Release a couple weeks ago but seemingly only available in the UK right now, the deluxe double album reissue of Warm Leatherette was long overdue, and now seems to missing out on the fanfare it deserves. What was once considered a flawed start to a groundbreaking trilogy of albums has been restored to it’s rightful place as the near equal of Nightclubbing.
By the late 70s, Grace Jones was already well known for her modelling, and as a disco diva who frequented Studio 54 and released three albums on Island between 1977 and 79. But with the help of label head Chris Blackwell, she reinvented herself into something much greater — a badass subcultural icon who forged a new fusion of post-punk, avant pop and reggae. 36 years after it’s initial release, Warm Leatherette finally got the reissue it deserves. Two aspects make the reissue completely essential. First, all the long versions are made available. The original vinyl featured truncated versions to keep the album under 40 minutes, while the cassette version contained the longer cuts. With such a sublime, addictive album, the long versions are a must have. Second, three versions of her cover of Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control” are included, which was not included on the original album, which was a huge mistake. It’s her most unhinged performance ever, and should be part of the album.While Nightclubbing (1981) was widely considered her peak, the long version of the album, including “She’s Lost Control,” can certainly give it a run for its money. Title track “Warm Leatherette” was a brilliant choice. Blackwell heard the original single by The Normal in an underground club. It summarizes the plot of J.G. Ballard’s classic book Crash, about the eroticization of auto accidents. “Private Life” takes The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde’s somewhat stiff attempt at reggae and makes it fluid and sultry. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ “Breakdown” is as if it was retooled by Fleetwood Mac at their peak. The Roxy Music cover “Love Is A Drug” is the most faithful cover, and possibly the only one that doesn’t completely surpass the original. “A Rolling Stone,” “The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game,” “Bullshit” and “Pars” connect the highlights nicely. “I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango)” is another highlight, this time the nightstalking taking place in Paris. Dub versions of “Private Life,” “Pars” and “She’s Lost Control” get deep into roots reggae territory.
Nightclubbing (1981) edges out Warm Leatherette slightly with more consistent songs, leaving behind some of the rock-ist trappings of the previous album for a fully immersive experience of Jones’ Compass Point sound in full bloom. “Walking In The Rain” is like Linton Kwesi Thompson’s “Lorraine” and Ann Peebles’ “Can’t Stand The Rain” recontextualized as a noir stalker thriller. “Pull Up To The Bumper” was a huge club hit thanks to it’s unique percussive loop. She co-wrote that song, along with “Feel Up” and “Art Groupie.” “Use Me” out-funks Bill Withers’ original, while the title track is another brilliant treatment of a fairly dark post-punk number, from Iggy Pop and David Bowie’s collaboration. The Police were probably the closest a rock band came to approaching the Compass Point’s rubbery approach to pop, so it’s appropriate that Sting wrote “Demolition Man” for her. While he also recorded it with his band, her version is superior. On the essential 2014 deluxe reissue, “Me! I Disconnect From You” by Gary Numan and Tubeway Army is this album’s “She’s Lost Control” in that it’s another great cover that should have been included on the original album, though most more restrained than her Joy Division cover.
Her final Compass Point album, Living My Life (1982), has been unjustly ignored, with its title track not even released with the album. Since it hasn’t been reissued yet, you can find the track on Private Life: The Compass Point Sessions compilation released in 1998. It may not be quite at the level of the other two albums, but “My Jamaican Guy,” “Nipple To The Bottle,” “The Apple Stretching” heck, the whole album is a must have once you’ve become addicted to this sound. And most significantly, Jones wrote or co-wrote all of the songs, showing that she was taking initiative in controlling her life and art.
When she recorded Warm Leatherette, she was very pregnant with Paolo, the son she had with her boyfriend, French post-modernist art director Jean-Paul Goude. Goude played a big role in Jones’ images, fashion and stage show during that time. One of the more iconic photos was taken for her 1985 compilation Island Life. If her statuesque figure seems to be in an unlikely pose with impossibly long limbs, it’s because it was assembled through a cut and paste montage technique. One one hand it presents her as larger than life, but on the other hand it literally tears her apart and rebuilds her into Barbie like proportions. Despite some progress made with feminism in the 70s, it’s still difficult for women to push back against misogyny in the entertainment industry even now.
After the Compass Point trilogy, Jones released a series of decent albums, but with diminishing returns — Slave To The Rhythm (1985), Inside Story (1986) and Bulletproof Heart (1989). It’s a pity she couldn’t have kept up with the same band. Conversely, she scored some prominent, if somewhat insultingly typecast roles in retrospect, as Zula the Amazonian in Conan the Destroyer (1984), May Day in the 14th James Bond film A View to a Kill (1985), Katrina, the Egyptian queen vampire in Vamp (1986), Helen Strangé, the sexual predator model in the Eddie Murphy film, Boomerang (1992), and Christoph/Christine, an intersex circus performer in Wolf Girl (2001).
In 1998 Jones collaborated with Tricky on an album to be titled Force Of Nature. Due to a disagreement, the album was never released. The closest she’s gotten to returning to the Compass Point sound is her excellent comeback album Hurricane (2008) which was later released with a full dub album. This was the reunion with the Compass Point All Stars that everyone was waiting for, reuniting her with Sly and Robbie, Wally Badarou, Barry Reynolds, Mikey Chung, and Uziah “Sticky” Thompson, with additional contributions from Tricky and Brian Eno. “Well Well Well” was recorded a tribute to All Stars member Alex Sadkin who died in 1987. “Devil in My Life,” the autobiographical “Williams’ Blood,” “This Is,” “I’m Crying (Mother’s Tears)” and “Corporate Cannibal” all measure up well to her original Compass Point Trilogy. Her son Paolo contributed “Sunset Sunrise.” At least four songs were never released, and will undoubtedly be included in a future reissue — “The Key to Funky”, “Body Phenomenon”, “Sister Sister” and “Misery.” Prior to the release, she performed a two hour concert at Massive Attack’s (who once sampled Wally Badarou’s “Mambo”) Meltdown festival in London, and toured the album in 2009. Though she once vowed never to do another album, she is reportedly working with Hurricane producer Ivor Guest, along with writing her memoirs. She contributed “Original Beast” to a Hunger Games soundtrack in 2014. It would be awesome to hear more material from her with the Compass Point All Stars before someone else dies.
20 years ago I made a mixtape trying to find more songs that had that magical Compass Point feel. Some were recorded in Nassau (Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Lizzy Mercier Descloux, Robert Palmer), and others fused some of the elements of the Caribbean with new wave, post-punk and electro-funk (Eddy Grant, Kid Creole & the Coconuts and King Sunny Ade’s bubbly juju), but nothing quite matched the elastic, sexy grooves of Grace Jones and the Compass Point All Stars, the core group consisting of Sly Dunbar (drums), Robbie Shakespeare (bass), Barry (White) Reynolds (guitar), Wally Badarou (keyboards) and Uziah “Sticky” Thompson (percussion). Ranging from slinky to menacing, elements in their sound may have been absorbed by Rick James and especially Prince, but it was never quite duplicated again. The best sampling of the Compass Point sound beyond Grace Jones and a long lost soundtrack to the movie They Call It An Accident (1982), is the Funky Nassau: The Compass Point Story compilation released eight years ago.