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Perfect 10: Grace Jones’ Alternative Island Life

As the arrival of her much anticipated 11th album inches ever closer, celebrating 45 years of fierce and fearsome recordings, author Callum Pearce has selected a Perfect 10 of Grace Jones singles, though possibly not the ones you were expecting. 

Forgive me for setting the scene, but recently I was invited to write a story for an excellent LGBTQ+ horror anthology from KJK publishing. When pitching the idea for the book tale, I surmised it as Vamp if it was written and directed by Clive Barker with a soundtrack by Richard O’Brien. 

Vamp is one of my all time favourite films and Miss Grace Jones is just stunning, playing a vampire stripper in a way that nobody else could: intensely sexy and deeply terrifying at the same time. It occurred to me when promoting that book with the description of my story that whilst I have authored a few of these Perfect 10 articles for, such as Suede and Sinéad, Placebo and Kate, I had never done one for the dazzling and amazing Grace Jones. 

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Grace. Or is it Katrina? Either way she’s like a hurricane…

Although I’m not a believer in gods and ghosts, they do feature in my stories. And whenever God or the devil do appear they both look like Grace Jones: firstly, because I imagine they could choose what they wanted to look like to us and who better to look like? 

Also because in the real world Grace is a fascinating shapeshifter, slipping effortlessly between a poised, confident, awe-inspiring character and a playful, hyperactive child. Our gal happily enjoys her masculine and feminine side and knows she can be intimidating, charming, sexy or sweet depending on what the moment calls for. She can be anyone she wants to be but she never loses herself in a character she just has those aspects to herself and draws on them when she needs to. It’s a mask that serves as protection, disguise, performance, and entertainment.

“In the ’70s and ’80s we all had our fun, and now and then we went too far. But, ultimately, it required a certain amount of clear thinking, a lot of hard work and good make-up to be accepted as a freak.” – Grace Jones

Our very own bossman Steve Pafford has already written Age To The Rhythm, an excellent and comprehensive article covering the ups and downs of this extraordinary existence. That frees me to follow a slightly more serpentine path through her outstanding oeuvrepath, because my Grace Jones hurtled to earth in a metal capsule dragged in the tail of a comet. 

The capsule eventually landed in Jamaica where this force of nature stepped out of the pod fully formed and fabulous. Of course Grace Beverly Jones’s actual story is far more interesting than anything I could make up. I recommend taking a look at Steve’s article if this one has whet your appetite especially as the one area where we do intersect is our love for the excellent 2017 documentary Bloodlight And Bami, for an inside story behind the scenes and a strange fascinating insight into her unconventional life and career. 

You would think that a documentary that fly on the wall would rob her of her mystique but it really doesn’t. It does show a determined and smart woman who knows exactly what she wants and how to make it happen. You also see that she could walk down the street and meet a dozen different people and each would meet a different Grace Jones. None would be inauthentic but every one would be iconic; she is a living artwork and a grand master of androgyny at adapting to any situation and keeping people guessing. That Grace was an admirer – and almost a co-star – of the equally vampiric and clever chameleon David Bowie is little surprise.

Kyle Munzenrieder of W magazine wrote that “everyone from Madonna to Björk to Beyoncé to Lady Gaga has taken more than a few pages from her playbook”, which just confirms that it’s Grace’s world and we’re just living in it. So get your dancing shoes and Private Life mask on and check out this perfect 10.

We’ve subtitled this lovely listicle Alternative Island Life because Steve’s only stipulation was to include something from each of Grace Jones’s ten studio albums but not feature any of the obviously brilliant songs from what is possibly his favourite ever “greatest hits” album, 1985’s Island Life. It’s a cracker of a compilation which features 10 of her most famous recordings, starting with La Vie En Rose and ending with Slave To The Rhythm. All killer and zero filler, the peerless perfection and sublime sequencing of the 48-minute LP was his life-changing introduction to Grace Jones and in a strange way perhaps this will be yours.

“Hers was one of the first artistic voices to reach me with the message, the fundamental truth, that fulfilment lies in celebrating who you are, with all your majestic idiosyncrasies intact. Everything about her seemed to speak of freedom, an absence of compromise and a celebration of humanity and the imagination through an otherworldly prism.” Steve Pafford

What I Did For Love (1977)

What I Did For Love was taken from Grace’s first album Portfolio, becoming a top ten club hit in the US, on the back of her debut single I Need A Man triumphantly topping the Billboard dance chart). The album wasn’t particularly well received by the critics but it would have been a big hit with camp queens like me if I’d been born (I wasn’t of this earth until third album Muse was released, which we’ll get to in a minute).

The song is a great bit of dramatic theatricality purloined from the Broadway musical A Chorus Line. In the play it was a love song to dancing rather than to a person. A group of dancers are discussing what they would do if they, as George Michael later said, “never gonna dance again”, and one of the characters sings this as the answer. Looking at the pain of working hard all of your life for something you love doing but knowing that one day you won’t be able to do it anymore.

Look, my eyes are dry, the gift was ours to borrow,
It’s as if we always knew,
And I won’t forget what I did for love, what I did for love.”

A tale of undefeated optimism, the lyrics work just as well if you imagine them to be about a man or woman so myriad men and women covered it over the years. And as soon as you hear this triumphant show tune, you just know Shirley Bassey would have had a crack at it – and indeed she did, recording her version for Love, Life and Feelings the year before this recording came out. Of course, I prefer Grace belting it out when it needs belting out and letting the backing girls take over for some softer bits.

Am I Ever Gonna Fall In Love In New York City (1978)

Grace’s ninth single was from Grace’s second album Fame, following on from the 45s Do Or Die and Autumn Leaves and the title track, which isn’t a cover of a song co-written by David Bowie and another rock star, though Nightclubbing three years later certainly would be.

Woah, I’m getting ahead of myself. Why don’t we talk about this pseudo video, taken from the racy cult Italian TV show Stryx – it really is something. We have Grace prowling around in tiger skin style catsuit with a whip in her hand that she cracks at any of the strange creatures around her that try to hog her screen time. Men in grotesque masks and naked women in little more than plastic bags. It’s a bit half-arsed and tacky to be fair but if anyone can carry it off, Grace can. 

By now a resident of NYC, this is really the start of the more sexualised and avant garde performances that Jonesy would become known for, especially around the gay discos of the 1980s. They would of course improve greatly from this nascent offering but you can see how she developed as an artist and exerted more creative control as time went on. This one seems more like she has just turned up and been told what to do. I don’t think many could get away with that these days, but she was new to that scene then and still building her audience.

On Your Knees (1979)

On Your knees is taken from Grace’s third album Muse, the final part of her Disco trilogy recorded with producer Tom Moulton.

This song and the album it was extracted from were largely overlooked, and this single – a double A-side with Don’t Mess With The Messer – was Muse’s only 45. It’s often called her lost album because both releases sneaked out during the start of a backlash, when anti-disco sentiment was taking hold among music fans and musicians, particularly in America. Some of your more hoary old rock bores felt that disco was mindless, overproduced, consumerist nonsense, though they may also have had some other issues with the people that made or enjoyed it.

The twelfth of July 1979 – the day before I was born as it happens – became known as “The day disco died” because of Disco Demolition Night, an anti-dance demonstration at a Major League baseball game in Chicago. On that day, the top six records on the Billboard Hot 100 were disco tunes. By September 22, there were no disco songs in the US top ten. So it was a terrible time for Grace to be dropping what would become the last of her disco records. Indeed, many described the event as an expression of bigotry with Rolling Stone critic Dave Marsh writing

White males, 18 to 34 are the most likely to see disco as the product of homosexuals, blacks, and Latins, and therefore they’re the most likely to respond to appeals to wipe out such threats to their security. It goes almost without saying that such appeals are racist and sexist, but broadcasting has never been an especially civil-libertarian medium.”

With its deliberately provocative title, On Your Knees was one last hurrah before a complete overhaul took hold. It’s just fabulously well produced froth with Miss Jones’s distinctive dominatrix voice centre stage. The lyrics are about being hurt, abused and dropped by someone in a relationship and then having them come sniffing around again. So get down on your knees and mash the video link if you haven’t already.

Saying, ‘I don’t want you, I don’t need you
I don’t love you anymore’
You broke my heart with so much ease
And now you dare to say you want me back again
Well, if you please

Time to get down on you knees
Time to beg, time to crawl, time to plead
Time to get down on you knees”

Warm Leatherette (1980)

And now for something completely different. Warm Leatherette was a new direction for a new decade, and the song itself – an electronic indie classic written by Mute Records founder Daniel Miller and recorded as The Normal – was essentially about an un-filmed adaptation of JG Ballard’s Crash, “encapsulating that script in two and a half minutes.”

The opening track of her groundbreaking A One Man Show, Grace’s moody and radical reinterpretation turned out to be the fourth of a mighty seven singles hived off the album of the same name, pre-dating the more-is-more rinsing formula of Michael Jackson’s Thriller three years early, and was the first track recorded with Sly & Robbie’s Compass Point All-Stars, which showcased an alluring, propulsive new sound that incorporated new- wave, funk, art-rock and reggae.

Also featuring reimagines of songs by the Pretenders, Roxy Music, Tom Petty and Joy Division, this is really where we get the Grace Jones as the world would recognise her, and a much more visually interesting and commercially successful artist. Grace only enjoyed moderate returns with her first three LPs, although she had already started building up a healthy gay following. Warm Leatherette demonstrated a complete visual and musical reinvention. The original cover art was designed by her then boyfriend and most notable visual collaborator, the French designer photographer Jean-Paul Goude. This gave us the first glimpse of her androgynous android look. It shows the fearsome one cross legged with her arms folded and her signature severe flat-top haircut.

Warm Leatherette is a “post-punk pop” album that delved into the worlds of disco, reggae and funk much more successfully than most of her ‘alternative’ contemporaries, while still retaining a blank-eyed alienation that was more reminiscent of David Bowie or Ian Curtis than most of her peers.” John Doran, BBC Music

Demolition Man (1981)

“Demolition Man is the beast – he can’t help himself, he has to destroy. That’s part of me. I’m actually very destructive. I can also be creative, but that is half of me.” – Sting, 1981

Demolition Man was described by its author Sting as “destructive pathology”, and was written by the Police frontman whilst staying in the house of actor and inveterate drinker Peter O’Toole in Ireland. The actor liked the lyrics especially “I’m a three-line whip, I’m the sort of thing they ban” which refers to a British parliamentary term for an emergency vote at Westminster.

Starting out as a solo demo left unrecorded, Gordie the Geordie gave it to Grace when she was looking for material for her landmark fifth album Nightclubbing, the one featuring not only the brilliant Bowie/Iggy Pop title track but now classic cuts supplied by Bill Withers, Marianne Faithfull, and Flash And The Pan, as well as the self-written masterpiece that is Pull Up To The Bumper.

With its boastful lyrics set to relentless Suicide-esque synths Demolition Man was perfect for Grace’s cyberborg style. Whilst it may not have been overly popular at the time, it has since become one of her signature songs and one that many people know her for. 

The video above from the coveted A One Man Show helped greatly. Grace looks stylish and beautiful and then the dancers marching with Grace Jones masks on is just an amazing image. You can tell she loves performing, and here she communicates that she is strong, dangerous, and not to be messed with. Grace loves playing this character so much that I’m sure it leaves the stage with her at times.

You could take the lyrics and make them quite apologetic, a warning of something you have no control over. Grace doesn’t take that angle. From her, it’s a great Fuck you, get out of my way song. I’m sure lots of people have days that they would love to don a Grace Jones mask (where do I get one of those?) and march through the streets dropping some of these lyrics as a warning for anyone that gets in their way.

I’m a walking nightmare, an arsenal of doom
I kill conversation as I walk into the room
I’m a three line whip I’m the sort of thing they ban
I’m a walking disaster, I’m a demolition man”

Buoyed by Grace’s striking machine-funk treatment, The Police got around to recording Demolition Man a few months later, appearing on their 1981 album Ghosts In The Machine where the band’s guitarist Andy Summers claims they made the definite version:

“It’s a very simple song. We listened to the Grace Jones version and thought ‘Shit, we can do it much better than that.’ It was a one-take job. To me, our version is more ballsy, which is what you’d expect from Grace Jones.”

Conversely, Charles Shaar Murray in rock inkie the NME wrote in his review that he preferred the state of Grace, complaining that the Police’s jazzy rock “rendition of the song pretty much is a ‘walking disaster’: Summers plays an extended heavy metal solo all the way through the song, and, well, I thought my razor was dull until I heard the bass line.” Miaow!

Nipple To The Bottle (1982)

Grace was on a roll by now, and this was issued in tandem with her rise as a move actress. Though sixth album Living My Life didn’t do as well as Nightclubbing in the charts its lead single was a success, reaching the top 20 on Billboard R&B dance charts. It did even better in far-flung New Zealand, where it got to No. 3. Nipple To The Bottle was written by Grace with Sly Dunbar, and the single cover used iconic images of the dancers in Grace masks from her performance of Demolition Man in A One Man Show, as mentioned above.

Some suggest this spare urban funk 45 was written about Jean-Paul Goude but it really doesn’t matter who it’s about as it is as much a warning to others as a message to an ex and a statement of who she is to her expanding audience. This is a woman making it crystal clear that she knows her power and won’t be bullied or browbeaten by anybody. Very Thatcher-esque in 1982, the year of the Falklands War and all that. The treated guitar and synths do a great job but it’s Grace’s vocals that really hit you. This tune will have filled many a gay dance floor over the years. It also continued cementing her image in the public consciousness as a fiercely independent and commanding woman that wasn’t for turning.

“If people think I’m angry, I don’t want to burst anybody’s bubble. I like sometimes for people to be afraid of me. But it’s not really anger; it’s discipline.” – Grace Jones

Ladies And Gentlemen: Miss Grace Jones (Slave To The Rhythm) (1985)

OK, a bit of artistic licence here, as for some bizarre reason, on Grace Jones’s seventh album this track is usually titled Ladies And Gentlemen: Miss Grace Jones, even though it had already been released as a single under the name Slave To The Rhythm. Either way, it vies for the moniker of Grace Jones’s signature song with Pull Up To The Bumper, and is her greatest commercial hit, sailing on the success of her memorable role as May Day in the James Bond film A View To A Kill.

More of a creation than a song, producer Trevor Horn originally intended it for Frankie Goes To Hollywood as a follow up to Relax. I really can’t imagine that, nor do I want to, as it’s utterly perfect as it is. This is the one that you would likely pull up to get someone started on Grace Jones if they had somehow missed her over the years and wanted a decent introduction. 

A supremely sophisticated sample-heavy concoction, in full blooded form Slave To The Rhythm was a Synclavier-led concept album featuring several interpretations of the same song presented in different styles and under different and rapidly changing names, hence the muck around with this one: the actual official title track (which, unlike the other seven songs, is rendered on the packaging in capital letters) is an entirely different take and a much looser seven-minute workout, yet still with a gliding majestic vocal that is by turns tender and imperious.

Whatever the title, this is just perfect Grace. She even performed it at Betty Windsor’s Diamond Jubilee concert in 2012, dressed as a sort of sexy queen of hearts with, of course, fabulous headgear spinning a hula hoop for the entire song. It was a remarkable tour de force.

I’m Not Perfect But I’m Perfect For You (1986)

Despite the shift to a brief association with Capitol EMI’s short-lived Manhattan division, this one, produced with Chic legend Nile Rodgers, was commercially successful and made the top 40 across Europe and top 10 in New Zealand (those Kiwis lurve the Jones!). 

Grace directed the video herself, although she didn’t find the experience particularly rewarding and swore never to do it again. This seems to be mostly because of the label’s corporate interference and lack of trust in their new signing. That’s despite Grace managing to pull in some her fabulous famous friends for cameos including Keith Haring and Andy Warhol just months before he died. Jones stated in her 2015 book I’ll Never Write My Memoirs that whenever she would be having her make-up reapplied, “They [Capitol] would be shooting something or having the cast change clothes. I would say ‘What’s going on? I am the director. I know what I am doing.’”

Our gal always knows what she’s doing, and the results are that both promo and tune are pure eighties: bold colours, loud beats and some of the more interesting designers and artists of the time popping in. Perfect for us then.

Love On Top Of Love (Killer Kiss) (1989)

Written by our favourite man-eating machine with David Cole and Robert Clivillés of the dance act of the moment, C+C Music Factory, this was the hard-edged first single from her ninth album Bulletproof Heart. Although the LP was a mixed bag, the 45 met with considerable success and reached #1 on the Billboard Hot Club Dance Play chart in time for Christmas ’89.

I’m what you want, I‘m what you need
That juicy looking mouth is me
I’m what you want, I’m what you need
That juicy sexy mouth is me
If you want a killer kiss, come and get it
Come and get my love on top of love”

Sexy and powerful, as you can see, most of Love On Top Of Love’s lyrics wouldn’t be out of place coming out of Katrina’s mouth in Vamp had they decided to make that into a musical. What? Well, it worked for Buffy and her fanged friends. OK, maybe the film was already camp enough but had that crossed their minds, they might have quite fancied this song for that character.

Williams’ Blood (2008)

The second single from the return-to-form if obscenely long-overdue tenth album Hurricane, Williams’ Blood is very autobiographical, and undoubtedly one of Grace Jones’ most personal songs. In fact, you only have to watch the fascinating Bloodlight And Bami documentary to see how close to the bone..

Written with Wendy & Lisa of Prince & The Revolution fame and featuring sonic synthesist Brian Eno, the track was a deft retooling of the Compass Point sound that stirred industrial music into the mix, while the lyrics explore the battle between the Jones family’s religious background and their most celebrated daughter’s lifestyle and public persona. 

Grace does this by looking at both sides of her family, the very straight-laced, religious Jones side and the Williams side, some of whom were happier playing music, drinking, travelling and making friends along the way. It’s something that comes up a fair bit in interviews and especially in the documentary and it’s a question I imagine most of us grapple with at some time. Working out how much of us came from which side of the family and how much is our own unique blend. To see someone as self-assured and powerful as Grace Jones dealing with those same questions is really comforting.

Bring on album number eleven.


Tomorrow (1977) 

“Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming.” David Bowie, 1977

I surely don’t need to say much about this one other than it’s a high-energy remould of the song from that dreadful Broadway musical Annie. It’s been used in scores of films since; my favourite being the scene in John Waters’ Serial Mom where it plays in the background as Kathleen Turner batters some old girl to death with a leg of lamb because she never rewinds the VHS tapes from the video store her son works in.

Anyway, Grace’s version is full-on disco and high camp. Turn up the volume and get singing along play it loud enough and any neighbours of the rainbow persuasion will likely be heard singing along with you through the walls, sugar.

Sex Drive (1993)

It’s as vibrant and throbbing and sleazy as you’d expect.” Everett True,  Melody Maker

Need I say more? Listening to this rework of a pervy Sheep On Drugs single called Track X, you can almost smell the sweat and poppers of the sleazy gay bars I used to work or play in, sometimes at the same time.

Curiously, this was a one-off 45 that saw Grace return to Chris Blackwell’s legendary Island Records, and was intended as a taster for a 1994 album that never materialised called Black Marilyn. 

Original Beast (2014)

Billions of people have heard of me and everyone knows the sun rises in the east” – Blondie, The Beast (1982)

Enter the dragon: You know how I said Grace Jones was popular in New Zealand? Well, Kiwi local Lorde stepped away from the Royals to curat the film soundtrack for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 and asked many of her favourite performers to contribute a song, including Ariana Grande, the Chemical Brothers and Simon Le Bon.

Naturally, Grace is there too, and Original Beast is effectively evocative, with a dense, murky sound punctuated with tribal drums and ’80s synths making things sound suitably dark, diffuse and deliciously beguiling. 

Charger (Gorillaz featuring Grace Jones) (2017)

I’d met her once in her nightclub, where I made the mistake of saying she looked like Little Red Riding Hood because she was wearing a red cape. She turned around and said ‘Little Black Riding Hood?’ and turned back. I didn’t speak to her again.” –  Damon Albarn on his first meeting with Grace Jones

Despite the introductory misstep, our fave party girl met the Blur frontman after a performance of his musical opera Monkey: Journey To The West, where plans for a team-up were loosely mooted. Apparently it was a bit of a chore for Jones and Albarn to get on the same page and even in the same studio for the “prolonged and frenetic” recording session, where Grace ad-libbed much of the joint composition, and with such intensity that Damon was taken aback: “It’s slightly supernatural, her energy. Not entirely of this world.”

As if to illustrate the culture clash, Charger’s final mix was constructed from 90 separate tracks. After she’d left the studio, Damon covered the floor with pieces of paper with Jones’s lyrics on them, assembling the song via a fragmentary method not dissimilar to David Bowie’s cut-up technique pioneered by William Burroughs. Wild!

The end result was so worth it and when the fifth Gorillaz album Humanz appeared in 2017, despite an enormous number of star guests• like and Carly Simon, Jean-Michel Jarre, De La Soul, Noel Gallagher and Mavis Staples giving it, as one critic wrote, “the wildly entertaining feel of a circus show”, Charger was certainly one of the stand-outs. Consequence Of Sound thought “it’s one of Gorillaz’s best songs to date, pushing the dance playlist setup of the album into a decidedly disordered flash of colour and sound.”

Some critics revelled in the dichotomy of Jones’ ghostly “insidious laughter” (taken, like some of the casual spoken chat, from outtakes from the session tapes that Grace assumed wouldn’t be used) over Damon’s scratchy industrial beats, with the NME characterising “where Grace Jones bares some sphinx-like teeth over a distorted two-note line while Albarn’s bewildered vocals splutter out in flouncy dribs and drabs. So strange, it’s fantastic.” Almost like a reunion.

Now, who’s for painted tits.

Callum Pearce (author link here)

*Dionne Warwick, Morrissey and Sade declined to take part in the Humanz project; Albarn had already made plans to ask Bowie to work on a track though little progress was made before David’s death in 2016

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Callum Pearce
Callum Pearce

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