As these two Island Records essentials turn 40, let us remind you why they both remain career pinnacles for Linton Kwesi Johnson and Grace Jones
Island Records founder Chris Blackwell is a controversial figure in Jamaica – Peter Tosh called him “Chris Whiteworst” while Lee Perry rendered him a vampire.
But no one could deny his role in pushing the island’s musical revolution far into the DNA of popular music and culture. Two albums released 40 years ago this past May are perfect examples, while also representing breakthrough moments for each of the artists concerned. To celebrate, here are five lessons any creative person can draw from Warm Leatherette by Grace Jones and Bass Culture by Linton Kwesi Johnson.
1. Find Your Voice – Even If You Need Help: Before Warm Leatherette, Jones had been working with disco producer and remix maven Tom Moulton, with whom she released three albums that, even with “La Vie En Rose” making a dent in the clubs, failed to set the world on fire. As Blackwell wrote to Jones in notes she included in I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, “I thought we were in a bit of trouble after the third album. It didn’t sell very well, and I thought that you were very strong, but the music was getting weaker, and it wasn’t who you were. I thought, Well, part of the trip is that you are scary.” Jones also knew something was off. “After the disco albums,” she wrote, ” had decided that I was going to sing in my way, not try and become a conventional pop singer.”
That might not have worked with Moulton’s smooth grooves, however, but Blackwell had other ideas in mind and assembled the Compass Point All Stars just for her. The foundation was Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, the genius rhythm section who were already legends when Blackwell heard them on Sinsimilla, the first Black Uhuru album released on Island. To them he added Barry Reynolds, whose blistering guitar had lifted Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English, Wally Badarou, a synth wiz who had worked on M’s “Pop Muzik,” Mikey Chung, who had played keys for Lee Perry among others, and Uziah “Sticky” Thompson, a vocalist and percussionist who had been active since the ska era. This polyglot band of virtuosi could handle anything Jones could dish out.
2. Broaden Your Reach – Even If It Means Working With An “Enemy”: Already an established activist and author, Johnson had put his debut album, Dread Beat an’ Bloodout in 1978, combining his politically minded poetry with the dub reggae of Dennis Bovell’s band. While he had criticized Bob Marley in 1975 for working with Blackwell, whom he called “a descendant of slave masters,” he must have soon realized that he could capture a bigger audience with Island’s powerful distribution and promotion machine behind him. His first album with the label, Forces Of Victory (1979) proved his point by garnering more attention than the prior album, enough that even on this side of the pond there was anticipation for what would come next.
Warm Leatherette also made quite a splash, although not right away. After the first two singles made mild noises, the third, a version of Chrissie Hynde’s “Private Life” hit the UK Top 20. It didn’t hurt that Jones took the deep cut from The Pretenders, released just a few months earlier and made their version sound like a demo. While the Compass Point All Stars took the band’s arrangement nearly wholesale, the way Jones cuts through the rhythms makes Hynde’s vocal sound even more like an indistinct murmur with no understanding of the dynamics of the song. Although not a blowout hit, Warm Leatherette more than set the stage for Nightclubbing (1981), which would catapult Jones to a new level of fame.
3. Tighten Your Focus Much of the artistic success of Warm Leatherettewas down to the choice of songs, most of them picked by Blackwell and presented to Jones to choose from. “Chris and his team brought in songs that were unusual pop, or relatively unheard of, or plain unexpected to suit our new approach,” Jones wrote in Memoirs. She didn’t go for all of them, finding neither “Brown Sugar” or “Concrete Jungle” a comfortable fit. The title track was another story, however. Jones wrote that it “sounded really interesting, and I could immediately get into character on that one, sex as a car crash, bodies embedded in metal, metal penetrating flesh, broken glass scattered everywhere, blood staining shiny silver. Been there, done that…” Originally the b-side of the only single by The Normal, an arty synth project of Mute Records founder Daniel Miller, the song took it’s inspiration from J.G. Ballard’s psycho-dramatic novel Crash and become a cult favorite in 1978. Where Miller constructed an angular electronic backing for his nightmare vision, the Compass Point All Stars gave it a galloping reggae beat and threw in some jazzy chords, both humanizing factors that make Jones’ recitation even more chilling.
VIDEO: The Normal “Warm Leatherette”
Bass Culture may have also shown Blackwell’s influence on the songwriting, with each track more concise and spacious than the dense flow of words on Johnson’s first two albums. Here again, the title track is instructive, using brilliant metaphors to connect the music directly to the bodies of British people with Jamaican roots: “It is the beat of the heart/This pulsing of blood/That is a bubbling bass.” Also, instead of having a separate dub version, the latter half of the song is instrumental, letting the words sink in while shining a light on Bovell and his remarkable players, especially the rhythm sections of either Floyd Lawson or Vivian Weathers on bass and Lloyd “Jah Bunny” Donaldson or Winston Curniffe on drums. Johnson’s storytelling also connects loudly and clearly, even though the patois, as on “Street 66” when he uses dialogue to up the immediacy of the scene:
“Hours beat, the scene moving right
When all on a sudden
Bam, bam, bam, a knocking ‘pon the door
“Who is dat?”, asked Weston, feeling right
“Open up, it’s the police, come on, open up””
VIDEO: Linton Kwesi Johnson “Street 66”
4. Pay Attention To The Packaging – And Stick To Your Guns Jones’ disco trilogy albums all featured artwork by Richard Bernstein, which means they looked torn from the pages of Andy Warhol’s Interview. Visually this was not the worst thing, but it was also not the best for establishing her own brand. Plus, her new sound required a new look. Even though her partner in art and love was the phenomenally talented Jean-Paul Goude, getting his work on the cover of Warm Leatherette was an uphill battle. “At first,” Jones writes in Memoirs, “Once we were going out together, there was a sense at Island Records of Oh, he’s the boyfriend. She only wants him to do the artwork because she’s pushing his career. It took a lot of time to persuade Island that Jean-Paul was the way to go.” The original cover, turning Jones into an object of broad-shouldered perfection, was arresting and announced that something new was going on with Grace Jones.
Johnson’s first two albums featured similar color palettes, mostly white, black, and red, perfect for putting across that this was a serious artist with a political edge. Dennis Morris, the great chronicler of Bob Marley and the Sex Pistols, had been enlisted to design Forces Of Victory and was brought back in to do Bass Culture. He wisely went in a brand new direction, creating a graphic full of white space that stylishly spoke volumes about the careful ways the marginalized had to move through English society.
5. Make Variety The Spice – Within Reason Whether prompted by Blackwell or following his own muse, Johnson put some twists into his formula on Bass Culture, with varying results. There was a rather conventional love song, called “Loraine,” which had some cringe-worthy lyrics such as
“But from the moment I saw you/I knew that I needed you in my life/From that moment on I knew/That I wanted you for my wife.” But then there was the final cut, “Two Sides Of Silence,” which put Johnson into a jazz loft of the imagination, with the measured tones of his poetry accompanied by James Danton’s fiery alto sax and Jah Bunny’s expressive percussion. It ended the album in a way that seemed to open the door to a whole new way of hearing this fascinating artist and thinker.
Amidst the classic covers on Warm Leatherette, including Smokey Robinson’s “The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game,” Jones featured a couple of outliers, such as “Bullshit,” a Barry Reynold’s original which, despite some fine guitar, lacks the lyrical, melodic, and rhythmic interest of a song like Tom Petty’s “Breakdown.” Once again, however, the final track points in new directions, with Jones rescuing Jacques Higelin’s “Pars” from Gallic cheesiness with a sensitive performance over a slinky treatment by the Compass Point All Stars. Sticky Thompson should have received a Grammy for his work with the guiro and agogo, lending an earthiness to the slick synths and electronically enhanced riddims, just one of many touches that make Warm Leatherette such a great listen.
Both Bass Culture and Warm Leatherette are remarkable albums that have not dated a whit – further argument for following their lessons carefully. Jones and Johnson themselves were smart enough to take their own advice on their next releases, refining the formula but not deviating from it significantly on Making History and Nightclubbing.
Those albums contain lessons, too – how to park your big machine, for one – but that’s a curriculum for another day!
Note: Quotes are taken from I’ll Never Write My Memoirs by Grace Jones (as told to Paul Morley), Gallery Books, 2015.