Grace Jones: Still a slave to the rhythm

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She's belted Russell Harty, beaten James Bond and brought the house down with her fashion sense. Now the inimitable Grace Jones is back at Meltdown. Andy Gill takes cover

Of all the style icons thrown up during the image-obsessed Eighties, few have sustained both their looks and their character quite as impeccably as Grace Jones. Boy George, George Michael, Michael Jackson – all have undergone serious changes, either physically or philosophically, or both; and even though Madonna at 50 still looks good for her age, her hardbody appearance is significantly different from the puppyfat popstrel who claimed to be "Like a Virgin". But Grace Jones at 60 is still immediately recognisable as the imperious neo-Nubian princess who crystallised the mood of the late-Seventies Studio 54 disco culture before effecting the first rapprochement between dance and new wave music with anthems such as "Nightclubbing" and "Slave to the Rhythm".

Since then, she has flitted between the worlds of music, film and fashion without losing an atom of her intrinsic Grace-ness, an achievement made possible largely by her early training as a model, and by her willingness to serve as statuesque muse in collaborations with talented visual and sound designers such as the artist Jean-Paul Goude and producer Trevor Horn. Goude's various presentations of Jones as angular ebony sculpture, almost a machine with attitude, were perfectly complemented by Horn's dense, implacable productions, in which her vocals were often further dehumanised by being spoken rather than sung. She is regarded as one of the more impressive artworks of the Eighties, a dubious accolade that perhaps falls short of the acclaim she obviously desires as an artist in her own right.

Born Grace Mendoza in Spanish Town, Jamaica, in May 1948, Jones was the daughter of a preacher who took her and her younger brother (now a bishop with his own church in California) to live in Syracuse, New York State, in the mid-Sixties. She didn't adapt well at first: the change from the relaxed, "soon come" Jamaican lifestyle to the more mannered, rule-bound American way resulted in constant friction between Jones, her peers and her teachers, who went as far as describing the tall, stroppy girl as "socially sick" in one report card.

"I was the only black girl at my junior high school," she later recalled. "I had an afro, a Jamaican accent, I looked really old. I was originally training to be a language teacher: I speak French, Spanish, Japanese, Italian and German. When I ran into my drama teacher, all that changed." A brief spell studying drama at Syracuse University was followed by stints in drama workshops in Philadelphia and New York, where Jones was discovered by a model agency. Before long, she was modelling in Paris for the likes of Vogue and Elle, and striking up a friendship with another leggy extrovert fashion-plate, Jerry Hall, with whom she reputedly performed a risqué cabaret act at parties. Her drama studies were not completely wasted, however, as she landed small roles in the 1973 blaxploitation film Gordon's War and a 1976 French sex comedy, released in America under the leering title Let's Make a Dirty Movie.

In the latter half of the Seventies, however, Jones found her true milieu in the emergent disco culture being created at New York clubs such as Le Jardin and Steve Rubell's legendary jet-set coke-den Studio 54. Her androgynous style and imperious attitude soon made her a gay icon, and she became friend and muse to the era's pre-eminent arbiter of cool, Andy Warhol, whom she would later accompany to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver's wedding – with the avowed intention, according to Warhol's biographer Victor Bockris, of sleeping with all the Kennedys. In 1977, Jones secured her first recording deal with Island Records, for whom she made a trio of disco albums with producer Tom Moulton. Though rarely celebrated today, Moulton was an innovative studio pioneer variously credited as originator of the 12in single, the breakdown section, and the remix. His most spectacular achievement was the non-stop 19-minute disco medley that took up the first side of Gloria Gaynor's 1975 breakthrough album Never Can Say Goodbye, a strategy he repeated for the opening sides of Jones's debut Portfolio and its follow-up Fame.

Portfolio's segued medley of three disco-fied Broadway show tunes ("Send In the Clowns", "What I Did For Love" and "Tomorrow") was a masterstroke, cementing the affections of Jones's gay constituency; but although she became famous in the rarefied territory of New York's gay discos, crossover success evaded her until Island boss Chris Blackwell took her to his Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas, where he and co-producer Alex Sadkin devised the itchy, reggaematic electro-funk sound used on her Warm Leatherette and Nightclubbing albums. These were breakthroughs of a different kind, which took rock and new-wave songs by the likes of Iggy Pop and David Bowie ("Nightclubbing"), Sting ("Demolition Man"), Chrissie Hynde ("Private Life") and Roxy Music ("Love is the Drug"), and refitted them with club-friendly undercarriages built around impeccable Sly & Robbie rhythm tracks. Almost overnight, her audience expanded to include a generation of post-punk indie kids who had heretofore considered disco music the devil's work. But despite the impressive songwriting talent on the albums, it was Jones's own risqué "Pull Up to the Bumper" that furnished her biggest hit, and which remains her most recognisable signature tune.

The Compass Point period was an extraordinary musical makeover, matched by her (then) partner Goude's striking redesign of Jones's image, which accentuated her natural angularity even further by emphasising her extreme flat-top crop and kitting her out in sleek, masculine-cut suits with big, boxy shoulder-pads. Never suffering shame or timidity about her body, she was the perfect artist's model for designers like Goude and the artist Keith Haring: Goude devised a flamboyant tiger theme for her spectacular live show, while his startling cover to Jones's 1985 Island Life compilation features her near-naked body in an anatomically impossible pose, one long leg stretched behind her, one endless arm holding a microphone far in front. Haring, meanwhile, chose to develop the obvious affinities between Grace and Josephine Baker – the American expatriate star whose revealing performances scandalised pre-war France – by painting her body with designs based on Masai body art, and exaggerating her breasts with metal coils that echoed mobile designer Alexander Calder's celebrated wire sculpture of Baker.

But while her music and performance-art sides were accruing serious critical acclaim, Jones's film career seemed no further developed than when she appeared in low-budget B-movies a decade earlier. The projects, and the budgets, may have been more prestigious, but her roles were invariably clichés involving stock bad-girl poses: as Zula the bandit girl, in Conan the Destroyer, she was required to do little more than grunt and wield weapons, while her leather-clad May Day in A View to a Kill remains one of the more risible Bond villains. Her first starring role – as the vampire queen of a strip-club staffed by bloodsuckers – in Vamp, meanwhile, demonstrated that, for all her visual presence, Grace struggled to carry a movie on her own. She would subsequently be restricted to support roles in films such as Siesta, Boomerang and Alex Cox's spaghetti western Straight to Hell.

But even as her singing and acting careers plateaued out, Jones's sheer visual panache and bolshy attitude ensured her continuing status as style icon. She lent her talents to sci-fi video games and commercials – most notably a car advert that featured her driving out of her own gaping mouth – and became a regular on TV chat shows, her androgynous appearance and gay following making her perhaps the quintessential Graham Norton guest. Ironically, it's for this incident that Britons are most familiar with Jones, her outraged assault on poor Russell Harty – for turning his back on her to talk to his other guests – being voted the most shocking chat-show moment ever in a 2006 poll (which rather illustrates the soft-soap standard of chat-show fare in general).

Likewise, the other well-publicised Jones "outrages" seem fairly inoffensive compared to what goes on in the average UK housing-estate of a Friday night. Her eviction in 2005 from a Eurostar train following a quarrel over a ticket upgrade, for instance, appears a particularly low-wattage example of the customary friction between celebrities and service-industry jobsworths. And there's something quite admirable, one feels, in Jones getting banned from all Disney properties for flashing her boobs at a show at Disney World: many's the harassed parent who must have thought: "If all it takes is a 'wardrobe malfunction' to get me out of here for good, what am I waiting for?"

Last year, Jones made a sizeable impact when she appeared as Jarvis Cocker's guest at last year's Meltdown Festival at the Royal Festival Hall, singing "Trust In Me"; since then, she has completed a new album, Corporate Cannibal, recorded with her on/off beau, techno producer Ivor Guest, the fourth Viscount Wimborne, with a session crew that includes Sly & Robbie's Taxi Gang, Brian Eno, Tricky and Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen, also of The Good, The Bad & The Queen. It's scheduled for release this summer, when Jones will be headlining the Secret Garden Party; but she will doubtless premiere much of Corporate Cannibal on London's South Bank this Thursday, when she makes a headlining return to the Meltdown Festival, curated this year by Massive Attack. And with a pop landscape populated more than ever before by style icons lacking both style and iconic stature, the comeback of a performer possessing both in abundance, along with bigger balls than most boy-bands, is a welcome prospect indeed.

Massive Attack's Meltdown, Southbank Centre, London SE1 (0871 663 2500), to 24 June; Grace Jones will be appearing tomorrow

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