ARTIST: PAUL SIMON
LABEL: WARNER BROTHERS
This Sunday (5th February) at 9pm, you’re invited to share a listening session with some likeminded souls, wherever you might be. This can be experienced either alone or communally, and you don’t need to leave the comfort of your own home to participate. Full lowdown here:
Since scaling the dizzy heights between 1965-1970, with partner in harmony Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon’s solo career, despite a strong start, had gradually stalled from the mid-’70s onward and, by the ’80s, he was pretty much regarded as a name from the past who, like other names from the past, continued to release LP’s that no longer caught the public’s interest. His album prior to ‘Graceland’, 1983’s ‘Hearts And Bones’, was considered a commercial flop (although it would receive retrospective critical acclaim) and, with the weight of failure on his shoulders, it looked like his best work was well behind him.
Then, the following year, he rediscovered his muse via a cassette he’d been given, which he’d been listening to whilst driving. It was by a South African group called the Boyoyo Boys and, inspired by this unfamiliar sound, Simon wrote a lyric to their instrumental ‘Gumboots: Accordion Jive Volume II’, marking the commencement of the process that would culminate in the Grammy award winning ‘Graceland’.
Whilst Simon is generally credited with popularising World Music via his association with African musicians, Britain’s Malcolm McLaren had beaten him to the punch 3 years earlier, with his ‘Duck Rock’ album, which mashed-up styles from South Africa, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and the US (the aforementioned Boyoyo Boys would actually take legal action against McLaren over the similarity of his track ‘Double Dutch’ with their own hit ‘Puleng’). However, ‘Duck Rock’, although well received, was viewed as experimental and leftfield, whereas ‘Graceland’ would become a major commercial success, selling 5 million copies in the US alone, and, as a consequence, generating much interest in African music (not least the male choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who featured on a number of the tracks).
I’m a big fan of the BBC’s ‘Classic Album’ documentaries, and one of my absolute favourites in the series has been ‘Graceland’. There’s a great part, which provides a fascinating insight into the art of the songwriter. It concerns the big hit single pulled from the album, ‘You Can Call Me Al’, a track that’s almost equally famous for its light-hearted comedic video, with Chevy Chase lip-syncing Simon’s vocal, whilst the real singer acts bored and disinterested as he waits for his pennywhistle solo (which was really played by Morris Goldberg). In ‘Classic Albums’ Simon points out that this quirky upbeat song has an altogether deeper, more angst-ridden meaning, dealing with his own mid-life crisis. He talks, line for line, about the lyric, and how the story weaves its way along until the point that he’s in Africa to record ‘Graceland’, which was obviously a life-changing event for him. It begins with him looking at his own impotency as an artist and worrying about being washed-up, no doubt born of the disappointing reception to ‘Hearts And Bones’. His opening words outline these fears;
“A man walks down the street. He says why am I soft in the middle now? Why am I soft in the middle? The rest of my life is so hard! I need a photo-opportunity, I want a shot at redemption, don’t want to end up a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard” …. It concludes in Africa where he found that very redemption he was seeking; “A man walks down the street, it’s a street in a strange world. Maybe it’s the Third World, maybe it’s his first time around. He doesn’t speak the language. He holds no currency. He is a foreign man. He is surrounded by the sound, sound, cattle in the marketplace, scatterlings and orphanages. He looks around, around, he sees angels in the architecture, spinning in infinity. He says, Amen! and Hallelujah!”
Here’s the Video:
The combination of Mbaqanga polyrhythms and Simon’s sublime wordplay was irresistible. The album, and its worldwide success, would also play a significant role in highlighting apartheid, which still shamed the oppressive white ruled South Africa where black ANC leader Nelson Mandela had been incarcerated since 1962 (he was eventually released in 1990, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 and, to complete this historic sequence of events, became the country’s president a year later).
Your own thoughts are always welcomed, and, should you join us for Sunday’s session, it’d be great if you could leave a comment here after you’ve listened to the album sharing your impressions – how the music affected you, who you listened to it with, where you were, plus anything else relevant to your own individual / collective experience.
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