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Living To Music – Paul Simon ‘Graceland’

ARTIST: PAUL SIMON

ALBUM: GRACELAND

LABEL: WARNER BROTHERS

YEAR: 1986

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:
http://www.gregwilson.co.uk/2010/06/living-to-music/

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-70’s onward and, by the 80’s, 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:
http://youtu.be/uq-gYOrU8bA

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.

Graceland Wikipedia:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graceland_(album)

Living To Music Event Page:
http://www.facebook.com/events/238295446247995/?ref=ts

 

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15 Responses to Living To Music – Paul Simon ‘Graceland’

  1. Andrew McColgan January 31, 2012 at 9:43 pm #

    (From Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/DJGregWilson)

    have you heard about the 'under african skies' documentary?

    http://racketracket.co.uk/music/african-skies/

  2. Anna Bernia January 31, 2012 at 9:43 pm #

    (From Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/DJGregWilson)

    This album was the theme tune to my childhood. Loved the version of Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes you played at Bestival.

  3. Anth G February 2, 2012 at 9:06 pm #

    Brilliant album this, recently re-discovered it on a cd my friend gave me last summer. Love all the african rhythms and the as you point out very clever word play in alot of the lyrics...

  4. oliver kendall February 5, 2012 at 9:59 pm #

    So, in my living room with Rosa.

    Rosa said it was a big album from her childhood and knew it really well. I, on the other hand had never listened to it in full. I'd heard some of songs individually but not a lot.

    Loved the bass and African feel of it and will make me revisit some of his stuff again very soon. Reading the history and story behind it gave me a great insight to this iconic record.

  5. Naomi February 6, 2012 at 10:14 pm #

    I love this album. I had never listened to it until about 3 years ago - unlike most of my friends, it wasn't what was on my dad's car stereo in the mid-80s (Handel's Messiah was his cassette of choice!), and I came across it with my good friend Rosie driving through Wales one holiday. I think because it means so much to her, and other loved ones, I love it too - it obviously has a lot of sentimentality attached to it for many people. I particularly love Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes, the mellow sound and rhythm...this is also the first time I have ever seen the video to You Can Call Me Al, which I thoroughly enjoyed, especially Paul's little whistle jig...priceless!

  6. Dan Smith February 6, 2012 at 10:33 pm #

    Yep, myself, Naomi, Rosie and co listened to Graceland again last night... any excuse! Along with Gil Scott Heron & Jamie XX's 'Were New Here' remix album (maybe a strong contender for L2M?), Graceland was our album of choice during a recent holiday to Spain.
    Three of us in attendance last night could all recall Graceland being on repeat on our Dad's car stereos during our carefree 80s childhoods. It always amuses me how albums like this, and other typical 'Dad music' like Roxy Music, or certain 'Balearic' Chris Rea tunes like 'Josephene' or Todd Terje's edit of 'On The Beach', now find resonance on today's eclectic DJ playlists etc, or more personally how I didn't really give a hoot about such music as a child, whereas today it's a totally different story.
    Anyway, Graceland is a heart-felt album of pure flavour. Listening again last night reminded me to play 'I know What I Know' next time I'm DJing.
    Now, why am I getting cravings for some Heinz tomato soup?

  7. greg wilson February 7, 2012 at 1:50 am #

    A powerful listening experience. ‘Graceland’, and all it represents, puts me in awe of Paul Simon, not only as a songwriter and recording artist, but, on an altogether deeper level, as a man. Before ‘Graceland’ he was always in the shadow of his Simon & Garfunkel legacy, but he managed to find his way to a point in his life where he could create work to stand alongside the cultural artefacts his great songs of the 60’s represent – it could even be persuasively argued that this is his most important work of all, given that it played a direct role in helping bring apartheid to an end in South Africa. This is music as a force for good – it’s an album that smiles in celebration of a better tomorrow.

  8. TC February 9, 2012 at 5:24 pm #

    I couldn't believe how short this album was!!! Seemed over before it began. Ladysmith Black Mambazo's vocal contributions are spine tingling. Love the album lyrically. The one thing that did occur to me, hearing this on our new souped up stereo system, was that the programmed beats really date this album. The technology being firmly set in the 80's. I did find myself wondering what it would sound like without those beats.

  9. Henry February 10, 2012 at 2:10 am #

    Having made sense of my scribblings, going to dive in….

    I was looking forward to this LTM because I only really knew the singles from this album. At the same time, I felt the same slight sense of resistance I'd felt at the time the record came out.I was already in thrall to the more electronic and (especially) sampled sounds that were ruling the airwaves at the time. Having said that, this was over 20 years ago, and I was 8, so it made sense to have a listen with more mature (ahem) ears.

    First thing that hits me on Boy In The Bubble is the bendy fretless bass - how 80s is that sound?! Haven't heard it for ages, great track. It's funny how when you're so used to a 4/4 kick or a boogie 2-step, a stomping 6/8 can sound so refreshing. These are pretty conventional Western pop songs which happen to feature African instrumentation aren't they? Rather than being heavily influenced in the writing.

    Speaking of which, Graceland - funny, I completely understand and respect Elvis' place in music, but I'm just not tuned into him the way previous generations are. Still a great tune though. I actually had a chuckle at the almost token bit of hi-life guitar in the chorus…

    I Know What I Know is the kind of extended African jam I was expecting - nice gated snare on there too!

    Ok I was being cynical earlier, Gumboots is a pretty authentic African vibe. With Diamonds, I confess I hadn't heard this until Todd Terje's edit, as played by Greg. It's a great slow-burner, of course I like the subtle 4/4 kick underneath, and the horns are ace.

    What can you say about You Can Call Me Al? I possibly never need to hear it again since my student DJ days, but it's good to hear it in its intended context. You really hear the African influence a lot more when it's placed in between the other songs which have a similar vibe. Always thought those two bars of slap bass would make a great sample as a kid. Oh, and I've just dredged up the memory that this was one of the great synth riffs of the 80s that made me borderline-obsessed with said
    instrument.

    I could imagine Under African Skies getting played by brave Balearic DJs in 1986…

    Ladysmith Black Mambazo on Homeless - those guys were huge for a time there, weren't they? This was a big tune in its own right, if I remember correctly. Those close harmonies are easy on the ear.

    Crazy Love - bit more Western, this one. Nice big gated reverb on the drums again. The textures on the album are great - a combination of the African instruments and mid-80s mixing long before everything got ridiculously limited and loud.

    That Was Your Mother - is this skiffle? It's nice, it's always good to hear stuff like this, I guess I just wouldn't choose to listen to it - the influence is just a touch too early for me and a bit too white in origin :)

    All Around The World, featuring a snare drum that screams "sample me!". It's got that chicken-pickin' vibe like Mark Knopfler (although I think it's fair to say there are more authentically "country" musicians on this recording). I like how it alternates with the syncopated African grooves.

    All in all, a top album. Really glad I gave it a chance. It's true to say I still prefer music with a bit more funk (and a few less lyrics!), but it's definitely a fantastic achievement as far as pop albums go.

  10. Raul February 13, 2012 at 10:30 pm #

    I listen this album in my living room using a pair of headphones. I enjoyed every single song. I really like this album. It was so cool to hear a lot of African influences in many songs. I had already heard the single 'You Can Call Me Al', and it is definitely one of my favorites. There is something about Paul Simon's voice that I enjoy it a lot. This special voice mixed with African arrangements, makes this album so special. The song ‘Homeless’ is simple beautiful. Thanks for creating this space to listen and share music with others.

  11. phil hongkins February 19, 2012 at 11:19 pm #

    never really bin to big into simon n garfunkell just not my thing , but when my man mr simon decided not only to go to sa to make his album but his choice of artists , was vital at a vital time in the war against the APART HATE REGIME , funny the no of people i had to straighten out at that time they kept calling the white minority facsist gang of gangsters a govt !!!! i wud tell them 8% of the vote didnt make it legal , even our prime minister called MANDELA a terrorist , thatcher knew wot she was saying , so mr simons obvious statements to the regime and of course in time to the whole world were well timed and very much in line with world opinion , even the staunchest supporters of the regime now had to reasses their posistions . hundreds of companies were bailling and the rand was going through the floor , nice . this album put the plight of the black people front and centre again , but this time the whole world took notice , and we now know the nazis didnt have to long left ..... and in 90 n then 94 i saw mandela walk out of prison and then 4 yrs later become south africas FIRST democraticly elected leader !!! not bad for a terrorist .

  12. Lou Lou February 25, 2012 at 3:41 pm #

    Shamefully another album that I hadn't listened to all the way through before, but realised I must have heard every track somewhere either on the radio or other people's ipods. I wouldn't have said I was a huge Paul Simon fan, but who can fail to appreciate this album? It simply blows you away. Those beats, those vocals and that bass! Wow!

    Watching part of the Classic album series afterwards where he gently explains how he created "call me Al" really gave me a new insight into the man himself. I always love hearing the artist themself explain what it means to them and from where it came.
    Loved every minute.

    Thanks again to G & T, especially for sharing the new sound system. Could feel it running right through me :)

  13. lec February 27, 2012 at 4:47 pm #

    The bass is the main conduit through this entire album. It is an album I have heard many times before, but it was too contemporary for my dad!
    I was never a Simon & Garfunkel "fan". I didn't dislike them, they just didn't figure so much in my childhood, but have always loved their vocals.
    The one thing I have to say, which echoes the above comments, is that lyrically, he is amazing!
    I love someone who can tell a story with their vocals, as well as just have fun with it, but musically and lyrically engage anyone!
    Diamonds on the souls of her shoes, is also my favourite track and you can call me al, for the complex meter and beautifully crafted lyrics.
    Will have to go back to some S&G and listen hard methinks.
    Cheers x

  14. BrianE March 11, 2012 at 5:23 pm #

    Enjoyed the African Musicians and singers.This was like Paul Simon, a 'white musician' songwriter/singer with Black musicians and on the face of it Paul SImon coming off second best. .Not many 'white' musicians or singers could stand up succesfully to such talent as the the Black Mambazo Choir etc. The message in the songs was heartfelt and really needs to be taken in context. I wasn't always aware of what the songs were about and when I listened to Paul SImon explaining the lyrics the concept of the album seemed to be a little clearer.

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