Sunday, 15 March 2020

SPARKS WILL FLY WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS [226]



Looking through a second-hand shop, I bought a copy of Grace Jones’s 1985 album “Slave to the Rhythm” – the title track is a brilliant, lushly orchestrated song, and Jean-Paul Goude’s cut-and-paste cover, comically elongating Jones’s hair and mouth, is iconic. I was already aware that the album reworks the same song in different ways, but looking up further details later revealed something that left me feeling dissatisfied – the CD copy I bought was an abridged version, nine minutes shorter than the original release.


I thought it would be easy, these days, to find the album on Spotify, or iTunes, or Amazon, to stream or download, but it was nowhere (at least, in the UK) – the title track is on Spotify, but as part of a 1980s best-of compilation, and not listed alongside Grace Jones’s other albums. Therefore, if I wanted to hear the album as originally intended, I would have to buy the vinyl LP, or track down the original US release on CD, from 1987. I saw one copy listed on Amazon as “dispatched from USA,” but did not state version it was – fortunately, it was the right one.


“Slave to the Rhythm” was a concept album produced by Trevor Horn, assisted by Stephen Lipson, and the song was written by them alongside Bruce Woolley and Simon Barlow... yet it couldn’t be more about its singer if it tried, and is credited as such: “Breath, Blood and Voice: Grace Jones.” Knowing this project was originally announced as Horn’s next collaboration with the band Frankie Goes to Hollywood, before being recorded by Jones while taking a break from her new film career, doesn’t sound right – I thought Jones had written it.


The two versions of the album I have are as follows: the 1987 CD release by Island Records, (catalogue number 422-842 612-2), and the UK reissue as part of the “Island Masters” series, from 1989-90 (IMCD 65). Both albums have eight tracks, with the nine-minute reduction coming from cutting sections out of almost all the songs. This is done by mostly excising the spoken-word content of the album: fitting the album’s subtitle, “A Biography,” Grace Jones is interviewed by music journalists Paul Morley, formerly of the “NME,” and Capital Radio’s Paul Cooke. Morley asks the more searching questions, and Cooke says to Jones, “I’m sure a lot of people expect you to be very intimidating, but I think you’re great fun” – an enduring image from British television is Grace Jones slapping the TV interviewer Russell Harty for turning his back on her to talk to someone else.



The songs themselves were produced at the rate of once a week, cutting up Jones’s performance into different ways. The lyrics are brief and pointed - “Work all day / As men who know / Wheels must turn / To keep the flow” – almost designed to be cut and pasted in any order. The track closest to the single release known as “Slave to the Rhythm” is actually titled “Ladies and Gentlemen: Grace Jones” on the album, and has the most complete performance of the lyrics. A rockier version, “Jones the Rhythm,” also released as a single, cuts the first verse, but features a spoken introduction by the actor Ian McShane, taken from Jean-Paul Goude’s biography “Jungle Fever” – McShane also reads from this on the track “The Frog and the Princess,” talking about using Jones as “the ideal vehicle for my work” – Jones does not feature on this track herself. In contrast, “Operattack” is only Jones’s voice, sampled and contorted through all the “work to the rhythm / dance to the rhythm” sections, punctuated by a wail of “SLAVE!”   


The tracks were produced at the rate of one a week, and the cost of studio time, and use of an orchestra, was pushed to $385,000 – that may be the equivalent of $926,000 in 2020, but many rappers’ videos have larger budgets. I do not know if the album came as a result of deciding to release all versions as one collection, instead of having to choose one for a single, or if the interviews and spoken sections were used to create a theme. What I do know is that Grace Jones, both as a performer and a personality, could carry a more conceptually challenging work like this, and make it a commercial success too, without having the pressure of breaking the mould with every album, which was expected of David Bowie.


In short, the “Island Masters” removes most of the spoken sections, some of them being printed as liner notes, alongside the album credits – Paul Morley and Paul Cooke are no longer credited for their contribution, as they are no longer heard, and Ian McShane’s sections are cut back. One track, “The Crossing (Ooh The Action...),” is turned into an instrumental by the cuts. Perhaps this is to make the reissue more successful commercially, by making it sound more like a regular album. There does exist an album titled, “Highlights from Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of War of the Worlds,” which makes the original sound like it was similar in scale to Wagner’s Ring cycle, but hacking away much of Richard Burton’s narration makes the “Highlights” version weaker. Every word on “Slave to the Rhythm” is about Grace Jones, even if it not her saying them.


If it is not clear enough that I consider the original version of “Slave to the Rhythm” to be the full, proper, correct version, it is the most avoidable aspect of the “Island Masters” reissue – the spelling errors. The final track is given the title “Ladies and Gentleman: Grace Jones”, and Stephen Lipson is credited as Steven Lipson, while the Synclavier, an early sampling synthesiser used throughout the album, is confused with fish eggs: “The synclaviar was used extensively during the compilation of this biography: acknowledgement to New England Digital.” The Synclavier would later be overrun by computers like the Commodore Amiga 1000 and the Atari ST, but that’s beside the point.


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