“The performer, out there, takes a risk. It’s a lonely place. But it’s a fascinating, lonely place.”
That’s a signature moment from Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami, the illuminating 2018 documentary that traces five years in the life of the unique, unparalleled model-actress-performer, intoxicating (and occasionally intoxicated) sphinx-like stage goddess, style icon, fashion renegade, Bond girl, disco queen, provocateur and trailblazer, and ultimate paragon of the fierce and fabulous. The phrase ‘free spirit’ could have been invented for her.
Directed by Sophie Fiennes (yup, sister of 007’s ‘M’ boss Ralph), the film tracks the singular singer as she records an album, gigs around the world and, most revealingly, visits family in her native Jamaica, where she and her clan discuss their strictly religious upbringing and the violence of her stepgrandfather, known as Mas P. (Bloodlight is Jamaican musician slang for the red light of a recording studio, and bami is a local flatbread, don’t you know).
This is where “quiet, naive, vulnerable little Grace” hid up trees and wondered whether the rebellious “Williams Blood” inherited from her mother, Marjorie, would help her escape a future that could offer her no voice at all.
Most reassuringly, even on modest family outings her headgear game is strong. “I have a nice hat head,” she says, demurely.
Rarely without a gravity defying hat and never without a degree of controversy – now in her eighth decade (or is she?), fasten your seatbelts as we highlight the landmark moments of Grace Jones’ 40-year career.
“I was born. It happened one day, when I least expected it, on an island measuring only 4,411 square miles… I came out of my mother feet first. I arrived kicking and pissed off, sticky with fury, soaked to the skin. I was what’s known as a stargazing foetus as well, my neck fully extended. From the very beginning I was going against the grain and making trouble.” —Excerpt from the archly titled I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, 2015
Born Grace Beverly Jones in Spanish Town, the Jamaican capital until the port of Kingston replaced it, she’s always been old-school mysterious rather than nouveau vague about her precise age. According to the wonderful ways of the world wide web, Grace is meant to be 71 or 72 today in human years, but a bit like the Doris Speed of the music world—with extra speed—she has a penchant for playing younger.
“They say I’m a lot older than I actually am. In the press, on the Internet, they add about four years to my actual age. I like to keep the mystery. I wasn’t born wearing a watch.”
It has occurred to me that her dogged refusal to source something simple like a birth certificate may not be a classic celebrity case of self-mythologising, but she may actually be telling the truth. Multiple sources indicate that Grace is the third born of seven siblings, and that her two elder brothers Christian—the gay artistic one, and Noel—the Pentecostal pastor—are around 72 and 70 respectively. Moreover, Bishop Noel’s Wikipedia page asserts that he was indeed born in 1950, which would place Grace at very possibly turning 69 today.
If I can paraphrase an old(ish) song, “I think she’s turning 69, I think she’s turning 69, I really think so.”
Actually, because I like to fact-check and double fact-check, I took the liberty of asking her eldest Brother Chris (above right) and he confirmed that is the case. “You are correct,” he replied. There you have it, Grace Jones was born on 19 May 1951. Happy birthday, Grace.
What is indisputable is that Grace Jones is exquisitely preternaturally ageless, with beautiful gleaming white teeth, a chiselled bone structure worthy of Nefertiti, covered with the most glowing unlined dark mocha skin. If I had to number-crunch, she doesn’t look a day over 50 and attributes her vibrant youthfulness to a regular intake of red wine. Well, she would, wouldn’t she.
Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Grace Jones was probably the most significant artist to emerge from New York City’s late ‘70s hedonistic habituée, the Studio 54 disco scene; certainly she was the most singular. Because once you’ve seen or heard Grace it’s nigh on impossible to forget her, right?
While gathering up my Grace Jones memories, I was reminded of what Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon once said about entertainers. This was over a quarter of a century ago, so my memory may have altered her words, but it went something like this:
“We pay to bask in the confidence of our most beloved performers so that we may learn to similarly love ourselves.”
Grace did that for me, for her audience, for anyone who has ever been too queer, too black, too female, or too freaky for the world around them. Grace Jones is liberation.
Unlike that other great liberating influence, David Bowie—an artificial construct who spent the majority of his life trying to be someone else—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.
Her bolder than bold avant-garde image has made her a muse to artists and designers including Issey Miyake, Thierry Mugler, Philip Treacy, and Andy Warhol. And if I can paraphrase Bryan Ferry, who wrote Grace’s minor hit Love Is The Drug for his band Roxy Music, she’s the fiercest queen you’ve even seen.
With that attitude of uncompromising individuality and fearless self-expression, her exalted status as one of the most recognised figures of contemporary culture translated into an enduring influence on countless —and, ironically, bigger selling—artists from Annie Lennox to Björk to Lady Gaga and Madonna, captivating audiences with her musicianship, extravagant outfits and theatrical performances.
It’s no wonder she escaped to New York as soon as she hit 18, growing her hair into an afro, dropping a shit ton of acid, and having as much casual sex as she wanted. But that’s not to say her newfound existence in the US equated to total freedom. While her deeply religious upbringing overbeared her in more extreme ways, the society around her contained subtle, but nonetheless very real, sexual oppressions as well.
Needless to say, to be a woman—particularly a black woman in the Sixties—was (and is) to be expected to contain yourself. Because to express sexual desire without shame isn’t just uncomfortable for certain people—it’s scary; an adjective that’s possibly been used to describe Grace Jones more than once.
Grace says she remembers “moving to America around the time that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated,” and that “after Kennedy died, I was moving around like a gypsy, looking for the light, for what happens next.”
Larger than life and twice as funky, what happened not quite next was that Grace Jones’ movie career started with small roles in blaxploitation flick Gordon’s War (1973) and an uncomfortable cameo in the unwatchable French sex comedy Attention les yeux! three years later.
But it was in the modelling industry, not music or movies where she first made her name. With scary amounts of brash confidence and subversive bravado, she’d moved to Paris at the turn of the Seventies, where she was roommates with Jessica Lange and my former Richmond neighbour Jerry Hall.
Usually a stickler for tradition, the French fashion scene was surprisingly receptive to Jones’ predatory, androgynous appearance, and it wasn’t long before she was ripping up the system.
Subverting notions of race and gender, and appearing on the covers of prestigious fashion publications Stern, Elle and Vogue to boot, Grace Jones effectively acquired the status of the world’s first black supermodel before the phrase was even coined, and several years David Bowie’s widow lay claim to that fame.
What’s her name? Ah yes, Iman.
In the mid ‘70s, father of the dance mix Tom Moulton’s pioneering club tracks were blowing up both discos and R&B radio, and Jones’s agents Sy and Eileen Berlin begged him to produce their new client. Their first collaboration and Grace’s debut as a recording artist was 1975’s I Need A Man, recorded at the legendary Sigma Sound Studios that birthed the string- and horn-infused Philadelphia Soul movement, as well as David Bowie’s Young Americans.
It makes sense that Jones would first announce herself to the world with a track which arrived alongside a video where she slowly gyrates to disco rhythms while singing “He’ll understand, oh what I’m feelin’ deep inside me” like a strange and sexy alien visiting from the planet Venus. The song swiftly became a cult fixture in New York’s underground gay clubs, as synonymous with queer desire as her own desire; an anthem for a suppressed sexual appetite unleashing itself during a time when gay sex had barely become legal.
The Grace 45 would have a long and slow burning rise to nationwide recognition, eventually topping the Billboard dance chart in 1977. The same year she began making a name for herself as a singer and nightclub performer. Moulton cheerfully described the nascent scene at New York’s gay disco 12 West for Pitchfork.
“All of a sudden the spotlight hits her. She starts singing I Need A Man, and the place goes crazy. After she finishes, she goes, ‘I don’t know about you, honey, but I need a fucking man!’ Talk about a room-worker. Whatever it takes. She was so determined.”
That night, Jones sang I Need A Man just like a man might—tough and lusty, she was a woman who was not just singing to them, but also for them, as them. She was as queer as a relatively straight person with bisexual tendencies could get.
Even then, Jones’ transgressive charisma was unbelievably bold. It’s like the word outré was invented for her. Her image celebrated blackness and subverted gender norms; she presented something we had never seen before in pop performance—a woman who was lithe, sexy, and hyper-feminine while also exuding a ribald, butch swagger. In ’79, Ebony magazine got her je ne sais quoi exactly right: “Grace Jones is a question mark followed by an exclamation point.”
Take her Midnight Special for example. She took the stage clad in a satin boxing robe, her hands taped for a fight. Halfway through, she pulled a brawny muscleman from the crowd, pretended to knock him out, and then stood with a foot planted on his chest, all while crooning, “Gotta take my chance/ Gotta go the distance.” She then did a victory dance as fake snow fell in celebration of Christmas (and perhaps—this being 1979—cocaine).
Hoping to capitalise on Jones’ burgeoning fame, the Berlins approached Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, who signed her in short order. Given the combination of Blackwell’s status as an international reggae ambassador and Jones’ Jamaican roots, they could hardly fail.
Under Moulton’s stewardship, Jones made a trio of perfunctory disco albums—’77’s Portfolio, ’78’s Fame, and ’79’s Muse—that operated around the camper end of the spectrum, though the two former models often clashed: “I always teased her about sounding like Bela Lugosi,” recalls the producer. “I stood next to her while she was singing because I got so sick of hitting the talkback button [in the control room]. The moment she’d go off, I’d stop her. I was hard on her, but no matter how much I pushed her, she would take it and push herself.”
Over the course of her career, Jones became expert in deconstructing songs and interpreting them in radical new ways, but these first recordings are played totally straight.
However, among the Broadway arias and cheesy disco, buried away on the second side of Portfolio was a bit of a masterstroke: Jones’ long and longing take on Édith Piaf’s classic La Vie En Rose, a version of which Moulton previously recorded with a forgotten ’70s singer named Teresa Waiter.
Jones had got her hands on an acetate pressing of Waiter’s unreleased recording, which was wowing the 12 West crowd, and she lobbied Moulton to let her have it, baiting him that it would be a sure hit for the two: “I’m big in France!” Indeed, as a resident in Paris at the time, Jones had picked up French in just three months and was able to deliver the linguistic nuances of the song with effortless ease.
The same rawness and struggle that often worked against her on the rest of the album, conveyed the absolute heartbreak of La Vie En Rose. Piaf was always going to be a difficult act to follow, though their versions are different enough to render comparisons irrelevant. And if one had to chose, Jones’s has a brio and sensuality that perhaps improves on the original.
But it wasn’t until the 1980s that her music and movie career really soared. It was now time for her to move on and investigate new musical directions, and how. With anti-disco sentiment spreading almost in tandem with the rise of AIDS, Chris Blackwell teamed Jones with celebrated rhythm section Sly & Robbie’s new progressive-sounding urban outfit the Compass Point All Stars, which helped her transition into a new wave-meets-old reggae style.
They delivered a distinct and innovative art-pop hybrid based around Blackwell’s vision of a “rhythmic reggae bottom, aggressive rock guitar, atmospheric keyboards in the middle, and Grace on top.” The resulting triptych of Warm Leatherette, Nightclubbing and Living My Life received mixed reviews at the time but are today viewed as seminal works.
Grace was fortunate in that she found an excellent simpatico producer in Chris Blackwell and a genius set of musicians in the Allstars. More than all that though, she found that style, that perfect clipped cold phrasing that, to me, actually sounded like the straight lines of her flat-topped androgynous image; possibly a corollary of the angular look.
Grace Jones is a cover artist par excellence, but not really an interpreter of others’ songs because she tends to grab them and bend them to her own strengths, devices and iron will entirely; musically at least, lacking the polite humility which sometimes makes people too reverential with other people’s tunes.
1980’s Warm Leatherette was a perfect example of this, boasting material by a diverse writing pool, including Tom Petty (the Heartbreakers’ bluesy slowburner, Breakdown) and a sauntering version of Smokey Robinson’s The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game a good couple if years before Blondie covered it.
On the dystopian proto-industrial title track, she brings an almost Kraftwerk-like robotic feel to the verses of an uncompromising art-rock cover of Daniel Miller’s minimalist classic: “Warm leatherette melts, on your burning flesh / You can see your reflection, on the luminescent dash.” Its deliberately repetitive coda underlines this new reinvention as an otherworldly alien persona. It’s as far a cry from the crowd-pleasing disco of her previous trilogy as you can get.
Earlier the same year the pulsing, percussive Private Life had been included on the Pretenders’ album debut. Edgier than the more laid-back original, Private Life boasts some brilliantly detailed production with its multi-layered ticking percussion and rimshots.
A masterpiece of no-nonsense atmospherics, Jones effortlessly made it her own, and made it her first hit single in the process.
In the liner notes to Island’s 1998 compilation Private Life: The Compass Point Sessions, the song’s author, Chrissie Hynde, conceded it was the cover what won it.
“Like all the other London punks, I wanted to do reggae, and I wrote Private Life. When I first heard Grace’s version I thought ‘Now that’s how it’s supposed to sound!’ In fact it was one of the high points of my career – what with Sly and Robbie being the masters, and Grace Jones with her scorching delivery.”
Alas, on its initial release Leatherette failed to charm either radio audiences or most dance clubs; it was too authentically reggae for the New Wave crowd, too slow for disco.
Oh, and hi Iggy, let the best man lead, OK?
But by the following year, both alternative radio and the club scene had grown eclectic. Primed by kindred punk-funk blasts like Yoko Ono’s Walking On Thin Ice, a far more open-minded dance music world was ready to re-embrace Jones and her dubby new sound.
A high watermark for its maker, a cultural milestone, an ears-and-eyes-opening clash of genres, gender and fashion, the rhythmically stronger Nightclubbing (1981) provided Jones with newfound popularity on both sides of the Atlantic, and where all Blackwell and Jones’s ideas coalesced into perfection.
Nightclubbing is such a beautiful and strange record, with its echoes of dub, disco, funk, rock and Argentinian tango. Like all great records, it feels almost reductive to speak of it in terms of genre. Contained within it is a universe of rhythm, craft, feel and melody.
Covered the previous year on The Human League’s Holiday ’80 EP, the surrealist synthpop meets dub title track comes courtesy of David Bowie and Iggy Pop, from the latter’s pioneering 1977 album, The Idiot. It’s still a highlight four decades later, with Grace often opening her towering live shows with the song as she’s lowered menacingly on a crane.
Elsewhere, the post-punk thrash of Demolition Man was a new song courtesy of Sting (though he had The Police record it later that year), while Bill Withers’ Use Me, robotically refashioned as electro-Caribbean minimalism, is exactly what a cover version should be; honouring the strengths of the original while taking possession of it as if it were her own work. A love song for power bottoms everywhere.
The haunting beauty of the accordion-led I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango) and the peerless Pull Up To The Bumper were Nightclubbing’s most successful singles, despite the latter’s the slinky skank being initially banned on mainstream radio stations in the United States for equating cars with carnality.
“Pull up to my bumper baby, in your long black limousine,” she purrs, her voice rising over the reggae-tinged percussive rhythms, with strangely erotic candour.
“Race it, straighten it, let me lubricate, pull up to my bumper baby.”
Aside from the fact Jones is the only person on earth who could make these lyrics sound even vaguely hot, it was subversive for a woman to be singing about anal sex, just as it had been for a gay black man like Little Richard to have done the same with Tutti Frutti a quarter of a century earlier.
Hell, it would be subversive even now. But back then, when women rarely sang about sex, it was considered taboo. And not only was Jones singing about it, she was singing about wanting it, and she was demanding that someone give it to her and giving them detailed instructions. To hear her sing the words “pull up to my bumper baby, and drive it in between” without a shadow of coyness was bold as hell.
The delicious deviancy of the lyrics was revolutionary because they were smart, risky, and intriguingly gender inclusive, just like Jones herself. Across the pond, the jam-packed nudge-fudge lyrics seemed to strike a chord with the British public, who made it her biggest selling 45 to date, before a shocking new virus began to complicate that kind of fun.
But it was her unmistakable look that cemented her place in pop culture: flattop hair and Egyptian-cyborg outfits (when she wasn’t nude), often refracted through the lens of her mentor, the French photographer Jean-Paul Goude, with whom she shared a collaboration, a child and a volatile romance.
In pop music, it takes a lot of effort to look effortless, yet in Grace, Goude had very little to do really.
And well, that cover. Black, blue (it even has its own title: Blue-Black in Black on Brown), cropped into angles that would actually cut you if you got any closer. The Armani suit, that cigarette, hanging there. The genuine ‘don’t fuck with me’ article. Terrifying and entrancing at the same time.
You look at that iconic image as the point where you can trace the likes of Annie Lennox, Madonna, Lady Gaga, MIA, Lorde… so many female artists who have emerged in the last 37 years have elements of Nightclubbing, and Grace Jones in general, in their DNA.
Then there was “the Russell Harty Incident.”
In November 1980, Grace Jones pummelled the interminable British talk show host Russell Harty on his own BBC programme. Rather than sit apart, Harty always sat among the guests, and on this particular episode of his early evening gabfest he chose to focus his attention on the men to his right, leaving Jones, seated alone to his left, out of much of the conversation. The scene plays out with a frustrated, demonic Grace admonishing Harty:
“If you turn your back to me one more minute…”
Harty dismisses her with a patronising finger before turning away. Jones then clips him on the neck and lands one, two, three more hits in quick succession before slapping him on the head. The confused audience applauds—was this planned? Is this funny? Is it art? And why doesn’t this ever happen in Chile?
To be fair, it is quite rude to turn your back on your guest, and they are poking fun at her, plus it doesn’t look like it hurts at all. Although somewhat predictably, the video is used as an example of Jones’ “diva-ish” behaviour, with the narrator referring to her as “wacky” and “causing a scene” because God forbid a woman loses her cool like that.
This was my and many Brits’ introduction to Miss Grace Jones: elegantly bitch-slapping the hell out of a man who won’t take her seriously, asserting herself for the good of fed up women everywhere.
The hilarious Harty clip has become legendary, garnering over a million views on YouTube in its various edits, and is the first thing that comes up when you Google “Grace Jones”. So without further ado here’s the Lancashire luvvie, an old bloke in make-up, and the Queen’s cousin Lord Lichfield with the “barmy diva” herself, and the only one of the four still alive, naturally.
In I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, Grace goes into detail about the infamous appearance, explaining how she was “covered in pigeon shit”, her sinuses were infected, and how she had been given some “really bad coke”, saying: “Bad coke was the last thing I wanted before I went on a live television show. The purest form, maybe, but anything else was not going into my body.”
She then says that they had rehearsed the show, but once they were live on air, the arrangement was different. “We rehearsed the show in some detail; the three of us politely sat all facing each other in a semicircle. There didn’t seem to be anything to worry about…On the live show, the real thing, it was all very different. There was a live audience, which immediately changed the atmosphere. Things moved very fast, and I wasn’t feeling any better.”
“I was meant to sit next to Russell Harty and keep still and quiet. I was all dressed up like an Amazonian seductress, and treated like the hired help. I thought, This is no way to treat a guest. This wasn’t at all like what we’d rehearsed. Being stuck there while he ignored me made me feel very uncomfortable. I felt I was provoked. I was feeling exhausted, had no idea where I was, and was coated in pigeon shit; now it seemed I was hallucinating that I was on a live chat show and the host was ignoring me. Pissed off, I poked him in the back.”
Let’s see that again, shall we?
“I wasn’t attacking him because I was drunk or stoned. I was lashing out because I felt he was not being proper. You can see if you watch it. I am being sensitive rather than unruly. In fact, because I was tired and disorientated, everything was heightened. I never wanted to do these kinds of shows high. If anything, I get high afterward.”
She continues, “When he did turn around and look at me, I started to see (step-grandfather) Mas P in his face, and an irritable expression that seemed to say, women are the root of all evil….Harty was rude. I wasn’t going to put up with it. I lashed out on live television. It takes balls to do that, which could be seen as a little crazy. And then they tried to get me back on the show! The ratings soared. I had done him a favour. They wanted a rematch. It was all so tacky.”
“When he died, my phone never stopped. It rang off the hook. What do you think about Russell Harty dying? Well, I am very sorry, but what do you want me to say? I didn’t know him at all. I didn’t kill him. I had nothing to do with it. I wasn’t there at all. I had an alibi.”
By the release of the defiant Living My Life in 1982 (key tracks: the primal Nipple To The Bottle and the percolating My Jamaican Guy, later sampled by acts from La Roux to LL Cool J), HIV, Reaganomics and Thatcherism were striking down vast swathes of Jones’ core audience, and the freedoms of the previous decade shifted to contractions.
Now recognised as an astute visual artist, Jones’ singular appearance and meticulously crafted presentation made her a natural fit for the burgeoning music video medium, and the same year Jones and Goude translated their iconic and trailblazing album artworks for the decade’s new home video format.
Staged and directed by Goude, A One Man Show was a groundbreaking and thrilling showcase for the former disco diva-cum-New Wave chanteuse. The videocassette (criminally, never reissued in more contemporary formats) combines rock ribaldry with avant-garde theatre, tearing asunder racial and gender stereotypes. Jones donned pointedly geometric designs that accentuated her angles while clad in screaming Pop-Art colours that flashed and flattered.
Jones recalls the video release in her memoirs, which were dictated to one-time ZTT honcho Paul Morley.
“It was like the invention of a new genre, related to the musical, to opera, to circus, to cinema, to documentary, to the art gallery… It was about rejecting normal, often quite sentimental and conventionally crowd-pleasing ways of projecting myself as a black singer and female entertainer, because those ways had turned into clichés, which kept me pent up in a cage. I wanted to jolt the adult world that is traditionally left bland by white men, to shatter certain kinds of smugness through performance and theatre.”
Nominated in 1984 for the first Best Long Form Music Video Grammy, it combined still photography, concert footage, and video clips to distill the pair’s simultaneously sensational and intimate collaborations into a heated, unbroken montage.
Many other endlessly fascinating and at times physically impossible poses appear in Goude’s 1981 book, Jungle Fever, which also includes his most famous (and infamous) portraits of Ms. Jones. The controversial cover image depicted a certain someone in a cage, naked and baring her teeth like a tigress. Have you seen Miss Jones?
“When we got attacked for me in the cage on the cover of his book and certain things, America basically didn’t understand him as an artist,” she said. “They thought of it as negative. I was attacked by the feminist groups. All this interference into art, you know?”
Her collaborations with Goude, particularly, led to some of her most iconic snapshots, in which her oiled limbs appear to stretch on forever, rendering her hypersexualized; her blackness emphasized; her androgyny amplified.
Writers have since pointed to Goude’s work as exploitative, but Jones has always said that Goude merely captured and celebrated the energy she exuded, and that she was proud of their collaborations. Grace Jones has never wanted to hold back, and Goude encouraged her not to.
“This brutal, animalistic energy that was part disco, part theatre of cruelty, two lucid ways of presenting an appetite for life. It was a visual description of an impossible original beast, only possible from this planet, a voracious she-centaur emerging from an unknown abyss and confronting people’s fears. Perhaps you can see Jean-Paul falling for me, and turning it into a visual love letter.”
Celebrating how Jones wholly embraced her sexual prowess over the years is more than just that; it’s about celebrating everything that came after her; everything that wouldn’t exist had she not broken so many boundaries. Because Jones didn’t just use sex to seduce or pander to the male gaze – she exercised and weaponised what she recognised was rightfully hers.
From the very beginning, she chose to opt out of a society that subjugated women to the role of passive sexual objects, fetishised black women, and expected women to suppress their appetite. But most importantly, she decided that if any of that was going to happen, it would be entirely on her terms, with her rules, larger and fiercer and bolder than anybody could have ever expected.
Goude’s art direction came alive through Jones, who glared at the camera as if possessed; she was imposing, alien, almighty. This was a woman who made things happen by the sheer magnitude of her presence.
So it’s hardly surprising she would soon be stealing scenes from Arnold Schwarzenegger in films like Conan The Destroyer, or eating Adam Ant alive in an incongruous telly ad for Honda scooters.
Incidentally, the ear-biting of the insect warrior had to be edited out of the clip for some sensitive American networks, so grab this upload while you can.
The mid 1980s saw Jones hit the peak of her popularity. Sleek like a panther and just as untameable, with an impressive, athletic physique and that beguiling stare, after Conan she was often typecast as the savage warrior cum vampy villainess.
Jones has never suppressed her appetite and has always been noticed for it. In fact, over the years, her name has become so synonymous with sexual freedom that the sheer sight of a flattop and razor-sharp cheekbones should be enough to make anyone blush.
From her deep, growling voice that always sounds as if she’s on the brink of suggesting something shocking, to the way she switches between super butch and hyper-feminine roles so that they become one and the same, Jones has a way of injecting sex into everything she does.
But most importantly, from the very beginning of her career, she wrote about sex as if she simply could not, and would not, live without it.
Thus, in 1985 she was seen on the big screen and in bed with an hilariously creaky Roger Moore as May Day, the Eiffel Tower-parachuting Bond baddie in the lacklustre 007 caper A View To A Kill, of which there’s a sizeable and detailed chunk in her memoirs.
“The James Bond producers had really wanted me to be in a Bond movie, because in the 1980s, with the franchise threatened by changing times, they were chasing fashion and looking to reach a wider audience by involving more pop and rock. They had wanted me to be in Octopussy, in the title role, but there was some anxiety about having a black woman as a villain. A Bond movie is, for all the appearance of sex and violence, a fundamentally very conservative franchise.”
“They came back and offered me a part in the next one. May Day, my character in A View To A Kill, was very much of the attitude that if you messed with her, she was going to kill you. And to get to that point I did think of my step-grandfather. In the Bond film, playing the ruthless dominatrix in catsuits, mad hats, and flamboyant capes, taming a wild horse with a sneer, parachuting from the Eiffel Tower, I began to emulate Mas P, to copy his intense scowl. It’s there in the stare of May Day.”
“Roger Moore was such a softie, although he did have incredibly hard legs and the stiffest hair, and he was so relaxed about the whole thing—some would say too relaxed. I didn’t have any fight scenes with Roger in the film, but my fight scenes with other characters were very physical. I had to be at the best shape. He and I did have a love scene, though, and that was more physical.”
Later that year, Jones also scored her most celebrated composition in one of the most revered era-defining songs of the period. On Slave To Rhythm, Trevor Horn’s high end symphonic production work was lush and lurid, ornate and opulent. The phrase tour de force could have been invented for it.
Pull Up To The Bumper aside, it’s arguably Grace’s signature song, which is all the more disconcerting when you realise Horn had intended it for his pop protégées Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Though the Liverpool miscreants could never have pulled off a video as utterly strange and bewitching as this.
The spell cast by this bolder than bold black woman with that bulletproof veneer singing both metaphorically and directly about slavery was profound; the lyrics coaxed infinite interpretations.
The Face—England’s authority on all things hip—declared it the single of ’85, and Jones appeared on the magazine’s January 1986 cover painted in whiteface. From the pure gloss of its ambition to the obsessiveness of its lyric, Slave To The Rhythm is the Eighties.
For her seventh studio set, Jones and Horn conjured up another radical reinvention. Befitting her grand stature, it was an elaborate, over-the-top concept album that mined her charisma for all it was worth.
Borrowing more than just the title of the single, Slave To The Rhythm features eight radical interpretations of one central musical conceit: the same song. These are interspersed by delightfully pretentious voiceovers by actor Ian McShane, where he recites passages from Goude’s Jungle Fever, plus interview segments by journalists Paul Morley and Paul Cooke.
There’s an operatic grandeur to opener Jones The Rhythm and the album’s a showcase for Horn’s skill as a producer, essentially making a 43-minute LP out of one central chord progression and a handful of lyrics.
While it could sound like an overstretched 12” remix in the wrong hands, there’s enough diversity and imagination at play here to pull it off. The Frog And The Princess finds McShane telling the story of Jean-Paul’s tempestuous relationship with Jones and the experimental Operattack takes the concept of deconstruction to the extreme.
Despite the exalted reputation of both song and artist, Slave underscored how Jones’ incandescence and iconoclastic status made her bigger than her sales figures might indicate. She’s never achieved a Top Ten single on either side of the Atlantic, though on the back of Slave To The Rhythm’s success in Britain the compilation Island Life did reach fourth place on the album chart, a position that remains her peak.
Opening with the definitive La Vie En Rose, it was the first Grace record I bought, and in many ways is the ultimate Grace Jones album. Completely flawless from start to finish. And in a certain mood, with its biting Barry Reynolds guitar work, I sometimes even prefer her frenetic cover of Love Is The Drug to the Roxy original.
In the wake of the LP’s success Britain, Pull Up To The Bumper and La Vie En Rose were reissued as a double A-side single, equalling Slave’s No.12 peak. Anyone for Peanut Butter?
The notorious artwork on the cover of Island Life was another Jones/Goude collaboration, entailed Nigger Arabesque; originally published in New York magazine in 1978, and used as a backdrop for La Vie En Rose’s original promo video.
As much as Grace loves dressing up, she loves dressing down a hell of a lot more. And nowhere is her nakedness more flagrantly celebrated than in this utterly iconic image, where her oiled, outstretched limbs transform her into a statuesque, towering life force.
It could be argued in some circles that uncomfortable questions of fetishism and the sexualising of black women arise — they recur in Goude’s work — but the way Grace holds her body so preternaturally still, and seems about to speak forcefully into her microphone, gives her a strong degree of control over the image.
Often described as one of pop culture’s most famous photographs, the contorted pose Jones adopts is anatomically impossible, though that didn’t stop Nicki Minaj parodying it in her 2011 music video for Stupid Hoe. The finished work features Jones’ celestial body in a montage of separate images, following Goude’s groundbreaking ideas on creating credible illusions with his cut-and-paint technique.
Jean-Paul has since shot a Kardashian (sadly with a camera) in a similar style – a fact that Jones is unhappy with, as she explained in her memoir:
“When he took a photograph of Kim Kardashian with a champagne glass perched on her ass in an impossible pose like the ones he did with me over thirty-five years ago, I asked him why he was giving her – a basic commercial product – his ideas?”
In late 1985, I remember seeing the record cover for the first time and thinking – ‘this can’t be real!’ Even now knowing that it’s a paste job (albeit a perfect example of superior pre-photoshopping), the beauty and strength that its splice girl subject portrays is nothing less than heroic. Island Life quickly became my first Grace Jones purchase, and from thereon in I quickly worked my way back through her illustrious and surprisingly varied catalogue.
Once the creative and personal connection between Jones and Goude dimmed, she wasn’t short of willing sinners to help her achieve her vision. New York artist Keith Haring were a match made in style heaven, and their collaborative energy once spawned a completely off-the-wall outfit for her role as a deranged vampire stripper in 1986’s camp sci-fi classic Vamp.
This isn’t the only iconic creation that the pair dreamt up, though. Haring also painted the singer with his characteristic black-and-white pictograms for an image shot by cult NSFW photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, as well as for some of her most unique stage get-ups.
It’s a look that has since been copied by countless artists, including Rihanna in her iconoclastic, animation-heavy video for Rude Boy.
Rounding out the decade, Inside Story (1987) and Bulletproof Heart (1989) followed on EMI/Capitol, but without the irreplaceable Island team steadying the waters you could say the material was far from perfect (for everyone).
Produced by Chic mainstay Nile Rodgers, Inside Story was Grace Jones’s first LP for EMI Manhattan Records and explores various music genres of pop, elements of jazz, gospel and even choir sounds, featuring the exhilarating hit single I’m Not Perfect (But I’m Perfect For You).
Rodgers’ pop instinct naturally draws the album into a more straightforward commercial territory – from the upbeat synth-led Chan Hitchhikes To Shanghai to the sultry soul of Victor Should Have Been A Jazz Musician. Crush merely seems like getting some value out of a rhyming dictionary, while the rather slight Hollywood Liar is saved by Grace’s committed vocal performance. Meanwhile, Rodgers smooths off all of her rough edges for the easygoing Barefoot In Beverly Hills.
The album was hugely hyped and commercially pedalled so that this most avant-garde of artists was catapulted into the limelight as a fully-fledged mainstream pop star. But too often, Inside Story feels like two mismatched personalities cancelling each other out. It remains a personal favourite of Jones, though, as she explained in I’ll Never Write My Memoirs:
“Nile’s ear was different from mine, and he was responding to his idea of me, and it was an American Nile production, with all that entails, but I think it is beautiful. There were other ways of doing that material, but I like how it ended up. I don’t listen to all my records, but I play that one a lot.”
Released in 1989 and co-written and produced by Jones’s then-husband Chris Stanley, Bulletproof Heart was the singer’s last album for nearly two decades. It largely attempts to grab a bit of the action of the then-current fashion of beat-heavy electronic R&B, but by this fin de siècle work there’s a sense she’s chasing trends rather than setting them.
Loaded with synthesizers, drums and electronic percussion, Clivillés and Cole of C+C Music Factory, the hot production duo of the time, deliver the best moments, including Love On Top Of Love, one of only two singles released on the LP. The other being a version of Amado Mio, a song from Rita Heyworth’s classic 1946 film Gilda.
In truth, it was slim pickings elsewhere. Driving Satisfaction piles on the motoring metaphors for an opener that returns to the double entendres of Pull Up To The Bumper, while Kicked Around is another trademark Jones anthem of defiance.
Crack Attack, a rare attempt at social commentary featuring a guest rap from Freedom, is one of few highlights but the plodding, pedestrian Paper Plan is more typical of an album that rarely catches fire. The title track’s resemblance to Michael Jackson’s The Way You Make Me Feel gives more weight to the argument that Jones and her team were, for the most part, running on empty.
Much more illuminating is this contemporaneous 1990 interview with David Frost standing in for Wogan, in which she discusses her childhood and gender roles, and even remembers, just in the nick of time, that she’s got a record to promote.
On Saturday 16 September 1992, I finally saw Grace Jones in the flesh. Having just moved to back to London for the first time as an adult that month, this would not only be my first Grace Jones show also be my first concert in the capital as a resident.
Of course she was worth the wait.
Grace arrived on stage fashionably late at one in the morning, making a spectacular entrance. Out of the darkness a figure hooded in black descended on a scaffolding gantry, with agonising slowness, to the sound of her sampled “huh!” grunts from Slave To The Rhythm’s Operattack . But when the lights flared up, Jones was the other side of the stage, 20 feet in the air atop an exaggerated black staircase, pedalling a single bass drum to the sound of a hard reggae skank. Wearing a gold mask and a baggy black fringed one-piece she scratched herself like a gibbon as her trademark yodel echoed round the room.
After a brief, dark pause she reappeared in a shiny black raincoat to do Walking In The Rain, with her two backing singers strutting about in festishy rubber jeans and shades. Just as the Jones voice had lost none of its power over the years, the Jones body looked untouched by time. She was still hard and sleek all over, and with her lolloping gait and her long legs bandaged at the shins like a racehorse, she still played up her animal nature.
Thus the third component, the Jones image, has worn well too. Her snarl was still quite authentic, and even the mock ravishment on the staircase by the rubber boys seemed realistically rough. In it, she had her brassiere ripped off, but continued the show bare-breasted, or sometimes semi-covered by a man’s tailored jacket. There is no other pop star so deeply stylised in her sexuality, yet so ingenuously at ease with it.
She danced like a teenager in her new swingbeat track Seven Day Weekend (from her new film Boomerang with Eddie Murphy), and strummed a black guitar for Warm Leatherette, laughing about having never picked one up before. Grace was chattier than I expected, though some of that was clearly chemically induced. A remarkable performance anyway – while most pop veterans seem painfully past it, she showed how the decadent can be the most enduring.
Throughout the ’90s, rumours of new albums surfaced; Chris Blackwell recorded several new sessions, so did Bristolian trip-hopper Tricky, but they had a troubled, uncertain progression.
Even Tom Moulton buried the hatchet somewhere other than Grace’s iconic head for a 1997 house remake of Candi Staton’s Victim, but the story goes that her then label nixed its release on something called conceptual grounds: simply put, they thought Grace Jones couldn’t be a victim of anything, least of all bumping in to me after her rip-roaring appearance on the Graham Norton Show.
By then Grace, shorn of the spectacular filigree of her Goude years, reinvented herself yet again as a formidable live act on the world stage. Her brilliantly avant-garde and highly theatrical shows have become legendary, and unsurprisingly, just as energetic, bewitching and commanding as you could ever hope for.
After a recording gap of almost 20 years, 2008’s warmly-received Hurricane, Jones’ 10th studio album was an unexpected triumph, underlining her iconic status but also bringing her sound bang up to date. After Bulletproof Heart, the singer had vowed never to record another long-player again but was convinced to have another crack by producer Ivor Guest. Hurricane was an astonishing return to form, and widely regarded as her most assured work since the Island days of the early 1980s.
Highlights abound, from the brilliant expansive autobiographical pop of Williams’ Blood co-written with Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman formerly of The Revolution, to the dark vampiric allure of Corporate Cannibal, which lambasts capitalist greed while mining the same guitar/electro mash-up as Massive Attack’s brooding Inertia Creeps.
Jones returns to authentic skanking reggae on Well Well Well and the title track (co-written with Tricky, who turns in a sinister performance on whispering backing vocals) asserts her force-of-nature persona. The sweeping Devil In My Life is a dramatic end to her recording career to date.
Also worthy of investigation is the full-scale remix version of the album, Hurricane Dub, which features expansive reimaginings by original producer Guest.
Hurricane is Grace Jones’ sensu stricto solitary post-1980s long-player, though I’m reassured by her brother Chris that a follow-up is “finished”, that sonically it’s described as ”jungle house”, and that a buzz track is going to drop any day now entitled Blacker Than Black. Oh, and that she’s been hanging out with her old mucker Chris Blackwell at his luxury GoldenEye resort that was built by Ian Fleming, but because of the coronavirus pandemic “she wears a snorkelling mask when she goes out.”
That’s so Grace.
And this is so Chris and Grace, brother to sister, also taken from Goude’s meisterwerk Jungle Fever in 1982.
I almost always found that women who were considered “difficult” were in fact successful, intelligent women who simply had a clear idea of how they wanted to present themselves and resisted being pushed around at the whim of a mostly male music industry. I’ve never once had a problem with strong female performers like that. Several times I may have had problems with the delicate, shy type who go through life fluttering their eyelashes in order to achieve their objective, but that’s another story for another time.
Believe me, Grace Jones is certainly not that type.
Amazingly, Grace is still pushing buttons, still wildly unpredictable, still that Harty-beating, car-swallowing creature.
That candid and, as you‘ve seen very quotable autobiography, amusingly titled I’ll Never Write My Memoirs (it’s actually the opening lyric from Nightclubbing’s self-penned Art Groupie), didn’t hesitate in taking this generation’s pop tarts to task for not challenging the status quo. Even now, her transgressive charisma remains strong.
More of the same has never been on the table for Miss Grace Jones. She’d more likely eat the table.
BONUS BEATS: Do or die? Grace Jones is the latest of long line including Nile Rodgers, Yoko Ono and David Bowie to have been appointed as 27th guest curator of London Southbank’s Meltdown this June, the longest running artist curated festival in the world.
“I am honoured to be curating next year’s Meltdown festival,” said Jones in 2019. “Year after year, the festival continues to spread its colourful wings, allowing its curators to bring together an array of diverse talent not seen anywhere else. It’s about time I was asked to curate Meltdown, darling, don’t you think?!”
And now, Ladies and gentlemen, here’s Grace will have to wait. At the time of writing the entire festival has been postponed to 2021, due to the Covid-19 pandemic putting the world in lockdown rather than Meltdown.
BONUS BEATS 2: Grace Jones was the first artist to cover a Joy Division song on record. Released as the B-side to her Private Life 45 on 27 June 1980 (the day after I turned 11 and the same week Love Will Tear Us Apart entered the chart), her long dubby take on She’s Lost Control was cut at end of the Warm Leatherette sessions in Nassau before Ian Curtis died (the album was released nine days before his death).
“We cut it really just to wind up the session. I took it literally. I lost control. I can’t listen to that track now. I lost control to such an extent I scared myself. I let everything build, build, build, and I let the words take me over. I decided, Oh, that’s not written for me, but I think it might have been written about me. It’s hard to listen to myself going insane. I had no idea who Joy Division were. I just loved the song. I heard “lost con- trol,” and that was enough for me. As far as I was concerned it was a self-portrait.”