Lost Notes: 1980 - Ep. 7: Grace Jones

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Grace Jones performing at Drury Lane Theatre, London. Photo by David Corio.

This piece was written for the KCRW music documentary podcast Lost Notes. This season, the poet and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib explores a single year: 1980 - the brilliant, awkward, and sometimes heartbreaking opening to a monumental decade in popular music. You can find all the episodes from Lost Notes: 1980 here .  Support KCRW original programs like Lost Notes by donating or becoming a member

On July 12 , 1979, hours after Minnie Riperton died in her husband’s arms at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, fans began to make their way into Comiskey Park in Riperton’s hometown of Chicago. Not as part of a memorial, but as part of a promotion. The fans entered the park with disco records tucked underneath their arms. 

The 1979 Chicago White Sox season was mired in mediocrity. As the calendar crawled into mid-summer, when most teams were stepping back and assessing what a run at the playoffs could look like, the White Sox were a handful of games under .500. Worse, even, was their attendance, which had begun slowly slipping around June, and had continued a decline in July. Mike Veeck, the director of promotions for the team, couldn’t handle both a disappointing season and disinterested fans. And so, Veeck connected with local radio station WLUP and their shock jock, Steve Dahl. The goal of the night was to get fans in the building, to watch as disco was demolished.

Grace Jones photographed by Laura Levine with a trombone, NYC, 1981 © Laura Levine

By the summer of 1979, the American mainstream’s fascination with disco had run its course in many circles. In the late 1960s, disco burst out of New York nightclubs. The genre was first and foremost a hit in Black queer communities, and queer communities of color. Because of this, the genre was marginalized at first, seen as something only appealing to those deemed on the outskirts of society. But, as the music began to make its way into bigger dance clubs around the country, it allowed for a commodification, of sorts. By 1977, the movie Saturday Night Fever and its soundtrack signified the mainstream consumption of disco at its peak. The genre, by that point, was whitewashed and somewhat distanced from its queer roots in the mainstream. And it had begun to face backlash. 

This accelerated in 1978, when small, floundering rock stations began to switch formats to disco, in hopes of latching on to the genre’s rise and revitalize themselves. 

WKTU in New York made the switch to disco from rock and became one of the most instantly popular radio stations in the country at the time. Other stations followed suit. One such station was WDAI in Chicago. 

It abandoned its rock format in the winter of 1978 and fired Steve Dahl, their young, popular rock DJ. 

When Dahl landed on his feet at the start of 1979, it was at WLUP. Dahl not only sensed the rising anti-disco sentiment, but also now had a personal axe to grind with the genre. He created an entire radio persona out of his distaste for it. He started what he called an anti-disco army among his listeners. The slogan this organization went with was simple: Disco Sucks.

“Muse” was released in September of 1979, after the summer of disco backlash. The album was largely ignored by the American public. None of its singles charted, and the album quickly vanished into obscurity. 

Her disco trilogy didn’t make Jones a superstar, but it did gain her a committed and eager audience. But at the end of the year, with an anti-disco sentiment at a high, it felt like Jones – at least Jones the musician – could be swept away if she stayed stagnant. 

In the late 1970s, Chris Blackwell, producer and owner of Atlantic Records, founded a studio. Compass Point Studios rested in the Bahamas, and a great many artists made the trip there to hunker down, refocus, and record. AC/DC, Talking Heads, Dire Straits, Duran Duran, Roxy Music and others all came to Compass Point and walked out with a renewed sound, a renewed energy. 

Grace Jones performing at Drury Lane Theatre, London on October, 10th 1981. Photo by David Corio.

In late 1979, Blackwell and Jones departed for the Bahamas. There was a desire to escape both America and the expectations attached to the disco-era sound of the first three Grace Jones albums. While at Compass Point, Blackwell and Jones tasked themselves with reinvention. 

For Blackwell, this meant assembling a backing band capable of rising to the occasion. And, as anyone assembling a band knows, you begin with the rhythm section. Blackwell had the perfect duo in mind.

By 1980, drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare were seen as two of the best studio musicians that could be gotten. Sly and Robbie had come to prominence with their work on The Mighty Diamonds 1976 album “Right Time,” which saw the duo propelling the rest of the band towards near-impossible grooves. They spent the late 70s playing on albums by Peter Tosh, Black Uhuru, Gregory Isaacs, and Culture, among others. The two were brilliant improvisers and could convince any group of musicians to follow their sound wherever they took it. 

Blackwell made Sly and Robbie the centerpiece of the band that would come to be known as the Compass Point All Stars. Blackwell’s vision went beyond just assembling a band. The goal was to define a sound. Think Sun Studios in Nashville, or the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Compass Point Studios needed to become more than just a place people came to record music. It needed to become a place people came to craft a very specific type of musical output. Reggae-driven new wave that remained true to its roots, could play on the charts, and in the clubs. Blackwell didn’t want to strip Jones of the goodwill she’d built up on the club scene. He just wanted to refine it. 

With Sly and Robbie on board, the rest of the Compass Point All Stars fell into place: On guitar, there was Mikey Chung, who spent some of the 70s playing for Lee “Scratch” Perry’s house band, The Upsetters. Joining Dunbar on percussion was the Jamaican DJ and respected session musician Uziah “Sticky” Thompson. Another guitarist was Barry Reynolds, who was fresh off of playing on Marianne Faithfull’s “Broken English.” For synthesizers, the Afro-French keyboard player Wally Badarou was pulled from the British band Level 42. The engineer and co-producer to pull the sound together was Alex Sadkin, who had just finished work on the Bob Marley and the Wailers album “Survival. 

It was a heroic assembly of talent. One that still felt like it might have a high mountain to climb. This project with Grace Jones was seen as a launching point for an entire sonic landscape. Not to mention the work of keeping up with the artist herself, who was focused, and at the height of her inventiveness. Collectively, the group put their heads down and began work on the album that would come to be known as “Warm Leatherette.” 

Grace Jones and Jeff Caviano during "Black Leatherette" Album Premiere Party - June 9, 1980 at Bond's Club in New York City, New York, United States. Photo by Betty Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Before getting to the album, its title, and its opening title track, I suppose we must first detour slightly into literature. Specifically, a 1973 novel by the English author J.G. Ballard. It’s called “Crash. Upon its release it was met with drastically divided reviews. It was called “repulsive” by the New York Times. It is a book that centers, in part, on symphorophilia – or sexual arousal that involves watching a tragedy, such as a car accident. The book’s central character is a doctor, who surrounds himself with former car crash victims. The doctor is obsessed with chasing car crashes, and attempts to recreate the car crashes of celebrities. His highest hope is dying in a head-on collision with Elizabeth Taylor. I won’t spoil the ending, but it is a compelling read. One that was equal parts thrilling and disturbing to me when I read it years ago. 

In 1978, the British musician, writer, and producer Daniel Miller wrote a screenplay based on the book. When it was abandoned, he recorded a song, under his music project The Normal, which encapsulated the script in a short, two and a half minute burst. That song was “Warm Leatherette” a cacophony of electronic screeches and kicks, while Miller drones lyrics like see the breaking glass / beneath the underpass and hear the crashing steel / feel the steering wheel punctuated by the repetition of the words warm / leatherette

The Grace Jones version opens her album of the same name. Her version has a deeper groove. Less electronic, the song is driven by the deep groove carved out by Robbie’s bass line and the small shouts of guitar swooping in and out of the music. The Jones version is less haunting than Miller’s, even in its repetition. It feels sexier, even in its detailing of horror. This is down to the magic of Jones’s voice, the way she bends language, even in a song like “Warm Leatherette,” which would demand a consistent cadence out of almost any other performer. Jones shouts the word “warm” like a horn, draining all the sound it can out of a note. When the word “leatherette” arrives, it is calm, monotone, almost inviting. By the time the song crescendos at the intersection of violence and sexuality, Jones offers the image of a hand brake penetrating a thigh, and then offers up making love before death, with a tone that suggests both are inevitable. 

“Warm Leatherette” is a purposeful and patient restructuring of a song. A revisioning of the very habitat it exists in. As an album opener, it is intention-setting. Signaling the arrival of a new Grace Jones, in a new decade, freshly obsessed with risk.   

This is what separated Jones and this new album from the disco output of her first act. Like those disco albums, “Warm Leatherette” was also an album that consisted of mostly covers. But where the covers on the disco trilogy largely sought to play on the excitement of familiarity, or the quest to make a song as club-ready as possible, the covers on “Warm Leatherette” were more reimaginings than remixes. Even The Pretenders’ “Private Life,” got a new transformation, though its woozy guitar riff and steel-drum intro felt perfect for the Compass Point soundscape. The original sound still exists, but it feels clearer, sharper. The Compass Point Machine were  instrumentalists who could play the sounds that many others were merely imitating. Jones’ take on Roxy Music’s “Love Is The Drug” kicks the tempo of the original up a couple of notches, speeding up not only the pace, but the delivery of the lyrics. It is a beautiful, frantic, danceable mess of a song – a version that feels like it was always right beneath the surface of the original, trying to claw its way out.

An original composition, co-written by Jones herself, was the song “A Rolling Stone,” tucked into the middle of the album’s side one. Driven by a backbeat that sounds like several small explosions of airy bubbles, Jones leans into that old familiar music trope about how one cannot find love if they don’t sit still. And even if they do, the love might not be the kind they came for, but she does it beautifully. Precise and aching, as only she could.

The formula of the Grace Jones Album didn’t change much between the disco trilogy and the year 1980.. It was, perhaps, Jones herself who changed. She was always malleable as a model, as a fashion icon, as black woman moving between styles, genres, and nations. But “Warm Leatherette” was where her confidence as a singer came alive. And not just as a singer in the traditional sense, but as someone who had an ear for the manipulation of lyrics that existed first on someone else’s page. When Jones wanted to haunt, she could haunt. When she wanted to summon sexiness, she could summon it. When she wanted to be playful, she could – like on the song “Bullshit,” when Jones tumbles into the second chorus, I’m sick and tired of all this bullshit in such a way where one can almost hear her smiling as she delivers the words. 

Grace Jones in 1980 was a sight to behold, even more than she was in years past. Her visual inventiveness and her inventiveness on the stage finally had the right soundtrack to accompany it.  

There’s a video of her performing in Chile in the fall of 1980, in what looks to be a ballroom, surrounded by circle tables, guests seated around them. It is a buttoned up affair, to be sure. The host and all attendees are in suits. Jones, once introduced, strolls out in a turquoise and pink bodysuit, stretching from the top of her head all the way down to her feet. a long purple ponytail extends from the back of her head. While the intro to her version of the Marvelettes song “The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game” plays, Jones hugs a wooden pole at the center of the room. While the song’s bird calls leap up over the intro percussion, Jones looks coyly at the audience, taking them in from different angles. The performance is less than twenty seconds old, and Grace Jones is already in control. She looks skyward, and smirks. 

The music video for “Private Life” is a single shot. It begins with what we are to believe is a hooded Grace Jones, her face leaning pensively into her hand. At the fourteen second mark, she reaches up and slowly peels off what is revealed as a mask of her face, her actual face resting below. The video might make an insecure viewer uncomfortable – the camera pans in, out, and around the face of Jones, which is, of course, immaculate. At the very end, Jones squints at the camera and smolders for a bit while milking the last few rotations of the chorus. And then, on the final go-round of “Leave Me Out,” her eyes widen a bit, and her head rotates back forward, as if it is newly aware of the camera’s gaze. The address becomes not a direct address to a vague public but a direct address to you, viewer, taking in the artist at work. And then the screen cuts out.

For all of the ways Grace Jones was unforgettable in 1980, it must be said that “Warm Leatherette” was not exactly a commercial success, despite its critical acclaim. “The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game” stumbled briefly onto US R&B charts, and the song “Warm Leatherette” did make it onto the dance charts in the states. “Private Life” had a decent chart run in the UK, but not enough to make too big of a splash. All in all, seven singles were released from the album, none of them charting well enough for it to have a sustained flourish. 

But, weirdly, the album still made a star out of Jones. Not for its singles or for its life on the charts. But for the way that, at the dawn of a new decade, the public was eager for what the stars of music’s new era might look like. What they’d sound like, too, of course. But Grace Jones embodied the future, from the sound to the aesthetics. 

Photo of “Warm Leatherette,” released in 1980 by Grace Jones 

If it is best to look at the career of Grace Jones trilogies, then the second would become known as the Compass Point Trilogy. “Warm Leatherette” was the first test, to see if the concepts around sound and energy could work. What followed were two albums: 1981’s “Nightclubbing” and 1982’s “Living My Life.” Both great, but “Nightclubbing” is seen today as the landmark Grace Jones album. The album where the entirety of her vision came together. The album was a critical and commercial success – but one that wouldn’t have been possible if not for the ambition of “Warm Leatherette."

A career turns in several small motions. Some, because an artist wants to, and others because they are pushed to by the demands of the world around them.

Out of disco’s death rattle – driven by the discomfort of white male tastemakers – Grace Jones rose, reinforced and reimagined. They might have tried to kill the sound she first found a home in, but they didn’t know that Grace Jones was a chameleon. The sound bowed to her, not the other way around. From a summer night of disco records being reduced to rubble, Grace Jones carried through the thick fog of smoke, and created an unkillable second act.

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Lost Notes: 1980 was written and performed by Hanif Abdurraqib. 
The senior producer for Lost Notes is Myke Dodge Weiskopf. 
The show’s creator and executive producer is Nick White. He also edited this piece. 
KCRW’s USC-Luminary fellow is Victoria Alejandro, and she provided production support for this series. 
Special thanks to Alex Cerilla, Kristen Lepore, David Weinberg, Adria Kloke, Drew Tewksbury, Christopher Ho and the rest of the KCRW staff that helped bring this series to life.