Headphones are wonderful things, and I’ve been amazed at what I’ve been hearing through them recently. In a fit of nostalgia, I decided to sit down and re-visit Grace Jones’s version of Sting’s Demolition Man (mp3, 5.6Mb). Leaving aside its merits as a pop song, I think it’s one of the greatest feats of studio sound production ever achieved. Here’s why (warning: what follows is dancing about architecture).
0:00 – The intro. Possibly the first human musical action of any kind, the tradition of a “call to dance” is beyond ancient. Here, the sound of the toms are captured in their pure form: fat, flabby, and deeply aggressive. The first three flams (the third skips the beat) accentuate the feeling. But the snare beat catches you off-guard for a split second and makes you falter. Oh – this isn’t going to be easy. It’s like being thrown to the mat by an expert judo player. And that’s just in the first 3 seconds.
0:03 – The onset of one of the most complex blankets of utterly masterful percussion and synth decoration ever recorded. Note the long, rocky scrawl of the Vibraslap (repeated at 0:11 and elsewhere). Whenever I hear one of those – admittedly not obviously placed here – I know that somebody is going to be doing some special things with percussion. And that’s exactly what happens. Note also the tinder dry bass drum that never (as far as I can tell) changes.
Pause to consider there are two clear parts to this recording: the bass and the rest. The bass line itself is one of the greatest of all time (even greater than A Forest in my opinion, although Cygnus X-I is certainly also a clear rival). But that is beside the point. What follows here is the establishment of the bass that thinks it’s in charge, but actually isn’t. It’s a fantastic thing to observe and forms one of the track’s greatest achievements.
0:11 – Bedding in the rhythm guitar chops. What hits you like a freight train here is the realisation of something I had never really heard before I listened to this recording: that other than the bass, the entire band is playing like a drum. Perhaps best of all in this section, and certainly the subtlest part, is the tambourine. The sheer complexity of what is being played on it (considering the rest of the mix) is breathtaking: the shakes, the heel chacks – there’s a solo going on there almost every time it plays.
0:16 – Even the synth line (the original version used horns) is pressed into service as part of the rhythmic tapestry. There is melody, but it’s beneath an inverted pyramid of tempo.
0:30-0:51 – Grace Jones’s voice is nothing if not rhythmic, and simply takes its natural place in the walls being built up around it. Notice throughout the incredibly effective use of variying amounts of reverb: mainly on the snare, but also on the synths. For some reason, this works unexpectedly well with the searingly aggressive hiss of the hi-hat going into the back beat (which itself is offset by the delicate wobble of the tambourine around it – like little bells tied to the hilt of a scimitar).
0:52 – The sudden influx of a wonderfully glassy power chord fed back into itself. And just when you think it’s going to be too much, it fades. In contrast, at this point I usually haven’t noticed the very traditional feeling of the reggae-style offbeat shuffle organ taps. These are very, very low in the mix – just enough to provide a gently bubbling feeling – subconscious even.
1:23 – The chorus – and the guitars take over. Again, they’re still slaves to the rhythm.
1:30 – The tambourine! It seems ridiculous, but if I said you could listen to this entire track just for the tambourine I would not be exaggerating. How it’s played so mind-numbingly well, I have no idea.
1:45 – The guitars are let out to play in a fascinating dance around the beat, with the bass now relaxing to monotone.
2:25 – A fantastic, unknown, juddering sound like the mouth of giant aquatic centipede being opened against its will. This sets the scene for the onset of even more inspired sound smithery on guitar, keyboards and drums.
3:02 – The verse now (“moth to the flame…”) with a terrifying swirl of echoing, insect-like, menace around it.
3:50 – The only ending possible: fast fadeout. It’s what I would have done had I been able.