Warm Leatherette represents a watershed moment in the career of Grace Jones. It was the first of her much loved and critically-lauded Compass Point trilogy and also very much a leap into the unknown when it was released on Island Records in May 1980. At that time, Jones had a reputation as a disco-diva second to none, a fact underlined by her first three Island albums (Fame, Portfolio and Muse). But, by the end of the 70s, disco was over. It was time to move on.
It was time to relocate to the Bahamas. At Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Island Records boss Chris Blackwell assembled a remarkable band for Jones to work with. It was led by the legendary rhythm section of Robbie Shakespeare and Sly Dunbar, with keyboard player Wally Badarou, guitarists Mikey ‘Mao’ Chung and Barry ‘White’ Reynolds and percussionist Uziah ‘Sticky’ Thompson. It was, as Jones was to say in 1981, “the united nations in the studio”. These players can be seen as arguably the final great session troupe after the Funk Brothers, Muscle Shoals, Phil Spector’s Wrecking Crew and the Chic Organization Ltd.
Out went the show tunes of Jones’ albums, and in came contemporaneous new wave (the Normal’s Warm Leatherette, the Pretenders’ Private Life, old soul (the Marvelettes’ The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game, and leftfield rock (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Breakdown, Roxy Music’s Love Is The Drug. All sounded like nothing you’d ever heard before, once Jones had finished with them.
Everything about Warm Leatherette suggested the now; the 80s were here. The high camp stylings of her first three album sleeves were replaced with Jones – pregnant with her son Paulo – looking out at her audience with crossed arms, resplendent in a padded Issey Miyake outfit. Designed by Jean Paul Goude, Jones was fierce, staring hard – the look that she trademarked in the 80s. With her square-cut pill-box GI haircut, and the padded shoulders, she was playing with sexuality right there – here was a handsome/beautiful/ man-woman, with a shadow stalking her.
Warm Leatherette remains a jarring sound, brimming with its burning, louche intensity. Its influence went far beyond its commercialism and showed how right Blackwell was with this unconventional selection of material for Jones. It paved the way for her greatest Compass Point album, Nightclubbing, and gave her the serious respect of the music community.
This is a beautiful newly-remastered collection, bringing together the entire Warm Leatherette album, b-sides, rare and unreleased in-era mixes, long versions and instrumental versions (to fit the album on to the 39 minutes prescribed for vinyl at the time, a considerable amount of editing had to be done). It is a perfect demonstration of players, writers, producers, at the very apex of their game, headed up by the most singular performer, singing as if her life depended on it.