This is the third in a series of posts I’ll be making this month about the singer Grace Jones and her romantic and creative partnership with the artist Jean-Paul Goude. You can find the first two posts here and here. Check back on Tuesday for the next installment, and feel free to let me know what you think of the series in a comment.
PART THREE: The Creature
Grace Jones earned her first fans in clubs like Les Mouches, which kept their dancefloors packed with gay men by supplying a steady stream of disco. “I Need a Man,” her debut single, garnered little airplay on major radio stations when it was first released in 1975, but reached the top spot on Billboard’s dance chart when it was included in her first album, Portfolio. With the two albums that rapidly followed it, 1978’s Fame and 1979’s Muse, Portfolio marks the beginning of Jones’ disco trilogy. All three were produced by Tom Moulton, the first producer to seamlessly mask the transitions between tracks on one side of a disco record to form a continuous medley perfect for endless dance parties, and all three feature this trademark trick. The albums are so similar they practically form a medley when played consecutively, as Jones gamely acknowledges: “They all followed the same formula—the thumping dance, the showboating Broadway, some inevitable French spice, the glossy, tightly arranged Philly frills.”
This redundancy may have been a plus for partiers in search of predictable music to move to, but for many of Jones’ fans the music was merely incidental to her appeal, just as the allure of disco was never reducible to glittery orchestration and galvanizing basslines. For gay men in particular, disco constituted a playful rebellion against the macho rock that dominated the airwaves, while disco clubs provided a haven from sexual and racial constraints. A flamboyant performer with an ambiguous appearance, Jones was a natural fit for gay clubs. “The ambiguity of her act was that she herself looked like a man, a man singing ‘I Need A Man’ to a bunch of men,” Goude recalls of her show at Les Mouches. “No wonder the fruit bars loved her!”
The death of disco could have meant the end of Jones’ singing career, but instead became an opportunity for musical rebirth. Her next three albums—Warm Leatherette (1980), Nightclubbing (1981), and Living My Life (1982)—ditched the bombastic, slickly-produced tone of her early records in favor of a more avant-garde blend of reggae and new wave supplied by producer Chris Blackwell and his studio band, the Compass Point All Stars. The new sound gave Jones permission to stop straining her voice to imitate belters like Aretha Franklin, allowing her to develop a near-monotone style of chant-singing that enhanced her otherworldly allure. The reggae tinge also encouraged Jones to draw inspiration from her heritage, as on the patois-sprinkled “My Jamaican Guy” and “Feel Up.” Unlike Tom Moulton’s meticulous arrangements, into which Jones’ voice would be edited as a final step before release like a flower hastily tucked into a lapel, the Compass Point All Stars could bend their elastic, energetic performances in real time to “fit me like a bloody glove,” as Jones puts it.
The singer’s musical transformation was accompanied by an equally bold visual reset. The cover art for Warm Leatherette, the first of many to be designed by Goude, is a black-and-white photograph of Jones glaring at the camera. It is the first promotional image to depict her with the sharp flattop without which she is now unimaginable. Her crossed arms, exaggerated by massive shoulder pads, hide her advanced pregnancy. (Goude and Jones’ only son, Paulo, was born in November of 1979.) The overall impression is of a bodyguard or a boxer, “an ominous, hard-eyed samurai,” in Jones’ words—a far cry from the gauzy, pastel-toned covers Richard Bernstein had created for her disco albums.
For the cover of Nightclubbing, Goude opted for color, taking a photograph of Jones posing shirtless in a men’s Armani suit jacket with an unlit cigarette dangling from her lips and painting it to render her skin a luminescent, bluish black against a warm brown background. With the femininity of Jones’ red lips and bare chest juxtaposed against the masculine angles of her signature haircut and the wide-shouldered jacket, this is the most explicitly androgynous image of Jones Goude would ever create, and perhaps the most famous. Like A One Man Show, the Nightclubbing cover has attained the status of an icon because it encapsulates the most seductive traits of the Grace Jones persona—the gleaming skin so dark it ceases to be read as black in any racial, or even human, sense, the seemingly nonchalant elision of gender categories, and the palpable implication of sexual power. In this image, Goude writes, Jones “has become a creature whose unique beauty transcends both the gender of her sex and the ethnicity usually associated with the color of her skin. She looks barely human. She is more like a strange, menacing alien, blue-black on black, in black.” By the time he created the angular, minimalist cover for Living My Life, Goude was merely noodling variations on a theme he’d already perfected.
Goude’s aesthetic reinvention of Jones helped inspire her musical shift: a massive reproduction of the photograph that became the Warm Leatherette cover kept watch over Jones and the Compass Point All Stars during recording sessions. Blackwell ordered the band to “Make a record that sounds like that looks,” and kept Jones’ new, darker image in mind as he selected the songs she would cover on her Compass Point albums. Warm Leatherette announces Jones’ new tone with its title track, a cover of a strangely sexy song about a lethal car crash by the producer Daniel Miller, and “Private Life,” written by Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders, in which a mistress coldly requests that her lover keep his emotions to himself. Nightclubbing features recordings of cynical weirdo anthems like Sting’s “Demolition Man,” David Bowie’s “Nightclubbing,” and Flash in the Pan’s “Walking in the Rain,” which includes lines that could have been written for the new incarnation of Jones:
Feeling like a woman
Looking like a man
Sounding like a no-no
Mating when I can
Blackwell’s choices, in Jones’ estimation, were “songs that sounded like the kind of thing that creature lurking in those Jean-Paul fantasies would sing.” It was only fitting that many of these covers were included in her fullest attempt to bring that creature to life: Jones performs “Warm Leatherette,” “Walking in the Rain,” and “Demolition Man” in concert in A One Man Show. Goude spliced in clips from music videos he directed for “Private Life” and other Compass Point tracks, mostly tight close-ups of Jones’ face that prod the viewer to notice subtle changes in her expression: a slight widening of the eyes or flash of teeth might be gone in an instant as Goude jump-cuts to a stone-faced Jones. These clips provide an enriching counterpoint to the larger-than-life wide shots, crammed with shifting stage sets and mask-clad doppelgängers, that frame the concert footage, as well as a splash of Goude’s particular brand of humor. In film that accompanies “My Jamaican Guy,” a man who looks quite a bit like Jones shares a long kiss with a mask of her face. The final shot from his video for “I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango),” which pans out to reveal that Jones has been performing on the terrace of a New York apartment (Goude’s) rather than the closed room we were expecting, serves as the ending of A One Man Show. From his video for “Living My Life” (which was recorded for the album of the same name but was ultimately released as a separate single), Goude pulls both the opening scene, of Jones putting a pistol to her head and pulling the trigger, and clips of dancers in gorilla masks wearing the same gigantic polka-dotted skirt that Jones wears throughout the video. Such confrontational images would never have been included in Jones’ disco-era music videos, which often showed the singer frolicking on a set in a sparkly get-up, toying with props or playing to the camera. The suicide depicted in the “Living My Life” video may have been more than crass sensationalism; without murdering the disco starlet she once was, Jones could never have been reborn as an androgynous, art pop provocateur.