Sunday, 3 June 2018

Paul Simon - Graceland (1986)

Mississippi Delta, shining like a national guitar....


Released August 1986

Recorded in New York City, Los Angeles, Louisiana and South Africa

Running time 43.18

The album that brought Paul Simon back to global super-stardom. Recorded with a host of South African musicians and vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Simon married his unique lyrical mastery with the lilting, similarly unique, guitar sound of South Africa’s townships. Simon succeeded in introducing what is a marvellous musical style to a greater world audience. Township jive is uplifting, melodic, impossibly catchy and generally inspirational. Considering the often tragic, discriminatory background from which it sprung, its general joie de vivre is utterly remarkable.


1. The Boy In The Bubble
2. Graceland
3. I Know What I Know
4. Gumboots
5. Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes
6. You Can Call Me Al
7. Under African Skies
8. Homeless
9. Crazy Love, Vol II
10. That Was Your Mother
11. All Around The World Or The Myth Of Fingerprints    

Highlights are, of course, the quintessential township numbers - I Know What I Know, Gumboots, Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes and the beautiful Under African Skies with its super lyrical characterisation - “Joseph’s face was black as night, the pale yellow moon shone in his eyes”. Then there is the gentle lilt of the beautiful Crazy Love, Vol II and the a capella harmonies of Ladysmith Black Mambazo on the evocative Homeless

He also dabbled in Cajun Zydeco in That Was Your Mother and Tex-Mex in All Around The World. After the release of this album, the previously-ignored genre of “world music” became “trendy”.

That said, the Los Lobos Tex-Mex collaboration All Around The World sits somewhat incongruously at the end of the album. Apparently the group said that Simon "stole" the track from them and Simon, surprised to get a legal letter a few months later, tired of the wrangling and lost interest as to whether the song was on the album or not. Stuck on the end as it was, you do sort of feel that vibe. I felt it, back in 1986, before I even knew anything of the back story to its inclusion. 

Then there are the big hit tunes - Graceland, where Simon sings about Elvis Presley’s house against a wonderful township guitar riff, You Can Call Me Al, which includes bassist Ray Phiri’s famous “backwards” bass solo part and The Boy In The Bubble with its atmospheric opening lines - “It was a slow day and the sun was beating on the soldiers by the side of the road”. Simon’s lyrics always say so much in so few lines. All the songs on his album do this. I could go on quoting all day. 

Simon subsequently had this to say regarding his having to improvise his songwriting techniques for the album -

"....It was very difficult, because patterns that seemed as though they should fit together often didn't. I realised that in African music, the rhythms are always shifting slightly and that the shape of a melody was often dictated by the bass line rather than the guitar. Harmonically, African music consists essentially of three major chords — that's why it sounds so happy — so I could write almost any melody I wanted in a major scale. I improvised in two ways — by making up melodies in falsetto, and by singing any words that came to mind down in my lower and mid range....

....My typical style of songwriting in the past has been to sit with a guitar and write a song, finish it, go into the studio, book the musicians, lay out the song and the chords, and then try to make a track. With these musicians, I was doing it the other way around. The tracks preceded the songs. We worked improvisationally. While a group was playing in the studio, I would sing melodies and words — anything that fit the scale they were playing in...."

There was/has been/is a lot of controversy about this album - some seeing Simon as indirectly supporting Apartheid by not boycotting everything to do with South Africa at the time. Or that it took a rich white man to bring the music of the townships to the world. So what? Someone had to, and the world is a better place for it. Simon united musicians and cultures for the sake of music. He should be praised for it. Make no mistake, this was a seminal album.


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