of the title phrase and found-sound conversational snippets. The Sting-penned “Demolition Man” is more industrial—a foretelling of her 2008 comeback album Hurricane—but even here, in the first verse, there are subtle scrapes of the seaside lilt to the guitar-work.

In 2010 listeners were impressed James Murphy had the balls to pen “Somebody’s Calling Me”, a listless midnight ramble heavily indebted to Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing”. But almost thirty years prior to This Is Happening, Grace Jones showed she was just as unafraid of causing a stir with her cover of the Iggy Pop cut. Her rendition is less caustic than the original, its middle-eight infused with jazzy keys and percussion. But by dint of her effortlessly dominating voice, the song retains a crepuscular sense of fear and loathing. It’s subtle, but demented. Much like the genius behind these two exotic, and essential, albums.

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