Though it was her fourth album, Warm Leatherette is really where it all started for the one and only Ms. Jones.
Warm Leatherette is one of those albums whose commercial performance is dwarfed by its cultural impact. At the time of its release in 1980, it marked a decisive departure for Grace Jones. Already in her 30s, she went from striking but ultimately nonthreatening would-be disco queen to eccentric, new wave dominatrix and soon-to-be cosmopolitan icon. Warm Leatherette was both a catalyst and a by-product of this transformation; it was also a flop. Her previous three albums had not exactly been big successes, either, but Warm Leatherette failed to find a larger audience for the singer. The album’s legacy (and, ultimately, this reissue) are products of Jones’ subsequent successes, such as international hits like “Pull Up to the Bumper” and “Slave to the Rhythm”, her memorable turn as James Bond villain/sex object, and even her recent, much-buzzed-about memoirs. Trace it all back far enough, and it will lead to Warm Leatherette.
At the time, Jones was signed to Island Records, and label boss Chris Blackwell took things into his own hands. Warm Leatherette was recorded at Blackwell’s own Compass Point studios in the Bahamas, and he produced it with help from future Duran Duran collaborator Alex Sadkin. The band was unassailable. The legendary reggae rhythm section of bassist Robbie Shakespeare and drummer Sly Dunbar headed it up, as well as the rest of the “Compass Point Allstars” house band. They provide an eclectic reggae/post-punk/new wave amalgam that is as taut and unwavering as Jones’ vocal delivery.
The title track works as a statement of both musical purpose and overarching aesthetic intent. “Warm Leatherette” had been one side of the lone single by the Normal (the recording name of Mute Records founder Daniel Miller) only two years prior. A cold, sparse bit of proto-industrial synth pop, the song’s J.G. Ballard-referencing, car crash fetishist lyrics were the ideal, erm, vehicle for Jones’ new direction. Here, the original’s buzzing analog synths are replaced with mean guitar slides and a danceable, not-quite-disco rhythm, as Jones hisses lines like “A tear of petrol is in your eye / The handbrake penetrates your thigh” as if they were pornographic come-ons. “Warm Leatherette” is, like the album as a whole, both alluring and intimidating.
Although it's all a bit campy, Jones and company make sure it is high camp, too. The uniformly strong choice of covers is their greatest ally. Both the Pretenders’ “Private Life” and Tom Petty’s “Breakdown” get brooding reggae treatments, enhanced by Wally Badarou’s sympathetic keyboard touches. In terms of combining danceable pop appeal and underground attitude, their take on Roxy Music’s “Love is the Drug” is probably the best thing here. It removes the tongue from the original’s cheek yet retains all of its effortless cool and funkiness, making for a lean, mean, man-eating machine.
Even the non-covers hold up; in particular, Jones sounds like she was born to sing guitarist Barry Reynolds’ self-explanatory “Bullshit”. Elsewhere, Jones is indeed capable of nuance and even vulnerability, as evinced by “Private Life” and the French language “Pars”. Ultimately, though, the singer is defined by her ability to keep emotion at arm’s length. As ever, this trait can preclude full involvement with her music, even when it’s a strong as it is here.
For this reissue, the original album’s concise eight-track running order has been quadrupled. The remastered sound is crisp and clear, but only the most hardcore fans will be too concerned with all the extras. Basically, they amount to extended, dub, and single versions of various lengths. The one additional title, an all-too-literal cover of Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control”, was relegated to b-side status, and it’s easy to hear why. The only real eye-opener is an electro-tinged mix of the title track by the great Francois Kevorkian, showcasing just why he is often cited as a house music pioneer. Much of the rest was already available on The Compass Point Sessions compilation.
Warm Leatherette was the first of three albums Jones recorded with the Compass Point gang. Its successors, Nightclubbing (1981) and Living My Life (1982), were better sellers, but Warm Leatherette provides the strongest mating of singer, band, and material. In retrospect, it’s easy to hear and see Jones’ influence on headstrong female popstars like Annie Lennox and Lady Gaga. At the time, she was taking a bold, singular step. Thirty six years later, it still sounds unique.