Not too many fashion models have successfully ventured into acting and music, let alone issue a deluxe edition of any of their albums.
Grace Jones had already begun moving away from disco towards a reggae-influenced brand of new wave with 1980’s Warm Leatherette.
With 1981’s Nightclubbing however, Jones created an album that not only matched her confronting, androgynous image, but a critically and commercially successful one too. The second album recorded with producers Chris Blackwell and Alex Sadkin in the Bahamas managed to reach the top 40 in the US and UK, as well as platinum in territories as remote as Australia.
The album’s success in the US can be attributed to club hit Pull Up to the Bumper. The track has since become one of Jones’ signature songs, thanks to Jones’ expressive vocals, its ambiguous lyrics about big limousines and a groove that grinds marvellously despite a clinical drum machine. The random car honking noises are a charming tribute to New York City and Studio 54 where Jones regularly partied.
The rest of Nightclubbing features some quality performances from Jones and the session musicians of both covers and originals. Jones effectively pulls off Walking in the Rain (written by Australian songwriter George Young from The Easybeats). Only she (a Jamaican by birth) can get away with rapping most of her lines including ‘feeling like a woman, walking like a man’ over a chilled reggae beat and guitars, yet still sound cool and collected. Use Me continues the mellow squelch of reggae, synths, bass and harmonies whilst matching the soul of the original by Bill Withers.
The murky title track (a cover of Iggy Pop’s song co-written by David Bowie) is where Jones’ artistry truly shines through. It features an understated yet theatrical vocal performance from Jones, as well as an arrangement befitting of a ghostly, dark alleyway. This creepy stomper combines the disillusionment of the 1970s with cold 1980s keyboards that border on psychedelic. It ends the first half of the album well, as if it signals a lull on the dancefloor or a comedown from a high.
Art Groupie, with its throbbing keyboard riff, surely must have inspired Eddy Grant’s faddish 1982 single Electric Avenue. The ballad I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango) is a relaxed yet sophisticated fusion of forlorn French bandoneon music, tempestuous tango and icy new wave. Jones is convincing as a woman haunted by a past lover amidst the grimy, sinister side of Parisian nightlife, even singing macabre French lyrics about life and death. Feel Up takes listeners to the Caribbean with a carefree arrangement with lots of heavy breathing, percussion and lyrics that don’t seem to go anywhere.
Sting’s Demolition Man actually debuted on this album (not on Ghost in the Machine), and Jones’ version sounds wackier and more menacing than the The Police recording. Those whipping noises suggest the theme of sadomasochism, but the track may be about the voting system in Britain. It’s up for listeners to decide.
Finally, I’ve Done It Again is the obligatory album-closing ballad that REALLY slows things down. At first, it sounds like bad karaoke but Jones’ comforting crooning salvages this track co-written by Marianne Faithful.
The second disc features multiple remixes of tracks such as Pull Up to the Bumper, Demolition Man and Walking in the Rain, as well as two previously unreleased recordings.
Nightclubbing sounds remarkably fresh today more than three decades after its release. The music is just as memorable as THAT album cover, and highlights the rewards of experimenting with different genres and themes.