May 3, 2014
Originally published on FACT.
Words: Joe Muggs
Just as you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone, sometimes you don’t know what you’ve been missing til it arrives.
Take the new remastered issue of Grace Jones’s 1981 Nightclubbing for example. The album is one of those things in life that it’s easy to take for granted as A Great Thing – the grooves of ‘Pull up to the Bumper Baby’. ‘Walking in the Rain’ and the rest the perfect distillation of early 1980s cool, the meeting point between the Paradise Garage, the Blitz Club and the dancehalls of Jamaica, and Grace herself is utterly unique: half disco diva, half David Bowie. It IS a near perfect album, dammit. But actually, all the editions of it that existed to date have not really done it justice.
The new release (out now) is given a full remaster spit and polish, now sounding as majestic as it always should, and includes the extended versions that were so important to the album taking its place as part of the nightlife it celebrated. There are also two long-lost tracks from the album sessions: the original song ‘If you Wanna be my Lover’ (nothing to do with the Spice Girls) and the absolutely killer Gary Numan cover ‘Me! I Disconnect from You’.
To celebrate the album finally getting the respect it deserves, I spoke to three people with unique insight into what makes it so special. Drummer Sly Dunbar (of Sly & Robbie) and French synth expert Wally Badarou were two members of the band that was pulled together for the sessions that would lead to Nightclubbing, and which would quickly become The Compass Point Allstars, named after the studio in the Bahamas where they took up residency, and featured on a whole series of classic recordings. Mark Wood, product manager at Universal Music and long time DJ as half of the legendary London Readers Wifes, was the man with the tenacity to make the new edition of Nightclubbing happen.
Are you happy to hear that Nightclubbing is getting its due again?
SD: Yeah yeah yeah, I really am, it’s something I’m proud of – a really great album.
It’s incredibly coherent, and tightly structured. In the original sessions, was there a masterplan for how it should sound?
Well no, but there was a plan for all those albums we recorded there [in Compass Point], which was Chris Blackwell’s plan. Before that, we had been working on a Black Uhuru album called Sinsemilla; Chris had listened to it and he heard it and was knocked out by the sound of it. So you know what happened? With Alex Sadkin the engineer, he said “listen to this record album and take some of these sounds and let this be the Grace Jones sound because this is good!” And from there everything was set for the sound of Grace Jones.
He [Blackwell] called up me, and Robbie, and Mikey Chung [guitar], and Sticky [Thompson, percussion], all from Jamaica, he got Wally Badarou from France, Barry Reynolds [guitarist for Marianne Faithful] from England. We said “what we gonna play?”, he said “I dunno!” – but he had the engineer in, so we went in with Alex and start playing in the studio, we got a groove, and we thought well, let’s just record what we do instead of wasting time going in and out of the studios. So the first song we did was called ‘Warm Leatherette’ [cover of The Normal’s synth classic which became the title track of the album before ‘Nightclubbing’] and the second one was ‘Private Life’ and we thought “wow!”. So the sound had developed and it was there, just like that.
So Chris specifically wanted the reggae sound, but there was also all the disco, electro, New York club music coming into it – did you know that stuff already?
Oh yeah. We loved dance music, we’d listen to everything, because we were always working and wanting the reggae we did to move a bit forward, so anything that we could drag to it, we would bring that – as ideas, or as musicians coming to play with us.
And what did you think about the European synthesiser stuff that Chris Blackwell got you covering – Gary Numan, The Normal and so on?
We knew the sound. We didn’t know those individual songs, but we listened to them, then we made a great sound. Versions. A funny thing: when we were in the studio with Grace, there was a big picture of her – a big picture, going right across – on the wall of the studio, then she’d be standing there singing, so when we were playing and getting a groove all we could see was her. We took it on that reggae kind of trip, but always with Grace in mind.
I gather you worked fast in those sessions?
Sure. Whenever we got down to do a session we’d stay a month, and sometimes we’d cut 16 songs each time. Sometimes one would stay there for year before it got used, like ‘Pull up to the Bumper’ was cut in the first sessions but didn’t come out ’til ‘Nightclubbing’ a year later. But yeah, lots of stuff was cut!
So you didn’t really have any sense of the album you were making? You weren’t involved in the compiling?
Nah, we didn’t have anything to do with compiling. All we do is go in the studio and get the best groove we could for the record.
For the new release of the album they’ve found these two tracks that sound incredible and could easily have been on the album – did you get a sense of why they weren’t used?
No, I dunno why they never used them! Maybe they just had too many…
Do you think there are more to be found?
Maybe not whole songs, but maybe there’s some other stuff that we didn’t mix but just laid down the rhythms for, a guide vocal there or something like that. There was a lot of that for when Alex Sadkin and Chris Blackwell were deciding the tracks they want.
There was such a wild range of artists that came through Compass Point and collaborated with the Allstars after that – Ian Dury, Talking Heads…
…and Gwen Guthrie – ‘Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ on but the Rent’ was cut there in Nassau, so was ‘It Should Have Been You’ and some of her other stuff… and Joe Cocker, ‘Sheffield Steel’ was cut there… and Black Uhuru Anthem, the record that won the first ever reggae Grammy, that was cut there too. Yeah, it was a big variety, a lot of different stuff.
And did you have a favourite out of all those sessions?
Well… you know, I generally enjoyed the Grace Jones sessions. It was free, it was so loose and so groovy you know. I enjoyed it all the time we were there.
That sound you got with Grace Jones has kept on influencing other musicians – do you ever hear things on the radio and go “ahhh, that’s our sound”’?
Sure, some records you can hear a kind of influence, sometimes just one sound, sometimes the whole feeling – but that’s no surprise, because so many people still say that those are the best records they ever heard, those Grace Jones collections that we did. And yes, I’m proud of them. If you listen back to those tracks, how smooth the vocal is, how each part fits in, you can hear that everybody was just grooving, even the engineer – he could balance the song perfectly, even while we were playing it live. It shows you how everyone feeling good in the studio makes a good record. I still listen to the tracks myself all the time, I’ll still grab people, say “listen to this track!”
As a kind of house band, did the Compass Point Allstars see each album you were working on as separate projects, or did you just see each track as a new job?
WB: They were separate projects generally, apart from Warm Leatherette and Nightclubbing: back early 1980, we were called upon to work on a single album initially, but things went so fast so well, we ended up recording far more material than could fit one LP. Chris Blackwell decided to keep some for a second album, which eventually became Nightclubbing. Final overdubs and additional songs were recorded during ‘81.
What was the atmosphere like in those sessions?
Strange at first, as initially no one but Blackwell really knew what we were to expect. I flew from Paris, meeting Barry on board the connecting flight in London. We both knew Grace Jones as a disco diva, and thought we were in for something not too far from that genre, even though knowing we were to work with Sly and Robbie should have left us a bit dubious. They, in turn, were questioning our ability to play reggae. Things were a bit tense at very start, to be honest. After recording ‘Private Life’ for Warm Leatherette, things went far more easy: mutual respect was definitely established. But it took ‘Pull Up To The Bumper”s success for most of us to realise something special was happening. Today we are the best friends in the world, even though we never really communicated outside the realm of a recording studio or a concert stage.
Nightclubbing was the intersection of so many threads from disco to reggae to new wave to this kind of Bowie influenced rock – how conscious was this stylistic mixing during the arrangement and playing of the tracks?
I suppose Chris Blackwell and Alex Sadkin were fully aware of it, as they fostered the making of the recording band. We did not individually aim at anything but doing what we knew we were good at, with role models in mind, some of which we could share sometimes: I could talk James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind & Fire, The Ohio Players, Kool and the gang, etc, with Sly & Robbie, for example. At that time, we honestly did not realise we were creating a distinct sound that would be looked at as a classic, decades after.
Our multiple activities outside Nassau made us bring in what we brought: as far as I am concerned, playing on M’s ‘Pop Muzik’ made me part of Euro-UK-electro-new-wave from the beginning anyway. That was my music, I didn’t have to look elsewhere. When merged with Sly & Robbie’s phenomenal drive and Barry’s rock approach, the end result could only be expected. Chris expected it, and got it loud and clear. But, apart from those of us who could shuttle between Nassau and New York, little did we know we were having an impact in the US.
Did you feel that the album was conceptualised before recording began, or did its character emerge gradually?
It emerged gradually, from the songs Chris and Alex finally decided should be kept from each of the 1980s sessions. Overdubs had also their impact on the concept, which never was verbally expressed nor discussed. We were not in to make music talking about nightclubbing, we were in to make the best music we could.
Sly Dunbar told me you had a huge poster of Grace in the studio as you were recording tracks – what influence did that have on you?
As far as can remember, we only had a huge poster in 1980, one which eventually became the Warm Leatherette artwork. Jean-Paul Goude did not have the Nightclubbing artwork till late into the mix, the year after. Both artwork had very little influence on me personally, as I looked at each song as its own universe. Personality had a much greater influence on me, rather, starting with Grace’s obviously.
How much personal contact did you have with Grace herself?
Very little at the beginning, more and more throughout the years of course, as mutual respect did not stop growing.
What influence did this record have on you yourself, musically? Were any later projects you worked on directly inspired or informed by it?
The album itself as a whole did not leave much influence on me musically, apart from certain specific things I was unaware I could do till then, like the solo in Walking in the rain, the high pitch introduction to ‘I’ve Seen that Face Before’, the eerie ambience in ‘Nightclubbing’, the funk stabs in ‘Pull up to the Bumper’ and ‘Use Me’, and so on. If anything, it was all the albums put together, and particularly Alex Sadkin’s approach to sound recording and mixing that left a profound impact on me ever since: make everything sound pristine from second one, never wait to “fix it in the mix”. There is not one album I produced ever since which I did not apply that very demanding discipline, it was vital back in the the days of analog recording, when total recall was not mainstream yet.
Do you remember the recording of the newly found “missing” tracks? Were you surprised that they didn’t make the cut for the final album, and are you glad they’re released now?
I completely forgot about them quite honestly. Nothing surprising about it: we had a go at about three times the amount of tracks than that of the songs which eventually made it to the final albums. Some of them we did not even bother having a second attempt to, or fixing the rhythm tracks, others we went as far as doing complete overdubs and singing. I won’t be surprised if they were some more…
As great as those two may sound today, when put into perspective with the rest, I quite respect the fact that they did not make it to the album because, judging the way we were judging back then, they kind of lacked the purposefulness one can find on the initial album tracks. Things have changed since, because any single item belonging to that era is now being perceived with different ears and eyes. I always had mixed feelings about inserted missing material like cut scenes in a song or a movie I used to like without them: it is like underlining things I fully understood without explanation. But in the other hand, I am glad I can re-discover them, and I am glad fans who enjoy bonus tracks can be satisfied with them.
So you think there was more left on the cutting room floor (maybe that you wish had been completed)?
If there was anything like that, I’d be glad to be reminded of it: I really don’t have a clue, but wouldn’t be surprised if there were some. This was over 30 years ago after all, and I don’t even know if Chris ever wrote down the list of the songs he suggested we had a go at: he would come to the studio with a pile of home recorded cassettes, play the first of them and let us try a couple times. If we didn’t have it cooked by the third or fourth attempt, we would simply forget about it, and he would play the next cassette in the pile. It was as basic as that.
Was this a project that you chose, or did it drop in your lap?
MW: Oh god I pursued it! I was after getting this done for a long time – back in 2003 was when I first started looking into it and got the [studio] tape reports. This is before I’d even joined Universal, I’d pitched for it and would be looking after it as an external consultant. All this was purely because I was dissatisfied with the copy I had basically, and because you couldn’t get it!
Sounds like the best reason to do something like this…
Oh and also, there were various versions kicking about. Particularly, various versions of ‘Pull up to the Bumper’ had surfaced, but the version that I’d bought back in 1981 – bought the day I discharged myself from hospital from having my tonsils out, I remember – you just couldn’t get. So it was partly that, and then the packaging on the CD that was available was really really basic, it had never been remastered so it sounded really quiet and thin compared to other things coming out. And, well, it was the NME’s greatest album of 1981, it’s one of the best records ever made by anybody, and I’d always had a bit of a beef with the fact that it just looked a bit sad and neglected.
2003 was a good time to get it underway I guess – that’s just when the whole renewed interest in new wave and post-punk was at its peak.
Yes – and it would’ve been amazing to get it out right then, but the thing is it’s such a timeless record there’s no problem doing it now at all. And who knows, maybe it wouldn’t have been such a nice package if we’d done it ten years ago – as it is, Catherine who put the package together for our international team has made it just really, really sexy. So who knows if it would’ve been better? It did feel like the right time then, but it still does now. What I’m trying to say is, it’s always the right time for Grace.
Appropriately enough, it’s nightclub play that’s kept interest alive, and you’re a DJ too – was this re-release partly aimed at that market?
Well as a DJ I don’t play vinyl any more, but the vinyl edition is on really very beautiful heavyweight vinyl, and we’ve managed to get eight of the bonus tracks on to it – not the full complement, as then we’d have had to make it triple vinyl which would’ve been pushing it a bit – so lots of those extended versions are on that second platter, to use an old-fashioned DJ word. The long version of ‘Demolition Man’, the long version of ‘Walking in the Rain’, which is beautiful, ‘Pull up to the Bumper (Party Version)’, and the unreleased bonus tracks too – so I’m sure that will suffice for vinyl DJs.
I went myself to see it being cut at Abbey Road, the bloke did it on that same lathe they used for all the Pink Floyd and Beatles albums. And if you’re a CD or digital DJ, it now finally sounds as bright and bold as it should do and will stand up against absolutely anything you want to put next to it. It’s always been one of the greatest listening pleasures anyway, and now with the new technology, the mastering finally does it justice.
And aside from the production and mastering, what makes these such good club tracks?
There’s stuff on there for any time, basically. You’ve got warm up tracks like ‘Nightclubbing’ itself, you’ve got ‘Feel Up’ which is a nice kind of slow-burning thing for a midtempo bit of the night, ‘Pull up to the Bumper’ obviously never, ever fails to fill up a dancefloor – it’s never let me down yet in years of DJing – it’s just the kind of record that does its job absolutely perfectly. It hasn’t dated one bit, it doesn’t sound clattery and overproduced like so much stuff from the eighties, it just sounds really classy and cool still. In fact not just Nightclubbing, but pretty much Grace Jones’s entire career has that quality, she’s a really astute artist in the way she’s always managed to make stuff that is just so completely… timeless.
When did the lost tracks come to light?
Well as I say I had the tape reports when I first did the research in 2003, 2004, and what they do is bring the tapes out of the vault and put them onto CDR for you. So I lived with those for a year or so while we were trying to get them out the first time. But what didn’t surface at the time was ‘Me! I Disconnect from You’, the Numan cover, so we assumed that’d been wiped or lost or something. That didn’t surface til the end of last year when some really clever bloke in New York found it; we were completely gobsmacked when we heard it, because it had became a sort of “did it ever exist?” thing.
Was it a mistake on the tape reports? Had they recorded it then wiped it straight away but left the report? As for ‘If you Wanna be my Lover’, nobody knows anything! It sounds like an original song, it’s not a cover by anyone else, it’s just a great little Grace record – either of those two tracks could easily have sat on the original album, and a few of the reviews have even suggested it would’ve been better with them. People really love that Numan cover.
From speaking to the musicians, it sounds like they did a lot in that time, so they just had an embarrassment of riches when it came to compiling.
Well they must have been working so quickly – Warm Leatherette to Nightclubbing to Living my Life is only a period of a couple of years, so they must have been hunkered down pretty continuously creating it as a body of work. And they certainly sound like a family, don’t they? There’s a slight progression between the three, which is interesting. I guess Chris [Blackwell] executive produced, putting all the tracks in front of them, and Alex Sadkin, who’s sadly no longer with us, did a wonderful, wonderful job making the record come to life.
Do you live in hope that there are more hidden treasures?
We’re hoping! We’re constantly looking at ways we can breathe life into catalogue, particularly for our iconic artists, and I will be looking at the tape reports for the other albums… I can’t say anything about what might actually come out, but we’re constantly looking at what we have to work with.