Grace Jones’ fifth album is “The Empire Strikes Back” of her Compass Point Trilogy
The second LP in the remaking of Grace Jones’s style and image, Nightclubbing was released on May 11, 1981. It includes one of her most iconic songs, “Pull Up to the Bumper,” a paean to buttsex or doggystyle, take your choice. Despite (because of?) that, it’s her best-selling single.
In the ‘70s, Jones had been a mildly distinguished disco artist produced by dance icon Tom Moulton. Though recorded in Philadelphia, her three disco LPs often seemed aimed at European (especially French) audiences. Warm Leatherette, her fourth album, had found her switching producers to Chris Blackwell (head of her record label, Island) and Alex Sadkin and recording at Compass Point in the Bahamas. She’d also switched to more modern material, leaning in a post-punk/new wave direction.
Nightclubbing, also recorded with Blackwell and Sadkin again at Compass Point Studios, found her style evolving further. The musical parts of “Pull Up to the Bumper” had been recorded for Warm Leatherette but were left off for not fitting stylistically. With much more variety on Nightclubbing, that was a feature, not a bug. Plenty of other work from the earlier sessions also found a place on Nightclubbing; the album also saw Jones asserting herself more as a writer, with three originals, and as a presence in the studio even while instrumental parts were being recorded. Jones and her friend Dana Mano wrote new lyrics for what became “Pull Up to the Bumper”; “Art Groupie” – which Jones has called autobiographical in terms of the careers of the men she’s been attracted to – was co-written by her and Barry Reynolds (Marianne Faithfull’s collaborator on Broken English a few years earlier; their “I’ve Done It Again” is covered here); “Feel Up” is credited solely to Jones.
Besides “I’ve Done It Again,” covers include the opening track, Flash and the Pan’s “Walking in the Rain,” written by Harry Vanda and George Young of The Easybeats; Bill Withers’s “Use Me,” the lyrics of which fit perfectly into Jones’s sexually charged image; and the David Bowie-Iggy Pop title track.
A few of the songs by other artists were not covers; they were written specifically for Jones. “Demolition Man,” penned by Sting, wasn’t recorded by The Police until half a year after Nightclubbing’s release. “I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango),” music based on the Astor Piazzolla song in parentheses, was put together by Reynolds, and other collaborators and is a bit of a throwback to Jones’s earlier Euro-aimed material with a significant amount of French; it’s about the seedy, self-destructive side of Paris, which Jones was familiar with from her time as a top international model. It was the second single from the LP, after “Demolition Man” bombed; it did much better, though mostly in Europe.
The musical thread tying together these seemingly disparate songs is reggae, with drummer Sly Dunbar and bass guitarist Robbie Shakespeare an iconic rhythm section. What makes it interesting is that it’s mostly not straight-ahead reggae; Sly & Robbie were fully conversant in international styles, so the knee-jerk “all reggae sounds the same” reaction of pop listeners definitely can’t be applied here. “Pull Up to the Bumper” would not have been the massive U.S. club hit it was if there hadn’t been huge dollops of R&B rhythms mixed into the beats.
A significant aspect of Nightclubbing is the cover art by Jones’s boyfriend of the time, Jean-Paul Goude. He photographed Jones in a men’s Armani jacket (no shirt), with a starkly white cigarette dangling straight down, then painted the photo. The wide shoulders of the jacket and their sharp corners match her flattop haircut and her cheekbones and long neck in angularity.
That image is a huge part of Jones’s persona change from campy disco singer to edgy visual icon of danger and transgression. Warm Leatherette had been a good start on a new image, but Nightclubbing was Jones’s full arrival as an artist with a unified visual and musical package.