GRACE JONES – “Slave To The Rhythm” (12″)

“Ladies and Gentlemen….” What Eighties pop had more than anything before or since is a sense of scale. Long tracks previously tended to be messy jams, or primitivist slogs, or rococo rock cathedrals: there was little sense that the pop climax could be extended past its four-minute bounds and made perpetual. Then disco came along and did for that notion: but the hedonistic sprawls of Moroder and Cowley are still arranged function-first. Off the dancefloor, they’re hypnotic and beautiful, but they don’t, exactly, feel like pop singles.

But disco’s birthing of the 12″, and the easy availability of sequencers and synths, made real skyscraper music possible. With a Fairlight to hand, 12″ mixes could become true epics, every moment sculpted, humble tracks turned into magnificent modernist constructs, titans of pop engineering. On the floor, this was ‘dancing about architecture’ made literal. The twelves of tracks like Frankie’s “Two Tribes”, Propaganda’s “Duel”/”Jewel”, the Pet Shop Boys’ “Left To My Own Devices” and this Grace Jones anthem dwarfed their radio edits, mocked them, made it for the first time inconcievable that an eight-minute pop song could be one beat shorter.

Listening now, the awe remains. Grace doesn’t even start for four minutes, letting the listener tour the track instead, silently making them gawp at how pristine, how pricey everything is. The crisp picking, the sweeping Afro-disco beat, the space and gleam in the production: is this, she asks us, not perfection? And of course perfection has its price – Jones’ hymn to the dance is an amoral celebration of sweat and slavery. Dangerous imagery at any time, but still exciting – a powerful metaphor for a romantic clubber’s ideal of total submission to pleasure.

Could Britney, our era’s cyborg S & M symbol, ever aspire to the opulent vastness of “Slave To The Rhythm”? Could she create an eight-minute track so cold and grand? The answer is surely no. Pop nowadays, even teenpop’s energetic confection, is just too fucking human to attempt anything so monolithic. Well, almost: cyber-diva R & B is the nearest thing we have now to the mechanist utopia of those mid-eighties tracks. But where Fairlight-driven 12″ mixes were big-canvas prairies of pop, the Pro-Tools era song prefers microscopic details, a clockwork thicket of sounds. Grace Jones now would be compressed and vocoded into a diamond-hard version of herself, a necessary upgrade for a quickened world.