Paul Simon – Graceland

2010-05-27 12:16

But like all great work, Graceland has kicked up its share of controversy.

For instance, Walter Yetnikof , former cokehead tycoon of CBS, doesn't rate Paul Simon much. Discussing his entertaining but trashy shadow-written autobiography, Yetnikof says "The first record was something that had a song called 'Allergies' on it. That went pfft. Then he did Graceland, and I maintain that it was more the South Africans than him. Then he did one with the Brazilians…."

No, not everyone likes Paul Simon. And it’s not only because he's short and nerdy. Others - such as Art Garfunkel, whose lame solo career makes his accusations seem rather unlikely to be true - claim that Simon fails to give credit where it's due. He's not the only one with a gripe. Tex-mex outfit Los Lobos accused Paul Simon of stealing their work for "All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints" (while Simon attests that they only made the claim to cash in after Graceland became a hit). Some activists felt that he breached the cultural boycott against Apartheid when he recorded in South Africa (the United Nations Anti-Apartheid committee rejected the accusations). Others were angry when that Linda Ronstadt, one of the "scabs" who (like 80s slowdance gods Modern Talking among others) played to South African audiences in Sun City* was included as a backing vocalist. Fans of Ladysmith Black Mombazo feel that the group should have been more obviously credited… And on and on.

Well, answer this one: many Los Lobos (or Art Garfunkel) songs pop into your head when you're walking home at night? Sure, Paul Simon adopts styles, even the odd hook, from the musical traditions in which he immerses himself. But if that bothers you, but – if you claim he stole Graceland from Africa - you should also play fair, and diss him for “exploiting” producer Brian Eno - with whom he most recently collaborated to produce the challenging rock soundscapes of Surprise (2006).

In any case, Simon makes no secret of his tendencies, saying "I'm more interested in what I discover than what I invent." If only more musicians were this honest!

You can diss him, as Robert Christgau celebrity critic does, for writing "like an English major" – but his lyrics are some of the most enduring ever writing - not only because they avoid the kind of heavy-handed specifics that make listening to the average political U2 track a few years later so cringe-inducing, but because his words are perfectly adapted to the musical styles of the album. As Christgau concedes, "Opposed though I am to universalist humanism, this is a pretty damn universal record... which gives up a groove so buoyant you could float a loan to Zimbabwe on it."

Personally, I see no conflict between African musical styles and erudite lyrics. And unless being cool and manly is a priority (in which case, I’m guessing the Bruce Springsteen is more your bag) poetry will always rock the party.

Graceland is a classic because whether you love it or hate it, it's hard to imagine a world without it. It's also a reminder of a time that was a lot worse than many of us remember. The bomb in the baby carriage was wired to the radio. Melrose, sure. World cup? Forget it, baby.

Everybody responds to a mention of the album with a story, or a memory. Columnist @gussilber tweets, "I saw the famous concert in Harare, & my fondest memory is of the BBC correspondent who got booted out within 5 mins for taping." Journalist @mattduplessis replies, "I've been listening to it quite a bit lately. Ever since the watermelon." The what? You're not the only one who's asked. Graceland is about being the experience of being human and odd, peppered with questions like "Why am I soft in the middle when the rest of my life is so hard". It's not an overtly poltical album. Paul Simon admits he can’t write politics. But it's full of contradictions, inside and out.

Graceland 's survival proves that how something is made doesn’t change whether it's beautiful or worth having. But it also proves the old 80s struggle mantra, "everything is political" to be as true as ever.

Dummies' guide to Graceland

It all began when Simon heard a Boyoyo Boys instrumental version of "Gumboots", which singer-songwriter Heidi Berg lent to him. He wrote lyrics to sing over it. The result: the track "Gumboots".

Paul Simon wrote the second verse of "Under African Skies" based on Linda Ronstadt's childhood, and got her to sing backing vocals for it. "In early memory / Mission music /Was ringing 'round my nursery door".

Simon and producer wanted a "live" sound, with warmth and real musicianship. They also wanted the ability to manipulate the final mix in the New York Studio. Watch this video to see how they achieved the best of both worlds.

Graceland won: The Grammy for Album of the Year, and Best International Solo Artist (1987) for Paul Simon. It consistently makes a wide variety of magazines' interminable “best albums of all times” lists.

The video for "You Can Call me Al" co-starred Chevy Chase. Simon shakes Chevy Chase's hand SA-Style as he sits down, after which Chase lip-synchs the lyrics to the song while Simon is ignored by the camera, despite his best efforts to attract attention. It's pretty funny stuff – and perfectly illustrates the mid-life crisis depicted in the song.

Paul Simon pretends to play the pennywhistle, but doesn't actually move his fingers. The pennywhistle is actually played by South-African born and raised New Yorker Morris Goldberg, of OJOYO.

Simon apparently considers the title track the best song he has ever written.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo , whose voices, harmonies and influence were a large part of what made Graceland so special, and who are extensively credited, became famous on the back of the album, and have won a Grammy Award for something almost every single year since 1988 (mostly in the "Traditional Album" category).

* Linda Ronstadt got into hot water for replacing for Frank Sinatra to play Sun City (though Ray Charles, The Beach Boys, Tina Turner, Sinatra, Shirley Bassey and Cher all also ignored the cultural boycott to line their coffers.)

The reversed bassline in "You can Call me Al". The post-apocolyptic urban dizziness of "You Can Call Me Al". The stream of consciousness of the percussive lyrics, and that line about the watermelon… It's an album that helped define the decade. When Graceland came out in 1986 it made mbaqanga famous, kicked up some political scandals, and saved Paul Simon's career, which was floundering after Hearts and Bones didn't sell as well as it deserved to.

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