25 Masterworks: Grace Jones – Slave to the Rhythm

My Spin on Masterworks: 15 of 25

Grace Jones

Slave to the Rhythm

Island, 1985

slave-to-the-rhythmMaybe it’s a sign that I need to get out more, but I’ve developed a mild fascination with overlaps in music taste between people and their parents. I don’t mean blasé scoffing at generational trends, or the expectable appreciation of timeless cultural heroes – instead I’m much more interested in how we share our favourite discoveries with our nearest and dearest. Bonding over music with friends is obviously a great joy, but making musical discoveries with parents with an equal level of success is something else altogether.

I love my dad, and while he hasn’t sculpted my musical tastes to a tee (I think both of us just have to accept that I will never match his unbridled enthusiasm for Jethro Tull), we’ve successfully converted one another to a fair share of nifty sounds over the years. There are countless albums of his that I grew to adore growing up, and likewise, I’ve steadily encouraged his appreciation for a handful of contemporary artists (this year’s winner is John Grant). It’s a fun and ever-continuing game of taste-testing, but the one particularly noteworthy record that Poppa Perry has repeatedly drawn my attention to is Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm, which he has championed as his all-time favourite album for as long as I can remember. I only gave it proper time and attention in my early twenties, and though I don’t hold Slave to the Rhythm with the same extremely high regard as my dad does, it indisputably remains a damn fine record, and I’m hugely appreciative that his fandom encouraged me to delve into it too. He prompted me to discover – and gain a great admiration for – one of the coolest icons in art’s sweeping spectrum.

From the very beginning, Grace Jones’ career has been intimidatingly awesome. Through the decades, her work in various fields has been studded with the kind of high points that resemble so many dreams come true. As fashion icon, fleeting big-screen star, and queen of new wave, she has consistently drawn from a well of charisma that has never dwindled, even as she approaches seventy years of age. Specifically, her music is worthy of regular rediscovery and reappraisal, given that her finest recordings still hold their own in the modern fray of superheroic pop stars.

The first half of the 1980s proved to be a particularly fertile period for Jones, whose career was blossoming across several mediums. Before landing significant roles in a number of Hollywood movies (and allegedly turning down the part of Zhora in Blade Runner, much to her subsequent regret), she released what is widely regarded as her musical apex. For her fifth album – 1981’s Nightclubbing – she shed the disco tropes of previous years in favour of a sleek retooling of contemporary rock and pop hits, reshaping them with touches of new wave, reggae, funk, and R&B. Her reworkings of Flash and the Pan’s ‘Walking in the Rain’, Bill Withers’ ‘Use Me’ and others are wonderfully confident, successful because she completely owns them. So much more than a typical “covers” album, she reinvented the selected works as Grace Jones songs, refreshing them with her signature glamour and in several cases, eclipsing the qualities of the original material. It was Nightclubbing that cemented Jones as a star, but it was four years later that Slave to the Rhythm went one further, and mythologised her.

There is no ambiguity to the previous statement. The music of Slave to the Rhythm is interspersed with monologues taken from Jean-Paul Goude’s 1982 memoir Jungle Fever, and as recited by Ian McShane, Goude clarifies his intention to “deliberately […] mythologise Grace Jones”. Goude (Jones’ professional and personal partner of the era) was referring to his work on Jones’ image and stagecraft during the Nightclubbing years, and his attempts to marry Jones’ striking fashion appeal with equally bold musical statements. Yet Goude’s wishes were realised with even greater audacity in Slave to the Rhythm, on which Jones’ dynamic magnetism is articulated and preserved in a fascinating, tight-knit concept album; one which was originally intended as an aural biography of “Miss Grace Jones” herself.

Although it seems a little less adventurous by today’s standards, Slave to the Rhythm is as intriguing and left-field a concept as any which emerged from the music of the 1980s. The project (originally intended for Frankie Goes to Hollywood) entailed key members of ZTT Records basing an album around a single song, repeatedly reworked and refracted into different forms. The results were then peppered with recorded interviews between Jones and journalist Paul Morley (a co-founder of ZTT), and extracts of Jungle Fever as drawled by McShane. The desired effect was to produce a concentrated glimpse of Jones at the breathtaking peak of her powers. (A later, abridged edition of Slave to the Rhythm saw the tracklist shuffled and the interview segments removed, and though some hardcore fans remain dissatisfied with the rerelease, both versions successfully carry the “demonic charge” promised in the record’s opening moments.)

The final result sits on the right side of ostentatious: it is ambitous rather than arrogant, playful rather than smug. There’s a tangible curiosity at work behind Slave to the Rhythm, and for all its conceptual bravura, it is anchored by tasteful compositions that glide between smooth, silky ambience, stuttering funk and soaring 80s bombast. Its taste for the theatrical is perfectly judged: Jones herself is introduced with winking reverence from McShane on a number of occasions (hearing McShane drawl “ladies and gentlemen, Miss Grace Jones” always gives me a kick), and amid the pseudo-grandeur, the album’s team never forget that this is pop music. It’s a wonderful listen, one very much of its time but packing a lively spirit which the intervening decades have not diminished.

Given its very particular structuring, the album’s engine is the single song at its core, and the album is able to soar because said work is a total banger. ‘Slave to the Rhythm’ is one of those perennial singles associated with an artist that accurately reflects their greatest qualities: killer hooks, gleaming production, bags of personality, and a healthy dose of twists up its sleeve. With Jones giving a magisterial vocal performance matched by genuinely cutting subtext (the track contains nods to historic slavery as well as the art world’s regular exploitation of its human resources), the effect is sharp as well as savvy, capturing Jones at her towering best.

The album is completed by myriad variations of its titular centrepiece, including the mighty opener ‘Jones the Rhythm’, the dreamy ambience of ‘Don’t Cry – It’s Only the Rhythm’, and bizarre vocal collage ‘Operattack’. One would be tempted to claim that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, were it not for the fact that Slave to the Rhythm reverses that very notion. These tracks aren’t built to stand alone, because they are split versions of a single composition. Although it packs its individual highlights, Slave to the Rhythm is one of those albums which genuinely demands to be taken in its entirety, and not simply for the sake of crafty sequencing or perfectionism. Taken piecemeal, not everything sticks, running the risk of sounding bizarre, undercooked or pretentious. When taken as a whole, it’s playful, engaging, and thoroughly enjoyable.

By rights, Slave to the Rhythm is the kind of project which should have immediately curdled into self-indulgent, high-minded “art-pop”. Of course, it isn’t bereft of indulgences, and the nature of its very genesis is problematic in some ways. (In general, Goude’s fascination with and festishisation of “black, shiny, muscular people […] aerodynamic in design” is a little harder to swallow three decades later.) But the end result is tremendous, largely due to the fact that, above and beyond every other factor, Grace Jones herself is so incredibly commanding throughout. Even when her vocals are treated, chopped to pieces and arranged in patchworks beyond her own natural abilities, she completely dominates her sonic surroundings. She is the force around which all else revolves: a shrieking storm of energy whose every appearance – no matter how often it is recycled – leaves an impression. The finished result (abridged or not) is a fabulous paean to her own iconic stature: even if she hadn’t released her memoirs in 2015, listeners could turn to Slave to the Rhythm for a successful distillation of Grace Jones’ essence. It’s at once a tremendous musical work, an intriguing technical project, and a terrific testament to the power of Jones herself.

And it’s my dad’s favourite album of all-time. Cracking choice, pops!

Grace Jones doing a Honda TV spot in Hollywood, by Larry Davis

Grace Jones, May 1985 (photo: Larry Davis for Los Angeles Times, http://framework.latimes.com/2011/09/13/grace-jones/)

01/10/16

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Posted on October 1, 2016, in 25 Masterworks, The Music World and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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