“Militantly Naughty”: Grace Jones and the Compass Point All-Stars
After a string of disco records, the iconic artist went to the Bahamas and finally found her true sound
Early in 1980, as disco’s death knell was sounding across the United States, Grace Jones arrived in the Bahamas to record the first of three albums she would make at Compass Point Studios.
A fashion model of ambiguous age, self-described “art groupie” and mother to a weeks-old baby boy, Jones had released three disco records by the time she showed up at Compass Point, the nerve center of Chris Blackwell’s Island Records. Her music, classic disco with instrumental breaks, long intros and a four-on-the-floor beat, was danceable and meticulously produced. Songs with over-the-top string arrangements and tongue-in-cheek lyrics like “I Need a Man” and “Send in the Clowns” had become gay nightlife anthems. Jones was a regular at Studio 54 and temples of the burgeoning house scene, like the Paradise Garage, where she danced until sunrise.
For years, disco culture was the perfect home for an irrepressible, otherworldly singer like Jones. Even in the 1970s, when Andy Warhol oversaw a “factory” for weirdos and the drag queen Divine ate dog shit on film, there was no one like her.
Female, but masculine; unhinged, but always in control; hair closely cropped, while bright red lipstick and iridescent eyeshadow gave her the look of a fashionable banshee. People were afraid of Jones. “I can just sit there, though, and people get really scared just to come up and say ‘Hi.’ They think I’m some kind of witch or something,” she once told Andy Warhol and Andre Leon Talley. During live performances at the Gallery nightclub she would slink back and forth in a cloud of dry ice, or wear nothing but paint applied by her friend, the artist Keith Haring. She once rode a motorcycle onto the stage at Studio 54. These were expressions of “animalistic energy that was part disco, part theater of cruelty,” according to I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, Jones’s archly titled 2015 autobiography.
It wasn’t just the whips, handcuffs or temper tantrums that made her intimidating, however. It was the way Jones embodied freakishness without being consumed by it. She controlled this image, and so it became a sort of jujitsu. A powerful, outspoken black woman was baring her mind, body and spirit onstage. If people were freaked out, well, that was their own problem.
Disco had nourished this freedom to experiment and self-style, but by the late ’70s the thrilling amalgamation of soul, funk, gospel, show tunes and rock was slowly but surely becoming a “corporate monster.” Jones would not let it devour her.
“I wanted to run naked onstage!” To be seen as “an impossible original beast, only possibly from this planet, a voracious she-centaur emerging from an unknown abyss and confronting people’s fears,” she wrote of her need to break from the disco world. People tried to drag her cosmic glamour down to earth, comparing her to white women like Lauren Bacall, Marlene Dietrich or even Marilyn Monroe. “It struck me as being a way for critics to take the me out of me,” Jones wrote.
In order to make her mark as a singer, Jones would have to shatter the disco ball.
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