Nightclubbing is the fifth studio album by Jamaican singer and songwriter Grace Jones, released on 11 May 1981.
Like Josephine Baker nearly 50 years before her, it was when Jamaican-born Grace Jones left New York City and went to Paris in 1970 that she went from being mere Wilhelmina Agency model to international cause célèbre. Towering at nearly six feet, with an obsidian skin tone and facial features like flint rather than flesh, Grace Jones and her androgynous looks made her a sensation in the fashion world. She stalked the runways for Yves St. Laurent and Kenzo Takada, roomed with Jessica Lange and Jerry Hall, served as muse for photographers like Helmut Newton and appeared on the covers of Elle and Vogue.
Fashion world conquered, Jones then returned to NYC, habituated Studio 54 (sometimes in nothing more than her birthday suit), and conquered disco, recording three albums with the man who invented the very notion of the form, Tom Moulton. Jones’ choice of covers on those albums ran the gamut from dreck like “Send in the Clowns” to a stunning rendition of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose,” her flat monotone speak-singing voice atop a flamboyant overly-dramatic backdrop that veered often into camp. When the disco backlash began in earnest, Jones set her sights on a new realm to conquer: new wave.
In 1980, Grace Jones decamped to Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Bahamas where she worked with producers Alex Sadkin and Island Records’ president Chris Blackwell, as well as a crack team of session musicians rooted by the rhythmic reggae force of Sly & Robbie. (This group would eventually be dubbed Compass Point All Stars, supplying island grooves for everyone from Robert Palmer to Tom Tom Club to Black Uhuru.) Across three critical and commercial hit albums spanning from 1980’s Warm Leatherette through 1982’s Living My Life–with the expanded reissue of 1981’s Nightclubbing as her pinnacle– Jones reinvented herself, while also altering the face of modern pop.
Fashion, art, and music all converged in the form of Mrs. Jones and looking out at the 21st century musical landscape, it’s easy to see her influence: Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, M.I.A., Grimes, FKA twigs, and more. Beyond that, there’s an entire subset of alternative music that draws on the template set by Jones and her Nassau backing band: Massive Attack, Todd Terje, Gorillaz, Hot Chip, and LCD Soundsystem all emulate those rubbery yet taut grooves of Sly & Robbie and cohorts, a hybrid that amalgamated rock, funk, post-punk, pop and reggae. So curiously strong was Grace Jones’s influence on pop culture of the early ’80s that not only did she pioneer the androgynous look in fashion (as styled by Jones’s then-beau Jean-Paul Goude), she was even able to turn her chiseled bodyguard boy toy into an action star. It’s but one of many examples of Jones’ singular existence in pop culture (who else nearing retirement age could command a stage with the likes of both Lil’ Kim and Luciano Pavarotti, or perform for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee while hula-hooping?).
On the album’s opener, a cover of Flash and the Pan’s “Walking in the Rain”, Jones growls in her contralto about “Feeling like a woman/ Looking like a man.” Noirish, foreboding, sounding rain-slicked, the beat crafted by Sly Dunbar with percussionist Uzziah (Sticky) Thompson is undeniable across its four minutes. But it’s on the second disc, where many of the album tracks’ running times are extended towards the sublime, that the now seven-minute song soars even higher. It also doubles as a showcase for keyboard wizard and the Nassau band’s secret weapon, Wally Badarou, a classically-trained synth session man who’s C.V. includes M’s “Pop Music” and Level 42’s “Something About You.” Badarou’s extended solo evokes a tone not unlike Miles Davis’ muted trumpet: gorgeous, weightless, it’s as brooding and wistful as a midnight walk in the rain can be. On Grace Jones’s take on the tango “I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango),” Badarou mimics both Argentinean tango master Astor Piazzolla’s bandoneon and that eerie organ tone of “Runaway”.
But of course, Grace Jones is the star here. Five of the original album’s nine songs are covers, though rather than fealty to the source material, Jones sounds as if she’s shredding the songbook with her bare teeth. She treats each cover not as a singer tackling a song, but as an actor inhabiting the skin of a role. She sneers the Police’s “Demolition Man” as if she’s a villainess leveling a hospital, inverting the gender and notions of sexual dominance in her lascivious take on Bill Withers’ “Use Me.” Dubbing out the zombiefied pacing of “Nightclubbing”, Jones intones Iggy Pop’s lines with the detachment of a dominatrix contemplating her cat o’nine tails, while a previously unreleased cover of Tubeway Army’s “Me! I Disconnect From You” sets it in a sleek reggae setting.
Another bonus track is labeled “Peanut Butter,” which some disco fans will recognize as the title of another Sly & Robbie & Wally track (as remixed by Larry Levan), made for Gwen Guthrie on her 1985 mini-album Padlock. But here, “Peanut Butter” is the beat that Grace Jones turned into her Top 10 single and Paradise Garage anthem, “Pull Up to the Bumper.” Originally deemed “too R&B” by Chris Blackwell, Jones finally got her hands on the pistoning riddim and turned it into one of the most profane singles in pop/dance music history. Long black limousines, commands to “pull up” and coos of “let me lubricate it” make it one of the finest parallel parking metaphors for butt-fucking. At a time wherein a song about a “gigantic” interracial lover can soundtrack a tech giant’s new promotional ad campaign, one hopes that soon a car company will do the same for Grace Jones’ most wanton pop moment on a record that further cemented her iconic status in pop culture.