Rewind: Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm
[I fell in love with Grace Jones this summer after seeing her perform at a festival. I found her confidence, humor, style and sound simply astounding, and I am a loyal follower. I wrote this on the 30th birthday of one of her biggest albums.]
With TIDAL Rewind, we blow the dust off an old album that’s begging to be heard again. Here we revisit Grace Jones’ triumphant Slave to the Rhythm, which turns 30 years old today.
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What is Slave to the Rhythm?
Released October 28, 1985, Slave to the Rhythm is the seventh studio album from the incomparable singer, songwriter, producer, artist, actress, supermodel and provocateur, Ms. Grace Jones.
Called “a biography” in the liner notes, the record is a concept album, with each of the eight tracks featuring excerpts from a spoken interview with journalist Paul Morley. It was produced by major league producer and ZTT Records founder Trevor Horn, a.k.a. ”The Man Who Invented the Eighties.”
Following 1982′s Living My Life, with the classic single “My Jamaican Guy,” Jones took a break from music. During that hiatus she made her acting debut alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1984 film Conan the Destroyer, going on to play her classic role as villain May Day in the 1985 James Bond film A View to Kill.
Featuring her most iconic song, that being title track “Slave to the Rhythm,” the record would go on to be one of the most commercially successful albums of Jones’ career, second only to 1981′s Nightclubbing.
What does it sound like?
Stylistically, Slave to the Rhythm incorporates funk, R&B and go-go beats that encompass the classic ’80s sound that Trevor Horn is known for, while losing the reggae and new wave elements found on Jones’ previous trilogy of albums.
Originally intended for British group Frankie Goes to Hollywood following their debut hit “Relax,” the album’s titular centerpiece ”Slave to the Rhythm” was written by Bruce Woolley, Simon Darlow, Stephen Lipson and Trevor Horn. In something of a unique approach, the album’s tracks are, in essence, radically different interpretations of the same original song.
The recording routine found Horn, Lipson and Jones entering the studio on a weekly basis to record a new version of “Slave to the Rhythm.” The finished tracks, five of which exceed 6 minutes, would become hardly recognizable as coming from the same song, though the repeating lyrical and sonic themes make the album highly cohesive as a whole, if not best thought of as a single unit. Famously verbose with his budgets, Horn reportedly spent just short of $385,000 recording Slave to the Rhythm – a pretty astounding bill for contemporary standards, especially if the tracks are considered takes of the same song.
Along with the aforementioned dialogue spliced in from Jones’ conversation with Paul Morley, the album contains voicings from actor Ian McShane reading passages from Jean-Paul Goude’s biography, Jungle Fever, which is much about his well-known creative and romantic partnership with Jones at the time. A notable photographer, graphic designer and former art director at Esquire Magazine in the ’70s, Goude also created the album’s iconic cover art.
Why should I care?
Following her recent acting gigs, Jones used her unprecedented fame and visibility to make a deeply conceptual and challenging record. Although it contains fewer standalone hits than Jones’ other major albums,Slave to the Rhythm is a defining achievement from one of the most original and provocative artists of her time.
Grace Jones was, and still is, an icon without comparison. Blending music with fashion, fine art and film, and eternally challenging common notions of gender, femininity, race and good taste.
Where do I hear more?
As an outgrowth of Jones’ early career as a model, her first three records – Portfolio (1977),Fame (1978) and Muse (1979) – tapped into the disco genre. A popular track from this period was the single “Do or Die.”
With the dawn of the ’80s, with the cool of disco fading, Grace Jones adapted into the blossoming new wave scene of the day. Beginning with 1980’s Warm Leatherette, which included fashionable covers of The Pretenders (“Private Life”), Roxy Music (“Love is the Drug”), Smokey Robinson (“The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game”), Tom Petty (“Breakdown”) and others. Jones’ 1981 follow-up,Nightclubbing, marked her big international breakthrough, as well as her arrival as a serious musical artist, and is still considered her finest album achievement.
Following suit on 1982’s Living My Life, this era is seen as Jones’ most influential period. Working closely with the Jamaican duo Sly and Robbie as her rhythm section, her brilliantly eclectic sound at the time fused elements of rock, funk, post-punk, pop, reggae and more. In more recent years this hybrid has been credited for influencing alternative acts like Massive Attack, Gorillaz, Todd Terje, Hot Chip and LCD Soundsystem.
Following Slave to the Rhythm, Jones recorded 1986′s Inside Story, which she co-produced with Chic’s Nile Rodgers. Though less popular among critics, the album spawned the hit single ”I’m Not Perfect (But I’m Perfect for You)” and is perhaps her most pop-friendly effort to date. Co-produced with then-husband Chris Stanley, 1989′s Bulletproof Heart would be her last studio album for nearly two decades.
Through the ’90s and early 2000s, Grace Jones slipped out of mainstream, though she kept somewhat active with various acting roles and musical guest appearances. At one point, after several comeback attempts and unsatisfying collaborations, she declared she’d never do an album again. That changed however, after she met producer Ivor Guest, who she co-wrote two dozen tracks with after he showed her an unfinished version of what became the song “Devil in My Life.”
Jones released Hurricane in 2008. Reuniting her with Sly & Robbie, along with a host of other respected producers, the record was a welcome return to her reggae-tinged eclectic approach, but with a modern sonic update. Featuring some of the strongest songwriting of her career, the album included contributions from Tricky and Brian Eno. A dub redux of the Hurricane was released last year.
At 67 years old, Grace Jones continues to tour, perform and turn heads, with some of her recent performances hailed as her most brilliant since her 1980s heyday. Just this month she released her ironically titled memoir, ‘I’ll Never Write My Memoirs’, which she co-wrote with none other than her Slave to the Rhythm interviewer Paul Morley.