Monday, 30 January 2017

Reflections on ... What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)

Around Christmas time I finally watched the powerful 2015 Netflix documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? Consider yourselves warned: the film is wrenchingly sad. It could just have easily been titled The Torture of Nina Simone or The Anguish of Nina Simone. The inside of Nina Simone's head was  seemingly a harrowing place to be. But it’s compulsory viewing even for people with only a passing interest in Simone’s earthy but elegant musical oeuvre. It follows the former Eunice Waymon (a child musical prodigy born in 1933 in North Carolina) on her difficult transformation into the lacerating and angrily politicised High Priestess of Soul. There are plentiful hypnotic clips of the regal diva in performance, highlighting her serpentine piano playing and lacerating bittersweet voice (Simone herself explains “sometimes my voice sounds like gravel, sometimes it sounds like coffee with cream.”).

But it also explores the personal torment audible in Simone’s agonised singing. The genuine seething rage in Simone’s music makes for exciting art for us listeners but wasn’t so edifying for Nina Simone herself or the people close to her. She had a lifelong reputation for being volatile and temperamental. Only after her death was it revealed Simone lived with undiagnosed mental illness for much of her life (she didn’t start getting treatment for bipolar disorder until the eighties). She also suffered domestic violence in her tempestuous marriage with her manager-husband, a tough ex-vice cop. The documentary frequently incorporates revealing passages from Simone’s own journals, where she confides in her depression, loneliness and violent fantasies.

Her later life was blighted by financial difficulties, record label woes, legal problems (Simone wasn’t exactly thorough with her taxes), heavy drinking and the racism she routinely encountered in the country she called “The United Snakes of America.” The documentary puts Simone’s whiplash mood swings at her infamous performance at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival into context. It includes the scary moment when Simone abruptly stops playing when someone in the audience dares to get up from her seat mid-song. “You! Girl!” she hisses. “Sit down …” I wonder how long that woman required trauma counselling for? 

/ You can watch Simone's entire Montreaux performance here /

There is unlikely to be a more definitive documentary on Simone than this: all of her closest intimates come forward to give warts-and-all accounts, including her ex-husband and the musicians who toured with the imperious chanteuse for decades. Most remarkable is Simone’s daughter Lisa, who frankly discusses her prickly relationship with her frequently abusive mother without a trace of bitterness. 

On a more superficial level, What Happened Miss Simone? demonstrates how ineffably stylish Simone was over the decades. Early on she favoured cocktail gowns and sleek wigs. Later she increasingly embraced African headwraps, Cleopatra eyeliner, crocheted halter top-and-bell-bottoms combinations and Black is Beautiful natural Afro hair. The epitome of radical chic!

Simone found her true purpose giving expression to the civil rights movement in the sixties. The footage of her as an avenging fury singing for all-black audiences will make you want to give the Black Power salute to the TV. Nina Simone died in 2003 aged 70. You can’t help but wonder what she would have made of Black Lives Matter and the rise of Donald Trump.

/ "I'm gonna kill the first mutha I see ..." My all-time favourite Nina Simone track: the simmering-with-rage "Four Women" / 

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Reflections on ... Grace Jones' Warm Leatherette (1980)

It started with a photo.  Entitled Samurai Sissy, the stark black and white 1979 portrait by French artist and conceptualist Jean-Paul Goude depicted steel-cheekboned Amazonian black supermodel turned actress and disco chanteuse Grace Jones wrapped in a dramatic padded-shouldered Issey Miyake creation. At the time Goude and Jones were both artistic and romantic collaborators (he’s the father of Jones’ only child, Paulo born in 1979. In fact Jones is pregnant with Paulo in Samurai Sissy).  Sinister but sexy, the image is so powerful, androgynous and alluring it suggested a world of possibilities: Jones as a panther in human form. Black Marlene Dietrich.  Female Bowie.  Space-age Nefertiti.  Dominatrix from outer space. In her 2015 autobiography I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, Jones herself describes it as “me as an ominous hard-eyed samurai filtered through something occult and African, the killer clown interrupting some mysterious ceremony.”  Chris Blackwell, head honcho of Island Records, had the photo enlarged and stuck to the wall of his deluxe Compass Point recording studio in the Bahamas, instructing his crack team of musicians, “Make a record that sounds like that looks.”

The resulting album – Warm Leatherette (1980), a masterpiece of style and substance – succeeded. And now – over thirty five years later – Warm Leatherette is being reissued in a sumptuous digitally re-mastered two CD box set encased in sleek black leatherette packaging, with rare re-mixes, extended liner notes and lavish photos.

Call it death disco, Afro-punk or simply black alternative music, Warm Leatherette probably invented it.  Menacing but sensual, over three decades later the album still sounds futuristic and bleeding-edge.  Considering Jones herself was Jamaica-born, the album was recorded in Nassau and most of the backing musicians were Jamaican it’s no surprise the sound of Warm Leatherette is primarily rooted in reggae. But this isn’t straight reggae in any sense: spiked with New Wave rock, Warm Leatherette suggests eerie art-damaged cobwebbed reggae reverberating out of a haunted house.

But ultimately the identity of Warm Leatherette is dictated by Jones’ own haughty, scolding dominatrix voice.  The album represented a dramatic reinvention for Jones both sonically and visually, jettisoning the disco frivolity of her earlier recordings for something infinitely scarier, artier and punkier.  From Warm Leatherette onwards, Jones would have more in common with, say, Klaus Nomi, Nina Hagen or post-Broken English Marianne Faithfull than Donna Summer or Sister Sledge.  (Not to malign Jones’ three disco records, which are campy as hell and deeply enjoyable; listening to them you can almost smell the amyl nitrate). On Warm Leatherette Jones emerges as a woman of mystery from everywhere and nowhere, a world-weary escapee from the most decadent nightclubs and catwalks of Paris, Berlin and London.  Jones took the template established by Josephine Baker and Eartha Kitt (black female singers as exotic Continental sophisticates mostly divorced from blues, jazz and soul traditions) and updated the persona for the post-disco and post-punk generation.

On later albums Jones would write her own lyrics. Here she (mostly) radically reinterprets New Wave hits by others in her own inimitable style. The title track sees The Normals’ stark electro-punk minimalism transformed into lacerating blaxploitation funk. Jones amps up the sexual tension in Roxy Music’s “Love is the Drug.” Just try not to get goose bumps when Jones contemptuously snarls, “Your sex life complications / are not my fascinations” to a would-be suitor on The Pretenders’ ghostly “Private Life”. Jones’ take on Smokey Robinson’s 1966 hit “The Hunter Gets Captured by The Game” – one of Warm Leatherette’s poppier and more charming moments – uses the sound of electronic birds chirping to convey an urban jungle realm. French chanson “Pars” confirms Jones is at her most seductive crooning en francais (think of her initial 1977 breakthrough hit “La vie en rose” or the accordion-laced “I’ve Seen That Face Before”).  Best of all is Jones’ deranged rampage through Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control” (re-titled “I’ve Lost Control”), a nervous breakdown set to music.

Needless to say all of this was catnip for a queer audience. Warm Leatherette turned a lot of people gay (or at least confirmed it). It certainly consolidated Jones’ status as a perennial gay favourite. In fact from Jones’ first album onwards she was deliberately marketed towards a hip gay urban audience on the (correct) assumption they would get her – an artist too barbed and strange for mass appeal. Jones is our kinky freak diva and an honorary gay (her reputation as a joyous and unapologetic bisexual probably helps).  She continues to influence queer artists likes Zebra Katz, Peaches and Christeene.

Warm Leatherette would be followed by Nightclubbing (the one with “Pull Up to The Bumper”) and Living My Life (the one with “My Jamaican Guy”). Jones closed the eighties with two frankly terrible albums (Inside Story and Bulletproof Heart – avoid at all costs) and then – except for the occasional film appearance - vanished from the pop radar for almost twenty years until her majestic 2008 comeback Hurricane. Jones reportedly has an album of new material due out later this year.  Warm Leatherette, though, represents the origins of Grace Jones’ mystique.

(The Warm Leatherette boxed set was reissued by Island / UMG on 17 June 2016)

/ Grace on Chilean TV in 1980. This TV show is fascinating for several reasons. Musically it captures Jones in mid-transition: in an odd set, she performs a combination of her new edgy post-punk tracks from Warm Leatherette (“The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game” and “Bullshit”) with her earlier disco material (“La vien en rose”, “Fame” and a spectacularly dramatic “Autumn Leaves” as the grand finale). On opening number “Hunter Gets Captured by the Game” Jones sings live, prowling and stalking like a tigress. It will gradually dawn on you as the programme progresses that – even though she is wielding a microphone - she is lip-syncing the rest of the time. For all we know, this was standard procedure on Chilean television at the time (certainly all musicians lip-synced on Britain’s Top of the Pops throughout the seventies and eighties). To be truthful, it hardly matters: even lip-syncing Jones makes for dramatic and riveting performance art. In fact, Jones is fragile and intense throughout (during her febrile mood swings she confesses to the host she has the flu). It’s also interesting to compare and contrast Jones with the people comprising the studio audience. They’re wearing earth toned casual lounge wear, flared trousers, have blow-dried feathered coiffures and facial hair (I mean the men, of course) and seem firmly rooted in the seventies. Jones – especially in the sensational dominatrix catsuit and headdress ensemble she rocks at the beginning – looks like a visitor blasted in from the future or another galaxy  /

/ Grace Jones performing "Private Life" on Top of the Pops in 1980. (The single scraped the UK Top 40). I love how minimalist this is, And I wonder what the teenage girls in the audience made of it? /

Further reading:

This review already appeared on Loverboy website in summer 2016. I'm posting it here for my archives in case it eventually gets deleted

The time I met Grace Jones in the flesh at a book signing in 2015!

I blogged my account of seeing Jones perform at the Royal Albert Hall in 2010 here.

Check out my photos of Jones performing at The Roundhouse in Camden in 2009 here. 

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Canadian Freak Diva Peaches at Oval Space on 8 November 2016

Peaches at Oval Space 9 November 2016

Freaky Canadian raunch queen Peaches outrageous gig last year at The Electric Ballroom in London was one of my cultural highlights of 2015. So when the kinky ambisexual electro-punk diva returned to London (this time at the intimate Oval Space in East London) for a sold-out two-night engagement in November 2016, my ass was there! My boyfriend Pal and I went on the first night of her residency so we could be there for Peaches’ big opening (insert your own joke). 

How amazing to see Peaches in such a small venue: Pal, our friends and I were right up front, with Peaches and her two boy-girl backing dancers crotch-thrusting and gyrating right in our faces! It was a night of joyous, life-affirming sleaze, with Peaches performing her stark, grinding electronica (mostly drawn from her majestic 2015 comeback album Rub) in various stages of semi-nudity (loads of boobage and buttage was on display, both male and female. Peaches has always been an equal opportunities perv). Each song was a piece of wild performance art complete with multiple costume changes. Peaches was in fierce, belting voice throughout (in perfect tune even when crowd-surfing or cavorting in a giant inflatable penis suspended over the audience). At times, clad in her revealing leotard, the kinetic and impressively fit Peaches suggested a toilet-mouthed aerobics instructor gone berserk. (In September 2016 we’d all been to see swampy skank-goddess Christeene’s gutter revue at The Soho Theatre which revolved around similar minimalist overtly sexual / punk performance art aesthetic of skimpy costumes and slut-dropping backing dancers. We’re clearly living through a cultural age d’or at the moment!).

Peaches at Oval Space 9 November 2016

Seeing Peaches in concert is comparable to seeing fierce dominatrix-from-outer-space Grace Jones: afterwards you can’t stop babbling, “Wasn’t she amazing?!” Peaches apparently turned 50 years old on this UK tour. Suffice to say, present-day Peaches is filthy, fabulous and 50. She is an artist at the top of her game – and makes me burst with Canadian pride. Who else is flipping over the hidebound stale, pale and male world of rock with such élan and joie de vivre? Now sing along with me: “At the dawn of the Summer I give birth to a bad girl / without a motherfuckin' epidural …”

The beautiful crisp photos are by Pal. The rubbish ones are mine (my camera couldn’t cope with Peaches’ smoke machine!). See the full set on my flickr page.

Peaches at Oval Space 9 November 2016

/ Above: Jemimah, Tara, Pal and I in the front row, bitches! /

Peaches at Oval Space 9 November 2016

Peaches at Oval Space 9 November 2016

Peaches at Oval Space 9 November 2016

Peaches at Oval Space 9 November 2016

Peaches at Oval Space 9 November 2016

Peaches at Oval Space 9 November 2016

Peaches at Oval Space 9 November 2016

Peaches at Oval Space 9 November 2016

Further reading: both The Observer and The Guardian gave Peaches' 2016 UK tour concerts five star reviews!

/ Play this LOUD! /

/ Modern queer performance art royalty: Peaches and Christeene dueting /