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Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Who Did It Better? Private Life

Who Did It Better?
Private Life

This is another suggestion by one of our fellow bloggers; the stylish, urbane Jon, Delores Delargo the Toast of Chicago. He's got two lovely blogs (Give 'em the old Razzle Dazzle and Delores Delargo Towers - The Museum of Camp) full of the kind of off-beat, campy cultural debris that I, for one, adore. 

Today's entry is another example of a songwriter lending ample aid to another performer's career via song. 

Written by Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders and included on their 1980 debut album, the song Private Life was never released as single by the band's label, Sire Records. 
However, that same year, Grace Jones was busy making the transition from disco to a complex mix of new wave, rock and reggae, and Hynde's Private Life was thought to be a good fit. Recorded at the Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas with legendary producers Sly and Robbie, it was included on Jones' album, Warm Leatherette. The song would serve as its third single and would prove to be Jones' first UK chart entry, snagging the #17 spot. 

In 1985, the song would chart for a second time in the UK, when it was remixed for Jones' compilation album, Island Life. 

Surprisingly, the usually prickly Hynde took great pride in Jones' recording, stating: "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 high points 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 (founder of Jones' label, Island Records) idea - thanks Chris!" 

And that's the whole story.

Now? On to the competition!

The Song: Private Life
The Competitors: The Pretenders vs. Jones

Private Life - The Pretenders

Private Life - Grace Jones

The Pretenders
There's something instantly mystical and mysterious buried in this groove. The arrangement brings to mind a detective on the hunt for a clue, which Hynde's vocals provide by bringing all the drama. Her vocal tics are an acquired taste for sure; she is all consonants, employing an incredibly idiosyncratic manipulation in terms of syllables and word groupings. She is not what one would term a 'great vocalist', but has honed a unique style, combining her signature sneer with a laissez faire attitude and a raised eyebrow.   

Love that guitar as it shreds on the first instrumental break. I must say, I had dismissed this song, but now that I am hearing it again, I really rather like it. Initially, I was rather resistant to taking a look at this song. When I think of white people doing reggae, I immediately think of UB40 and their reggae-lite hits. I despised that stuff and still do. I also dislike Blondie's equally awkward faux attempts at the sound. Hynde, however, backed by her stellar band mates bring something authentic to the table. Perhaps it has to do with the density and overall feel of the arrangement. The tension is palpable, and remains so because they refuse to overplay their hand. Even the backing vocals are hauntingly restrained and tight.

Moving into the second instrumental bridge, Hynde cuts loose briefly before immediately reigning it in with a quickly plucked guitar solo which ramps up the tension like a snake coiling, all ending in a delightful stab of sound before her icy sense of rye comes back into play. She's toying with us... "and then you want to use me for emotional blackmail". Stellar. Her delivery plays so well within the established groove. Her hand alone is on the thermostat  and she is masterful when it comes to inching up the heat. 

The third instrumental break is the most traditional of the guitar solos, but also manages to deliver via all those frayed notes shooting off like sparks. That said, it is my least favorite of the instrumental breaks. 

Like all genre exercises, this one overstays its welcome. The only saving grace is Hynde's lifting of the lid on her vocals on the final chorus, but those bursts of steam are really not enough of a revelation to justify the length of the track. I would have faded it out much earlier. 

Although her delivery of 'oh-ho you're mean', is well worth the waiting around. 

Grace Jones
Sly and Robbie up the tempo and throw in some new sounds right up front. That 'Muskrat Love' synth kills me. Here, it reverberates like the tongue of a rattle snake. This take is much more jungle-influenced; very exotic. Love the synth pad that moves in like fast fog. This stage is all set for Jones' entrance.

Sadly, Jones seems buried in the mix. Hynde ruled her version, not only due to her sly delivery, but also because she rode atop the backing track. Jones, on the other hand, appears to be having difficulty breaking through.

Jones' arrangement brings to mind Marianne Faithfull's classic album Broken English, even though Jones' album precedes it by several months. 

Those pointed synths (very directional sounding) and all the random atmospherics seem to be in charge here. Very disappointed that Jones' vocals are not the focus. Her spoken word delivery? A tad regimented, even robotic at turns. She lacks Hynde's willingness to toy with the language. 

The scatter-shot approach to the guitar solo is very nice. Brings to mind Robert Fripp. And that busy, busy rhythm track, always altering itself. Very fun. This is Sly and Robbie's show. The success of this version is not Jones', but the atmospherics at play in the arrangement. I do adore the scorn Jones brings to her performance - it's a tiny taste of the dominatrix attitude that comes so easily to her. 

A little traditional Hammond organ sneaks in there near the end; another nice touch. 

It's odd... Jones' version is strangely both more complicated and slight when compared to The Pretenders'. The bits and pieces that flutter in and out of the backing track bring a lot of drama and fun, not to mention the ever shifting accents of the rhythm track - that's the complicated. It feels slight, although perhaps compact is a better word, due to it's somewhat abbreviated state. 

That said, I fail to feel involved in Jones' dialogue the way I did with Hynde's, which is another reason I would term this version as slight. 

The Verdict:
Shockingly, I have to give this to Chrissie and The Pretenders. It has to do with the vocal mix. Theirs is the more involving story. Even the instrumental breaks carry the story thread. 

I simply feel there's more at play and was entertained by Hynde's unique bending of the English language. That's part of her genius and it shines here.

Jones, on the other hand, appears to still be finding her footing in this new sound. She fails to assert herself, as she would on future recordings. Instead she allows the studio wizardry of Sly and Robbie to carry the day. That's not what I want in a single; not from Jones. Her personality is lacking here and the song suffers as a consequence. 

--- ---

Well, that's my two cents worth. I must say, this is the third one in a row where the version I assumed would be the winner turned out not to be my choice in the end. 

Agree? Disagree? Let me know.

That's all for today, kids. Thanks for tuning in. 

And thank you, Jon, for the marvelous suggestion. If you have something you would like us all to take a listen to that fits the rather lax criteria of this series of posts, please leave it in the comments section along with your choice for today's competition. I love to hear differing opinions and part of the beauty with music reviewing is - there are no wrong answers - so to one's own ear be true.

And, as always... 

Thanks for listening/reading. 

Private Life - Grace Jones

Private Life - Grace Jones 
Top of The Pops

Private Life - Grace Jones 
The Don Lane Show (1982)


Mistress Maddie said...

I adore my gin blossom Jon and his blogs!!!!!

As much as I love and enjoy Grace Jones, I'm an even bigger fan of the Pretenders....and I agree with you. I liked both but the Pretenders bring something to their music I just can't get enough of.

Sixpence Notthewiser said...

I love Grace Jones!
I had no idea that it was The Pretenders who actually recorded this song first! I think I agree with you when you say that Chrissie's vocals are much more up front than Grace's and that gives The Pretender's version the win.
Still, Grace Jones!


whkattk said...

I prefer the lower tone of Grace's voice.

Jimmy said...

Yes, the Pretenders.

I love Grace Jones but you enjoyed her music more in live performances or video.

SickoRicko said...

I will always love Grace Jones.

BatRedneck said...

Wow, these two are carrying memories from the young man I was.
I loved both versions and still do, each for the ambiance they procure according to the mood one is in.

I remember that I would listen the one from The Pretenders preferably alone, like it fueled the narcissist side of a teen enjoying symbols and attitudes that made him 'obviously different' and therefore interesting in his bubble. So very posing, the cute simpleness of being 17.
Hynde's voice had that way of intimately confiding in me to tell her story, while provoking me and daring me to face new experiences. She arouses feelings for one can think she addresses us and us alone. I fully agree in this that she leads and masters the song. Her narrative comes first, and the players enjoy following her.

On the other hand, Jones' cover shines a (spot)light on what a carefree (and sometimes reckless) young guy loves to do: going out and having fun with friends. Grace Jones will forever be an icon of my nights out back in the days, both private parties and clubbing. Jones' version of Private Life was perfect material to dance to, her strong and trendy imagery being carried by the rhythm of that splendid arrangement. Both lascive and provocative, an appeal to let the body move freely and show off to seduce. At the very first notes most of us boys and girls would stand up and start to move.
Again I agree, her voice blends more than it leads the purpose. She kind of accompanies the song, as if she had been chosen for it, and not the other way around, and for a specific purpose: both a dance floor hit and a sensual moments background.

Curiously I cannot choose one over the other, for they are so apart that they seem to be two completely different songs, hence my two ballots in the box.
Thanks a lot for making me listen to them at breakfast time, I know my day will be a fine one with their voices in my head :-)

Inexplicable DeVice said...

It's Grace Jones' version for me. It's the synths, the more exotic take, and the more atmospheric overall sound that does it.