Monday, 9 October 2017
Paul Simon “Graceland” (1986)
The Boy In The Bubble/Graceland/I Know What I Know/Gumboots/Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes//You Can Call Me Al/Under African Skies/Homeless/Crazy Love Vol II/That Was Your Mother/All Around The World or The Myth Of Fingerprints
‘Is this my problem? Is this my fault? If that’s the way you feel I’m gonna bring this whole thing to a halt. You don’t feel you could love me, but I feel you could…’
So much has been written about ‘Graceland’ down the years that it all sounds like a natural career progression, a ‘how to re-invent your flagging career in the best possible way’ rulebook. Paul not only released the catchiest and most commercial album of his illustrious career at just the point when he most needed to, he invented a whole genre of ‘world music’ at just the right possible time when music was heading that way anyway. If you’re feeling generous you could say that Paul came up with the perfect album at the perfect time when the music world was looking for something a little different and recording an album in Africa when that country had never been in the news so much was a brilliantly creative idea. If you’re feeling generous you could (as some have claimed) said that Paul was exploiting the idea of talented but unknown musicians for his own ends in a desperate attempt to get a hit and breaking a boycott against apartheid in South Africa for his own selfish ends. We’ve had so many documentaries on the making of this album now that it’s success seems assured: there Paul is, with talented Simon and Garfunkel engineer Roy Halee in tow, building a recording studio almost from scratch in Johannesburg, working with collaborators who all knew this project was going to be a success, with Warner Brothers drooling over its prospects back home. This album always seems to be painted out as deliberate, whether you’re a fan who always knew that Paul would have an ‘ace in the hole’ when times got tough or a detractor who thinks Paul stole every note on this album and had it planned out before he even left America.
Actually the truth is more basic and started with a bootleg album named ‘Gumboots: Accordion Jive Hits Volume Two’ leant to Paul as he started work producing an album by singer-songwriter Heidi Berg. At this point in his life (1985) Paul was fed up of music and had no plans of what to do for the last album of his contract with Warner Brothers. His last two projects ‘One Trick Pony’ and ‘Hearts and Bones’ had died an unfair death, as Paul’s marriage to actress Carrie Fisher crumbled and left him in a thoughtful and vulnerable mood, a million miles away from the bouncy commercial feel of the times. When an attempted Simon and Garfunkel reunion fell apart too in 1983 Paul felt betrayed and abandoned and didn’t even want to think about making music again, certain that no one was interested in what he had to say and that he was all washed up. Then he heard that tape of African musicians, led by Ladysmith Black Mombazo, and fell in love with it, his enthusiasm for music re-awakening. Every day for weeks he found himself waking up with their fast-paced African rhythms playing through his mind. Almost without thinking of it, Paul started scat-singing new melodies and words over the top of the tunes, thinking about what they might sound like had they been turned into ‘full’ songs. Always with an ear for talent, back in the early 1970s Paul had been quite a pioneer of world music anyway (the Puerto Rican jibe of ‘Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard’, the Jamaican reggae of ‘Mother and Child’ and the South American twinkle of ‘Duncan’ before half an album recorded at Muscle Shoals in 1973), but that aspect of his music had gradually dropped away as Paul discovered his own distinctive solo style starting with ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ and by 1986 it had been fifteen long years since he’d recorded with musicians who weren’t American-born. Nervously he asked Warner Brothers to research the musicians he’d heard on this bootleg tape, which didn’t even come with a list of musicians anywhere, not even knowing the country they came from (he’d figured they were probably Zimbabwean or Nigerian and might be open to travelling to America for an all-expenses paid trip).
Paul discovered to his horror that these musicians were all from South Africa, which back in 1986 created more problems than he was sure he could deal with. At this stage in African history there was still a totalitarian apartheid Government in power that kept white and black people far apart – the rest of the world, appalled, had tried to sanction the country to no avail and there was a strong boycott against the arts particularly having any negotiation with the government for cultural appraisal. Any political dissident who spoke out against the regime (such as Nelson Mandela) was locked up, seemingly for life. There was a peak AIDS epidemic that meant a continent already low on funds was crushed to the point of impending disaster. There was no chance that any of the musicians could travel freely to America even had they taken up Paul’s request. Paul had never travelled more than a few states away from his New York home to make music before – but as a white interloper from the West viewed with suspicion, would he really be safe in this strange land where they didn’t have any more than the basic recording equipment? Paul, at this stage, was convinced that this album, even if he was brave enough to make it, would sink his career without trace – no one else had ever recorded a full album using African musicians before and recording merely part of one wasn’t an option either and would have sounded off-kilter with any recordings made in American (although as it turns out there are far more recordings made back at ‘home’ than many fans assume on this album, all made after the basic tracks in Africa). He didn’t know if there was a market for African music at all just yet and figured he was making this album as a self-indulgence to wrap up his career with the sort of recordings he wanted to make, rather than any grand career statement. Paul truly expected to be ignored when this album came out (as he had been the last twice now) but knew that in the rare chance he succeeded this album would ask awkward political questions of apartheid and boycotts he didn’t quite know if he was prepared to face yet. To be fair to Warner Brothers, they let him get on with it and rather than talk him out of it the way a lesser record company would have done merely held him on a leash, providing low budget income and basic help to make this album.
The result is an album that’s undeniably courageous. Paul could have stayed at home and seen out his contract with a record that would have been much easier to make, without the political ramifications of by far the most controversial album by an artist who largely tried to shy away from controversy in his career or the day-to-day problems of simply making the thing with musicians who weren’t used to playing in a ‘Western style’ or indeed being inside a recording studio at all and with bands who had big rivalries between themselves (people miss the point now all these musicians have since toured with Paul as ‘friends’ but getting Ladysmith Black Mombazo (who sing on ‘Homeless’ and ‘Diamonds On The Soles Of Their Shoes’), Los Lobos (who play on ‘All Around The World’), Miriam Makeba (who sings on ‘Under African Skies’), guitarist Ray Phiri and Juluka (an African pop band who never got the credit they deserved, being effectively the ‘session musicians’ for most of this album) is not unlike getting The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Who and Pink Floyd to all appear on the same album, all with their different styles, regional accents and competitive drive). Instead Paul took a risk, that paid off – of sorts. ‘Graceland’ was given almost no publicity by Warner Brothers and at first only did as well as the last two albums. Then something happened. ‘You Can Call Me Al’ did unexpectedly well when released as a tie-in single: better than any Paul Simon song had performed since the start of his solo career in 1972. Even so Warner Brotherts still weren’t sure: it really didn’t sound much like the rest of the record and was their ‘safe’ option as the most Americanised track Paul had written for some time. But as the single sold more and more people checked out the album and ‘Graceland’ began to sell as word of mouth took off. By the end of 1986 it had become that year’s top-selling album and it would go on to receive accolades and awards for the next two, creating stars of many of the people who created it and becoming one of the 1980s biggest sellers in general. The album sold so well Warner Brothers didn’t blink at re-signing Paul to the label and asked him to make a sequel in a hurry; Paul being Paul he leisurely made the all-Brazilian album ‘Rhythm Of The Saints’ four years later which in truth has nothing whatsoever in common with this record except the way it was made (being a much darker, philosophical album than this oddly bright and commercial record).
‘Graceland’ has, however, also become mired in controversy. The way Paul made it was at least as revolutionary as why and caused a lot of grey areas that had never really been a problem for any previous album by anybody. Fired by ‘Gumboots’, Paul aimed to get the bands to play their own ‘groove’ to which he would later add his own American-eyed view of the world. For the most part this worked: most of the musicians were so keen to let Paul do what he needed to do they let him get on with it and basked in the publicity. However some musicians were more protective of their music and figured that Paul was a Westerner out to exploit them. Los Lobos attacked Paul even before the record was released, having been assured (whether in real life or their own heads) that all the musicians would receive a co-credit for their work. Instead Paul only occasionally credited the musicians if he was adding to a work that had already been established or if a musician had closely collaborated with him in some way and as the person who ‘shaped’ how the music turned out in the end Paul considered that this made him the sole creator of an actual ‘song’. It was a controversy that got bigger as a whole sea of musicians who had formed the music protest movement ‘Musicians Against Apartheid’ criticised Paul in public for his stance and naiveté (including Paul Weller and Billy Bragg). Ghana ambassador to the United Nations James Victor Gbeho publicly slayed Paul for robbing African musicians of their heritage. Political commentators said that Paul was trying to spread ‘colonialisation’ to South Africa by singing white man thoughts over black men’s music, a protest that grew bigger the more copies ‘Graceland’ sold. To this day people are split on whether Paul was naïve, brilliant or corrupt in making this record.
From my point of view Paul was simply making a record and didn’t have a political bone in his body (or at least hadn’t seen Nixon and Watergate). A humanitarian who always seemed to have low opinions of all politicians in private and in interviews, Paul was simply stretching out the hand of friendship to musicians he admired. He was at worst hopelessly naïve about where his musical curiosity weas taking him and trusted in his instinct over his logic a bit too much. For instance Paul was friends with Harry Belafonte and sought out the singer’s advice on whether to make this album or not. Harry said it was a brilliant idea promoting music he loved too, but that Paul would have to stay on the right side of the African Government and ‘suck up’ to them. Paul, of course, refused and whole he did seek out their permission to make this record the African Government were as critical as anybody when it came out and banned it, making ‘Graceland’ ironically the only Paul Simon album you couldn’t buy in South Africa for a very long time. Many people have scoured this album’s lyrics to try to find a ‘clue’ of what Paul was up to, but the closest this album gets to a political moment is the poverty of ‘Homeless’ (and if you’re attacking a musician for pointing out that people shouldn’t go hungry without a roof over their heads as a ‘political statement’ then you’re rather missing the point). Yes Paul could have provided a few extra credits, but he was at pains to mention every individual musician on the sleeve and gave each of the stars who toured with him their own solo spots showcasing their material and praised them to the hilt in the press. The ‘problems’ with Graceland come from the ‘outside’ world who considered any reference to African music a political matter – the fact that Paul jumped head-first into a sea of troubles that everyone else was skirting around makes him either brave or foolish, but not the appropriating criminal he’s often painted out to be. If anything Paul is firmly on the side of the African musicians across this album: ‘The Boy In The Bubble’ condemns the Western world’s belief in technology and progress to save them when it’s taking them further away from their true selves, ‘Graceland’ itself is an American institution of salvation and rock and roll that doesn’t ever take away the feelings of pain from the hurt pilgrims who attend it and ‘Crazy Love’ is as anti a Western dating song as you’ll ever find. Africa comes out of this record well – it’s the American who should perhaps have been paying closer attention.
However, there’s a deeper theme across this record which is how similar things are for humans ‘all around the world’. References to America and Africa both abound in this album’s lyrics and yet there’s very real difference in execution between them all. Poverty, homelessness, hopelessness, hope, fear, loss, pride: they’re universal emotions and all of these lyrics, you sense, would have worked just as well on Paul’s ‘normal’ style songs as they would on this album. Indeed some of Graceland’s songs are abruptly American anyway: Linda Ronstadt sings alongside the African singers with no problems whatsoever and Paul’s heroes The Everly Brothers even sing with him on the title track and you can’t get more American than that. ‘The Boy In The Bubble’ may have an African accordion peeking out of the main riff but it’s as close to contemporary riff-heavy American music as Paul ever came in his career. The album even ends with a song about how crazy things happen ‘all around the world’, finding a universal feel that his American and African fans can both agree with. And then there’s this album’s unique recording process: backing tracks largely made in Africa right at the heart of that culture, sweetened by and large in the heart of America with lots of local musicians too: this is meant to be a collaborative project, the musicians finding similarities via the universal language of music just as these characters do in their own lives. This is an album trying to find common ground, not spread a divide. Many people who attack this people get it ‘wrong’.
The part that ‘works’ is where Paul himself finds common ground with the African musicians by returning to his own youth. The ‘Graceland’ title shouldn’t fit: it’s an American institution not an African one and is a bit like naming an album made in France after Martin Luther King’s house. ‘Graceland’ is inspired by a visit Paul took with his son Harper to Elvis’ family home, turned into a rock shrine (perhaps the first rock and roll museum out there). Paul feels awe and spirituality here and healing in a way that only music can bring him, as he returns to exploring his love for the musician who more than anyone turned him on to making music the way he did on ‘One Trick Pony’. The fact that another American institution – The Everly Brothers – sing alongside him makes the title song a hymn to the simple healing powers of music, a ‘universal language’. That enthusiasm for the music he felt the first time he heard it is used in parallel with the African music that excites him now. As perhaps the ‘simplest’ era of rock and roll, the 1950s vibe also makes several appearances across this album as perhaps the common ground between the two sets of musicians trying to meet in the middle by playing ‘simple’. Ray Phiri, South African jazz musician, deserves special praise for picking up on this and translating Paul’s distinctive riffs to what the African musicians can play and he’s the album’s star here, the ‘local’ musician who makes most effort to relate to Paul’s way of thinking (Joseph Shabala is the album’s other ‘winner’, finding new ways to make traditional Ladysmith Black Momboza sounds work in terms Paul’s audience can understand). Though ‘Graceland’ is Paul’s own personal ideal – a shrine to the musician who inspired him most – you sense that this album is actually eleven equal ‘Gracelands’, shrines to the healing power of music by whatever part of South Africa the musicians happen to come from.
However, there’s one major flaw at the heart of this album that means those who love it get it ‘wrong’ too in my opinion. Take away the bounce of energy in the recording, strip away the fact that it was the first album to do what it did and what you have is a very rum collection of Paul Simon songs indeed. While the album starts well with the raw noise and threat of ‘Boy In The Bubble’ (the greatest opening song on a Paul Simon record?) and ‘Graceland’ is a sweet re-write of ‘Hearts and Bones’ and ‘I Know What I Know’ is good fun, the most successful of Paul’s silliest tracks, the rest of the album is hard work. Too many of these songs are one-note at best, lacking the variety and intelligence Paul usually brings to his work. All the accordions and jive acts in the world can’t hide the fact that as a writer Paul is at his most timid across this album, even if as a producer and recording artists he’s as courageous as they come. Some of these compositions sound rushed, as indeed they were – written hastily back home in America as Paul stayed home playing the recordings over and over again on a tape recorder. In time he’ll work out exactly where he went wrong with this record, trying to impose a fixed forced Western repetitive style on these songs full of verses and choruses that really don’t go. ‘Rhythm Of The Saints’ works much better than this album because it puts the mystery back into the songs, with snatches of stream of consciousness images that along with music many fans wouldn’t have heard before adds up to a brilliant mood-piece full of pathos and philosophy. ‘Graceland’ just sounds like a bunch of songs that would be quite boring without the African musicians taking part and much of it is confusing: I haven’t got a clue what most of the lyrics on this album mean and –unlike the far more poetic ‘Rhythm Of The Saints’ – I get the impression Paul doesn’t quite know what most of them mean either. Even the Western overdubs aren’t that hot, with Paul on ropey vocal form and unable to engage with these songs as much as he normally does, falling a few takes short of magic. I’m convinced that many fans are ‘fooled’ by this album’s worth, though, more because the best songs are all stacked together at the beginning so that this record gets increasingly weaker with every single track. The final trilogy are particularly poor and amongst the weakest songs Paul ever wrote: ‘Crazy Love’ ‘That Was Your Mother’ and ‘All Around The World’ are tracks that wouldn’t even have lasted as B-sides in any other era. Even the ever-popular ‘You Can Call Me Al’ is Paul’s weakest hit single when you analyse it, a catchy bass riff and clever video in search of a ‘proper’ song. This album is horribly rushed in places and that fault lies firmly with Paul as the album’s creative visionary who seems to have simply run out of steam as this album progressed. As a result this is arguably my least favourite Paul Simon album outside ‘The Capeman’ musical, being too clumsy and one-dimensional for a writer of his talents. Even the album cover – an African drawing of a man on a horse, discovered in the Peabody Museum of Salem and apparently used simply because it looked vaguely ‘African’ – is the weakest of all of Paul’s front covers.
Even so, of course ‘Graceland’ was going to be a hit and a rare occurrence of the right album coming along for the right times. Though Paul created much of it by mistake, it ‘feels’ as if he knows exactly what he’s doing here. The catchiness of the title track and ‘You Can Call Me Al’ gives Western fans a branching bridge to get ‘into’ this music and a carefully sequenced album keeps offering something familiar after giving us something strange (though the two halves are of course vice versa depending on if you’re American or African). ‘The Boy In The Bubble’, sensibly released as a second single from the album, offers depth. Ladysmith Black Mombazo fulfil their brief to the letter, writing ‘Homeless’ as a song that Paul can stick on this album without sounding out of place or diluting their style (they deservedly became this album’s big stars). Making ‘Under African Skies’ start out as a duet between the American and African worlds before becoming the most ‘traditional African’ moment on the record is the perfect setting for a song that is a ‘journey’. ‘Gumboots’ is relatively successful at showing off the Cajun music that got Paul interested in making this record in the first place. Only the last three songs really mess up and by then most people have stopped listening properly anyway. The world needed something ‘new’ in music in 1987 that also sounded familiar and as someone with a sympathetic ear and an open musical mind Paul was the perfect musician to give it to them: ‘Graceland’ is an obviously successful record designed to appeal to people who didn’t even like Paul’s music and only had this album in their collection. People are wrong to criticise this album for the usual political reasons as they rather miss the point of what this album was meant to do, unite rather than divide and to be uplifting rather than patronising. This album gets several marks just for being brave enough to be the ‘first’ and go to places no other Western artist were prepared to go - and yet, examined as a Paul Simon record in the context of his career it still feels rather wanting and – the first three songs aside – is in truth something of a slog to sit through. It’s a great album for showcasing African talent, but in many ways the worst at showing off Paul’s as he suffers from writer’s block far more critical and hurtful than he suffered making ‘Hearts and Bones’. We’re talking about ‘ghosts’ and ‘empties’ by Paul’s high standard – the irony of the fuss over this album is not that this album was Paul exploiting African musicians but that they were exploiting his name and becoming famous on the back of an album where Paul is on such poor form he risks taking down their talent with his at times.
‘The Boy In The Bubble’ is the song where ‘Graceland’ truly works the way people say it does, as an album that couldn’t have been performed without the mixture of African and American sounds. Paul here uses the two sides as a clever tug-of-war as the sound of ‘tradition’ (the jive accordion) is dragged kicking and screaming into a modern age it doesn’t want to be a part of (Baghiti Khumalo’s gloriously modern and restless bass). Like the rest of this album the song existed as a backing track put together under the watchful eye of Paul long before he had any words. The difference is who asked accordion player Forere Motloheloa for a riff he could work around (it’s worth noting for this album’s detractors who thought Paul came to ‘steal’ music that Forere gets a co-credit on the song. Listening back to the recording, which could be contemporary rocky if not for that sour-sounding accordion which shouldn’t ‘fit’ (but somehow does) must have reminded Paul of a ‘fight’ between the two. A lesser writer would have made it a ‘fight’ between the first and third world countries, but Paul is too clever for that and instead makes it a fight between the past and the future, with Paul effectively mocking evolution on this song and the idea that life naturally gets better alongside the technology. Instead this is as angry and troubled a world as he’s ever put into song, with a soundscape that’s quite terrifying and paranoid and one of his career best lyrics. Everything in this song is moving too fast: for the worn-out soldiers baking in the heat of their march in yet another war, the radio technology that allows bomb-makers to blow more people up in a terrorist attack, the ‘dry wind’ that back in the middle of the Cold War sounds like a nuclear holocaust slowly moving its way across the planet counting down to the point when someone presses the ‘red button’ at last. Even the music-makers aren’t safe with a final verse that ‘throws a hero off the pop charts’, an angry Paul making a comment as his career fades about how sometimes the good things from the past should be ‘allowed’ to last into the present (what with the title track and all, he may well have been thinking of hero Elvis here too, who was as close to being forgotten as he’s ever been in the mid-1980s).
Clearly much of this song’s imagery feels ‘wrong’, full of anachronisms and people fighting old wars with new technology, with the overall theme that while the weapons change mankind never does. It’s also an age where we could do so much good with technology, but instead end up committing evil deeds over and over again. Just check out the extended last verse sung with real passion and awe: this is an age when we can have ‘lasers in the jungle’ but the poor living there remain, when we can send ‘staccato signals’ that mean nothing into space because mankind hasn’t learnt anything yet and where we are followed constantly by cameras recording lives that have nothing to say. Even worse, this technology is bringing us closer to breaking point, leaving us gazing at ‘the corner of the sky’ for someone to save us from ourselves – even though the constellations we gaze at to save us are recording time from millions of years ago by the time the images reach us and the aliens probably died out by their own technological progress too. No wonder, in one of his career best lines, Paul parrots the lines we’re so often given about how we live in ‘days of miracles and wonder’ but instead of being pleased to live in a land full of empty gadgets he simply sighs ‘so don’t cry baby, don’t cry’. The idea of the ‘boy in the bubble’ came from a 1976 John Travolta TV film ‘The Boy In The Plastic Bubble’ about allergy sufferers whose reactions are so severe they had to live their entire lives when outside encased within actual bubbles. Here, though, the bubble is a ‘mental vacuum’ of people trying to stay away from the danger technology poses and the boy in the bubble is Paul. The end result is inevitable though even so: everyone on the planet is affected by technology that can blow the planet up, whether they understand it or have heard of it or not. Paul backs off towards the end, throwing in one of his silliest verses with a ‘blocked out’ few lines of alliteration for fun that somehow lasted into the rest of the song (‘Medicine is magical and magical is art, think of the boy in the bubble and the baby with the baboon heart’, but even that works as a line potentially referring to organ transplants and its ability to give a new future to people who would otherwise have none – but at what cost to the planet and over-population as we devolve and go backwards?) The result is one of Paul’s most intelligent and well crafted songs, the music and words perfect foils for each other in this shady, aggressive world that keeps relentlessly moving us away from a place where we feel ‘safe’. The only trouble is the recording, which feels a little restrictive and ‘safe’ – the definitive performance of this track remains the even more paranoid second track to Paul’s ‘Central Park’ concert of 1991, with every instrument sounding ‘real’ and obstinate, each one fighting their own battle. Fans of this song might also be interested in the 12” mix, the only one of Paul’s career, which works rather well by looping the accordion part and brief bass solo into a much longer song where everything feels even more under attack – sadly this recording has yet to appear on CD. ‘The Boy In The Bubble’ remains a career highlight in any version though and is one of Paul’s most daring and thought provoking songs.
The title track ‘Graceland’ is the next closest to an album highlight, even though it has almost nothing to do with the rest of the album and was mainly recorded back at ‘home’ in Los Angeles. It’s a groovier, more commercial update of the songs of tension and turmoil that Paul had been writing about his split with Carrie Fisher as heard on ‘Hearts and Bones’. This time Paul is with Harper, his by-now teenage son from his ‘first marriage’ to Peggy and the pair are off for some father-and-son bonding while visiting the home of Paul’s hero Elvis in Graceland. This is more about the journey than the destination, though, as the pair take a sort of backwards trip of ‘America’ from ‘Bookends’ nearly twenty years before. Times have been tough and filled with horror, Paul travelling not with the colourful characters of before but ‘ghosts and empties’, reminded how the future should have been both for Paul and for Elvis. Paul ‘can’t explain’ why he feels the need to visit in song, but it sounds to me as if he is looking for his lost youth and the time when the future seemed safe, certain and quite quite brilliant, when it shined ‘like a national guitar’ (the very real shiny make of guitar that had appeared a year earlier on the cover of Dire Straits’ ‘Brothers In Arms’, the ‘other’ best-selling album of the 1980s). Instead he’s travelling, heartbroken, with ‘poor boys and pilgrims’ on what may even have been booked as a family trip with Carrie but is now taken with just a dad and his lad. Just to add to the feeling of ‘loss’, a reunited Everly Brothers make a superb guest appearance on the track – the ‘other’ singers who inspired Paul to take up music in the first place but have long since been forgotten and abandoned to the charts, much like Paul himself in 1986. A magnificent second verse recounts what went wrong: she tells him he’s leaving after years of trying to ignore the fact and pretending to ignore the fact, causing Paul to explode ‘As if I didn’t know that! As if I didn’t know my own bed! As if I’d never noticed the way she brushed the hair from her forehead’. He was truly deeply emotionally involved in this relationship and of course it hurts, as in another career best couplet he explains to us that emotion is hard to cover up, that ‘losing love is like a window in your heart – everybody sees you’re blown apart’. Presumably Carrie is the ‘girl from New York City who calls herself the human trampoline’, but rather than attack her here (as even Carrie herself seems to have assumed) my take is that Paul suddenly ‘understands’ how her turmoil ‘works’ here: without failure or collapse salvation would never taste as sweet as it does. A lovely restless tune, full of burbling pretty guitars and distant percussive hand-claps, sounds absolutely nothing like any Elvis song but doesn’t sound much like Paul’s past work either, managing to be both melancholy and upbeat. This is a song about redemption, about second chances, about things getting better as Paul realises with relief at the end that he’s ‘free’ and has ‘no obligations now’ and still has a day-trip to Elvis’ house and a return to his past to enjoy. A glorious happier take on ‘Train In The Distance’ and ‘Hearts and Bones’ itself, this song sadly admits the need to move on without ever finding the need to admit defeat, with this journey to find ‘Graceland’ full of more pit-stops and adventures along the way. Quite beautiful.
‘I Know What I Know’ is the album’s light relief and the one track here that’s a better performance than it is a song, full of some quite glorious meshing guitars and backing vocals that mingle both American and African musicians to great acclaim. The song was another recorded solely in Los Angeles and was written with General M D Shirinda and his band (the band leader gets a co-credit), although it’s the presence of his usual collaborators The Gaza Sisters who make this strangely ‘first world problem’ style-song their own who steal the show. Their music is collectively named ‘Shangaa Sing’ and is traditionally a ‘duet’ (make that ‘row’) between male and female, but Paul doesn’t sem to have got the message and instead turns this song into a witty acerbic take on modern day living. Paul gets out of himself here by playing his polar opposite: an extrovert who loves name-dropping and party-going who is chatted up not for his looks (a delightful opening couplet has Paul self-deprecatingly joking ‘She looked me over and I guess she thought I was alright – in a kind of a limited way for an off-night’) but because ‘I really remind you of money’. The song adds in a thoughtful chorus about what the character is really doing, that he’s making the most of his life in a maze and haze of parties and dating ‘because we come and we go, that’s a thing that we keep in the back of my head’. But really this is a song out to have fun and party hard, perhaps reflecting Paul’s mixed feelings about being on the dating scene again. Does the narrator really know as much as he claims to? Probably not, but this is a song that seems to have been designed from the start as a ‘nonsense’ song, designed to wrap up all sorts of phrases that Paul had written down that sounded fun but hadn’t fitted into a song yet. You can see why with just lines as ‘don’t I know you from the cinematographer’s party?’ as Paul tries to cram in as many unlikely words as he can simply to test his writing skills. Considering that this piece works surprising well and is a third classic song in a row, a glorious moment of fun and dancing on an album that’s far more serious and sombre than it’s usually given credit for. Even so, it’s the glorious performance that makes this one, with everyone in the room really giving their all and capturing easily the best performance on the album, all whoops, cheers and giggles.
I wonder sometimes how Paul Simon’s head works. ‘Gumboots’ is the song that kick-started the album after it was the opening song on Paul’s ‘Gumboots: Accordion Jive Hits’ bootleg cassette. The backing track, re-recorded in New York, came as close as possible to the original instrumental and was still an instrumental at the time while Paul pieced together the lyrics he had been scat-singing over the top for months. Listen again to the song with just the backing, a fast-paced accordion jive with some gentle ‘woohs’ over the top. Which amongst you would ever have heard this for the first time and gone first of all a) this is the sound I want for my next album (‘Gumboots’ is the most ‘African’ moment here wherever the recording took place) and b) would come up with a lyric about a friend suffering a nervous breakdown? Even the melody Paul improvises over the top isn’t obvious. Unfortunately this is the start of a down-turn of this album’s fortunes where nothing quite works. ‘Gumboots’ is a track that just tries too hard, as Paul mixes his metaphors, urges his friend to recover from their problems, ‘slams into a brick wall’ out of nowhere and tries to get together with a ‘senorita’ (in the song’s best line saying ‘hey why don’t we get together and call ourselves an institute’, possibly with memories of Simon and Garfunkel being called exactly that down the years ringing in his ears). To soften the blow Paul throws in a chorus of ‘you don’t feel you could love me but I feel you could’ more or less out of nowhere and it really doesn’t fit. The ‘problem’ with Paul’s approach to this album is never bigger than here: this was designed as an instrumental that picks up steam without breaking it’s similar pace throughout – it doesn’t have room for verses and choruses and the asymmetrical lyric feels thrown together at random, like the round on Radio Four panel show ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue’ where ‘one song is sung to the tune of another’. More interesting may have been Paul speaking to the ‘authors’ about what their song was ‘actually’ about: poverty. The ‘poor’ of Africa tended to wear gumboots back in 1986 and danced in the rain as they had nothing else to do after work or school – the ‘theme’ was really the very album idea of ‘hey we’ve got no0thing to celebrate but we’re going to celebrate it anyway and you can’t take this away from us!’ Alas Paul missed it, even if he still had enough thought to give co-credits (and royalties) to the song’s original creators Jonhjon Mkhalali and Lulu Masilela.
Side one ends with the scene-stealing arrival of all-choral group Ladysmith Black Mombazo, a Zulu group that became friends of Paul’s after his journey to South Africa to test out local musicians who might be interested in making this album and who were very supportive. The group, led by Joseph Shabala, had a long talk with Paul about their music – one he doesn’t seem to have had with any of the other bands involved in this album – and he tried to write a song in their style, ending up with both this track and ‘Homeless’. Paul wrote both lyrics as being political without specific, again contrasting the difference between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ of the world. The story is one that happens the world over: basically it’s a Romeo and Juliet-style tale of a rich girl and a poor boy getting together and would have been even more emotional for the caste-riddled African system of the day than back in America. For their part Ladysmith Black Mombazo added their distinctive opening with their own twists on these words, sung in Zulu, which translates to ‘It’s not usual, but in our days we see things happen – they are women, they can take care of themselves now’. For South Africa in 1986 this is akin to a feminist statement and Paul’s lyric about a girl who doesn’t need the dependence of a mate and their job to live off skirts with this topic without ever quite getting there. Instead Paul goes for surrealism in an attempt to unite the two sides of his audience, imagining the girl so small she ‘slips into my pocket with my car keys’ after telling us first that the boy is ‘empty as a pocket with nothing to lose’. It gets weirder when ‘she makes the sign of a tea-spoon, he makes the sign of a wave’ – what? Does this couple not even share the same language and are reduced to making signs now? In which case how did the poor boy ever get the rich girl to understand that he wanted to date her – and how did he ever know she was rich? What makes more sense is the following lines about the boy ‘pretending’ to be rich, adding aftershave he can’t afford to mask the scent of his poorness (is her ‘teaspoon’ being born with a ‘silver spoon’ then? But why is he a ‘wave’?) The idea, I think, is that love conquers all and even though she doesn’t ‘need’ the boy or his salary she still ‘wants’ him. The only verse that really works, though, is when he takes her on a date ‘his’ style, ‘below decks’ as it were and the pair have fun sleeping rough in a doorway in contrast to her millions. The song is certainly a popular one with fans, mostly because nobody had ever heard a crossover quite this ‘matched’ before, with the track ending on a magical round of ‘tanananana’s which sound both African and American all at once. For me, though, this song has never quite worked: some good ideas still don’t add up to a lyric that’s strong all the way through or even one that makes much sense, while the melody is forgettable by Paul’s highest standards. This is a song with diamonds on the soles of its shoes, with a very pretty a capella opening, but is ultimately still a ‘poor boy’ dressed up in rich clothing.
‘You Can Call Me Al’(an’s Album Archives!) is an instant hit the way ‘Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover’ surely was from music alone, with it’s hustling bustling horns and one of the best hooks Paul Simon ever wrote. But again, scratch underneath the surface and this is a very weird song indeed. The song is about ‘culture shock’, inspired both by Paul’s visit to South Africa (though the most ‘American’ song on the album, it’s one of the few actually written in Africa) and a party about a decade earlier when Paul and his wife Peggy had been introduced to the composer Pierre Boulez at a party. Paul, the biggest name in the room to most people, was tickled when the classical composer – who didn’t have a clue who anyone in the pop world was – misheard his name and referred to him as ‘Al’ all night and his wife as ‘Betty’. Somewhere that song turned into a mock-neurotic song where Paul thinks his very American first world problem thoughts about the possible end of his career and his life being ‘so hard’ while he’s ‘soft in the middle’ and unable to deal with it, while walking past poverty-stricken families struggling to exist from day to day. He’s a man who ‘doesn’t speak the language, who doesn’t hold the currency’ and yet he doesn’t need to: instead he sees the beautiful buildings and hears the constant noise (so like New York?!) and – tourist thyat he is – falls in love with Africa without a word being spoken (even seeing ‘angels in the architecture’). Alas this promising opening lyric turns weird too fast: Paul ‘doesn’t want to end up a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard’ and we get a whole sub-plot about meeting a girl in an ‘alley’ ‘now that my role-model is gone’. It also has nothing whatsoever to do with that odd quirky chorus, which has haunted me to this day when people hear I am a Paul Simon fan and insist on calling me Al when it’s one of Paul’s few songs I don’t really identify with (I’d rather be called ‘Julio’! Heck even ‘Richard Cory’ will do). Basically it’s a song about when in Rome think the way the natives do – but it would have helped to have a verse that ties this up and the end result is a catchy song that sticks in the ear but a lyric that doesn’t really stick in the mind. The reason it sold quite so well is surely down to the funniest music video of Paul’s career when he plays second fiddle to Chevy Chase dressed as an overgrown Paul mouthing all the words and interrupting the singer whenever he tries to sing out. Great videos do not make great songs, though and this is in truth a very weird and oddly unlikeable song.
By contrast ‘Under African Skies’ makes perfect sense – so much so that’s it arguably a bit too limited and on-dimensional. An oddly religious work from a writer whose never really gone there in this era of his work (‘Silent Eyes’ being the main exception), this tale tracks an African version of Joseph as he walks ‘under African skies’, his fate written out by the stars that shine over him. A second verse has Paul moving on to ‘missionary music’ as Christians and Jews pass their music on to the African world. That’s kind of it though – we don’t even hear how the influx of religious ideas and music affected Africans in general or Joseph in particular. Though recorded in South Africa, this song is another that sounds oddly Westernised too with it’s chiming guitars that sounds rather like The Byrds and a guest appearance not by Miriam Makeba or a similar African legend but American country singer Linda Ronstadt. Of all the controversial songs on ‘Graceland’ this simple track may well be the most controversial because it deals with colonialisation and one half of the world bringing the other half something it didn’t ask for. To be fair to Paul in no way does he comment on these imports of ideas or comment whether the Africans are better or worse for their appearance. However I’ve always wondered why Paul decided to sing this song as a duet with such an instantly recognisable American voice – surely of all these songs this is the one that most calls out for an African presence so that this song with a theme of ‘cultural appropriation’ can work both ways? The result is another of the album’s lesser songs and even if ignoring the obvious lyric has a decidedly meandering melody and a booming production dominated by the drums where nobody in the studio quite sounds as if they mean it (to be fair, this song sounded much better live when it had been knocked into shape a lot more).
‘Homeless’ sees the return of Ladysmith Black Momboza on a slightly superior second recording. Again inspired by actually listening to their songs and understanding what they were all about, Paul and Joseph Shabala collaborated on a song from scratch about a theme they could both identify with: homelessness. Back in 1986 a recession meant America was full of the homeless and Paul clearly identified with Joseph’s tale of his own upbringing surrounded by people without a roof over their heads through no fault of their own. However at the very beginning this song actually started life as a traditional ‘wedding song’ performed at many Zulu marriages which Jospeh taught Paul, whispering the translation in his ear: Paul picked up on the phrase ‘we are homeless’, spoken by the boy to the girl as they get married and have to leave their family homes and asked to make that the full song. Ladysmith shine for some 2:30 of the running time as they alternate between Zulu and English, repeating the same phrases over and over in both, adding in a verse about natural disasters when ‘strong winds destroy our homes – many dead, tonight it could be you’. It couldn’t of course – though America has its fair share of natural disasters, no Americans would wake up overnight without warning to discover their house being destroyed or risking life and limb. That’s a point that seems deliberately made in this song that otherwise oozes unity, as homelessness becomes a worldright problem that everyone must come together to solve. It’s almost a shame when Paul arrives to interrupt some quite glorious chanted singing for the last ninety seconds or so, but thankfully he doesn’t do anything to the words, an American joining in on a very African song rather than an African joining in on a very American one for a change. The track then ends with Ladysmith Black Mombazo’s ‘signature call’ which they add to many of their works and which roughly translates as the jokey ‘remember us – we’re the best singers of this type music in the whole world!’, an in-joke as they knew 99.9% of this album’s audience would never get the translation and would consider it to be something deep and profound! The result is a simply, humble song that works better than the other tracks on side two of ‘Graceland’ but which sounds oddly out of place in the middle of this record too.
Alas the final trilogy of ‘Graceland’ goes downhill sharply. Why is ‘Crazy Love’ subtitled ‘Part II’? Apparently Paul wrote a whole different lyric to this song – and it’s a shame he abandoned it as it can’t possibly be as bad or as weird as what we get. Another casualty of the way this album was made, pieced together to fit an already existing backing track, this song gets peculiar quick. The song follows ‘Fat Charlie the Archangel’ who sounds just like Paul moaning about Carrie Fisher again, jokingly picturing him as a ‘wrinkled balloon’. He files for divorce, sighs about the ‘year of his life’ it will eat up and is, presumably, asked by his lawyers to leave no comment about his feelings (‘I have no opinion about that’ Paul snaps). The result is two passionate people ought to hurt each other for revenge’s sake, trying to make the ‘joke’ on the other, but neither side is laughing – and frankly both sides need their heads banging together. The main part of the verses really don’t fit with the surreal imagery of the architecture coming to life and suing each other though, nor do they fit with the weird repetitive chorus ‘I don’t want no part of this crazy love’. More worryingly, nor does this song suit the African backing at all, with Paul not even nothing to meet the musicians halfway anymore but just getting them to add their distinctive sounds to this very American song, using them for ‘colour’ rather than ‘culture’. That’s a waste, because the sound of what they’re playing is way more exciting than anything he’s come up with here. Paul comes out of this song sounding unusually sulky and this is one of his least memorable or inventive songs, performed with one of his weakest vocals which conveys no emotion or even the detachment that might have made this song work.
At least he’s having fun on ‘That Was Your Mother’, a song that like ‘Gumboots’ was attached to an already existing instrumental performed in what is known in African terms as ‘Zydeco’ (you might remember that it appeared on every single flipping episode of Sesame Street for years when what fans really wanted to see was Ladysmith Black Mombazo teaching us our ABCs or Paul being upstaged by a four-year-old girl creating her own version of ‘Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard’). Unfortunately there isn’t a song to go with it, as Paul creates another weird lyric about the passing of generations. Paul recounts a fictional life as a ‘travelling salesman’ he’s telling to his family, remembering random flashing images of passing through different American states which somehow gets confused and end up with him in Africa ‘watching those Cajun girls dancing the zydeco’. He meets a girl ‘pretty as a prayerbook and sweet as an apple on Christmas Day’ that he falls in love with, but who presumably is not the mother of his son. Instead the hint in this track is the very grumpy feeling that ‘life was great’ before the narrator’s children came along and he ended up having to settle down and take responsibilities (which is surely not his children’s fault?) Paul concludes the song with the cutting line ‘you are burden of my generation!’ before thankfully softening the blow with the line ‘I sure do love you’. Even so, it sounds like too little too late. The result is another deeply unsettling song that keeps jumping between realism and surrealism and between an African setting and an American one. I suspect this song would have worked far better as the original instrumental, as the accordion players are striking yp a fierce groove on this one that at least gives this strong a fine melody. Alas though for once the original creators of the song don’t get a co-credit here, when they blatantly deserve one (to be fair the only time this happens on ‘Graceland…’)
…Or is it? Because oddly the very Americanised sound of the album closer ‘All Around The World’ or ‘The Myth Of Fingerprints’ which sounds like a fake white version of ska is the song on the album that’s been most disputed ever since the album came out. Los Lobos, who play on only this recording, say that they created this song as a ‘jam’ with Paul and had agreed to share the lyrics and the writing credit the way Ladysmith Black Mombazo had. Instead Paul went back on his promise and wrote the lyric himself and kept the song for himself…but if so it seems odd that he’d only do this with one song and equally odd, if fake, that a band should pick ‘this’ song to question as it sounds as frankly if I had a part of this song, the weakest on the album, I’d want to keep it quiet. This song is woefully misguided from beginning to end and closes ‘Graceland’ on a very weak and flimsy state. So far the album, for all its occasional faults, has done a god job at showing how things are the same all the way around the world – but this faux pop song makes the idea seem too obvious, chucking in the contradicting idea that there are no two fingerprints alike even though scientifically it’s not a ‘myth’ but fact. The melody is oddly bitty and forgettable, the blaring saxophones are some of the ugliest sounds on a Paul Simon recording and the drumming is way too contemporary and trendy, too 1980s for an album that’s tried so hard to be ‘timeless’ until now (one of the reasons why it sold so well at the time and continues to sell well now). It’s the lyric though that is the most disappointing aspect: surely Paul’s collaborators would have come up with a better line than ‘The sun goes down, ever since the watermelon’. Most of the song is a boring ramble about the life of an American talk-show host who, after a record about surviving poverty and hard-ship, seems more annoying with his minor problems than ever and yet doesn’t get his come-uppance or salvation by the end of the song. If he’d even been an American talk-show host sent to Africa to cover a story it would have made more sense, but no – instead this song tails off, seemingly half-finished on a ‘wooooh’ that sounds as if Paul is testing his microphone rather than singing seriously. I don’t like ‘Graceland’ as much as many of Paul’s fans but at least most of it is competent and the first three songs genuinely thrilling – this song though is easily on of the biggest disasters of his canon, whatever album it’s on. Given the context (‘my albums aren’t selling and this could be the last song I ever make as this is such a big gamble!’) it would have been a horrifyingly damp squib on which to end Paul’s career.
Thankfully instead ‘Graceland’ revived Paul’s career while also giving him an impossible moving target that commercially he’s never been able to hit since. Year upon year Graceland’s reputation grows as we get further away from the 1980s and realise how rare and genuinely inventive this album was, back in the days when the only way you could listen to ‘world music’ was by actually physically travelling to a new land. But is it really such a great album? Only in parts, with those three majestic opening pieces a distant memory by the time you get to the end of the album, with the second particularly the weakest of Paul’s career. ‘Graceland’ doesn’t quite offer the salvation that fans think it does, with too many half-baked songs written to backing tracks made by a combination of American and African musician s who haven’t been given the chance to know each other yet, with a few too many surreal lyrics on an album that’s crying out for realism to join the gap between the American and African worlds. Made in a rush with everybody crossing their fingers rather than fully confident, it’s holes are as obvious as its strong points and it’s a great irony to me how many more copies this album shifted compared to the Brazillian sequel ‘Rhythm Of The Saints’ which finds Paul knowing how to do this now, creating a poetic album that fully delivers on its combination of different sounds while enjoying the journey there so much more. Yet neither is ‘Graceland’ the travesty that many of its detractors call it: Paul had no greater aim than promoting African music and satisfying his musical curiosity – both of which he does quite brilliantly, creating deserved stars in America and Europe of many of this album’s key participants. ‘Graceland’ would be a pretty awful album without them, but Ray Phiri, Ladysmith Black Mombazo, General MD Shirinda and The Gaza Sisters between them are the perfect guests: they come along, offer their support and ideas and don’t try to hijack the album. If only Paul had taped into their talents a little more and had his own contributions and especially lyrics been as every bit as consistent as their parts then ‘Graceland’ might have been every bit the timeless classic people say it is. In pure composition terms ‘Graceland’ may well be the weakest Paul Simon album of all and only the brilliance of the opening trilogy and the (generally) fine backing tracks keeps it afloat. However, at the same time, we ought to give this album the benefit of the doubt in some ways: though there are other, better albums that came long after ‘Graceland’ and travelling down the road, this one was ‘first’ and suffered all the teething troubles and insecurities that come with breaking new ground. The fact that Paul made this album despite the difficulties and managed to turn his career around with such an unlikely album is one of rock and pop’s great success stories and if ever an album deserved bonus points for courage this is it: not just for Paul’s contribution but the many wonderful people he worked with who were also taking a giant risk with this record.