There are great albums and then there are very good albums. For me, truly great albums are a pantheon of about 50 or so and few artists record more than one. For example, taking The Beatles, Revolver, Abbey Road and Sergeant Pepper are great albums whilst Help, Rubber Soul and The White Album are very good albums.
Many really good bands have released great singles without making a truly great album. I love The Pretenders, but they are one such band. But of their really good albums, which was the best and, more generally, is an album better if it is consistently good or if it has some moments of pure genius alongside a bunch of fairly duff tracks?
Asking myself that question, I’ve been listening to the best two contenders this week: their debut album (Pretenders) and their third, Learning to Crawl. To my mind, the former shows moments of brilliance (including their greatest song, Brass in Pocket) whilst the latter is more consistently high quality: we have featured two of its songs previously.
So, I listened to Learning To Crawl first: if anything, stronger than I remembered it.
Then I played Pretenders. It starts fairly encouragingly with the punk energy of Precious – good, but for an album issued in 1980, perhaps already dated. But the next five songs … oh dear. At this point, I thought the contest was over.
But then came a run of four blisteringly great songs: Kinks cover Stop Your Sobbing, Kid, Private Life and the aforementioned Brass in Pocket. The fact that the rest of the album dipped off again, it didn’t matter. A victory for the debut album – four absolute gems among the mediocrity of the rest of the tracks.
So, what has all this to do with Grace Jones (a woman George, Bobby and I saw cavorting on stage in her sixties five years ago as a warm up for Pulp)? Her big break musically from being model turned disco queen was to cover Private Life, a punk reggae song. Jones makes the song her own: her treacly Jamaican accent gives the song the swagger that Hynde wanted to achieve and her attitude is spot on for the sentiment of the song, straddling the line between fantastically cool and chillingly emotionally cold.
The effect is like a sharp blast of air conditioning against tropical heat. As Hynde put it later: Like all the other London punks, I wanted to do reggae, and I wrote “Private Life”. When I first heard Grace’s version I thought ‘Now that’s how it’s supposed to sound!’ In fact it was one of the highpoints of my career – what with Sly and Robbie being the masters, and Grace Jones with her scorching delivery. Someone told me it was Chris Blackwell‘s idea – thanks Chris!
Oh, and you’ve gotta love Roger Daltrey in this Top of the Pops clip too.